Mennonite Christian Fellowship
The Mennonite Christian Fellowship (also known as simply "the Fellowship churches") is a conservative Anabaptist denomination with Old Order Amish, Beachy Amish Mennonite, and Old Order River Brethren origins. Fellowship churches were latecomers to the revivalist era of the 1950s and 1960s and received assistance from established revivalist churches, especially those originating in Holmes County, Ohio, in 1958. When the Holmes County churches affiliated with the Beachys in the 1970s, the Fellowship churches withdrew in opposition to the merger. The individual Fellowship churches are autonomous but held closely together because of frequent interaction, a high level of denominational uniformity, and social boundaries limiting interaction with other conservative Anabaptists. They support the 1632 Dordrecht Confession of Faith and also maintain a set of distinctive practices and limits on lifestyle choices greater than the Beachys.
Historical Origins: 1960s-1970s
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of transformation for many Old Order Amish and Beachy Amish Mennonite communities. American evangelical denominations were undergoing a religious revival. Sectors of the (Old) Mennonites embraced the revivalism. Through tent meetings, literature publishing and distribution, evangelistic singing, personal testimonies, and proselytizing, they accepted an aggressively pietistic form of Christianity. This religious fervor shook up many Amish and Beachy communities. The revivalist Amish eventually defected from the Old Order setting, adopting automobiles and other innovations in the process. The exodus began in the late 1950s and had largely ended by the late 1960s. Those who first left were often hesitant about joining with the Beachys. While the Beachys contained a revivalist element around 1960, the denomination still tolerated members who held to Amish practices and traditions that repulsed the revivalist Amish. These practices included tobacco usage, unmonitored courtship, and a lack of a new birth testimony. Not until the early 1970s did the revivalist Amish churches merge with the Beachys, who by that time had largely expelled the Old Beachy element.
Among the earliest of the revivalist Amish groups were the fellowship churches of Holmes County, Ohio, established in 1958. They grew so rapidly that by 1965 they had three churches with a membership of 209, including eight ministers/deacons and two bishops. These fellowship churches held Bible studies, mid-week prayer meetings, tract distributions, hymn sings, and a variety of other revivalist activities. Leaders were also concerned that the break from the Old Order Amish would touch off an irreversible set of changes compromising their distinctive lines of separation from the world. They therefore composed a written standard for members regulating fashion (e.g. in clothing, interior decorating, automobile styles, and wedding practices), audiovisual media (e.g. radio and television), recreation and hobbies (e.g. sports, races, alcohol and tobacco, vacations, and labor union membership), and financial stewardship (e.g. insurance, tithing, and government hand-outs).
While the major transition for revivalists out of the Amish setting occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were several latecomers in the mid to latter half of the 1960s. These factions looked to the Holmes County fellowship churches for assistance. These included a group of Old Order River Brethren near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania; a faction of New Order Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; and a congregation of New Order Amish in central Ohio. Several other factions emerged from Old Beachy churches, and they, too, looked to Holmes County leaders for assistance. These included factions in Daviess County, Indiana; Mercer County, Pennsylvania; and Geauga County, Ohio. Holmes County fellowship church leaders spent time with these groups and helped them adopt the regulations and practices held to in the Holmes County standards. Each discarded their regional dress and adopted the dress of Holmes County fellowship churches. Thus, these churches became fellowship churches.
In the midst of this work, though, the standards of Holmes County churches were already changing. As the movement grew, leaders had to spend more time in internal maintenance work and less time in outreach activities. There was an increasing toleration of fashion and leniency in standards, if only in a cluster of small—but highly symbolic—areas. Simultaneously, Holmes County leaders were seeking closer association with the Beachys, including the five Weavertown Amish Mennonite churches of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Weavertown was slowly phasing out tobacco and adopting revivalist practices.
The willingness of Holmes County fellowship churches to associate with Beachy churches that still tolerated tobacco and held some ambiguity about revivalist conceptions of the new birth was distressing to several Holmes County leaders and the bulk of the fellowship churches external to Holmes County. In 1971, the conservatives’ main advocate in Holmes County—Bishop Uria Shetler—moved to Paraguay for mission work. His brother, Joni Shetler, became the main spokesman for the conservative fellowship churches. Joni was bishop at Mission Home Christian Fellowship in central Virginia. This was the neighboring church to the Beachy-sponsored Faith Mission Home for mentally handicapped children, which was staffed mostly by Beachy young adults. The Beachy-administered unit and the fellowship-leaning church rubbed shoulders in their allowances or disallowances for young adult activities, fashion, and the usage of ministers from churches that tolerated tobacco (especially Weavertown). Joni was also an indispensible advocate of the fellowship churches in Lancaster County, including Melita. These churches were in the midst of the Weavertown churches, and the two expressions of “Amish Mennonite” caused friction.
As Holmes County fellowship churches shifted their support to Weavertown and away from Melita, the fellowship churches outside of Holmes County looked to Joni for leadership. In 1976, differences between Faith Mission Home and Mission Home Christian Fellowship climaxed, and in 1977, the church relocated its entire membership to Gap Mills, West Virginia. This emigration finalized the division between the fellowship churches outside Holmes County and the Beachy churches, which by this time included the Holmes County fellowship churches. In 1978, the fellowship churches held their first annual ministers’ meeting. All of the fellowship churches outside Holmes County (except Zion in Geauga County)—but none of the fellowship churches in Holmes County—joined the new Mennonite Christian Fellowship. The denomination inherited the title, “Fellowship churches.”
Growth, Expansion and Division
The Fellowship churches embraced the colonization by evangelization program of the revivalists in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea is to proselytize in communities without a conservative Anabaptist presence by having several families move in and start a church. Many people from Fellowship, Beachy, and Tennessee churches followed the evangelistic preacher Allan Miller to Missouri in and after 1981. Miller was from Mercer County, Pennsylvania. The Missouri church planting program resulted in six congregations by 2001, stretching in a line from the northwestern to the southwestern corners of the state. The Fellowship Missourians also sent colonizers to California. The hills and mountains of the Appalachians attracted the fellowship churches of the east. A network of outreaches emerged from Melita Fellowship of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Emmanuel Fellowship of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. They planted churches in central and northern New York, central Pennsylvania, western Maryland, and eastern Tennessee. Miscellaneous Fellowship outreaches also sprang up in southern Ohio, Kentucky, central & western Tennessee, and several Central American countries.
The Fellowship denomination experienced a rupture in the mid-1990s in response to the Charity movement. Mose Stoltzfus, a layman at Melita Fellowship in Lancaster County, ran into conflict with the local fellowship churches, including his bishop-brother at Melita’s outreach. Mose left Melita with a small minority in 1982; Melita excommunicated the faction. Mose was then instrumental in starting the Charity movement. Charity churches became the antithesis of the Fellowship churches, with a de-emphasis on standards, church structure, ministerial leadership, tradition, and uniformity, instead emphasizing intensely emotional pietistic experience, the primacy of family over church, homeschooling, personal convictions, and baptism without membership. The movement drew few supporters from among Fellowship ranks, instead stacking its ranks from amongst the Old Order Mennonites and Amish.
In the early 1990s, Mose made partial restitution with Melita. Melita lifted the ban, but this decision was made in isolation. Joni Shetler, Allan Miller, and several other influential Fellowship leaders felt that Charity churches still persisted in unsound practices. They advocated excommunication of anyone who transferred to Charity churches, a policy accepted by most Fellowship churches. A minority of congregations never adopted this policy, and consequently, disassociated themselves with the Fellowship churches. Several even joined the Charity movement, including Christian Light Fellowship in Bedford, Pennsylvania, which facilitated at least two Charity divisions from Fellowship churches. The Melita church never adopted the policy of excommunication for defectors to Charity, but this was not long an issue; in 1995, because of gradual loss of members to Beachy churches, Melita closed.
Theology, Church Life and Structure
In the early 21st century the Fellowship churches have ascribed to the tenants of the 1632 Dordrecht Confession of Faith and would feel their core beliefs were adequately summarized in Daniel Kauffman’s Doctrines of the Bible. In addition, they have believed in nonresistance, the women’s head covering, the need for church membership, and the sinfulness of remarriage following divorce. Fellowship churches have emphasized the need for rebaptism if one does not feel his original baptism was accompanied by the new birth. This applied mostly to Amish converts early on.
In general, the Fellowship churches held less tolerance for deviance in church practices than Beachy churches, and leaders more readily responded to issues. Fellowship churches persevered in disciplinary measures more common among the early Holmes County fellowship movement, including putting someone on discipline (church offices and voting privileges are revoked for a time) and excommunication (church membership is terminated). They were more uniform and distinct in dress regulations than Beachys, requiring suspenders for men and cap-style coverings that come onto the ears for women, and also had greater limitations on technology and recreational activities.
Like the Beachys, their churches have been autonomous. However, the denomination retained the power to disfellowship deviant congregations. Fellowship churches have held greater uniformity and intimacy within the denomination, and therefore informal power structures prevailed above decentralization or bureaucratized centralization. They have had tighter lines of fellowship, being selective about which conservative Anabaptist groups would be allowed to preach in their churches. Local church structure and organization was basically the same as Beachy churches.
Similar to the Charity and Beachy churches, Fellowship churches remained strongly evangelistic and required a new birth testimony of adherents. Their programs resembled the outreach programs of the early Holmes County fellowship movement. They were perhaps the strongest advocates among the Amish Mennonite denominations of tract distribution, and were also involved in singing hymns at institutions like hospitals and nursing homes. Church planting has accounted for much of their growth beyond the original settlements. Most foreign church plantings have been governed by the Mennonite Fellowship Mission board.
Until the early 2000s, their opposition to a young adult peer-culture extended to forbidding any attendance at voluntary service units like the Beachy-sponsored Faith Mission Home. If young adults wanted to engage in voluntary service, they were required to transfer their membership to the local church at the service unit, usually Beachy. The establishment of a young adult voluntary service unit (the T.E.A.M. Boys’ Ranch for troubled boys in southwestern Missouri) was a sign that the uniform objection to young adult volunteer units was blurring.
Individual Fellowship churches hosted a variety of nurture programs. They preferred congregations to host these programs rather than institutions located away from a local church. Annual ministers’ meetings have provided a venue for preaching and constituency-wide decision making. The Christian Life Conference Meetings addressed a variety of practical and spiritual topics over the course of a weekend. The Publication Board has hosted an annual writers’ meeting. The annual Youth Bible Study has been a weekend meeting intended only for young adults from Fellowship churches. Finally, regional School Meetings provided training and networking opportunities for those involved in church schools.
Families have been large by American standards. In the early 21st century couples typically had between four and seven children. The peak age bracket for marriage has been around the early 20s. Courtship periods have been for around one year, with the activities of the couple closely monitored by parents. Weddings resembled a Sunday morning service and largely lacked the fads of music, dress, and decorating prevalent among the Beachys. A reception followed the service. Attendance has ranged from 350 to 500, which included many kin.
Farming and construction/craft-related work remained the primary occupations for men. Minor occupations included teacher/principal and retail store owner. Men were either self-employed or else worked for a conservative Anabaptist business. Adolescents turned a portion of their income over to their parents until they reach a certain age. Single women may be employed as teachers, house cleaners, or babysitters. Occupations for men and women involved less professional interaction with those outside the religious community than the Beachys. Married women with children did not work outside the home in formal occupations. Church-sponsored private schools provided eight grades of education for the children of church members. Teachers have been hired from within the religious community. Education beyond eighth grade, including conservative Anabaptist-sponsored Bible schools, has been discouraged.
Like Beachys and other conservative Anabaptists, Fellowship young adults have enjoyed volleyball and softball, hymn singing, and hunting/fishing. The professionalism of tournaments or touring choirs were absent from Fellowship recreation, though. Young adult activities have been typically spiritual or service oriented, with an occasional leisure activity. Married adults from the church have been closely involved in young adult activities. In addition, women enjoyed walking, gardening, sewing, or cooking as a hobby.
In 2010 the Mennonite Christian Fellowship had 32 congregations with 1,471 members:
Anderson, Cory. "Retracing the blurred boundaries of the twentieth-century 'Amish Mennonite' identity." Mennonite Quarterly Review 85 (2011): 361-412.
Beachy Amish Mennonite Churches. "Amish Mennonite Sects and Movements." Web. 27 September 2010. http://www.beachyam.org/amishmennonites.htm.
The Fellowship Contributor. [Monthly periodical]. Gap Mills, WV: Publication Board of the Mennonite Christian Fellowship Churches.
Mennonite Church Directory 2010. Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, Inc., 2010: 80-84.
Miller, Allan A., ed. The Origin of the Fellowship Churches. Renick, WV: Yoders’ Select Books, 2004.
Beachy Amish Website (Informal)
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MLA style: Anderson, Cory. "Mennonite Christian Fellowship." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. January 2012. Web. 19 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/mennonite_christian_fellowship.
APA style: Anderson, Cory. (January 2012). Mennonite Christian Fellowship. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/mennonite_christian_fellowship.