History: For periodicals, change is normal

Feb 10, 2020 by

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Last year ended with the news that two Mennonite magazines — Mennonite Brethren Herald of the Canadian MB Conference and Beacon of the CMC, formerly Conservative Mennonite Conference — were ceasing publication.

That came on the heels of Mennonite World Review and Mennonite Church USA’s The Mennonite ­finalizing plans to merge and begin publishing a new magazine and digital platforms in September 2020. They join a long list of American Mennonite publications that have been discontinued or merged since the mid-19th century. What follows are just a few of the casualties and transitions.

The first periodical to start and end was Der Evangelische Botschafter in 1836 by Heinrich Bertolet, a Mennonite minister at Skippack, Pa. “[It] shall consist of two parts, the first of religious and the second of agricultural reading matter,” Bertolet wrote in the first issue. Alas, it was also the only issue.

The first successful periodical in the United States was Der Religioser Botschafter, started in 1852 by longtime General Conference Mennonite Church leader John H. Oberholtzer in Milford Square, Pa. It was renamed Das Christliche Volksblatt four years later, then changed its name again, to Der Mennonit­ische Friedensbote, in 1867. In 1882 it merged with Zur Heimath, a periodical started in 1875 to serve Russian Mennonite immigrants, and Nachrichten aus der Heidenwelt, which publicized GC Native American mission work, to form Christlicher Bundesbote, which was the first official GC periodical.

It ran until 1947, when it merged with Der Bote, a Canadian periodical started in 1924 for Russian Mennonites moving to Canada after World War I. Keeping the Der Bote name, it was popular among German-speaking Mennonites in Latin America until declining readership led to its closure in 2008.

Zur Heimath and Der Bote were not the only North American publications to serve Russian Mennonite immigrants. Old Mennonite publisher John F. Funk of Elk­hart, Ind., started Der Nebraska Ansiedler in 1878, which was renamed Die Mennonitische Rundschau two years later.

John F. Funk, who founded Herald of Truth, which merged with Gospel Witness to create Gospel Herald. — Mennonite Church USA Archives

John F. Funk, who founded Herald of Truth, which merged with Gospel Witness to create Gospel Herald. — Mennonite Church USA Archives

In 1908, financial difficulties forced Funk to sell the Rundschau and his other periodicals to a competitor, the Scottdale, Pa.-based Gospel Witness Co. It kept the Rundschau until 1923, when it was sold to private interests in Canada and in 1960 became an official publication of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The periodical was discontinued in 2007 due to decreasing circulation. At the time, Die Mennonitische Rundschau was the oldest Mennonite periodical published continuously under one name.

Funk’s greatest contribution to Mennonite journalism, however, was Herald of Truth, the first successful periodical to serve the Old Mennonite church. But it was among the publications Funk sold to the Gospel Witness Co. The company merged it with its own Gospel Witness to create Gospel Herald and turned it over to the Mennonite Church. Gospel Herald served the Mennonite Church until 1997, when it joined with the General Conference Mennonite Church’s The Mennonite to form a new magazine, also called The Mennonite, to serve Mennonite Church USA.

The GC version of The Mennonite originated in 1885 when the denomination’s Eastern District Conference saw a need for an English-language periodical. The Eastern District published The Mennonite until 1902, when the General Conference Mennonite Church assumed responsibility for it.

The Canadian Mennonite Brethren started Mennonite Brethren Herald in 1962, two years after it acquired Die Mennonitische Rundschau, as its official English-language magazine. Previously, Mennonite Brethren in both Canada and the United States were served by Christian Leader, which started in 1937 as the denomination’s official youth periodical. Christian Leader continues as the official publication of the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

The Conservative Mennonite Conference started the Beacon, known for most of its history as Brotherhood Beacon, in 1971.

Mennonite World Review holds a unique place in Mennonite journalism as the only independent U.S. publication covering all Mennonite and related groups. It first appeared in 1923 as Mennonite Weekly Review, an English-language insert to Der Her­old, published by Herald Publishing Co., a Newton, Kan., nonprofit founded by Henry P. Kreh­biel in 1920. MWR published weekly until 2012, when it switched to a biweekly schedule and changed its name to Mennonite World Review.

In Canada, a periodical with similarities to MWR — a newspaper for an inter-Mennonite audience — debuted in 1953. The Canadian Mennonite, based in Manitoba, published in English when most Canadian Mennonite publications were still in German. Low readership, however, led it to shut down in 1971. But supporters rallied to start another inter-Mennonite newspaper, the Ontario-based Mennonite Reporter, which was introduced later that year.

As with its predecessor, financial viability became an issue for Mennonite Reporter, and in the 1990s it became aligned with the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. The conference, then in merger discussions with the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church, would eventually become Mennonite Church Canada. In 1997, Mennonite Reporter was transformed into a new Canadian Mennonite — and switched from newspaper to magazine format — supported by the CMC. It still serves Mennonite Church Canada.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.


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