Franconia Mennonite Conference (Mennonite Church USA)
The Franconia Mennonite Conference, with the Lancaster Conference, is the oldest conference of the Mennonites in North America, the congregations of which in 1955 were located mostly in Montgomery and Bucks counties in southeastern Pennsylvania, with scattered congregations historically in Philadelphia, Chester, Berks, Lehigh, and Northampton counties. Until 1936 it was called "Eastern Pennsylvania Conference" in the Mennonite Yearbook and Directory. The town of Souderton, 30 miles (50 km) north of Philadelphia, lies close to the geographical center of the cluster of congregations that comprised the Franconia Conference. The name Franconia came to be applied to the Conference because for two centuries the semiannual ministers' meetings were held in the meetinghouse of the Franconia congregation, which building is located in Franconia Township, Montgomery County, near the village of Franconia, about two miles (3 km) southwest of Souderton. The township seems to have been named in honor of the Germantown pioneer, Francis Daniel Pastorius, who had been born at Sommerhausen near Würzburg, Lower Franconia, Germany.
The origins of the Franconia Conference are connected with the settlement of the Mennonites at Germantown near Philadelphia in 1683. The early Mennonite settlers of Germantown represented four distinct groups: (1) those from Krefeld who arrived in 1683 ff. and bore such names as Lensen, Op den Graeff, van Bebber, Telner, Umstat, Jansen, Neuss, Tyson, Sellen, and Hosters, William Rittenhouse, first Mennonite minister in America, H. Kasselberg, and Jacob Godshalk, the first American Mennonite bishop: these last three families came from the Lower Rhine; (2) a group of families from the Hamburg-Altona congregation represented by such names as Karsdorp, van Sinteren, and Klassen; and (3) a group of Palatine families named Kolb, Kassel, Bowman, and Graf; (4) a father and son named Keyser from Amsterdam. Most of the original Mennonite settlers of Germantown were therefore of Dutch ethnic origin with the exception of the Palatines who were Swiss. An early account, written by Jacob Godshalk, says that when the Palatine Mennonites arrived at Germantown in 1707 they stood aloof from the rest of the Mennonites in Germantown for a year, but as soon as the two groups merged the church chose three deacons, and shortly thereafter two preachers, one of whom was the Palatine Martin Kolb. In the long run it was Palatine Mennonites of Swiss extraction who constituted by far the bulk of the membership of the Franconia Conference. Probably 95 per cent of the 1955 members bore such German (mostly Swiss German) names as Alderfer, Allebach, Bechtel, Bergey, Clemens, Clemmer, Derstine, Detweiler, Fretz, Funk, Gehman, Gross, Hunsberger, Hunsiker, Kolb, Landis, Lederach, Meyer and Moyer, Mininger, Overholt and Oberholtzer, Ruth, Schantz, Souder, Stauffer, Swartley, and Yoder.
The Skippack outpost of the Germantown colony was established at least by 1709 (the name may have come from Schüpbach near Signau in Switzerland), and the new daughter colony soon outgrew its mother. In rapid succession new settlements were made in Chester County, in the valley of the Schuylkill River, and on up in the Manatawny section of what is now Berks County, and at numerous points in Montgomery and Bucks counties. Log meetinghouses, usually used for school purposes as well, were quickly erected at various points beginning with Germantown in 1708. By 1840 the Franconia Conference consisted of about 22 congregations, served by 5 bishops, 40 preachers, and 25 deacons; in Montgomery County, Skippack, Towamencin, Worcester, Salford, Franconia, Plain, and Providence; in Bucks County, Rockhill, Line Lexington, Blooming Glen, Deep Run, Doylestown, Springfield, East Swamp, West Swamp, and Flatland; in Chester County, Vincent and Coventry; in Berks County, Boyertown and Hereford; and in Lehigh County, Saucon and Upper Milford.
No date is known for the formal organization of the conference, if indeed there ever was a formal organization. The semiannual meetings of the ministry likely began spontaneously and met irregularly at first. Christian Funk, early Franconia bishop, wrote in 1809, when the semiannual meetings of the ministers were already well established, of similar meetings in the 1760s: it is likely that they had been started by 1750 or earlier. Down to the 1950s these meetings remained strictly business sessions, led by the bishops, presided over by the senior bishop in years of service, without formal addresses except the individual messages of the bishops on the issues facing the churches. No official secretary was appointed to keep minutes until 1909, when J. C. Clemens was chosen, who served until 1950.
The Franconia Mennonites have always stood strictly for the doctrine of nonresistance, although some of their young men served in the Civil War and either united with the church for the first time after their release from the army or were reinstated as members after excommunication. It was traditional to adopt a statement at the close of each ministers' meeting that this conference "still desires to continue in the simple and nonresistant faith of Christ." In general it may be said that historically the Franconia Mennonites represented a rather tolerant type of Mennonitism: this is evident in a letter written by three Franconia bishops in 1773 in which they state, "With regard to our confession of faith, our forefathers have taken the articles adopted . . . 1632 at Dordrecht in Holland, and outside of these we have held to no human regulations, but have taught simply those of the Holy Scriptures and what may further God's honor and man's happiness." The same letter reports that the congregations were growing numerically, that they were enjoying "unlimited freedom in both civil and religious affairs," that they had never been compelled to bear arms, that they were not asked to swear oaths, that those marrying outside the brotherhood were placed under church censure until reinstatement following "expiation" (acknowledgment of error to the congregation). They said they had the writings of Menno Simons, van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror, the Güldene Aepfel (Anabaptist confessions, martyrologies, prayers, and hymns), and the sermons and writings of such Mennonite leaders as Joost Hendricks, Willem Wynands, Jacob Denner, "and many others."
It appears that the Franconia Mennonites have also long been interested in good music, for on the occasion of the effort of the Franconia and Lancaster Mennonites to issue a common hymnbook soon after 1800, the project had to be abandoned because when the representatives of both groups came together for the necessary committee work, the Franconia brethren had already selected "enough hymns for a complete hymnbook," and they further wished to include "a number of Psalms and notes." The outcome was that they issued their own hymnal at Germantown, Kleine Geistliche Harfe (1803), reprinted a half-dozen times between 1811 and 1904. The Lancaster deacon in whose home the committee meeting had been held reported that "the Skip-pack brethren . . . have a large and strong church, as well as a large district, and are well trained in singing." At the time of the committee meeting they already had 3,000 subscriptions for the purchase of the proposed hymnal.
Like the Mennonites of Switzerland, and in contrast with the Lancaster Mennonites who on this point resembled the more conservative Dutch Mennonite groups, the Franconia Mennonites seem not to have generally observed feetwashing as a church ceremony until the era 1875-1925, during which time it was gradually introduced, but not in connection with the Lord's Supper; it was observed in the 1950s in all the congregations at the "Preparatory Service," held on the Saturday before (Sunday) communion service. The latter was always observed only annually until the mid-20th century, again in conformity with ancient Swiss Mennonite practice, but in contrast with Lancaster where it was observed semiannually.
Prior to 1900 no "evangelistic" meetings were ever held. Catechetical instruction was given to the young people who applied for membership in the brotherhood. In recent years at least this instruction was based largely on the "Shorter Catechism" of 35 Questions and Answers, and on the Eighteen Articles of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith. Not only were evangelistic meetings shunned as an emotional phenomenon unworthy of those who believed in a life of separation from the world and of commitment to Christ, but the giving of personal "testimonies" of the assurance of salvation and of God's dealings with the individual testifying was regarded as an evidence of spiritual pride: it seldom if ever occurred in the church life of the Franconia Mennonites for the first two and a half centuries of their life in America (from 1683).
As to costume the Franconia Mennonites resisted the following after new fashions and fads in clothing, but eventually adopted what became conventional attire with some exceptions; i.e., they resisted for a long time long trousers, shoes with laces, the wearing of coats rather than shawls by women in cold weather, etc. The exceptions related mostly to the continued wearing of the colonial frock coat by ordained ministers, the wearing of a "plain" coat (without lapels) by some of the lay brethren (but the coat is of conventional length), the wearing of "cape" dresses by some of the women, and the adoption and maintenance of the plain Quaker bonnet by many women during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the plainer congregations of the conference, especially in Montgomery County, the bonnet was apparently universally worn since early in the 19th century. But in a number of the Bucks and Berks County congregations some of the women wore some sort of hat during much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In a number of the Bucks County meetinghouses the women's anterooms were equipped with shelves on which small boxes were kept for the storing of the "devotional coverings" or worship veils. The women then wore their bonnet or hat to the meetinghouse, took it off, put on the veil which they kept at the meetinghouse, and entered the service. In 1905 Hartzler and Kauffman reported in their Mennonite Church History the partial non-observance of feetwashing in the Franconia congregations, and also that "in a few of the congregations . . . the sisters wear hats instead of bonnets." Mennonite leaders from Montgomery County strongly protested against the worldliness of some of the Bucks County churches, and such non-Franconia leaders as Daniel Kauffman and S. G. Shetler were imported for a strong indoctrination in essential Mennonite doctrines and practices. The result was the complete adoption of the bonnet as compulsory headdress about 1912. During the next 50 years there was an emphasis on the continuous, daily wearing of the "devotional covering" by all women members of the church.
Two divisions have occurred in the Franconia Conference; the first was led by Bishop Christian Funk in 1778 over the issue of recognizing the American government before the issue was decided by the American winning of the War of Independence: Funk favored the American side, while the other bishops felt that nonresistant Mennonites should not recognize a rebellion. The Funkite group built four small church buildings, and worshiped in a few others, but they never prospered, and disintegrated by 1850. The division of 1847 was led by a vigorous and able minister, John H. Oberholtzer, who favored more progressive attitudes, a milder discipline, a more tolerant and cooperative attitude toward other denominations, etc. In this division 16 ordained men withdrew, including the senior bishop who had been the conference moderator, leaving about 54 ordained men in the Franconia Conference. The new group claimed six meetinghouses (Upper Milford, Schwenksville, Skippack, East Swamp, West Swamp, and Flatland), worshiped on alternate Sundays from the Franconia Mennonites at seven other points (Saucon, Springfield, Providence, Worcester, Hereford, Boyertown, and Rockhill), and at once erected a new church building at Deep Run. Those who withdrew probably constituted a fourth of all the members of the Franconia Conference in 1847, possibly 500 members. In 1860 Oberholtzer helped to organize what is now the General Conference Mennonite Church. His 1847 group in 1955 constituted the Eastern District of that body. The two conferences in 1954 were almost equal in membership: Franconia, 5,372; Eastern District, 4,525. In 1950 a small independent group withdrew to form the Calvary Mennonite Church, with 170 members in 1954.
Among the 20th century developments in the Franconia Conference should be mentioned the adoption of a constitution by the conference (1947); the acceptance of Sunday schools around 1900, and young people's meetings and "revival" meetings two to four decades later; a vigorous program of establishing mission stations in southeastern Pennsylvania, Long Island, and Vermont; the establishment of both primary schools (1945) and a high school (1954), the first by an association of patrons, the latter by the conference; the erection of the large home for the aged, Eastern Mennonite Home (1916); the establishment of Eastern Mennonite Convalescent Home (1942); a closer working with the Mennonite General Conference (MC) to whose. General Council it sent an official delegate; and in common with many other areas of the church, considerable difficulty in attempting to take a vigorous stand against any breakdown of historic Mennonite principles, and against any cultural changes which were regarded as being a threat to a Christian simplicity and to a genuine spiritual nonconformity to the world, without falling into the danger of legalism and without occasioning new secessions, from the group. The Franconia Conference showed a stronger resistance to the entrance of Chiliasm than any other district conference (MC) and in fact forbade it. Harold S. Bender has correctly observed that "Franconia has also preserved in its customs and traditions more nearly the ancient Mennonite forms of worship, doctrine, and church government than any other American district" (Franconia History, p. vii).
In 1955 the congregations of the Franconia Conference could be divided into two categories: about 17 established and historic Mennonite congregations with a total membership of over 4,500, and a larger number of mission stations with a total membership of close to 800. There were 9 bishops serving in 4 districts, about 60 ministers, and about 30 deacons. -- John C. Wenger
In 1988 the Franconia Mennonite Conference had the major portion of its congregations in the industrial and high technology area north of Philadelphia. The high per capita income of the 6,600 conference members (1988) was reflected in the highest per member giving of any of the 22 conferences of the Mennonite Church (MC). (In 2002 the Franconia Conference became part of Mennonite Church USA as part of the merger of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church.) In 1988 Franconia Conference had 60 congregations, all located in Pennsylvania except two congregations in New Jersey, one in New York, and three in Vermont. Several congregations in Pennsylvania were located near the New York state line away from the conference center. One congregation (Germantown) was also affiliated with the Eastern District Conference (GCM); three with the Afro-American Mennonite Association and five with the New England Fellowship of Mennonite Churches. Franconia Conference officially affiliated fully with the Mennonite Church (MC) general assembly in 1971.
The conference meets semiannually and publishes the conference periodical Franconia Conference News 11 times per year. In 1987-88 it was involved in three new church planting efforts. Its camp association sponsors Spruce Lake Camp at Canadensis, PA. The conference also participated in Indian Creek Foundation (Harleysville, Pennsylvania, USA) which furnishes community living and vocational training for developmentally disabled people. Dock Woods Community with five institutions at Lansdale and Hatfield, PA, and Rockhill Mennonite Community, Sellersville, PA, serve elderly people with personal care, skilled nursing care, and retirement living under conference sponsorship. The Mennonite Historical Library and Archives of Eastern Pennsylvania, founded in 1967, was sponsored jointly by the Franconia Conference and Eastern District (GCM). The conference high school (Christopher Dock) had 351 students in 1987.
In 1971 the conference reorganized into five commissions: Stewardship, Nurture, Mission, Leadership, and Brotherhood. The Conference Council oversaw the work of the commissions on behalf of the conference. It employed the equivalent of 6.5 full-time staff members plus secretaries. -- Reynold Sawatzky
In 2010 the following congregations were members of the Franconia Mennonite Conference:
Doctrinal Statement, Constitution and Discipline of the Franconia Mennonite Conference, 1725-1947. Franconia, 1947.
Hunsberger, W. The Franconia Mennonites and War. 1951.
Lehman, Glenn. "Rich Heritage, New Life." Gospel Herald (19 January 1988): 33-37.
Mennonite Brethren General Conference Yearbook 1988-89: 54-56, 122, 129, 132, 140, 149.
Ruth, John. Maintaining the Right Fellowship: a narrative account of life in the oldest Mennonite community in North America. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984.
Wenger, J. C. History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference. Telford, 1937.
Franconia Mennonite Conference website
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 368-370; vol. 5, p. 310. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Wenger, John C. and Reynold Sawatzky. "Franconia Mennonite Conference (Mennonite Church USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. July 2010. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F67413.html.
APA style: Wenger, John C. and Reynold Sawatzky. (July 2010). Franconia Mennonite Conference (Mennonite Church USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/F67413.html.