Scripture theme: “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places;
yea, I have a goodly heritage.”- Psalm 16:6
By Ron and Alice Lora
Nearly 800 people gathered in a wheat field between Bluffton and Pandora, Ohio, on Sunday, August 30, 2015, to celebrate the establishment of the first Mennonite church in what came to be known as the Swiss Settlement. The worshippers in that original log building grew in number, later dividing into four churches that flourish today: Ebenezer Mennonite and First Mennonite of Bluffton, Grace Mennonite and St. John Mennonite of Pandora.
Returning to the area as the main speaker was Dr. Myron Augsburger, noted pastor, former president of Eastern Mennonite College (1965-1980) and of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (1988-1994), and author of more than two dozen books and many articles. More than a handful in the audience remembered Dr. Augsburger as a powerful preacher, who in 1957 conducted a tent revival on the Earl Diller farm between Pandora and Bluffton. Twelve hundred persons attended on opening night. Others remembered him as a young man growing up in Pike Mennonite Church, near Elida, and marrying Esther Kniss, a local girl.
Speaking with minimal notes, Augsburger opened the afternoon sessions by recalling the history of early Protestant Christians who called themselves Swiss Brethren. The more common term today is “Anabaptist,” a nickname given to those who rejected infant baptism and advocated “believers’ baptism,” which required those who had been baptized as children to be re-baptized as adults.
The Anabaptists stressed a personal commitment to Jesus and his teachings. There followed several points of radical separation from the religious orthodoxy of the time: the authority of Scripture, adult baptism, evangelism, and the separation of church and state. All put the new radicals at dangerous odds with the ruling orthodoxies of the age, threatening the power of the Roman Catholic Church and other ecclesiastical and political authorities.
Martyrdom followed, as thousands were put to death, among them Felix Manz who, after baptizing others in the faith, was arrested and released, and then arrested and released again before being drowned in the Limmat River. In quick review, Augsburger highlighted the contributions of Manz and other martyrs such as George Blaurock and Michael Sattler, who were tortured for their religious beliefs and then burned at the stake.
Augsburger singled out the martyrdom of Anabaptists as a major factor in leading Menno Simons to study the Bible and become convinced that evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lie dormant. “It spreads itself out and seeks, serves, and fears God; it feeds the hungry and comforts the sorrowful,“ said Augsburger. “If you are not evangelical, you are not truly Anabaptist.” Revival is necessary: “That is the cause I want to share.”
Three Bluffton University faculty members presented portions of their research on the religious heritage of Swiss Mennonites in Putnam and Allen counties. History professor Perry Bush discussed the differing trajectories of the four Mennonite congregations that branched out from the original Swiss Mennonite Church. Gathering in a log meetinghouse for the first time in 1840, the congregation grew in numbers and enlarged its borders. Not surprisingly, persistent questions about member relations with the broader world were raised: How may we be “in the world but not of the world?” Over time, the four congregations responded in ways that produced tensions. But it was not that alone that brought division.
As travel distances became greater in the Swiss Settlement during the nineteenth century, Ebenezer Church was established south of the first meetinghouse and St. John to the north of it. That provided some relief, but the custom of 900 members worshipping together at St. John and Ebenezer on alternate Sundays still presented hardships. Therefore, shortly after the turn of the twentieth century both Grace (Pandora) and First Mennonite (Bluffton) were established. With four congregations now meeting weekly, it was not quite so simple as “town” and “country,” or “farm” and “village,” but the processes of acculturation among them inevitably differed.
Education was yet another matter that led to disagreement, especially with the establishment of Central Mennonite College (today Bluffton University) in Bluffton in 1899. From then on, aided by differences over pacifism during World War I and the impact of the communications and transportation revolutions in the 1920s, the four congregations would continue to diverge. “Fundamentalism” and “modernism,” the proper training of ministers, and somewhat different emphases on evangelism and social outreach soon made clear that Ebenezer and St. John were on one trajectory, Grace and First Mennonite on another – the first two more fundamentalist and evangelistic, the other two more mainstream Protestant and progressive.
Nevertheless, Bush ended on a hopeful note. With both traditions reaching back to the large Swiss Mennonite congregation at mid-nineteenth century, and given the number of projects on which the four congregations cooperate today, there are reasons to underscore our underlying unity in attempting “to make disciples of all nations, to teach all the things that Christ commanded, to baptize those who accept the good news, and to remember that Christ is with us always.”
Non-resistant Congregation-centered Discipleship is the subject Gerald Mast (Bluffton University professor of communication) discusses in the 84-page celebration booklet offered at Sunday’s event. The suffering of Anabaptist ancestors in Europe and the teachings of Menno Simons taught them that separation of church and state held true for the nineteenth century as well, and that when dealing with conflict in society, nonresistance was the more excellent way. Both traditions would weaken over time. In Europe, Swiss Mennonites had come to see that German Pietism expressed many of the same convictions that they themselves found important in their own experience. Thus they brought Pietist devotional books with them to America, along with their own publications, such as Güldene Aepffel in Silbern Schalen (Golden Apples in Silver Bowls).
In his presentation, Mast turned to a (German) Mennonite prayer book that early in life helped him to focus less on himself and more on the Kingdom of God. It was Die Ernsthafte Christenpflicht (Devoted Christian’s Prayer Book), published first in 1708 and handed down to him by his Amish great-grandmother. The early Mennonite settlers faced tremendous challenges in clearing the forest, draining semi-swampy land, and battling animals that threatened their crops, but one would not know that, Mast said, by reading their piety prayers.
Rather than dwelling on the limitations of life, they were filled with gratitude for the circumstances of their existence and prayed that God would help them know how to spend their days wisely. “Sermon prayers” assumed that understanding the word of God was more than a matter of intellectual apprehension. In a striking image, they asked that the “ears of our hearts” be open and obedient to God’s word as transmitted through the minister’s sermon.
Mast acknowledged that certain passages in the prayer book trouble him; for example, those that assume sickness is “an affliction sent by God to teach a lesson.” However, the predominant themes are those that that express love for one’s enemies and call upon God’s help in healing divisions and schisms in the church. With reference to one such prayer, Mast, in a gracious conclusion, wondered whether there were Swiss Mennonites who prayed that same prayer for healing during divisions of the last 175 years that “ripped through this community.” If so, he added, “then perhaps this joyful gathering here today is one answer to their prayers.”
Carrie Phillips, archives and special collections librarian at Bluffton University, offered a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Frogs in the Meadow: The Froschauer Bible and Swiss Mennonite Ancestors.” Even as Martin Luther was translating the Bible into German, Swiss reformers, including Ulrich Zwingli and Hans Denck (a German theologian and Anabaptist leader), were at work translating the Bible into the literary German understood in Switzerland.
From the printing press of Christoph Froschauer came the first folio edition (1531), using the grammatical and stylistic forms of German preferred by the Swiss. This particular edition of the Froschauer Bible was so popular that in 1744 a Strassburg printer reprinted it.
Bluffton University now has a 1531 folio edition, a 1536/1539 hybrid edition, and a 1545 edition disguised as a Luther Bible, as well as eleven copies of the 1744 edition, the largest collection of these bibles in the world.
All these editions are handsomely printed, each with unique details. Phillips highlighted woodcut images on the title page that present the Genesis creation story, as well as woodcuts inside depicting Noah’s ark, the eighth plague brought upon the Egyptians, and Delilah cutting Samson’s hair, among other stories.
Phillips has also curated “Pages of Piety,” an exhibit of rare books reflecting the Mennonite spiritual heritage. The exhibit was open to visitors at Ebenezer Mennonite Church from noon until 6 p.m. on Sunday. That exhibit is now on display at Bluffton University Musselman Library’s Archives and Special Collections room and will run through Friday, Sept. 11, from 2-4 p.m.
Hymn singing has long been a tradition of the Mennonites, but through the years the style of hymns has changed. Dr. Jackie Wyse-Rhodes, assistant professor of religion at Bluffton University, gathered a group of sixteen vocalists from the Grace Mennonite and First Mennonite churches to form the 175th Anniversary Chorus. Singing in both German and English, the group began with “O Gott Vater,” from the Ausbund, the oldest Anabaptist hymnal – one that is still used by the Amish today. Presenting early songs in a slow, extended-note style, and singing in unison, which was the custom of early Swiss settlers, the chorus then moved through the development of hymn singing to the four-part-harmony typical of Mennonite congregations today. Singing hymns from the 1891 Gesangbuch mit Noten and the 1940 Mennonite Hymnary, Dr. Wyse-Rhodes invited audience participation for the more familiar songs, such as Gott ist die Liebe and Grosser Gott, wir loben Dich.
Following the afternoon program, attendees had several options. In one small tent were historical displays from each of the four churches; in another, the Swiss Community Historical Society offered membership in the society and sold a variety of books, ranging from the history of Mennonites in Switzerland to their journey to the United States and their early settlements. Several devotional and spiritual books, and others of interest to genealogists eager to learn of personal family histories, were available. One small tent was set aside for children to learn about early schools and play games familiar to children in the early settlement. Prior to the evening’s program was a traditional Swiss dinner of sauerkraut, sausage, potatoes, biscuits, and pies baked by 80 local women and men.
The culminating event of the day was the evening worship service, with Dr. Augsburger, bringing the message. Using chapter two of Ephesians as his text, he spoke of what it means to have a new life in Christ. Singling out “dogma,” “doctrine,” and “application,” he especially emphasized the latter when alluding to the divisions visible in so many denominations today, including Mennonites. Augsburger repeated what he has said elsewhere: “I’ve been championing what I would call a North American Mennonite/Anabaptist Alliance where we have room for diversity….We do not need structures that say everyone has to be the same.” Cooperation in common cause is possible, and is occurring among Mennonites, even when we do not reach agreement in doctrine. Love is not easy, he repeated; it is hard. But it can accomplish miracles when we walk with Jesus “with integrity, love, and holiness.”
Finally, recognition is due a committee of eleven area residents who oversaw the planning and execution of the day’s events: from producing an 84-page printed program; to printing, selling tickets, and feeding over 500 dinners; to selecting the site and setting up tents and preparing parking areas; to organizing a choir and acquiring speakers for the day’s program and the evening worship service; and, finally, to publicizing the event through television, newspapers, and electronic social media. Serving on this committee were Charles Niswander (Chairperson), Wendy Chappell-Dick, Diane Huber, Judith Kingsley, Ollie Lugibihl, Gerald Mast, Saun Niswander, Joyce Schumacher, Terry Schey, Julie Stratton and Donna Suter.