Big family begat bigger church

Jul 8, 2019 by

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Christian (1788-1846) and Christiana Buzzard Holdeman (1788-1865) had Mennonite church leaders in their family tree. Christian’s father had been a minister, while Christiana’s great-grandfather was the first Mennonite bishop in North America. The Holdemans’ children and grandchildren continued that legacy in the creation of a denomination and a congregation.

Christian and Christiana were natives of Bucks County, Pa., where they lived until 1825, when they moved to Columbiana County, Ohio. By then the family had grown to include eight children, and five more were added over the next nine years. The Holdemans relocated again two years later, this time to Wayne County, Ohio, where tragedy struck in 1846. Christian was killed while working with a team of horses, leaving Christiana a widow with five children still at home.

That prompted Christiana to leave Ohio in 1849, at age 61, for yet another new home, this time in Elkhart County, Ind. She went with her son John and family and a nephew, Christian Shaum. Christiana’s son George and daughter Catharine Landis had moved there a year earlier, part of an influx of settlers who would turn north-central Indiana into a Mennonite and Amish stronghold. By 1852, all of Christiana’s children except the oldest, Amos, had settled in western Elkhart County.

Holdeman Mennonite Church near Wakarusa, Ind., is one of multiple congregations founded by a family influential within several streams of Anabaptism. — Rich Preheim

Holdeman Mennonite Church near Wakarusa, Ind., is one of multiple congregations founded by a family influential within several streams of Anabaptism. — Rich Preheim

The Indiana Holdeman clan formed the nucleus of a new congregation near Wakarusa that would be named Holdeman Mennonite Church, which today is a member of Mennonite Church USA and has a membership of about 120. Of the congregation’s original 16 members, 14 were Holdemans. The group first met at the home of George Hol­deman, and the first meetinghouse was built in 1851 under the direction of another son, Joseph, who would later be ordained deacon. Their brother-in-law Jacob Freed served as a minister from 1851 to 1868.

Matriarch Christiana Holdeman died on March 11, 1865, at the age of 76. She was survived by 152 descendants and preceded in death by her husband, three children, 33 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
Among the predeceased were one son and three grandsons who died fighting in the Civil War. Often citing the moral necessity of eliminating slavery in the Confederacy, some in the church declared themselves patriotic Union backers and took up arms. One who did was Christiana’s son Jonas, who enlisted in 1864 after the death of his eldest son, Frederick, who had been captured and died of starvation in a Confederate prison camp. Incensed at the treatment Frederick received from the rebels, 40-year-old Jonas went to war and, just seven weeks later, was killed in battle in Tennessee. A total of 13 family members, including two sons-in-law, were  either drafted or enlisted.

The only child of Christian and Christiana Holdeman who didn’t relocate to Indiana was Amos, who remained in Wayne County, Ohio. His son John founded the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, more commonly known as the Holdeman Mennonites, in 1859. After a spiritual awakening, John sought to restore the Mennonite church (although not ordained). The lack of receptivity locally, however, led him to withdraw and form a new congregation, which included Amos. John’s mother, however, did not join the new body. For the next two decades it remained a small, struggling, splinter group.

Then in the mid-1870s, Mennonite immigrants from Russia began settling in south-central Kansas. Christian and Christiana’s son David, who had earlier moved to the area from Indiana, was concerned at their spiritual and material struggles. He invited his nephew John to minister among them, and he conducted his first Kansas meeting in the fall of 1878. John emphasized nonconformity, discipleship and human sinfulness.

His message was much better received than back East. Seventy people responded, were rebaptized and formed Lone Tree Mennonite Church near Mound­ridge. John was also successful in establishing congregations among Russian Mennonite immigrants in Manitoba. Strongly mission-minded, the denomination’s worldwide membership as of 2018 was more than 26,000.

Rich Preheim is author of In Pursuit of Faithfulness: Conviction, Conflict and Compromise in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference (Herald Press, 2016), from which this article is excerpted.


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