Rural Missions, mission projects for the extension of the church in rural areas, have been a major concern of the Mennonite Church (MC) since the first decade of the 20th century. City missions in this Mennonite body began in 1893 (Chicago), but the conviction soon developed that the genius of the group lay more in rural than in city work. Consequently city missions remained limited in number and often developed more into churches for Mennonites moving into the city. Rural missions, on the other hand, have been projected into non-Mennonite areas where few Mennonites live or are likely to move. Recently, however, colonization evangelism has been promoted as a form of rural missions, a number of families moving into an area to form the nucleus and working force of a new congregation. The general mission board agreed to leave the rural field to the district conference mission boards and confine itself in the home mission field to city missions.
The first Mennonite Church rural missions program was that of the Virginia Mennonites of the Shenandoah Valley, who began an outreach into neighboring West Virginia as early as the time of the Civil War and developed it vigorously after 1900, until by 1957 they had established a total of 21 congregations, missions, and preaching points in this area, with a total of 553 members. In 1958 the Virginia Mennonite Conference had a total of 51 unorganized congregations, mostly rural. The next vigorous program of rural missions was that inaugurated by the Indiana-Michigan Mission Board at its organization in 1911. Its chief work was in Michigan, and ultimately (1958) reached a total of 20 stations, 10 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and 4 in Kentucky, while local congregations had established an additional 20 stations, mostly rural. The rural missions had a total of some 500 members, largely of non-Mennonite origin. The conference had a total of 50 unorganized congregations.
Similar programs developed in other conference districts. The Ontario Conference, for example, organized its rural work in 1915 under the Rural Mission Board of Ontario, which was reorganized in 1929 as the Mennonite Mission Board of Ontario to include city work. The Lancaster and Franconia boards have extended their outreach remarkably in rural (and some urban) missions into New York and New England, but also into the South, in Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida. The total of rural missions operated by all the MC district mission boards is over 200, with a membership of over 3,000. This is without doubt the most effective evangelistic effort of this Mennonite body.
The Western Gospel Mission, organized in 1944 with headquarters at Steinbach, Manitoba, carries on a vigorous program of rural missions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and northern Ontario, largely supported by the Evangelical Mennonites (Kleine Gemeinde) and the Rudnerweide group (Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference). It has a total of 8 major stations with 15 substations. -- HSB
Rural mission is the counterpart of urban and foreign missions. The Mennonite disposition to rural missions is rooted in the early Anabaptist experience of persecution which changed them from an urban to a rural orientation, encouraged lay rather than professional leadership, engendered the development of quietism, and stimulated an attachment to the frontier.
In America, being an agricultural people, Mennonites felt more at home and more competent working with the rural culture and were often attracted to the poor and disadvantaged people in rural areas. For 200 years of the Mennonite sojourn in America there was no overt mission outreach. When, near the close of the 19th century there finally came an awakening (renaissance), Mennonites thought of missions in terms of city or foreign work. During the middle third of the 20th century, however, Mennonites made a great effort to evangelize rural America.
There are, however, several outstanding examples of rural outreach following the American Civil War, though they were not thought of as "mission" work at the time. The most notable was the effort of the Mennonites of the Shenandoah Valley to plant churches in the adjoining highlands of Virginia and West Virginia. A traditional story told about the beginning of this work describes John Heatwole, a potter (ceramics), who hid in the forested foothills to avoid being forced into the Confederate Army. On being warned that Confederate scouts had located his hideout, he walked backward in the snow to the top of the ridge behind his cabin, then turned and fled into the mountains to the west. He was given refuge by a kindly mountain family. After the war he urged Mennonite ministers to go into the area with the gospel. Men from the highlands regularly came to the farms in the Shenandoah Valley for the grain and fruit harvest, often working for the Mennonites, whom they invited to come into the mountains to hold religious services.
Mennonite ministers began regularly scheduled trips of two or three days in duration, holding services in homes, schoolhouses, and lumber camps in the highlands of Virginia and West Virginia. Groups of believers were consolidated into congregations and meetinghouses were built. As transportation improved, Sunday schools were organized. Summer Bible schools also aided the development of active congregations.
Mennonites who settled the Great Plains of the West following the American Civil War found the distances great and settlements scattered. Almost as a matter of survival they made greater effort to reach their neighbors with the gospel than had earlier Mennonite settlers of the East. So again, without a specific consciousness of mission they carried on a significant work of outreach. In Canada, the Mennonites of Ontario rather early attracted to their fellowship a significant number of non-Mennonite neighbors and called from this out-group numerous able leaders. By about 1874 Bishop H. H. Blough of Allegheny Conference was promoting work in the mountains of Maryland.
In 1882 the Mennonite Evangelizing Committee was formed at Elkhart, Ind., becoming the Mennonite Evangelizing Board of America in 1892. Also in 1892 the Virginia Home Mission Board was formed and in 1894 the Home Missions Advocates of Lancaster (Pennsylvania). These groups primarily raised funds to send out evangelists and pastors to the places where there were small and struggling congregations of Mennonite settlers.
During the first third of the 20th century almost all the district conferences of the Mennonite Church (MC) organized their own mission boards. A few undertook foreign or urban work but most of them concentrated on rural missions with a new understanding of mission and a zeal to reach the lost for Christ.
Virginia Mennonite Conference (MC) continued to expand into the Virginia and West Virginia highlands and later into Kentucky. Lancaster Mennonite Conference (MC) began the first community betterment mission project in 1898 with the opening of Welsh Mountain Industrial Mission. Later they encouraged groups of Mennonites to settle in colonies in the South, notably in Alabama and Mississippi. The Indiana-Michigan Conference (MC) established churches in the northern peninsula of Michigan. South Central Mennonite Conference (MC) expanded into the Osage River country of Arkansas and the Alberta- Saskatchewan Conference (MC) expanded into the Peace River country to the north. Franconia Mennonite Conference (MC) sent her rural mission workers to New England, particularly Vermont. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario primarily moved north and east of Waterloo County.
In the nine-year period, 1945-53, the Mennonite Church (MC) opened 132 rural missions in North America. In 1948 students of the rural mission movement estimated that in Virginia Mennonite Conference 37 percent of the membership was made up of out-group converts and their descendents. In South Central Conference the figure was 23 percent. In the northern District of the Virginia Conference, located in the center of the mission movement to the highlands, 50 percent of the membership and 33 percent of the ordained leadership was of highland extraction.
These efforts were not always successful numerically. Some which were begun in hope were later abandoned. Many have remained as small and struggling congregations. But from the standpoint of breaking out of the old Swiss-German Mennonite culture the rural mission movement was one of the most significant things which happened in the Mennonite Church (MC). -- LMW
Lapp, John A. The Mennonite Church in India, 1897-1962. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972: ch. 15.
Schlabach, Theron F. Gospel Versus Gospel. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980: 262-89.
Wenger, Linden M. "A Study of Rural Missions in the Mennonite Church." ThM thesis, Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Va., 1955.
Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978: 447-53.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 1117-1118; vol. 5, pp. 780-781. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. and Linden M. Wenger. "Rural Mission." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/R863ME.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. and Linden M. Wenger. (1989). Rural Mission. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/R863ME.html.