The changing face of conservatism

Dec 22, 2014 by

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Conservative Mennonite Conference is a body of 104 congregations with about 11,000 members. It was born in 1910 at Pigeon, Mich. Today its institutional center is at Rosedale, Ohio, where the church’s Bible college, mission organization and administrative office and archives are located. Despite its relatively small size, the CMC has been exceptionally active in the “the work of the Lord” and thoughtful in negotiating the tensions between separation from, and engagement in mission to, the outside world.

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.21.59 PMNathan E. Yoder, professor of history at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, has written a comprehensive interpretive history of the CMC, based upon exhaustive research in official church records, investigation of published and unpublished accounts by CMC members, oral interviews, and other sources.

This is a book about religious group change. The CMC originated in a great sorting out of Amish groups in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The CMC, originally known as Conservative Amish Mennonite, was on the conservative side of a liberal-conservative continuum, with the Old Order Amish on the traditionalist far right.

Throughout its history the CMC has been keenly aware of how its choices for separation and mission have been different from those of other Amish and Mennonites. For many years they associated most closely with the “Old” Mennonite Church and were listed in the MC directory. Many CMC students attended Eastern Mennonite College.

But the CMC resisted official union with the Mennonite Church and in the late 20th century became more separate from the larger denomination. The 2001 merger of the Mennonite Church with the General Conference Mennonite Church to form Mennonite Church USA was a decisive event. For the CMC it “sealed the irrelevance of that denomination as a partner in conversation or discernment.”

Yoder explains how the changing meanings of words such as “conservative” and “evangelical” marked the life of the church. As in all such situations of cultural change, there were notable ironies in rhetoric and behavior:

  • The founders created a new and separate conference in the name of “unity and peace.”
  • Their expressed intention to be nonpolitical yielded political attitudes opposed to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s.
  • The meaning of “conservative” shifted from holding onto markers of separation from the world — especially regulated dress — to accepting the theology and worship ways of modern American evangelicalism.

CMC members and congregations debated the changes at great length. After 1999 a group seceded from the CMC, with women’s coverings the tipping point. Over nine years 13 congregations with 1,344 members withdrew (11 percent to 13 percent of the total), mostly to form the Biblical Mennonite Alliance.

Yoder tells of these changes with respect and empathy. To make the story more personal and to give women more attention than they get in official church records, he includes brief biographies of church members and leaders.

One challenge for the author was to give a fair accounting of a spiritual crisis at Rosedale Bible Institute in 1989 and the years following when the school was beset with problems of how to minister to people with multiple personality disorder. The issue of male abuse of women gets some limited attention.

In the 1940s, influenced by experiences in World War II, the CMC undertook a “contemporary missionary mandate” that attracted the energies of many youthful volunteers and overseas missionaries who were quite eager to flee the old Amish separatist traditions. The new practice of revivalism and an understanding of salvation as personal conversion supported volunteer service and church-planting efforts in the United States.

Overseas mission work began in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Colombia. By the 1980s CMC overseas mission had adopted a remarkably progressive philosophy of encouraging local autonomy for the indigenous churches. The progressive influence from missionaries helped undermine traditional restrictions back home. In 1997 the CMC abandoned “the final visible staple of nonconformity” by no longer requiring minister’s wives to wear prayer coverings.

Yoder offers four “metaphors” to describe and interpret four overlapping stages in the CMC’s historical development. The first metaphor, for the early years, is a “family garden.” That is followed by a “mold in a foundry” that held social and theological patterns more securely in place. The third metaphor, for the 1950s and following, is a “trademark” or brand name that allowed greater flexibility and movement in the CMC’s identity. The fourth metaphor is “reading glasses” that describe separation from Mennonite identity and closeness to American evangelicalism.

Some readers may find Yoder’s interpretive metaphors a strange imposition upon the story. In my view, the metaphors rescue the book from implicit assumptions of triumphalism or of decline that often mark church history books. One senses here the writing of an effective teacher.

James C. Juhnke, of North Newton, Kan., is professor emeritus of history at Bethel College.


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