First schism — Reformed MennonitesBy Rich Preheim
Depending on who’s counting, the United States today is home to anywhere from a dozen to nearly 70 Mennonite and Amish groups. Many of them are the results of divisions, as members who either left or were expelled from one group would form another. But as implausible as it might seem now, once upon a time the American Mennonite church was schism-free.
That officially changed 200 years ago.
Before 1812, there were no Mennonite or Amish denominations in North America, only a collection of separate regional conferences and individual congregations. They had similar religious understandings and so recognized each other as sisters and brothers in the faith.
In the late 18th century, however, discontent was developing. Francis Herr, a lay member of Lancaster Conference, was troubled by the worldly trends he saw in the church. He was expelled from the conference and soon gained a following of other disenchanted Mennonites, who met for worship at Herr’s home. Since the group had no ordained leader, the services were only informal gatherings of like-minded people.
Herr died in 1810, but his son John carried on what Francis had started. John Herr had a vision in which Christ told him to organize a church. At a meeting on May 30, 1812, at his home near Strasburg, Pa., Herr was selected as the first Reformed Mennonite Church bishop. More than 40 people were soon baptized into the fledgling group. A meetinghouse was built later that year between Strasburg and Lancaster on the property of John Longenecker. Called Longenecker Mennonite Church, it’s still in use.
Never before had North American Mennonites or Amish started a dissident church. The late Stephen Scott, who wrote on conservative and Old Order groups, called the Reformed Mennonite Church “the first keepers of the old way.”
Members, who considered themselves the only true church, criticized other Mennonites for drunkenness, political participation, attending county fairs, jocularity and the failure to observe footwashing. The Reformed Mennonites implemented more strict discipline of wayward members. They have maintained plain dress but never objected to automobiles.
The Reformed Mennonite Church has never been big. Even at its largest, it had fewer than 3,000 members, primarily in southeastern Pennsylvania, Ohio and Ontario. Today the group has only six congregations in the U.S. — two in Pennsylvania and one each in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Tennessee — with about 175 members, plus two congregations in Ontario.
Despite its small size and uncertain future viability, the Reformed Mennonite Church has a significant legacy. It was the first Mennonite group to welcome racial minorities, as African-Americans joined Lancaster congregations as early as 1840. The Tennessee congregation is entirely African-American.
In 1930, Bishop Jacob Kreider placed an ad in a national nondenominational religious periodical. Lillian Rushing, an African-American from Memphis, Tenn., responded, leading to the organization of a congregation.
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