Book review: On the Banks of Jacobs Creek

Oct 28, 2019 by

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For more than a century, Scottdale was known for the printed word. The southwestern Pennsylvania city was the location of the (Old) Mennonite Church’s Mennonite Publishing House, which produced books, periodicals, curricula, hymnals and more that were used throughout the church. Scottdale even was the site for the first MC general secretary’s office. As a result, it became a major center of denominational influence.

On the Banks of Jacobs Creek

On the Banks of Jacobs Creek

Its prominence, however, contrasted starkly with the relatively small size of the area’s Mennonite population. Other U.S. communities that developed as Mennonite institutional centers — Elkhart/Goshen, Ind., for the MCs; Newton, Kan., for the General Conference Mennonite Church; Hillsboro, Kan., for the Mennonite Brethren — enjoyed a critical mass of local congregations and constituents.

But at its peak in the 20th century, Scott­dale had only three Mennonite congregations with a total membership of more than 300. It’s easy to overlook them, being in the shadow of the publishing house.

Now author Daniel Hertzler provides illumination with On the Banks of Jacobs Creek: A History of the Scottdale Mennonite Churches. He brings a wealth of personal knowledge to the subject, having been an MPH employee for nearly 40 years — including serving as editor of the MC denominational magazine Gospel Herald in the 1970s and ’80s — and also pastored at one of the Scottdale-area congregations.

Mennonites started settling on both sides of Jacobs Creek in 1790 and gathered for worship at Al­verton to the north and Penns­ville to the south. They were considered one congregation. But a century later, the Mennonite community was in danger of dying out. In response, a centralized meeting house was built at Scottdale, about halfway between Alverton and Penns­ville, in 1893.

The land for the new Mennonite Church of Scottdale was donated by Jacob S. Loucks. The Loucks family made up a large portion of the little congregation, and Jacob’s brother Aaron had been ordained minister in 1892.

The combination of the new location and Aaron Loucks’ progressive ministry soon revitalized the Mennonite community. It was further enhanced in 1905 when, thanks largely to Aaron Loucks’ initiative, a private Mennonite publishing venture, the Gospel Witness Co., was established in Scottdale. Three years later it became the MC-owned and -operated Mennonite Publishing House.

Hertzler begins his history about 1940, documenting both the routine work of congregational life and a group of believers actively seeking to live out the Great Commission. The 1940 congregational meeting included reports on two extension Sunday schools, prayer meetings, tract distribution and adult and intermediate sewing circles. In 1950, the Mennonite Church of Scott­dale held summer Bible school at five locations with a total average attendance of 419. The number jumped to 481 the next year.

The two extension Sunday schools, started decades earlier, became local stand-alone congregations — North Scottdale Mennonite Church in 1934 and Kingview Mennonite Church in 1952. The congregations, just a mile apart, merged in 1969 when termites forced North Scottdale to find a new location. The Mennonite Church of Scottdale and Kingview joined together to create Scottdale Mennonite Church in 2003. Curiously, Hertzler doesn’t give a reason for such a significant move.

Easily the most poignant part of On the Banks of Jacobs Creek is about MPH’s struggles that led to its closure in 2011. Denominational concerns about MPH’s finances exacerbated the broader downward trends in religious publishing. The results were drastic cuts until the publishing house finally ceased operations.

This had a devastating effect on the Scottdale congregations, many of whose members worked at or had retired from MPH and had devoted much of their lives to the publishing ministry.

Hertz­ler gives voice to their pain. “I’m angry and disillusioned,” Hertzler quotes one employee and church member.

Yet for such an important place as MPH had in Scottdale Mennonite life, Hertzler gives it scant attention. The four pages devoted to MPH’s closure are the sum total about the relationships between the publishing house and the congregations, save for a couple of passing references to early pastors also being full-time MPH employees.

On the one hand, including so little about MPH allows Hertzler to focus virtually exclusively on the congregations. On the other hand, MPH’s near absence from the book means the absence of the most important factor in what makes the Scottdale story unique.

As one writer pointed out more than 50 years ago, the history of the Mennonite presence in Scottdale “parallels the history of Mennonite Publishing House. It is difficult to say what one would have been without the other.”

MPH drew Mennonite workers to Scottdale, who made it possible for the congregations to be the local witnesses they were for as long as they were. Without the publishing house, there very possibly would be no Mennonite presence in the area.

At the same time, MPH itself was also a witness, employing local non-Mennonites in an economically depressed region. In fact, the publishing house was one of only two Scottdale businesses to survive the Great Depression. The other was a coffin factory.

Apparently the dynamic of congregation-MPH relations will have to be addressed in another book.

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


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