I Wish I'd Been There: Who Robbed the Stagecoach
on the Road to Milford Square?
by Maynard Shelly
Thieves swiped 950 copies of the constitution John H. Oberholtzer
had drafted from the Allentown stagecoach in the summer of 1847,
but the fifty they missed were enough to kindle a fire in the
Mennonite community that fall. (Credit: Verna Sell Willauer)
I wish I'd been there when John Oberholtzer rose in conference
to present his idea for a constitution. When he did so, he dared
to call attention to his coat now cut in the old style. An old
member stood up, looked him over, and said, "He now has
another coat. But I think it is yet worse than the other one."
Whatever the cut of his coat, it brought him no respect. John
tells us, "I felt very much mortified."
Getting Franconia in the spring of 1847 to pay any more attention
to his new code for church order that he had drafted was no more
successful. John wanted to read it to the meeting. "The
majority rejected the document without knowing in the least the
contents thereof," he said. His new plain coat was too little
and too late. Nor could he assure the guardians of the old ways
he would not cut away at their faith.
John Detweiler, deacon at Rockhill, said, "Let it be
read." Voices from the benches protested the effort to read
something for which they had not asked.
Supporters tried another way to promote their cause. They
asked that their draft be printed and sent to every member of
the conference to read and examine until the fall meeting. That
was also voted down.
Bishop John Hunsicker, hurt by such ill will, said, "This
is party spirit." Reaching beyond his rights as moderator,
he told the meeting, "It will be printed anyway."
Shortly after returning home to Swamp, Oberholtzer ordered
a printer in Allentown to print 1,000 copies in the form of a
small booklet with a paper cover. It came to twenty-one pages.
He was in a hurry to send copies to every congregation.
The books left Allentown on the stage bound for Milford Square.
Since the coach would pass through Coopersburg, possibly stopping
to change horses after crossing South Mountain, permission had
been given for William Oberholtzer, John's brother, to take fifty
copies out for the Saucon congregation. William did this.
But when the stage arrived in Milford Square, all the boxes
What happened? Was the stagecoach robbed? If so, by whom?
And for what reason? On July 16, Oberholtzer wrote to Abraham
Hunsicker asking him to send one of his sons to the Philadelphia
office of the stagecoach line. Look for the lost books was John's
request. Hunsicker didn't follow through, since Oberholtzer had
told him that "the first stagecoach proprietors lost them,
and it's also in their place to look for them."
The mystery was never solved. Was the constitution reprinted?
Or were the fifty copies taken out at Saucon enough to inform
those who wanted to read it? I wish I'd been there to find out.
Lancaster fears danger to old faith.
By the end of August, a copy turned up in Lancaster, where six
Mennonite elders read it and told the bishops and ministers in
Franconia what they thought. They didn't like it. They objected
to Oberholtzer's proposal on choosing ministers, supporting them,
going to court to "protect their honor and earthly goods,"
allowing members to marry outside the church, and to receive
members baptized as infants. Their first objection was about
keeping a record of conference actions. It "would be imitating
the worldly practice exactly. Therefore we cannot and will not
accept such a thing, for we believe that the Gospel is record
enough to keep the Conference and the church in order."
The dire prediction of Christian Herr and the Lancaster bishops
was that following the Oberholtzer constitution would destroy
the Mennonite church. "We feel convinced and believe firmly
that if the old faith is so torn down, as the new constitution
shows, the days of the nonresistant Mennonite Church would be
Maynard Shelly, North Newton, Kan., is writing a history
of the West Swamp Mennonite Church, Quakertown, Pa. This is an
excerpt from the book, which was also published in the congregational