One of the more momentous, though still little-known, lectures ever given at Columbia was delivered by Harold S. Bender on December 28, 1943, in the Men's Faculty Club. The occasion was the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, of which Bender was president.
Bender's talk, entitled "The Anabaptist Vision," sought to rehabilitate the memory of the 16th century Anabaptists, who had been denounced by Luther as "mad dogs," and whose leaders were subjected to sleep deprivation, branding with hot irons, and waterboarding, then burned at the stake by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. The pitiful remnant fled to the hills and then to the relatively tolerant Low Countries, where a former Catholic priest named Menno Simons organized the wretched residue into what became known as the Mennonite Church.
One may of course grudgingly appreciate Luther's view, since Anabaptists comprised a goodly number of the rabble who rebelled against the German princes in the Peasants War of 1525. In 1535 Anabaptists famously seized the city of Muenster and inaugurated a sort of '60s commune before its time, abolishing private property and practicing free sex.
But Bender insisted that the "true" Anabaptists were the much nicer Swiss Brethren of Zurich, responsible in his view for the novel ideas of adult baptism, separation of church and state, and thorough-going pacifism. Roland Bainton of Yale, who was in the audience, liked the idea and took to calling the Anabaptist-Mennonites "the Left Wing of the Reformation." George H. Williams, of the other place, called them "the Radical Reformation."
This may now seem small potatoes to the jaded alumni of the Ivy League, but to Mennonites the speech is looked back upon as revolutionary, and Bender's pilgrimage to the Men's Faculty Club at Columbia as akin to Lenin's little jaunt to the Finland Station. For the underlying agenda of the lecture, the zeitgeistlichen leitmotiv, was that Mennonites were not just lowly farmers, bumpkins, or hicks from the sticks but in fact possessed a distinguished and radical European pedigree.
True, Harold Bender at the time was Dean of something called the Goshen Biblical Seminary in rural Indiana, but he had received his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg. Not only that, but his brother Wilbur was soon to revolutionize the entrance process as Dean of Admissions up at the other place. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article, "Getting In.") And his brother John was embarking on a teaching career in the vast metropolis of Philadelphia.
"The Anabaptist Vision" became a slogan and a gentle battle-cry for a whole generation of Mennonites, fresh from the manure fields and eager to be as cosmopolitan as the next guy. In fact, from the time of Bender's speech to 1990, the percentage of Mennos engaged as farmers decreased from 40% to about 7%. And as history will show, the world has never been quite the same since.
For further reading:
Ross Bender at work in Ruggles Hall, c. 1971