Rolando Santiago, director
How appropriate is it for the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society (LMHS) to organize public history events through the lens of faith? I believe it is appropriate.
Public history events represent “a broad range of activities undertaken by people with some training in the discipline of history who are generally working outside specialized academic settings. Public history practice is deeply rooted in the areas of historic preservation, archival science, oral history, museum curatorship, and other related fields” (from Wikipedia). For years, LMHS has been a leader in sponsoring public history activities for south central Pennsylvania and beyond. These events are often designed for people of faith or of no faith.
Faith-based organizations like LMHS have an intentional faith bias. Our bias is Anabaptist Christian. This bias also comes from LMHS’s mission to “preserve and interpret the culture and context of Anabaptist-related faith communities connected to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.”
You may ask, does this faith bias compromise LMHS’s integrity when it interprets history in its activities? My answer is no. Any public history organization has its biases. They are stated in the organization’s values. Like LMHS, most public history organizations also define their geographic scope and the population groups whose history they tell. Most importantly, when staff, board members, and volunteers plan events at LMHS, they seek to promote historical thinking. Historical thinking generates “topographies of historical memory, rough maps of how ordinary people think about the past and use it to understand the present” (from Sam Wineburg, educational psychologist, Stanford University).
Let me illustrate how historical thinking works in events that LMHS sponsors. In October of 2012, at the height of the presidential election, LMHS organized an event called “The Election of 1800.” David L. Holmes, professor emeritus of religious studies at the College of William and Mary, discussed the infamous election where incumbent John Adams battled challenger Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was attacked as being un-Christian and carelessly populist. Jefferson swept the election. Dick Thomas, former moderator of Mennonite Church USA, followed David Holmes with a prayer that suggested an Anabaptist way of thinking about the 2012 presidential election.
LMHS continues to lead efforts to promote public history through historical thinking relevant to everyone!