On our way home from Sarasota, Florida in the mid-1960s, our family stopped in Nanih Waiya, Mississippi, to visit Nevin and Esther Bender. Nevin's was a household name in our home, having preached often at Locust Grove Conservative Mennonite Church, Belleville, Pennsylvania. I don't remember much about the visit, but I do remember the positive regard my parents had for Nevin Bender, and his ministry.
That positive regard was clearly shared by his own children. This book is a tribute to Bender, husband and father, pastor and evangelist, created from the memories of his children, sons- and daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. Three of the nine children, Don, Mildred, and Titus, organized the memories and wrote this tribute.
While the story includes financial difficulties, disappointments, and the frequent absences of their father because of demands for his services as evangelist and conference executive, the tone of bitterness and regret is not present. Rather, they reflect their parents' experience of church as "a place of intense joy" while seasoned with the occasional "painful disappointment."
Nevin was born near Springs, Pennsylvania, the Amish community that had also produced such Mennonite leaders as George L. and Daniel H. Bender—both Nevin's uncles. The Bender family moved to Greenwood, Delaware, when Nevin was 21. In his mid-twenties, Nevin experienced a profound inner renewal, which nurtured in him a sense of call to pastoral ministry. That inner call was soon confirmed by the outer call of his congregation when he was chosen minister by lot.
Controversy was also born in that calling. Another man in the lot was convinced that Nevin's call should have been his own, and by his jealous opposition caused many years of difficulty. Other church controversies followed when more traditional members considered Nevin too moderate, and criticized him for preaching too much love. They believed he should have exercised stronger leadership in stemming the erosion of traditional forms of nonconformity.
The authors also give tribute to their mother, who filled the traditional model of supportive spouse, and efficient, homebound mother. Esther Lauver was born in the Juniata district of Lancaster Conference, where her father served as deacon, and her Graybill grandfather was a minister.
Nevin and Esther met at the Altoona, Pennsylvania, Mission, and were married in 1925. They and their nine children subsisted by dairy, poultry and truck farming, and selling produce at the Lincoln Street market in Wilmington. Their strenuous, combined efforts were sometimes supplemented by "love offerings" from the Greenwood congregation.
While making a living was obligatory, Bender's first love and main focus was his ministry. After serving fifteen years as minister, he was ordained bishop in 1933 by the Conservative Amish Mennonite Conference. As bishop and a member of the conference executive committee, Bender experienced his share of controversies. His leadership style was temperate and conciliatory. His preaching was "quiet but eloquent," which stood in contrast to the more emotional evangelistic preaching of some of his colleagues. His desire that all be redeemed was reflected in his customary prayer that God would receive his own, "without the loss of one" (which was also a common phrase in my father's daily prayer).
Bender, while self-educated, favored higher education, and encouraged his children to attend college. This, along with his more moderate views of discipline and issues of nonconformity, and his practice of involving the congregation in decision-making, caused conflict with his fellow ministers, and with the more traditional members of his congregation. These differences led to an impasse in the Greenwood congregation in 1958. To break the impasse, Bender resigned his office of bishop, even though he had the support of the majority of the congregation. Now free to consider other options, he and Esther began a new chapter of ministry among the Choctaw Indians of Mississippi.
And what a chapter! While Mississippi was fighting to maintain its segregated status quo in the face of the civil rights movement, the Mennonite chapel at Nanih Waiya was blown up by dynamite—not once, but three times. And three times the chapel was rebuilt. Nevin and Esther, along with three adult children, continued their quiet witness of reconciliation that bridged the racial divides of that community.
In the twilight years of his life, Nevin experienced the death of his companion, Esther, agonized over the rape of a daughter, audited courses at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, explored Anabaptist sites in Switzerland, discovered the Bender family roots in Langendorf, Germany, and finally returned to Greenwood, Delaware. There he died as a result of a traffic accident in 1975 at the age of 82.
I have been moved by this family's story, by Nevin and Esther's unwavering confidence in God's presence and leading, by their persistent faithfulness in the face of criticism, and amidst the violence of the civil rights movement. I have also been touched unexpectedly by the intersection of the Bender story with my own. I was not aware until reading this book that significant people in my own pilgrimage where members of the Bender family. Each of them modeled Nevin and Esther's enduring faith, and joy in the journey.
When Nevin was auditing courses at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, 1968-69, he was invited to speak in the school's chapel. On one such occasion, he began his address by expressing the pleasure he felt in that globally diverse setting, saying that, "It makes one feel as though a large family came home." That's a remarkable attitude for an Amish boy born in the provincial hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. Nevin's family and his world had become global.
John E. Sharp
Instructor in History