Tag Archives: Daniel Kauffman

“What grace alone can do” — J.S. Coffman

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

Here’s an interesting quote for historical and theological reflection, written in 1893 by J.S. Coffman (1848-98), the hugely influential Mennonite revivalist and editor:

“The Virginia church and conference has done much legislating to keep our people down out of the world in dress and other things, but in spite of all the keeping down they have done, their His Name Was John: The Life Story of an Early Mennonite Leader Buy on Amazon young men are now more conformed to the world than ours at Elkhart where we do not legislate much, but do some teaching on this point, and instead put our young people to work and have them contend for these principles…. They have tried too much to do by force of law what grace alone can do. What is it worth to keep people down in any sense if they submit only by constraint? We are in the dispensation of grace, and I shall never again help to legislate on outward forms as I did once in the Virginia conference when I did not know better. But I shall work harder in another way for the same principle.”

(I did not record a source for this quote. It may come from His Name Was John, a biography of J.S. Coffman by his granddaughter.)

It was under J.S. Coffman’s preaching that Daniel Kauffman was converted. Kauffman’s writings (sometimes interpreted in ways Kauffman would not have desired) form the doctrinal foundation for conservative Mennonites today–a group that has shown a tendency to emphasize the “outward forms” that Coffman later renounced.

How would conservative Mennonites be different today if they had heeded the elder Coffman’s advice? (Or was Coffman mistaken, as some might conclude from the subsequent liberalization of Goshen College in Elkhart?)

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Coffman and the origin of 7 ordinances

(Old Facebook Post)

Apparently the traditional 7 Mennonite ordinances go back one step earlier than Daniel Kauffman and his “Doctrines” books, to evangelist J. S. Coffman in 1891 or earlier. Here is an excerpt from a fascinating article by Mark R. Wenger in the Mennonite Quarterly Review that tells the story (through the lens of the topic of anointing with oil):

Despite his personal unfamiliarity with anointing the sick, sometime in the next decade Coffman began to refer to it as an “ordinance” of the church. The term “ordinance” had been used widely and loosely across the church to refer both to shared understandings that governed church life, and specific church ceremonies like baptism and Lords’ Supper. [32] By 1891, however, Coffman had begun to give “ordinances” a more precise meaning, even providing a definitive list of them.

Coffman usually opened his series of revival services with an emphasis on repentance, new birth, faith and salvation. Toward the end of a revival series, Coffman nearly always took an explicitly doctrinal tack, teaching the ordinances and restrictions of the church. These were firmly buttressed with Scripture citations rather than appeals to tradition. In his diary he sometimes noted the sermon topic as “Ordinances as Symbols,” and referred to the ordinances “as a chain.”[33]

In the wake of a particularly long-running and successful revival series in 1891 in Waterloo County, Ontario, Coffman compiled and published a four-page pamphlet entitled Fundamental Bible References, the earliest compilation of Mennonite ordinances that specifically includes anointing with oil. Under the heading “Requirements of Obedience,” Coffman included “Ordinances,” “Duties” and “Restrictions.” The Ordinances were listed with short descriptions and scriptural references as follows:

Principal Ordinances-Heb. 9:1

(1) Baptism with Water

(2) Communion

(3) Footwashing

Secondary Ordinances-1 Cor. 11:2

(1) Prayer Head-Covering for the Women

(2) Greeting with the Holy Kiss

(3) Marriage

(4) Anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick

It’s historical research like this that makes you stop and think: How much that we consider completely normal… would have never become reality at all, had it not been for a whole slew of “accidents” of history… like a conversation here, a personal letter there, a person here who had the means to travel and share the idea, a periodical article there, which was read by so-and-so, and one more person who “happened” to think writing a book about it was important, etc…. And WHAM! Suddenly we have a brand new FORMAL LIST of “ordinances” that thousands of people grow up assuming has always around, handed down from Mount Calvary. Nothing like studying history to help you break free of chronological snobbery and live disoriented by culture shock within your very own social backyard–and turn to the Bible for better foundations.

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