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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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