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Last updated March 17.

March 17, 2014 issue

One true visible church

By John D. Roth

In April 1859, John Holdeman, a 27-year-old Mennonite from Wayne County, Ohio, led a worship service in the home of his father that marked the beginning of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite — commonly known as the Holdeman Mennonite Church.

Roth

Roth

Influenced by a Meth­odist renewal group, Church of God (Winebrenners), Holdeman was convinced the Mennonite Church had drifted from its moral and spiritual foundations. He traveled widely among Mennonites seeking to restore the “true church of God” through spiritual revival, clearer boundaries with the world and stricter church discipline.

Between 1862 and 1889 Holdeman published 12 books or pamphlets that denounced heresies and promoted his vision of renewal. His major work, Spiegel der Wahrheit (Mirror of Truth, 1878), summarized his eclectic theology, which brought together revivalism, end-times dispensationalism and traditional Anabaptist writings.

Initially, Holdeman met with limited success. But in the late 1870s an influx of Prussian and Russian Mennonite immigrants to Kansas breathed new life into the movement. In the 1920s, a new wave from other Russian Mennonite groups in the western provinces of Canada converted.

Holdeman Mennonites stress the necessity of a spiritual rebirth before baptism and traditional Mennonite teachings on nonconformity. The men wear trimmed beards and avoid ties; the women wear modest dresses, shun jewelry and pin their uncut hair under a black scarf or bonnet. Holdemans do not vote or serve in the military, and most do not attend high school or college. The church promotes programs for disaster relief and humanitarian aid and a vigorous tract ministry. It has expanded mission outreach recently to Asia and Africa. Today, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite has around 22,500 members in 20 countries. The majority are in the U.S. and Canada, with some 4,000 members concentrated in Kansas.

In 1897 Holdeman began to edit and publish a monthly periodical, Botschafter der Wahrheit. In 1903, editors added a four-page supplement in English called Messenger of Truth. When publication of Botschafter der Wahr­heit ceased in 1969, Messenger of Truth became the official denominational paper. Today, the biweekly paper has a circulation of around 8,000.

The 16-page, black-and-white periodical consists entirely of text, formatted in two columns. Each issue begins with a devotional by editors Keith Nightingale or Gladwin Koehn, then a column titled “Your Ministers Speak,” and letters from readers exhorting others to greater faithfulness.

Contributions are usually topical — focused on such themes as headship and submission, humility, prayer and the dangers of idolatry and intellectualism. A similar section devoted to youth follows, with letters encouraging young people to hold firm in the face of temptations. Each issue concludes with obituaries and a list of communions, ordinations, baptisms and marriages — and the names of people who have been reaccepted into fellowship after a period of church discipline. Countries represented recently include Togo, Haiti, Brazil, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Whether or not the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite is indeed the “one true visible church,” the Holdemans are a colorful thread in the rich tapestry of the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.

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