ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ALEEN RATZLAFF
Those who tackle the task of compiling historical accounts recognize that time is a valuable commodity.
There’s never enough of it.
That was true for Peggy Goertzen, director of Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, who recently completed Miracle of Grace at Ebenfeld, a 288-page book with more than 400 pictures, that tells the story of Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Church since its origin on the Kansas prairies in 1876.
“There wasn’t enough time to cover everything I wanted to do, and that makes me really sad because there are some sections that didn’t get covered,” Goertzen said. “I wanted another couple of months.”
In October, Goertzen was commissioned to write the history of Ebenfeld in time for the church’s 125th anniversary celebration July 27-29.
“Because of my job at the center, I have things in my head that I had thought I’d want to write about if I ever wrote the history of Ebenfeld,” she said.
Goertzen barely finished the project in time to be published for the celebration-and not without making some sacrifices.
“In some cases, I found information, but I just didn’t have time to write it. And that was really hard on me,” she said. “I won’t get another shot at it.”
Using German-language newspapers, census records, minutes of church business meetings and other records and personal correspondence, when she could find it, Goertzen pieced together the 125-year story of Ebenfeld, the oldest organized Mennonite Brethren congregation in North America.
“I spent hours in reading through newspapers and translating huge sections of them” at the archival center at Tabor, she said.
She also worked her way through German business meeting minutes, issues of the Christian Leader, the MB denominational magazine, and records kept by pastors.
“I did a lot of oral histories, interviewing people who have been part of Ebenfeld and those still part of Ebenfeld,” she added.
While doing her research, Goertzen came across two treasures, the correspondence of the Mennonite Board of Guardians, held in the archives of Bethel College, and a diary written by Abraham B. Gaede in the 1870s and late 1880s.
“The material was wonderful and very helpful in giving me a sense of what was going on,” she said.
Goertzen had several personal goals in writing the historical account. For one thing, she wanted to learn more about Peter Eckert, the first elder of the church.
“He’s the one, in my view, who deserves accolades for holding this diverse group of people together, and he managed to do it for six years,” she said. “He had a vision that it didn’t matter what background you came from, but you could still be one body in Christ. He pushed that and pushed that, and he held the church together until Cornelsen (the next leader) came along.”
She also wanted to collect information from sources previously not published. One such documentation was a registry of baptisms.
“I tried to be as complete as possible, but there undoubtedly are many omissions,” she said.
The title of the book originated in an article written by J.J. Penner in one of the German newspapers Goertzen found while conducting her research.
“The article was written about the first really significant revival movement at Ebenfeld in 1893,” she said. “In German it read ‘Wunder des Gnade bei Ebenfeld’ and that translates out to ‘Miracle of Grace at Ebenfeld.’
“It is that grace that our rural church is doing well after 125 years.”