Tag Archives: Anabaptist history

The “Divorce Evil” and the Response of the Mennonite Church (1880s to 1905)

Click to download a 20-page historical paper:

The “Divorce Evil” and the Response of the Mennonite Church (1880s to 1905)

In 1905 the Mennonite Church in the United States and Canada officially resolved that no divorced and remarried person should be accepted as a church member. How did they arrive at this absolute position, given the strong consensus among early Anabaptists that divorce and remarriage were permitted in cases of adultery?

The reasons are complex and not fully clear. I have written several blog posts (here and here) discussing various historical factors that probably helped pave the way for the Mennonite Church to take a harder stance against divorce and remarriage. These factors include a separatist mindset that encouraged the Mennonite Church to adopt unusually stringent teachings, the historical accident of American Mennonites losing touch with the early Anabaptist confessions that most clearly affirmed divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery, and the transition from the German language to English.

The 20-page paper I’m sharing today discusses several more immediate factors that help explain how and why the Mennonite Church reached a newly strict consensus on divorce in 1905. These factors include the development of Mennonite periodicals, the practice of church conferences, the eventual development of a General Conference, and, perhaps most importantly, a growing concern about the “divorce evil” in America.

The terms “divorce question,” “divorce problem,” and “divorce evil” all peaked in usage in American writings in about 1904, roughly one year before the Mennonite Church adopted a strict policy against admitting all divorced and remarried persons as church members. Click the image to open an interactive graph, and see the essay for bibliographic information.

In my last blog post I described three contrasting perspectives on marriage permanence, labeling them radical freedom (no restrictions against any mutually-desired divorce), radical faithfulness (second-mile devotion in marriage but acknowledging marriage can be broken by adultery, abuse, or abandonment), and radical permanence (nothing but death can end a marriage). I also suggested that radical permanence tends to be “a reactionary stance.”

It seems to me that the historical evidence shows this to be true, to a significant degree, for the Mennonite Church. Simply put, the early Anabaptists affirmed forms of radical faithfulness, but the Mennonite Church in 1905 affirmed radical permanence as they witnessed the growth of radical freedom in American society around them.

Here is the report in the Herald of Truth about the 1905 resolution that established the official position of the Mennonite Church against admitting any divorced and remarried persons as church members. Of personal interest to me is that one of the deacons present, Silas Bauman, was a brother to my great-great grandfather Martin Bauman (father of Henry Bauman, father of Verna Gingrich, mother of Elaine Gingrich, mother of me). He farmed one mile north of Floradale. Source: “Fourth General Conference,” Herald of Truth, (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Company) November 30, 1905, Vol. XLII, No. 48, 382, https://archive.org/details/heraldoftruth42unse/page/n193/mode/1up.

 

In the following paper I share a lot of primary source evidence, mostly from Mennonite periodicals, that shows how Mennonites took an increasingly hardline stance against divorce as they became increasingly concerned about the “divorce evil” in society around them.

The challenge for us today is to avoid mistakes of the past and present without becoming merely reactionary ourselves. May God give us grace to teach and practice radical faithfulness—first to the heart and will of God as expressed in Scripture, and then to each other in our marriages.

If you wish to discuss this paper, please leave a comment here. I realize my historical survey and analysis are incomplete, but am grateful to be able to share part of a story that is otherwise difficult to discover, buried as it is in historical documents and the memories of Mennonites now deceased.

Click to open or download paper:

The “Divorce Evil” and the Response of the Mennonite Church (1880s to 1905)


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Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Greetings, friends! After months of silence, I have finally prepared some blog posts for you. I hope you will find these thought-provoking and helpful, as their preparation has been for me.

My Study on Divorce in Anabaptist History

A major focus of my blogging in the past couple years has been on Anabaptist understandings of Jesus’ exception clause about divorce and remarriage in cases of sexual immorality (Matt. 19:9; cf. 5:32). The historical evidence (see here and here) clearly shows that early Anabaptists agreed Jesus’ exception permits both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. While their interpretations of the Bible’s divorce teachings were simplistic at points (and some also had erratic practices), I was impressed by their trust in the apparent clarity of Jesus’ teaching.

My historical study also convinced me that when American Mennonites officially abandoned this early Anabaptist belief and practice (in the late 1800s to early 1900s), they did so for social and pragmatic reasons more than because of any fresh or deeper study of Scripture. It appears they were primarily motivated by the widespread social concern about the “divorce evil” in America at the time, a concern that engaged churches of all denominations—and also political leaders, all the way up to the president. (Can you imagine a president today addressing Congress and warning that because “the divorce laws are dangerously lax” there is “a diminishing regard for the sanctity of the marriage relation”?)[1]

Yes, Mennonites did develop new ways of explaining the Bible’s teachings on divorce. (They also suddenly began complaining about how confusing Jesus’ exception clauses are.) But it appears that their stricter position on divorce was adopted before their new biblical interpretations were comprehensively developed or published. In other words, doctrinal conclusions probably controlled the exegesis more than the other way around.

That history really deserves a book-length treatment. Maybe someday?

(In many ways this history reminds me of what is happening today as Christians react to broader cultural concerns, such as that over racial conflict. Christians of varied camps typically begin with their conclusions, often influenced by non-Christian sources, and then develop biblical paradigms for defending those conclusions. In neither case—divorce then or racial conflict now—do many Christians have the liberty of starting without bias from Scriptural evidence to form well-balanced doctrine. Back to my topic…)

My Study on Divorce in the Bible:
Starting with Paul

Meanwhile, my historical study had another effect: It stirred and freed me to take a fresh look at the biblical evidence for myself. What does the Bible actually teach about divorce and remarriage? This, too, deserves a book—especially for fellow Anabaptists who, like me, share a church history that includes (1) sharply contradictory teachings from our most important historical leaders and documents and (2) a tendency to prioritize divorce teachings as a boundary-marking doctrine.

Are divorce and remarriage always forbidden? Is separation sometimes okay, but never divorce? Is divorce sometimes okay, but never remarriage? Is remarriage okay only in cases of sexual immorality (based on Jesus’ exception)? Is remarriage also possible in cases of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (based on Paul’s teachings)? Are there other similar legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage? Questions abound not only among biblical scholars but also—often unspoken, sometimes fiercely debated—among conservative Anabaptists.

Where, then, is the best place to begin a biblical study on divorce and remarriage? There are strong opinions about this! Some insist we begin with what Genesis 2 says about marriage. Others argue we should begin with the “clearest” of Jesus’ statements—defined as the ones with the least data, the ones with no mention of exceptions. A very good case can be made for beginning with Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel that was the teaching manual of the early church—which includes Jesus’ exceptions. An equally strong case can be made for starting with Paul’s writings, which may have preceded the writing of the Gospels and which provide apostolic interpretation of Jesus’ words.

I’ve concluded there are pros and cons to any starting point. What matters most is that one considers all the relevant biblical material well.

My study first centered on Jesus’ words, and I gradually started gaining more light there. Then early this year I dove deep into Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, especially his statement in verse 15: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (ESV). Does “not enslaved” mean free to remarry?

I carefully crafted a long series of blog posts (about 40 pages) digging into this question. I learned a lot from some of the best scholars and dug further into a few sub-questions on my own.  I gained confidence about what Paul meant, confidence that remains with me today. Then I shared my conclusions with over fifteen respected friends and acquaintances, intentionally choosing some likely to agree and some likely to disagree.

Their response reinforced several things to me. First, this is a topic with entrenched opinions and social consequences, and people are slow to change their minds. Second, most people lack either interest or ability to dig into a highly technical discussion on the topic, no matter how clearly I try to write. And third, most Anabaptists will have a hard time listening well if one starts with Paul rather than Jesus, even if one presents biblical reasons for doing so.

My Study on Divorce in the Bible:
Jesus and Expectations about Simplicity

These observations made me hit pause on my plans to share my posts online starting in April. As I regrouped, I decided the best thing to do might be to start over, beginning this time with Jesus and aiming, if I can, to write a little more simply.

Simplicity, of course, has its own dangers. Readers from conservative backgrounds often have many valid concerns and questions about divorce and remarriage that are not sufficiently addressed by most writers. Many authors leap to conclusions too quickly, leaving cautious readers behind. On the other hand, many conservative Anabaptists are highly skeptical of anyone who uses a lot of words to argue their point. Anything that hard to prove probably isn’t true, right? Isn’t the Bible clear? Isn’t Satan the author of confusion?

This is a catch-22 situation of the worst sort and honestly can be quite discouraging for someone who is sincerely searching and teaching the Scriptures. I’m trying to come to peace with the fact that there is no way to please everyone, and I won’t try to do so in this series. (I also need to give up the goal of fully pleasing myself, a hurdle equally unattainable and equally able to keep me from sharing my words.)

So, here goes: I’ll start sharing my thoughts, imperfect as they are, and see what sort of a “series” we end up with.

In an ideal world, a short explanation about divorce and remarriage would be all we would need. Nearly twenty centuries of contradictory interpretations have spread layers of paint and grime over the Bible’s words, however, hiding its original artwork from clear view. Our job, then, is to be art restorers, patiently removing misinterpretations and misunderstandings while leaving the original undamaged. To do this well, we need to leave our preferences behind and invite the Spirit to enlighten the eyes of our hearts, even if this means seeing some things differently than we have before.

As I revisit Jesus’ words, I mean no disrespect to those Mennonite church leaders of a century or so ago, who adopted and articulated the strict no-divorce position that many of us inherited. Nor do I mean any disrespect to those of you who share the same view today. Rather, I ask for myself the freedom to evaluate inherited teachings by Scripture—the same freedom that was exercised both by the first Anabaptists and by those Mennonite leaders who adopted the more recent teachings we inherited.

I extend this freedom to you, too. Every generation is entrusted with this freedom and responsibility, which should be carried out humbly—under God’s word, submitted to the Spirit, and with an ear to fellow saints past and present.

Why Am I Writing?

Why, then, am I writing about divorce and remarriage? Three quick clarifications:

  • No, thank God, I am not digging into this topic because of any difficulties either in my own marriage or of anyone close to me.
  • No, I am not writing because I am a flaming liberal who is intent on deconstructing the clear teachings of Scripture. (For the record, I still fully affirm what I wrote in my series on Jesus and homosexuality, where I reached a decidedly orthodox and counter-cultural conclusion.)
  • And yes, one reason for this study is simply that I enjoy puzzling over tough questions of biblical interpretation. This certainly qualifies. I’ve had unanswered questions about divorce for years. (See here for a bit of my story.)

More importantly, though, this is a topic with real-life implications, with people who urgently need what Paul called “sound doctrine”—teaching that is both true and healthy. If I can help even a few people hear Jesus better and experience his life more fully, I will have achieved my main goal.


I realize I may have raised a lot of questions in your mind with this opening post—questions about me, about your own beliefs, or about what the Bible says. I still have questions, too, and have no desire to pose as an expert who can answer all divorce and remarriage questions.

You are welcome to share your questions and insights in the comments below. I look forward to learning from you and probably even hearing good reasons to revisit a few of my conclusions.

Do comment, but please be patient about jumping to conclusions or demanding answers. First we must engage the task of carefully reading Jesus’ words. God is faithful, and by his Spirit he will guide us together into as much understanding as we need to please him.

I plan to share a blog post at least once a week, at least for the next six weeks or so. The next two posts will also be introductory, then we’ll start walking slowly through Matthew 19. Please be patient if it takes me a while to get to your favorite Bible verses. 🙂

Thank you for reading, and welcome back!


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[1] These are the words of Theodore Roosevelt, spoken to Congress on January 30, 1905. Evans Holbrook, “Divorce Laws and the Increase of Divorce,” Michigan Law Review 8, no. 5 (1910): p. 387, accessed 6/15/2022, https://doi.org/10.2307/1272577. The “divorce evil” was mentioned frequently in Mennonite periodicals that year, as they tracked the comments and decisions of public figures and church denominations. On November 18 of the same year the Mennonite Church officially adopted the position “That a person holding a divorce obtained for the sake of re-marriage, or being married a second time, and continuing to live with a second companion while the first companion is living should not be received into the church.”


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Churchfunding: 2021 Year-End Report

At the turn of every year, as an act of thankfulness and accountability, I like to give a report on our house loans. This year I’ll try to keep it short!

(Background: As many of you know, we purchased our Atlanta house on March 25, 2016, paying the seller in full immediately, thanks to loans and gifts from nearly 90 individuals or families. Since this crowdfunding effort was the work of Christ’s church, we coined a new term: “churchfunding.” Here is the post that officially launched this adventure.)

At the beginning of 2021, we owed $28,782.50 in house loans. By the end of the year, we owed only $21,232.50.

Here is how that $7,550 difference breaks down:

  • We repaid $7,000 in loans, at more than the promised rate of $500 per month.
  • We were forgiven an additional $550 in principal and interest by a generous lender.

In total, our house debt declined by $1,550 more than we expected in 2020.

At the promised $500 per month, we should have all remaining lenders repaid within about 3-1/2 years—by about July of 2025. As promised, we are using a random number generator and prayer to select who is repaid each month. If you have a financial squeeze, let us know and we’ll see what we can do!

In Other Developments…

In many ways, 2021 was a pretty ordinary year for us (apart from you-know-what). We didn’t do any significant repairs or improvements to the house, getting distracted in part by vehicle needs. Our van passed 250,000 miles this summer! Repairing a leaky portion of the roof is apparently next, hopefully followed soon by that leaky shower.

Besides my work, most days our family stays busy with homeschooling, driving the girls to their weekly string classes, taking hikes with homeschool friends, hobbies like reading and music, and doing things with our church family. I’m still responsible to schedule church musicians, and I lead music about once a month, usually helped by our oldest daughter (now a teenager!). I’m also in the rotation to preach a sermon every several months.

In our local neighborhood we aim to be good neighbors for Christ’s sake. Lately this has included taking a neighbor a Christmas meal, having a neighbor boy come over to play basket ball, and helping another neighbor look for a missing family member. We’ve also been reminded recently of the crime that occurs around us, praying for those who have been touched by tragedy.

I’ll mention two trips. In July our family spent a day at Edisto Beach State Park in South Carolina. It was our first family trip to the ocean since moving to Georgia, and we really enjoyed it!

A highlight of the year was finally visiting my mother again, in Canada. It was our first time seeing her since the start of COVID–the first time since our trip to my dad’s funeral. The trip was an answer to many prayers. Family ties are so precious!

In Blogging (Lack of) News…

As you may have noticed, I haven’t done much blogging lately. I got stalled on reporting the history of Mennonites and divorce, and now I’m wrestling more deeply with my own understanding of the biblical teaching on the topic. Recently I read a long book chronicling a journalist’s attempt to solve a murder case. The web of leads he got sucked into, some helpful, some dead ends, reminded me of the many exegetical rabbit trails I’ve run down as I’ve waded through varied interpretations of all the relevant biblical passages.

I invite your prayers as I continue to study—that my heart will be open to God’s truth, that I will be granted insight, and that God will guide my desire to serve the church by writing more on this topic. Maybe, at some point, a book? Surveying Anabaptist history and also sharing my own biblical exegesis and pastoral reflections?

Meanwhile, here’s a quick completion of my answer as to why American  Mennonites adopted a stricter no-divorce position. I’ve already suggested that a spirit of separatism lended itself to adopting increasingly rigid doctrinal positions, that American Mennonites had lost touch with early Anabaptist documents affirming remarriage in case of adultery, and that the switch from German to English may have affected their interpretation of Jesus’ divorce sayings.

To complete the picture, I’d want to discuss at least these additional points:

  • The topic of the “divorce evil” was in the air across the nation at the end of the 1800s (very much like “social justice” has been recently), troubling everyone from the President on down, so the Mennonites simply joined a larger political and ecclesial conversation, some of which was moving in a stricter direction.
  • New Mennonite periodicals, founded by John Funk, alerted them as never before to differences in their own ranks on the question of divorce and remarriage, leading to brisk debate.
  • In the periodicals there were calls for annual conferences, partly to resolve such matters of difference; it was at such a conference that a stricter position was officially adopted in 1905.
  • Before this conference some Mennonite leaders, especially some activist younger leaders like Daniel Kauffman, began to say that the only sufficient response to the “divorce evil” was to give no exception whatsoever. This stance seems to have been adopted for pragmatic reasons as much as for biblical ones, for it was only after the 1905 conference that more fully developed doctrinal explanations were published in support of the stricter position.

That’s a quick survey! Each of those points deserve a book chapter, and I’m sure I should add several more.

(And, to be clear, none of that history proves whether the adoption of a stricter position was good or bad; that would require a separate conversation about exegesis, theology, and pastoral care.)


Our family remains deeply grateful to everyone who helped us buy our Atlanta home, and to all who have supported us in so many other ways. Thank you! 

God is faithful! Please pray we, too, will be faithful, and that we can bear fruit for him in 2022.

For Christ and his church,
Dwight Gingrich


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