History: Lancaster chooses its own path

Feb 12, 2018 by

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Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s divorce from Mennonite Church USA became official Jan. 1. The separation reflects the tensions that have plagued the denomination since its inception, but it says more about the conference than about MC USA.

In fact, as a staunchly conservative conference associated with the former Mennonite Church, Lancaster was even ambivalent about its earlier MC denominational relationships. The conference apparently isn’t the marrying kind, having spent all but 46 years of its three centuries of existence as an independent body of believers.

Paul Kraybill, left, and Orie O. Miller, Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities executives, shown here in 1964, reached beyond their Lancaster Conference roots. — Mennonite Church USA Archives

Paul Kraybill, left, and Orie O. Miller, Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities executives, shown here in 1964, reached beyond their Lancaster Conference roots. — Mennonite Church USA Archives

Prior to 1898, there was no Mennonite Church organized as a denomination — only a group of autonomous area conferences joined together by their recognition of each other as fellow members of the faith. Lancaster was the second-oldest of these.

But by the late 19th century, many were calling for a “general conference” of area conference representatives to address matters of common concern and encourage each other. The first one was held in 1898 at Wakarusa, Ind., inaugurating the Mennonite Church.

Lancaster, however, did not participate. It fiercely resisted progressive influences such as mission work, revival meetings and church-sponsored higher education. The new general conference, Lancaster feared, would interfere in the affairs of area conferences and encourage the progressivism the conference was opposing.

Lancaster gradually warmed to mission work, supporting Mennonite Board of Missions’ efforts in India, which started in 1899. In fact, two of MBM’s first three workers, W.B. Page and J.A. Ressler, were conference natives. But the wariness remained, and Lancas­ter’s bishops developed a laundry list of complaints. Among them:

  • Too many missionaries were educated at Goshen College, considered by conservatives to be a bastion of corrupting liberality.
  • Indian men converts were wearing mustaches, and the women weren’t wearing prayer coverings.
  • MBM workers were consorting too much with missionaries from other denominations, including holding joint evangelistic services.
  • It was “unwise to use resources to educate people who had not yet accepted the gospel.”

Such concerns led Lancaster to start its own overseas work, sending its first workers to Tanzania in 1934 under the auspices of the conference’s Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (now Eastern Mennonite Missions), which up to that point had undertaken only home missions. With foreign and domestic programs, Eastern Board, as it was popularly known, would grow in size to rival MBM.

Lancaster would enjoy virtually all the privileges of denominational membership, despite never formally joining the Mennonite Church. That changed in 1971, when, as part of a massive reorganization, the Mennonite Church made Lancaster (and Franconia and Virginia, which also had never joined) part of the denomination. The conference accepted the new relationship even though there was no “widespread enthusiasm for it,” according to historian John L. Ruth.

Some Lancaster members, however, were more broad-minded. Orie O. Miller, the longtime Mennonite Central Committee CEO and Eastern Board administrator, was instrumental in creating Mennonite Mutual Aid (now Everence). And Paul Kraybill, another Eastern Board executive, was the first MC general secretary after its 1971 restructuring.

Contributing to Lancaster’s ambivalence was simply its size. It has long been by far the largest area conference in the United States, with sizable staff and its own mission and service agency. Lancaster functioned in many ways as a denomination; affiliation added organizational complexity.

Lancaster’s doubts about its MC affiliation were evident in its handling of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, adopted in 1995 by the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church. Uncomfortable with the new document’s positions on women in leadership and on divorce and remarriage, the conference affirmed it but nevertheless allowed its congregations to instead use more conservative MC confessions from 1921 or 1963 as they saw appropriate.

When MC USA was born in 2001, all MC and GC area conferences had to decide whether to join. While all eventually did, Lancaster was one of the last when it did so in 2004. But in a move similar to the earlier Confession of Faith provision, the conference allowed its congregations to be members of Lancaster but not the denomination.

Since then, the denomination has been waylaid by disagreements over sexuality, church membership and ministerial leadership. Lancaster, already with little deep connection to the denomination and willing to act independently of it, was unhappy with how MC USA has handled the issues. The conference announced in late 2015 that it would withdraw by the end of 2017.

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

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