Sunday Schools Shape Christian Faith

The Sunday school movement in Virginia Mennonite Conference had an uncertain beginning 150 years ago. In 1869 seventeen Virginia ministers barely got the 2/3s majority needed to pass a resolution allowing for Sunday schools. Only one of the three bishops in that 1869 Conference meeting supported Sunday schools.

Fortunately, that supporting bishop presided over Emanuel Suter’s church. The Sunday school initiative in Virginia Conference may have begun around Suter’s kitchen table, in a letter written two years before the 1869 resolution. It’s not an overstatement to point to Emanuel Suter’s 1867 letter to Herald of Truth as the real beginning of Sunday schools in Virginia Conference.

Suter wrote his dynamic letter on a Sunday morning, from his home west of Harrisonburg. He had six children under ten running around while he penned his thoughts. In a stirring letter to Mennonite readers across the United States, Suter called on believers to use their gifts for God’s kingdom. That’s exactly what Suter did in the last four decades of the 1800s.

Emanuel Suter (1833-1902), not ordained, had the wisdom, leadership skills, and organizational abilities to lead the Sunday school movement in Virginia Conference. Until his passing in 1902, Suter worked tirelessly to establish Sunday schools, likely remembering those children underfoot at his kitchen table.

Those opposed believed that Sunday schools might allow non-Mennonites to teach their children, Sunday schools would allow women to teach publicly, they followed the fashions of the day, and the Bible did not mention Sunday schools. About 15% of Middle District Mennonites left Conference in 1901, partially over the Sunday school issue.

By the mid-twentieth century, Sunday schools had grown and thrived in many Conference congregations. At Weavers Mennonite Church, for instance, the average attendance for Sunday school in 1961 stood at 268. Sunday schools met the needs of Bible teaching and faith formation.

Minister Paul Glanzer and his wife Isabel, along with their disabled son Jerry Glanzer, came to the Zion Mennonite Church in 1985. For about twenty years Paul taught a Sunday school for his son Jerry and others like him, with a van load of attendees in Paul’s class from Pleasant View, Inc., in Broadway. Paul helped the disabled adults to sing, pray, and learn about God from his teaching.

Today, 150 years later, Sunday schools are still vital in the lives of many Virginia Conference churches. It takes dedicated leaders and teachers to conduct a Sunday school program. Laura Suter Wenger (1873-1959), for instance, daughter of Emanuel and Elizabeth Suter, taught Sunday school for forty-five years.

Two weeks ago, this writer saw a photo taken from the back of a Sunday school class at Lindale Mennonite Church. A lay member of the congregation led a large group of children in prayer. The attentive children had their heads bowed and were learning how to pray. This writer’s three-year-old grandson sat in the front row, with his head bowed in prayer. For those of us who care about teaching Scripture and faith to children, Sunday school continues to be a great place to shape Christian faith.

Why I Voted Against the Child Migrants MC USA Resolution

Out of conviction, I voted no on a popular resolution at the MC USA Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. I’ve been challenged by some, while others have supported my vote. I wanted to raise my hand and cast a vote in the affirmative for the resolution against the abuse of child migrants. The word “condemn,” however, used twice in the resolution, led me to vote against it. My table spokesperson graciously went to the open microphone and explained my rationale to nearly 500 delegates before the vote. With only minutes for me to decide on the revised resolution that landed on my delegate table on Saturday morning, July 6, 2019, I went with my gut instinct and conviction. I cannot vote to condemn anything or anyone. 

Theologically, I believe Scripture reveals that God is the one who may choose to condemn, not believers. Jesus warned against condemning others in the same breath as he warned against judging others (Luke 6:37). In principle, I thoroughly support the resolution aimed at the abhorrent abuse of child migrants. The weight of Scripture, however, seems to me to speak against the use of the word condemn. Though I only had a few minutes to decide on my vote, and my recollection of scripture was imperfect, my conviction led me to vote against the resolution, which twice used the word “condemn.”

Historically, I can find no MC USA resolutions that include the word “condemn.” Not even the 2005 MC USA resolution against the Iraq War contained the word. Previously, we in MC USA have found ways to speak forcefully to the powers with language that has avoided the harsh word “condemn.” The Editor of Gospel Herald spoke out strongly against the U.S. government’s indiscriminate carpet bombing raids in the Vietnam War during Christmas, 1972. I remember that editorial because I turned eighteen at the end of the war and was next in line to be drafted. Editor Drescher’s scathing essay challenged the U.S. government to cease the wanton killing, but he did not use the word “condemn” (January 16, 1973). As a descendant of radical 16th-century reformers who were condemned by political and religious authorities, it gave me unease to vote in favor of condemning. 

Culturally, I hesitated at the tone of the MC USA resolution on my table at Kansas City 2019. I teach high school social studies classes, and I encourage clear thinking, well-developed opinions, and carefully constructed essays. But I will challenge my students, from the left or right, not to “condemn” another who disagrees with them. Argue and debate, is my teaching approach, and speak clearly, but avoid condemnation of another. We live in an age of vast cultural and political divides, with strident language often used in an attempt to destroy one’s opponents. I think a peace church should speak up against injustices, but avoid harsh and divisive language. 

I wanted MC USA to offer its delegates a resolution against the abuse of child migrants without using the word “condemn.” Then, instead of voting no, I could have offered my delegate vote in support. 

Music Made Convention Worth Attending

From the opening hymn sing to the contemporary songs in worship, my heart thrilled to the music at Kansas City 2019. As a delegate and long-time convention-goer, I understand that things have changed for MC USA. Our music, however, is a welcome constant, and it helps to unify and build us up in God’s Spirit. For me, singing in worship with thousands of others provided the highest value in attending the convention.

Our music helped create unity amidst diversity. My cordial table of delegates came from seven states. We were not alike, and we had different perspectives. But when we left our meeting room and joined with three thousand people in the joint worship services, our diversities paled in the glory of praise and honor to God. Let’s sing even more MC USA; it just may help us find a renewed unity that celebrates our theological, cultural, and geographical diversities.

Singing together in the big hall expressed our deepest convictions. When the band started, when the chorister led a time-tested hymn, or when we learned a new song, we confessed lyrics about the most basic beliefs of our faith in God. I am amazed at how poets and musicians can express heart faith in songs that are God-honoring. With rows and rows of high school kids having fun behind me, the singing and clapping energized me even more.

Great convention singing frees our voices in the arts. Our drummer wore a t-shirt that said, in large letters, “The Drummer.” He got into the beat, and the audience loved to watch him do his thing.  Our songs at convention ranged from time-tested “Come Thou Fount” to a fantastic break-out medley featuring “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Every member of the praise band brought just the right volume, intensity, and rhythm to help free our voices in the God-given wonder of music. Let’s keep emphasizing singing in our churches, conferences, and at the biennial convention.

Our songs at convention helped to unify the generations. This year older attendees sat next to and sang with youth. I liked the joint music and worship services. Years ago, my wife and I sent our three teens to Mennonite Youth Conventions, with thousands of youth in attendance. Our numbers were down this year, compared to earlier years, and I do ponder why attendance at convention has declined from previous years. All the more reason, I think, to emphasize our music. Years ago, at conventions, adults and youth stayed in different auditoriums for their music–an intergenerational belly laugh with three teens after our first day’s joint worship service is one of my highlights from MennoCon19.

I hope great singing stays front and center for future conventions. Leaders in MC USA should find ways to get our people singing, often, and in ways that draw us together. After a discussion at my delegate table left me tense, I shed tears of joy afterward in worship when the praise band broke into the tune “Days of Elijah.” For me, the great music at convention made it worth the time, energy, and money to attend.

A House Divided Against Itself

Just before the American Civil War Abraham Lincoln declared that the United States could not continue as a divided country–either it would outlaw slavery altogether or slavery would become legal in all the states. Lincoln did not believe the United States could continue as a divided society. Lincoln borrowed his “house divided” phrase from the gospels of Jesus, revealing that Christ’s teachings from two millennia ago are as timely today as they were in the ancient era.

Our houses today cannot remain divided and hope to stand. Our country is as divided as ever, and we must find ways to unite, to speak in civil ways to each other, to build coalitions and bridges among those of very different points of view. Ours is a national crisis of a house divided–let us find leaders who can reach across our aisles that divide and help unite us.

In the church, we need to find ways to seek unity and not division. In the small town of northeast Ohio where I grew up and where I write this blog, we have a Mennonite history of churches dividing when there have been differences, finding that an easier solution than doing the hard work of creating a united house. A denomination, be it conservative or progressive, will need bridge builders to help liberals speak to conservatives, and vice versa, or otherwise the house will divide and collapse. In our congregations there are always differences of belief, opinion, or persuasion. We bring different upbringings, different assumptions, and different theological streams that we drink from. Let us learn to work together.

When I attended college years ago, we students occasionally tried to change things on our campus by speaking to the administration. But my memory is that most of our student energies went outward, challenging the powers beyond our campus. We marched against the production of nuclear weapons, protested the military-industrial complex, and tried to alleviate social injustices. Recently I attended a theological speech at the college I graduated from, where students and faculty greeted me outside the chapel doors with signs of protest for a lecture from a world-renowned theologian. It seemed to me the students were inward-focused, in contrast to my own college days where we mostly directed our energies outward toward the powers. The students who met me with protest signs and sidewalk chalk drawings were speaking into the community, revealing our inside-the-house differences, and trying to make me and others, it seemed to me, to feel concerned about an issue that I believe was an internal debate about ethics. How can a church institution stand when we attack one another from within?

Let us learn from Lincoln’s assessment, first articulated in the dusty towns of Palestine years ago. A house divided against itself cannot stand, be it a country, a denomination, a church school, a congregation, or even our own homes. It took determination for Lincoln to declare his vision in 1858, now eight score years ago. May those who are able to help bridge our current divides be found, enabled, encouraged, voted for, and empowered to cross the chasms that keep us apart. Otherwise we cannot stand.

Upper Room Revival

Elwood Yoder recently joined The Mennonite online’s blogging team. He teaches history in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He has taught high school history and social studies courses for 34 years, since 1988 at Eastern Mennonite High School. Elwood has written seven books, including congregational histories and historical novels. Elwood is Editor of Shenandoah Mennonite Historian, and he is also …

via Upper Room Revival.

Pleasant Grove Mennonite Church, Pendleton County, WV

Pleasant Grove Mennonite Church had its beginning in 1885, started as a missions outreach of the Northern District churches of the Virginia Mennonite Conference.  Today the building is still usable, but no congregation meets there, except for the occasional special service.  At the time of this photo, 2015, the pews were still in place inside, with hymnbooks, and a pulpit up front.  One hundred and thirty years after it started, the church is closed, begging for research and study on the factors that led to its decline.
Pleasant Grove Mennonite Church, Sweedlin Valley Rd Pendleton County, WV September 19 2015

Mennonite World Conference 2015

Pennsylvania 2015 brought together over 7000 Anabaptists from around the world, representing some 80 countries.  Worship was inspiring and the speakers spoke of their lives in the global south. The Brethren Choral Sounds Choir from Zimbabwe (pictured) thrilled the audience with their lively and energetic music.  Nearly five centuries later, from their early 16h century origins in Switzerland, Mennonites are now a global people speaking many different languages, but testifying to a common faith in God.

Brethren Choral Sounds Choir from Zimbabwe sang at MWC July 23, 2015

Northern District Meeting

A middle level adjudicatory body met at the Big Spring Mennonite Church, March 9, 2015.  The Northern District Council, consisting of around 25 representatives from about a dozen churches in the Virginia Mennonite Conference, welcomed a new congregation, heard overseers reports, and listened to a mission worker present new ideas for church growth.

Mutton Hollow Road

The Historian found a Mennonite meetinghouse on Mutton Hollow Road, Greene County, Virginia, on a recent forray off the Skyline Drive.  Established as a mission station by the Middle District of the Virginia Mennonite Conference in the early 20th century, the church today, Mt. Hermon Mennonite, is a part of the Southeastern Mennonite Conference.

Visit to Hesston College

During a family walk through the historic campus of Hesston College, established in 1909 on the plains of Kansas, a former high school history student was sitting on the lawn making a call home to Virginia.  Hesston College continues to serve the Mennonite Church as an institution of higher learning in an outstanding manner.  The historian was pleased to make another visit to the two-year college.

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