Grandfather's 1870s Prussian Hymnal Starts Award-Winning Collection for Ben Goossen '13

by Erin Kelly
Ben Goossen '13
Goossen '13

When Ben Goossen '13 told his grandfather that he was taking a German class at his middle school, the elder man walked to their family bookcase and pulled out an aged leather-bound volume - an 1870s Prussian Mennonite hymnal, he said, called a Gesangbuch.

"Lass uns lesen," his grandfather said. Let us read.

Goossen's family was one of many who immigrated to America after the Prussian government instituted a draft and eliminated exemption from military service on religious grounds. The hymnal traveled with them and eventually became the first book in Goossen's collection of Mennonite history.

That collection, which was recently awarded first place in the Edward Newton Student Book Collection Competition, includes more than 80 books on Mennonite history.

Goossen, the son of a Mennonite historian and grandson of two Mennonite preachers, grew up in the small Kansas town of Goessel, where the first wave of Mennonite immigrants - including Goossen's family - arrived in the 1870s. When Goossen studied abroad at the University of Freiburg in southern Germany, he had the opportunity to travel the land of his heritage, where he realized how much the landscape resembled that of south-central Kansas.

"It was almost as if they transplanted everything about their home and recreated it," said Goossen, an honors history and German studies major. He said the experience of visiting areas steeped in his own personal history was surreal. "I actually got to see some of the farmhouses where my family lived. I was able to experience remnants of what my family experienced. There were some places that hadn't changed much over the past three centuries and in some places, you felt like you were transported in time."

While studying in Germany, he researched 19th-century German nationalism and minority religious groups, with special emphasis on the long-persecuted Mennonites. His fluency in German allowed him to conduct numerous interviews and study primary documents.

Goossen said studying German allows him to fully appreciate the personal histories of his family and their religion. "Understanding the language makes it that much easier to retain collective memories of times before," he says. "It allows me to understand where my family comes from and helps me understand who I am. It's a huge part of understanding my own past. I can draw information from old diaries, books, or letters that are written in German."

Several of the books in his collection, "Family and Faith through Four Centuries: Books of Mennonite History," are written in his family's native language.  

This was the second time Goossen earned top-prize in the Newton Student Book Collection Competition. In 2011 he was awarded first-place for his compilation of art works by N.C. Wyeth. Goossen is also one of only 20 students in the U.S. to receive the 2012 Beinecke Scholarship, which recognizes students of strong academic potential who plan to pursue graduate study in the arts, humanities, or social sciences. As a Beinecke scholar, he will receive $4,000 upon graduating from Swarthmore and $15,000 for each of his two years in graduate school.

During his first two years at Swarthmore, Goossen researched gender and participatory democracy in 1920s Kansas. He eventually wrote and published an article on his research in the peer-reviewed quarterly Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains in autumn 2011.

His thesis focuses on history writing among Mennonites, a group that he admits is often misunderstood. "The word 'Mennonite' is a very broad term," he says. "It can refer to the old-order Amish, but it can also include many liberal Mennonite groups. Along with the establishment of overseas missionary efforts in the 20th century, a pattern of constant Mennonite migration has produced Anabaptist communities all over the globe and put Mennonites in contact with diverse groups in every continent. In an irony of history, the traditionally reclusive and ethnically homogeneous Mennonite church has become a multi-racial and multi-lingual entity."

He noted that the Quaker influence at Swarthmore was one of the aspects about the College that he found most compelling. The Mennonites' belief system - particularly their long-held belief in peaceful non-resistance and Christ-centered theology - shares some similarities with Quakerism.