The Outsider's View of the Mennonite Church
Isaac Clarence Kulp, Jr.
November 5, 1994
Jill Davidson: This afternoon's session is the community's, or outsider's, view of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. I add this point for someone who might not know. Clarence made reference to the Evangelical Mennonites. That's what we were called before we were called the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, and we were called other things, too. But that's who he means when he says Evangelical Mennonites. They became the Mennonite Brethren in Christ and later the Bible Fellowship Church. It's the same group. The early people, Father Gehman's crowd, they were first called the Evangelical Mennonites.
Clarence: I hate to have a formal presentation after all those wonderful choruses and stories. I think we could probably do well to let all of you talk and tell your stories. My voice is getting poorer and poorer so I don't know how long I'm going to talk this afternoon. Maybe we'll turn it back to you.
We were talking about the different names by which your denomination has been known. Of course, the original formal name was the Evangelical Mennonite Church. Daddy Gehman and his associates. "Daadi Gehman." They used to say that. "Daadi Gehman." After one merger, they became the Evangelical United Mennonite Church, and then the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Those who were outside and didn't particularly like you called you such names as "holy rollers" and, in Pennsylvania Dutch, "Schtrawler Gemee", which literally means the strugglers, because sometimes in the throes of emotionalism, they seemed to be struggling or beating the air, at least, that's what those who were criticizing your people would have said.
My personal recollection came from my earliest youth, as far back as I can remember, especially from my mother, who told me about "Rose Jelly" Jake, the Jakie Moyers gemee and the meetings there. My first personal experience with Mennonite Brethren in Christ or, of course, we always said, "MB in C," was going to der glee Himmel, "little heaven," the Hatfield Meetinghouse. It was always called der glee Himmel, "little heaven." My parents took me there when I was quite young. So I remember meetings there back in the 40's. Of course, we knew David Cassel who had been at the Hatfield Church of the Brethren and had gone to the MB in C. And we knew Emmanuel Cassel and the Emmanuel Cassel family and there were a great number of ties there.
It was good to hear you singing those Dutch choruses. That brought back memories of hearing some of those older people singing the Dutch choruses. I was going to say I made a list here. I made two lists of what the outsider view was of the MB in C. I made the good list and the bad list. So I'm going to ask you, do you want the good news first or the bad news? I guess we'll give the bad news first so that we can end with the good. That'll be better.
Those who were critical of your denomination pointed to several things. First of all, of course, Die Karriche Leit, the Church people, the Lutheran, the German Lutheran, and German Reformed people saw this type of emotional and lively worship as altogether unfitting. Worship for them had to be formal and had to be liturgical. There was a lot of talk in the neighborhood about the testimonies that were given and Zeigness, we say in Dutch, "testimony." En Bekenntniss gemacht. My mother talked a lot about Mike Ziegler. Mike Ziegler was mentioned and Mike Ziegler's father, John Ziegler. My mother remembered hearing John Ziegler give his Bekenntniss. He said that John Ziegler had had an alcohol problem in his lifetime and had, because of the alcohol problem had frittered away his farm. And my mother said she would never forget him standing up in prayer meeting or whatever and saying in Pennsylvania Dutch: Ich hab mei gansse Bauerei versoffe. "I drank away my whole farm." But, after he was converted and he came to the Lord, that was past and he had a glorious testimony.
I can remember hearing Mike Ziegler at Harleysville and different places give his testimony. His favorite expression, as far as I know, in Dutch was "O Ich bin so froh ass Ich do bin, ja!" "Oh, I am just so happy that I'm here!" That was the emotionalism, that was something that was... that was something that the more staid religions couldn't stand.
Of course, there was the mode of baptism. That was the main disagreement between us Dunkards and you Jakie Moyer's Leit. That caused a great deal of discussion, and a great deal of debate in those days. Now, of course, we Dunkards could go along with you a good deal of the way because at least you understood the fact that baptism means immersion and immersion means baptism. So you were right that far. You were a lot closer to the truth than the Mennonites. But, there was this matter of forward or backward. The story I like is one my mother told me. She didn't say who it was but one of the preachers at Indian Creek during the time of this debate back and forth whether the forward action was correct or whether the backward action was correct. One of the preachers at Indian Creek got up on Sunday morning and said, "Es is juscht ae Ding in die ganss Schrift ass seileewe hinnerschich gedu war un sell is wu der Eli hinnerschich vum Schtuhl g'falle is, un no hott er sei Halss verbroche." "There's only one thing in all of Scripture that was ever done backwards and that's when Eli fell backwards off his chair and then he broke his neck." So that was meant to settle the matter of the backward or the forward mode.
I guess we Brethren were accused of that, too, sometimes of spiritual pride. I guess when you attempt to live in radical obedience to the Bible and to the New Testament you're open to that. You're open to being accused of spiritual pride. There's a danger there, too, perhaps. We pride ourselves on the fact that we are more Biblical than others or more righteous than others, that our doctrine is purer than others. This is one of my favorite stories of all time, of all space, of all history. Now you probably won't appreciate it so much because you're the butt of it. Tell it about somebody else. Tell it about Baptists or Methodists. It's still a wonderful story. The story was told to me by great-uncle Reinhart Gottschall, who was Dunkard foresinger, song leader, at Indian Creek. When he moved over here near Royersford to farm, he was a foresinger at Mingo Brethren congregation. He told the story about in a meeting at Joe Schueck's house. Joe Schueck was a member of the Harleysville MB in C, the Jakie Moyer's group. At one time he rose, I believe, in Betversammling, in prayer meeting to give an object lesson. On his way, he had picked up a walnut that had fallen from the tree. He had a hammer, and he cracked the outer shell of the walnut. He said, "Now, this outer shell of the walnut, this is hard, and it's not worth anything. This is the Mennonites." Then he cracked the inner shell and he said, "Now this inner shell of the walnut, this is also hard and isn't worth anything. These are the Dunkards." Then he cracked it open and he said, "Inside is the good kernel, and that's our people" When he opened it up, it was rotten inside. That's the danger of using a walnut as an object lesson.
About revival meetings and camp meetings, people who were of different persuasions thought that the enthusiasm, the "getting happy," "getting blessed," "Seelich warre," "Fraelich warre." Jumping and shouting, praising the Lord, they were not in order. There was a lot of criticism of that. Although I came from a Dunkard home and was raised a Dunkard, we often went to Mennonite meeting at Salford and Franconia when I was a boy. My parents took me to Der glee Himmel in Hatfield and the Harleysville the MB in C meetings, so I was used to it. A couple of times I was really scared. One time a sister jumped up and let out a shriek. My mother said I crept under her skirts. I was scared, I didn't know what was going on, but she was, I'm sure, very sincere and was praising her Lord.
We mentioned the singing. I think it was the zenith. I'm going to give you the good news now. Still tops, I think, in the contribution that the Mennonite Brethren in Christ people made to the community was a contribution of spirituality, a contribution of heartfelt religion. If your people sometimes maybe pushed emotionalism a little farther than perhaps was entirely necessary, perhaps some of the rest of us were altogether too staid, too dry and cold. I suppose we learn from each other and that brings me to a point that really weighs on me. Something that really bothers me today that's so different. I don't hear anyone mentioning it. It is different from the time that I was brought up, and that's not that many years ago. I was born on Christmas day in 1938 so I'm not that old. When I was a boy, when I was growing up, all these different groups, Mennonites, Brethren, River Brethren (we call them Brethren in Christ), Mennonite Brethren in Christ, we would visit each other's meetings. We don't see that anymore. With all our modern modes of transportation, we don't visit anymore. We just go to our own church every Sunday morning. I think it should be a rule that every so many weeks you have to go somewhere else, to another church and visit. That was a wonderful thing! I count that as a great blessing that I got to know all these different people. I couldn't be standing here telling you these stories. I wouldn't know anything about Jakie Moyer and Jakie Moyer's Leit and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ if it hadn't been that my parents would go and visit these different churches. I think that was a beautiful thing. We don't do it anymore. Young people grow up within a local congregation and they never get to visit a church that's less than a mile away. We went to each others meetings when I was a boy and I think that's something that should be restored.
We might have gone to hear the wonderful singing of those good old choruses, but we stayed to hear the preacher and we were fed on the word. We learned from each other, and we exchanged our various emphases. I think that was good.
I have quite a few more notes but I'm going to draw this to a close because my voice is rapidly failing me. But I did want to mention a story in which I have become very interested. You should be very interested in because it happened right in your back yard; the story of William K. Ellinger, traveling preacher. Now, if you never read it, his story is in this book, "What Mean These Stones?" The reprint is in here, "Life experiences of William K. Ellinger, traveling preacher." I have a copy of the original pamphlet, the original published pamphlet, from which this is taken, it's a marvelous story. This is the kind of stuff from which novels could be written and motion pictures made. Years ago I found this at a public sale. I bought it in a box full of books and added it to my little MB in C library. This is the star, The Ebenezer Hymnal. I think it's a wonderful book. I use that so much. Then I also have "Life Experiences of William K. Ellinger", traveling preacher, "Rescued from a Miner's Grave" by S. B. Knerr They are all in "What Mean These Stones?" and a copy of one of the original editions of Eusebius Hershey's "Living Poem." These are rich documents which tell us about our history. When I got this, I started reading it and was fascinated by it. Then I was able to talk to several old people that still remembered brother Ellinger and heard him preach. So I was able to add quite a bit of oral testimony to what is written in his autobiography. The story is marvelous. His father, Jacob Ellinger, had a tavern where the East Branch of the Perkiomen flows into the main branch of the Perkiomen. There was an old stone arch bridge. I don't know if any bit of it is standing anymore. One or two arches were standing for many years. On the lower side on the Graterford side of the Branch Creek at the end of the bridge was an old house, the Ellinger homestead. In those days, apparently, there was a great revival among the Dunkards. They were preaching in this area. They converted Jacob Ellinger and his family. He began to hold meetings in that house, probably had the same arrangement as in Jacob Moyer's house with folding doors. They held regular worship there. They held prayer meetings there. There was a very lively religious movement. But then something happened, which was very unfortunate and which has ever been the means of the devil trying to defeat the Lord's work. People were not faithful to their word. Old brother Ellinger was in a mill up there (later, Pennypacker's mills) one day. A poor brother came in and said he needed a farm wagon but he didn't have enough money to pay for it. There were several other brethren there and Brother Ellinger said, "Well, I'll help you and these brothers will help you." They said, "Yes, we'll help. If he isn't able to pay we'll pay." Well, it turns out the man wasn't able to pay for the wagon. So brother Ellinger went to these other brethren who had promised to help. They said, "No, we won't give a cent." So he had to pay it all himself. That so turned him off to religion that William K. Ellinger says his father then turned sour on religion, began to hold a tavern there, and became a wicked man. In fact, the Ellinger gang was known all up and down the Perkiomen for a gang of bandits. I talked to some of the old people around Skippack and Schwenksville. They said they remembered how some of the farms had a system of alarm. They would either have a bell they would ring or a horn they would toot to let the neighbors know that these Ellingers were out on the loose. They would steal chickens. They would steal horses and drive them up in the back of the hill and stories were told about people that stopped at that tavern for a night and were never seen again. They said they drove the horses up into the hills above the Perkiomen and they would kill the travelers. After somebody would disappear another well would be closed up on the property. They buried them in the well.
There's even a story of the headless horseman of the Perkiomen. Did you ever hear that story? They beheaded a man and on certain dark nights, the old people told me, they'd see this man without his head riding on his horse, down over the hill, and over that stone arch bridge because he had been murdered there. Young William Ellinger was afraid of his father. His father beat him and he ran away and he became of bandit and went into all kinds of evil doings. He went into Philadelphia and became a gangster. One time he said that it took two hundred marines to subdue the four Ellinger brothers. But finally, he was converted at a Free Methodist Church in Philadelphia. He said, "They were a godly people but they had the same kind of a sprinkling pot as everybody else had." So he said, "I found a people," and I want to quote this directly from his word. I thought that would be a good closing for some of the meaning of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, the United Mennonites, the Evangelical United Mennonites. He says in his pamphlet, "I joined another church called the Free Methodists but they had the same kind of a sprinkling pot. And I told them several times about Jesus being baptized in the river which displeased them. And they told me I could get baptized in some other church and still be a member of theirs. But the time came and the Lord led me out of the Free Methodist Church to a holy people called the Evangelical United Mennonites. With these people I got baptized. These good people baptize in the river, wash feet, and do all the Bible requires us to do. If any church people read this book, I would urge them to recognize baptism by immersion as the example of Jesus." Then he goes to say that he became an exhorter in the Evangelical United Mennonite Church.
I think if that is the inscription that can be written over the history of your church, that you are a holy people who intend to do everything that the Lord asks us to do. What a better testimony would you want than that? That's all I have to say right now.
Dick Taylor: Will you take questions?
Clarence: Oh, yes.
Dick: I am not sure where I heard this story, but I did hear it, and that is that once upon a time there were meetings being held in Harleysville and some of the townspeople snuck up and looked in the window and, lo and behold, people were floating around inside. Did you ever hear that story?
Clarence: No [with a chuckle].
Dick: I was hoping that you would say... Someone told us that story. [Someone else said they heard it] Was it John Ruth that told us that story? Some folks who were upset with what we did. However, the fact of the matter is we had a lot more in common than were different. There really were close ties of visiting, and so on. Could you just elaborate on that a little bit? Was there persecution of the sort which people talked about that, throwing tomatoes and so on?
Clarence: Well, there were, yes. I would hope that no Dunkard ever threw a tomato at an Evangelical Mennonite. I think that was some of the rougher classes.
Willard Cassel: My father tells that here in the Graterford Church that people sprayed fish oil and lamp black in on the people while they were praying.
Clarence: Really?! My!
Willard: And also, let me say of the animosity between the two churches, our parents were expelled from the Indian Creek Church because they came to the Graterford Church to worship and participated in feet washing and communion which according to Indian Creek council was a sin. They were read out of the church and came over and joined the MBC here in Graterford.
Clarence: Yes. The sin part would not have been worshipping because there was a lot of worshipping with others but because they practiced closed communion.
Dick: All right. Let me allow you to ask questions or make comments.
Valeria Boyer: I'm wondering, are your churches growing?
Clarence: You mean in the church of the Brethren? I don't have the up-to-date statistics. I think they are. There was a period when they were slipping back in membership, but I think they have been growing in the last few years. I'm not sure. I don't have the present statistics.
Dan Ziegler: I'd like to comment on that then. I have something else I want to say. I think that there's a lot of renewal in the Church of the Brethren. There are new churches, wonderful new churches being started. I have a cousin who goes to one. She just raves about people coming to know the Lord and the joy that's there and all. I have another cousin who's in the church development, Merle Crouse. You may know Merle.
Clarence: Oh, yes.
Dan: Merle was in the church development office. He's a very warm-hearted evangelical brother. So I think there's a lot of encouragement about the Church of the Brethren these days. My father came over from the Church of the Brethren into the Little Heaven. He was not asked to be baptized again. The first leg of his three baptisms was accepted as a valid baptism. I've thought in recent years that it would be a good idea to baptize forward. It would be an efficient thing because we could have smaller baptisteries and use less water. There's somebody here who has something to contribute to this discussion. I'd like to ask Holly Campbell to say what she shared with us at the table. She and her husband, Bill, were missionaries in North Africa for many years among the Muslims. She has something about baptism in the early African Church and a statement that Tertullian made.
Holly Campbell: I'm an eye-witness to the ancient first, second, third century baptistries which exist today in Tunisia and Algeria. They're all mosaic, beautiful, baptismal pools, very tiny. You'd have to get down in a fetal position to be baptized in them. It's quoted by Tertullian in the Didache. I think it is, said, "when we bow our necks in baptism."
Clarence: Yes, I'm acquainted with that.
Dick: All right, by the way, I looked up William Ellinger in the Census records. I think I have him in Philadelphia in 1870.
Clarence: I would like to know where he's buried.
Dick: I can't tell you that. I can just tell you he was alive and well in 1870 and living in Philadelphia. It also lists his family members.
Someone asked something about Ellinger's affiliation at that time.
Dick: I guess he was with us. [something else said by someone]. That was later.
Someone asked if Clarence knew where Ellinger went.
Clarence: No, I don't. I wish I knew a lot more about him, but I haven't been able to find out.
Dick: If you don't have "What Mean These Stones?" they're back there on that table and I'm going to be glad to sell them to you. These are marvelous stories.
Clarence: Yes, they are.
Dick: If you haven't read them, there's a part of our past that you don't have. These are stories, they're not lectures. They give you windows into what was going on and you really need to have those.
Jill: I have to introduce to you a distinguished guest we have here today. This is Wilmer Reinford. He was, for many years, on the board of the Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania and he represents the Franconia Conference. He fellowships at Upper Skippack Mennonite. I'd like to hear from you, Wilmer, the Franconia Mennonite's view of the baptism discussion. Wilmer's a little more tactful than some.
Wilmer Reinford: The mode of baptism in the Franconia Conference for the Mennonite Congregations is not, to my memory, an issue like I've been hearing of today and I've heard of it before. It was more important to have your thirteen lessons of instructions before baptism. In many of the other denominations, you had your revival meetings, confessions were made and maybe at that last meeting a baptism took place. In the Mennonite Church, in my memory, baptism was not a great issue. Now there was baptism in the streams. I do have record of the last baptism in a stream from our Upper Skippack Mennonite Congregation in 1916 [Wilmer later looked at his records and saw that the last creek baptism was 1917]. The baptismal spot was down at the Evansburg Park. Deacon Ben Wismer lived on the banks of the Skippack. If you go down between the Lower Skippack Mennonite Church and the school building on the left, where the road today would make a left bend. There you would go straight ahead. That was known as the Skippack ford (now ford is not a Model T) It was one that you drove through, right through the water. The foot bridge was there located at that time. Also, until at least 1914, that was the baptismal spot for the Upper Skippack Mennonite Church. For those who wanted to be baptized in streams, each congregation had their own place. Now maybe I didn't answer your question, Jill, as you expected, but then baptism was not a great issue in our congregation.
Jill: How did the Mennonites view what the Mennonite Brethren in Christ were doing? With baptism or maybe form or worship in the service?
Wilmer: I'm not sure how to answer that. I guess I might tell an experience I had with this congregation when I was a youngster. William Heffner was the pastor here at that time. Our farm was on the penitentiary property. Christian Wismer lived right straight across, Clem Bean lived a little to the left, Joe Bean lived out on 113 and Joe Wismer. We were invited to witness a baptismal service of this congregation which was held up on the Branch Creek, just beyond Vernfield where the bridge crosses the Branch and goes around the Old Skippack Road, as it's called now. Anyway, this is what I was going to say about this baptismal service William Heffner conducted. Reverend Heffner had a long rod. He went down into the Creek first. He was poking here and there and kept on poking. Someone up on the Bridge got a little excited about it seemingly. " Was will er die ganss grick ausschtampe?" "What does he want to do, stomp out the whole creek?" I guess that's about the best I can answer your question, Jill.
Dick: Mr. Reinford put together a diary of John B. Gehman who is from the Hereford congregation. It is really a wonderful diary. Other questions or comments that you'd like to direct to Mr. Kulp while he's here?
Bruce Ellingson: You used three terms: The Church of the Brethren, the Dunkards, and the River Brethren. Could you define these three terms and explain the relationship between them, please.
Clarence: "Dunkard" began as a critical term, a derogatory term, just like the term "Quaker." We were called "Dunker" or "Dunkards" by the people who were against us because we dunked people in creeks. Church of the Brethren are Dunkards, that's the same thing. Our official name was German Baptist Brethren Church until 1908 when it was officially changed from German Baptist Brethren Church to Church of the Brethren. Now there is still an old German Baptist Brethren Church, what we call "Old Order Dunkard," which are very, very plain people. The River Brethren are another group. While they're called Brethren in Christ today in this part of the country, having a congregation here at Perkiomen Valley and also congregations over in Souderton and Silverdale in Bucks County, they come from an immersionist movement within the Mennonite Church in Lancaster County in the 1770's. So Brethren in Christ are Mennonites who wanted to baptize by immersion. They came to some of our Dunkard bishops and said, "baptize us by immersion but then we want to go back and stay Mennonite." Well, our bishops said, "No, we won't do that. We'll baptize you, then you're Dunkards." So they said, "Well, what are we going to do?" Our Dunkard bishop advised them, "Do the same thing as we did in Germany when we organized, that is, cast lots and on whom the lot falls, that person will baptize the leader and then have him baptize all the rest." And so they did. That's how the River Brethren, the Brethren in Christ was organized.
Dick: What do you know of the Gehmans, William Gehman and perhaps the Musselmans? What kind of an impact did they have? William Gehman was part of the founding of this church.
Clarence: Oh, yes, well, just what I heard the old people say about them.
Dick: What did you hear?
Clarence: It was all good as far as I can remember. They used to talk a lot about the daadi Gehman. I almost forgot. I have one very important story to tell. It's my only connection to this place. I told some of you before that I was never in this building until today. Often at Harleysville, often at Hatfield, but never here at Graterford, although I drove by it for years. But I have one connection. My great-uncle Reinhart Gottschall told me the story. My great-great-grandfather's name was Michael Freed. He was the father of my great-grandmother, Mary Freed Gottschall, married Moses Gottschall, who was a deacon at Indian Creek Church of the Brethren. Michael Freed, my great-great-grandfather was a cabinet maker and also manufactured fodder cutters, thrashing machines and bag trucks. He lived over near Vernfield. When he was an older man, he moved over here, some where here in the area of Graterford. He became a member of the Mingo Church of the Brethren in Royersford. It wasn't long after he moved over here that this meetinghouse was dedicated. In good community spirit, he decided to go to the dedication. Now in those days, Dunkards and Mennonites didn't have anything like taking up a collection in meeting. We didn't believe in that. But he knew that in going to this meeting a collection would be taken. So he took a whole quarter along. And he sort of felt proud of himself that he was going to give a quarter, which was a big thing to drop in the collection plate in those days when most people dropped pennies. So he took a whole quarter along. He came here as you said in 1892.
Jill: The dedication of the building was on January 1, 1893.
Clarence: ... in 1893. He was here. He had his quarter in his pocket. The preacher started begging for money, and that so turned off his Dunkard soul that he put his quarter back in his pocket and took it along home.
Dick points out the original sanctuary within the existing one.
Dick: Well, Mr. Kulp, I want to thank you for coming and sharing with us today. It has really been a delight. If you don't have to rush away, he'll be glad to tell you any other stories or whatever you'd like to hear.
Jill: I have to add a little bit to part of the Ellinger story that Clarence told about the headless horseman. Do you remember that? Here's the local story from Schwenksville. This headless horseman, Bucher, was the name (I think the first name was Jacob). He would dismantle the bridges, looking for his head. That's why the bridges were falling into disrepair.
Dick: Thank you for coming. this has been a special day for us to join together. Put November 4, 1995 into your calendar right now. That's a whole year away. But I'll tell you, it will roll around real quickly. We're going to meet at Coopersburg. We will hear about the Coopersburg Church, which is a wonderful story, and the account of the life of Dr. Jonas Y. Schultz.