This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

History: Confessing a weakness for humor

S.G. (Samuel Grant) Shetler (1871-1942) of Johnstown, Pa., was known for moving his audiences to tears one moment and laughter the next. This was natural, he said, because “the well of tears and the fountain of laughter lie close together.”

His son and biographer Sanford made it clear that while his father used humor while preaching he was opposed to “clowning in the pulpit,” which characterized the likes of Billy Sunday, the popular evangelist.

S.G. Shetler with daughters Goldie and Margaret, ca. 1911. Sandford G. Shetler, <i>Preacher of the People: A Biography of S.G. Shetler</i>
S.G. Shetler with daughters Goldie and Margaret, ca. 1911. Sandford G. Shetler, Preacher of the People: A Biography of S.G. Shetler

Shetler would have known the small book, Plain Teachings, published in 1876 by the venerable Ohio bishop John M. Brenneman. It contains a short chapter, “Christians Ought Not Laugh Aloud.”

Wise men scarcely smile, wrote Brenneman, citing numerous biblical texts that prohibit laughter. He shored up that conviction by noting the lack of evidence that Jesus ever laughed. We know, on the other hand, that Jesus wept.

And so, on several occasions, S.G. Shetler felt the need to confess his “weakness for humor.” Who could fail to appreciate slips of the tongue — or teeth — in the pulpit?

Abram Metzler of Martinsburg, Pa., the father of former publisher A.J. Metzler, was a popular evangelist across the Old Mennonite Church. In 1924 he held what would be his last series of meetings at Olive Mennonite Church west of Goshen, Ind. It was his last, because he caught a cold there, which developed into pneumonia and caused his death. While preaching at Olive one evening, he was struck by the genetic Metzler sneeze and launched his false teeth into the air. Quick as a cat; he caught his teeth in midair and shoved them back into place.

And then he tried to redeem his sermon. But he had lost his audience.

Finally, he said lamely, “I had some good things to say this week, but now the only thing you’ll remember is how I caught my teeth in midair.” He was right. This incident has long been remembered.

J.C. Wenger, who loved telling this story, did not tell one on himself.

As the story goes, he was traveling on the infamous Ohio Turnpike when he was stopped for speeding. (I know it’s infamous because I was stopped twice by the same trooper, but that’s a story for another time.)

As the officer, obviously Catholic — as you’ll soon see — approached the car, he noticed for the first time the plain-suited driver. Very quickly the officer, not sure whether he had committed a mortal or venial sin in the line of duty, repented: “Oh, I’m sorry, Father, I didn’t see it was you.” Not one to spurn God-given opportunities, the diminutive, plain-coated, J.C. Wenger extended absolution: “That’s OK, you are forgiven.”

And to conclude this delightful story using biblical language, “And he continued on his journey.”

Speaking of traffic violations, two Lancaster Mennonites were on their way to a board meeting. As was typical, they become so engrossed in solving the problems of their institution they were oblivious to the practical nature of their journey — until a piercing siren and flashing lights jolted them back to the reality of their excessive speed.

When the officer asked the driver where he was going in such a hurry, the driver, Abraham Horst, pointed to his passenger, Victor Weaver, and said, “I’m taking him to Philhaven Mental Hospital.” Quickly sizing up the situation, the officer said, “Get behind me, I’ll take you there.”

Might we resolve church differences more quickly, if we, with S.G. Shetler, would confess more often a weakness for humor?

John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.

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