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Personal Legends: George Brunk, Sr.


Chapter 9


George R. Brunk, Sr. (1871-1938) was a charismatic leader of a segment of the Mennonite Church that objected to the corroding influence of "modernism" and rival liberal theologies on traditional Mennonite beliefs and practices. Coming mainly from the conservative Virginia Conference, centered on Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, they waged a vigorous campaign to restore the church, by presenting public programs throughout American Mennonite communities and by sponsoring the periodical Sword and Trumpet (1927-1938),which was overtly controversialist.

When George R. Brunk, Sr., died in 1938, Ernest G. Gehman (1901-1988) assembled an issue devoted to the memory of Brunk. Gehman, who taught German at Eastern Mennonite College, was Brunk's closest associate and Office Editor of Sword and Trumpet. He also contributed over thirty editorial cartoons to Sword and Trumpet, one of which, from the October 1933 issue, is reproduced here. It serves as a visual example of the bold rhetoric used in the controversialist writings published by the journal.

The July 1938 memorial issue included the sermon preached at Brunk's funeral by J. J. Stauffer, Associate Editor; an essay on "Balanced Truth Bridling the Tongue" by R. J. Shank; and articles by Brunk, the most interesting being "Supernatural Guidance," which recounts a series of supernatural experiences from throughout his life. The concluding memorial section of the issue is entitled, "George R. Brunk as I Knew Him," and contains personal appreciations and remembrances of him by twenty-seven of his followers from throughout the United States.

The issue concludes with "Revealing Incidents from the Life of Geo. R. Brunk," written by Ernest G. Gehman and consisting of seventeen pithy, unlinked anecdotes with Brunk as the central figure. They, along with scattered anecdotes in the appreciations by other followers, constitute a very revealing series—the folkloristic term is cycle--of personal legends about this charismatic leader. All of the anecdotes quoted in this essay illustrate the importance that the well chosen word or phrase—the bon mot—played in his ministry and in inspiring his followers. The anecdotes are published here with the permission of Gehman’s descendants.

Traditional African-American culture gives an honored place to the "man of words," whether as preacher or rap artist. Traditional American Mennonite culture has honored the "man of words" in the social roles as preacher, song-leader or auctioneer. George R. Brunk was a special kind of Mennonite man of words as he carried out his calling as an evangelist, Bible teacher and controversialist. His forceful use of words fulfills the controversialist mission of Sword of Trumpet, but it departs dramatically from traditional Mennonite norms for the spoken word.

Man of Words

In his biography of Brunk, Faithfully, Geo. R. (Harrisonburg, VA 1978), J. C. Wenger points out that he was "hated by liberals, loved by conservatives, feared by those who differed with him, and respected by those who had the insight to grasp the convictions by which he lived" (99). Brunk would have regarded that description as a compliment.

Two of his followers, writing in Sword and Trumpet, suggested how that reputation was created and supported by his forceful use of words. As R. J. Shenk put it, "Bro. Brunk was a man who did not care for a lot of 'small talk,' and was therefore not known to use many unnecessary words, did not believe in flattering . . . He said what he meant and meant what he said, for he was a man of strong and settled convictions" (67). J. B. Smith said it more forcefully: ". . . in the field of controversy and in combating error Bro. Brunk was bold as a lion . . . His logic was inexorable and irresistible. If one admitted the correctness of his major premises he might just as well admit his conclusions . . . for Geo. R. would be likely to apply the force of his keen wit and thus laugh him out of court" (S&T 71). A good example of Brunk's witty invective is his evaluation of the heresies of Modernism and Darwinism: "Such doctrines are no more Christian than a stinking carcass-eating buzzard is a dove" (Faithfully 153).

Brunk was aware of the aggressive nature of his language. He relished it, and gave a biblical and theological rationale for it:

*Bro. Brunk's presence at meetings and conferences where liberals were in the ascendancy was often embarrassing to them. On one occasion they sought to dispose of the problem by giving him the subject of "Love" to speak on. When his subject was announced he arose and spoke somewhat as follows: "The brethren have asked me to speak on love. It is needless for me to tell you the many nice things that you all know about love. But I want to call your attention to a phase of love that is not often emphasized. My text is the words of Jesus, 'As many as I love I rebuke and chasten' and my theme is the fact that love carries a stick!" (78)

Most of the anecdotes in Gehman's list follow the pattern of the one just cited: they present a context, a challenger, a challenge, and a retort by Brunk that sounds like the last word on the subject. They illustrates Brunk's motto: "Love carries a stick." And they tend to laugh the challenger "out of court," as J. B. Smith said above.

To Brunk's credit, one anecdote that concludes with "a word fitly spoken" but is not a putdown concerns his attitude as a southerner to African-Americans:

*Once he was asked to address a multitude of Negroes in a large auditorium. He began by saying, "Sometimes people ask, 'Who is the better man—the white man or the colored man?' I'll tell you the answer to that: the colored man is the better man—if he is a better man; and the white man is the better man if he is a better man." It was sometime before he could continue speaking because of the prolonged applause that followed this statement which rightly divided men—on the basis of inner rather than outer conditions. (S&P 77-78)

Two other stories about Brunk's early life conclude with witty statements lacking moral or theological points. They survive in a typescript in the Goshen Archives of Mennonite Church USA, apparently written by Gehman. Perhaps he left them out of the memorial issue because they are merely funny, not edifying:

*When Mennonite settlement was being considered at Protection, Kansas, early in this century, George, R. J. Heatwole, and Henry E. Hostetler went to Wichita, and contacted a real estate firm. Accompanied by a land agent they boarded a train for Protection. Upon arriving at Protection they secured a livery rig and toured Comanche County. On one occasion after the agent had given a high powered sales talk, George remarked, "Heatwole believes everything you say, I believe half of it, and Hostetler doesn't believe any of it." [ms 1]

*In spite of George R. Brunk's remark to the land agent, he and Henry E. Hostetler purchased farms, and moved to Protection in 1907. However, crops were uncertain, and they both became fearful of the future in Western Kansas, which is about one-hundred miles east of Protection, in 1909. After this George frequently remarked to his friend Henry Hostetler, "The difference between Protection and Harper is that at Harper it rains fifteen minutes before it is too late, and at Protection it rains fifteen minutes after it is too late." [ms 1-2]

Brunk Vs. Opponents

However, most of the stories consisting of context, challenger, challenge and retort conclude with sharp, pithy moral judgments. The anecdotes become joke-like because they end with punchlines that are sardonic and darkly humorous.

The first issue of Sword and Trumpet announced that its targets would be "liberalism and Calvinism" and people of "old Goshen" (151). By liberalism Brunk meant the modernist questioning of the life of Christ and the authority of scripture. By Calvinism he meant any version of Christianity that limited the free will of humans, Brunk being an Arminian. By old Goshen Brunk meant modernist Mennonite tendencies as found at Goshen College before it was closed by conservatives in 1923 (then reorganized and reopened in 1924). The anecdotes quoted below—all except one are taken from the memorial issue--condemn liberalism and Calvinism, although not old Goshen. His holy scorn ranges widely and often strikes hapless individuals, not only groups or doctrines.

Against indecorous conduct: *A medical-college student was carrying the dismembered finger of a dead woman around in his pocket and having some "fun," as he called it, with the younger people. Bro. Brunk remonstrated with him. The student said: "It's nothing; the finger of a dead woman isn't anything." Bro. Brunk then asked, "Wouldn't it be anything either if your mother were dead and someone were carrying one of her fingers around?" The student saw the point and the ill-chosen jesting ceased. (78)

Against superstition: *He was always impatient with superstitions and in the days before hotels discontinued placing the number 13 on any of their rooms, he would ask to be given room number 13. Once also when he had said to someone that he was thinking of beginning to build a house on a certain day, the man was startled and said, "Why, that's on a Friday! It's always bad luck to start anything on Friday."

"Well," replied Bro. Brunk, "just to prove to you that such superstitions are foolish I'm going to be sure to start on that very day." And he did! (77)

*In a certain congregation the men's Bible class frequently had to suffer the lengthy recital of dreams by one of the members who attached a religious importance to all his dreams. One day Bro. Brunk was present and the man took special time and pain to impress the distinguished visitor. Bro. Brunk sized up the situation at once and at the end of the boresome rehearsal he merely commented, "Some people wouldn't dream so much if they wouldn't eat mince-pie for supper." It is reported that thereafter the Sunday-school class had relief from dream-telling. (78-89)

Against Calvinists: *Once when Bro. Brunk had been speaking words of comfort to a brother ill in an open ward in a hospital, he turned to another man on a bed nearby and asked of the state of his soul. The man, reflecting his Calvinistic teaching, gruffly replied, "If God wants me let Him come and get me!"

"Listen," said Brother Brunk, "if you don't concern yourself about your soul's salvation and do something about it, somebody will come and get you, and it won't be God, either!" (77)

*Once a Baptist friend visiting in the Mennonite colony commented on the fine-looking and bountiful farms and orchards there and said, "It seems as if the Lord shows special favors to the Mennonites."
"Not so," said Bro. Brunk, "but you Calvinists are trying to raise crops by faith only, while we believe and practice a proper combination of faith and works." (77)

Against Catholics: *A Catholic woman in the market one day told Bro. Brunk how she fasts before the eucharist (communion)—"so that I can keep Christ in my body as long as possible."

"That's where the Catholics differ from the Mennonites," said Bro. Brunk; "we take Christ into our hearts, not into our stomachs!" (77)

*To another Catholic who was justifying their praying to Jesus' mother, he said, "Why don't you pray to Jesus' grandmother, too?" (77)

Against Atheists: Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) was a famous lawyer, orator and avowed atheist. *Once after a sermon in which Bro. Brunk denounced the infidelity of men like Robert G. Ingersoll, a brother came to him and wondered whether it was all right to buy Ingersoll watches. Bro. Brunk smiled and said, "Certainly; Ingersoll will do for time but not for eternity" (78). Likely, this clever play on words was a widespread proverb among fundamentalists of Brunk's day, attributed to him here but not actually coined by him.

Against Modernizing Mennonites:­ *On the occasion of a conference in Canada, Bro. Brunk and a Mennonite College president were traveling thither in the same railway coach. It was not a great while before this man's final defection from the faith and he bitterly denounced regulation religious garb, among other things, and declared it a meaningless and useless form. Bro. Brunk spoke equally strongly in defence of it. As the train stopped at the Canadian border the order went through the coaches that everyone should lay his baggage open for the customary inspection . . . When the officer came down the aisle he looked at Bro. Brunk and pushed his suitcase shut without a second glance at it, but he pawed completely through the contents of the college president's luggage, much to the mortification of the latter. Bro. Brunk looked at the man meaningfully and said, "Did you say there was nothing in plain clothes?" (78) Notice here another variant on the plain-coat preacher-trickster story.

*During the earlier days of his ministry Brother Brunk wore a long dress coat. On one occasion he visited a section of the church where neck ties were being worn. While in the community he preached against ties. Later some of the brethren took him to task for wearing a long coat. To this he replied, "I guess I ought to cut the tail off and make some more neckties for you fellows." [ms 2]

The Power of the Word

The efficacy of Brunk's spoken word is demonstrated by the positive moral and spiritual effects that his retorts bring about. But Brunk's verbal success is explained, appreciated and magnified by what is implied by his son's recollection of the power of Brunk's words in prayer to God:

*Different people have remarked that when Bro. Brunk prayed he seemed to be talking right to God. But it would be better to eliminate the word "seemed" and say that he talked right to God. When he prayed he did not attempt to impress his human hearers but he spoke to God in terms and tones of humble and respectful intimacy used by a child when addressing its earthly father in grateful or pleading tones. And the Lord answered his prayers.

When physicians and friends despaired of his life twenty years ago he felt that his work was so incomplete and that his wife and little children needed him so much that he prayed definitely for his restoration to health. Then two years ago when he was equally ill things seemed different (as the last letter quoted by Bro. Maynard Hoover makes clear) and he told Sister Brunk that he did not feel impelled to pray for his return to health this time—that he would let the Lord's will be made plain in the matter. But his companion earnestly and tearfully pleaded with him that for her sake and for the children's sake he should again pray for recovery. This he finally did and was restored to health.

Now one of the sons, in relating these facts, said that he believes that this time the Lord took him to Himself suddenly and unexpectedly [by heart attack] so that there was no opportunity for him to pray otherwise. "For," said he, "I know that when my father prayed, the Lord heard him. And it seems as if this time He really wanted him to go." (79)

Of structural interest here is that the narrative is shaped with three different occasions of prayer in Brunk's life. In the first two, he prayed and God answered his prayers. In the third, God took him before he could pray. The three-fold sequence illustrates again typical folklore formation.

Of thematic interest here is that Brunk's way with words is so spiritually powerful that God cannot help but listen and answer the prayers. In fact, God's only means of getting his way with George Brunk is to give him a heart attack or stroke with so immediate an effect that Brunk had not even a moment to pray and charm God into saving his life. Such presumed control of God by a man represents the ultimate in Arminianism. This darkly humorous story makes of Brunk an even greater spiritual warrior, or man of words, than the earlier stories do. Appropriately, Gehman prints it last in his series of anecdotes.

The Word as Sword

Of course, one problem with this use of stories about George Brunk, Sr., is that all of them come from a compilation that appeared in print, not from tape-recorded oral performances of them, which folklorists prefer. Although I am convinced that the stories must have, at minimum, constituted Ernest G. Gehman's personal repertoire of oral narratives about Brunk, I can only assume and assert without other evidence that they circulated widely among the disciples in his community of dissent. Perhaps their structural similarity, and their obsession with forceful words, reveals more about Gehman himself than about Brunk and his followers. For instance, other contributors to the memorial issue recount stories that reveal a more sympathetic, tender spirit in Brunk.

However, one important consideration that connects their structure and content to the historical George Brunk, Sr. comes from the title and meaning of his publication Sword and Trumpet. The masthead of the periodical indicates that the "Sword" of the title comes from the Bible verse, "Take the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God" (Eph. 6:17). Both Brunk and Gehman used the word as a sword—even a two-edged sword—in doctrinal battle. The "Trumpet" of the title comes from the Bible verse, "Blow ye the Trumpet and warn the people" (Eze. 33:3). Like a trumpet, Gehman's stories about Brunk are loud, aggressive and confident in their moral clarity. The visual logo of the magazine--no doubt drawn by Gehman, whose elaborate moral allegorical cartoons adorn the publication—is an ominous arrangement of a Bible lying atop a crossed sword and trumpet, yielding this motto: "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:4). And the overall mission statement says that Sword and Trumpet is "Devoted to the defense of a Full Gospel, with Especial Emphasis upon Neglected Truths and to an Active Opposition to the Various Forms of Error that Contribute to the Religious Drift of the Times." Gehman's stories about Brunk are definitely of a piece with such aggressive notions of the role of the minister in controversial times.

George R. Brunk, Sr., claimed that he was merely calling Mennonites back to their true, traditional ways. What he didn't notice is that he was doing so in a strident voice that he probably borrowed from his controversialist, fundamentalist models in mainstream American Christianity but that was foreign to the quiet, careful, respectful speech that characterized his ancestors and that was restated in the essay "Bridling the Tongue" in the memorial issue.

Like Flannery O'Connor, the American Catholic fiction-writer, George R. Brunk, Sr. apparently thought that, in a spiritually deaf culture, you have to shout loud.

Or blow the trumpet.

About the Author

Ervin Beck

Ervin Beck, Emeritus Professor of English at Goshen College, is co-editor of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, author of many publications on Mennonite literature and folk culture, including MennoFolk and MennoFolk2, published by Herald Press, and compiler of the three Mennonite bibliographies linked on the CMW homepage. From 2006-07 he taught English and dramatic literature at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania. He was on the planning committee for the two Mennonite/s Writing conferences held at Goshen College in 1997 and 2002. He lives in Goshen, Indiana.