The conference that sought its own end

Feb 29, 2016 by

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Rare is the organization that exists with an eye to its own termination. Yet that’s a big part of the story of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, a small but energetic denomination that was “ready to unite with any conference of Mennonite churches where such union can be achieved agreeable to both parties,” according to the KMB constitution.

The group finally went out of existence in 1960 when it joined the Mennonite Brethren. It was the last of at least 10 times the KMB had explored affiliating with others during its 91-year history.

Gnadenau Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church, Hillsboro, Kan., 1931. The loss of the mother congregation hastened the KMB merger with the Mennonite Brethren.

Gnadenau Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church, Hillsboro, Kan., 1931. The loss of the mother congregation hastened the KMB merger with the Mennonite Brethren. — Mennonite Library and Archives

One reason for all those attempts was the KMB’s small size. Even at its peak, membership never topped 2,000, and money was always tight to do the work of the church.

At the same time, the KMB was passionate about spreading the gospel. With the assistance of several Brethren in Christ members, the denomination established an orphanage at Hillsboro, Kan., which evolved into one of the first Mennonite homes for the aged in North America. In the early 20th century, the KMB started work among African-Americans in North Carolina and opened a mission in Chicago in 1915. In 1951, the denomination counted one foreign mission worker for every 100 church members.

The KMB was born in 1869 among Mennonites in the Russian Crimea (“Krimmer” is German for Crimean), building on the renewal movements that had produced the Kleine Gemeinde in 1812 and the Mennonite Brethren in 1860.

It was in the Crimea that the church had its first dalliance with another Mennonite group, a contingent of former Mennonite Brethren called the “Breadbreakers.” They wouldn’t slice bread but only broke it, because that’s what Christ did, as recorded in the Bible. Any chance of a merger was sunk when the KMB rejected the Breadbeakers’ exuberant worship style.

The entire KMB fellowship was part of the great migration of Russian Mennonites to North America in the 1870s, settling near Hillsboro. Also settling locally were Mennonite Brethren, and soon afterward the two groups held discussions about uniting. But they stalled over disagreements about mode of baptism, worship style, millennialism and leadership.

Nevertheless, the KMB and MB denominations would periodically entertain the possibilities of merger over the next 75 years. Meanwhile, the KMB would also consider joining with other groups. An 1880 meeting with John Holdeman, founder of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (also known as the Holdeman Mennonites), revealed points of common belief but also disagreements that scuttled the idea.

In 1895, KMB representatives joined other evangelical-minded Anabaptists in an ambitious attempt to create a new denomination. Called the United Mission Conference, it also included people from the Mennonite Breth­ren, Brethren in Christ, Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now part of the Missionary Church) and the General Conference Mennonite Church. The big dreams, however, quickly fizzled out.

Attention turned to the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (now the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches) in the 1920s. But once again, nothing came of it as the two groups couldn’t agree on baptismal practices. In the late 1940s, the EMB and the Evangelical Mennonite Church (now the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches) began an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to merge, which the KMB briefly considered joining.

By then, an invitation to unite with the Mennonite Brethren was receiving serious consideration. The KMB had earlier adopted Tabor, the MB college in Hillsboro, as its official school of higher education and had a cooperative arrangement with the MB mission board. So a formal merger seemed like a logical next step.

But negotiations proceeded in fits and starts. Ironically, one the biggest boosts came with the departure of the original American KMB congregation. The immigrants built their first meetinghouse, a sod building with a thatched roof, in the fall of 1874, shortly after they settled in south-central Kansas. Three years later, a permanent wood structure was erected, and Gnadenau KMB Church was incorporated.

By the 1940s, Gnadenau’s membership was declining, and the group began merger discussions with Lehigh MB Church, another small congregation nearby. Gnadenau subsequently became a fervent proponent of a united conference. But when the congregation felt the KMB was dragging its feet, it withdrew from the conference in 1954 and joined with Lehigh to form Gnadenau MB Church. (It later moved into Hillsboro and changed its name to Parkview MB Church.)

The shock of losing its mother congregation helped energize the KMB in its merger talks. Its constitutional goal was finally achieved in 1960. At the MB centennial celebration in Reedley, Calif., on Nov. 14, the KMB became part of the Mennonite Brethren and faded away.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.

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