Mennonite Church in India
India Mennonite Conference was the name given to the church conference that came into being coextensive with the American Mennonite Mission with headquarters at Dhamtari in the Central Provinces (since 1950 called Madhya Pradesh), India. The American Mennonite Mission began work in the area in 1899, but the India Mennonite Conference was not organized until January 1912. At that time its total membership was 488.
J. S. Hartzler and J. S. Shoemaker visited the India Mission during 1910-11 and with the help of missionaries M. C. Lapp and P. A. Friesen drew up a constitution with rules and discipline for the India Mennonite Conference. The first session of the Conference convened the first Tuesday of January 1912 in the Bethel Church at Balodgahan. Conference membership consisted of all missionaries (Men and women), two lay delegates from each congregation for the first 50 members, and two delegates for every additional 50 members or fraction thereof.
The church ordained four Indian deacons in 1913, and the first Indian minister was ordained on 30 April 1927. In 1953 the figures for ordained nationals in the India church were: deacons 6, ministers 8, and deaconess 1. The constitution of the conference was revised in 1928-1929, placing the Conference on a sounder basis organizationally and bringing matters of procedure and discipline up to date. Now conference membership consisted only of ordained persons (lay missionaries and missionary women were no longer members) and the same system of lay representation of two for the first 50 and two for every additional 50 members or fraction thereof was maintained. In 1955 the membership was 1,507.
Another milestone was reached in the Conference on 1 July 1952, when the American Mennonite Mission and the India Mennonite Church were merged under the name "The Mennonite Church in India." The basis of membership remained the same, but the Executive Committee was enlarged to a total of 14 members. The entire work of the church was now organized under four councils of approximately nine members each as follows: (1) evangelistic and pastoral, (2) educational and charitable institutions, (3) medical, and (4) economic aid. Indian pastors are in charge of all the larger congregations and are supported fully by the Indian Church. Missionaries appointed to the area serve co-operatively within the conference framework. Thus the indigenous church is being developed with her roots in the soil of India and with Christ as her head. -- JDG
Mennonite Church in India is the official title of the Mennonite congregations in the Dhamtari area of Madhya Pradesh. Its antecedents lie in the efforts of the American Mennonite Mission of the Mennonite [Mennonite Church] Board of Missions and Charities (MBMC). The Mennonite churches in what later became Madhya Pradesh State came into existence with the nucleus of unclaimed boys and girls after the Mennonite (MC) famine relief work at Dhamtari closed in 1901. An elementary school was started to educate the boys and girls, which developed into an English medium high school with the first class of boys graduating in 1912. The orphanage and middle school for girls were moved to Balodgahan in 1906. Gradually several primary schools were opened in different villages where mission stations were started.
The Mennonite Church Conference was organized at the Bethel Church in Balodgahan on the first Tuesday in January 1912 according to a constitution drawn up by two visiting representatives of the MBMC together with the pioneering missionaries. There were four congregations at that time, all pastored by missionaries. Total membership of the church was 488 with 36 delegates (12 missionaries and 24 nationals).
At the conference session in 1929 the constitution was revised. Attending as voting members of the conference were 7 ordained missionaries and 9 ordained national delegates together with 53 lay representatives from 7 congregations. At that time there were 1,279 church members with an additional 735 unbaptized persons participating in congregations.
By 1947 a number of trained members were available for leadership in administrative, educational, evangelistic, medical, and pastoral services so that the national members expected responsibilities and treatment on an equal basis. With national independence, the government instructed the foreign agencies to hand over responsibilities to the nationals as soon and as far as possible. The MBMC showed good faith by calling a national delegate to the fourth Mennonite World Conference held in the United States in 1948. The church was ready for participation and sharing in responsibilities. The MBMC agreed and formed a unification commission in 1950 comprising six missionaries and 6 nationals to work on a constitution with the secretary of the board. According to this new constitution, which took effect on 1 July 1952, mission and church were merged into one. After independence Christians took their original caste and tribal names for their surnames. The "Mennonite Church" name was changed to "Mennonite Church in India" in the new constitution.
In 1952 the executive committee was enlarged from 10 to 14 members. It administered on behalf of MBMC and the church through councils for the areas of education, institutions, evangelism, pastoral care, and medical work. At that time there were 10 congregations with a membership of 1,470 plus 1,205 unbaptized children and youth. There were 67 voting representatives at the 1952 conference session (5 ordained missionaries, 8 ordained nationals, 6 deacons, 1 deaconess, and 47 lay delegates). The provisions for lay delegates were still in force in 1987.
The government strongly objected to evangelism with the use of foreign funds. As a result, the church retired a number of lay evangelists in 1956 with financial aid to these people offered by MBMC. Since then evangelism has been the responsibility of every church member, which has been quite ineffective. In another change, which was introduced on 1 July 1960, independent autonomous boards for education, medical and literature services were registered and the church became fully responsible for congregational and evangelistic services in accordance with the constitution registered with the government. Thus the church became self-witnessing, self-propagating, self-supporting, self-governing, independent, and indigenous. MBMC cooperated in some new projects on a partnership basis.
With education now chiefly the responsibility of the Indian government, church-sponsored village schools were closed. In 1987 there were primary, higher secondary schools at Dhamtari, and primary and middle schools at Balodgahan. An English medium school started in 1974 developed into a full high school and was maintained by the education board at Dhamtari.
Of the 16 congregations in 1986, 5 were large, 5 medium-size, and 6 were small; with membership ranging between 810 and 17. Four congregations were served by full-time fully paid pastors, five by resident ordained part-time ministers, four by locally ordained deacons and three by appointed local lay leaders. Three second-generation Mennonite youths, sons of lay evangelists, graduated from Jabalpur Methodist Seminary (1932-1940) and four young men graduated from Bangarpet Bible School in south India. Two of these persons taught in secular school while others served as evangelists and pastors. After 1960 MBMC offered free seminary training on the ThB and BD levels at Union Biblical Seminary (Yavatmal; later at Pune in Maharashtra State). By 1986 nine young men graduated from the seminary at Pune, of whom 6 worked for non-Mennonite institutions after serving the church for bond periods, but maintained their church membership, while the other 3 served as Mennonite pastors.
The first deacons (4) were ordained in 1913, the first deaconess in 1947, and the first Indian pastor in 1927. The first Indian bishop was ordained on 8 May 1955; the second bishop in 1965. In 1986 there were 13 deacons, 1 deaconess, 14 ministers, and 2 bishops working in 16 congregations.
Original membership was formed by conversion and baptisms of the orphan boys and girls, and the converted families brought from other areas for labor and help. There have been few conversions since and most of the membership in 1987 came from children of the original members.
In 1946 a Hindu boy studying in a church school acknowledged Jesus Christ as personal Savior a year before his graduation from high school. On 26-27 September 1972, from 60 families belonging to the Satnami caste, 79 men and women took baptism in Jhara, their own village, about 200 km. (125 mi.) from Dhamtari. Then 10 young men from the same village and community were baptized in Zion Church, Sankra, during the conference session on 23 October 1972. A resident evangelist was appointed there for almost a decade to teach, preach, and strengthen the people in the faith. Land was purchased for building a chapel and parsonage. Almost all of these people reverted in 1981 except three or four, of whom one graduated from seminary and worked in village church areas for a few years. In 1987 he worked among non-Christian students with his converted brother-in-law in Haridwar, a pilgrimage center for Hindus.
There have been two divisions in the church for different reasons. On 10 November 1977, 34 families with 68 baptized members and some 60 unbaptized individuals formed a new Mennonite group in Balodgahan. The other division took place on 2 October 1984, because of disagreements about administrative actions by church leaders. The protesting group separated as the "Ad Hoc Mennonite Church in India." Efforts at reunion were underway in the late 1980s. In 1968 a few families joined two Pentecostal groups in Dhamtari.
Sunday school, worship, and women's meetings are normally weekly on Sunday morning. Sunday school is limited to children. The children are absent from worship services which have singing, responsive reading, Bible reading, sermon, offering and announcements. The sanctuaries are full when there are special services with outside speakers and music programs, or competitions, and healing activities.
Traditonally communion services were held three times a year (spring, fall, winter). The rule that those who do not partake at least once a year should be excommunicated has not been enforced. Communion services are led by a bishop or a minister after regular worship, and emblems are distributed by ordained members. Feetwashing customarily comes after taking the emblems. Weddings are performed mostly in a simple way without recordings, band bugles, dancing, and dowry demands. Electric light decorations are now becoming common as well as suits in place of the dhoti (shirt) for the groom. Brides dress in a white sari. Only the affluent wear jewelry. Song, Bible reading, and a sermon precede the exchange of vows and joining of hands. Marriage is not sealed with a ring, but in the holy name of the Lord God for life. Marriage is a lifelong bond and there is no divorce under any circumstances, neither is there any question of homosexual marriage. When marriages break up divorce is not granted, nor is civil marriage or civil divorce accepted by the church. A feast follows wedding ceremonies and gifts are given to the couple at dinner.
The Mennonite Church in India believes the Scriptures to be the very Word of God, inspired by God and the Holy Spirit and written by his chosen and appointed persons. As the Word appeared in flesh in the form of Jesus Christ, it is with us in the form of the Bible. We believe in what it actually says, its literal and spiritual meanings, not human interpretations. -- SNS
Malagar, Pyarelal Joel. The Mennonite Church in India. Nagpur: National Council of Churches in India, 1981; Hindi version published at Dhamtari: Mennonite Coordinating Committee, 1986.
Lapp, John Allen. The Mennonite Church in India, 1897-1962, Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History, vol. 14. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972: 168.
Kraybill, Paul N., ed. Mennonite World Handbook. Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1978: 142-144.
Mennonite World Handbook Supplement. Strasbourg, France, and Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1984: 32.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 20-21, v. 5, pp. 567-569. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Graber, J. D. and S. N. Solomon. "Mennonite Church in India." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M466112.html.
APA style: Graber, J. D. and S. N. Solomon. (1987). Mennonite Church in India. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M466112.html.