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  • A People of Two Kingdoms: Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics by James C. Juhnke
  • Mark Marston Norris
A People of Two Kingdoms: Stories of Kansas Mennonites in Politics.
By James C. Juhnke. North Newton, KS: Bethel College, 2016. vii + 296 pp. Illustrations, bibliography, index. $20.00 paper.

The focus of A People of Two Kingdoms: Stories of Kansas Mennonites, by James C. Juhnke, is on the Western District of the General Conference Mennonite Church, where Bethel College and the General Conference headquarters are [End Page 238] located, both in Kansas. These institutions ensured that the General Conference Mennonites would be the most progressive of any Mennonite group. In addition, Juhnke gives a thorough examination of thirty Kansas Mennonites who ran for political office between the years of 1940 and 2016 at the state or national level. This work is a sequel to the much-praised A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites, published in 1975 by Faith and Life Press, that examines Kansas Mennonites in politics from circa 1870 to the 1940s. In the current volume, Juhnke argues that it was in war and during times of heightened militarism that Mennonites were able to define a place for themselves in American society. To this point, Juhnke quotes Mennonite church historian Cornelius J. Dyck, who noted with more than a hint of irony, “War is good for Mennonites.”

According to historian Perry Bush, Bethel College had been at the forefront of peace activism in the 1930s. World War II, though, dampened its peace witness. However, Kansas Mennonite identity as a whole was revitalized mainly through the Civilian Public Service, which provided an outlet for conscientious objectors. This allowed Mennonites (as well as other peace churches) to be placed in service camps under both denominational and governmental control. In Kansas, one of its many contributions was reforming mental hospital practices, including the establishing of the successful Prairie View Mental Hospital in Newton.

During the Vietnam War, Bethel College re-emerged as a center for peace witness. In 1951 the US government established the I-W Service, eventually allowing Mennonites who were drafted during the Vietnam War an alternative service. This led to church planting, assistance to other Mennonite institutions, new careers, a new theology of service, and renewed commitment. However, it also released Mennonites of organizational structure and therefore control; the end of the draft in 1973 led temporarily to a loss of identity.

A surge in grain exports to the Soviet Union in the early 1970s eventually led to a farm crisis into the 1980s as farmers took on more debt to invest in expansion. The surge turned out to be no more than a bubble, and as it burst it left many Great Plains Mennonite farms in fore-closure. This tragedy reenergized Mennonite interest in politics. In our century this led to political engagement when issues of war and peace were pushed aside by the polarizing issues of gay marriage and abortion.

Mennonites found that to have a peace witness and to effect change, they had to make use of the political framework that existed in America. Though this process led them to Americanization, Juhnke leaves hope in that they still maintain a Mennonite witness. As an insider, both as a Mennonite and as someone who ran for public office in Kansas, Juhnke proves to be nuanced, sensitive, constructively critical, insightful, and generous. He has given us a refreshing and welcome read during our current environment of heightened political dissonance and cynicism. Juhnke yet again produces an exemplary denominational history that has much to contribute to broader issues in American society and politics. [End Page 239]

Mark Marston Norris
Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences
Grace College, Winona Lake, Indiana


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