The Fellowship of Evangelical Churches has a spiritual heritage which can be traced directly to the Reformation in Europe. Even prior to the Reformation there were small groups of believers in Europe who held unswervingly to an evangelical faith in the face of continuing ritualism, formalism and power within the Roman Church.
There was a gradual, serious spiritual deterioration in the Church between the time of Jesus’ life on earth and the sixteenth century. This also affected church leaders: material wealth was brutally used against the poor; spiritual rebirth became identified with church membership and baptism; clerical morality wavered; salvation became identified with purgatory; indulgences replaced holy living; and corrupt politicians attempted to control spiritual life.
The Reformation erupted in the early sixteenth century. The Lutheran branch of the Reformation recovered the centrality of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ through God’s grace. The Reformed branch rediscovered the centrality of the Scriptures in defining a spiritual teaching core.
Anabaptist Concerns and Beginnings
The Anabaptist branch initially rejoiced in the Reformation. However, these reformers soon came to believe that John Calvin and Martin Luther led a “halfway” Reformation. For them other central issues were left untouched: the significance of the elements in the Lord’s Supper, infant baptism, the nature of the church, and the interpretation of the Scriptures.
Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and George Blaurock increasingly questioned their mentor and teacher, Ulrich Zwingli, on the matter of infant baptism. On January 21, 1525, they baptized each other along with others upon their personal, public confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Persecution soon erupted from the other branches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church. These three men, and multitudes more, were martyred for this expression of their faith. They refused to retaliate against their persecutors because they sought to practice Jesus’ love. They were called peacemakers or pacifists. The number of adherents grew and spread rapidly across what is now Switzerland, southern Germany and Holland. Because of their insistence on adult baptism, they were called re-baptizers or Anabaptists. For them the evidence of Christianity was discipleship, brotherhood, and a self-giving, nonresistant love.
Evangelical Teachings with Anabaptist Roots
The evangelical church of the twentieth century is the heir of early Anabaptist teachings: Scripture alone defines a person’s faith; salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ through God’s grace; Christians can live in the power of the Holy Spirit; personal discipleship and discipline are crucial to spiritual growth; church and state governments should be separate; people created in God’s image have a right to freely express convictions of conscience; baptism is for believers; the church is a voluntary organization; church government is congregational; laity and clergy equally are priests before God; Christians may suffer for their faith; and Christians have a responsibility to share material goods with the poor.
Early Anabaptist Developments
Anabaptist church leadership was decimated because of severe, prolonged, and widespread persecution. But in God’s providence a converted Roman Catholic priest increasingly accepted Anabaptist teachings. In 1536, he finally joined the movement. His formal training and practical writing skills stabilized and codified the early Anabaptist movement. His name was Menno Simons. He was so successful in providing effective leadership that outsiders labeled the re-baptizers, “Mennonites.”
Mennonites were relentlessly hounded and persecuted across much of Europe throughout most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Congregations scattered because of persecution from without and splintered from internal dissension. Because of martyrdom, trained leadership never emerged. However, persecution failed to eliminate the so-called radical reformers. As persecution persisted, there was a growing commitment of most Mennonites to a peaceful expression of New Testament teachings.
Mennonites and Amish
Strong disagreement from within the Mennonite community disrupted their peaceful way of life. In 1693, the Anabaptists faced a major challenge from Bishop Jacob Amman. He insisted that a person under church discipline experience separation not only from his church but also from his family. After intense discussion the Anabaptist movement split. The more conservative group under Bishop Amman’s leadership became known as the Amish.
North American Immigration
After almost two centuries of injustice, hardship, insult, cruelty, and martyrdom, European Mennonites and Amish longed for a land where they might live in peace. They desired to live according to their interpretation of New Testament teachings and to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience. This focused primarily on an attempt to literally apply Jesus’ teachings to daily living. Many Amish and Mennonite communities immigrated to North America.
The first settlement in the USA began as early as 1683, at Germantown, Pennsylvania. They were welcomed by the Quaker brethren of William Penn’s colony. From 1709-1754, another group of 3,000-5,000 arrived in Pennsylvania. Later, from 1815-1861, more than 3,000 additional immigrants arrived in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa.
In their new homeland they adhered to the Dortrecht Confession of Faith, which had been adopted in Holland on April 21, 1632. They also enforced external patterns of living such as clothing style, cut of hair, separation from the world, and later, means of transportation. They were skeptical about becoming friends with the world and other Christian groups because of a long history of persecution and martyrdom.
The Egly Amish
Into such an environment a young man named Henry Egly was elected deacon of a Berne-Geneva (Indiana) Amish church. During the next three years he experienced illness along with a call to the ministry. After much prayer and heart examination, he was thrilled with a new spiritual vitality through committing himself to preaching the biblical truth that salvation is “by grace…through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). He adopted Menno Simons’ motto, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In 1858, he was elected bishop of this Amish church. Opposition arose because of his insistence on the new birth experience. He was “forced” to withdraw from being a minister and bishop in the Amish church. One-half of the congregation withdrew with him. The first “Egly-Amish” church was formed in 1866. It became the Berne EMC church. Throughout the rest of his life, he mainly attempted to reform the Amish church from within, rather than to evangelize non-Christians in the community.
Bishop Egly was invited to other Amish communities to share the message of salvation by faith in Christ through God’s grace. New congregations were formed in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, and Ohio. A very loose fraternal association of rural congregations developed throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. In addition, a Sunday School program was introduced in the churches before Bishop Egly’s death in 1890.
The Defenseless Mennonites and Social Witness
On November 6, 1908, the “Egly-Amish” officially adopted the name “Defenseless Mennonite.” This indicated a desire to be known more as Mennonite than Amish. During this time the Defenseless Mennonites sought to bear witness to their faith through ministering to human needs. Through their efforts, Salem Orphanage, now Salem Children’s Home, was established in 1896. In 1908, Salem Gospel Mission was begun in Chicago. Eventually this mission ministry became Calvary Memorial Church. Brotherhood Aid Association, now Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, was begun in 1917.
In cooperation with the Central Conference of Mennonites, now the Central District of the General Conference Mennonite Church, The Mennonite Old People’s Home, now Meadows Mennonite Retirement Community, was inaugurated in 1919. The two groups also cooperated to found Mennonite Hospital, now BroMenn Health Care, in 1919, which is located in Bloomington, Illinois.
Home and Cross-Cultural Missions
Very little was done in active home evangelism with the objective of establishing new churches. However, a zeal for cross-cultural missions has been a twentieth century hallmark. Mennonites were forerunners of the modern missionary movement. Missionaries were sent out as early as 1896. In 1912, individuals from the Defenseless Mennonites, in cooperation with the Central Conference of Mennonites, were instrumental in forming the Congo Inland Mission, now the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. They began a denominational missions program in 1945, first in the Dominican Republic (1945) and then in Venezuela (1980). Financial commitments to foreign missions have been very strong throughout the twentieth century.
Early Twentieth Century Developments
The Defenseless Mennonites were skeptical about pursuing higher educational degrees or strongly encouraging formal pastoral training. To them, these seemed to contribute to early twentieth century humanism, immorality, materialism, and theological liberalism. They also reflected on their historical background. Persecution and martyrdom had come from Christians with higher educational degrees and formal pastoral training. They also were the heirs of Egly’s emphasis on strict separation from the world.
But some in the post-Egly generation increasingly stressed the evangelism of the lost outside the church, higher educational degrees, and formal pastoral training. Bishop Egly’s successor, Rev. Joseph Ramseyer, also stressed “a distinct experience of baptism of the Holy Spirit, premillennialism, and baptism by immersion.” (Stan Nussbaum, You Must Be Born Again, p.14) Because of these “irreconcilable” differences, Rev. Ramseyer formed a new denomination, the Missionary Church Association (1898), now known as the Missionary Church.
During World War I, communication between the Defenseless Mennonites and their German relatives was severely restricted. At the end of the war, the German language ceased being the official language of the churches. German loyalties and cultural preferences lessened. Defenseless Mennonites increasingly saw themselves as an American community and no longer as a transplanted German, European society.
Evangelical Mennonite Church and National Association of Evangelicals
The Defenseless Mennonites were charter members in the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942. Later, in 1948, their name was changed from Defenseless Mennonites to Evangelical Mennonites. Their commitments were not only Anabaptist, but also evangelical. New, positive attitudes slowly emerged toward higher education, formal pastoral training, identification with the broader evangelical community, and theological tolerance within evangelicalism. The Evangelical Mennonite Church (EMC) has walked an interesting and somewhat misunderstood tight rope between traditional Anabaptists beliefs and emerging evangelical commitments.
Post World War II
Following World War II, upward social mobility, increased personal wealth, professional success, urbanization, and high educational attainments characterized many EMCers. There continues to be an appreciation for and loyalty to her European heritage. This has given a renewed vision of the New Testament “free” church and a continuing commitment to the doctrine of the “new birth.” The Lord has also given local churches a greater burden to evangelize the non-churched, including the objective of planting new churches. New cross-cultural ministry involvements are being pursued. Local churches continue to be centers of compassionate sharing in their communities and FEC.
With a rapidly changing constituency the Evangelical Mennonite Church voted on August 2, 2003 to be known as the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches. In so doing, the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (FEC) affirmed its core values anchored in Evangelical theology and Anabaptist distinctives, and its mission to help the local church accomplish the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
1. An Introduction to Mennonite History by Cornelius Dyck (ed.)
2. A Tribute to Menno Simons by Franklin H. Littell
3. You Must Be Born Again by Stan Nussbaum
4. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later by J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder
5. Anabaptist Portraits by John A. Moore