Reflections on the History
All Believers, fathers,
of the General Conference Mennonite Church
by Steve Estes
As well as children, sisters, brothers,
Be always loyal to the LORD,
Do not allow anything or anybody
To separate you from the LORD,
Whom we know,
Follow Him, our morning-star.
This is the first verse of a poem originally
composed in German by Henry Ellenberger (1784-1869), a Mennonite
minister ordained in 1812. In 1850, at the age of 67 years, Ellenberger
left the Rhenish Palatinate in Germany and migrated to Lee County,
There on the prairies of Iowa, with people like Henry Ellenberger
and with a conviction to "be always loyal to the LORD,"
the General Conference Mennonite Church began. These south German
settlers in southeastern Iowa had been part of the South German
Mennonite Conference and in 1853 two little Mennonite congregations
at West Point and Franklin Prairie decided they needed something
like it and adopted a common constitution. On March 21, 1859
they were prompted by an urgent sense of call to accomplish something
for home and foreign missions. They recognized that only in united
action could good results in mission be secured and called a
meeting on the second day of Pentecost, 1860 in the German Methodist
Church in West Point, Iowa. Other Mennonite churches were invited
"for the purpose of considering ways and means for the unification
of all Mennonites of North America."2
As one of the leaders, Jacob Krehbiel
I (1802-1864)3 said:
May the Lord lend his blessing to
this small beginning, that eventually a common bond of brotherhood
bind all our Mennonite communities to work in unity that the
brethren living in isolation may receive the pure gospel.
John Oberholtzer (1809-1895) was
a minister separated from the Franconia Conference in 1847 and
founder of the East Pennsylvania Conference of the Mennonite
Church. Since 1856 he had advocated a "union of all the
[Mennonite] churches in America."4 He
published an announcement about the upcoming meeting in his periodical
Das Christliche Volksblatt on April 20, 1859. He rejoiced
that the western brothers and sisters were seeking to "blow
the ashes from the glimmering coals that the flame of the Lord
The next year "Father" Oberholtzer traveled the hundreds
of miles form Pennsylvania to Iowa to attend and chair the first
session of the General Conference Mennonite Church held on May
28-29, 1860. But first, Sunday, May 27, 1860 was Pentecost 6 and someone described the moving communion
service held that day:
In observance of this occasion as
also for a preparation for the unification deliberations which
were to begin on the day following the Lord's Supper was celebrated.
The visitors from abroad [the Pennsylvanians, that is] also took
part in this. To be assembled under these peculiar circumstances
could not fail to bring the hearts of those sincere Christians
into closer fellowship; being consciously reminded that all have
but one and the same Lord.
The first resolution of this meeting
of five little congregations declared: "That all branches
of the Mennonite denomination in North America, regardless of
minor differences, should extend to each other the hand of fellowship."7 And "all who hold to the fundamental
doctrine of our confession, reach to each other the hand of fellowship
and overlook those minor points wherein salvation is not to be
This was the basis of unification: "the fundamental doctrines
of the denomination . . . which we with Menno base solely upon
the Gospel as received from our Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles."9 The union was to be conformable to I Corinthians
12:12-27: "All of you are Christ's body, and each one is
a part of it!"10
And the reason for this union? "That hereafter Home and
Foreign Mission shall be carried on according to ability by our
denomination!" And education and publication were to resource
this united church for its mission.11
"Unification for mission!" could have been their motto.
With this vision for mission the "hand of fellowship"
extends across the trajectory of these 137 years from a few south
Germans and Pennsylvanians to a Vietnamese Mennonite Church in
Winnipeg; from the prairies of Iowa to the sub-continent of India
and beyond. And some have left to seek the place for them where
salvation might be found.
After the first conference in 1860 John Carl Krehbiel (1811-1886)12 wrote of his attendance there:
I must confess that the Pentecostal
days which our heavenly father permitted us to enjoy will remain
as an especially bright place in my memory of the past. For seemingly
we were taken by the unifying spirit of God and together lifted
to Tabor's height. Who would censure us for being filled with
the wish to stay the flow of time, saying with the disciples:
`Lord it is good for us to be here.'
The flow of time is not stayed. God's
spirit is still at work among us. It is good for us to be the
General Conference Mennonite Church. It is good for us to be
wherever it is that God leads. The bright places of our memories
of what it means for us to be the General Conference Mennonite
Church are bright because of the places in which the flame of
the Lord glimmers in our churches reflecting the light of the
When Henry Ellenberger wrote of Jesus Christ as the morning star
he surely knew that the same planet that we see as the morning
star is also the one that we see as the evening star. And in
this time of the General Conference Mennonite Church, Jesus Christ
is the evening star leading us to new life. He is giving us these
"Pentecostal days" in which to be loyal to Him, and
is sharing with us the unity of His spirit that we are "all
Christ's body, and each one is a part of it." Jesus Christ
is giving us the opportunity to extend the hand of fellowship
a little further in the Mennonite family, and is reminding us
that we have "but one and the same Lord." He is challenging
us to extend the "hand of fellowship" a little bit
further to our neighbors, to the stranger and to the enemy. He
is reminding us to remember and proclaim the glorious deeds of
the Lord, that we are being transformed in Christ. We have a
mission that we cannot do alone: to proclaim salvation-- a salvation
that we proclaim by being "Christ's body and each one is
a part of it." This is mission that we live when we "follow
Him, our morning-star." AMEN.
Steve Estes presented this meditation at a communion service
at the General Conference Triennial Session, Winnipeg, Manitoba,
July 6, 1997. Steve is a chaplain at Meadows Mennonite Home,
Eureka, Illinois, and a member of the Central District Historical
and maintained by John E. Sharp
Raid, Henry Ellenberger: Pastor, Poet, Pioneer, Organizer
of the Zion Mennonite Church, 1851 (Bluffton, Ohio: Howard
Raid, 1976) gives a succinct and informative account of the life
and ministry of Henry Ellenberger. Ten of his poems are included
in English translation. The verse quoted here is from the poem
"Words of Farewell" which was originally printed in
2 H.P. Krehbiel, The History of the General
Conference of the Mennonites of North America (Canton, Ohio:
By the Author, 1898), pp. 30, 53; Samuel Floyd Pannabecker, Open
Doors: The History of the General Conference Mennonite Church,
Mennonite Historical Series, no. 11 (Newton, Kansas: Faith and
Life Press, 1975), pp. 42-44. The Franklin Prairie congregation
is now the Zion Mennonite Church, Donnellson, Iowa and the West
Point congregation discontinued in the 1880's.
3 Das Christliche Volksblatt, 20 April 1859, p. 78 quoted in
Krehbiel, History of the General Conference, p. 35 and
in Pannabecker, Open Doors, p. 45.
4 Krehbiel, History of the General Conference,
pp. 20-21 gives an English translation of John H. Oberholtzer's
proposal which appeared in the editorial columns of Das Christliche
Volksblatt in 1856.
5 Das Christliche Volksblatt, 20 April 1859, p. 78 quoted in
Pannabecker, Open Doors, p. 45.
6 Krehbiel, History of the General Conference,
p. 52. John H. Oberholtzer is referred to as "Father Oberholtzer"
in Cornelius J. Dyck's book, Twelve Becoming: Biographies
of Mennonite Disciples from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century,
(Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1973), pp. 48-49.
7 Krehbiel, History of the General Conference,
p. 56; Pannabecker, Open Doors, p. 47. There is some controversy
as to the actual number of congregations represented at the conference.
Krehbiel, History of the General Conference, includes
a "Table Showing What Churches Were In Conference At Each
Session, 1859-1896" between pp. 398 and 399 which indicates
four congregations in attendance: Zion (Franklin Prairie), West
Point, and Polk City in Iowa and West Swamp in Pennsylvania.
Cornelius Krahn and John F. Schmidt, eds., A Century of Witness:
The General Conference Mennonite Church (Newton, Kansas:
Mennonite Publication Office, 1959), p. 23 states that there
is evidence that S.B. Bauman from Ontario was also in attendance.
This would make five churches represented. Enos Loux accompanied
John H. Oberholtzer from Pennsylvania.
8 Pannabecker, Open Doors, p. 49.
9 Krehbiel, History of the General Conference,
p. 56 from Article 2 of the plan of union.
10 I Corinthians 12:27 from Good News Bible:
Today's English Version (New York: American Bible Society,
1992), p. 1674.
11 Krehbiel, History of the General Conference,
pp. 56, 59-60.
12 Krehbiel, History of the General Conference,
Historical Bulletin, October, 1997
updated 7 September 1999