Date of Award

5-1-2011

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Speech Communication

First Advisor

Daughton, Suzanne

Abstract

This dissertation analyzes the ways in which Mennonite rhetors used historical narratives to construct a coherent Mennonite identity in the 1940s and 1950s. During this era, U.S. American Mennonites faced a multitude of threats to their sectarian group identity, most especially during the Second World War. In response to these exigencies, a group of American Mennonite historians, who would later become known as the "Goshen Circle" of Mennonite historiography, discursively wove a new subject identity--known as a monogenic conception of Anabaptism--which reinforced Mennonite group identity and legitimated Mennonite faith convictions to outsiders. Until this point, Mennonite historians, sociologists, and others have only considered the discourse of the Goshen Circle along narrow lines. On the one hand, many historians have rejected the Goshen Circle discourse as simply partisan, and therefore "bad," history. On the other hand, other scholars still think that the historical work of the Goshen Circle simply "recovered" or "rediscovered" elements of Anabaptism which were implicit in the Mennonite tradition. In contrast to these positions, this dissertation argues that the establishment of an Anabaptist subjectivity was a rhetorical achievement and analyzes how several texts attempted rhetorical interventions to transform the already-given historical situations faced by twentieth-century Mennonites. I substantiate this claim by utilizing Maurice Charland's (1987) theory of constitutive rhetoric to analyze the discourse of three primary figures of Goshen Circle monogenic Anabaptist historiography: Harold S. Bender, Guy F. Hershberger, and J.C. Wenger. My analysis demonstrates: how these rhetors asserted the existence of a unified Anabaptist-Mennonite people, how they used "transhistorical" narratives to build networks of identification between sixteenth-century Anabaptists and their supposed twentieth-century Mennonite descendants, and how their constitutive rhetoric positioned Mennonites to take material action to confirm their place in the Anabaptist narrative.

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