Book Review: Keeping the Trust, Issues Surrounding the formation of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church

Keeping the Trust: Issues Surrounding the Formation of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church will be an eye opener on another era if you grew up in my generation in an EPMC or resulting church group. This book is of interest to me for several reasons: I grew up in an EPMC congregation which positively shaped me in many ways, I am now a pastor at a congregation that was deeply shaped by the EPMC events and the book was compiled/written by Kenneth Auker, a respected school teacher of mine.

Here are some random thoughts on things I found interesting in the book:

It is almost hard for my generation to fathom that at one time Lancaster Conference and EPMC bishops/ministry were brothers in the same conference, working on the same problems and challenges as brethren. A glimpse into this on page 214:

When an audience member took a personal jab at Isaac Sensenig during a meeting about who gets the Myerstown church building, David Thomas (Lancaster Conference) tells them “you can’t talk to my brother like that”. Later in the meeting an audience member is harsh with David Thomas and guess what? Isaac says ” you can’t talk to my brother like that”.

Some also ask how the plain suite came to be standard practice in plain Mennonite churches? p222

The plain suite, although widely worn at one time, was never a requirement at Lancaster Conference.

[My note: the conservative groups wanted to emulate those in Lancaster Conference who were in full support of the Biblical standards and so plain suites became almost ubiquitous]

And for what is surely scandalous for many conservative Mennonites of today, Lancaster Conference did not have a prohibition on growing tobacco up to 1954.

The 1954 version of the Lancaster Conf. Discipline did not forbid members from growing tobacco…but did “urge them to abstain from use, distribution, and sale of tobacco”…Isaac Sensenig quit growing tobacco in 1954 incurring considerable personal cost for conscience sake…p262

On page 262 the Lancaster Conf Bishop statement on TV makes points of concern reminiscent of Neil Postman and his later book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”.

I’d say this book is a must read for anyone interested in the history and background of conservative Mennonite churches. I was made much more aware of conference leaders like David Thomas (moderator during the period), Jay Paul Graybill and others. I saw Isaac Sensenig, David Wadel, Jesse Neunschwander, Aaron Shank from an angle I never saw before. The inline frank & personal memories of young people and others during the time is great for getting a sense of the times. (I only wish the writers names were right with the callout instead of at the end of the book)

The book gives the sense of disappointment and heartache of both Lancaster Conference and EPMC leadership that the “amiable schism” even needed to be. Sometimes this combination may not have been conveyed by EPMC leadership to the next generation because the message of concern about drift drowned it out. I think the heartache balanced with concern helps those of us who have not personally experienced the events have a much more sympathetic & understanding picture of what shaped those coming out of Lancaster Conference. I was also struck by the huge effort taken to ensure that in every way possible this would be an “amiable schism”. I’ll admit that the great efforts and passion to make it an “amiable schism” brought tears to my eyes and a little pride in my heart [you know, the good Mennonite kind] that Mennonites loved God and the Church enough to pull it off. Sometimes how you do something is as important as that you do it.

If you are interested in the conservative wing of the Mennonite church this book is a must read.

The book is printed by Eastern Mennonite Publications and available at their book store in Ephrata and I’m sure other stores. (did you just look on Amazon? come on…)