April 1999 Sprunger

April 1999

Mennonite Debates About Church Architecture
In Europe And America:
Questions Of History And Theology


Mennonite church buildings (or meetinghouses) are traditionally simple
and plain. One can find numerous examples of the Mennonite plain architectural
style in many countries. Finding the explicit, written rationale for Mennonite
architecture, however, is not so easy. Here and there, Mennonites debated
whether there is a distinctive Mennonite church architecture. Some argued
that the plain style was essential to the Mennonite faith; others believed
that innovation and a touch of elegance was proper. As they built new
buildings or adapted second-hand buildings, church members debated the
issues on theological and historical grounds. By looking at Dutch Mennonite
and English Puritan examples from Amsterdam, and American Mennonite examples
from North Dakota and Kansas, one can begin to fit Mennonite architecture
into the larger picture of Protestant church architecture.

Mennonites at Casselton, North Dakota
faced a church dilemma in 1951 when they had the opportunity to purchase
a fine, used church building in the town. It was well-constructed, well-designed
and available at a good price. The problem? It was a Gothic-style Episcopal
church with stained glass windows, central altar and cross, organ, kneelers,
double pulpits, bell and bell tower. St. Stephen’s Church of 1886 was
a landmark of some historical and artistic distinction, constructed by
architect George Hancock according to a design of Cass Gilbert, a prominent
American architect (Fig. 1). Built in territorial days, it was the donation
of General William Cass, pioneer railroad builder and businessman. By
mid-twentieth century the Episcopal congregation had disbanded and the
vacant church was for sale. Obviously, the building presented a great
opportunity for the Mennonites, but the Episcopalian church was such a
drastic change from the traditional, simple Mennonite house of worship.
What would other Mennonites say about such “high church” affectations?
After some discussion and debate, the Casselton Mennonite congregation
bought the building and moved in.
The Mennonites absorbed the structure with amazingly few changes, retaining
the organ, altar, cross, double pulpits and stained glass.

The splendid stained-glass windows caused
a few Mennonite hearts to flutter-should they be removed? One visiting
church dignitary slipped into his prayers a warning about ostentatious
windows, but by then the people had come to love them and they pretended
not to hear.
Pastor A. J. Stoll on various occasions preached sermons to help the congregation
interpret and appreciate the symbolic beauty of the building and its windows.
As he explained it, these symbols (such as the stained-glass cross, dove,
sheaves of grain, crown and stars, grapes and the bleeding pelican) were
not strictly Episcopalian or Mennonite but belonged to the Christian church
as a whole. Moreover, in accepting this building they had accepted trusteeship
of “probably the most cherished building in town. It could be the most
valuable church.”
Stoll’s leadership helped the congregation to see how Mennonites belonged
to the larger Christian movement. To this day, the Casselton Mennonite
Church worships with satisfaction in its Mennonite-Episcopalian temple.
The building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places,
thus joining a very select group of Mennonite churches to be accorded
this honor.

The Casselton discussions and sermons highlighted
long standing issues of Mennonite architecture. Is there such a thing
as one appropriate and approved Mennonite architecture? Does the
shape and form of the worship structure mold the religious life within?
Will an Episcopalian-designed building (or in other cases, a Methodist-
or Lutheran-designed building) make the worshipping Mennonite less attuned
to Mennonite values? It would be very valuable to have a study that surveys
Mennonite congregations which have acquired buildings from outside denominations.

Before buying from the Episcopalians, the
Casselton Mennonites did not own their own building but rented space from
the Moravian congregation. When arranging for their own building, should
Casselton Mennonites more appropriately have traveled around looking for
a former Baptist, Congregationalist or Quaker building? Or should they
have sacrificially raised money (far more than required to buy the used
building) to build a new meetinghouse in the historic Mennonite style?

Few would argue that Mennonite church architecture
is absolutely unique. Where do Mennonite churches fit into the larger
picture of architectural history? Commonly, historians place Mennonites
on one extreme of the architectural spectrum (the side of unadorned simplicity),
along with Puritan groups (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists
and Quakers); these are the dissenter, nonconformist Christians. Episcopalians,
Lutherans and Roman Catholics are on the other extreme (the side of elegant
presence). Mennonite history certainly supports the fact that Mennonites
have favored the simple, nonconformist tradition. But is it essential?
Over the past two centuries, numerous Mennonite congregations have broken
ranks, and some have claimed the liberty of drawing on the full range
of historical and architectural examples for expressing their Mennonitism.

The Casselton Mennonites, with their bell
tower and stained glass, found a Mennonite-Episcopalian architectural
accommodation, and they were not the only Mennonites to do so. However,
Mennonites more commonly related to the English and American Puritan architectural
style. Finding the proper balance of architecture and historical or theological
tradition is often a matter of Mennonite debate.

Historians have often noted that Mennonites
and Puritans shared many religious and architectural values.
For them the congregation was the church, not the building, and
the church building was merely the house in which the congregation gathered
for worship and spiritual fellowship.
Early Dutch Mennonites made austerity the hallmark of their church architecture.
They preferred to call their preacher the vermaner (admonisher)
and their church building, where the admonishing and preaching took place,
was known simply as the vermaning. The congregation gathered on
three sides around the admonishing preacher, who spoke from a desk or
table, sometimes on a slightly raised platform.

The first generations of English Puritans
adopted a similar concept. A classic example of the Puritan or dissenter
meetinghouse is the Old Meeting at Norwich, England built in 1693. It
is located off the street and features a rectangular hall with seating
and galleries on three sides, the pulpit and table at the center of the
fourth (long) side. The Old Ship Meetinghouse at Hingham, Massachusetts
(1681), the oldest Puritan church building in America, has a similar design.

Developments in the seventeenth-century
Netherlands hint at the early conjunction of Mennonite and Puritan church
architecture. Mennonites and refugee English Puritans, who began arriving
in the 1590s and thereafter throughout the seventeenth century, often
intermingled. The Dutch context was formative in the early life of Puritanism.
Dutch Protestantism (Dutch Reformed, Mennonite and Remonstrant) provided
convenient examples for English Puritan architecture. Horton Davies has
noted the seventeenth-century Mennonite influence, stating that the church
buildings of early Baptists and Quakers in their “very simple style” may
“well share a common ancestry in the stricter group of Dutch Mennonites-the
Waterlanders. Each religious group insisted on the importance of possessing
rather than merely professing a Christian faith.”
To be sure, matters of “influence” are extremely hard to document and
probably impossible to prove. However, historians have good reason to
link Mennonites and Puritans in the history of church architecture. Recent
Mennonite history also shows numerous examples of Mennonites reaching
out to the high church styles.


The Mennonite churches
in the Netherlands began as simple secretive house churches. Hidden, secret
worship was required because of persecution, but after Dutch independence
from Spain in the late sixteenth century, the Dutch Republic tolerated
but did not officially encourage the Mennonites. Their meeting places
had to be located off the street and “behind the houses,” without any
tower or bells or public show. Such a church was a schuilkerk (hidden

The English Puritan settlers who came over
to Amsterdam adopted this same simple, off-street style, partly for economic
necessity, partly for theological reasons. One English group, the English
Reformed Church (Presbyterian), affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church
and consequently received from the Amsterdam city fathers the use of a
Beguine chapel in the round Begijnhof, a former Catholic church. The Puritans,
of course, cleaned it up and threw out all remnants of Catholic furnishings
and imagery. They retained or acquired a pulpit, a simple communion table,
and orderly rows of benches. By contrast, the more extreme Puritans, called
the Separatists or Brownists, were completely independent from the state
and self-supporting. They met only in houses and insisted on the house-church
style of worship. In 1607 the Separatists, pastored by Francis Johnson
and Henry Ainsworth, after years of meeting in private homes of members,
erected a building of their own design. However, it was very similar to
the old private houses, looking like an ordinary house with rooms for
living and a room to use for worship, and it was located in a dead-end
alley of the Vloonburg area beyond the Amstel River. The interior arrangement
was informal, without an elaborate pulpit or a set pattern of seating.

In 1608 Joseph Hall (1574-1656) visited
Amsterdam and out of curiosity searched for the Brownist hidden church.
He could hardly find it. It was tucked away in a tiny alley, “in a blind
lane at Amsterdam.” Hall, who later became bishop of Norwich, could only
conclude that such a pathetic house in an alley was a sure proof of a
church failure.
Not so, replied the Brownists. God wanted his people to worship simply
and quietly, in contrast to the rich, powerful churches with their “magnificent
building, and superstitious form.”
Although the refugee Puritans were poor, their simple house-church style
of architecture arose as much from conviction as from necessity.

In 1668 the Separatists (by now known as
Independents or Congregationalists) bought land in another alley and built
a new building in the Bruinistengang (the Brownists’ Alley), just off
the Barndesteeg (Fig. 2). Once again it was combination apartment house
and meeting hall. It looked “like a cross between a church and a model
As with the Puritan churches, the interior arrangements were spare; containing
only the three “essentials” of a Puritan church: pulpit, communion table
and benches.

In time, with changed political situations,
Mennonites and Puritans could move out of alleys and back houses and set
up on the main streets. The Netherlands granted full civil liberties to
all religions in 1796. However, by then many Puritans and Mennonites concluded
that the austere style was, in fact, the best way, even when they no longer
faced persecution. So Amsterdam Mennonites retained their churches “behind
the house” and Puritans continued to build churches “in the alley.”
Necessity had evolved into voluntary choice.

Seventeenth-century Mennonite commentaries
about church buildings are unfortunately very scarce. Puritans, however,
were more outspoken and explicit on the topic. Because some of the Amsterdam
Puritans had accepted the use of an old Gothic church and the Separatist
Puritans used only house churches, the various factions launched vigorous
debates and arguments about the proper use of church architecture. Simplicity
of form was so obvious that they hardly required comment. Puritans of
Amsterdam identified two further concerns about church architecture: (1)
The purity of the building. If the building had ever been previously used
by idolatrous or corrupt groups-defined at that time as Jews and Roman
Catholics-then God-fearing Protestants must never again use the building
for worship; and (2) The controlling effect of the form of a building
upon those who worship within. One of the Brownist founders, Henry Barrow,
warned that his group would be molded and deformed by the liturgical shape
of the surroundings-by “the old idolatrous shapes.”
It was impossible, he argued, to fit new spiritual religion into old forms.
For these reasons, pastors Johnson and Ainsworth, in line with Brownist
doctrines, strictly urged that all the old, befouled pre-Reformation Gothic
churches must be pulled down: “that all monuments of Idolatry . . . ought
by lawfull authority to be rased and abolished; not suffered to remayne.”

The Puritans would have indeed cautioned
the twentieth-century Casselton, North Dakota Mennonites to beware of
appropriating other people’s religious buildings. In spite of fiery pronouncements,
the Separatist Puritans never demolished any buildings and had no authority
to do so; but they thought it would be a good idea.

Since one of the Amsterdam Puritan churches,
the English Reformed Church in the Begijnhof, had a “re-cycled” church
(and did not intend to demolish it), the debates became very heated. During
1617-1618 Pastor John Paget of the English Reformed and Henry Ainsworth
of the Separatists published an exchange of papers about proper church
buildings which helped to clarify the Puritan principles of architecture.
Indeed the designs and theories developed in Amsterdam were formative
in the development of Puritan, nonconformist architecture in England and

Seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Mennonite
writings about church architecture that might inform a comparative study
of Puritans and Mennonites are scarce.
In looking at the surviving buildings, one can see considerable similarity
between Dutch Mennonites and the more extreme Puritans (Separatists, Congregationalists,
Quakers and Baptists). In writing about architecture, however, the two
groups took a different approach. Mennonites wrote little about the origins
and previous uses of architecture, preferring to discuss the current uses
and moral responsibility of having a good building.


Although Mennonites through the centuries
developed certain architectural traditions for church buildings, treatises
and explicit theories about Mennonite architecture were slow in coming.
The 1955 article on architecture in the Mennonite Encyclopedia,
by Cornelius Krahn and N. van der Zijpp, was perhaps a landmark on this
topic in that it combined a historical survey with hints of an architectural
philosophy. In the 1950s Krahn, then professor of church history at Bethel
College, had more than academic interest in the architectural topic because
at that very time the Bethel College Mennonite Church was planning and
erecting a new building. His encyclopedia article has some thinly veiled
references to debates and controversies in the church’s building program.

After nearly fifty years of worshipping
in a rented “chapel” in the Bethel College administration building, the
Bethel College Church voted in 1945 to construct its own “church building.”
In the original motion to build, without consulting architects or doing
other planning, the congregation resolved to have the “Gothic style.”
Pastor Lester Hostetler (serving 1942-1952) was the steady pusher for
having a new building and he urged the Gothic design. It had to be Gothic,
one member recalled, “because that was what the Reverend Lester Hostetler
wanted.” Several years passed until the building could be achieved, with
ground breaking in 1950 and dedication in 1956.

The Bethel College Church congregation
had a strong appreciation of “high culture”: music, art, literature and
philosophy. Consequently, it felt free to draw on the full range of Christian
history and all of its cultural traditions, not just the usual Mennonite
ones. Pastor Hostetler once stated that they should not be bound rigidly
by past Mennonite practice. “I am for anything, gleaned from anywhere,
that adds to the effectiveness of public worship.”
Moreover, Hostetler was far from unique among Mennonites in his love of
the Gothic style; many mid-twentieth century Mennonite churches west of
the Mississippi had a similar appearance.

Eager for a new church home, the congregation
planned, raised money and hired Lorentz Schmidt (1884-1952), the most
prominent Wichita architect of the day. Although Schmidt died midway through
the work, his firm saw the project through. Members prided themselves
on having found “a real church architect.” Going to Schmidt meant going
for “the best” in Kansas; he would surely produce a landmark building.
In line with the congregation’s instructions and his own predilections,
Schmidt designed a handsome stone English Gothic building, which pleased
the congregation very much. The Bethel College Church was a good-sized
congregation with 532 members in 1950, although not wealthy (having many
widows, retired ministers and low-paid Bethel professors).
The total cost was over $400,000, but by 1959 the people, who worked and
gave with a will, had paid it off.

Architect Schmidt’s first design (1948)
was a textbook-perfect English Gothic church with pointed arches, external
buttresses, lancet windows, double pulpits and a long nave with center
aisle, sweeping up through a divided chancel to an altar with lighted
bronze cross, positioned dramatically under the “Trinity Windows.” Schmidt
was an Episcopalian, and what he offered to the Newton Mennonites certainly
had an Episcopalian” high church” flavor. At this point, congregational
members had only one concern in the aesthetic design-the tower lacked
a spire. The squat tower looked militaristic, they said, and thus un-Mennonite.
Adding a tall spire, they rationalized, would be more in tune with the
“Mennonite philosophy of worship, namely, the direct relationship between
the individual worshipper and God.”
Others, like college president E. G. Kaufman, favored the spire because
it gave a more stately, churchly presence; the church should always be
the highest point in town. “Otherwise Christianity would be overshadowed
by surrounding grain elevators”-and that is not right.
Thus at the insistence of the congregation, the architect added a soaring
spire, so that the church would look “more Mennonite” (Fig. 3b). But ironically,
in the end, the much-desired spire had to be omitted as a cost-saving

As it turned out, the decision about a
church spire was only one of many that the Bethel College congregation
would need to confront. From voting to construction to dedication took
eleven years (1945 to 1956), and during this period members wrote numerous
position papers and the church commissioned a good number of architectural
study committees. It was a congregation filled with word-loving professors
and pastors. It is unlikely that many other Mennonite churches in America,
or even in the world, could match the quantity of their output of writings
on Mennonite architecture. The church building records are one of the
largest collections in the church archives.

The Bethel College Church was not alone
in its architectural endeavors. The 1950s was the great church-building
age of American Mennonites. Post World War II prosperity and more elegant
tastes led to the tearing down of the old wooden structures and replacement
with brick-and-stone buildings. During the decade nineteen Western District
Mennonite churches erected new church buildings, and during the 1960s
there were ten more new Western District church buildings.
Robert Kreider has observed that this passion for new Mennonite buildings
“brought to an end the simple ‘meetinghouse’ era.”

Some Mennonite observers wondered if the
new churches signaled the end of traditional Mennonite values and the
coming of a new era of Mennonite “comfort, fine feelings, escape, and
pious peace.”
Along with building, the 1950s also witnessed increased writing and philosophizing
about American Mennonite church architecture, with a steady appearance
of articles in The Mennonite and Mennonite Life. To meet
the architecture need, the General Conference in 1955 published a church
architecture pamphlet about “The Architectural Issue.”

As the new College Church structure took
shape, it did not look traditionally Mennonite, and over time a series
of divisive issues emerged within the congregation. “This looks like Episcopalian,”
declared Dr. E. G. Kaufman.
The main points of Bethel architectural discussion were these: (1) the
spire; (2) stained glass; (3) using decorative crosses inside and out;
(4) divided chancel with divided choir; and (5) central altar with side
pulpits, rather than pulpit in the center. On nearly every point, in spite
of many debates, the high church Gothic design of architect Schmidt and
pastor Hostetler prevailed.

In addition there were practical questions
about whether to have a basement, the size of kitchen, the location of
library, and the color of woodwork. These also quickened the pulse and
caused heat at church meetings. Indeed for some, the size and equipping
of the kitchen was the preeminent concern.


As the congregational members worked through
the issues and vigorously debated them, the arguments took two directions:
appeal to history and appeal to theology. Cornelius Krahn, in the midst
of preparing his Mennonite Encyclopedia article on Mennonite architecture,
tested many of his ideas in the congregational setting.
As an historian, he relied on the historical approach. After surveying
the history of Mennonite church building in two traditions, the Swiss-German
meetinghouse style and the Dutch-Prussian-Russian church style, he concluded
that “there is no ready-made Mennonite church pattern in existence that
could be used everywhere.” Nor was there a distinctive, recognizable Mennonite
church architecture. Consequently, whoever appealed to Mennonite history
could pick and choose examples from their favorite period of history (Dutch
hidden churches, Pennsylvania meetinghouses, Prussian and Russian brick
churches). All of these belonged to Mennonite history but, in Krahn’s
contention, none was authentically and originally Mennonite.

Krahn particularly admired the Mennonite
Singel Kerk in Amsterdam and the Heubuden church in Prussia, but he was
no historical purist chained to any one historical precedent. He professed
to see Mennonite history as a changing and modifying movement, dramatic,
prophetic and revolutionary. It should be a cutting-edge force. So, although
the Mennonite architecture of the past lacked steeples, stained glass
or divided chancels, Kansas Mennonites in their new environment may have
evolved to the point that such innovations could be judiciously used.
Krahn saw that it was time for a new cutting edge. “Our forefathers may
have made a mistake by abolishing too many of the Christian symbols.”
Thus, “a building that was beautiful, functional, and in harmony with
Mennonite principles a century ago in Russia or Prussia will hardly stand
this test without modification in our day in America. In the prairie
states and provinces we observe a change that takes place.”

By applying his principle of Mennonite
historical “modification,” Krahn headed off the traditionalists who merely
wanted to reproduce the austere meetinghouse. He was able to incorporate
steeples, bells and stained glass windows and give them a Mennonite flavor.

Surprisingly, in looking over the historical
options, most Bethel College Mennonites showed little interest in the
American Mennonite “meetinghouse” tradition. One member in tune with this
tradition, J. Winfield Fretz, professor of sociology, a native of Pennsylvania,
spoke up from time to time about too much formality and ritual in worship
and building.
All the talk about grand buildings and Mennonite altars and crosses was
likely “a rationalization in defense of a religious fashion,” said Fretz.
For the most part, however, Bethel Mennonites favored something more grand
than a meetinghouse. After worshipping for over fifty years in a school
building-the Kansas version of the hidden church-they wanted to look like
a church. A valued consultant, Elbert M. Conover of the interdenominational
Bureau of Architecture of New York, advised: “Have building look like
a church, not like a library, post office, to remind one of the Christian
faith-strong, vigorous lines, with some color.”

Using the theological argument called for
a different kind of reasoning. Scholars of this persuasion studied Scripture
and theology (often with a point of view already in mind) and then tried
to incarnate the principles intellectually into wood, bricks and mortar.
Principles like the presence of God in the world, the believer’s direct
access to God and the fellowship of believers were to be transformed into
architectural symbols or buildings.

With this approach, Ralph C. Kauffman,
a church member and Bethel College psychology professor, de-emphasized
the historical argument entirely by appealing to Biblical theology, psychology
and the “pragmatic test.”
He had his heart set on having a central altar with a decorative cross
(in fact, he had already donated to the church a sixteen-inch bronze,
electrically-lighted cross). It did not matter whether Mennonites have
used this or that symbol in the past. In fact, history is a poor guide
because it allows no room for movement. He wrote: “If we were to find
our final standard in the early churches of Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz,
and Blaurock, we would not have a pipe organ, a choir, certainly not a
robed choir, and certainly not a church edifice such as we are in the
process of constructing.”

Rather, according to R. C. Kauffman, the
question is: does a particular innovation serve Mennonites at this time
and place? If a certain architectural feature or symbol provided a service
to Mennonites here and now, Kauffman asserted, it had pragmatic and spiritual
value. The use of an altar and cross in Mennonite worship will enhance
the presence of God and encourage a direct relationship with Him, without
intervening “priests” and officiants (i. e., Mennonite preachers holding
forth in their central pulpits). It did not matter to Kauffman whether
past Mennonites had used these symbols or not. The historical precedent
of a center pulpit, traditional in Mennonite churches, must be rejected;
history must in this case be rejected. Functionally, the minister at the
center is “a step in the direction of humanism.”
Kauffman made a sketch of his proposed Mennonite altar and cross (Fig.
4). Although an altar is not traditionally Mennonite, he wrote, “would
this not capture the essence of Mennonitism, in spirit if not in letter'”

David C. Wedel, president of Bethel College
from 1952 to 1959, used a similar theological, non-historical argument
to urge a center aisle and center altar table. Moving the pulpit to the
side opened the way to God and removed a human obstacle (the preacher
in the pulpit). “The central aisle, symbolically speaking, indicates the
open way all the way, that it would preserve the lines of beauty and harmony
originally planned and that it endorses the position of the original Mennonite
Church, the priesthood of the individual believer.”

Although the historical and theological
arguments at the Bethel College church took a different line of reasoning,
the results were not dissimilar-moving Mennonite architecture in new directions.


By 1955 the building
program was moving along well with stone walls and roof taking shape.
Up until this time, in spite of discussions and give-and-take, no one
had directly challenged the architect’s Gothic concept. In January of
that year Elmer Ediger, executive secretary of the General Conference
Board of Christian Service, later the head administrator of Prairie View
Hospital, widely distributed a paper, “On the Chancel Question” (published
later in 1955 under the title “On the Altar-Centered Chancel”); here he
attacked many of the assumptions of Lorentz Schmidt’s architectural design,
especially the interior plan of the chancel (Fig. 5).

Lorentz Schmidt’s divided chancel had a
central altar and double pulpits (a large one for the pastor and a small
lectern for lay persons or assistants). If this arrangement would prevail,
Ediger warned, the congregation would be molded into a non-Mennonite pattern
of worship, “centered in the symbol and drama of altar sacrifice which
is the heart of liturgy.” All eyes are led to the altar (a shrine) as
the focus of the worship service. In contrast, Anabaptists should gather
“in the New Testament direction of simple, direct worship in Spirit and
Truth.” He described the Mennonite values of worship as these: (1) the
Bible interpreted in the light of Christ Jesus; (2) all Christians to
be disciples; (3) striving to be a church and brotherhood such as the
New Testament would have us to be; and (4) the spirit of reverence and
worship to come not so much from the material building and other physical
stimuli but from the sincere attitude of believers as they look toward
God. Thus, what the Bethel College Church required was a building that
would encourage these Mennonite principles, not some imported Episcopalian
format. Moving into such a church arrangement might transform them into
different religious people. Beware the “Dangers of a Priestly System.”

These were profound issues. Some members
applauded Ediger but many were disturbed that these divisive points surfaced
so late in the construction timetable. In fact, the building with chancel
was already “set in stone.” The platforms for each of the two pulpits
were poured in concrete and conduits for wires were in place. Was this
the time to “rock the boat'”

In the files of Ediger’s writings and correspondence
during this crucial period, two sources of his thinking are evident. The
first was an appreciation for Anabaptist-Mennonite history, especially
the “Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision” movement. One of the World War
II CPS idealists, Ediger extolled the Anabaptist brotherhood concept.
Harold W. Buller (pastor of the church 1952-1956) characterized Ediger
as one of the “new generation” Anabaptists “seeking to comprehend what
it meant to be a Mennonite.”

For architectural models, however, Ediger
ranged widely and showed much interest in the Puritan and Quaker architectural
traditions, hoping these examples would persuade Mennonites to return
to the simple style. He gathered considerable material on Presbyterian,
Congregationalist and Quaker church architecture. The Quaker “plain style”
and the Puritan pulpit-centered churches attracted him. None of these
allowed altars and golden crosses. His article “On the Altar-Centered
Chancel” quoted sources about historic Presbyterian and Reformed worship.

In search of more information, Ediger corresponded
with James Hastings Nichols, a Presbyterian professor of church history
at the University of Chicago, about the history of worship and church
Nichols proposed that a congenial style for Mennonites would be the New
England colonial Georgian meetinghouse, with high pulpit on the middle
of the long side and seating on the other sides. “No foolishness about
chancels, altars, lecterns, dossals, paraments, etc.” But, as Ediger explained,
the College Church building was almost in place with its high church elements
“in stone.” What could still be done to remedy the situation? Nichols
responded that he, like Ediger, considered an altar to be a sign of the
“hierarchical conception,” whereas simple non-liturgical Puritan-Reformed
buildings reflected the Reformation conception of justification by grace
and the fellowship of believers. “You are stuck with a chancel,” it seems,
but it should not be necessary to accept the altar and lectern also. Those
should be rejected. Nichols told Ediger to keep working, because “you
are now in the situation of so many reformers of the 16th century who
inherited a building designed for non-congregational worship and had to
adapt it.”
Adaption and cleansing might still make the College Church structure suitable
for Mennonites ideals.

Meanwhile, the pro-chancel people, headed
by R. C. Kauffman, responded to the Anabaptist reformists. Kauffman wrote
and distributed “Some Reasons for an Altar-Centered Chancel.” Conceding
that Ediger probably had the better of the historical arguments about
“original Mennonitism,” Kauffman took his stand on generalized theological
principles and psychological and sociological arguments. Centering worship
in a preacher is man-centered, but an attractive altar and cross would
turn the worshipper’s thoughts to God and “allow the worshipper to contemplate
God directly.” After all, what’s so great about Mennonite history? Since
history does not really guide us, we are free to move in new artistic
directions, seeking the essence of Mennonitism rather than its dead forms.

Resolving the chancel controversy was a
long process. Both sides presented their arguments well, and both found
Biblical and historical arguments to buttress their cases. In fact, when
the two positions were laid out on paper, each side had exactly the same
number of persuasive Biblical and historical points. Confused and unsure
of the next step, the congregation adopted the great expedient of “appointing
a committee.” Erland Waltner, professor of Bible, was chairman of the
Special Chancel Study Committee of 1955. Its solution was a compromise:
to retain the basic arrangement of divided chancel and pulpit to the side
but eliminate the lectern and move the table forward somewhat. The bare
concrete platform of the discarded lectern became a dais for flowers.
The compromise plan was still in the high church tradition but “flexible”
enough to gain the approval of the church council and the congregation.

That was not the end of the story. In the
early 1960s, the church council, without authorization from the congregation,
resurrected most of the original design by allowing the table to be moved
back to the wall (positioned altar-wise under the lancet windows) and
the bronze cross came out of storage for special occasions. More debates
and position papers came forth. The church musicians complained, and the
church choir objected that they could not do their best in the split chancel
and divided seating. Finally in 1968-in the face of campus and national
commotions when liturgical matters no longer mattered as much-choir director
J. Randall Zercher on his own initiative moved the altar table forward
and turned the benches into the forward position. This eliminated the
divided chancel once and for all. “I just went ahead and did it. Doing
it was necessary for musical excellence.”
No one challenged the re-arrangement.


The history and
debates about Mennonite and Puritan church architecture at seventeenth-century
Amsterdam and twentieth-century America suggest, first of all, that Mennonite
architecture must be observed in the wider picture of Protestant church
architecture. It did not rise or continue in a vacuum. It borrowed from
its surroundings, and at times others may have borrowed from Mennonites.
Mennonites and Puritan nonconformists had a connection in church architecture
at Amsterdam; and in later times Mennonites (for example, the Anabaptist
reformers of the Bethel College Church) have looked at Puritan church
architecture with approval. Some of the Puritan theories about architecture
(as on simplicity and order) were relevant for Mennonites. Some Mennonites,
however, refused to be bound by this austere tradition and borrowed from
across the architectural spectrum. American Mennonites, especially west
of the Mississippi, found the high-church Gothic style very attractive.

Second, when Mennonites began to philosophize
about church architecture, they drew on both historical example and theology,
but in such a way that they could incorporate any number of innovations
to the tradition and give them a Mennonite varnish. It seems likely that
current fashion and trends have played a very large role in shaping Mennonite
church architecture.

Finally, in looking at situations where
Mennonites have moved into elegant buildings, we ask, how did the new
surroundings mold and transform the congregation? One wonders, however,
if the molding and transforming had not occurred earlier, before choosing
a new building; the choice of the grand style reflected attitudes that
had already been formed in the congregation at an earlier time.

Keith Sprunger is Professor
of History at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas. Return to Text

. For information on Casselton
Mennonites, see the work of Dellis Schrock, who is the historian of the
church; he is the author of “Casselton Mennonite Church, 1928-1988” (1988),
the centennial open house announcement (1986) and “A Brief History of
the Casselton Mennonite Church” (mimeographed, 1978). I wish to thank
Dellis and Twila Schrock of Fargo, North Dakota for helpful information
and for a guided visit of the church. Return to Text

. The Mennonites initially removed
only the kneeling benches. These, they reported, were “in such bad shape.”
Return to Text

. Norma Johnson, associate pastor
of the Bethel College Mennonite Church, “Icons, Idols, and Christian Education”
(sermon, Sept. 7, 1997 and follow-up conversation Sept. 9, 1997). Norma
Johnson grew up in the Casselton Mennonite congregation and vividly remembers
the events of moving into their new building and the discussion and debates
ensuing. The congregation, known at the time as the Red River Valley Mennonite
Church, was a member of the North Central MC conference; today it has
dual membership in the North Central and the Northern District (GC) Mennonite
conferences. Return to Text

. A. J. Stoll, “Symbols of the
Church,” Aug. 1, 1976, MS sermon notes; Stoll had preached a similar sermon
back in about 1952, when the congregation first moved into the building
(private collection of Dellis and Twila Schrock). Return to Text

. Horton Davies, The Worship
of the English Puritans (1948 reprint; Morgan, Pa: Soli Gloria Publications,
1997), 88-92; C. A. van Swigchem, et al., Een huis voor het woord:
Het protestantse kerkinterieur in Nederland tot 1900 (‘s-Gravenhage:
Staatsuitgeverij, 1984), 53-55. Return to Text

. W. F. Golterman, Liturgiek
(Haarlem: De Erven E. Bohn N. V., 1951), 21-22. Golterman was professor
at the Mennonite Seminary of Amsterdam from 1946 to 1968. Return to

. ME, 1:148-49, 4:214;
M. J. ‘t Hart, Vermaningen en vermaners 1534-1984: 450 jaar dooperse
geluiden in Aalsmeer (Aalsmeer: Doopsgezinde Gemeete te Aalsmeer,
1984), 4, 12-17, 20-23. Return to Text

. Horton Davies, Worship and
Theology in England from Andrewes to Baxter and Fox, 1603-1690 (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1975), 61. Davies buttressed this argument
by referring to the writings of Bernard Picart and H. L. Short. On the
commonalities of Mennonite and Puritan architecture (without necessarily
claiming an influence of the former upon the latter), see W. F. Golterman,
Liturgiek, 21-22. H. L. Short emphasized the formative role of
Dutch Reformed architecture on English church architecture in “The Architecture
of the Old Meeting Houses,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical
Society 8 (1944): 100-102. Return to Text

. van Swigchem, Een huis
voor het woord, 14-15. Return to Text

. Joseph Hall (1608), Epistles,
3 vols. (London, 1608-1611), 3:50 Return to Text

. John Robinson, A Just
and Necessarie Apologie of Certain Christians (n. p., 1625), 53-54.
Robinson was pastor of the Separatist church at Leiden. Return to Text

. Henry Martyn Dexter, The
Congregationalism of the Last Three Hundred Years as Seen in Its Literature
(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1880), 355. Return to Text

. Horton Davies, The Worship
of the American Puritans, 1629-1730 (New York: Peter Lang, 1990),
248. The 1668 building was pulled down about 1910. Return to Text

. For “behind the houses,”
see Van Swigchem, 15, and for “in the alley” or in the lane,” see Hall,
Epistles, 3:50. Return to Text

. Henry Barrow, A Brief
Discoverie of the False Church (n. p, 1590), 132. Return to Text

. Francis Johnson and Henry
Ainsworth, An Apologie or Defence of Such True Christians (n. p.,
1604), 75-76. Return to Text

. The Paget-Ainsworth debates
were recorded in Paget’s Arrow against the Separation of the Brownists
(Amsterdam, 1618). Return to Text

. See Keith L. Sprunger, “Puritan
Church Architecture and Worship in a Dutch Context,” Church History
66 (March 1997), 36-53. Return to Text

. For a discussion about Dutch
Mennonite architecture, see J. J. Schiere, “De architectuur van doopsgezinde
kerken,” Doopsgezinde Bijdragen, n.r., 3 (1977), 71-100; this author
did not identify early writings and theories about architecture. The best
sources are the Dutch printed sermons and historical sketches produced
for the dedications of new Mennonite churches. The earliest of these is
by Galenus Abrahamsz, Aanspraak an de Vereenigde Doops-Gezinde Gemeente
te Zaandam, preached Nov. 2, 1687 on the occasion of the first service
in the newly-built meeting house (vergader-plaats) of Zaandam.
Return to Text

. In connection with the study
of Mennonite architecture, the author is making a study of dedicatory
sermons for new buildings of Dutch Mennonites and American Mennonites.
Return to Text

. To update the topic, Robert
Kreider wrote another essay on architecture for the 1990 Mennonite
Encyclopedia; in contrast to the earlier article, it focused on value
questions and concerns. Return to Text

. Mrs. P. S. Goertz and Harley
J. Stucky, Our Church Past and Present: A Short History of the Bethel
College Mennonite Church (North Newton, Kan.: Mennonite Press, 1954),
25. Return to Text

. For a larger account of the
building of the church, see Keith L. Sprunger, Campus, Congregation,
and Community: The Bethel College Mennonite Church 1897-1997 (Newton,
Kans.: Mennonite Press, 1997), ch. 5: “Architecture and Worship 1945-1960.”
Return to Text

. Hostetler to J. W. Fretz,
Jan. 26, 1945 and Feb. 9, 1945 (Fretz file, uncatalogued, BCMC archives).
Return to Text

. Church bulletin, July 3,
1955. Return to Text

. Report of the Special Committee
on Church Symbolism (n. d.); Leo Brandt to Lorentz Schmidt, Feb. 27, 1950
(Archive VI, folder 23). Although historians today might question this
individualistic understanding of Mennonite theology, it was a key component
in the writings of C. Henry Smith, the favorite Mennonite historian of
the Bethel College Church.-C. Henry Smith, The Story of the Mennonites
(Berne: Mennonite Book Concern, 1941), 29. Return to Text

. Reported by Ernest Unruh,
oral history interview, 1996 (BCMC collection). Return to Text

. Information from Loris Habegger,
interview July 25, 1996. Habegger has made an extensive collection of
photographs of American Mennonite churches, now in the MLA at Bethel College.
Return to Text

. “Architecture,” ME,
5:34. Return to Text

. Donovan E. Smucker, in Educational
News Bulletin, “The Architectural Issue” (Feb. 1955), 1. This was
a General Conference publication. Return to Text

. Related by Lester Hostetler,
interview of Oct. 22, 1980 (oral history collection, MLA). Return to

. The article appeared in 1955.
Return to Text

. Cornelius Krahn, “The House
of God,” (typescript, n. d.), 5. In addition to “The House of God” and
the 1955 ME article (1:148-49), his other writings on Mennonite
architecture were: “Building the House of God,” The Mennonite (July
18, 1950), 476-477; “From ‘Meetinghouse’ to Church” (typescript and later
printed in Educational News Bulletin, ed. Willard Claassen (Feb.
1955), 2; “Concerning the Symbols in the Windows of the Bethel College
Mennonite Church” (typescript, 1954); he was also on the committee of
three that produced the “Report of the Special Committee on Church Symbolism”
(1949), other members being J. W. Fretz and R. C. Kauffman. The latter
report was the moving force for adding a spire to architect Schmidt’s
tower: “The church steeple . . . would seem less out of place than the
more militaristic type of fortress tower.” Return to Text

. Krahn, “House of God.” Return
to Text

. Fretz’s exchange of letters
with Rev. Lester Hostetler, Jan. 26, 1945 and Feb. 9, 1945 (Fretz file,
BCMC, uncatalogued). See also his article “Improving the House of God,”
The Mennonite (Aug. 15, 1950), 543, 551. Return to Text

. Notes by J. W. Fretz scratched
on church bulletin, Feb. 29, 1948 (passed on to the author by Fretz).
Return to Text

. “Notes on Forum with Dr.
Conover,” Feb. 23, 1947 (E. G. Kaufman collection, MLA, “Bethel College
Church” file). Return to Text

. R. C. Kauffman, “Minority
Report of the Committee on Church Symbolism,” n. d. (c. 1949). Return
to Text

. R. C. Kauffman, “Some Reasons
for an Altar-Centered Chancel” (1955), 2. Return to Text

. R. C. Kauffman, “Minority
Report.” Return to Text

. R. C. Kauffman, “Some Reasons.”
Return to Text

. Church council, Jan. 30,
1955; Sept. 11, 1961. Return to Text

. Elmer Ediger, “On the Chancel
Question,” mimeographed, 1955 (11 pages). A revised version was printed
in the Educational News Bulletin, the architectural issue (Feb.
1955), 5-8, and a reworked version, “What is Central in Worship,” in Mennonite
Life, 12 (Jan. 1957), 28-30. See also another manuscript paper, “Statement
of Values for Chancel Arrangement” (Ediger file). Return to Text

. Harold W. Buller, memoir
for the Bethel College Mennonite Church centennial collection, Nov. 1995.
Return to Text

. Ediger had read and appreciated
Nichols’ article, “The Rediscovery of Puritan Worship” in Christian
Century 68 (April 25, 1951), 524-32 (notes in Ediger file). Return
to Text

. James Nichols to Ediger,
Feb. 6, 1955 (Ediger file). Return to Text

. R. C. Kauffman’s paper is
found in the Ediger file, and in various building committee files. Orlando
Schmidt in a letter to Ediger, Jan. 24, 1955, followed some of the same
line as Kauffman, and he chided Ediger for exaggerating the dangers of
a divided chancel as the door to a priestly system (Ediger file). Return
to Text

. J. Randall Zercher interview,
Feb. 7, 1997.
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