Conference was the name most commonly used both by German-speaking (Konferenz) and English-speaking Mennonites for the official meetings or synods of the ministerial leadership of the congregations. The original intent of the word was apparently to indicate the purpose to "confer" or counsel about matters of common concern relating to the spiritual welfare of the community, particularly matters of faith and life. The conferences were earlier composed solely of ordained men—elders, preachers, and deacons taking part. However, there were also special meetings of elders or bishops only, and it is sometimes difficult to determine the exact character of the meetings. At first the conferences were not regularly recurring meetings held at stated intervals, but met only as occasion required, particularly when it was felt necessary to try to arrive at a common policy which all the ministerial leadership in the various congregations could follow, or to reconcile differences. Usually resolutions were adopted expressing the agreements reached, but these did not at first have the binding force of ecclesiastical law.
The first conference was probably the one which met at Schleitheim, Switzerland on 24 February 1527. Its outcome was the Seven Articles, known as the Brüderlich Vereinigung. Also important was the noteworthy Martyrs' Synod, meeting at Augsburg, Germany, on 20 August 1527, which led to an agreement among the leaders on the most important questions of religious life as well as to the adoption of a plan for the sending out of missionaries. Conferences were held at Spaarndam (1535) and Bocholt (summer 1536) in Northwest Germany, by the radical Anabaptists connected with the Münsterite revolutionaries. Controversy on the doctrine of the Incarnation and the ban in marriage was to be settled at meetings in the North under Menno Simons' leadership at Emden (1547), Goch (1547), Lübeck (1552), and finally at Wismar (1554), where the nine Wismar articles of agreement were reached. A similar meeting at Harlingen, Holland (1557), failed. The same (and some other) questions occupied the great conferences at Strasbourg in 1555, 1557, 1568, and 1607 (also of 1630 at Hoffingen), when the Swiss and South German leaders met, and where among other things certain questions concerning practical life were settled. Unity was achieved in 1591 at a conference at Cologne which produced the confession of faith known as the Concept of Cologne. Most of the numerous Dutch confessions of faith of the 17th century were drawn up at conferences specifically called for such purposes. The meeting of the brethren of Alsace-Lorraine at Ohnenheim, 4 February 1660, ended with the adoption of the Dordrecht Confession. The elders of the congregations of West Prussia and Danzig met frequently in the 16th and 17th centuries, not of course in one overall group, since the Flemish and Frisian and other divisions kept the several groups apart. These meetings of elders were, however, certainly the forerunners of the later West Prussian ministerial conferences. The Amish elders and ministers met on several occasions at Essingen in the Palatinate in the 17th and 18th centuries, e.g., 1779. The first recorded conference of the Mennonite Church of the Palatinate was 1688 at Obersülzen-Offstein. Of no small importance were the Mennonite conferences held at Ibersheim in the Rheinhessen-Pfalz area in 1803 and 1805.
Organized conferences with regular annual or semiannual meetings first appear in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Among these are: the Swiss conference, meeting at least since 1779; in Germany, the Conference of the Hessian and Palatine Churches since 1824, the meetings of the ministers (Lehrdienst) of the congregations of West and East Prussia at least since 1834, the meetings of the ministers of the Baden-Württemberg-Bavaria congregations (Badischer Verband), at least since 1840 (the meetings are held quarterly), the Conference of the South German Mennonites since 1887, and the Union of German Mennonite Congregations (Vereinigung der deutschen Mennonitengemeinden) since 1886. Regular conferences have also been held in France since 1901, where two conferences exist, one for the French-speaking congregations and the other for Alsace. In America the oldest conference is the Lancaster (Mennonite Church), meeting since about 1740, and the Franconia (Mennonite Church) beginning about the same time; the very first meeting was that of Germantown in 1725, where the Dordrecht Confession was adopted. In Russia the meetings of the elders, known as Aeltestenkonvent (later Kirchenkonvent), began about 1840, with the regular conferences coming later (Mennonite Brethren 1872, General Conference Mennonite Church 1883). In Holland the corresponding conference is the Algemene Doopsgezinde Societeit, or General Mennonite Society, of which all the Dutch Mennonite churches are members founded in 1811. Earlier, conferences (Societëit) of the several groups had been meeting separately.
Earlier the conferences were meetings of representatives of autonomous or semiautonomous congregations and they have continued to be so in Europe, except the Badischer Verband. During the 19th century, however, in America in the Mennonite Church and related groups these developed into authoritative ecclesiastical bodies with power over the local congregations and ministers. The general conference of this body (Mennonite Church) was, however, only advisory and not authoritative over the district conferences. The Mennonite Brethren conferences in Russia and America have been authoritative, whereas in the General Conference Mennonite Church the district and general conference were not authoritative bodies. The character of the conferences varies from authoritative to advisory in the smaller American bodies. The Old Order Amish have not had any conferences in modern times. However, special Amish conferences were held in America occasionally (1809, 1837, 1865), and 1862-1878 annual Amish general conferences were held.
Modern American Mennonite conferences add to their dealing with questions of doctrine, practice, discipline, and administration, also the direction and supervision of many and varied activities. They usually adopt constitutions and by-laws to govern their organization and procedures, as well as official disciplines, which contain the basic rules and regulations governing the members.
An interesting modern development regarding conferences, which is characteristic chiefly of the North American groups, is the opening of the sessions to the general public, and the generous attendance of the conference sessions by the general membership of the church. This is particularly true of the general conferences of the various groups, but also of the many annual district conferences. The biennial general conferences of the Mennonite Church, called "Mennonite General Conference," were often attended by 2,000-6,000 persons, fewer than 250 of whom were official delegates, and district conferences of this group were often attended by 1,000-2,000. To accommodate such large crowds great tents were put up and extensive catering arrangements made. The triennial general conference sessions of the General Conference Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren also were attended by large crowds, although, having lay delegates, their conference attendants were to a greater proportion delegates. Attendance averaged 1,000-2,500 persons. There was some of this in Europe, particularly in the Alsatian, French, and South German conferences, but none in Holland or the German Badischer Verband or Vereinigung.
The attendance of large crowds naturally changed the character of the conferences, since it became necessary to supply informational and inspirational addresses, often accompanied by special musical numbers. Some of the conferences then had most of the business sessions of the delegates in closed sessions, while the larger crowd was served with more general programs.
Since customarily all the "leaders" of the denomination attend, the conferences become much more than official synods, partaking of the character of a family gathering on a large scale, where acquaintances are made and renewed, fellowship intensified, and sympathetic personal face-to-face relationships made possible and maintained. This type of group relationship has a vital bearing on the solidarity and effective working relationships of the body. Even in the largest North American Mennonite branches it can be said that all the leaders and most of the ministers know each other personally and meet regularly.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 526 f.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 669-670. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Neff, Christian and Harold S. Bender. "Conference." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/conference.
APA style: Neff, Christian and Harold S. Bender. (1953). Conference. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/conference.