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Spring 2000 · Vol. 29 No. 1 · pp. 75–76 

Book Review

Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962

Albert N. Keim. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1998. 592 pages.

Reviewed by Valerie Rempel

Historian Albert Keim has produced a richly detailed study of Mennonite statesman H. S. Bender. That it is also an engagingly good read speaks to Keim’s ability as a writer and Bender’s lifelong knack for being at the center of Mennonite life and thought.

Keim traces Bender’s progress through a maze of intertwining relationships and administrative positions. Bender was at the center of Goshen College and later Goshen Biblical Seminary through his work as dean, active in the administration of Mennonite Central Committee relief work and later the Peace Section, a tireless collector for the Mennonite Historical Society and Archives, the founder and editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, a leading editor of The Mennonite Encyclopedia, and eventually President of the Mennonite World Conference. Along the way he nurtured a generation of scholars, served as a link between American and European Mennonites, and contributed to the establishment of Civilian Public Service.

Bender’s influence went far beyond his managerial interests and capabilities. Keim lays out the way in which Bender was able to walk a fine line between conservative and progressive forces which threatened to tear apart the Mennonite Church, often serving as a mediating agent between the two camps. His intimate involvement with the leading Mennonite institutions allowed him to shape these institutions in ways that expressed his own conservative theological understandings while advocating a more expansive view of inter-Mennonite relations. His tendency to promise what he could not always produce opened him to criticism {76} regarding the ways he managed his multiple roles. Often pressed to resign his institutional commitments in favor of more scholarly research and writing, Bender consistently chose to work for the institutions of the church. It is a telling portrayal of the dilemma facing someone caught between a love for the church and scholarly interests.

Keim is particularly helpful in showing how Bender was able to articulate an understanding of Anabaptism that helped forge Mennonite identity in the twentieth century. Bender’s essay, “The Anabaptist Vision,” first presented in 1943 as a presidential address to the American Society of Church History, interpreted sixteenth-century Anabaptist themes in the language of “nonviolent service, devout discipleship, and a primary identity with the people of God, the church” (524).

This is, by Keim’s own assessment, the story of the life of a public man. Given 500+ pages it seems greedy to ask for more. One is left, however, with the wish that more attention had been given to his personal and professional relationship with his wife, Elizabeth Horsch Bender. As a scholar and editor in her own right, she worked with Bender on many of his projects, including ten years of translation and editorial work on the Mennonite Encyclopedia project. She looms in the shadows as a partner intimately acquainted with Bender’s life work.

Keim’s biography raises interesting questions about the centralization of power, the challenge of conflicting roles, and the paradox of living a simple life while developing the sophisticated skills needed for world travel and the management of large institutions.

Valerie Rempel
Asst. Professor of Church History and Theology
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California

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