Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Mennonite Women and Their Bishops in the Founding of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Mennonite Women and Their Bishops in the Founding of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church

Article excerpt

Abstract. This essay applies feminist theory to a conflict in Lancaster County that led to the founding of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church in 1968. Since women's dress and gender roles were key elements in that division, the Ainlay/Kniss model of conflict needs greater nuancing to account for gender-related themes. To be sure, male and female founding members of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church shared a common cause, but a focus on gender as a category of analysis strongly suggests that men and women were attracted to the church for different reasons.

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This paper applies a gendered analysis to the conflict that led to the founding of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church in 1968. I rely on archival analysis and oral history interviews with women inside and outside the denomination to argue that women's dress and gender roles were key elements in the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite division from the Lancaster Conference of the (Old) Mennonite Church. Feminist inquiry questions how gender role expectations affect institutions, including the church, and asks how women in particular are affected by divisive issues such as church splits. Examining women's dress as an object of material culture reveals insights about the qualities that the wearer and her culture associate with being female, (1) qualities that may be especially contested during conflict situations. Thus, exploring gender roles, women's dress and the ways these factors influenced the formation of a new Mennonite denomination in the late 1960s constitutes the heart of my investigation.

As a case study for the model of conflict outlined by Stephan Ainlay and Fred Kniss in their theoretical paper, my investigation into the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church illustrates both the overall validity of the Ainlay/Kniss model and the need for greater nuancing in our understanding of Mennonites and conflict. While I directly discuss their visual model toward the end of this paper, I suggest that a perspective more sensitive to intragroup differences along gender lines, even within a group that finds itself in general agreement, would more accurately characterize particular conflicts such as this one. Specifically, as I illustrate below, using gender as a category of analysis enables us to examine the ways in which male and female founding members of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church shared common cause, as well as the ways in which men and women were motivated by distinct points of emphasis and discrete goals.

IMPORTANCE OF THE CONFLICT

The formation of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church out of Lancaster Conference merits our attention for two reasons. First, in 1968 Lancaster Conference was the largest Mennonite body in the world, claiming a membership of 16,005 before the split; this division marked the first major schism in the conference since the formation of the Old Order Mennonite groups some 70 years earlier. (2) The initial exodus from Lancaster Conference in 1968--which included 5 bishops as well as 27 ministers and 469 members from 12 congregations--was comparatively small. But the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church grew rapidly, formally organizing the following year with 1181 members in 27 congregations. (3) In the years following, additional converts from Lancaster Conference as well as from more conservative Mennonite and Amish groups were drawn to the group's evangelical fervor. (4) Today the denomination has tripled its original membership, numbering 3665 adult members in some 60 congregations (5)--and these numbers would be even higher but for the fact that the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church itself has spawned two church splits in its brief history. (6) The rapid growth of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church is in contrast to Lancaster Conference, which has grown more modestly during the same time period--to 19,979, an aggregate growth of 25%. …

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