Diener-Versammlungen was the title generally given to a series of conferences held annually (except 1877) by the Amish congregations of the United States from 1862 to 1878. Their purpose was to reconcile certain differences in religious practice that had developed during this time among the different congregations because of their settlements being scattered and isolated throughout the north central states, and also because of the influx during the early part of the 19th century of Amish immigrants from Alsace and South Germany whose religious customs were somewhat different from those common among the Pennsylvania brethren, who had arrived in the 18th century.
Although meant primarily for the ministry, the conferences were open to the laity, and were largely attended by the local congregations where the sessions were held. For that reason, and because meetinghouses were not yet common, the sessions were often held in the large barns of local members.
The questions discussed throughout the various sessions indicate something of the specific differences between the congregations at the time, and also what was still regarded by the majority as orthodox and permissible in their religious and social practices and worthy of preservation.
At the first session held in Wayne County, Ohio, in 1862, major consideration was given to the controversy over baptism which had troubled certain Pennsylvania brethren for some years. Shall baptism be administered in a flowing stream (creek or river) or in the house? This was the question on which seemingly there was no definite decision by the conference.
During the Civil War years the attitude toward war in all its phases was given repeated attention. Is participation in war scriptural? It is permissible for a member to accept teamster service under military control? Is it permissible for a former member who has joined the army, been wounded, and now again rejoined the church, to receive a pension offered by the government? Can a member participate in the erection of a memorial monument to the soldiers? All these questions were answered in the negative.
All political activity, too, was either prohibited or discouraged. The holding of any public office, either judicial or under military supervision, which necessitated the use of force, attending political meetings and pole raisings, and even voting were discouraged as being unseemly for a nonresistant people. Unequal yoking with the world in business and social relations, too, was forbidden. Among the business contacts tabooed were holding bank stock and managing a store, post office, or express office. Levi Miller of Holmes County, Ohio, in the initial session of 1862, listed among other threatening innovations that were objectionable to many— lightning rods, lotteries, likenesses (photographs), insurance, and big meetinghouses.
Meetinghouses, although coming into use among the western Amish churches, were a subject of controversy in the eastern states. To the question proposed in the 1863 session, held in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, whether meetinghouses were scriptural, Jonathan Yoder of Illinois, whose congregation had built a meetinghouse as early as 1854, replied he did not regard them unscriptural, and that it was much easier to maintain order during worship in a meetinghouse than in a home. John K. Yoder of Wayne County, Ohio, stated that a meetinghouse was necessary in his congregation because the homes were too small to accommodate the large attendance. Jonathan Pitsche of Maryland added that he had no objection to meetinghouses if they were necessary, but too often they were not necessary, to which Abraham Pitsche of Mifflin County gave his assent, but added that he did not favor them in his own congregation. Shunning (Meidung), which ever since 1693 had been one of the distinctive doctrines of the Amish Mennonites both in Europe and America, but which was beginning to be questioned by some of the more progressive American Amish congregations by the time, was still upheld, though a certain degree of tolerance was recommended.
As for the dress question, which also played a large part in the life of the Amish, the old standards (which still meant hooks and eyes, long hair, broadfall trousers, broad-brimmed hats, aprons, bonnets, and simply-made clothes of a somber color) were evidently still taken for granted; for in spite of the contention of J. K. Yoder of Ohio, that nonconformity in dress (Kleidertracht) was one of the major causes of difference among the congregations at that time, the question did not loom large in the discussions, except in an occasional reference in the various sermons preached between the discussion periods, in which warnings were given against following worldly fashions, in worldly haircuts and fashionable clothes.
Perhaps one of the most far-reaching decisions made by the conference, judged by later results, was that made in 1872, in connection with a local controversy in the church of Joseph Stuckey in Illinois. Stuckey had in his congregation a member with rather radical views on religious questions, who in the course of a poem called "Die Frohe Botschaft" which he had written and distributed rather widely among the Amish congregations in Illinois expressed the view that God in His infinite love would not send any one into eternal punishment for his misdeeds, and that the only punishment the sinner suffered would be the results of his sin in this life. The committee appointed by the conference in 1872 to investigate this matter reported that when they asked Stuckey whether he regarded the author of this view as a brother, he replied in the affirmative, and that he had admitted him to the communion table. Upon receipt of this reply, the committee, made up of both easterners and westerners, withdrew fellowship from Stuckey and his congregation. Stuckey no longer attended the later conference sessions and his congregation later became the nucleus of the Central Conference of Mennonites.
Among the leading personalities in these conference meetings, judging from the part they took in the discussions, were J. K. Yoder of Wayne County, Ohio, John P. King of Logan County, Ohio, and Samuel Yoder of Pennsylvania, all three of whom frequently served as moderators (Wortführer) of the conference. Among others during the early sessions were Jonathan Yoder of Illinois, Joseph Stuckey of the same state, C. K. Beiler, Elias Riehl, J. K. Hartzler and Shem Zook (a layman) of Pennsylvania, and Joseph Goldschmidt of Iowa. During later sessions among the leaders were Joseph Burcky, Christian Rupp, and John P. Schmitt of Illinois; C. K. Yoder of Ohio; Joseph Yoder, Jonathan Smucker, and Joseph Borntreger of Indiana; and Paul Herschberger, Sebastian Gerig and Joseph Schlegel of Iowa.
The conference sessions came to an end largely, no doubt, because of lack of interest and failure to reach their original objective, that is, reconciliation of the discordant elements. After this the course of Amish history followed three directions. The more conservative elements and such congregations as had never favored the conference movement retained all their old traditions and practices, and are today known as the Old Order Amish. The more liberal element, consisting of the congregation of Joseph Stuckey and several others, gradually discarded many of the old prohibitions, and for a time were called the Stuckey Amish, but later the Central Conference of Mennonites. Adopting a middle course were many of the more recent immigrant congregations in Illinois and Ohio, and some of the more liberal in Indiana who steered between the two extremes. These later formed themselves into district conferences, called themselves Amish Mennonites, but finally 1915-1925 merged with the Mennonite churches, thus losing their name Amish, their three-century-old traditional Amish distinguishing doctrines and practices having been gradually dropped earlier. The conferences formed (with years of existence) were Indiana-Michigan Amish Mennonites, 1888-1915, Western Amish Mennonites, 1890-1920, Eastern Amish Mennonites, 1893-1925. The last conference retained its name in the merged "Ohio Mennonite and Eastern Amish Mennonite Joint Conference" until 1954. A later emergence was the Conservative Amish Mennonite Conference, 1910-1955, which is now the Conservative Mennonite Conference.
The proceedings of these Diener-Versammlungen were published annually, 1862-1865 and 1869, under the title, Verhandlungen der Diener-Versammlung der Deutschen Täufer oder Amischen Mennoniten (John Baer's Sons, Lancaster, 1862-65; 1869 at Chicago); then 1866-67 and 1870-78 (John F. Funk, Elkhart, Indiana) under the title Bericht der Verhandlungen der Diener-Versammlungen der Amischen Mennoniten- (Diener und) Brüderschaft.
These annual Amish conferences were not the first such held in either Europe or America. From old documents the following are known: 1809 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (minutes extant); 1826 in Ohio; 1830 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania; 1831 in Wayne County, Ohio (minutes extant); 1837 in Somerset County (minutes extant). A conference of more conservative Amish leaders was held in Holmes County, Ohio, in June 1865. The texts of the 1809, 1837 and 1865 records were translated in "Some Early American Amish Mennonite Disciplines." The report of a European Amish conference of 1779, held at Essingen near Landau in the Palatinate, was translated in "An Amish Church Discipline of 1779."
Bender, Harold S. “An Amish Church Discipline of 1779.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 11 (1937): 163-168.
Bender, Harold S. “Some Early American Amish Mennonite Disciplines.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 8 (1934): 90-98.
Hostetler, J. A. "Amish Problems at Diener-Versammlungen." Mennonite Life 4 (October 1949): 34-38.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 56-57. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Smith, C. Henry and Harold S. Bender. "Diener-Versammlungen." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 21 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/diener_versammlungen.
APA style: Smith, C. Henry and Harold S. Bender. (1956). Diener-Versammlungen. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/diener_versammlungen.