C. Henry Smith on Mennonite church splits and schisms

C. Henry Smith

In his 1941 book, The Story of the Mennonites, historian C. Henry Smith describes the 1847 church conflict that led to a group of Mennonites leaving Franconia Conference to create Eastern Pennsylvania District of Mennonites. This new group eventually launched the General Conference Mennonite Church. In describing this schism among Mennonites, Smith observed a broader pattern:

It will be observed that the questions in dispute did not concern themselves with fundamental Mennonite doctrine. Mennonite quarrels never do. The new party did not differ from the old in its belief in adult baptism, non-resistance, opposition to the oath, rejection of secret societies, and for a time even in the retention of footwashing. The chief distinction lay rather in a more tolerant attitude of the “News,” as they were called by the “Olds,” toward the non-Mennonite world, both political and religious. (p. 602-603)

The “News,” led by John H. Oberholtzer, went on to adopt such radical innovations as Sunday School.

The roots of our ruptures

Why are Mennonites so prone to church divisions?

Here is Smith on the deeper factors in our schismatic tendencies:

The Mennonites of America as well as those of Europe have been unusually susceptible to church divisions. For this there are several reasons. In the first place the Mennonite faith has always fostered extreme individualism. This spirit may make for strength of character, but at the expense of uniformity often. In the second place, the congregational form of church government and the lack of regular unifying conferences permitted scattered congregations to develop certain slight differences which later presented points of dispute when uniformity of action was desired for any particular purpose. Mennonites as a class were rural people, coming from the humble and simple walks of life, and not trained to subordinate non-essentials to the broader and more important aspects of life. Several divisions, too, were caused by the pure stubbornness of certain self-willed individuals of a quarrelsome disposition. (p. 595-596)

Source of C. Henry Smith image: C. Henry Smith introduced to new generation of university students, Bluffton Icon, February 5, 2015.

Comments (2)

  1. Phil Wood

    I won’t gloss over a major blight on the Anabaptist record. It seems to run contrary to all we value in peaceable community relations that Mennonites have divided with impunity. I wonder though, what is the difference between a Mennonite schism and, for example, internal strife in a Roman Catholic setting. Is it any less schismatic for Dominicans and Franciscans to anathematise and murder one another, than for Mennonites to part commpany over separation from the world? Does it count as ‘unity’ that one division is contained under an institutional umbrella, where the other flows from a congregational model?

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  2. Delmer B. Martin

    Mennonites leaders in the past were really good at discerning the serious issues that were in the hearts and minds of their members. Members and families in all of those old congregations had a much closer relationship than most all of our larger modern Mennonite congregations have nowadays.

    I feel the old schisms were caused by the following two problems The conservatives were too conservative and the progressives were too progressive (all at the same time) At each and all of the major schisms, valid arguments came from both sides as dispute/debate was initiated…but at the point of separation/expulsion/schism I find there was a lack of CHRISTIAN LOVE on both sides and for “orders sake” they simply separated. A critical thing to keep in mind is, that in those old Mennonite congregations in all three of the big conferences, communion would often NOT be held in the affected congregations till there was peace in “their whole congregation- every man and woman unified and at peace” so I am certain that lack of partaking in communion would tend to really panic/put pressure on those poor folks.

    Using hindsight it seems clear to me that none of those old schisms/separations should have actually happened. Satan laughed when he was able to get his way. On the other hand, in the wicked modern world and the Spiritually weak congregations we experience nowadays, (many fake and lukewarm Christians) it is clear to me that the SPIRITUAL WARFARE is intensifying at an alarming pace. Nowadays the modern problem is simply a reverse of the old days. The modern Mennonites of today are all caught up with the fact that the great commission was sadly neglected in the past and so are trying to make up for lost time by being oh so “politically correct” and “all inclusive” Satan is laughing once again…he is the great deceiver and he knows his time is short.

    I must confess what I have found with both the Old Order Mennonites and the modern Mennonites leads me to one conclusion, we must be Christians FIRST and Mennonites secondarily (if we have time left) and we must focus more on the Bible and Genuine Christian Love and (not so much our doctrine and our ordinances and the things that have given us a good name in the past). We must remember that both satan and Jesus Christ came here to create division. (one with Gods Love and the other with hate for God)

    I have tried so hard, to be even half as good a Mennonite as all my forefathers were, but now after many many years I must confess that I am just a prodigal son and a fellow pilgrim doing my best to be A TRUE CHRISTIAN based on THE BIBLE while constantly being reminded how critical Gods Grace is to our life everlasting.

    I associate daily and am surrounded for miles in every direction with many Old Mennonites and New Mennonites and I think the Old Order group is too ordinance oriented and the New Mennonites are too worldly.I accept that the two groups (MY people) have really strong strengths and weaknesses and I personally was torn in the middle for many, many years, and both groups are drifting further and further apart. Do not get me wrong in this response, I love Mennonites, especially the dear older wiser ones, since most of them really do “act” like Christians. Mennonites in the past have been recognized among the most honest and trustworthy and hardworking people in both Canada and the USA…but I am afraid (very afraid) satan is focused on attacking the remnant of “good hearted” groups of people en-mass nowadays using BOTH divisions and false hearted unity, all at the same time!

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