The Blowing and the Bending, 1975

My father taught me drama performance as a means of celebrating family and community history. In 1949 Dad was the teacher of the rural one-room Pleasant Ridge Grade School in southern McPherson County, Kansas. I was eleven years old, the only pupil in fifth grade. For the Christmas PTA program that year, Dad wrote and produced a ten-scene drama, “From Katazufka to Kansas.” It was the story of the migration of our Mennonite people from Volhynia to Kansas in 1874, seventy-five years earlier. Dad assigned pupils to play the roles of their ancestors. The final scene featured a Christmas crèche in the original immigrant house built for our people by the Santa Fe Railroad. Pleasant Ridge was a public school, but all fifteen students and the teacher attended the Eden Mennonite Church.[1]

My own venture into Mennonite ethnic drama came a quarter century later. In 1975 I was teaching American history at Bethel College, one of three Mennonite colleges in south central Kansas. By that time it was commonplace for Mennonites to write plays or pageants about their history, or about Bible stories, for productions sponsored by Mennonites conferences and institutions. Irvin Beck of Goshen Collegein 1975 compiled a bibliography of forty-seven Mennonite dramas and judged their prevailing style to be “literal, didactic, self-congratulatory and uplifting—almost like ‘socialist realism.’”[2] I had seen some of most ambitious of these dramas, including Urie Bender’s Tomorrow Has Roots (1974). Bender’s drama had been commissioned for the centennial of the Russian Mennonite migration.

I was a historian, not a playwright. Nevertheless I felt called to put the stories of my Mennonite people on stage. I audaciously imagined possibilities for a full-length musical, perhaps with images of “Oklahoma!” in mind. I was vaguely aware that most dramas written in America never get produced on stage. But at Bethel College I had the great advantage of being able to work with J. Harold Moyer, an accomplished composer, and Arlo Kasper, director of the theater department. Both Harold and Arlo were interested in locally created music and drama productions. In the course of research for my PhD dissertation on Kansas Mennonite history, I had become aware of the dramatic events in 1917-18 when Mennonites were persecuted for refusing to support their country in World War I. Although I had grown up in the Kansas Mennonite heartland, I had not learned those stories as a child. Perhaps my people wanted to forget the time when patriotic mobs assaulted Mennonites who refused to buy war bonds, and when pacifist draftees suffered harassment and imprisonment in military camps. In fact, the Mennonite trauma of World War I was a turning point in our collective history. In the late 1960s when I discovered this history, the United States was fighting a devastating unpopular war in Vietnam. It seemed to me important to lift up and remember earlier times when Mennonites had stood over against crusading American nationalism. Keith Sprunger and I, colleagues in Bethel ’s history department, undertook an oral history project to record on tape interviews with Mennonites who had been drafted in World War I. Stories from those interviews begged to be put on stage.

Henry Cooprider’s story was especially dramatic. One Sunday afternoon in 1966, when my wife, Anna, and I had visited the West Liberty Mennonite Church, Henry and his wife, Clara, invited us to have lunch at their farm home. Henry told me how in 1918 a mob from McPherson had come at night to the Cooprider farm home, cut the telephone wires so the family could not call for help, and demanded that Henry’s father, Walter, come out and be tarred and feathered for refusing to buy war bonds. Because Walter Cooprider suffered from a heart condition, his oldest son, George, went out and asked if he could take his father’s place in the persecution. The mob agreed. They had George take off his clothes and rolled him around in a sheet with tar and feathers. Henry viewed the scene from an upstairs farmhouse window. He saw the mob members, their need for ritual violence fulfilled, get in their cars and flee the farmstead. Half a century later, getting along in years, Henry believed God had brought me and Anna to the West Liberty Church that Sunday morning so he could invite us for lunch and tell the story to a young historian who would pass it on to the next generation.

I began to imagine a musical drama about Kansas Mennonites in 1918, centering on a father and a draft age son who had a troubled relationship that would be resolved when the son chose to absorb the violence that a patriotic mob had intended for his father. In 1973, when Anna and I were on leave of absence working in Botswana, I had time to begin writing. I initially wrote the texts for three or four songs and sent them to Harold Moyer, with an outline of the entire prospective drama. Harold responded with enthusiasm. He wondered if Anna had helped with the writing. A literature teacher, he thought, would be more likely than a historian to compose good poetry and singable lyrics. Harold was planning a sabbatical leave for the following school year, 1973-74, and was ready to set aside time to collaborate on a musical drama.

For full choral impact, we needed to set “The Blowing and the Bending” in community. We decided to open with a patriotic rally in town. There were also major choral numbers at wheat harvest time, at a meeting in the church, and at a final baptism and farewell service for the young man as he left for military camp. The four main characters all had signature solos. There was a male quartet and a love-interest male/female duet. The harmonies and rhythms of Harold’s music were complex enough to be interesting and challenging for college-age performers. One of Harold’s fellow composers reviewed the music and wrote to him, “The whole set of music scores show faith in your talent there. The harmonizations are excitingly different.”[3]

The drama’s story line involved the moral conflict between Mennonite pacifism and American militarism, as well as coming-of-age tensions between the Mennonite father and son. I attempted to balance the somber central theme with festive folk celebrations, a light hearted folk dance, and Mennonite joking and humor. At every point I drew upon my own experience in a Kansas Mennonite family and church. The drama celebrated the values and the vitality of rural Mennonite people and the land they lived on. The refrain of the title song used masculine language that I later found somewhat embarrassing:

And the blowing and the bending make the oak tree strong, And the seasons in their turning know the right from wrong, And the grasses and the grain fields praise the Lord with song, God made man for the land.

The Blowing and the Bending was first performed at the Bethel College Fall Festival in October 1975. The four scheduled performances sold out early, so an additional performance was added. The large cast, organized by stage director (and set designer) Arlo Kasper, included sixty-seven actors and singers. There were fifteen instrumentalists in the orchestra, directed by Harold Moyer. Arlo recruited some community people for the roles of more mature characters. John Gaeddert, a Mennonite pastor who had been my junior high music teacher, took the role of the father. Henry A. Fast, who in 1918 had been drafted and had refused regular service in military camp, played the role of an elderly uncle who advised Mennonite youth on how to respond to military conscription. Henry in 1975 was eighty years old, and appeared in a wheel chair. At the other end of the age spectrum was my daughter, Joanne Juhnke, age seven, who joined five other children in the crowd and community scenes.

The audiences responded enthusiastically. An article in the Bethel Collegian reported, “Moyer almost outdid himself on the music. . . . The big and beautiful finale, ‘Thresh the Mountains,’ brought four out of five audiences to their feet in standing ovations.”[4] A Quaker reviewer wrote, “Something about the Finale makes me feel that good triumphs over evil, peace over war, right over wrong.” One Mennonite pastor, Peter J. Ediger, wrote that the drama was “a moving experience for me. . . . I feel it is particularly timely in being born on the eve of our national centennial.” I was especially pleased that Clara Cooprider, then in her upper eighties, was able to attend the drama. (Her husband, Henry, had died.) Paul Friesen, teacher of art at Hesston College, brought Clara to the drama and reported that she wept all the way home, saying, “That was the story of my family.”

Two scholarly reviews of “The Blowing and the Bending” appeared later. Elmer Suderman, professor of English at Gustavus Adolphus College, included the drama in an assessment of six literary portrayals of Mennonite experiences with war and peace. This literature, Suderman said, had two distinctive characteristics:”The communities which react to and are acted upon by the war are pacifist communities, and the characters who react to a violent world are pacifist because of their religious convictions. Both of these points are unique in American art.” Suderman drew special attention to one scene in The Blowing and the Bending where gathered church members argued inconclusively about how to respond to the demand to buy war bonds. Suderman also appreciated the sense of humor of these Mennonites: “To meet Mennonites who wonder if President Wilson and the Kaiser could not come to some amicable agreement over a tablespoon of Alpenkräuter is a rare pleasure. After all, if it can cure constipation, Spanish flu, nose bleed, back ache, insomnia, it should be able to end the war.” But Suderman found the character portrayals lacking in complexity and depth:”Solomon Unruh and his sons in The Blowing and the Bending are perhaps too good, too easily faithful to their beliefs.”[5] Suderman was more impressed with the distinctive theme of communal religious pacifism than he was with the playwright’s achievement of verisimilitude in plot and character.

Anna Kreider Juhnke, teacher in the English department at Bethel, evaluated The Blowing and the Bending in a 1997 article, “North American Mennonite Playwrights, 1980-1996.” She had the challenge of writing as literary critic while reviewing the work of her husband. Balancing affirmation with critique, Anna found the play “overly crowded with information about Mennonites’ beliefs and their situation as German-speaking pacifists in World War I.” The greatest weakness was the play’s “hurried climax and ending.” She did acknowledge that the story and the music were well-received by “audiences in the prairie states and western Canada.”[6]

From 1975 to 1996 The Blowing and the Bending was performed by eleven different casts in Mennonite colleges and secondary schools. In 1982 Bethel College did a second Fall Festival performance with a different cast. The Mennonite Bible colleges and institutes in Canada were especially attracted to the drama. It was performed in Manitoba (Winkler, Gretna, Steinbach and Winnipeg), in Saskatchewan (Clearbrook and Rosthern), and in Ontario (Leamington). Harold reassured the music directors at these schools that they could adapt the musical score to the ability level of their performers. It seemed that the strong ethnic character of the drama was well suited to the compact Mennonite communities in Canada that were more closely tied to their immigrant experience. Ed Hildebrand, music director at the Mennonite Bible Academy in Steinbach, Manitoba, called it “as fine an entertainment/spectacle/ docudrama/think-piece diversion as we’ve had the pleasure to produce. Our kids loved it as well as the 1600 people who saw it. . . . During the final scene, many a tear was shed.”[7]

The church-state conflict at the heart of The Blowing and the Bending was relevant to current social and political events. Harold Moyer and I attended a performance by the Freeman Junior College and Academy in Freeman, South Dakota, in December of 1975. We both spoke in local Mennonite churches on Sunday morning. I also gave a keynote address, “A People of Two Kingdoms,” at the Freeman “Founders Day” gathering. The Freeman Courier newspaper report on my address suggested that I had used the occasion to offer my revisionist interpretation of the meaning of World War I. According to the report, I “theorized” that the Mennonites did not meet defeat during World War I, “but by Christ’s standards they were victorious, and we know that Christ’s standards are the ones that really matter.” I quoted from taped oral interviews with Mennonites drafted in that war, and concluded, “We did not make the world safe for democracy in World War I. . . . Did we get democracy or did we get totalitarianism? We prepared the world for dictatorship.”

The message of The Blowing and the Bending, celebrating Mennonite refusal to buy war bonds in 1917-18, addressed issues of civil disobedience that troubled our denomination the late 1970s and the 1980s. Should the church pay taxes without protest to a militaristic state? In February, 1980, the General Conference Mennonite Church held a special triennial conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to discuss the thorny issue of denominational obedience to Internal Revenue Service. The IRS required withholding of income tax from the salaries of church employees, including those who wanted to refuse tax payment. Students from Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna, Manitoba, had performed The Blowing and the Bending several weeks before the conference. They brought the drama to Minneapolis. Harold Moyer and I both attended the conference and took delight in the MCI performance. We both were military tax protesters and wanted our church to take a stronger stand on the issue. Harold wrote after the conference, “It was remarkable how many parallels one could draw between 1917 and our 1979 conference. The next morning as various persons spoke in the meeting, it sounded like carbon copies of the various attitudes expressed in the (Blowing and the Bending) church meeting on stage.”[8] The General Conference Mennonite Church eventually did decide for civil disobedience and violation of Internal Revenue Service regulations.

There is no way to judge the actual influence of cultural artifacts. One of my students told me that The Blowing and the Bending would have more impact than any of my published history books. I was not necessarily convinced. In any case, I was sure that I was better at researching and writing history, than I was at writing drama. Harold Moyer and I collaborated on three other projects, one of which was the story of a sixteenth century Anabaptist martyr, Dirk Willems. I wanted that drama, titled Dirk’s Exodus, to speak to a wider audience than The Blowing and the Bending, which had been so limited to the experience of Mennonite immigrants from Russia. Dirk’s Exodus, unlike The Blowing and the Bending, did find a popular reception among Mennonites in Pennsylvania and Ohio who were from a different ethnic stream Pennsylvania Germans from Switzerland and southern Germany.[9] But drama-writing remained for me a sidelight, an enjoyable avocation.

In retrospect, I have to admit that The Blowing and the Bending substantially fit Irvin Beck’s 1975 characterization of Mennonite-written dramas of that era--“literal, didactic, self-congratulatory and uplifting—almost like ‘socialist realism.’” Drama for me was a means of celebrating the history and the values of our people. That’s the way I had learned to do it from my father back in 1949 at the Pleasant Ridge one-room school in McPherson County, Kansas.

[1] See James C. Juhnke, So Much to be Thankful For: The Bill and Meta Goering Juhnke Story, 1912-1996 (privately published, 2009), 117-18.

[2] Ervin Beck, untitled outline of a presentation on Mennonite drama 1970-1975, for Mennonite Media Conference, Kansas City, spring 1975. Cited by Anna Kreider Juhnke, “North American Mennonite Playwrights, 1980-1996,” Mennonite Quarterly Review (January 1997), 43-44.

[3] Undated letter from Iola Cadwallader, Oskaloosa, Iowa.

[4] John Juhnke, Bethel Collegian (October 14, 1975).

[5] Elmer F. Suderman, “The Mennonite Community and the Pacifist Character in American Literature,” Mennonite Life (March 1979), 8-15. Suderman examined the following works: Peter Epp’s novel, Erloesung; Rudy Wiebe’s novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many; Ken Reed’s novel, Mennonite Soldier; James Juhnke and Harold Moyer’s play, The Blowing and the Bending; Warren Kliewer’s play, The Berserkers; and Lee Brackett’s novel, The Long Tomorrow.

[6] Anna Kreider Juhnke, “North American Mennonite Playwrights, 1980-1996,” Mennonite Quarterly Review (January 1997), 54-5.

[7] Letter from Ed Hildebrand to J. Harold Moyer, March 7, 1985.

[8] J. Harold Moyer letter to Rudy Krahn, February 20, 1979 (sic.) Krahn was the director for the performances in Gretna and Minneapolis. Moyer’s dates were off by one year. The action of the drama was in 1918 and the Minneapolis Conference was in February 1980.

[9] Dirk’s Exodus was extensively reviewed in the December 1992 issue of Mennonite Life. See John McCabe-Juhnke, “Humility, Vulnerability, and Heroism in Dirk’s Exodus” (4-8); Melvin Goering, “Dying to be Pure: The Martyr Story” (9-15); and John K. Sheriff, “Dirk’s Exodus: Morality Play and Modern Tragedy” (16-20).

About the Author

James C. Juhnke

James Juhnke taught history at Bethel College in Kansas 1966-2002. He served overseas in Mennonite church programs in Germany, Botswana and China. His books on Mennonite history include works on Kansas Mennonites, a book on General Conference Mennonite overseas missions, one volume in the Mennonite Experience in America series, and two biographies of Kansas Mennonite leaders. He also was co-author of The Missing Peace, a history of main themes in American history from a pacifist point of view. Together with J. Harold Moyer he wrote an Anabaptist drama on Dirk Willems, titled "Dirk’s Exodus." He and his wife, Miriam Nofsinger, live at Kidron-Bethel retirement community in North Newton, Kansas.