The reunion of Franconia and Eastern District conferences does more than simplify the map of Mennonite Church USA. Healing a 172-year split, it revives a 19th-century vision of unity and shows how new coalitions can model reconciliation in a polarized time.
The vision of unity belonged to John H. Oberholtzer, who left Franconia Mennonite Conference to form the Eastern Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America in 1847.
How can a man who walked out of a church meeting and led a third of Franconia’s members away from the fold be an exemplar of inclusion?
Oberholtzer dreamed of unity but also of reform. He pushed for change on big issues — like permitting marriage across denominational lines — and also on smaller but oddly controversial matters like improving record-keeping and organization by taking minutes and writing a constitution. Ironically, he led a split before advocating a nationwide union of Mennonites.
That union was the General Conference Mennonite Church, which Oberholtzer helped organize at a meeting in West Point, Iowa, in 1860. Its progressive goals included doing mission work at home and abroad and establishing a theological school. It would not centralize congregational discipline but allow freedom in “nonessentials.”
The GC founders optimistically invited all Mennonites to join “regardless of minor differences.” But there were few takers until the 1870s, when an influx of Mennonite immigrants from the Russian Empire found that GC progressivism matched their traditions and beliefs.
Oberholtzer likely would endorse MC USA’s attempt to revive a dream of unity. And surely he would commend the reunion of the conferences whose division he led. We can imagine him taking satisfaction in seeing that his beliefs in missions, higher education and congregational freedom, controversial in his day, are now commonplace. Having refused to wear a minister’s coat, he might approve of today’s casual attire.
But this 19th-century reformer would also find Mennonite unity remains elusive in the 21st century. It is true that the “minor differences” the GC founders cited in 1860 are long forgotten. And how can anyone argue with “unity in essentials, liberty in nonessentials”?
But what is essential? New disputes replace old ones. On issues of sexuality, broad unity does not exist. And thus MC USA, the most ambitious attempt at Mennonite reconciliation since 1860, has only about 62,500 members.
Dreams of unity require adjustment. Bold visions like MC USA’s give way to new efforts of reconciliation that follow a call to faithfulness in smaller but important ways.
The reunion of Franconia and Eastern District conferences is a prime example. Franconia is one of the most dynamic conferences in MC USA, growing in racial-ethnic diversity and attracting congregations from as far away as Florida and California. Now it and Eastern District are modeling regional reconciliation in Pennsylvania alongside far-reaching geographical expansion.
No matter their size, groups of Christians in close-knit, mutually accountable relationships point the way to God’s reign of peace. These bonds of faith take new forms according to the needs of their time. In our era of division, reconciliation is most welcome.