Elwood Yoder recently joined The Mennonite online’s blogging team. He teaches history in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He has taught high school history and social studies courses for 34 years, since 1988 at Eastern Mennonite High School. Elwood has written seven books, including congregational histories and historical novels. Elwood is Editor of Shenandoah Mennonite Historian, and he is also Editor of Today, a publication of Eastern Mennonite School. He writes a history column in the Virginia Mennonite Conference Pathways periodical.
Pastor Harold Miller of Trissels Mennonite Church in Broadway, Va., recently heard snippets of a 1948 revival at Eastern Mennonite College, and he decided to invite four men who had been students at the time to speak about their memories of that event. After a men’s Bible study in Harrisonburg, Va., at Park View Mennonite Church, March 15, 2016, which Pastor Miller taught, Myron Augsburger, Roy Kreider, Eugene Souder and Paul Swarr spoke about a revival that they experienced and the way it impacted their lives.
A renewal story from 68 years ago is more than academic—it may be instructive for the contemporary church and help provide a Spirit-led direction through the cross currents streaming through the Mennonite Church USA.
The revival began with a Saturday morning prayer meeting, October 23, 1948. Throughout the next week, students gathered for fervent prayer, sometimes long into the night, and they attended daily chapel services. The school had planned the week of revival, and encouragements appeared in the student newspaper to pray for these meetings.
J. Otis Yoder, revival week evangelist and a member of the EMC Bible faculty, called on students to pray for “a searching of the Holy Spirit,” and to “let no unconfessed sin remain.” During the Oct. 24-31 revival meetings, he invited students to prayer and encouraged new commitments. One morning during chapel the students shared publicly of their renewal experiences in their private prayer meetings the night before. Myron Augsburger remembers that the girls got up to share of their renewal experience before the boys could talk, and Yoder never got to speak because the students took so much time.
The revival had been facilitated because the students had a dedicated place to pray. Some years before the 1948 revival, books had been moved out of a third floor storage room in the Administration Building, and the secluded “upper room” was dedicated to prayer. Students and a few teachers prayed long into the night, confessing sin to one another and to God, and they sought renewal in their own lives, the EMC campus, and the wider church.
Located above the men’s dorm, a set of steps led to a small quiet room at the top, furnished with a circle of folding chairs. While attending the school, Don Jacobs had used the upper room, and he informed Roy Kreider about the room and its efficacy in prayer, so that when the revival of 1948 took place, Kreider and others understood the importance of the room during the campus revival.
Kreider, then age 23, wanted a deeper experience with God. He found a group of guys who were equally desirous of knowing God; they wanted to take prayer seriously and the study of God’s word. Kreider and others in the Upper Room had a spiritual hunger for things of God: “we were being prepared for things beyond our knowing.” Within five years of the revival, Roy and his wife, Florence, began a pioneering service term in Israel, through Mennonite Board of Missions, that lasted over 30 years.
Dean of Women, Evelyn E. King, felt that “the Spirit of the Lord moved among us in a mighty way,” and she experienced “the Lord in our midst through revelations of His power and faithfulness.” She wrote in the Gospel Herald [a predecessor to The Mennonite] with the hope that “the revival fires still burning brightly on our campus” would “spread and grow throughout the Church of Jesus Christ.”
As a result of the revival, many of the students dedicated their lives to church work in the Mennonite denomination. Paul Swarr indicated that the majority of those students involved in the 1948 revival became pastors and missionaries. Aaron King and his wife, Betty, for instance, did missions work in Latin America for many years, and Paul and Bertha Swarr served 30 years as missionaries in Israel.
Eugene Souder, vitally involved in the 1948 revival, and a member of the well-known Crusaders Quartet, has served a lifetime as a church planter, editor and pastor in the Mennonite Church. Souder said the revival, while he was 21, was a “move of the Spirit.” Souder indicated that this revival did not happen because he and his college friends were involved and somehow spearheaded the event. Rather, God was at work, Souder concluded, in a mighty way, and it was God who moved through the lives of these college students, in their Upper Room prayer time, their chapel experiences, their studies, their music, and their commitment to serve the church in the United States and beyond.
Historians look for elements of continuity while observing the natural contours of change in church and society. The Upper Room prayer meetings of the students and teachers in 1948 reveals a continuity in the story of Christianity and the church that may help members of Mennonite Church USA find a way forward in the times of change now upon us.
Photo: The administration building at Eastern Mennonite University (then College) in Harrisonburg, Va. Photo from Creative Commons/dyoder.