Three churches and an institution

Issue 2020, vol. 74

Review of Daniel Hertzler, On the Banks of Jacobs Creek: A History of the Scottdale Mennonite Churches, with a foreword by John E. Sharp (Cascadia Publishing, 2018).

Jacobs Creek meanders through southwestern Pennsylvania, and is one of the landmarks of the Scottdale area. Mennonites settled there as early as 1790. Daniel Hertzler’s book tells the story of three 20th-century Mennonite churches in “the land of Jacobs Creek” (Scottdale Mennonite, Kingsview Mennonite and North Scottdale Mennonite), mostly from about 1940 onward. Their history cannot be understood without considerable reference to two larger entities, Mennonite Publishing House and the city of Scottdale. The churches, in their better days at mid-century, had a combined membership of about 300. Now, the three having dwindled and merged into one congregation, there remain 50-75 attendees.

Several chapters deal with the three congregations in fairly conventional fashion. The mother church, and the largest, was Scottdale Mennonite Church, located on Market Street. The church was outreach-oriented, and founded two Sunday school programs around the city to provide Bible study. Each of these eventually grew into an independent congregation.

The account of each congregation tells about the ministers who served and the growth and life of the various programs (Sundays schools, youth groups, sewing circles, etc.), typical topics for Mennonite congregational histories. The Scottdale churches were a part of Allegheny Mennonite Conference of the Mennonite Church (often known as “Old” Mennonites). Some of the topics covered in this history are particularly relevant to this branch of the Mennonite denomination, such as concerns about wearing the Mennonite plain coat for men, and the prayer veiling and jewelry (or not) for women. Each congregation wrestled with the meaning of Mennonite “nonconformity.”

One rather unusual work was a ministry for the deaf at Scottdale Mennonite, which flourished 1979-81. The church hired a full-time “pastor to deaf persons” as an outreach ministry, with half the funding coming from the church and the rest from Mennonite Board of Missions. After three years, the church had to cut back its financial support, leaving the work to volunteers. Even though the ministry was not sustainable financially, Hertzler rightly called it a “notable effort; a modest-sized congregation providing a pastor whose whole assignment was a ministry to deaf people” (107).

The details of congregational history always have a limited audience, mainly appealing to people of the congregations. The author opened some larger topics which could interest many readers: the Mennonite impact on the city of Scottdale, and the relationship of Mennonite Publishing House to the churches. The author, Daniel Hertzler, knows his subject well. He has lived in Scottdale since 1952 and has been active in the churches and in publication. He is the author of several books and worked at Mennonite Publishing House for many years, serving as editor of Gospel Herald.

He begins the history with the statement: “This will be an attempt to write an honest history…” (14). This is an unusual assertion – that one is writing honest history. We would expect no less from an author, especially from a respected Mennonite publication. His point, I believe, is about dealing with painful areas where not all will agree on the conclusions.

In considering the impact of Mennonites on Scottdale, it seems that most members of the three churches were traditional Mennonites who moved into the city from the outside to work at the publishing house. One minister observed that the Scottdale Mennonite Church grew “by importation rather than from the community itself” (97). In spite of much outreach, there is little sign of local residents being drawn into the Mennonite fold. Why was the impact so small? The major reason Hertzler proposes is the Mennonite “radical tradition” (factors like nonconformity and pacifism). “When all the other churches in town seem to follow Reinhold Niebuhr’s position that ‘Jesus’ way is not really for here and now,’ it might be expected that some who enjoy association would hesitate to join the Mennonite Church” (14). Other factors that might hinder Mennonite growth are also noted (142-143).

The most complex part of the book covers Mennonite Publishing House (MPH) and its relationship to the churches. The publishing house was established at Scottdale in 1908, creating jobs and drawing Mennonites to the area to work. (The reason for establishing the business at Scottdale in the first place, with such a slight Mennonite presence, is not discussed.)

As a result, as John Sharp wrote in the “Foreword” to On the Banks of Jacobs Creek, Scottdale became the “communication hub of the Mennonite Church.” MPH people became the members of the churches, and in turn the churches often drew from MPH personnel for its ministers. These ministers mostly served part-time or on a temporary basis, along with their publication work. Some of these were Paul M. Lederach, A.J. Metzler, Millard Lind, Paul Erb and John M. Drescher – a pool of talented ministers not available to the ordinary congregation. In recent years, the congregations hired their own full-time ministers.

As the publishing house grew in size, so did the churches. Then the reverse happened. MPH fell on hard times and began to downsize and, in 2011 the Scottdale operation was closed entirely. Following the merger of Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church into Mennonite Church USA in 2002, the new denomination turned publication over to a new board, Mennonite Publishing Network. This body made the decision to combine the work of Mennonite publication and broadcasting into a new institution, MennoMedia, located at Harrisonburg, Va. With the shuttering of publication at Scottdale and people moving away, the church suffered loss in membership. In addition to job loss, there was financial stress, anger and disillusionment with the Mennonite denominational leadership, pain about losing promised health insurance, and a general sense of being unappreciated for years of service.

Why did the MPH close? Was it a necessity to abandon Scottdale? Hertzler and Sharp briefly propose a couple of reasons for the closure. One was the decline of all religious publication nationwide. Another was financial necessity (perhaps based on previous bad management). The new board “looked askance on some of the loan patterns and accumulated debt of MPH” (121). Hertzler does not go into details about business decisions, rather concentrating on the aftermath and consequences for the Scottdale Mennonites.

From 2003 onward, as a result of decline and mergers, only one Mennonite congregation remains, Scottdale Mennonite Church. There is a weekly attendance of 50 to 75. Although greatly diminished, the church goes forward. Hertzler ends, not in despair, but by describing a congregation alive and dynamic. All of this history, he asserts, is a story that must be told.