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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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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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