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“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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