Model of Unity Amidst Diversity: The Former General Conference
by John D.
|Most Mennonites of Germanic European background tend to
think of Mennonites as a mostly homogeneous group in terms of ethnic or
cultural origins. We often hear of the “Mennonite game” being played—as
happens in many other small, cohesive social groups—tracking the many
familial and associational links within the group. There is a good deal
of truth to this stereotype, but it also obscures
our understanding of
The former General Conference Mennonite Church exemplified more than
most Mennonite bodies the diversity of Mennonite ethnic-cultural
origins. It brought together Mennonite groups with quite different
histories into what we might now call a “missional” denomination
focused on missions (traditionally speaking) and education.
In contrast to the former “Old” Mennonite church, the General
Conference was for most of its history geographically dominated by
membership in the western U.S. states and the western Canadian
provinces. This geographic balance was reflected in and related to the
various groups who joined the General Conference over time.
momentous events of
the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars that brought many social and
political changes to Europe in the early nineteenth century. They came
ready for a vision for outreach that was put into action in 1860.
|The General Conference indeed began west of the Mississippi.
founded by a small cluster of congregations in southeast Iowa whose
members had migrated from what is today southwestern Germany during the
middle third of the nineteenth century. These people came from the same
areas that had produced Mennonite migrants to
North America during the
preceding 150 years, but they had lived through the
They quickly drew into their project the group of Mennonites associated
with John Oberholtzer in eastern Pennsylvania. This group also had its
origins in what is today southwestern Germany, but their ancestors had
migrated to North America mostly in the colonial era, before 1776, and
thus had rather different historical experiences than the Iowa founders
of the General Conference.
|The numerical growth of the General Conference got its
with the arrival of Mennonites from eastern Europe—primarily the
Russian Empire—in the 1870s. Most of these “Russian” Mennonites (or
their parents and grandparents) had lived in the Russian Empire only
70-80 years. Before that, most had been in what is today northern
Poland, the region around the city of Gdansk; this area is, in
Mennonite memory, sometimes called “Prussia” or the Vistula delta.
Mennonites had lived in the Gdansk area for some 300 years; many had
come there from what is today the Netherlands and Belgium in the 16th
and 17th centuries. By the 1870s, Mennonites in the Gdansk area, and in
Russia, read, wrote, and spoke standard German and often spoke a
variety of Low German, the local dialect of the Gdansk area.
The “Russian” Mennonite immigrant group had its own diversities.
Mennonites in Russia came from several different geographic areas and
from congregations with slight variations in their traditions. Also,
there were Hutterite and Swiss-background Amish groups living in the
Russian Empire who migrated along with the majority Low German
Mennonites. Also arriving in North America in the 1870s were small
groups coming directly from the Gdansk area, and from Galicia, an
region of what is today Ukraine that was then ruled by the Austrian
Cheyenne and Arapaho people
living in western Oklahoma. This involvement expanded in following
decades to the Hopi in Arizona and to the northern Cheyenne in Montana.
Thus, reflecting the western geographical balance of the General
Conference, Native Americans were a GC presence for over a century.
|All of these groups mentioned so far—migrants from
of the mid-19th century, Mennonites whose ancestors came in the
colonial period, and the various “Russian” immigrants—ended up living
together in Kansas, one of the General Conference heartlands. In the
Plains states, another ethnic-cultural group became part of the General
Conference picture in the 1880s. The first “foreign” mission activity
of the new General Conference was with the
Around this same time—the later 19th century—other Germanic-background
Mennonite groups joined in the missional activities of the General
Conference. These included Swiss immigrants of the mid-19th century in
Midwestern locations such as Bluffton, Ohio, and Berne, Indiana.
During the first half of the 20th century, two other prominent
Mennonite groups entered the GC picture. The Central Mennonite
Conference was originally of Amish background, with a preponderance of
congregations in Illinois. They joined the General Conference in 1946
after many years of arms-length participation in GC programs.
During the 1920s and again after World War II, large numbers of Russian
Mennonites arrived in North America, going mostly to Canada this time.
This influx decisively shaped the character of what is now Mennonite
Church Canada, with thousands of Mennonites bringing with them
experiences of violence in the Russian Revolution and World War II.
General Conference throughout
its history. But a look at the various
ethnic-cultural groups that have
come together into theGeneral Conference
gives us a
picture of Mennonite diversity that is sometimes overlooked.
|The story of GC “people of color” in North America (other
Americans) is largely a story of the last half of the 20th century;
this is a narrative that remains to be told in any great detail. GC
congregations with larger numbers of African-American members began in
the 1950s, with First Mennonite and Woodlawn in Chicago being prominent
in this development. Hispanic and Asian congregations came somewhat
later, more in the 1970s and 1980s; Asian congregations were especially
prominent in western Canada. Reflecting the western geography of the
General Conference, Hispanic and Asian congregations have had much more
prominence than African-American GC congregations.
This brief overview glosses over many details and local or regional
developments, and ignores the many individuals of widely varying backgrounds who have participated in the
Thiesen is archivist at the Mennonite Church USA Archives—North Newton
and is a member of Shalom Mennonite Church, Newton, Kansas.
a. General Conference missionaries Petter
family living in
a tent cabin near Fonda, Oklahoma, while church was being built. Left
to right, Marie Petter, Rodolphe Petter, unknown (standing), Chief
Mower, unknown, unknown, Valdo Petter, daughter of Mower, daughter of
Mower, unknown, unknown. (Credit: Mennonite Library and
b. Middle District Conference meeting at
Danvers, Illinois, October 1, 1898. Joseph Stuckey, host, is seated at
center front with white beard. (First used in Mennonite Life,
April 1951, p. 16)
c. Marker dedicated in 1960 in
Donnellson, Iowa, commemorating Mennonite and Amish Mennonite
settlement in Lee County, Iowa, with Melvin Gingerich on left and
Howard Raid on the right. (Credit: Iowa Mennonite Churches
Collection - Melvin Gingerich)
d. The West Point Mennonite church in West
County, Iowa, was used from 1863 to 1886. (Credit: Iowa
Churches Collection - Melvin Gingerich)
e. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding in
Atlanta, Georgia, in 1961. (Credit: Mennonite Central Committee
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