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The Turbulent 1920s

Ninety years later, the events of the early 1920s are still remembered as significant in the congregation’s history. These were turbulent years in the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, and although Eighth Street was not part of that conference – it was part of the Central Conference of Mennonites – discontent in the group that represented the majority of Mennonites in the region ended up bringing a sizable number of new members and a new pastor to Eighth Street.

The tensions in the Indiana-Michigan Conference were complex and included the legacy of a 1917 merger of Amish Mennonite and Mennonite congregations with different traditions of authority and decision-making; external societal and governmental pressures stemming from World War I; a wider context of fundamentalism being debated among Protestants everywhere in the U.S. at the time; and cultural change among rural Mennonites who moved to town, pursued formal education, and shed some ethnic folkways, all of which unsettled an older generation. Tensions emerged in a number of congregations, but Goshen’s College Mennonite Church soon found itself in an especially tight situation both because its members were generally on the progressive end of the spectrum, and because some of its members were employed at Goshen College, which was increasingly under scrutiny from the Mennonite Board of Education.

Between 1918 and 1923 Goshen College had four presidents, none able to please both the board, on the one hand, and the faculty, on the other. From 1920 to 1922 the acting president was I. R. Detweiler, who had been a missionary in India and was concurrently pastor at College Church. When Detweiler was replaced as college president in 1922 because he was deemed insufficiently conservative, especially on matters of plain dress and other expression of simplicity, he also resigned as College Church pastor and a number of College Church members quietly transferred their memberships to Eighth Street. Indiana-Michigan Conference leaders resisted such transfers, and those who joined Eighth Street did so by affirmation of faith since they did not receive a “church letter” from their former congregation blessing their move.

The next year, in 1923, Mennonite Board of Education closed Goshen College for a year and dismissed most of the faculty. About the same time, Eighth Street’s church board hired I. R. Detweiler, the former college president, to be its pastor. Detweiler’s coming to Eighth Street brought leadership stability – Eighth Street had had a series of short-term and interim pastors for the past six years – and Detweiler also attracted even more disaffected Mennonites to Eighth Street, including those alienated by the recent closing and reorganization of the college.

The influx of new members was a boon and, no doubt, also a source of some anxiety at Eighth Street. Since 1913 the young Fifth Street/Eighth Street church had struggled with limited human and financial resources, and so they were eager to welcome the newcomers. The new building, completed in 1920 at a much higher-than-expected-cost, now seemed to be filling with people. At the same time, the influx meant that the new arrivals might soon outnumber the founders. There is no evidence that the earlier members resisted becoming the minority, but it is easy to imagine the kinds of changes in congregational culture, assumptions, and agenda that must have attended the arrival of so many new people, especially since many of those coming to the church carried recently painful and negative church experiences.

Back at College Mennonite, a core of committed members were making the best of things, and at the same time Detweiler went to Eighth Street to pastor, College Mennonite members arranged to have a Bluffton College professor, A. E. Kreider, serve as College Mennonite’s pastor. In a remarkable show dedication, for more than a year Kreider commuted weekly from Bluffton, Ohio to Goshen (260 miles round trip on poor roads) to preach at College Mennonite Church! In the summer of 1924, Kreider resigned his long-distance ministry as too taxing, and in September Indiana-Michigan Conference leaders asked College Church members to affirm a stricter discipline. Only 69 were willing to do so, and many of those who would not became yet another cohort that made its way to Eighth Street.

The years 1922-1924 left hurt on all sides. Those who remained at College Mennonite after 1924 did not necessarily agree with the stricter Indiana-Michigan Conference discipline, but they believed, philosophically and theologically, that switching churches was not a good way to deal with conflict, and they were deeply disappointed in those who had left. The transfer of so many members and a pastor from College Mennonite Church to Eighth Street soured relations between some people from both congregations for a time. One story, often repeated, features a promising undergraduate Bible major who was seen one Sunday morning during the 1930s walking north from campus toward Eighth Street Church. A car pulled up next to him, and the driver, Goshen College Academic Dean Harold Bender, told him to get in the car, whereupon Bender drove him to College Mennonite and told him to attend there. The story became popular because the young student, J. Lawrence Burkholder, decades later became Goshen’s president after Bender had died and so the story encapsulated the irony of generational tensions and change that would come later, in the 1960s and 1970s. And the story was well-worn because it contained a kernel of truth: the two churches did represent two different Mennonite conferences and some people in both congregations nursed their respective hurts at the expense of the other.

Yet the story was not exactly representative or typical, since, for example, Bender had warm friends at Eighth Street, and through the mid-century years various college employees were Eighth Street members, including art professor Arthur Sprunger, long-time head of maintenance and grounds Sam Plank, visiting professor Robert Friedmann, and more. And although Eighth Street strongly supported Bluffton College, which was sponsored by the Central Conference, in the spring of 1941 the church board turned to Goshen College for pulpit supply, engaging Goshen College president Ernest E. Miller and retired president Sanford C. Yoder to preach for several months while pastor George Stoneback was on leave for an additional semester of seminary study.

Indeed, pastoral leadership at Eighth Street had continued to turn. Remarkably enough, I. R. Detweiler, who had been hired by Eighth Street after being dismissed from Goshen College for being too liberal, was asked to leave Eighth Street in 1930 because, according to his daughter Emma Schultz, he proved to be too liberal for Eighth Street, as well! Certainly the 1920s had been a tumultuous and often painful era.

Sources: Rachel Kreider, The History of the Eighth Street Mennonite Church, 1913-1978 (1987); Ervin Beck, ed., College Mennonite Church, 1903-2003 (2003); J. C. Wenger, Mennonites in Indiana and Michigan (1961).

Steve Nolt