I Wish I'd Been There: The First
Amish Worship Service in Elkhart County
by Daniel E. Hochstetler
It was Easter Sunday, March 27, 1842. The youthful congregation
of about fourteen members, and likely twice that many children,
was meeting at the home of Preacher Joseph Miller east of Goshen,
Indiana. The four families who had moved from Pennsylvania in
June 1841 had been joined by five more families from Ohio that
fall, and at that time they held their first worship service
in Lagrange County.
These rugged pioneer farmers who were carving out homesteads
on both sides of the Elkhart-Lagrange county line had survived
their first winter and were now meeting for worship on Easter
Sunday for the first time in the new year and for the first time
in Elkhart County. From then on, they met regularly every two
weeks for worship services. From these, and later arrivals, have
come the wide variety of Amish and Mennonite congregations now
found in northern Indiana.
While the oldest man in the group was forty, most of the nine
couples in this new settlement were in their late twenties or
early thirties. Each family had from two to eight children, with
a total of thirty-five. This new congregation also had two preachers
and a deacon. Isaac Smucker, 32, had been ordained in Ohio, and
he preached the opening sermon. Joseph Miller, 34, had been ordained
in Pennsylvania and delivered the main sermon. Although there
is no record to verify it, Deacon Joseph Borntrager likely read
the scripture text between the sermons. They probably sang from
the familiar Ausbund, and the second song was certainly "The
Loblied." The form of worship, the light lunch at noon,
and the dialect used in socializing were likely similar to what
I experienced in my earliest memories a century later in the
The count of fourteen members present indicates that four adults
were absent. Two of these likely were Jonas and Elizabeth Hochstetler,
my great-great-grandparents, for they had less than a week earlier
welcomed a new baby into their family. Two years later Jonas
was to become the first Amish minister ordained in Indiana.
I wish I could have been there at this early meeting, which was
setting the precedent for the years to come. No doubt these early
arrivals, as well as the dozens of families who came from the
east in following years, had high hopes for their community on
the frontier. A scouting quartet in 1840 from Somerset County,
Pennsylvania had gone as far as Iowa and on their way home were
attracted to the land in Indiana, and "agreed to make this
region the future home for their church."
However, quite soon it became evident that the ones from Pennsylvania
and the ones from Ohio had different ideas of how to "do
church," and the county line became the dividing line for
two congregations. By the 1850s, as in other Amish communities,
further differences became evident between "change-minded"
and "tradition-minded" persons on both sides of the
county line. Bishop Isaac Smucker and Bishop Joseph Miller, co-ministers
from the beginning in Indiana, became leaders of opposite sides,
later known as Amish Mennonites and Old Order Amish.
I wish I could have been present at the first Amish worship service
in my native Elkhart County. Could I have detected the beginnings
of a major division among these devout people who had such noble
ambitions? Would I have sensed ways that unity could be maintained
even when there were sincere differences among God's people?
Through history we hope to learn from the past to help us understand
the present and give direction for the future.
Daniel E. Hochstetler retired in
1994 after thirty-four years of teaching and is serving as the
conference historian of the Indiana-Michigan Conference. He is
editor of the Hochstetler/Hostetler/Hochstedler Family Newsletter
and the Michiana Anabaptist Historians News and Notes.
Borntrager, John E. A History of the First Settlers of the Amish
Mennonites and the Establishment of Their First Congregation
in the State of Indiana. German edition, 1907. First English
Miller, Jerry E. Indiana Amish Directory, Elkhart, LaGrange,
and Noble Counties. Middlebury, Indiana, 1995.