"Bible Conferences" is a term used only among North American Mennonites in this exact form. Similar terms such as "Bibelkurs" and "Bibelbesprechung" and "Glaubenskonferenz" were used among the Mennonites of Germany, Switzerland, France, and Russia, though with varying application. "Bible Conference," occasionally called "Bible Week," in North America referred primarily to a special series of meetings from one or two days to a week in length, sponsored by a congregation for its own members. "Bibelkurs" was sometimes used in Europe for exactly the same thing, sometimes rather for special meetings for limited groups (age and sex) held at certain centers and amounting to a very short term school. Again "conference" is used in both Europe and North America to refer to large community, regional, or national gatherings for Bible teaching and inspiration. One or more of the above types of Bible conference have become common among Mennonites of most groups in all countries except Holland, having been introduced often through outside (usually pietistic) influence, about the end of the 19th century and became widespread in the first third of the 20th century. Together with the other similar forces (Sunday school, revivalism, etc., in America, Gemeinschaftsbewegung in Germany and other countries), they have done much to inculcate a love for the Bible and a warm type of piety, as well as a considerable diffusion of Bible knowledge. They have also at times been the channel for entrance of "new" doctrines, such as Millennialism, "holiness" teachings and even Pentecostalism, "eternal security" teachings, etc. The following discussion will deal first with the Bible conference among the (Old) Mennonites (MC) of North America, then with the Bibelkurs in Central Europe and Russia, and finally with the larger conferences. It is worthy of note that nothing of this sort apparently ever appeared among the Mennonites of Holland.
Bible Conference, the name commonly given among the (Old) Mennonites of North America to a series of meetings in a local congregation, common in the first quarter of the 20th century, at which visiting ministers delivered addresses on various topics of doctrinal, ethical, and practical character. They were called Bible conferences because the speakers sought to present their material on the basis of a careful study of all the pertinent Scriptures and often used the method of assigning Bible verses to members of the audience to be read by them and then commented upon by the speaker. Sessions were usually held morning, afternoon, and evening, continuing for a week, with two visiting ministers, in effect a sort of Bible school. These Bible conferences were inaugurated about 1890 and soon became very popular, continuing in widespread use until about the time of World War I after which they gradually died out. They usually were held in winter when farmers had only light work and had much time for meetings. They were a powerful influence in the church in the education of the laity in the message of the Bible and indoctrination of the principles of the church. In the second quarter of the 20th century week-end Bible conferences were held which used a different method consisting only of addresses by visiting speakers. The Winter Bible School, which was inaugurated at Goshen College in 1900 as a six weeks' short term school for young people, led gradually to the establishment of similar six weeks' schools in other parts of the church and ultimately by many still shorter term Bible schools of two and three weeks in length or even one week. (As early as 1902, for instance, the Mennonite church of Roseland, Nebraska, co-operating with the local Brethren church, held a nine-day Bible school beginning on 27 December) The latter in effect has constituted a revival in slightly different form of the old-fashioned Bible conference, since they are usually held in local congregations and were attended by old as well as young.
In some areas of the church Bible conferences were known as Bible Normals. Under this title meetings were held at least as early as 1902 in Kansas and as early as 1907 and as late as 1930 in Illinois.
A similar type of meeting called Bibelkurs developed among the Mennonites in Switzerland, South Germany, and France about the same time. The first of these was held in February 1882 in the Swiss congregation of La Chaux de Fonds, in the Bernese Jura region, served by preachers from the Methodist and Baptist churches and the Evangelical Association. It continued in this congregation annually. It was often conducted by the noted non-Mennonite evangelist, Jakob Vetter. The South German Mennonite preacher and evangelist, Jakob Hege, was invited at this time to conduct a five-day Bibelkurs in Langnau and Basel, which proved to have unusual influence and led to a sort of revival and which was repeated in succeeding years. Later similar meetings were held in some of the Baden German Mennonite congregations, which were, however, limited more to one day and were called Bibelbesprechungen. Later these were held mostly at the Thomashof, near Durlach, Baden, an institutional center of the South German Mennonites, and at Hellmannsberg near Ingolstadt in Bavaria. In 1907 an annual Bibelkurs of two days was instituted in the Palatinate in the Weierhof congregation, which was served by the evangelist Jakob Vetter from 1912 on for many years. Jakob Kroeker conducted the Bibelkurs for many years; he also served in a similar capacity in Switzerland.
In the mid-20th century practically every congregation in Switzerland and Alsace held an annual Bibelkurs, usually from Thursday to Sunday with morning and evening daily sessions. In a number of congregations these meetings filled the need filled elsewhere by evangelistic services, although they are not quite the same type of meeting. The emphasis in all these meetings was the direct study of the Scriptures in the form of book or chapter study or topical study, but also with emphasis upon the doctrines and practices of the Mennonite Church. Usually they were sponsored by a local congregation which extended an invitation to neighboring congregations to participate. They came to be a permanently valuable part of the church life in many places. In Russia the Mennonite Brethren began in 1872 an annual Bibelkurs (called at first Missionsschule, primarily for preachers and candidates), which customarily continued for a month, introduced and continued by the German Baptist preacher, August Liebig, but which was something different from the later Bibelkurs in Switzerland and Germany. (Liebig later, in the early 20th century, served in Bible conferences among the Mennonite Brethren in the United States.) The Mennonite Church in Russia gradually introduced two-day Bibelbesprechungen in various congregations for the better preparation of Christian workers, which again was something different both from Liebig's work and from the congregational Bibelkurs. The Bundeskonferenz of 1910 endorsed such meetings in the various congregations for the general public, besides providing for special Bible conferences for preachers and preacher candidates lasting ten days or longer.
Large Bible Conferences
Quite different from the congregational Bible conference in North America and the Bibelkurs in Europe were the large Bible conferences such as the Blankenburg Allianzkonferenz, founded in 1886, the Gnadau Pfingstkonferenz (founded in 1888, held 1908-21 in Wernigerode), the Glaubens-und Missionskonferenz in Wernigerode sponsored by Licht im Osten (1921-43?) with branch conferences at Frankfurt as well as in Switzerland and Holland, and the American conferences such as Niagara, Chautauqua, Winona Lake, Erieside, Estes Park, and similar conferences in the United States which were large annual or biennial national gatherings. Mennonites from Russia were frequent attendants at Blankenburg and Wernigerode, and some American Mennonites attended the similar large conferences in the United States. The influence of these large conferences was not always wholesome and was a frequent source of radical pietistic and millennial (Darbyite) influence. Speakers who became known at the large conferences were sometimes invited to speak at Bible conferences in Mennonite communities or congregations modeled on the pattern of the larger conferences. An illustration of this was E. F. Stroeter, a radical millenarian, active in the Blankenburg conference, who found entrance into Mennonite circles in Russia (and related circles in America) as a Bible conference lecturer. The Newton (Kansas) Mennonite community annual Bible conference sponsored many non-Mennonite lecturers. Some other congregations and communities followed a similar pattern. Some kind of annual Bible conference in the mid-20th century was still fairly common among those General Conference Mennonite congregations who did not have annual evangelistic or revival meetings, as well as among the academies, Bible schools, and colleges of the group, where both student body and public were served. A similar practice was followed widely among the schools of other Mennonite branches. In the schools the term "Bible Lectures" often replaced "Bible Conference.
While Bible conferences of the format described above were no longer a major part of Mennonite life in the United States by the 1950s, this does not suggest that they had become extinct or that there are no similar activities in the 1980s. While there are other types of Bible instruction in various settings (e.g., winter and summer Bible schools for adults and children and Bible instruction in the many church-controlled elementary and secondary schools and colleges), there is still much to be said for the original Bible conference pattern, where large segments of the church population, at all age levels, gathered for a week or more in two or three daily sessions to hear the Bible expounded and current issues discussed by a team of well-known ministers. At the peak of the Bible conference movement, there were conferences in 24 areas of the Mennonite Church (MC).
There are several areas where the original pattern has changed little, except in length. These included an area in northern Indiana surrounding the Shore Mennonite Church where seven congregations participated annually in a series of four sessions, and the Johnstown, PA, area where eight congregations participated in a series of five sessions. The 91st conference in the Johnstown area, in 1987, followed the original pattern except in length and drew a sizable attendance.
Among the various types of Bible study which became a part of congregational life, in addition to that of the schools and colleges, were weekend Bible and spiritual life conferences, institutes, and retreats at church camps for the different age groups. Church camps also held numerous seminars dealing with church and family life.
Two outstanding institutes included a series held at Rosedale Bible Institute in Ohio (a series of five six-week sessions); the Keystone Bible Institute of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (MC), held at various locations during the winter months; and a similar institute held at Sarasota, Florida, during January and February, involving a number of churches. Winter Bible schools were also held in various areas of the church. The one at Johnstown, begun in 1922 and operating for years as a six-week day school, now functions as a night school two nights a week for a month.
Most of the conservative Mennonite conferences and fellowships had regular or occasional Bible conferences, or winter or summer Bible institutes.
In 1899 the Canada Conference (a forerunner to the Mennonite Church Eastern Canada) decided to hold an annual Bible conference. That same year, a three-day Bible conference was held after Christmas in the Weber's Church at Strasburg, Ontario. Speakers at these conferences were such persons as L J. Burkholder, Jonas Snider, Jacob Woolner, Samuel R. Hoover, Solomon Gehman, Noah Stauffer, Abraham Gingrich, Eli S. Hallman, Enoch S. Bauman, and Samuel F. Coffman.
In 1906 the Canada Conference (at the Moyer Church, Vineland) decided to augment the Bible conference by adding a two-week period of Bible study at the end of the conference. Classes were held 7-11 January 1907, with I. J. Buckwalter from Ohio as the main speaker. In 1909 a Bible Conference and Bible Study Board was appointed (Isaiah Wismer, 1909-1916; Urias K. Weber, 1909-1917; Absalom B. Snyder, 1909-1918). The school term by 1909 was a four-week course and well on the way to becoming the Ontario Mennonite Bible School. Bible conferences, however, continued at many places even after the organization of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School. S. F. Coffman was one of the favorite speakers.
In the West, the early Bible conferences were held in Eigenheim, Saskatchewan, usually during the first week in March. People from as far as Drake, Saskatchewan came to the meetings. Horses were sheltered on the farms near the church. The meetings lasted all week. The speakers at the 1919 conference (10-14 March) were H. Neufeld from Herbert, Saskatchewan and David Toews from Rosthern. Other leaders were Gerhard Buhler, J. Buller, Johann J. Klassen, Johann Peter Klassen, Jacob H. Janzen, J. J. Nickel, and Jacob Wilhelm Reimer. Later these were held at other places in Saskatchewan (e.g., Herbert, 21-25 March 1926) and in other provinces. Speakers from the Mennonite Brethren churches were often invited to participate in these conferences.
One of the well-known Bible conferences was started at the North-End Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg in 1926. It was held for three days between Christmas and New Year's Day and was attended by ministers and deacons from the various Mennonite conferences. A.H. Unruh, H.H. Janzen, J.W. Reimer, and teachers at Mennonite Brethren Bible College were frequent speakers at the conference. A similar conference was established in the late 1940s in Virgil, ON, and met during the Easter week.
The legacy of these Bible conferences was still evident in 1990 in the special lecture series in Bible schools and colleges, and in the Deeper Life Meetings held in various churches. They became popular also in the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference and Evangelical Mennonite Conference congregations in western Canada. Similar Bible conferences were common in Mennonite colonies in Latin America.
Ewert, David. Stalwart for the Truth: The Life and Legacy of A.H. Unruh. Hillsboro and Winnipeg, 1975.
Fretz, Clarence. "A History of Winter Bible Schools in the Mennonite Church." Mennonite Quarterly Review 16 (1942): 51-81, 178-95.
Gingrich, Newton L. Mission Completed: History of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute. ca. 1971.
Klaassen, H.T. Birth and Growth of Eigenheim Mennonite Church, 1874-1974. Rosthern, Sask.: Valley Printers, 1974.
Shetler, Sanford C. Preacher of the People. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1982: 102-10.
Toews, H.P. A.H. Unruhs Lebensgeschichte. Winnipeg, 1961.
Indexes to Der Bote and Canadian Mennonite.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 328-329; v. 5, pp. 77-78. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. and David Schroeder. "Bible Conferences." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1988. Web. 21 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/B537ME.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. and David Schroeder. (1988). Bible Conferences. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/B537ME.html.