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July 1974 · Vol. 3 No. 2 · pp. 201–6 

The 1974 Centennial: A Moment of Grace for the Mennonite Brethren

Katie Funk Wiebe

Like a play, the celebration of the 1974 Centennial moves through the script:

Scene I: Research. Old photographs. News clippings. Speeches. Ship lists. Souvenirs.

Scene II: Car tags. Tie tacks. Choir programs. Dutch suppers. Fashion shows. Tours. Souvenirs. Low German classes. Museums.

Scene III: Church services. Speeches. Souvenirs. Memorial markers. Commemorative stamp. Dramas. Threshing demonstrations. Publications. Souvenirs. . . .

Here is Kansas, as the months rush past, the efforts directed toward the Centennial celebrations of the Turkey hard red winter wheat and the coming of the Mennonites to this country are building up to a massive crescendo as we move through scene after scene of the production. Before long, however, the cymbals in the back row will start clanging, signalling the curtain is about to fall.

Can this commemorative year be more than a noisy and busy reminder that a hundred years ago our ancestors landed on these shores with wooden chests, jars of Turkey red wheat, farm tools, children, and the ability to construct adobe houses?

How can we move beyond the many-tiered anniversary cake with its fluffy pink frosting and candles, beyond the wheat waving and the souvenirs, beyond the statements of faith and position papers to a meaningful celebration? Or is this what celebrations are about?

Anniversary celebrations are innately fraught with danger. Genealogically-minded people may get so deeply involved in Americana and Mennonitica while digging in attics and basements of houses and minds, that the celebration becomes merely a gawking at the strange customs of the past instead of dialogue with it.

The nostalgia trips may also tend to encourage the revival of old forms and practices. “It was so good when we did it that way.” Zwiebach, pluma mousse, long skirts and sunbonnets flourish again like wheat in the Kansas sun.

Centennial sentimentality may introduce partisan politics in the church as present members determine to clarify who contributed the most to the past. Was it Grandfather’s grandpa who was the leader then or Janzen’s great-uncle?

Fourteen years ago Mennonite Brethren celebrated another centennial—the founding of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia. Out of curiosity I turned to a file of clippings about this occasion. Hundreds of words had been written about “Our Christian Heritage,” {202} “Statement of Mennonite Brethren Position,” “Call to Thanksgiving, Prayer and Repentance,” “Centennial Conferences Express Repentance for Unbrotherly Feelings, Words, Deeds,” and so forth. The stance was somewhat traditional and protective of the institution.

This year we celebrate a centennial of another kind. For the Mennonites who came to America in 1874, the year was a turning point in their lives. The Ukraine no longer remained the head office for Mennonite bodies. Receiving and sending was to be done from America in later years.

In 1974, one hundred years later, the stance has changed somewhat. It becomes increasingly clear that many individuals are examining truth in terms of personal value, rather than in terms of institutional loyalty, although this is not missing entirely. Furthermore, Mennonites are not seeking a new county to emigrate to. They are not seeking financial stability and security. They have all of these and much, much more.

The 1974 Centennial will become meaningful only if we recognize what we have gained during the first hundred years in America and what we should seek in the second hundred. Unless we can relate the meanings which come out of the past with meanings emerging from the present faith in Jesus Christ as we move into the future, we may merely be replaying the 1960 Centennial record with a few more colorful variations and considerably more fanfare on the flip side.

What are the shaping influences of the past which have contributed to our present condition? What accounts for our attitudes toward God, the Bible, church life, work, leisure, ideas of success and satisfaction? What has been our heritage?

Part of the answer comes for me as I look at myself, my friends, my church, and my conference. We still have the name “Mennonite Brethren.” Some have forsaken it for more iridescent labels. We have beautiful, sometimes ornate and elaborate church sanctuaries, substantial budgets for home and abroad, new hymnbooks, new constitutions and statements of faith, new choir robes, fresh flowers before the pulpit each Sunday, regular bulletins and church newsletters, Sunday school rooms, church offices, bridal rooms, public address systems, paved parking lots, air conditioning, electronic organs, cushioned pews. . . .

These are a few outward symbols of our present condition, these and the things out of sight in archives and attics and cupboards and memories: common cups, King James Bible, Christian Endeavor, revival meetings, church discipline, Golden Texts, attendance banners, green curtains for dividers strung on wires, and prayer meetings at which most in attendance prayed audibly.

But what became of faspa and riverside baptisms? What happened to the horsedrawn buggies and kneeling for prayer? They were also part of our condition at one time and slipped away gradually with terms such as “fundamentalism” and “conversion” and “sanctification” and with all-day mission festivals and family weddings and head-coverings for women. And the kiss of peace.

If we turn to the church history books, they tell us that while all of {203} these matters, large and small, were part of our daily experience, we were also holding up big signs all along the hundred-year pilgrimage in America, reminding ourselves and others that we were Bible-centered, that we had a strong emphasis on personal regeneration, on discipleship and missions, and that we tolerated freedom of spiritual expression. These emphases, stressed and practiced, are also part of our present condition and have made us what we are. But let us also consider the ones not usually pointed out in the history texts.

The young among us who have come to accept the name Mennonite Brethren on par with any other mainstream denominational tag will never understand the intensity of emotion which was sometimes aroused when questions related to our ethnic background were brought up. Were we actually an ethnic group or was Mennonitism a matter of faith alone? Should we retain the name which identified us with other Mennonites?

At times this strong emotional entanglement with our own identity hampered growth, for a few (perhaps more) believed that the practices and attitudes of Mennonite Brethren were more right and reasonable than those of some other groups, including Mennonite groups. MB, like Mohammed Ali, was the mostest.

When the Mennonites came to America, they were naturally fearful of strangers, particularly the Englischer—of being swallowed by this strange new culture. It might have helped them to know that the people among whom they were settling were also afraid of being swallowed by them. To prevent this, the Kansas government allowed them to homestead only every other section of land in checkerboard fashion.

But the Mennonite Brethren struggled with another fear—a tension they brought with them from Russia not washed away by the many waters of the Atlantic—the tension with the Mennonite Church out of whose midst they broke away in Russia. This fear of inter-Mennonite fellowship, which the 1960 Centennial began to speak to, and which seems to be subsiding in part, still lurks in the shadows of church life occasionally. Both fears have hindered home mission work and fellowship with other groups at various periods and become part of our condition at present.

In the hundred-year pilgrimage, Mennonite Brethren have learned that as our young people were growing, they were finding out that we were not alone in possessing spiritual vitality. It also came under other denominational tags. Not always have we and those who pilgrimed in earlier decades recognized that ethnocentricity will not halt growth if a group sees itself as part of the larger world of Christians, rather than as the whole. This barnacle has not yet been completely scraped away from the hull of the ship. But it is losing strength. Yet it must be recognized as having formed Mennonite Brethren attitudes.

Along with other churches in America, Mennonite Brethren have suffered a loss of vitality in recent years through the gradual institutionalization of the church, a trend which few congregations recognized immediately for its leeching power. The development of {204} budgets, programs, buildings, and executive secretaries seemed to provide the answer to denominational success. Did we yield to this trend because we no longer feared we would not survive in this land and that to adopt the settle mentality seemed the sure road to the top?

Urbanization, with its erosion of traditional values and culture, exposing the theology, prejudices and convictions of the Mennonite Brethren must also be taken into consideration. When the Mennonites first arrived in America, they believed firmly that if the faith of our fathers was detached from the agricultural way of life, all would be lost.

Even now there is fear that if our faith becomes separated from a WASP middle-class way of life, it will suffer. And truly, it is sometimes hard to fathom how Christianity could thrive without the middle-class format of large buildings, programs, a paid clergy and extensive educational facilities.

We must also remember that along with American society as a whole, Mennonite Brethren have experienced the pressures of the human rights movement of the past decade, if to a lesser degree. They too have felt the push of the young for more relevance in church life, the demands of minorities and women for equal recognition, the pressure from various directions to become more involved in programs which bring social action and evangelism into one package. The tension of these forces with our evangelical heritage of preaching the Gospel seems critical at times.

Mennonite Brethren who came to America with the knowledge that it was a Protestant land must now face the fact that they are part of a pluralistic society in which Protestantism is only one of many beliefs. What may be even more difficult to accept is that though our church, like our country, may have more “important” people, it suffers from a dwindling of charismatic leaders who are transparent, vulnerable, but life-giving. Our churches have been affected as much by the mass media and Madison Avenue’s attempts to mold the mass mind and to turn us all into topnotch consumers as have other church groups. All of these factors are part of our present condition as we celebrate the coming of Mennonite Brethren with their wheat, quaint costumes, and Low German speech to this country a hundred years ago.

Yet to look pessimistically at the present condition of the Mennonite Brethren would do all of us an injustice. Within the church are vitalities of which we can be rightfully proud. Church attendance is still high. Young people remain vitally interested in voluntary service. The conference is moving toward inter-Mennonite cooperation in a number of projects. Interest in missions has not subsided. Publishing ventures and higher education remain strong operations. Stewardship, small group movements, attempts at caring are visible.

These vitalities and experiments in church life will be needed in the times ahead, for as Martin E. Marty writes in a report on American church life in the early 1960’s, the church seems to be mislocated in place, time and energy. Christians more and more locate themselves in already overchurched segments of society. They run away from where {205} mission offers much of its greatest breadth and depth. Religion is located in the leisure-time part of people’s schedules, making it look like a pastime. Furthermore, the energies of Christians deal with their private lives and not with the world where people make public decisions.

Certainly a close look at the Mennonite Brethren Church seems to reveal life at two levels. At one level we can stand on the church spires and shout, “All’s well.” At another level, when people have become quiet enough to listen, the word is that not all is well. Sometimes religion, even the Mennonite Brethren brand, has become a source of frustration. Proof-texts and modes of living don’t match. And in the suburbs, Mennonite Brethren do not act much differently than their neighbors. The average mortgaged Mennonite Brother is no more naturally open and sharing than his mortgaged neighbor. He suffers the same failing of trying to cover with amiability his lack of power to witness vitally. Secularism, pluralism, prosperity, cultural exposure have taken their toll and must be reckoned with as we continue our pilgrimage in America. The second hundred years will not be easy traveling.

What shall we do then with this past which we have inherited and which accounts for our present condition? How can we make the Centennial more than a brief, happy arrangement of bonnets, beards and lapel buttons?

A hundred years in a land is obviously a reason for thanksgiving and gratitude. But I believe a Centennial must prove to be a time of inspiration as well. The words of John D. Rockefeller, writing about the American Bicentennial, could apply to us as well. He states, “We are not an inspired people.” Despite the positive signs of growth, we must also face evidence of uncertainty, complacency, perhaps even a weariness, particularly among the middle-aged now that the flurry about church renewal has subsided.

I believe that the language of faith and experiences of a people of faith must again become alive and as exciting to our people as the experiences of Kojak or the National Football League games. Being a Christian and a church member will have to become an invigorating, worthwhile way of life instead of a habit for larger groups of people—not just the clergy and committee members.

I hope the Centennial will reaffirm to us that the Bible is still true for this age and for this people and that it speaks to our condition today, not just to those who strolled the Lebanon woods two thousand years ago. It must speak to people in the midst of divorce, to parents whose children have turned to drugs, to neighbors who argue over falling leaves, to young people looking for a goal, to a sick person who wonders how pain and early death can be part of God’s plan.

If in the past hundred years we have at times tried to show others that we had the answers, can we begin the second hundred with the realization that to be a Christian in a technological age we don’t need all the answers, but we do need an abiding faith in Christ? Can we help people begin formulating their questions and to see that doubt can be creative and growth-producing? {206}

If a Centennial is to be worthwhile, not only must it inspire, but it must direct us toward specific achievement in specific areas. Let me name a few:

Group or body life: We need help to see again the calling of the church as a true community—a fellowship of free persons bound to one another by their love for Christ.

Gifts and creativity: I believe that a new truth regarding the church is surfacing which will help it reach out to others. This new excitement rippling through some Christian communities is the doctrine of gifts. God has given each person a gift with which to serve Him. No person need be unemployed in God’s kingdom. I hope this Centennial will awaken us to this movement and help the church affirm the gift of God in each individual.

Evangelism and social action: Can the Centennial help the church see its responsibility to share more deeply and emphatically in human suffering and need and serve as a prophetic voice calling attention to such needs even while continuing to fulfill the mission of spreading the Gospel?

Church and state: Because civil religion flourishes quickly in all kinds of religious soil, can this Centennial show us how to be a voice in the political arena without being determined in our thinking and doing by government approval and funding?

Life-style: Can it help Mennonite Brethren reject the values of consumerism in dress, housing, transportation and leisure activities and choose a life-style which reflects obedience to Christ?

Theology: We need a theology for all men in areas neglected heretofore—a theology of conversion, but also of nurture; of sin, but also of grace and gifts; of evangelism, but also of social involvement; of the church as an essential institution, but also of koinonia within the church; and particularly a theology of change.

Home and family: This structure which has been battered by social pressures of the last decades needs strengthening in many areas. Father, mothers, children, grandparents and other relatives need to learn anew how to live as a loving, caring group of people in an age of stress and lowered moral standards.

I would also like to see the Centennial help us to develop new forms for a different age. Experimentation will be a necessity for a while, but a deeper recognition must emerge that forms of worship and service, of evangelism and stewardship and music are expressions or relationships with God and man and these must change as times change.

When we have considered all of these matters, we may be ready for the final scene in this Centennial pageant—a moment of grace—a time to admit that though culturally we will never again all be farmers plowing the sod, spiritually we can still be Mennonite Brethren whether we are Scotch or Polish or Nigerian, whether we are teachers, factory-workers or businessmen. Though the first hundred years may have been dedicated to proving to others that we are spiritual, may we decide to begin the second hundred proving that we are human beings in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells.

Katie Funk Wiebe is a member of the English faculty at Tabor College and is on the editorial board of Direction.

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