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Institute of Mennonite Studies releases J. Lawrence Burkholder memoir

3.9. 2017 Written By: Annette Brill Bergstresser

A new memoir published by the Institute of Mennonite Studies (IMS) traces the development of former Goshen (Indiana) College President J. Lawrence Burkholder’s thought as it intersected with the events of his life.

Titled Recollections of a Sectarian Realist: A Mennonite Life in the Twentieth Century, the memoir is based on interviews that C. Arnold Snyder conducted with Burkholder in 2005. Burkholder and Myrna Burkholder, one of his daughters, worked on editing the transcripts until he became too ill to focus on the project. Several years after he passed away at age 92 in 2010, Myrna Burkholder returned to the project and finished editing the volume.

Both Snyder and Myrna Burkholder, in addition to others who were involved in the project, spoke at a March 7 book release celebration at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, hosted by IMS, AMBS’s research and publishing agency. Snyder, who is professor emeritus of history at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, shared about the process of creating the book and reflected on what he had learned about Burkholder.

“I came to discover that Lawrence worked things out in the midst of life, not as abstract ethical questions or theoretical problems, but as real-life decisions that had to be made,” he said. “This gave an anecdotal, narrative flavor to his ethical and theological deliberations.”

The memoir draws on Burkholder’s Mennonite upbringing in a small Pennsylvania town and his experiences of pastoring in upstate New York; doing relief work in India and China; pursuing graduate studies at Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary; teaching at Goshen (Indiana) College and Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts; engaging in civil rights activism; and serving as president of Goshen College (1971–84).

Snyder commented on how Burkholder was “perennially caught between the ideal and the real, and felt the pull of both very keenly,” exploring, for example, the tension between focusing on works or on grace, or between claiming certainty or espousing relativism. While Burkholder loved the Mennonite Church, Snyder said, he was also able to make critical observations about it.

“Lawrence saw that the Christian life is always incarnated in the midst of the rest of life, with all its messiness and difficulty,” he said. “What is left, he concluded, is doing the best possible, under the circumstances presented to us. … All of our responses will be less than perfect. What we can hope for is that, with the help of God’s grace, we will be enabled to live lives of honesty and integrity.”

At the celebration, Mary Schertz, IMS director and professor of New Testament at AMBS, described the memoir as “a collaboration of saints above and saints below” and offered a prayer that recognized ways in which God’s grace was visible in the creation of the book.

Myrna Burkholder and her sister, Janet Friesen, expressed appreciation on behalf of the Burkholder family for all who were involved in the production of the memoir, including John A. Lapp for writing the foreword and Barb Nelson Gingerich, IMS managing editor. Another sibling, Howard Burkholder, also contributed to the book.

Copies of Recollections of a Sectarian Realist: A Mennonite Life in the Twentieth Century cost $22.45 each and are available at the Mennonite Cooperative Bookstore on the AMBS campus (296-6251 or

Photo: C. Arnold Snyder, professor emeritus of history at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, shares about the process of creating J. Lawrence Burkholder’s memoir, Recollections of a Sectarian Realist: A Mennonite Life in the Twentieth Century, at the March 7 book release celebration at AMBS. (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)

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