The Historical Library at the Mennonite Heritage Center is named in honor of John L. Ruth, a leading historian, author and speaker who has contributed significantly to the understanding of Mennonite history, faith and culture over several decades. His work has supported and helped to fulfill the mission of the Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania.
John Landis Ruth was born in 1930 to parents from the Line Lexington and Salford Mennonite congregations of the Franconia Conference, north of Philadelphia. He grew up on a farm on the Northeast Branch of the Perkiomen Creek.
At the age of eight Ruth was baptized on confession of faith at the rural Finland Mennonite mission congregation. He graduated from the Lower Salford Township Consolidated Elementary School in 1944 and Lancaster Mennonite (High) School in 1948. At the age of twenty he was ordained minister by the casting of lots for a mission in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
In 1951 Ruth married Roma Jeanette Jacobs of Johnstown, PA, who later, having worked in nursing, took up the art of fraktur in the local tradition, producing over 600 examples.
After graduating from nearby Eastern (Baptist) College in 1956, Ruth completed doctoral studies in English at Harvard University in 1968. From 1962 to 1976 he taught literature at Eastern College, with a 1968-9 sabbatical in Germany as Gastprofessor für Amerikanisches Literatur at the University of Hamburg in Germany.
In 1972 Ruth became an associate minister at the Salford Mennonite congregation. A few years later, he accepted an invitation by leaders of the Franconia Mennonite Conference to work primarily on themes of Mennonite heritage and faith. This resulted in films such as The Amish: A People of Preservation and The Hutterites: To Care and Not to Care, produced by Ruth with Burton Buller and John A. Hostetler, as well as many historically related videos in cooperation with his son Jay Ruth.
Since 1973 Ruth has served as commentator on historical tours in Europe for the Tourmagination organization, and on the trustee boards of the Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, Goshen College, and the Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania.
Ruth’s books include Conrad Grebel, Son of Zurich (1975); ‘Twas Seeding Time: A Mennonite View of the American Revolution (1976); Maintaining the Right Fellowship: A Narrative Account of Life in the Oldest Mennonite Community in North America (1984); The Earth is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (2001); Forgiveness: A Legacy of the West Nickel Mines Amish School (2006); and Branch: A Memoir with Pictures (2013).
In 1987 John Ruth and his family moved to his ancestral homestead in Lower Salford Township, a mile from the Salford meetinghouse. From that location, he draws on historical research to write nonfictional narratives of Mennonite life in the Salford and Franconia region.
The Ruth’s three children–Jay, Philip, and Dawn Nelson (1952-2017)–have also produced books and videos of local historical reference.