Leland Harder studied Anabaptist history and present-day Anabaptists

Published: April 2, 2013

Mary E. Klassen

Leland Harder, a scholar of both Anabaptist history and Anabaptists of the late 1900s, died Thursday, March 21, in North Newton, Kan. He was 86.

Harder was a pastor, seminary professor and sociologist, who combined all of these areas to make significant contributions to the church during his lifetime of ministry.

In 1958, Harder and Bertha, his wife, joined the new faculty of Mennonite Biblical Seminary when it began on the Elkhart, Indiana, campus. Over the next 25 years, he taught at the seminary, and also served briefly as associate director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies (IMS). In addition he was pastor of two congregations and served the church in many other ways.

Harder taught in the area of practical theology and directed field education, matching students and congregations for internships. Jacob Elias, professor emeritus of New Testament of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary , was a student of Harder’s and later a colleague; he remembers, “My student years at AMBS in the 1960s were profoundly shaped by the way Leland encouraged me in my sense of calling toward pastoral ministry. When a part-time ministry position opened up in South Bend, Ind., he recommended this as a setting to gain experience and receive supervision. Two years of challenging and inspiring ministry set the stage for me to accept a call to Mountainview Mennonite Church in Vancouver.”

A course Harder taught on urban evangelism provided the impetus for Partly Dave, a coffee house in downtown Elkhart. Coordinated with congregations in Elkhart, the coffee house provided a safe place for young people to gather and often was a venue for draft counseling during the Viet Nam War. Several years ago, Harder reminisced about this effort, and said, “Partly Dave’s was one of the more successful seminary-related coffee houses and outlived most of them. I spent a fair amount of time at Partly Dave’s on weekends, trying to practice what I was teaching in the evangelism course.”

From 1967 to 1969, Harder was one of a committee of seven AMBS faculty members, called the Dean’s Seminar, that studied what form of leadership and ministry fits Mennonite congregations and how AMBS could fulfill its mission to prepare pastors. That study resulted in a model for theological education that guided the seminary for the next several decades.

Two areas of significant scholarly research serve as a lasting legacy of Harder’s work. One is the sociological research of church members, conducted by Harder and J. Howard Kauffman in the 1970s. Harder and Kauffman reported the findings in the book, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations (Herald Press 1975).

A second study, conducted in 1989 by Kauffman and Leo Driedger as an update, provided material for Harder’s book, Doors to Lock and Doors to Open: The Discerning People of God (Herald Press 1993). This volume interpreted the research in ways that would help congregational members enter more fully into decision-making in the church.

Driedger reflected how the study involved both Canada and the U.S., and both the General Conference Mennonite Church and what was called the “Old” Mennonite Church. “And now we are the Mennonite Church,” Driedger said. “We were very much at the grassroots of making that work,” he added, helping the different Mennonite groups understand themselves and each other better.

The other area of Harder’s scholarly work is the book, Sources of Swiss Anabaptism, (Herald Press 1985), the fourth volume in the Classics of the Radical Reformation series coordinated by IMS. This involved collecting and translating, with help from others, the letters of early Anabaptist leader Conrad Grebel.

It is “a definitive study of that topic,” Willard Swartley, professor emeritus of New Testament and former AMBS dean, said. “It’s an incredible contribution to the church.” Swartley remembers Harder as a careful scholar. “He didn’t do his work hastily. He put years into this volume.”

Other books that Harder wrote or edited include The Pastor-People Partnership: The Call and Recall of Pastors from a Believers’ Church Perspective (IMS 1983), Perspectives on Nurturing Faith (IMS 1983) and The Concept of Discipleship in Christian Education (Religious Education Association 1963). He also wrote numerous articles and papers tracing the history and characteristics of Mennonites in specific regional areas and conferences.

Harder was born July 1, 1926, in Hillsboro, Kan., to Menno and Katherine Wiens Harder.He completed high school in Hillsboro, served in the Navy and then earned a bachelor’s degree at Bethel College, North Newton, in 1948. In 1950 he earned a master’s degree in sociology from Michigan State University. Soon after that he enrolled in Bethany Theological Seminary, then in Chicago. He married Bertha Fast, a student at Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Chicago, in 1951.

From 1952 to 1957, Harder was pastor of First Mennonite Church in Chicago, and from this experience grew his passion for the inner-city church. In 1958, with two young sons, the Harders moved to Elkhart to join the faculty of MBS. Harder earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1962. Sabbatical experiences took them to Dublin, Ireland, and Richmond, Va., and during a 1978 to 1981 leave from AMBS he was pastor of St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship.

In 1983, both Leland and Bertha retired from teaching at AMBS and moved to North Newton. For a brief time, Harder served as director of the Great Plains Seminary Education Program, a forerunner of the AMBS–Great Plains extension. In his retirement, Harder continued to write, focusing on family stories and genealogy.

Harder was preceded in death by Bertha in 2008, and by daughter-in-law Julie Harder. He is survived by his son John of Windsor, Ont.; his son Thomas and wife Lois of Wichita, Kan.; and five granddaughters.

A memorial service will be held Saturday, April 6, at 3:00 p.m. at Bethel College Mennonite Church. Memorial gifts may be given to the Bethel College Mennonite Church Endowment Fund, which supports mission.

Want to receive AMBS news and updates via email?