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. 

Staying with the denomination

What does a letter buried in an Indiana archive have to do with questions about staying in Mennonite Church USA today? Quite a bit, I’d argue. The letter, which I found in our denominational archives eight years ago, reveals that some of the earliest Virginia Mennonite leaders believed in the value of a church-wide association of congregations. Upon finding the letter, I had a little party of one by the copying machine in the lobby. Since then, I’ve discovered more stories confirming that in each era, Virginia leaders have spoken for, written about, and defended the value of staying with the denomination. Please consider these brief vignettes that I think provide significant direction for today.

1853: That thin and yellowed letter in the Indiana archive came from the pen of Virginia Mennonite Bishop Martin Burkholder. Thirty-six, he wrote a letter to a Pennsylvania Bishop friend, and asked that he and other ministers in Lancaster Conference consider helping him create a general conference of Mennonites. Burkholder and Bishop Samuel Shank Sr. made several circuit trips to Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Canada, asking for a general conference to be formed, but to no avail. After Bishop Martin Burkholder passed away a few months before the Civil War began, it would be decades until his vision for a Mennonite association of area conferences came into being. The great irony of my search in libraries and archives along the east coast, and then finding the letter in Indiana, 157 years after it was written in the Shenandoah Valley, is that having a national archive is one outstanding rationale for staying with a denomination long term.

1897: A year before the Mennonite Church got organized in 1898, Virginia Bishop Lewis J. Heatwole traveled to Elida, Ohio, for preliminary meetings. He and other ministers like Christian Good and Samuel M. Burkholder went to see what was happening, and to report back to leaders in Virginia. L. J. Heatwole faithfully traveled to the early meetings of the Mennonite Church, and kept Virginia Conference informed about wider church developments. With L. J. Heatwole’s clear leadership toward participating, Virginia Conference joined the Mennonite General Conference in 1911.

1919: When Virginia Mennonite Conference met a year after World War I ended, it adopted eighteen fundamentals of faith. Conservative in nature, the articles were adopted, almost word for word, two years later by the Mennonite Church. Virginia Conference’s action, adopted at my home congregation in Broadway, Virginia, October 18, 1919, held significant influence and sway on the Mennonite Church for nearly two generations.

1942: When critical ministers urged Virginia Conference to leave the Mennonite Church during WWII, Bishop John L. Stauffer reacted strongly. Though some thought the broader church had become too liberal, Stauffer stated that Virginia needed to stay and not leave. Bishop Stauffer, then President of Eastern Mennonite College, had significant church wide experience, and he urged the Conference to stay in the denomination. Stauffer’s voice, along with others, won the day.

1981: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus waited patiently to speak at the Mennonite Church Convention in Bowling Green, Ohio. The hot topic was whether women could be involved in ministry. Her speech at an open microphone stirred many, and helped to create action in the direction of accepting women in leadership. Virginia Bishop Glendon Blosser ably and gladly served as Moderator at the 1981 Bowling Green Conference, the seventh of eleven Virginia Mennonite leaders to serve as moderator of the denomination.

1997: My wife and I took our family to Orlando, Florida, for the Mennonite Church General Assembly in the summer of 1997. While our three young children enjoyed the fun times for kids and we soaked up the Florida warmth, I served as a delegate from Virginia Conference. We took our kids to Disneyland after the Mennonite Church made proactive plans to integrate with the General Conference. Owen Burkholder, from Harrisonburg, served in 1997 as both denominational moderator and as Virginia Conference minister, the lead executive staff position.

2019: Today’s issues are different than in the past, but in other ways quite similar. I teach history and Bible to descendants of Bishop Martin Burkholder, whose letter I found in Indiana. I try to help them understand the high value their ancestor held in organizing a general conference. Further, I will take a bit of Bishop Burkholder’s spirited vision with me when I serve as a delegate at the 2019 Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City. My reading of Virginia Mennonite Conference history is that at each turn in the road of divisive issues, key leaders in Virginia Conference have spoken in favor of participation in the wider denomination. Such is the direction I would urge today.

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.

Grains of Resistance

On April 5, 2018, nine protestors were arrested at the Cargill Poultry plant in Dayton, Virginia. They attempted to take a petition with hundreds of signatures to the Cargill management. The protestors chose the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. They had an agreement to deliver the petition to company management, but the company backed out at the last minute. The petition asked Cargill to give jobs back to three workers who had been unjustly terminated. Ten signatures were folks from my home church, a Virginia Conference congregation. Four of those arrested and released from jail are members of Mennonite Church USA from the Harrisonburg area.

After an appearance in Rockingham County Court on April 27, the judge dropped charges, though they were required to pay court costs, they were put on probation, and they were ordered to stay off the Cargill property for a year. The Cargill Nine includes my 25-year-old son.

The Cargill Nine are helping many in the Shenandoah Valley learn more about the difficult working conditions in poultry factories and the company’s resistance to any kind of organization by workers, who are often recent immigrants.

Part of the significance of the Cargill Nine for me is that my extended family has been reflecting on the story of our grandfather, John J. Yoder, who refused to wear a uniform and cooperate with the US military during WWI. It was a hundred years ago, in March of 1918, that John was drafted by Uncle Sam. He was among some 2,300 Amish, Mennonite, Brethren, and Hutterite men who refused to cooperate with the U.S. government. John was beaten and placed in a sweatbox in order to break his will. An Amish farmer with an 8th grade education, John had learned the way of peace and he stood firm. After the War John and Emma had a dozen children, one of whom is my mother. John and Emma’s sons, my uncles, were conscientious objectors in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.[1]

In reflecting on the meaning of John J. Yoder’s story a hundred years later, it dawned on me that my son’s courage to step off the sidewalk at the Cargill factory in Dayton, Va., with the police waiting in force, was somewhat like the courage of his great-grandfather John in WWI. Both resisted the powers, and while John J. Yoder’s life was at risk from the officers’ brutality and his great-grandson’s life was not at risk, it also took courage for the petitioners to step off the public sidewalk, confront the powers, and speak for voiceless workers in a giant corporation, knowing that they would be arrested for doing so.

Menno Simons used an ancient metaphor in his Foundation Book that describes the body of Christ as being made up of many grains of wheat.[2] A hundred years ago most conscientious objectors cooperated with the US government, though a small group of men kept the grains of absolutism alive in the bread loaf of Anabaptist community and refused to cooperate with the US military. My grandfather John Yoder bequeathed me the courage to resist the powers when necessary.

My son and the Cargill Nine have given me new resolve, in the twenty-first century, to speak up for the marginalized in the Shenandoah Valley. For what purpose do the grains of resistance in the Anabaptist tradition serve but to speak on behalf of strangers in our midst. As the gospels instruct, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.”

[1] John J. Yoder’s story of conscientious objection during WWI can be read in Through Fire and Water, Herald Press, Loewen and Nolt, 2010, pages 15-17.

[2] Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Herald Press, 1984, p. 145.

https://themennonite.org/grains-of-resistance/

The Emancipation of Peggy Jones

Recently I received good kidding from faculty friends when I took a day off school to find a single historical document in a distant archive. I teach high school history, but my friends know that historical research is my passion. So they started a texting group, with super-sized emojis and jokes, that trailed me from Harrisonburg to the Historical Society Library in Richmond, Va.

It was during Black History Month, February 2018, that I discovered an online emancipation document for Peggy Jones. Freed in January, 1827, the small 6 x 8-inch document lists her height, age, and distinct scar on her face. Seeing a scan of the document on the Historical Society website was not good enough for me, so I took a day off from teaching and drove to Richmond to investigate.

I kept getting good natured texts from my friends, who really did want to know the results of my trek to the state capital. Twice I pulled off the interstate to respond to them. Finally, the moment of revelation occurred when an archivist brought out an oversized collection folder with the emancipation proclamation for Peggy Jones, a thirty-four-year-old 19th century African American Virginian.

I shall not soon forget when I got to hold and study the aging document, stamped clearly by the Rockingham County Clerk’s seal, officially signed and dated. After January 5, 1827, Peggy Jones was a free woman.

Now I’m on a research journey to discover if more can be known about Peggy Jones. I’m not sure I will succeed, because the databases lead me in several different directions, and a clear record of Peggy’s life seems to fizzle out after that day in the Rockingham County Court house when she received her freedom.

Why does this matter? Because 1827, when Jones was emancipated, is the decade when the first log meetinghouses were built for Mennonite churches in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, historic congregations like Trissels, Weavers, and Springdale. Mennonites started their churches in Virginia in the nest of southern slavery, and Peggy’s story provides detail to the saga. Second, this matters because the Baptist woman who freed Peggy Jones lived in and attended a church in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The old meetinghouse that Peggy’s Baptist owners and a few Mennonites used in the early 19th century had a place for slaves to sit, most likely including Jones.

Black History Month 2018 gave me a new historical pursuit—to see if I can emancipate Peggy Jones from the shadows of history and tell her story. I hope to succeed, because as far as I can determine, her story has not been told before. And to my good teacher friends who encouraged and kidded me all the way to Richmond I say thanks!

Bluegrass Christmas Jamboree

On the first Saturday of December, each year, our friends host a bluegrass music event in Timberville, Virginia. It goes from about 4-12 pm, and there are dozens of musicians and others who come to enjoy about six different rooms where groups of pickers make good music. Our group, December 3, 2016, played familiar gospel tunes.

 

Silver Lake Mill

The historian got to turn an interior iron crank that released water at Silver Lake, Dayton, Virginia, which turned the early 20th century red wheel. The water flowed towards Cooks Creek, which drained towards the North River and eventually the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, which reached the Potomac River and finally the Chesapeake Bay. This mill was burned by Union soldiers during the Civil War and rebuilt after the war. As with the water which bubbles forth from the Silver Lake springs and ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, so our lives are interconnected and flow into the future in sometimes unknown and winding directions.

Silver Lake Mill, Dayton, Virginia, Rockingham County, Virginia July, 2016

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.