Old Order Mennonites
Old Order Mennonites, a name applied to certain conservative groups which separated from the Mennonite Church (MC) in the United States and Canada 1872-1901, maintaining the "Old Order" of customs of worship and church life. When the Great Awakening, as H. S. Bender has termed it, came to the Mennonite Church (MC) in the last third of the 19th century, four "Old Order" divisions occurred in the following areas: (1) Indiana and Ohio, led by Jacob Wisler, 1872; (2) Ontario, led by Abraham Martin, 1889; (3) Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, led by Jonas H. Martin, 1893; and (4) Rockingham County, Virginia, led by Gabriel D. Heatwole, 1900. These groups recognized each other as being one brotherhood, and became known as the Old Order Mennonites, although they had no formal organization bearing this name. Sometimes the name "Wisler" is applied to the entire group. Locally often the names of the leading bishops are given to the several groups such as "Wenger Mennonites," "Weaver Mennonites," "Martinites," etc., and in Ontario the groups are often referred to under the name of the township in which they reside, e.g., "Woolwichers" (for Woolwich Township in Waterloo County) and "Markham people" (for Markam Township in York County). Subsequent subdivisions occurred in the first three bodies as led originally by Jacob Wisler, Abraham Martin, and Jonas H. Martin. These four groups originated through a reluctance to accept cultural change, and the determination not to adopt the newer agencies for Christian education and evangelism such as the Sunday school, series of evangelistic meetings, and similar new activities and institutions.
Jacob Wisler (1808-89), ordained preacher in Columbiana County, Ohio, in 1833, moved to Elkhart County in 1848, and the year after the death of the aged Martin Hoover (ca. 1761-1850) he was ordained bishop by Abraham Rohrer of Medina County, Ohio, the bishop who had ordained Hoover in 1845 just before he migrated to Elkhart County. Wisler, of a conservative turn of mind, was opposed to any change in the life of the church. Joseph Rohrer (1801-1884), a preacher of Stark County, Ohio, came to Elkhart County in 1850, and served for some time in the ministry with Wisler. But Wisler did not like the exuberance manifested by Rohrer as he preached, and accused him of having too much of a "Methodist" spirit. Rohrer finally left the church and united with the Evangelical Church, whose house of worship stood one-half mile north of the Yellow Creek Mennonite meetinghouse, eight miles west of Goshen. In 1864 Daniel Brenneman, also a preacher, moved from Ohio to Elkhart County, a man similar in spirit to Joseph Rohrer, and was soon, like Rohrer, more popular than the bishop. Brenneman was happy to preach in English and he did not hesitate to sing a strong bass in the Yellow Creek services, although he knew that Wisler favored the old unison singing. A deacon of the Holdeman congregation, Joseph Holdeman, was also critical of Wisler as well is of a number of other leaders through the years. There was considerable dissatisfaction in the church by 1867, the year when John F. Funk located in Elkhart County. In October 1867 a committee of 16 leaders from Ontario, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Virginia attempted to adjust the difficulties. The first signer of the Committee of Sixteen was Joseph Hagey of Ontario. The next year, 1868, Tillman Moyer of Ontario made another effort to iron out the difficulties, and he signed his statement "In the presence of Joseph Hagey." In 1869 Tillman Moyer was back again, accompanied by two Ontario and two Ohio Mennonite leaders, and another effort was made to establish permanent peace. In 1870 Bishop John M. Brenneman of Ohio, the strongest leader in the state, came to Elkhart County with the express approval of Bishop Rohrer, who had ordained Wisler and who had served on the Committee of Sixteen in 1867, and Brenneman succeeded in once more effecting peace. But Wisler's dissatisfaction with the Indiana Conference's approval of Sunday schools in 1870 led to fresh trouble in 1871, and in October 1871 a committee of six bishops headed by John M. Brenneman suspended Wisler's bishop function, with the approval of the Yellow Creek congregation. Wisler rejected the decision of the Committee of Six, and on 6 January 1872, the Elkhart County ministers announced to the Yellow Creek congregation that Wisler and his followers, including preachers John Weaver and Christian Bare, were no longer members of the church. It was probably John F. Funk who made the announcement. Thereupon Wisler began to hold separate services and to seek support elsewhere. This support he found in eastern Ohio (Wayne, Medina, and Columbiana-Mahoning counties), where the church divided and the conservative group followed Wisler. In 1907 the Wisler Mennonites of Indiana divided into the more progressive Ramer or Wisler Mennonites and the more conservative Martin or Old Order Mennonites. By 1920 the Ramer and Martin groups had respectively about 150 and 60 members, in 1957 150 and 102. The Ohio congregations in the Wisler group totaled 345 members in 1957, all of the more progressive group. The Indiana and Ohio progressive Old Order congregations (Wisler Mennonites) constituted a conference which has met annually in June since 1907.
In 1889 a similar schism occurred in Ontario, led by Bishop Abraham Martin of Woolwich Township, Waterloo County. The other bishops of his group were Christian Gayman of South Cayuga and Christian Reesor of Markham. The issues were the same as in Indiana: Sunday schools, evangelistic meetings, and the like. In 1917 a more conservative faction split off in the Waterloo County area, the "David Martin group," having in 1957 a membership of 116 and listed in the Mennonite Yearbook as "not under Conference." In the 1889 meeting to organize the Old Order Mennonites of Woolwich Township, Bishop Christian Shaum of Elkhart County, Indiana, Wisler's younger colleague, was present. In the late 1920s a more progressive group broke away from the Woolwichers to found what is now known as the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference, and which had a membership of 748 in 1957. The original Woolwich Conference had a membership of 1,061 in 1957. Tension had existed between Christian Gayman and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario a number of years before the division of 1889.
Michigan also suffered some schisms. In 1886 the Mennonite congregation of Brutus, Michigan, which had its roots in Ontario, divided into the Wisler and non-Wisler group. The Wisler group was for many years much stronger than the remnant which remained with the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference (MC). A few scattered Wisler members lived at Brutus until the 1950s but scarcely any services were held after 1930. There was also a small group of Old Order Mennonites in Tuscola County, Michigan, under the leadership of a preacher Daniel Lehman, who died soon after 1920. They settled in Tuscola County around 1880, coming mostly from Ontario. Lehman was one of the last members there.
The third area in which a group of Old Order Mennonites arose was in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. George Weaver, a bishop who had served on the Committee of Sixteen in Indiana in 1867, was of a conservative turn of mind, and did not favor Sunday schools. He sympathized with Wisler. When Weaver in his old age wished to ordain a bishop as his successor (in 1881) he rejected Benjamin Horning (1827-1907), an able preacher in his Weaverland-Groffdale District; although Horning received sufficient votes to pass through the lot, Weaver discarded them, saying that he lived too far from the center of the district. Horning continued his ministry, but his preacher-friend Emanuel Newswanger (c1833-1905) stopped preaching in protest against the injustice done Horning. A preacher (ord. 1875) named Jonas H. Martin (1839-1925) was ordained bishop to assist Bishop Weaver. He was of the same convictions as George Weaver and somewhat out of harmony with the Lancaster Conference, which in 1871 had approved Sunday schools, and which in 1872 had endorsed the action of the six bishops in the case of Jacob Wisler. The old custom of the Mennonites in Lancaster County and elsewhere had been to have a table in place of a pulpit, around which the song leaders and preachers sat, and behind which the preacher stood (on a level with his people) to deliver his discourse. When the new Lichty meetinghouse was built in 1889 near New Holland a small pulpit was put into it. A few weeks before the first services someone removed the pulpit from the church by night, arranged the seating in the older arrangement, and installed a neatly constructed table. Bishop Jonas Martin was blamed for secretly approving of the act. Tensions continued to build up because of Martin's conservatism, and he was accused of a lack of integrity. After many efforts to settle the difficulties he announced at a Lancaster Conference meeting in October 1893 that he was withdrawing because (a) he and his followers did not favor the bishops and preachers performing marriage ceremonies for nonmembers; (b) they were not in favor of Sunday schools; and (c) they opposed any Lancaster Conference congregation obtaining a charter from the state. The other bishops of the Conference reciprocated by revoking his ordination. He then proceeded to set up what is now known as the Weaverland Conference. In 1926, the year following Martin's death, Preacher Joseph O. Wenger led a more conservative schism from the Weaverland Conference, and in 1927 Wenger was ordained bishop of his group, which is now known as the Groffdale Conference or Wenger Mennonites. The original Weaverland Conference had a membership of 1,731 in 1957, and the Groffdale Conference had 1,450. There are also other splinter groups of the Old Order Mennonites in the Weaverland area.
The fourth group of Old Order Mennonites, near Harrisonburg, Virginia, has always been weak numerically. The founder in Virginia was Gabriel D. Heatwole (1834-1922), a preacher ordained at the Weaver church in 1870 who seceded from the Virginia Conference (MC), in 1901. After his death the leading minister of this group was John Dan Wenger, who served for many years as bishop. In 1922 Bishop Wenger was assisted in the ministry by preachers Lewis P. Good and Emanuel Heatwole. At that time services were being held in the Pleasant View meetinghouse at Dayton, Virginia, where there were 75 members, at the Pike School in Rockingham County where there were 12 members, and at Mt. Pleasant where there were but three members. In recent years a division occurred, one group being led by Russell Cline. In 1957 there were only two meeting places, Pleasant View and Oak Grove, both near Dayton, with a combined membership of 325, in two factions, one led by Bishop Wenger and one by Bishop Cline. The Virginia group corresponds to the most conservative of the major Old Order Mennonite groups in Indiana, Ontario, and Pennsylvania.
The total for all areas and groups of Old Order Mennonites in 1957 was 5,800 members in 44 congregations. A general cultural and religious conservatism characterizes the entire group. The most conservative groups use only horse-drawn vehicles. The more progressive bodies permit the use of automobiles; traditionally, however, they paint the chrome bumpers black. In most areas the more conservative groups attempt to maintain the use of German for at least parts of the service, but this is becoming increasingly difficult. All groups are still opposed to evangelistic meetings and Sunday schools. By rearing large families the Old Order Mennonites are growing; they have about doubled their membership in the last quarter century. -- John C. Wenger
In 2002 there were approximately 20,000 baptized Old Order Mennonite members in 150 congregations. This included 3,000 baptized members in Ontario, Canada.
Burkholder, L. J. A Brief History of the Mennonites in Ontario. Kitchener, ON: Mennonite Conference of Ontario, 1935: 197-216.
Weaver, M. G. Mennonites of Lancaster Conference. Scottdale, PA, 1931: 130, 139, 148, 385-395.
"." Penn State On Demand panel discussion moderated by Patty Satalia with Donald Kraybill, Richard Page, David Weaver-Zercher, Stephen Scott and Julia Kasdorf. 58:45 minute streaming video in QuickTime or WindowsMedia.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 47-49. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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