Six Degrees of John F. FunkBy Rich Preheim
For some Mennonite and Amish leaders, becoming bishop is the pinnacle of their service to Christ and the church. Not so with John F. Funk. He was ordained a bishop in the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference 120 years ago this month. By then, however, he had already changed the church.
Today virtually the entire U.S. Mennonite church — and much of the global church, as well — can play Six Degrees of Separation with Funk, because so much of what we do can be linked to him.
He burst on the scene in 1864 as founder of Herald of Truth and Herold der Wahrheit, a German-language edition. They were the first successful North American Mennonite periodicals and over the next four decades would do much to foster Mennonite identity and community. Funk’s Mennonite Publishing Co., based in Elkhart, Ind., also printed other periodicals, Martyrs Mirror, the first Sunday school curriculum and more.
But that publishing ministry also generated opposition, and in 1908 Funk was forced to sell his periodicals to a fledgling operation in Scottdale, Pa., which would become Mennonite Publishing House (now part of MennoMedia). Herald of Truth merged with Scottdale’s Gospel Witness to become Gospel Herald, the official periodical of the Mennonite Church until it was superseded by Mennonite Church USA’s The Mennonite.
Under Funk’s leadership, his congregation, Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, in 1882 started the Mennonite Evangelizing Committee to fund ministers’ travels to serve church members in areas with no congregations. The committee became so popular that it was soon adopted by the broader “Old Mennonite” church. It went through several incarnations before becoming Mennonite Board of Missions in 1906. MBM joined with its General Conference Mennonite Church counterparts in 2002 to form Mennonite Mission Network.
Two schools can trace their lineage to Funk and Prairie Street, which Funk founded in 1871. In 1894, an enterprising member named Henry Mumaw, who had come to Elkhart to work for Funk’s Mennonite Publishing Co., began the first “Old Mennonite” institute of higher learning. Initially called the Elkhart Institute, it was moved to Goshen in 1903 and renamed Goshen College. The college later spawned Goshen Biblical Seminary, which in 1958 joined with the General Conference Mennonite Church’s Mennonite Biblical Seminary to form Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
Funk’s initiatives mostly affected what would become the Mennonite Church, but other groups benefited as well. Most notable was his role in the migration of Russian Mennonites and Hutterites to North America in the mid-1870s. Because his Herold der Wahrheit was read in Europe, Funk became an important contact when the Russians began looking for new homes. He hosted several delegations, and when immigrants started arriving en masse in 1874, many passed through Elkhart. Funk was also instrumental in creating an organization to provide them financial assistance.
To serve the newcomers, Mennonite Publishing Co. began publishing Die Mennonitische Rundschau in 1880. Ownership passed through several hands, and when the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches shuttered it in 2007, it was the longest-lived Mennonite periodical. Its first editor was immigrant John F. Harms, who was a member of Prairie Street before moving to Kansas and becoming editor of the first MB periodical, Zionsbote.
Mumaw and Harms were not the only ones Funk drew to Elkhart. Notables such as evangelist John S. Coffman, urban mission pioneer M.S. Steiner and historian John Horsch were also Mennonite Publishing Co. employees at one time or another.
Because of his position in Indiana-Michigan, Funk was heavily involved in two schisms. In 1872, tradition-minded bishop Jacob Wisler and his supporters withdrew to create the Wisler Mennonite Church. (They have long referred to Indiana-Michigan as the Funkites.) Two years later, ardently progressive Daniel Brenneman was expelled. His group went on to help found the Missionary Church.
Such are just some of Funk’s contributions. It’s nigh impossible to imagine the church without them.
Rich Preheim, of Elkhart, Ind., is writing a history of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.
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