C.S. Lewis and the Mennonite

The Evangelism and Missions Collection, housed on the third floor of the Billy Graham Center in Special Collections, is largely unknown to most undergraduates. Emphasizing autobiography, biography and denominational histories, its countless pages hold boundless curiosities for the questing researcher.

Recently one such treasure revealed itself. Investigating the history of the Mennonites, a patron randomly pulled J.C. Wenger’s Glimpses of Mennonite History and Doctrine (1947) from the open-access shelves. Perusing the front matter, the researcher was surprised to read the inscription: “To C.S. Lewis, in gratitude. Goshen, Ind. 10-9-47. J.C. Wenger.” John C. Wenger (1910-1995), Mennonite historian and theologian, taught at Goshen College and Goshen Theological Seminary and wrote over 20 books.

Not only was this a book inscribed to C.S. Lewis, but it was sent to him by a renowned church historian, suggesting a relationship between the famed apologist and American Mennonites. But for what was Wenger grateful? wondered the patron. Was there significant interaction between C.S. Lewis and the Mennonites? Were the “plain people” of the Radical Reformation somehow connected to the committed Anglican?

Curious about the history behind this gift from Wenger to Lewis, the patron contacted Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, inquiring of its archivist as to whether their archive possessed a reciprocal letter from C.S. Lewis to Wenger. Searching the J.C. Wenger collection, the archivist located the actual note that had initially accompanied the book:

Dear Mr. Lewis:

Under separate cover I am venturing to send you my recent book, “Glimpses of Mennonite History and Doctrine,” in the hope that you may find a bit of pleasure in it. Permit me to state that I appreciate tremendously the influence of the good which you are exerting in our modern world.

Very sincerely yours, J.C. Wenger, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, U.S.A.

So Wenger was simply thanking Lewis for his Christian testimony, expressed through literature. Lewis, a fellow academic typing from his desk at Magdalen College, Oxford, relays gratitude in a note also filed among the Wenger papers:

Dear. Mr. Wenger:

Many thanks to you for kindly sending me a copy of your “Glimpses.” With all best wishes,

yours sincerely, C.S. Lewis

A sticker in the front flyleaf of Glimpses indicates that it had been shelved among the inventory of Blackwell’s of Oxford, England, where Lewis lived. After Lewis or whomever donated or sold it to the shop, an unknown customer bought the book and so began its trans-Atlantic voyage back to the States and ultimately Wheaton College, possibly falling in and out of many hands throughout the years.

Material housed in the Marion E. Wade Center, which includes writing by Lewis and six other British authors, is the result of deliberate acquisition and is not available for circulation, but this intriguing item arrived quite by accident at some point to a completely separate campus library. Books in the Lewis collection frequently display his penciled notations, indicating concentrated engagement with the material. Since Glimpses of Mennonite History contains no notes, in addition to the fact that it wound up at an Oxford bookstore, we might conclude that his interface with midwestern Mennonite Christianity was short-lived and largely disinterested, though respectful.

And now the Evangelism and Missions Collection awaits your own discoveries.

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