Leland Harder, a scholar of both Anabaptist history and Anabaptists of the late 1900s, died at the age of 86 in North Newton, Kan. 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 in Elkhart. Over the next 25 years, he taught at the seminary and also served briefly as associate director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies (IMS).
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 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), was a student of Harder’s and later a colleague. “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,” he said. “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.”
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. They reported their findings in 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). Harder 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. “[N]ow 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 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,” said Willard Swartley, professor emeritus of New Testament and former AMBS dean. “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.”
After completing high school in Hillsboro, Kan., Harder served in the navy and then earned a bachelor’s degree at Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., in 1948. He married Bertha Fast, a student at Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Chicago, in 1951. In 1983, the Harders both retired from teaching at AMBS and moved to North Newton. Harder is survived by his son John of Windsor, Ont.; his son Thomas and wife Lois of Wichita, Kan.; and five granddaughters.