In the 21st century, “conservative” is wrapped in layers of often-ambiguous political, religious and cultural meanings. That’s a big reason why the Conservative Mennonite Conference this summer decided to use simply the initials CMC as its name. But in the early 20th century, the CMC employed the word as a precise description of who and what they were.
The group was originally Amish. Before the 1860s, there was only one Amish fellowship. But tensions developed, largely the result of worldly pressures to acculturate.
A series of ministers’ meetings, called Diener-Versammlungen, were held between 1862 and 1878 to try to address the problems. The Diener-Versammlungen were only marginally successful and ended with the emergence of two groups: the tradition-minded Old Order Amish and the more progressive Amish Mennonites.
Unlike the Old Order Amish, most Amish Mennonites built meetinghouses and aligned themselves with the former Mennonite Church, joining in the creation of mission and publishing enterprises and supporting Goshen (Ind.) College, the first MC educational institution.
Like their MC counterparts, most Amish Mennonites created area conferences. The first was the Indiana-Michigan Amish Mennonite Conference in 1888, followed by the Western (1890) and Eastern (1893) conferences. All three joined the Mennonite Church and in the early 20th century merged with MC area conferences.
But a number of congregations kept some distance between themselves and their more progressive sisters and brothers, choosing instead to remain unaffiliated. M.S. Steiner, a prominent Mennonite Church administrator in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is credited with naming this in-between group the Conservative Amish Mennonite Conference. “Amish Mennonite” suggested it wasn’t part of the Old Order Amish. “Conservative” meant it was different from the conference-organized Amish Mennonites.
A major difference was the Conservative Amish Mennonites’ commitment to Old Order-style plain dress. For example, women in Holmes County, Ohio, were required to wear shawls, bonnets and aprons with hems two inches shorter than the dresses. Men wore beards and straight coats. Some congregations in Iowa, Maryland and Pennsylvania mandated hooks and eyes, rather than buttons, on men’s straight coats until at least the mid-20th century.
At the same time, the Conservative Amish Mennonites embraced some progressive influences, especially missionary activity. “Do we believe that it is our duty to spread the gospel?” they asked themselves, and then answered their own question with an unmistakable yes: “Christ himself commanded it.”
The Conservative Amish Mennonite Conference, or CAMC, became a formal body in 1910 when five ordained men from Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania met at Pigeon, Mich., and agreed to “stand more closely together in the work of the Lord, to maintain peace and unity in the so-called Conservative Amish Mennonite churches.”
The second meeting was held two years later near Grantsville, Md., drawing 16 ordained men from Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The conference’s strong Amish identity began to wane after World War II. Ex-Old Order Amish were increasingly joining the Beachy Amish rather than the CAMC. The conference was more receptive to technological newness, such as automobiles and radio. It was also creating denomination-type structures, which was anathema to the solidly congregational Old Order Amish polity.
Furthermore, some members began to see Amish understandings, with their emphasis on tradition, as a barrier to spiritual revival. So in 1954, the ordained men, by a 77-percent vote, dropped Amish from the group’s name.
The change heralded a long-developing move away from traditional nonconformity. By the 1980s, nonconformity had become synonymous with evangelical theology, according to Nathan E. Yoder, author of Together in the Work of the Lord, a 2014 history of the conference. Requirements for attire faded away while the CMC embraced evangelicalism, such as declaring Scripture as inerrant and signing a 1991 statement on gender roles written by several conservative Christian groups.
This direction led to the creation in 1990 of the Support Group, composed of more conservative ministers. Their attempts to hold the CMC accountable failed, and the group withdrew in 1998 to form the Biblical Mennonite Alliance. It was the second schism over perceived progressive movements in the CMC. In 1957, several congregations, disturbed by changes in the conference, left to create the Conservative Mennonite Fellowship.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.