In 1920, the Russian Mennonites’ world was in upheaval. Civil war had been raging for three years, creating political and social chaos and leaving the country’s Mennonites impoverished, hungry and fearing for their future. Their brethren in North America responded by founding Mennonite Central Committee, putting aside their sectarianism to come together to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Despite that appearance of unity, however, turmoil was also churning among U.S. Mennonites. The same year that MCC was born, Goshen College named Irvin R. Detweiler as its third president in three years. The instability in leadership reflected the fact that Goshen was becoming a flashpoint over acculturation and what it meant to be Mennonite in a changing environment. The tensions eventually led to Goshen’s closure for the 1923-24 academic year.
MCC’s creation and Detweiler’s appointment were indicators of things to come over the next 100 years. MCC would become one of Mennonites’ greatest success stories, one of a number of institutions formed to better witness to the world.
But, as Goshen’s woes demonstrated, there was upheaval when the world made inroads into the church and threatened conventional understandings of faith.
Mennonites, of course, had faced such challenges before, with positive and negative results. But the rate and scope of change during the century was unsurpassed, and by 2020, the faith and its adherents looked vastly different.
The 1920s and ’30s were marred by hostility that change generated. This was particularly true in the Mennonite Church, where progressives pushed for more engagement with the world. Conservatives feared that would erode Mennonite distinctives, such as regulation attire. Biblical inerrancy, premillennialism, science and a myriad of other issues became sources of dispute, often putting Mennonite colleges and publishing houses squarely in the conservatives’ crosshairs and planting seeds for further conflict.
But there were positive developments as well. To celebrate the 400th birthday of Anabaptism, German Mennonites held the first Mennonite World Conference. And U.S. Mennonites became more active in their peace pursuits. In the 1920s, the three historic peace churches — Brethren, Mennonites and Quakers — began meeting together, which helped lay the foundation for alternative service during World War II. Meanwhile, mission work attracted church members’ attention — and money. By 1929, according to one report, Mennonites gave twice as much per capita than other Protestants to overseas mission.
In the wake of the combative 1920s and ’30s, World War II ushered in an era of great vitality for American Mennonites.
In 1944, Goshen College professor Harold S. Bender delivered his presidential address to the American Society of Church History on “The Anabaptist Vision.” His speech would become an enduring definition of Anabaptism.
Also in 1944, the college began offering a graduate divinity degree, creating Goshen Biblical Seminary. The General Conference Mennonite Church’s Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Chicago began the next year. Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif., opened its doors in 1955.
GBS and MBS would join efforts as Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) in Elkhart, Ind., in 1958, while MBBS became Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in 2010.
Numerous other institutions were also founded during and after the war, such as Mennonite Mutual Aid (1945), Mennonite Medical Association (1948), Mennonite Disaster Service (1950), Mennonite Economic Development Associates (1952) and voluntary service programs.
But the single most influential institution of the era was Civilian Public Service. During the First World War, both the U.S. government and Mennonite conscripts were unprepared, as there was no alternative service option for conscientious objectors.
So in the 1930s the historic peace churches started planning and advocating for a national alternative service program, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved in 1940. CPS allowed draftees opposed to participation in war to do work of “national importance.”
By the time CPS ended in 1947, 4,665 Mennonite young men had worked in agricultural, environmental, mental health and other projects. For many it was a horizon-broadening experience — their first time away from home and first interaction with Mennonites from other groups. In addition to their assigned work, the CPS men received instruction in Mennonite/Anabaptist beliefs that would rival a college course. But CPS wasn’t just for men. About 300 women worked with male conscientious objectors in eight psychiatric institutions.
The program’s real impact happened when the CPS workers came home. Infused with energy, commitment to their faith, self-confidence and tremendous practical experience that belied their youth, they sought to continue to put their faith in action. Many become pastors, administrators of church institutions and academics at church-related schools.
One of CPS’s greatest legacies is mental-health care. By war’s end, some 1,500 CPSers had served in more than two dozen mental-health facilities, where they were shocked at the poor treatment the patients received. It turned out to be a calling for continued work by Mennonites. Under the auspices of MCC, which had administered the Mennonite CPS camps, the first Mennonite psychiatric facility, Brook Lane Frame, opened at Leitersberg, Md., in 1947. It was followed by Kings View, Reedley, Calif., in 1951; Prairie View, Newton, Kan., in 1954; and Oaklawn, Elkhart, Ind., in 1963.
The postwar period also saw MCC come to the aid of Russian Mennonites. Thousands fled oppression and persecution and became refugees in Europe. MCC resettled more than 5,000 in South America in 1947-48.
Mission bears fruit
Change wasn’t limited to North America, as the international Mennonite community underwent tremendous change. For the first half of the 20th century, the Mennonite church was mostly found in the United States, Canada and Europe, with a presence in a handful of other countries, mostly due to Western mission efforts.
But the years following World War II heralded a transformation. The 1950s saw the emergence of 20 national denominations in 20 countries. Another 18 groups in 12 countries were born in the 1960s. Much of the change was due to an increase in mission activity, which resulted in new African, Asian, Caribbean and Latin American Mennonites to challenge and enrich a fellowship that had been almost exclusively white. By the 1990s, fewer than half the world’s Mennonites lived in the United States, Canada and Europe.
Also contributing to the growth in geographic diversity was the relocation of white, Western Mennonites, primarily to Latin America. The relocation of the Russian refugees contributed significantly to this dynamic. But some Mennonites were staunchly traditional, conservative groups, such as the Old Colony Mennonites, moving to minimize cultural and governmental intrusion.
Civil rights shortfall
Like most Americans, U.S. Mennonites felt the tumult of the 1960s. One arena of controversy was the civil rights movement, which, unfortunately, drew scant support from Mennonites. This despite supporters who believed their faith’s emphasis on peace and nonconformity demanded they wholly throw their weight behind the push to end racial injustice.
An important activist was Mennonite pastor Vincent G. Harding. He became acquainted with Anabaptism while a doctoral student at the University of Chicago in the mid-1950s and started attending the city’s Woodlawn Mennonite Church, an interracial congregation. In 1957, Harding accepted an invitation to serve as co-pastor, alongside Delton Franz, a white man. In 1961, Harding and his wife, Rosemary, moved to Atlanta to start an MCC unit focusing on civil rights activism.
But by the mid-1960s, Harding had grown discouraged and was easing out of the Mennonite church. In what turned out to be a farewell address, he spoke at the 1967 Mennonite World Conference assembly at Amsterdam, criticizing Mennonites for their indifference to “the explosive world of color and revolution.” Harding remained an activist while teaching history at several universities as well as Iliff Theological Seminary in Denver, leaving Mennonites devoid of his influence.
Passive or active?
Another challenge to Mennonites was a redefinition of what it meant to follow the gospel of peace. In contrast to passive nonresistance, in the 1950s some proposed a more activist form of peacemaking, one that moved beyond the church to engage society.
When the Vietnam War escalated, the pages of Mennonite publications were filled with emotional debate. In The Mennonite, the magazine of the General Conference Mennonite Church, editor Maynard Shelly asked, “Is a quiet, passive witness enough? Should not Christians do more to stem the tide of war?” He posited that Mennonites should “give attention to the political problems of peace.”
But the fundamentalist Sword and Trumpet, while acknowledging war was wrong, reflected a more traditional position, arguing that the separation of church and state meant the two operated in “distinctive spheres, with neither reaching across with a heavy hand into the affairs of the other.”
In 1969, both the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church controversially adopted resolutions supporting nonregistration for the draft as compatible with Christian faith. Some nonregistrants fled to Canada to avoid punishment in the United States. Also in 1969, the Mennonite Brethren rejected a proposed statement calling for a more activist response to the war.
Women in the pulpit
Changes also affected understandings of women’s roles, as GC and MC women began holding positions on area conference and denominational boards and committees. The first woman minister came in 1973, when Emma Sommers Richards was ordained in the Mennonite Church. Two years later, Marilyn Kauffman Miller became the first woman ordained in the General Conference Mennonite Church. Today women in pastoral ministry are commonplace in Mennonite Church USA. U.S. Mennonite Brethren restrict lead pastoral positions to men, while Canadian MBs affirm women for all pastoral roles.
Harding, Richards and Miller, who each pastored city congregations, reflected the urbanization of the church. A 1972 survey of four Mennonite denominations plus the Brethren in Christ found 35 percent of their members lived in cities. By 1989, 48 percent of church members of the five denominations resided in urban areas.
Merger and decline
Urbanization, race relations and women in leadership were not the only factors that reshaped the Mennonite landscape during the last 100 years. North American Mennonitism also structurally realigned. Some of the changes were testimonies to Christian unity. In 1945, the Central Conference of Mennonites, a small, independent denomination of Amish origin, became an area conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church. In 1960, the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren joined the larger Mennonite Brethren.
But the most significant change was yet to come. In 2002, the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church, each a U.S.-Canadian denomination and the two largest North American Mennonite denominations, completed more than a decade of exploration to form Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.
The original plan was to create one denomination, but that was eventually scuttled in favor of the two national structures. National considerations also prompted the binational General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches to split into separate U.S. and Canadian conferences in 1999.
The MC-GC merger, however, has been less than an unmitigated success. It underscored significant disagreements in theology and practice among the merging groups. By 2018, four area conferences — including the largest, Lancaster — plus a number of congregations in other area conferences withdrew from MC USA. That has contributed to a decline from 114,000 members in 2003 to 62,000 today.
The primary reason for the losses was disagreement about affirmation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. While MC USA officially states sex is reserved for traditional marriage, a growing segment of MC USA was accepting LGBTQ members and even pastors.
While MC USA and other mainstream groups have seen memberships drop, the Amish and other Plain Anabaptists have experienced a population explosion. The Old Order Amish in particular have seen their numbers skyrocket. In 1992, they had a U.S. population of 125,850. By 2018, they had more than doubled, to 324,900. Other horse-and-buggy groups also report increases.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the church began taking more seriously cases of ministerial sexual misconduct, resulting in the discipline of a number of pastors and other leaders. The most high-profile case was the saga of John Howard Yoder. His The Politics of Jesus was published in 1972 to great acclaim and brought recognition to the AMBS professor, and Mennonites by extension, from beyond Mennonite circles as an influential theologian.
While Yoder rose in prominence, he was dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse. AMBS officials tried to address the charges while at the same time keeping them secret, which only allowed Yoder to continue in his ways. He finally was forced to resign from AMBS in 1984, and his ministerial credentials were suspended in 1992.
In the 2010s, AMBS and Mennonite Church USA initiated a healing process, including conducting an in-depth investigation into Yoder, bringing to light much about his sexual abuse and the seminary’s and church’s ineffective attempts to bring him to account. The results were published in Mennonite Quarterly Review in 2015. AMBS officially apologized later that year.
Dynamics of change
Many of the changes during the past 100 years, as difficult as they may have been, have benefited Anabaptist-Mennonite faith and practice. The church has grown beyond a narrow, ethnically defined, Western-centric community into a multicultural global fellowship.
Much more has changed than the demographics and geographical distribution of membership. Mennonites’ treasured peace position has broadly evolved from simply not participating in war into a proactive pursuit of justice for all of God’s creation, including women, people of color and the environment.
Yet for all that has been accomplished, there is still much more that requires work, as the current Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing climate crisis demonstrate.
But Mennonites know they must also take care about what changes to avoid. As the conservatives of a century ago warned, social, political and religious acculturation can threaten faithfulness. Yet engagement with the world opens the way for witness and service. May the Anabaptist people, filled with hope, walk together as the global body of Christ in the next century.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind., and a former MWR associate editor.