Eighth Street Roots, 1892-1913
Bishop Joseph Stuckey pondered the letter, unsure what to do.
Stuckey was a respected Amish Mennonite leader, known well beyond his central Illinois home as a wise and broad-minded elder. So he often received requested for advice from far-flung Amish Mennonite and Mennonite communities. Still, this request from Elkhart County, Indiana in the spring of 1892 troubled him. About fifty members of the Clinton Frame Church were dissatisfied with the spiritual life of their congregation and wanted Stuckey to come to Indiana and help them organize a new church.
Stuckey was sympathetic to their concerns, but he didn’t want to facilitate a schism. His ministry had been about bringing people together, not pulling them apart. The issues at Clinton Frame, which was one of the larger Amish Mennonite church in northern Indiana at the time, were complex, and involved theology, ecclesiology, and personality conflicts. They included the strictness of church expectations that women wear ‘plain’ dress and men not shave their beards. There were also complaints about worship. “We wanted to hear from the pulpit something more deeply spiritual related to the Christian life,” one of the dissenters later recalled. Some parents believed that the conservative tenor of the church was discouraging their children from considering baptism.
Clinton Frame’s leadership and most of the members were committed to upholding the more traditional ways. But then the congregation’s seventy-three-year-old bishop, Benjamin Schrock, emerged from retirement to side with the more liberal group, which then began to meet separately for worship and again petitioned Stuckey to come and offer his guidance.
Now that division seemed inevitable, Stuckey agreed to come to Indiana, both to assist the new group and also to address the wounded relationships. For a week in June Stuckey met daily with the fifty-or-so people who had left the “old church” (as they called Clinton Frame) and baptized eleven young people. He also “stressed the fact to these members that their success in ministering to the needs of the community depended much upon their [positive] attitude towards the old church” and “emphasized … that the members should always be forgiving, kind, gentle and patient, manifesting a truly Christian spirit.”
For its part, Clinton Frame gave the dissenting group $1,000 as a way of acknowledging “the financial interests the members of the new congregation had in the old.” Later it was revealed that D. J. Johns, Clinton Frame’s younger bishop, had, at some personal financial cost, ensured the donation to the new group even though the progressive party included some voices that had been sharply critical of him.
A thousand dollars was a considerable amount of money at the time and covered almost half the costs of erecting a new church building, which the progressives did within a matter of months. Located along a stretch of County Road 34 known locally as Silver Street, the church became known as Silver Street Mennonite. (In 1984 the congregation moved to the west side of Goshen and became Silverwood Mennonite Church.) Stuckey returned to Elkhart County in the fall of 1892 and ordained J. C. Mehl as Silver Street’s pastor, since bishop Benjamin Schrock insisted on moving back into retirement.
Silver Street’s membership soon surpassed 100, but it drew attendees from a fairly wide geography – people from across the region who were attracted to the sort of Mennonite theology in a congenial key that Joseph Stuckey had represented, as well as a more open approach to education and urban mission work. Within a few years, Silver Street had spun off satellite congregations. The first was to the east, in LaGrange County, where some Silver Street members lived. In 1897 they purchased an unused Methodist building in the village of Topeka and formed Topeka Mennonite Church.
Another cluster of Silver Street members lived to the west, in the town of Goshen. When Silver Street called a new pastor, Alvin K. Ropp, in 1911, he and his family purchased a home in Goshen and he soon was floating the idea of starting a church in the town, a church that would eventually become Eighth Street.
In 1913 Ropp resigned from Silver Street and devote his energy to developing a congregation in Goshen. Fifteen charter members purchased a house at 616 South 5th Street and set to work remodeling it. Ropp and Dr. William Page went to Chicago to purchase chairs, carpet, and a pulpit. On April 20, Valentine Strubhar, a younger protégé of the now-deceased Joseph Stucky, came to Goshen from Illinois to preach at the dedication of the new house-church.
Seventy-five years later, in 1988, Guy E. Smoker (1902-1994), recalled the remodeling work and those first Sundays: “The partitions in the dwelling house were removed to make a sanctuary large enough for over 100 people [on the first floor]. We entered at the front door on the west side and the pulpit was facing us on a little platform across the room at the east side. The piano was in the far right corner. A heating stove stood in each corner to the right and the left of the front door. To the left was a rack along the wall for [coats]. However, there was a cloakroom on the north side which was also used by the men for footwashing … at communion time. The women used the kitchen for [footwashing], which was located on the other side of the wall behind the pulpit. The plain chairs were of reddish wood, fastened to the floor, and could be turned up like opera [theater] seats. The Sunday school rooms were upstairs. When we me the first Sunday, April 20, 1913, our young people’s class included Ralph and Marian Page, Dwight and Lucile Lehman and … her older brother Eldon … as well as Forest and Ernest Cripe – perhaps others. Mrs. [Alice] Page was our able teacher.”
The young church met here until it moved to Eighth Street in 1920.
Sources: Rachel W. Kreider, The History of the Eighth Street Mennonite Church, 1913-1978 (1987); Steven R. Estes, Growing in Christ: Centennial History of the Silverwood Mennonite Church (1992).