History: From Mennonite to Missionary

Apr 15, 2019 by

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North American Mennonite history is peppered with schisms prompted by disagreements over issues such as prayer meetings, revival meetings, conversion experiences and Sunday schools. Seven groups that split away in the mid- and late 19th century would wind up in a series of mergers, culminating in the creation of the Missionary Church, which is ob­serv­ing its 50th anniversary this year.

The first of these groups was the New Mennonite Church of Western Canada, created in 1849 when Daniel Hoch was silenced by the “Old Mennonite” Canadian Conference (Ontario). A minister at Vineland, Ont., he preached the importance of a conversion experience and introduced prayer meetings and other renewal initiatives borrowed from the evangelical movement of the time. That resulted in a division in the congregation and Hoch’s subsequent discipline.

Brenneman

Brenneman

The Canadian group combined with the Reforming Mennonite Society in 1875 to create the United Mennonites. The society had been organized the previous year when Daniel Brenneman of Indiana-Michigan Conference and Solomon Eby of the Canadian Conference were expelled. Brenneman was a widely known progressive, supporting English-language preaching, prayer meetings, four-part singing and more. Eby, meanwhile, was a staunch proponent of experiential faith. The two men had earlier developed a strong collegial relationship.

The United Mennonites existed until 1879, when they and the 20-year-old Evangelical Mennonite Society became the Evangelical United Mennonites. The Evangelical group began in 1859 when it separated from the East Pennsylvania Mennonite Conference over prayer meetings. The East Pennsylvania Conference was itself a splinter group that left Franconia Conference in 1847. It continues today as the Eastern District Conference of Mennonite Church USA.

The Evangelical United Mennonites became the Mennonite Brethren in Christ in 1883, following the addition of a group that left a Brethren in Christ splinter group over baptismal practices and revival meetings. The MBIC remained Mennonite in identity well into 20th century. But it changed its name to the United Missionary Church in 1947, evidence of its decreasing Anabaptist identity and increasing affinity for evangelicalism.

In 1969, the United Missionary Church merged with the Missionary Church Association, which originated among the Amish in the 1850s. Henry Egly, an Amish bishop near Berne, Ind., began preaching the importance of a conversion experience and regeneration. In 1866 he organized his own church.

Initially called simply the Egly Amish, it changed its name to the Defenseless Mennonite Church in 1908 and then to the Evangelical Mennonite Church in 1948. Its evangelicalism, however, led it to drop the Mennonite name in 2003 and become the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches.

In 1898, former members of the Egly Amish, plus a few from the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, led the founding of the Missionary Church Association. Unlike the other groups, the association never had Mennonite or Amish in its name.

Its driving force for many years was J.E. Ramseyer, who had been excommunicated by the Egly Amish for his teaching on the baptism of the Holy Spirit, premillennialism and baptism by immersion.

The Missionary Church was not immune to division. In 1947, as it changed its name, its Pennsylvania congregations split due to differences in polity and doctrine. The new group maintained the Mennonite Brethren in Christ name until 1959, when it rechristened itself the Bible Fellowship Church.

In 1987, the Missionary Church’s Canadian district and the U.S. districts became separate denominations. Six years later, the Canadians merged with the Evangelical Church of Canada to form the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada.

Today the U.S. Missionary Church has about 40,000 members in more than 400 congregations, mostly in the Midwest. Its headquarters are in Fort Wayne, Ind. The denomination’s college is Bethel College in Mishawaka, Ind. — not to be confused with MC USA’s Bethel in North Newton, Kan.

Yes, it’s complicated. As an article on the denomination’s website, mcusa.org, says: “Making sense of the Missionary Church has never been an easy task for outsiders.”

The Missionary Church’s history is an account of a twisting, turning journey of faith — one that, unfortunately, led the church away from Anabaptism.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.


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