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Progressive Mennonites, 1920s-1960s

The turbulent 1920s has shaken up the Goshen community and resulted in a sizable influx of new members at Eighth Street Mennonite Church. A congregation receiving so many people, especially so many with painful or negative recent church experiences, might have proven unstable except for the fact that both the old-timers and those swelling the church’s ranks shared a common “progressive Mennonite” vision. In the decades that followed, that vision would guide Eighth Street in many ways and have ripple effects across the Goshen community.

Today the word “progressive” may mean different things to different people, but in the early 20th century it referred to an optimistic belief that society was generally improving and that social reform and moral uplift were possible. Progressives of that time generally had faith in the ability of public servants and business people to work together to achieve good things and they were not cynical about politics or civic engagement.

For American Mennonites, progressivism carried religious implications. As Bluffton historian Perry Bush has explained, progressive Mennonites of the early and mid-20th century believed that traditional Mennonite separatism was misguided, not simply because it seemed restrictive and outmoded, but because progressives contended that Mennonite values, such as freedom of conscience and separation of church and state, were essentially American values, as well. Thus, they believed that faithful Mennonites did not stand in tension with American culture, but were actually aligned with it. Mennonites did not need to fear acculturation, the progressives said, and so they should dispense with things like plain dress that set Mennonites apart from their neighbors and made them feel different. Similarly, progressive Mennonites were comfortable moving to town, taking jobs in the business and banking sectors, and embracing the fine arts and the best of vocal and instrumental music.

 Mennonite progressives at Eighth Street saw religion as an important contribution to civic moral uplift, and endorsed causes from labor reform and world peace to Prohibition. In 1933 Eighth Street began sponsoring a Boy Scout troop, with about a third of the boys coming from families associated with the congregation. Nationally, the scouting movement reflected progressive commitments that combined values of public service, ecumenical Christianity, and at least a mild form of patriotism.

Frank S. Ebersole (1875-1975), an active lay leader at Eighth Street who served for many years as chair of the congregation, personified the progressive impulse. Ebersole managed the Goshen Milk Condensing Company (now Dairy Farmers of America, on 9th Street), and was also a member of the Goshen school board, the Goshen Rotary Club, and the Goshen Board of Public Works and Safety. A Republican, Ebersole was elected mayor of Goshen and served a four-year term, 1943-1947.

Eighth Street’s progressive Mennonitism was a factor in its spawning two institutions that served Elkhart County more broadly: Oaklawn mental health center and Greencroft retirement center. Pastor Bob Hartzler was deeply involved in launching these facilities, and served as executive director of Oaklawn from 1962 to 1978 and of Greencroft from 1966 to 1981. But Hartzler was not alone. Eighth Street members were active supporters of both institutions. For example, four of the first ten Greencroft board members were from Eighth Street: John Jennings, A. E. Kreider, Arthur Weaver, and Dr. Peter Classen. Shortly thereafter, Donita Brookmyer joined the board.

Eighth Street’s influence on these institutions went beyond the outsized number of people involved – important as those people were. Eighth Street’s progressive Mennonite vision seems to have shaped these institutions in critical ways. Other Mennonites in various parts of the U.S. and Canada had started ort were starting mental health centers and retirement homes. What made Oaklawn and Greencroft distinctive among Mennonite-sponsored institutions of their kind was the way both centers quickly moved to invite members of the wider Elkhart County community to join their governance. Unlike other Mennonite health agencies that often retained Mennonite control for many years, the progressive impulse that saw churchly and civic communities as allies rather than antagonists meant that both places were soon cooperative efforts run by boards that included church appointees and non-Mennonite civic leaders. In 1959, for example, only one year after Oaklawn’s board first met, it intentionally added two non-Mennonite community members. By 1973 non-Mennonite community members comprised half the board. This pattern was not “secularization” but an intentionally cooperative arrangement that reflected a vision of the church’s ministry as woven into the secular community – an important legacy of progressive Mennonitism.

Today, many Mennonites in the Goshen area are involved in civic life; this orientation is no longer the preserve of those who worship at the corner of Eighth and Purl. Yet the sense of working in and through the structures of the wider world remains notable on the church’s hundredth birthday. In addition to those involved in the local business community, there are public school teachers and administrators, as well as those who are or have served on Goshen and Middlebury school boards, launched or work at Waterford Crossing and Maple City Health Care Center, are involved in management at Greencroft and Oaklawn, lead the Horizon Education Alliance, and more. In this sense the progressive impulse of the early 20th century is alive and well.

In some other ways, the progressive vision hit some bumps in the 1960s and has not animated the congregation in exactly the same way since then. Today fewer members are confident that Mennonite values really match those of the nation at large. In something of a twist on the 1920s ways of looking at the world, many Eighth Streeters today might say that faithfully living the reign of God often produces tension with surrounding society or sets Mennonites at odds with the state – sentiments that carry an echo of the warnings that separatist Mennonites’ of the early 1900s issued to beware of easy acculturation. How to construe a meaningful peace testimony as fully engaged members of the wider community was one issue that progressive Mennonites considered throughout the past century. More on that next month.

Sources: Rachel Kreider, The History of the Eighth Street Mennonite Church, 1913-1978 (1987);

Perry Bush, “United Progressive Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review (July 2000); John Bender, Greencroft Roots, Since 1967 (1997); Terri Enns, “Oaklawn,” in If We Can Love: The Mennonite Mental Health Story, ed. by Vernon H. Neufeld (1983); Goshen: The First 150 Years, 1831-1981 (1981).   

Steve Nolt