I Wish I'd Been There: Searching
by Mary Eleanor Bender
The time was August 1944, the place, Goshen College. The occasion
was a special session of the Mennonite General Conference called
because of conflict threatening the whole church. As World War
II was relentlessly altering the rest of the world, it was changing
Mennonites, who had had new and broadening experiences in Civilian
Public Service and overseas relief.
The problem was how to find unity between the old guard and
the new. More specifically, the questions at hand concerned differing
definitions of nonconformity and disagreement on whether General
Conference should have authority to discipline local conferences
noncompliant with its definitions.
Al Keim writes, "Conservatives saw such discipline as
a way of placing the burden on conference, and progressives saw
it as preemptive and lacking in pastoral and brotherly process.
Confusion overwhelmed the delegates. Tension mounted, and the
meeting reached an impasse."
Sanford Yoder, for sixteen years president of Goshen College
until his retirement in 1940, "quietly rose to the full
length of his six feet three," Guy Hershberger, a lay delegate,
wrote in 1985. In his gracious, irenic spirit, expressed through
his gentle but deeply resonant voice, he pointed to the real
reason for the impasse. The reason lay deeper than the rightness
or wrongness of any given point of view. It lay in the disintegration
of fellowship into mutual distrust, as each side ostracized the
"When Yoder sat down," continued Hershberger, "there
was deathly silence. Had a pin dropped, you could have heard
it - until a brother suggested a time of prayer." The delegates
knelt for an hour-and-a-half in that sultry August night. When
the prayer was over, the "discussion resumed; but this time
it was confession more than discussion. One brother confessed
that he had spoken unkind words against Sanford Yoder, and now
was asking forgiveness. Ever since that occasion this brother
has been a different man."
The next morning when the delegates met again, a softened
resolution from each side passed easily. The church was free
to carry out the work to which the postwar years called it.
I chose this watershed in twentieth-century Mennonite history
for this column not so much for its historical importance - although
that was critically decisive - as for the personal and lasting
impact it has had on me since as an adolescent I heard of it
the next day, and for its usefulness in current Mennonite divisiveness.
Members who are willing to loosen the grip of ego investments
in their attitudes and move toward the other side in response
to the love and grace of God, can usher in a new day.
For further consultation, see Al Keim's biography
of Harold Bender and Guy Hershberger's introduction to Edward,
the journals of Edward Yoder.
Mary Eleanor Bender, Goshen, Indiana,
was seventeen at the time of the conference. She taught at Hesston
College, 1953-55, and at Goshen College, 1955-87.