We of the General Conference have journeyed together for 139
years. Only a few were present at the beginning in 1860, many
joining only recently. Now in our wanderings we stand on the
banks of a great river, poised with the Mennonite Church, about
to cross together into a new land. Today we give thanks for blessings
past, to rejoice in blessings present, and to pray for blessings
Incredible: this moment in our journey. A time of death and
a time of birth. A time of savored memories and a time of great
expectations. A time of sadness and a time of joy. A time of
gratitude for glimpses of God's grace, and a time to dream and
In 1971 at our triennial conference in Fresno, California,
in the Schowalter Memorial Lecture I sketched in 18-year modules
the story of the General Conference: Reedley 1917, Upland 1935,
Portland 1953, Fresno 1971, and then projected 18 years beyond
to 1989. Many of those predictions I wish were erased, but in
one I delight. I quote:
Inter-Mennonite unity will come, perhaps not from negotiation
at the institutional top, but in a variety of functional ways.
New mission programs [together].... Young congregations asking
for dual conference membership.... With a providential development
here, an inter-Mennonite... experience there--some day, some
place, some... will say: "It is here--a new Mennonite fellowship
of congregations--and we had not planned it. It just happened.
Or did it just happen?" If there is a 1989, it might be
that in that year there will no longer be a General Conference--and
it may not be a story of death and sadness, but a story of birth
A prediction just 10 years off target!
Reflect on these 139 years as a journey with Abraham and Sarah--setting
out for a place to be received as an inheritance--a journey of
faith. Or consider these years as the long walk to the village
of Emmaus--along the way two disciples discuss all the things
that had happened. A stranger draws near, listens, talks with
them, and interprets that which puzzles and troubles them. Arriving
at the village, they invite the stranger, "Come stay with
us." At the table he took bread, blessed and broke it, and
gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and he vanished. They
said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while
he talked to us on the road, while he opened the Scriptures to
us?" They hastened back to Jerusalem to share "what
had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them
in the breaking of the bread." Christ--Lord of our journey.
We sketch our long journey as a General Conference people--our
walking the Emmaus way, again and again sensing the radiant presence
of the stranger as together we work, study, talk, witness, pray,
sing and break bread together. This has been a spiritual journey.
Along the way we have sung the haunting strains of "Stay
with Us" and the yearning plea, "Come, O Blessed."
With time limited, I can sketch the story of the 139-year
journey for only the first 100 years.
The decade of the 1860s. The General Conference was born in
a time of trouble. A savage civil war erupted in the United States.
Far away in Russia, Mennonites split into two groups. A new nation
was born: the Dominion of Canada. Thirteen years before, in 1847,
in Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites split over issues of practice
and polity--alienation that has lasted for generations. Two hundred
miles north of here along the Mississippi River in a borrowed
meetinghouses near the village of West Point, Iowa, a few pastors
from a handful of Swiss South German congregations met to form
a loose fellowship: the General Conference of Mennonites in North
America. In 1860 that Iowa meeting was out on the far western
edge of Mennonite settlements. Audacious--this call to the Mennonites
of all North America to form a union, to launch home and overseas
missions, to publish literature, to establish a school for preparing
pastors, and to send Reiseprediger (traveling pastors) to gather
Mennonites into congregations. Within a few years at Wadsworth,
Ohio, they opened a school to support the vision for an awakened,
unified Mennonite peoplehood. The presumptuousness of that tiny
group, recent immigrants all!
The 1870s. Disappointments plagued the young conference. Some
supporters drifted away. Promising leaders died. The Wadsworth
school closed. However, new life came from an unexpected source.
Far away in Russia and Prussia, rulers introduced military conscription.
Fearing loss of their nonresistant faith, Mennonites in Prussia,
Austria and Russia saw in North America a refuge. Leaders of
the infant General Conference and "Old" Mennonites
formed a Mennonite Board of Guardians to aid 18,000 Mennonites
to migrate to the western prairies. A century ago--this first
step in integration! Arriving in the new land, many of the immigrants
found hospitality and commonality of spirit and purpose in the
General Conference. In the next decades these immigrants would
enrich the young conference with their gift for choral music,
their flair for organization, their commitment to congregational
polity, their concern for education and their shared interest
in missions. Meanwhile, congregations from the 1847 schism joined
The 1880s and 1890s. By the century's end, an expansive United
States muscled its way into being a colonial power. In this society
of brawling capitalism and burgeoning cities, GC Mennonites remained
a German-speaking rural people, in 1890 numbering only 5,000.
However, the Conference was busy gathering into its fellowship
a rich new mix of Mennonite sub-groups, most of Dutch rather
than Swiss lineage: Mennonites from West Prussia, Austria, Ukrainian
Russia, Volhynia, Alicia, Switzerland. Each came tenaciously
separated by dialect, church polity, economic status, patterns
of worship, food systems. Gradually these diverse ethnic groups
coalesced into the loose fellowship of the General Conference.
The miracle of unity was achieved as they sang from a common
hymnal, read a common periodical, joined in support of schools
and reached out in mission. In 1880 a mission in Oklahoma Territory
was begun among the Arapahoe and the Cheyenne Indians.
Those were exhilarating days of institution building: Sunday
schools, committees and boards, a church paper--The Mennonite,
homes for the aged, a publication center at Borne, Indiana, launching
of academies and colleges: Halstead and Bethel, Greta, Bluffton
and Freeman. The General Conference belatedly was copying the
confident, aggressive ways of American denominational institution-building.
From a Russian immigrant pastor-educator, C.H. Wedel, came a
bold, expansive vision for his people: a Gemeinde Christentum
(a congregation-empowered people witnessing beyond to society)--an
authentic Anabaptist vision 50 years before the Bender formulation.
But, alas, a vision that failed to cross the language barrier
from German to English.
The 1900s. Entering the new century, powerful new forces pressed
in upon these separated German-speaking General Conference Mennonites.
Acculturation in the American melting pot. The invasion of the
telephone, automobile and Sears Roebuck catalogs. The magnetic
attraction of cities and professions. In the wake of the Spanish
American War, the lure of flag-waving patriotism. Winds of secularism
blew in from marketplace and university. And a host of persuasive
religious movements beckoned enticingly to Mennonites insecure
in their faith or impatient with a bland spirituality: revivalism,
holiness movements, pentecostalism, dispensationalism, non-denominational
Bible schools, Student Volunteer Movement, fundamentalism and
also liberalism--Social Gospel and ecumenical doctrines, biblical
criticism and varied forms of progressivism. With General Conference
academies, colleges and seminary not firmly in place, our people
were buffeted by strong currents that sometimes swept away the
unwary. And yet the Conference had much to celebrate: the opening
of a mission in India and, by 1906, a doubling of membership
to 12,000. With its core commitment to unity, the Conference
gained a denominational legitimacy when it joined the ecumenical
Federal Council of Churches. Meanwhile, two groups who would
later join in the GC journey, formally organized: the Conference
of Mennonites in Canada and the Central Conference (a group of
Illinois congregations of Stucky Amish origins.
The 1910s. Americans rode the crest of an era of progressivism:
Roosevelt and Wilson in the White House. Missionaries were sent
to the Congo and to China. City missions opened in Los Angeles,
Chicago, Peoria, Hutchinson and Altona. Membership grew to 18,000--50
percent growth in a decade. In response to an editorial in The
Mennonite, the first of a series of five All-Mennonite Conferences
was held--again the GCs carrying the torch for inter-Mennonite
unity. Mennonite pastors visited sister congregations in western
Canada, offering the hand of fellowship. More than 500 youth
were enrolled in Mennonite colleges. Bethel and Bluffton began
to offer A.B. degrees. GCs were moving into the towns and entering
the professions. GCs, once a separated people, were priding themselves
on being accepted as good Americans. Then the shock of U.S. entry
into the Great War. Pacifist Mennonites were shaken by rejection
and harassment from erstwhile friendly neighbors. Long thereafter
they would feel guilt in their inability to gather as Historic
Peace Churches to cope with issues of the draft. The Conference
withdrew from a Federal Council of Churches caught up in the
fervor of a great patriotic war. Mennonites were still a fragmented
people. Several hundred peace-minded GCs fled to Canada for refuge.
Also, buoyed by wartime profits, giving to the General Conference
The 1920s. In the wake of World War I secular, worldly forces
invaded rural General Conference communities: the automobile,
radio, Hollywood, centralized schools. Intimidated by wartime
anti-German feelings, congregations abandoned German for English.
Farm prices collapsed. Angry theological winds stirred up acrimonious
church conflicts. With "Old" Mennonites suffering from
a period of stress, several M.C. congregations and a number of
their young leaders joined the General Conference and, thus,
added strength. This exodus, however, scarred MC-GC relations.
The Bolshevik revolution, civil war, famine and terror that struck
in far off Russia awakened American Mennonites to the plight
of distant kinfolk, among them, martyrs to their faith. The General
Conference engaged earnestly in the creation of the Mennonite
Central Committee. Most important, 20,000 Mennonite immigrants
poured into Canadian prairie provinces. Soon 41 Canadian congregations
joined the General Conference, bringing the Conference total
to 159 by 1929. Within a generation this influx of Canadians
would enrich enormously the vitality and spiritual life of the
General Conference. Meanwhile, the Conference opened at Bluffton,
Ohio, Witmarsum Theological Seminary for the preparation of pastors.
Dozens volunteered for the mission fields in India and China.
Shaken by a lack of preparedness for World War I, peace committees
were organized. Youth societies flourished. In 1929, several
months before the stock market crash, the Conference held its
first triennial session, not in a church, but at Hutchinson,
Kansas, in a city hall, the delegates staying in hotels and eating
in restaurants. Then came the Great Depression.
The 1930s. Deep in the Depression, the next triennial conference
was postponed a year, the meeting held in 1933 in Bluffton. In
that troubled decade, institutions struggled. In 1931 Witmarsum
Seminary closed. In 1932 Bethel College was in danger of closing,
with Bluffton and Freeman colleges in peril. The Great Plains
suffered the worst drought in history. War threatened in Europe.
Mussolini, Stalin, Franco and Hitler bullied their way to power.
Japanese armies overran the mission field in China. Amidst this,
the General Conference evidenced an inner resilience. The colleges
rebounded. In 1935 the Foreign Mission Board reported 1300 church
members in India, 1000 in China. The Congo Inland Mission, not
yet a conference program, reported 3000. The Conference Peace
Committee became active. In 1935 the General Conference leaders
hosted in Newton a landmark meeting of the Historic Peace Churches
that lay groundwork for united action in event of war. And war
came, September 1, 1939, as Nazi troops invaded Poland.
The 1940s. For six years a savage war engulfed the globe,
leaving 50 million dead, and a legacy of the Holocaust and nuclear
annihilation. War laid bare the uneven commitment of GCs to peace.
A majority of drafted young men entered military service. But
under wartime test, GCs rebounded. In the United States they
joined other Mennonite groups, plus Brethren and Quakers, in
a program to administer Civilian Public Service--the biggest
institutional enterprise in all Mennonite history. GCs contributed
a substantial number of leaders to that program. In Canada three
major Mennonite groups negotiated with the government in behalf
of alternative service for COs. Buoyed by a sense of confidence
in their wartime efforts, GCs gave generously and volunteered
in numbers to MCC's global program of relief and reconstruction.
At war's end, finding 11,000 Mennonite refugees from Russia and
West Prussia homeless in Germany, MCC coordinated a massive resettlement
program in Canada and South America. The Conference opened a
headquarters in Newton. A mission opened in Colombia. Mennonite
Biblical Seminary was born in Chicago. The Central Conference
joined the General Conference and brought with it the largest
mission field of all in the Congo. Canadian Mennonite Bible College
opened. After the war, from Canada flowed into the Conference
the greatest stream of pastoral, missionary and institutional
leadership in its history. The irony for the General Conference
in that tragic decade of war: that it was also a time of renewal
and restored confidence.
The 1950s. The General Conference we know today was born in
the 1950s: a new constitution with four boards, generous constituency
funding, the influx of new young leaders tested in wartime and
postwar service, opening of mission fields in Taiwan and Japan,
launching of voluntary service, a series of conferences to tackle
issues of conference identity and purpose, a recovery of a sense
of Anabaptist identity. GCs had known in their bones what it
meant to be Anabaptist Mennonites, but now this identity was
coming into articulated focus. Exhilarating days. Enhanced by
wartime income, the 50s witnessed an explosion of institution
building: retirement communities, church camps, mutual aid enterprises,
local church construction, expansion of college campuses. The
walls of Mennonite separation breached during the war, the General
Conference became partner in a host of inter-Mennonite enterprises,
many under the MCC umbrella: psychiatric centers, Mennonite Disaster
Service, MCC relief sales, canning for relief, Mennonite Mutual
Aid, Menno Travel Service, MEDA--at last count, some 79 inter-Mennonite
entities and linkages. The most significant event of the decade
was the decision to move Mennonite Biblical Seminary from Chicago
to Elkhart, there to be linked to Goshen Biblical Seminary, then
step by step to become integrated Associated Mennonite Biblical
Conclusion. From this bonding of the two conferences has come
a series of covenant acts that have brought us together in kinship
on a common journey. We have become brothers and sisters as we
have broken bread together: Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary,
a common hymnal, Sunday School literature, Women in Mission,
integrated ministerial placement, integrated voluntary service,
a jointly administered Latin American mission program, a directory,
integrated Pacific and Ontario conferences, The Mennonite, a
Confession of Faith and hundreds of committee meetings.
At the century mark of our General Conference, 1960, we broke
off the story of our journey. More have joined the wayfarers.
Today in North America we gather to worship in more than two
dozen languages: from America to Crew to Laotian to Spanish to
Vietnamese. This weekend at St. Louis, meeting on the banks of
a great river, we are like Abraham and Sarah regrouping our caravans,
about to set out again in faith for a land where we shall receive
our inheritance. A later Biblical image--to the stranger who
has been accompanying us on our walk, we plead "Come, stay
with us." "Come stay with us." Someday we may
say of this journey with the stranger, Lord of the Walk, "Did
not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road,
as he opened to us the Scriptures?" and "how he made
himself known to us in the breaking of the bread." From
a more distant past we hear words spoken to Abraham: "I
will bless you.... You will be a blessing."
From West Point, Iowa, 1860 to St. Louis 1999--139 years,
a journey of faith with Christ, beckoning onward, looking forward
"to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder
Robert Kreider, North Newton, Kansas is
a passionate historian and churchman. Kreider gave this address
at the final General Assembly of the General Conference Mennonite
Church, St. Louis 99, July 23, 1999
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, April