AMBS forerunner began 70 years ago in Chicago

Seminary met a need for pastors trained in their own faith community

Nov 17, 2015 by and

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ELKHART, Ind. — In the spring of 1942, as World War II was intensifying, some American Mennonites were mobilizing to confront a growing challenge on the home front: the training of ministers and other church workers. It was a domestic problem with direct connections to the war.

Mennonite Biblical Seminary staff and faculty 1955-56. Back: C.J. Dyck, J.J. Enz, Marvin Dirks, Andrew Shelly. Front: Donovan Smucker, Magdalen Friesen, S.F. Pannabecker, Katie Andres, John T. Neufeld.

Mennonite Biblical Seminary staff and faculty 1955-56. Back: C.J. Dyck, J.J. Enz, Marvin Dirks, Andrew Shelly. Front: Donovan Smucker, Magdalen Friesen, S.F. Pannabecker, Sylvia Pannabecker, John T. Neufeld.

Among other things, the war has certainly revealed that our church leadership is not always sure of its ground so far as concerning the faith of our fathers,” wrote John D. Unruh, president of Freeman (S.D.) Junior College. “Many of us still believe that the need is so great that we should not necessarily be deferred by war conditions, hard as they may become.”

Added Lester Hostetler, the new pastor at Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton, Kan., “Throughout the country there is quite a shortage of ministers and ministerial students, and the postwar problems of the church will demand, more than ever, trained leadership.”

Unruh and Hostetler were part of a 14-member board charged with restarting a Mennonite seminary program. It was a long, arduous campaign, but they succeeded when Mennonite Biblical Seminary opened its doors in Chicago in September 1945, 13 years before it became part of what is now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

Sponsored by the General Conference Mennonite Church, it was the only American Mennonite seminary at the time. It also started at a critical juncture, according to historian and longtime GC leader Robert Kreider. The experiences of conscientious objectors during World War II had fostered in many of them a deep sense of Christian service.

“Those in wartime Civilian Public Service hearing a call to the pastorate wished for ministerial study within their faith community,” Kreider said. “Mennonite Biblical Seminary . . . offered that promise.”

CPS veterans such as Elmer Ediger, Erwin C. Goering and Esko Loewen would graduate from MBS and go on to distinguished careers in pastoral minis­try, missions and service, church administration and academia. Another student was Marvin J. Dirks, a GC missionary in China when the war broke out. He and his family were imprisoned by the Japanese for the duration. After his seminary studies, he returned to MBS as a professor.

House after house

MBS’s urban setting put church members squarely in the arena of race relations as the civil-rights movement was developing in the 1940s and ’50s.

“In South Chicago, a white middle class was moving out to the suburbs; blacks were moving in,” Kreider said. “As housing costs plunged, Mennonite Biblical Seminary could buy, at reasonable cost, house after house on Woodlawn Avenue.”

In the years immediately after its start, MBS purchased several residences for student housing and office space. The neighborhood was soon populated not only with MBS students and employees but other Mennonites. Kreider lived on Woodlawn while a doctoral student at the University of Chicago.

In 1951 the community created Woodlawn Mennonite Church, an early interracial Mennonite congregation. At its height, it was co-pastored by Delton Franz, a white MBS alumnus, and Vincent Harding, an African-American who would become a leading civil-rights champion.

While most Mennonites lived on Woodlawn, classes were held 11 miles away on the campus of the Church of the Brethren’s Bethany Theological Seminary. MBS was affiliated with Beth­any, which granted the degrees. MBS professors worked with the Bethany instructors as a practically seamless faculty.

MBS was the continuation of Witmarsum Theological Seminary in Bluffton, Ohio. Initially a department of Bluffton College, it was organized in 1921 as the first American Mennonite school to offer graduate-level theological education. Witmarsum closed 10 years later amid financial difficulties and broader changes in academia.

The board, however, never dissolved and sought to reopen the seminary before finally affiliating with Bethany. MBS remained in Chicago until 1958, when it relocated to Elkhart. The GC school and its Mennonite Church counterpart, Goshen Biblical Seminary, explored closer relations.

MBS and GBS, formed in 1946, proceeded to create Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, renamed Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 2012.


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