'A Pure Fellowship': The Danger and Necessity of Purity in White and African-American Mennonite Racial Exchange, 1935-1971

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"How did the Civil Rights Movement bring about change?" In answer to that question, this dissertation argues that the splintering of purity rhetoric within the intimate environments of home and sanctuary both inhibited and empowered white and African-American religious practitioners to seek social change. To make this argument, this project follows the purity-focused activity of white and African-American Mennonites through the long civil rights era. Building on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, this dissertation focus on Mennonites' multiple expressions of purity - defined here as a cultural value that orders society by defining group boundaries - through racially focused clothing restrictions, marriage practices, interracial congregations, evangelism initiatives, and service programs. Based on oral histories, photographs, diaries, and denominational records, this work demonstrates how purity values changed over time. The record of this change reveals how religious actors shifted their attention from maintaining racially untainted blood in the 1930s, to bolstering homogeneous fellowships in the 1940s, to protecting female chastity in the 1950s, and then to managing a splintered religious rhetoric in the 1960s. That rhetoric reveals a set of theologically expressed purity forms - in religious, sexual, racial, and ethical manifestations - alongside a rule-based purity heuristic focused on establishing protective group boundaries. This study thus reveals a striking continuity: the danger and necessity of purity remained interlocked for four decades. Each time an expression of purity attracted African Americans to the church, another purity expression blocked their entrance. The argument advanced by this dissertation thus repositions the existing historiography of the Civil Rights Movement by shifting attention away from the public drama of street marches and civil arrests and toward the quotidian negotiation of family meals and evening devotions. Because their convictions forced them to make daily decisions between racial engagement and separatist conviction, Mennonites offer unique insight into the social tensions introduced by religious belief. In the intimate environments of living rooms, porches, sanctuaries, and offices, commitments to racial egalitarianism received bracing challenge. Through interrogation of these sites, I show how change was prompted in the streets but realized in the home, church, and work environment.

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  • 09/06/2018
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