Could conformity be enforced?

Apr 28, 2014 by

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The Mennonite Church, after being immersed in turmoil for decades, was barreling toward a potentially catastrophic showdown. With implications for unity, discipline, polity, identity and biblical interpretation looming, the very soul of the church could be at stake.

Men and women gather around a picnic table at the Young People’s Institute in 1942 at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Mount Pleasant, Pa. — Mennonite Church USA Archives - Goshen

Men and women gather around a picnic table at the Young People’s Institute in 1942 at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Mount Pleasant, Pa. — Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen

The year was 1944, and the primary, although not the only, issue was attire, such as prayer coverings, straight coats and jewelry. In general, worldly fashions were considered antithetical to Mennonite Church understandings of Scripture.

What MC members wore and didn’t wear was among the most important hallmarks of the faith. Some believed prescribed attire was what made them Mennonite. Others argued that nonresistance, community, mutual aid and other tenets of the faith did not depend on a particular style of clothing.

Those were the church members that conservatives, who fully ascended to denominational power in the 1920s, wanted to rein in — or push out. When their efforts lacked success over the next two decades, leadership called for stronger measures.

At the Mennonite Church’s biennial general conference in 1941, delegates authorized a committee to take steps to combat the problem. At the 1943 gathering, the committee declared that attire, as well as holding life insurance and union membership, and going to the theater, should be tests for participation in the Lord’s Supper and even for church membership. This was a radical departure from the prevailing practice of area conferences making those decisions individually. The committee further proposed that all conferences state their willingness to abide by such standards or forfeit their denominational membership.

To provide more time for deliberation, a special delegate session was scheduled for the next year at Goshen College in Indiana. There was a certain irony to the location. Neighboring Illinois Conference was considered one of the most liberal offenders in the church, and its young women who attended Goshen often chafed under the school’s requirement to wear prayer coverings, which they didn’t have to do back home. Illinois was on the chopping block, and delegate action in Goshen could produce an unprecedented rending of the denominational fabric.

There might be other effects, too, such as determining the power of the general conference. Renowned churchman H.S. Bender, among others, argued that it was created purely as an advisory body, not a legislative or disciplinary one. This was a counter-argument to conservatives’ push for the general conference to be doctrinal judge and jury. Sanford G. Shetler, one of the staunchest and most outspoken conservatives, placed blame for the state of affairs in part on a “lack of genuine Holy Spirit power in our church administration.”

S.C. Yoder, however, had a different explanation. He had been hired as president of Goshen College in 1923, after tumult in the church led to the school’s closing for a year. Yoder proceeded to guide Goshen back to health and stability before stepping down in 1940. He had been the rare moderate in church leadership — both conservative and progressive enough to be accepted by those on both sides of the spectrum.

On the assembly’s last evening, Yoder stood up and made one of the most influential yet simple presentations in Mennonite Church annals: “You ask the reason for our situation? I’ll tell you the reason. It is because fellowship has broken down. . . . This is the reason for distrust and tension in the church.”

The response was incredible. A prayer service erupted, with much confession and forgiveness by members on all sides, that ran late into the night. One participant commented, “Whatever is done tomorrow will have little meaning. The purpose of the special session of general conference was achieved this evening.”

The next day, before returning home, the delegates overwhelmingly approved the committee’s proposal. But it was simply a perfunctory action. The conference had featured plenty of tension-reducing Bible study, prayer and discussion. Yoder’s message then definitively drained away the threatening heavy-handedness of the proposal. Although adopted, it was never applied.

Paul Erb, the new editor of the denomination’s Gospel Herald and another moderate, was effusive about the assembly. He wrote that while the church will always have problems, the Goshen delegates demonstrated an ability to address them. He summarized: “There was a feeling, not that any group had won a victory, but that the Lord had.”

Rich Preheim, of Elkhart, Ind., is a freelance writer and historian.


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