“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 [amazon template=thumbnail11&asin=1592443125]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 [amazon text=His Name Was John&asin=1592443125], 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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2 thoughts on ““What grace alone can do” — J.S. Coffman”

  1. Was Coffman’s influence the root factor for the liberalization of current day Goshen College or is it more attributable to the growth of an alignment with liberal thinkers and college students across the nation that coalesced during the Vietnam War around the traditional peace doctrine of the Mennonite Church? And an unintended consequence of this new alliance was the undermining of the biblical plumb line in much of the Mennonite Church.

    1. Hi Marleen. Thanks for reading and responding. I wish I could answer your question, but I really don’t have a good grasp on the development of thinking at Goshen College in the 20th century. I get the sense that Coffman’s influence overall on the Mennonite Church was a net positive, but that is about as much as I can say. Most of my very limited study of Mennonite history has been focused on either early Anabaptists or the Mennonite Church in the late 19th century.

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