January 2005 Wenger

The Origins and Development of Anointing Among Nineteenth-Century Mennonites


Abstract: The rite of anointing the sick with oil for healing, based on James 5:14-16, was generally not practiced among Mennonites until the late nineteenth century. Documentary evidence suggests that early Anabaptists joined other reformers in rejecting anointing as it was practiced by Roman Catholics in the sixteenth century. This essay contains a reconstructive narrative of how anointing the sick with oil took root in North American Mennonite communities following 1870 to eventually be included as one of the seven official ordinances of the church. Further, the case will be made that anointing was adopted into the Mennonite ritual repertoire without betraying longstanding values of the church and that anointing provided the church with a safer, biblical means of divine healing than other suspect alternatives.

On May 9, 1884, the leadership of Mennonite congregations in Virginia met in regular session at Weavers Mennonite Church, near Harrisonburg. According to the minutes, “the subject of anointing with oil, as spoken of by James 5:14, was discussed at length. Much was said for and against its literal signification, and what the duty of the elders is when called upon for that purpose.” The leaders also discussed what kind of oil to use if an actual anointing was to be performed, before finally dismissing the issue “without any final conclusion.”[1] Yet little more than a decade later, Daniel Kaufman’s Manual of Bible Doctrines-the definitive statement of Mennonite theology during the first half of the twentieth century-included anointing with oil as one of the seven ordinances of the church, almost on par with communion, baptism and footwashing.

From the Civil War through the end of the nineteenth century Mennonites in the United States underwent an immense transformation in their sense of mission and identity. These changes, coinciding generally with a shift in language from German to English, were part of a “throbbing new activism” that characterized Mennonite communities. In the words of Mennonite historian Theron Schlabach, this “new mood altered their relation to America’s Protestants, to its Protestant-blessed denominationalism, to American society, and to past Mennonite tradition and religious understandings.”[2] Mennonites slowly opened their windows to what Schlabach terms “new breezes”: Sunday School, publishing and bookselling, revivalism, Protestant mission models and increasingly complex church structures.[3]

This essay describes the origins and early development of anointing the sick with oil in the Mennonite Church within the context of these larger changes. With rare exceptions, anointing as a churchly rite of divine healing was generally not practiced in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition prior to the late nineteenth century. Its introduction toward the end of the nineteenth century, and eventual sanction as a church ordinance, stretched the tradition in some unaccustomed ways. Nonetheless, Mennonites adopted anointing as a form of divine healing that fit relatively well within established norms and values. By incorporating anointing into their ritual repertoire, Mennonite Church leaders provided a legitimized alternative to other healing claimants deemed unacceptable.



Writing in the late 1940s, the historian and theologian John C. Wenger observed that “there seems to be no mention in Anabaptist writings of anointing with oil. Modern Mennonites, when ill, sometimes send for the elders of the church and ask to be anointed for the healing of the body (James 5:14-15). How long this has been observed is not known.”[4] In a later essay on anointing, Wenger proposed the nineteenth century as the likely historical span in which to search for the origins of anointing among Mennonites.[5] Wenger’s claims about both the uncertainty of when anointing made its way into Mennonite life, and the nineteenth century as the likely window for this development, appear to be correct. References to anointing from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth century are extremely rare, though an argument against its practice must be tendered cautiously because there always remains the possibility that early Anabaptists and later Mennonite communities practiced anointing and never thought it important enough to write about it.[6]

The few references to James 5:14-16 and anointing with oil among the early Anabaptists suggest that they did not attempt to reform the Roman Catholic pattern of anointing the sick that had come to be known as extreme unction; instead, they repudiated it. The Martyrs Mirror, for example, records the interrogation of a Dutch Anabaptist widow by the name of Wynken on November 20, 1527. “What do you hold concerning the holy oil'” her interrogator asked, presumably referring to the consecrated oil the Roman Catholic Church used in various sacramental ceremonies, including extreme unction.[7] With characteristic zeal, Wynken replied, “Oil is good for salad, or to oil your shoes with.”[8] A more extended exchange in the Martyrs Mirror regarding the use of oil is recorded from a disputation in criminal court, May 9, 1569. A Franciscan monk, Friar Cornelius, probed what an Anabaptist, Jacob de Keersgieter, thought “of the sacrament of holy unction which St. James writes” of in the fifth chapter. According to the record, Jacob minced no words:

I do not believe that the anointing with oil of which James writes has anything in common with the oil with which you anoint the sick among you; for the oil of which James writes healed the sick. . . . But however much you priests adjure and conjure your oil, it can nevertheless not heal the sick; hence, that was another oil, than your oil which you call a sacrament. . . . If you want to imitate all the things which the apostles did . . . why do you not also regard your aprons or handkerchiefs as sacraments…? For what greater sacredness was there in the oil of which James writes than in Paul’s aprons by which he also healed the sick’[9]

The only other reference from early Anabaptist history that touches on anointing the sick comes from Michael Sattler, responding to accusations at his trial in 1527:

We have not rejected oil, for it is a creature of God. . . . But what pope, bishop, monks and priests have wanted to do to improve on it, this we think nothing of. . . . What the epistle of James speaks of is not the pope’s oil.[10]

These three citations represent the extent of data from early Anabaptist sources that bear directly upon the practice of anointing the sick.[11] While the evidence is scanty, several observations can be made. First, the paucity of material suggests that the matter of anointing was a nonissue for most Anabaptist writers. For a movement needing to define and defend itself tenaciously over-against both Catholics and the magisterial reformers, anointing with oil simply did not figure significantly.

Furthermore, Wynken, Keersgieter and Sattler all rejected the assumption that the oil of unction was endowed with any special sacred character or that the oil of which James wrote had anything in common with what was practiced among Catholics of that day. The oil remained impotent to effect any healing, clear evidence that it was not the same as the oil of James. Finally, on a larger scale, the reaction of these Anabaptists toward the holy oil of anointing was one tiny skirmish in a much larger Protestant rebellion against the whole medieval Roman Catholic sacramental system. Anabaptists joined other major reformers in discarding anointing as a sacrament. John Calvin, for example, ridiculed anointing as “play acting, by which, without reason and without benefit they [priests] wish to resemble the apostles.” He would have no part in the way Roman Catholics “smear with their grease not the sick but half-dead corpses.”[12] According to worship historian James White, with the upheaval of the Reformation, “anointing disappeared entirely from Protestantism, not to be revived until the pietist Church of the Brethren [German Baptist Brethren] in the eighteenth century.”[13]



The first Mennonites to arrive in the New World came to Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century, followed in the eighteenth century by several more waves of immigrants, coming primarily from South Germany and Switzerland.[14] Mennonites tended to settle first in southeastern Pennsylvania in what today remain the largest concentrations of Mennonites: the Franconia area north of Philadelphia and the region around Lancaster, farther to the west.

Mennonite migration patterns within North America predominantly progressed “along a path which extended straight west from Pennsylvania as far as Iowa, but from Illinois and Iowa bent down through Missouri and into Kansas.”[15] Other significant movements took Mennonites into lower Ontario, Canada and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Where enough families settled, a congregation was born. Congregations typically met for worship every other Sunday in homes or buildings constructed as “meetinghouses.” Mennonite congregations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries played a “pervasive role” in community life. “The church,” historian Albert Keim observed, “or better, the congregation [was] the context for spiritual experience and the arbiter of community life.”[16]

Mennonite polity in North America unfolded in a decentralized manner with local conferences emerging in areas of concentrated Mennonite settlement. Conferences evolved out of informal gatherings of ministers. Over the years these conversations took on greater formality, agendas grew and the reach of their authority expanded. The area conferences were separate and autonomous although sharing many affinities between them: ethnicity, family and communal relationships, shared traditions and memories, travel and, increasingly, publications, especially John F. Funk’s Herald of Truth, founded in 1864. By 1876 eleven area conferences had developed some form of organization.

This pattern of localized polity renders it more difficult, though not impossible, to reconstruct a plausible scenario for the acceptance of anointing across the church. Some conferences discussed the issue, while others did not or at least left no record behind. Conceivably, some Mennonites practiced anointing, but only so occasionally that it did not warrant discussion by the leadership. Or anointing, though not taught and promoted, may not have been expressly forbidden and existed on the fringes of the church.[17]

What does seem to be clear from the record is that early discussions about anointing from widely separated Mennonite communities exhibited uncertainty, unfamiliarity and sometimes a deep ambivalence about how to interpret the biblical instruction in James 5:14-16. The May 1870 issue of Herald of Truth contained a short feature, “Questions and Answers,” which appeared occasionally in the early years of publication. What to do with James 5:14 was posed as one of the questions-the earliest documentary evidence about anointing among North American Mennonites located in this research. The answer, presumably written by editor and publisher, John F. Funk, himself located in Elkhart, Indiana, was anything but decisive.[18]

Funk opined that the elders of the church “in those days,” when the epistle had been written, “were often endued with miraculous powers.” Such miraculous powers belonged to another era when God used miracles to accomplish his will. This emphasis on the discontinuity between the New Testament and modernity-sometimes called dispensationalism[19]-had been characteristic of much of Protestantism. It allowed Christians to take the New Testament seriously in a historical and literal sense, while recognizing that certain elements such as divine healing were no longer expected to be present in the church. This dispensationalist theme reappears in subsequent early Mennonite writing about anointing and divine healing.

The key interpretive issue for Funk was whether the application of oil in James 5 is to be understood primarily as appropriate medicinal treatment of the apostolic era, or as symbolic and ritualized action. Funk concluded his brief treatment of the passage with these words:

The apostle enjoins the sick to call the elders of the church that they may “pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick.” Whether this anointing should still be performed upon the sick is a question not fully settled by professors [i.e., believers], and is observed by comparatively few christian [sic] denominations.

Clearly, Funk wanted to emphasize that regardless of whether the oil was intended medicinally or ritually, the Scripture teaches that the key component is the prayer of faith. No one should be confused about the oil containing any curative power. And finally, Funk admitted that the matter of anointing is a question without common consensus or teaching, and those who put into practice the scriptural admonition are in a minority. In sum, Funk did not take a position. It can be inferred, however, that Funk knew at least some Mennonites were practicing anointing.

Fifteen years later a letter by Abraham Blosser, a conservative Virginia Mennonite, provides even more explicit evidence that anointing was not part of the traditional Mennonite way of doing church. On May 22, 1885, Blosser wrote to Jonas Martin, a prominent figure among a group of Mennonites who later split from the mainstream to become the “Old Order Mennonites,” of his dismay with many of the innovations appearing in the Middle District of the Virginia Conference under the leadership of Bishop Samuel Coffman. “I am sorry to say,” Blosser complained bitterly:

that some of us think if the management of our church continues for but a few years longer in the way it has been managed in this district by Bishop Coffman it will become a badly degenerated church. He preaches well . . . and has much to say . . . of his desire of holding to the old Mennonite ground and doctrine. But at the same time he favors almost every new innovation that makes its appearance. Such as Sunday Schools, Bible Schools, musical instruments, literal anointing with literal oil, fire insurance in the church, evangelical fund for paying minister expenses, single men preachers, etc. All of which were not admitted by our forefathers as consistent with the old Mennonite ground and doctrine.[20]

About six months later Jacob N. Brubacher, an influential bishop in Lancaster Conference, wrote to Editor Funk asking for his opinion: “Dear bro. what do you think of the ‘anointing’ of which the Apostle James speaks? We have several members who desire it.”[21]

These scraps of documentation from Indiana, Virginia and Pennsylvania all suggest that anointing the sick with oil was something new and unfamiliar among Mennonites. Surely Mennonites often prayed with and for the sick. But linking prayer with the ritual act of anointing seems to have been a new addition to the repertoire of sacred actions. Nobody, for example, claimed that anointing had any historical precedent in Mennonite tradition. Indeed, Abraham Blosser opposed it as a violation of “old Mennonite ground and doctrine.”[22]

Against this backdrop, the surprisingly rapid transformation in Mennonite attitudes toward anointing-moving from something that was opposed or permitted with uncertainty, to an ordinance of the church, widely taught and promoted with the weight of a biblical mandate-begs for closer study.


On August 24-26, 1921, the Mennonite General Conference, meeting near Garden City, Missouri, adopted a statement recommended by its Committee of Fundamentals. Formally organized in 1898, the General Conference had developed into a kind of “central government to define orthodox teaching” and exert controlling influence over a burgeoning number of Mennonite institutions.[23] In 1921, with the gales of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy within wider American Protestantism stirring up dust in the Mennonite enclave, the General Conference decided it prudent to go on record in an unambiguous way. It reviewed and accepted a statement entitled “Fundamentals of the Christian Faith,” and instructed that a total of 10,000 copies be printed for distribution.

The statement, clearly in continuity with the Dortrecht Confession,[24] contained eighteen articles of faith. Article 12, “Of Ordinances,” provided a brief descriptive list in the following order: Christian baptism, Lord’s Supper, footwashing, head covering for Christian women, the salutation of the holy kiss, anointing (“that anointing with oil should be administered to the sick who call for it in faith”) and marriage as a divine institution.[25]

This list of “Mennonite Ordinances” was not new. Nevertheless, “Christian Fundamentals,” as the statement came to be known, marked the first time that the General Conference, speaking on behalf of the Mennonite Church at large, formally codified anointing as an ordinance in a confession of faith. Appearing as it did during a time of theological tensions, the statement was intended as a defense of biblical Mennonite faith and a safeguard against inroads of false teaching.

How did anointing move from being viewed by Mennonites as something strange and foreign to its exalted status as an ordinance promulgated by the church as a “fundamental” under the same heading with the Lord’s Supper and baptism? Lacking historical precedent within the church tradition or Anabaptist source material, what justification was advanced for its recognition? What follows is a reconstructive and suggestive narrative for the pathway anointing may have taken between 1870 and 1921 as it moved from outside the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition into the mainstream of doctrinal norms.


Innovations among Mennonites in America tended to travel from west to east, from frontier settlements back to the more conservative heartland communities in the east. Mennonites living near the frontier had more extensive contacts with non-Mennonites and other settlers than did their historical counterparts within the larger and more insular communities. Thus, John Horsch, then a recent Mennonite immigrant, reported in 1893 after visiting Mennonite communities across America: “The West is more American than the East. In the East the children are not as wild and as ill-mannered. In the East people are more guided by fixed customs and rules. As a result, they do not feel as free and as independent as in the West.”[26]

The same pattern seems to hold true regarding the spread and acceptance of anointing the sick among Mennonites. Whereas Virginia Conference ministers in 1884 deadlocked on the “literal signification” of James 5:14, twelve years earlier, the ministry of Indiana Conference had acted without recorded reservation. Meeting at Yellow Creek Meetinghouse between Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana, on October 11, 1872, “some twenty-five ministers and deacons . . . among which were six bishops” took up the question of anointing as the first item on the agenda:

How is the passage, James 5:14 understood, literally or spiritually? Ans. The apostle meant natural oil, and if a sick person should request to be anointed by a minister, he should be allowed to comply.[27]

With no apparent dissent, the Indiana Conference ministry agreed that a literal application of oil was intended from the biblical instruction. At their conference meeting in 1873, a year later, another concern about anointing arose. Having decided previously that it was “right and proper that ministers should anoint the sick when . . . requested,” someone now wanted to know what form to use. The agreed upon response stipulated a form based, with little elaboration, squarely on the Scripture:

The oil used shall be olive oil and shall be applied to the head of the subject, and be done in the name of the Lord according to James 5:14. The scripture referring to this ceremony shall be read and prayer offered according to the same scripture.[28]

Not long afterward, Funk printed an anonymous article in Herald of Truth by “a brother” who argued that “anointing with oil” be considered a commandment to be taught and practiced within the church. The author used Scripture (Mark 6:12 and James 5:14) to make his case that anointing was practiced and commanded both before and after Christ’s resurrection. Although he did not call anointing an “ordinance,” the writer did make it analogous to footwashing, Lord’s Supper and baptism in order to advocate its status. Devising this conceptual tie between anointing and the traditional Mennonite practices of baptism, Lord’s Supper and footwashing was a harbinger of what was to come.[29]

Perhaps the key figure in popularizing the practice of anointing within the Mennonite Church was John S. Coffman (1848-1899), a Virginian transplanted to Indiana in 1879 at the invitation of John F. Funk, to work in the publishing trade. Soon after his move to Indiana in 1879, Coffman began vigorously to advocate direct evangelistic and revivalist efforts within Mennonite congregations. In June 1881 Coffman accepted the invitation of a small congregation in Michigan and conducted his first series of “protracted meetings.” During the 1880s he conducted his meetings mostly in Midwestern states and a few progressive congregations in the East. Although he faced some strong opposition initially, Coffman’s emphasis on doing Mennonite evangelism in keeping with the values and traditions of the church, and his irenic style and patience, gradually opened doors, even back east. Many prominent leaders of the next generation came into the church through Coffman’s unflagging appeals.

It is not known whether Coffman was familiar with anointing from his Brethren acquaintances in Virginia.[30] His move to Indiana, however, put him in touch with ministers who had already officially approved anointing and were at least occasionally practicing it. On August 21, 1881, two years after relocating, he recorded in his diary:

This a.m.[son] Dani and I started in [John F.] Funk’s buggy for Clinton. Got to church a few minutes before 10. They were busy with their S. S. which is large and prospering, . . . [After church] went to visit Mrs. Haynes a sick sister that has been lately baptized and is very sick, not expected to live. At her request we prayed for her and annointed [sic] her with oil. Had never done this nor seen it done.[31]

Despite his personal unfamiliarity with anointing the sick, sometime in the next decade Coffman began to refer to it as an “ordinance” of the church. The term “ordinance” had been used widely and loosely across the church to refer both to shared understandings that governed church life, and specific church ceremonies like baptism and Lords’ Supper. [32] By 1891, however, Coffman had begun to give “ordinances” a more precise meaning, even providing a definitive list of them.

Coffman usually opened his series of revival services with an emphasis on repentance, new birth, faith and salvation. Toward the end of a revival series, Coffman nearly always took an explicitly doctrinal tack, teaching the ordinances and restrictions of the church. These were firmly buttressed with Scripture citations rather than appeals to tradition. In his diary he sometimes noted the sermon topic as “Ordinances as Symbols,” and referred to the ordinances “as a chain.”[33]

In the wake of a particularly long-running and successful revival series in 1891 in Waterloo County, Ontario, Coffman compiled and published a four-page pamphlet entitled Fundamental Bible References, the earliest compilation of Mennonite ordinances that specifically includes anointing with oil. Under the heading “Requirements of Obedience,” Coffman included “Ordinances,” “Duties” and “Restrictions.” The Ordinances were listed with short descriptions and scriptural references as follows:

Principal Ordinances-Heb. 9:1

(1) Baptism with Water

(2) Communion

(3) Footwashing

Secondary Ordinances-1 Cor. 11:2

(1) Prayer Head-Covering for the Women

(2) Greeting with the Holy Kiss

(3) Marriage

(4) Anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick[34]

Around the same time, Mennonites elsewhere in the church were beginning to discuss the place of anointing. Should James 5:14 be interpreted spiritually or practiced literally? Is anointing a command or a recommendation, an ordinance or an option? At the annual meeting of the Missouri-Iowa Conference in 1887 (where Coffman was present and chosen as secretary), the ministers concurred that “we cannot understand that this teaching of James can be spiritualized any more readily than Paul’s command that the women ‘adorn themselves in modest apparel.'”[35] Yet the Kansas-Nebraska Conference in 1894 “did not see alike in this matter” of anointing. They resolved as a conference to

lay down no other rule than that which was practiced more or less frequently in the past history of the church, and that we do not set this forth as an ordinance that must be obeyed but those who desire . . . anointing may do so.[36]

A perusal of Herald of Truth from 1870-1900 uncovers an increased interest across the church in divine healing and faith cures. These included vivid personal testimonies as well as debates about prayer, medicine and miracles.[37] Only occasionally, however, did these articles directly speak to anointing.



The formulation of a consistent doctrine on anointing can be attributed largely to the efforts of Daniel Kauffman (1865-1944), a J. S. Coffman convert from Versailles, Missouri. By the time he joined the church in 1890 as a 25-year-old, Kauffman had been widowed, served as a country commissioner, taught school and operated a private business college. Two years later, he was ordained a Mennonite minister and in 1896 became a bishop.

Kauffman quickly emerged as a leading organizer, spokesman and theologian in the church, a position of prominence he was to hold for the better part of the next fifty years. His first book, published in 1898-Manual of Bible Doctrines-became, in the words of historian Leonard Gross, “the programmatic platform” for a new doctrinally-centered period in the Mennonite Church.[38] Kauffman had proposed the idea of this book in a letter to his mentor, Coffman, on May 21, 1896:

We are deficient in our literature. . . . Go to a representative Methodist family. There you find books upholding Methodism from Wesley down. . . . The Dunkard church, too, is well supplied with church publications. But in our own church, our literature is limited to Menno Simons’ works, and number of small publications. . . . Suppose we . . . [publish] a book that would serve the purpose of a handbook of the Mennonite Church among our people. Let the book contain a carefully prepared article on all the Bible ordinances and restrictions, and other Bible questions, altogether 20-25 in number.[39]

J. S. Coffman heartily endorsed the book idea, and Kauffman ambitiously set to work on the project. In short order, on June 18, 1896, he supplied a list of proposed subjects to Coffman:

I. Repentance

II. Regeneration

III. Who is God’s Elect

IV. Ordinances

1. Baptism

2. Communion

3. Footwashing

4. Salutation with the Holy Kiss

5. Sisters’ Prayer-head-covering

6. Anointing with Oil

7. Marriage

V. Restrictions

1. Worldly Conformity

2. Non-Resistance

3. Swearing of Oaths

4. Secret Societies

5. Going to Law

6. Worldly Amusement

VI. Matthew 28:19

VII. John 3:16

VIII. Conclusion[40]

When it appeared in final form, the Manual of Bible Doctrines (1898) was less than the cooperative project Kauffman had originally envisioned and more the product of his own concise and lucid mind.

Kauffman defined ordinances as “symbols or memorials of important Christian principles which should ever be kept alive within ourselves, and before the eyes of the world.”[41] Anointing the sick with oil took its place as an ordinance alongside the six other ordinances without any distinction between “primary” or “secondary” ordinances. Kauffman conceded that it might be “questionable” to consider anointing an ordinance depending on whether James 5:14 described a medicinal or ceremonial application. But since the passage specified that “elders” were to be called, and since the “prayer of faith” rather than the oil is said to “save the sick,” he concluded that the “anointing with oil should be called an ordinance.”[42]

The so-called Bible Conference movement, introduced at the turn of the century, also served to popularize the practice of anointing.[43] These Bible institute-like gatherings brought together traveling teachers with local learners for a week or more, usually sometime in the late fall or winter months. The Bible conferences began in the mid-1890s and continued to grow in popularity so that from 1906 to 1914 approximately twenty or more conferences were held per year, mostly in the Midwest. Teaching about the ordinances of the church, including anointing the sick, was often high on the agenda. One teacher, John S. Shoemaker, printed up fifty-five of his lectures on three-by-four-foot muslin sheets. One of them focused on anointing and provided a systematic outline of anointing in Scripture, including anointing the sick for healing.[44]

References to anointing also increased in the journals of the church, Funk’s Herald of Truth and its young rival, The Gospel Witness.[45] A particularly sharp exchange of articles about anointing appeared in Herald of Truth in 1906 after Editor Funk had printed a piece that challenged the notion that anointing is commanded anywhere in Scripture, or that there is any promise attached to its practice. Funk was willing to let “both sides have their say so long as the discussion is conducted on scriptural grounds.”[46]

Meanwhile, on the organized denominational front, the General Conference was giving clearer focus and sharper definition to the identity and mission of the church through the medium of Gospel Herald, the church’s new official publication. Less of a forum for a variety of perspectives from across the church than Funk’s Herald of Truth, Gospel Herald, at the behest of General Conference, took on the role of spreading and defending orthodoxy, with Daniel Kauffman serving as its editor.

Anointing the sick with oil was one small piece of the new doctrinal approach to building a strong center from which to engage in a host of new church-sponsored enterprises. On the whole, the church rallied around the enthusiasm and vigor of Daniel Kauffman and other leaders. Encouraged by the General Conference, Kauffman edited a revised and expanded edition of his Manual of Bible Doctrine under the title Bible Doctrine, which appeared in 1914. In 1921 representatives from across the church at the Mennonite General Conference gathering near Garden City, Missouri, formally approved these doctrines in their essential form. These so-called “Fundamentals of the Christian Faith” had the effect of codifying anointing as one of the official ordinances of the church within a quasi-confession of faith.


The story of how anointing the sick made its way into Mennonite faith and practice is probably impossible to reconstruct in detail, but a plausible trajectory can be plotted for its introduction into Mennonite church life. The well-established but comparatively progressive Mennonite community in northern Indiana seems to have led the way. The direction of acceptance seems to have followed the tracks of other innovations like Sunday School and revivals, generally from the Midwest back toward the more settled East. Funk’s Herald of Truth and Coffman’s wide-ranging evangelistic travels helped to scatter the seeds of a reinvigorated Mennonite identity. Both men saw themselves as innovators whose personal roots ran back to the Franconia and Virginia communities in the East; and both seemed intent on finding the middle ground between the old ways and the new opportunities.

Clearly, the introduction of the practice of anointing was only a strand within a much larger bundle of changes. In the same letter to J. S. Coffman in which Kauffman proposed compiling a “handbook of the Mennonite Church” containing articles on “all the Bible ordinances and restrictions,” he also noted:

You are right in saying that our church is in a transition period. Things that were once severely condemned in our church, were afterwards condoned, and are now embraced. While we shifted on some things, it made us shaky on others that we should have remained solid on. Now while we are in the transition period we should have someplace on which to alight, and it seems to me this place has not been well prepared.[47]

The fact that anointing moved out of the shadows of church life, found in some communities and not in others, must also be attributed to organizational reforms at the turn of the century in which Mennonites were rapidly adopting new denominational structures. Organization was both a defensive strategy against losing members and a method to chart and manage the many new initiatives sprouting across the church. The formation of the Mennonite General Conference in 1898, combined with Kauffman’s doctrinal approach to Mennonite theology, helped ensure that anointing would become an acceptable practice within the church’s life. The Bible Conference movement and Kauffman’s editorial influence wielded through Gospel Herald also helped to spread the teaching across the church and secure anointing an accepted place among Mennonites. By 1921 the practice of anointing had gained widespread recognition and approval within the Mennonite Church.

These factors help to explain how anointing became a Mennonite ordinance in the early decades of the twentieth century. Less clear, however, are questions of motivation and influence: why were Mennonites prepared to adopt this new practice? Did anointing represent the introduction of an alien practice, foreign to the tradition of Mennonite Church? Or was it a creative response to a changing context in a way that fit legitimately within the life and thought of the church?


A Humble People and Divine Healing

Recent interpretations of the Mennonites and Amish in nineteenth-century America have stressed the concepts of humility and Gelassenheit (yieldedness) as central motifs in Mennonite thought and practice.[48] Both concepts emphasize the centrality of the communal over the individual dimension. Both highlight practices in which the individual yields the desires of the self to the interests of the broader community. Writing about the Anabaptist tradition of health and healing, historian Walter Klaassen echoed these themes. According to Klaassen, the “chief characteristic of well being” for Anabaptist-Mennonite faith communities was:

Gelassenheit, the ancient mystical non-resistant surrender to the will of God, the abandonment of all self-will, all struggling for security, and all attempts to save one’s soul and body. True Gelassenheit promised the cessation of inner conflict and disharmony over all the “ills that flesh is heir to,” including physical ailments.[49]

If these historians are correct, it might seem logical that such a religious ethos would be skeptical about various methods of divine healing. After all, humility and Gelassenheit would seem to stand in tension with assumptions that commonly accompany an interest in divine healing: namely, that personal health is the highest good; that suffering is always contrary to God’s will; that healing inevitably follows faith; that only the specially-gifted can heal; that excitement and spectacle necessarily assist the healing transaction. If these assumptions are correct, why did Mennonites begin to practice a healing ritual that on the face of it seems to run counter to embedded values and historical practice?

One school of thought has emphasized the ways in which nineteenth-century Mennonites were influenced by the broader American cultural and religious context in a way that diminished their distinctive beliefs and practices. Historian Theron Schlabach, for example, has highlighted four changes from this period that reflect a negative process of Mennonite acculturation: (1) A more outward-looking vision that borrowed from standard Protestant mission ideas and models; (2) More Protestant and American kinds of organizational structures and programs; (3) A new two-track understanding of salvation that split conversion and redemption in one category and ethical convictions in another; and (4) A move from humility as the central ideal to the blessing of aggressive action.[50]

Another stream of interpretation views these patterns of social change more positively and stresses how Mennonites, by adjusting, assured their survival and experienced corporate renewal. Change was intended to serve the cause of retaining the church’s young people and instilling within them a vision for remaining a distinct people. In the words of another historian, James C. Juhnke, the process of change was one of “selective adaptation.” While some Mennonite groups found renewed energy precisely through resistance to modernization (e.g., the “Old Order” groups), the main body of Mennonites found new direction by cautiously “choosing to borrow elements from the American scene which would both renew Mennonite peoplehood and extend a Christian witness to the world . . . . For most Mennonites, the encounter with American society did not destroy communal religious vitality. Instead, it brought diverse renewal of the Mennonite heritage in response to changing American conditions.”[51]

Anointing the sick with oil appears to have been one of these selective adaptations. Mennonites in general were suspicious of divine healing movements, but eventually allowed that anointing might be an acceptable, biblically-grounded method of divine healing for application within the arms of the church in whose veins flowed the deep values of humility and Gelassenheit. Indeed, over time Mennonites actually used anointing to build a fence against divine healing enterprises they considered heretical. By accepting anointing, Mennonites did not explicitly repudiate Gelassenheit and humility as community virtues. Instead, the rite tended to be interpreted and utilized in a manner that honored community norms.

In part, anointing provided a legitimate healing rite for Mennonites because it was placed squarely in the community of faith. The elders of the church were called to administer the anointing rather than a traveling evangelist with dubious connections. In addition, submission to the will of God-the essence of Gelassenheit-figured prominently in the ritual action and prayer. Anointing provided a tangible way to petition God for healing while, at the same time, surrendering oneself completely to divine intention: one could request anointing and still stay humble, if submission to God’s will characterized one’s fundamental disposition and ultimate intention. Jesus’ concluding petition to God in the Garden of Gethsemane-“Yet not my will, but Thine be done”-came to characterize the suitable attitude for an anointing service for it expresses the ultimate importance of complete surrender to the will of God.

In short, although anointing appears to have been a liturgical import into Mennonite life, the way it developed took on features that were in continuity with the Gelassenheit tradition. At a time when other healing movements were appearing to threaten traditional Mennonite faith and practice, anointing offered a biblically-grounded, congregationally-based alternative.

Religious Healing Movements in Nineteenth-Century America

The late nineteenth century in America, according to church historian Martin Marty, “saw the rise of therapies that pushed far beyond the bounds of conventional religion.”[52] People still looked to religion more than medical science for help with their physical or psychological afflictions, but they were increasingly willing to leave behind traditional forms of religion in pursuit of other forms of spiritual cures.[53]

It was in this context that faith healing, along with various forms of “mind cure,” gained wide followings, even among Protestants who had traditionally kept their distance from anything like miraculous healing. Such movements included experiments with vegetarianism, phrenology, animal magnetism, mesmerism, mind cure, faith healing and Christian Science.[54] Mennonites were not immune to these fads. In 1924, for example, evangelist George R. Brunk included a typically scathing assessment of Christian Science in an article on anointing published in Gospel Herald. “So called Christian Science (which is neither Christian nor scientific),” he wrote, “claims great power to heal, but any real healing must be upon some other basis besides the power of God, for it is preposterous to suppose that God would co-operate with a people who in reality deny every saving doctrine of Scriptures.”[55]

Almost instinctively, Mennonites objected to the omission of the notion of God’s will, or divine sovereignty, in these healing theologies. Mind-cure devotees generally taught that humans could know God as infinite mind-an indwelling presence that opened untapped human possibilities of creativity, power, health and prosperity. In the words of one scholar, “mind-cure theology was purely expressive. That is, it was the immediate projection of uninspected wish. . . . [Thus] if you only really want Him to, God will give you anything. God obeys man.”[56]

This complete reversal of the fundamental relationship between God and humanity stands out sharply as the antithesis of humility and Gelassenheit. Although Herald of Truth did occasionally include advertisements for magnetic belts that could be worn for healing, the theological assumptions of the mind-cure movement and similar healing impulses were quite foreign to most Mennonites.

Much closer to home were evangelical and holiness groups that taught divine healing as part of their central doctrines. A. B. Simpson, the founder of what eventually became the Christian and Missionary Alliance, was one such prominent spokesman. Simpson taught that healing of the body was one of the spiritual benefits granted to Christians through Christ’s atoning work. This, rather than medical methods, was in fact, God’s preferred way to restore Christians to health.[57] This sort of teaching found some resonance among Mennonites.

In 1891, for example, Landis Valley, a Lancaster Conference Mennonite congregation, became fascinated with the faith healing teaching from Simpson’s Alliance movement. Albert E. Funk, one of the first ministers in Simpson’s Alliance movement, had earlier been a minister in eastern Pennsylvania with ties to Mennonites. He made frequent visits from New York to homes in the Landis Valley area where he preached, among other things, about Simpson’s doctrine of divine healing. A traveling Quaker recorded that Amelia Hess, after she had become seriously ill, was “prayed over” by one of the Alliance preachers coming down from New York, “and it was thought she was healed.” The Hess family was “much taken up” with the new teaching and they took their case to the Mennonite leadership.

Some of them went to Bishop Jacob Brubaker [sic] and represented to him that in accordance with the scripture, they came to him to be anointed with oil and prayed over, and if he would not come they intended to bring someone from New York to officiate in that way. Bishop Brubaker [sic] was willing to condescend . . . to their request in that particular, but there were other points in which they seemed determined to carry on beyond the order of discipline of the Mennonite Church, and it ended in their forming their own association.[58]

The Landis Valley congregation split right down the middle in 1892. The conference leadership promptly added a 31st rule to its discipline: “Of the Doctrine called ‘Divine Healing’ or ‘Faith Cure’-The members are not allowed to fellowship with those who advocate said doctrine.”[59]

Intriguingly, Bishop Brubacher did not reject the request for anointing outright. He was apparently willing to honor their entreaty for anointing, but did not do so because of other issues at variance. One can infer from such a distinction that anointing may have been acceptable by the early 1890s, even in conservative Lancaster Conference, but only if it was done with different assumptions, attitudes and expectations befitting traditional Mennonite values.

Another divine healing proponent of the period who created a stir among some Mennonites was a certain Alexander Dowie from Chicago, whose healing campaigns attracted thousands of people. In 1900, John F. Funk reprinted an article that roundly condemned Dowie for perpetrating his healing charade for personal financial gain. Funk penned an introductory paragraph to the article calling Dowie one of the “great deceivers of the last days” and expressing his regret that “some of our good brethren and sisters have been misled and there are also a few who cannot bear to have anything said against Dowieism.”[60]

Other Mennonites were more receptive. Anna J. Yoder, for example, in several articles to Herald of Truth, insisted that Christ is willing “to heal all who ask him if they only believe . . . . We must cast away all doubt, and believe that he means just what he has promised in James 5:14, 15.” Later Yoder wrote again to encourage the “suffering ones who have been invalids for months and years.” She shared her own struggle with illness: “How slow we are to understand that Jesus came to heal our bodily diseases as well as our sin sick souls.” [61]

As the debate progressed, however, other Mennonites expressed skepticism about all forms of divine healing in the modern era. One such opponent was J. K. Zook, who submitted an extended article to Herald of Truth in 1899 concluding that “physical sickness among the saints in this dispensation is intended to be cured by the laws of nature and natural remedies judiciously employed and by praise and thanksgiving to God for all that is good.” Zook took issue directly with the popular theory of the “so-called ‘Faith Cure’ or ‘Divine Healing.'” [62]

In general, Mennonite reservations about popular movements for divine healing focused on a cluster of ecclesiological, methodological and theological concerns. In the first place, popular faith healers threatened the cohesiveness of Mennonite congregations by making their appeals in interdenominational settings. Mennonites who responded favorably to these healers tended to become judgmental of their own congregations and leaders. For their part, Mennonite leaders were deeply concerned about the survival of the church and the retention of young people who defected in alarming numbers to other groups. In addition, faith healers often operated independently with only marginal mechanisms of accountability. This autonomy was unacceptable to Mennonites whose inclinations in church life were communitarian and sectarian. For Anabaptists and their descendant Mennonites, the primary and operative religious dualism was not between matter and spirit or lost and saved individuals, but between the church as a redeemed community and the world. Healers who conducted their services outside the Mennonite orbit were, by definition, suspect.

Mennonites were also troubled by the methods often employed by these healers. Excitable emotion and sensationalism were stock in trade for the popular healers, but quite out of character for traditional Mennonites. John F. Funk wrote an extended lead article for Herald of Truth in 1877 about miracles, in which he warned:

We have a great many persons now, a great many professors of religion, who are all the time looking for something wonderful, something strange, something miraculous. Their religious services consist of a continual fever of excitement; they are never contented.[63]

In 1874 Virginia Conference expressed concern about the revivals of outside groups “where unusually boisterous and shouting experiences were prevalent.”[64] Emotion was ephemeral; it did not endure. Healings that supposedly occurred amidst such heightened passions were of dubious value, unlikely to be genuine and lasting.[65] Further, healers played on the credulity of their followers in order to amass personal power, wealth and notoriety. The self-serving intentions of these people were all too obvious to most Mennonites, whose instincts and leadership patterns made them especially mistrustful of individual self-aggrandizement.

Faith healing also raised theological questions. Most Mennonites took no issue with those who claimed God had the power to heal directly in response to prayer. The more operative questions, however, focused on whether and to what degree God still chose to exercise that power. Should miraculous healing be expected for Christians today? Does God bless individual persons with a healing power or gift? Again from Funk’s article on miracles:

The age of miracles is gone by and that men no longer possess that power, is plain to every sincere, reflecting mind who takes pains to search the Scriptures and to apply them to the present condition. . . . The fact that miracles were once performed and are not now should not weaken our confidence in His power, neither in His continual presence, nor should it lead us to think that He loves us less. . . . We are to trust in the promises of His word, and therewith to content ourselves. . . .[66]

What, then, was the relationship between early Mennonites anointing the sick with oil and various faith healing movements? What, for example, made anointing an acceptable rite of healing for John F. Funk and many other Mennonite leaders at the very time that they were denouncing the baneful influence of faith healers?

A large part of the answer surely lies in the nature and character of anointing itself. While it seems probable that a figurative or spiritual reading of the instructions in James 5:14 had held sway in Mennonite faith and practice for centuries, the step to a literal interpretation was not a large one. With anointing, the leadership could accommodate the interest in divine healing by some of its members without betraying the values of Gelassenheit and humility. Anointing, which entailed calling the elders to administer oil and pray, kept the activity solidly within the auspices of the church. It wasn’t necessary to go to a camp meeting or take up with one of the popular healing movements. The emotionalism and exaggerated expectations that characterized other healing enterprises were not necessary for anointing. Moreover, rather than taking place in a public meeting on display, anointing typically occurred in intimate, semiprivate settings, in the company of people with whom you had accountable and caring relationships. The tone was reverent, sober and quiet. Confession of sin, petitionary prayer and explicitly verbalized submission to the will of God helped to keep Mennonite anointing within the older Gelassenheit tradition. In the words of John S. Coffman in 1891, “this ordinance is practiced . . . in order to give expression to and strengthen faith in God when prayers are offered for the recovery of the sick.”[67] In short, anointing did not clash irreconcilably with the ecclesiological, methodological and theological objections raised against other divine healing movements. It was adopted as a Mennonite alternative to the counterfeits masquerading as gospel truth.

Popularized faith healing movements are one front for understanding the acceptance and promotion of anointing the sick among Mennonites. The traditional practice of braucherei, more often known as powwowing, offers another.[68] The word “powwow” likely originated among Algonquin Native Americans, who used it to refer to the gestures and words of the medicine man as he pursued his esoteric art of primitive healing. Powwowing as Mennonites knew it, however, seems to be part of medieval folk traditions that mingled pre-Christian healing customs-rites and incantations-with elements of Roman Catholicism. German immigrants borrowed the word powwow because of the similar actions and purposes of the “braucher,” or traditional healer.

A clear definition of powwowing is difficult to delineate because of the loose way the term is used and the informal nature of folk healing methods themselves. Sometimes powwowing is referred to as “divine healing,” or spoken of as “to pray for,” “to pray over” or “to do for.” According to practitioners, powwowing had nothing to do with witchcraft or black magic, which intended to do another person harm. Many powwowers believed they were carrying on the work of Christ; they saw parallels between Jesus’ use of spittle and instructions to wash, and their use of formulas and simple objects. Additionally, some powwowers gave quasi-scientific explanations for the rituals and curative remedies they applied.

Although some interpreters of Mennonite life have tended to treat powwowing as a benign expression of folk medicine, the official stance of the church and Mennonite leaders has consistently been strenuously opposed to powwowing. Harold S. Bender described powwowing as a “superstitious custom” that some Mennonites have occasionally “indulged in.” But, he emphasized, “powwowing is not ‘faith healing’ nor healing by prayer.”[69]

At the same time that anointing the sick with oil offered Mennonite leaders a better means of divine healing than did the popular healing movements, the practice also provided a credible alternative to the unsavory, if traditional, powwowing that continued to find an appeal among some Mennonites. In fact, Mennonite leaders sometimes made the case against powwowing and for anointing in the same breath. Thus, when the mind of the Kansas-Nebraska Conference was sought at their gathering in 1899 “as regards members practicing the treatment of diseases by charms, muttered words, mysterious operations, etc., or receiving such treatment,” the minutes record the following reply:

We decidedly disapprove of any treatment of diseases by charms, muttered words, “powwowing” and the like, and discourage superstition of whatever kind (Lev 19:26, 31,32; Isa 8:18, 19, 20). That we on the other hand confirm our people in the faith of God, that they practice the apostle’s teaching in healing the sick according to James 5:18,19 [sic].[70]

Aside from getting the biblical reference in James slightly wrong, the intention of the conference is unmistakable-to put a stop to powwowing among members and to promote anointing as the better way. The main criticism Mennonites leveled against powwowing was not necessarily that it didn’t work but rather that it was superstitious, secretive and, above all else, unscriptural. “To mutter certain words, use certain things in a mystical way, a certain number of times, at a certain place, and at a certain time of the day or changes of the moon . . . is rank superstition borrowed from the heathen nations,” is the manner in which J. S. Shoemaker roundly denounced powwowing in a tract published sometime in the early 1900s. In contrast, Shoemaker defended “divine healing” as “Scriptural,” asserting that “we have no occasion to question God’s power to heal physical infirmities, and it has been clearly demonstrated that all such healing is effected, not by the use of magic words, mutterings, manipulations or conjuration, but in and through the name of the Lord.”[71]

Powwowing, despite its liberal use of spiritual language, gave inappropriate notoriety to the powwower as healer and required persons to engage in bizarre, precise and secretive formulas for returning to health. Further, powwowers were prone to define success by whether their methods “worked” (i.e., the person got better physically), and to defend powwowing on such grounds. Anointing, on the other hand, with its attention to the will of God in the transaction, tended to recognize a higher good than physical health, that of faithfulness and obedience to God. “Better to all lie in a row under the sod of the cemetery, in harmony with God and the scripture,” insisted George R. Brunk in his blunt style, “than to be seeking life and health, through nonsensical conjurations, a mixture of Bible words, and heathen charms that are used in demon worship.”[72] Anointing and powwowing shared in common the use of religious ritual and the use of objects or means that have no scientifically demonstrable medicinal efficacy. Anointing the sick with oil-with its components of faith, prayer and ritual-offered a biblically based alternative response to the needs traditionally met for some by powwowing. [73]

The Church of the Brethren (Dunker) Connection

There is yet another explanation that helps to account for the rather sudden Mennonite appropriation of anointing in the late nineteenth century-the relationship with the Church of the Brethren. Mennonites and Brethren share a close kinship, ethnically, geographically and theologically; and their interactions, alternately characterized by close cooperation and sharp competition, have a long and complex history.

With their roots in Schwarzenau, Germany, the Brethren-Radical Pietists-under the leadership of Alexander Mack Sr. (1679-1735), had frequent contact with nearby Mennonites. They recognized an affinity with each other. The two groups, especially in their early years, were often mistaken for the other.[74] Indeed, contemporaries in the eighteenth century wondered why the Brethren did not join with the Mennonites rather than start a separate fellowship. The Brethren, however, viewed the Mennonites as old-fashioned-“old Baptists” instead of “new Baptists”-for having lost the vitality of the Christian life exemplified by sixteenth-century Anabaptism.[75]

The Brethren evidenced a more expressive and evangelistic piety than traditional Mennonites. This religious zeal was, at times, quite appealing to the Mennonites. Given the great similarity between the groups in language, ethnicity and faith, the transfer between them occurred quite easily. In North America, they often settled near each other and migrated to new lands along similar paths. During the colonial American years, Mennonites and Brethren cooperated in sponsoring schools. The Revolutionary War brought them together in a remarkable way to issue a joint peace-church petition to the General Assembly of Pennsylvania. The trauma of the Civil War, especially in the Shenandoah Valley, melted for a time the minor differences between Brethren and Mennonites as they often made common cause with each other in their petitions to the Confederate government.

Baptism by immersion was perhaps the most distinctive practice of the Brethren distinguishing them from Mennonites. But it is also clear that they regularly practiced anointing the sick with oil. Beginning in 1797 and throughout nineteenth century, the minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Brethren record regular queries about the proper method of anointing: Who may apply the oil? How often per illness may someone be anointed? What is the proper form and the primary objective? May nonmembers or excommunicated members be anointed? May medicine be taken after being anointed? From 1797 through 1907, anointing was raised at least twenty-nine times at Annual Meeting. The greatest concentration of these discussions, sixteen occasions, occurred in the two decades from 1850 to 1870.[76] This timing spans the historical period immediately preceding the start of recorded Mennonite deliberations about anointing-a suggestive sequence.

The evidence that Mennonites “borrowed” anointing from their theological “first-cousins,” the Brethren, however, remains circumstantial. Further study will need to be done on the relationships between Brethren and Mennonites to affix a solid line of influence on anointing. However, if it is true that Mennonites generally did not anoint the sick until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, while the Brethren with their Pietist roots and primitivist leanings did practice anointing before that time, then a strong circumstantial case exists for where Mennonites picked it up.

Given the strong affinities of the two groups and the competition for members in the same communities, it is quite arguable that Mennonite ministers needed to respond to the requests of members who were familiar with anointing from their Brethren neighbors. In fact, the permissibility for Mennonites to call elders of another church to come and anoint them does seem to have occasionally become an issue. “Why do we not call for elders of other churches to anoint our sick'” was one of the eight questions Daniel Kauffman addressed about anointing in a 1915 Gospel Herald article. Mennonites do not call elders from other churches to anoint them, he wrote, “for the same reasons that we do not call upon elders of other churches to baptize our converts.” Given the abiding baptismal controversy between Brethren and Mennonites, the analogy may not have been accidental.[77]

The Brethren presented, relatively speaking, a safer model for a biblically-faithful way of doing anointing as a rite of divine healing than other healing movements. Co-opting anointing into Mennonite life didn’t represent a significant compromise, since it did not lie at the heart of Mennonite-Brethren conflict of that era. Although no positive proof is at hand, strong presumptive evidence suggests that the Brethren are the most plausible religious source for Mennonite anointing. Mennonite anointing most likely grew out of these multifaceted relationships that included intermarriage, sharing meetinghouses and occasional intense disputes about the points of variance. Given the straightforward biblical instruction on anointing, Mennonite leaders could pick it up from the Brethren without betraying, in their mind, something essential to Mennonite identity.[78]


Anointing the sick with oil was taught and promoted by persons who were in the forefront of concerted efforts to renew the Mennonite Church. These leaders and spokespersons were working to maintain many of the same ideals and norms that had shaped Mennonite life through the centuries in a changed social and religious environment, especially among more scattered Mennonite communities in the West and Midwest. The challenge was to preserve the essentials of the Mennonite tradition and to fashion broader forms of communication for the purposes of sustaining self-identity and vitality.

It could be argued, as some did, that anointing was not part of “old Mennonite ground and doctrine.” Those who opposed anointing did so on the grounds that the injunction of James 5:14 was not to be interpreted literally. In this regard, Mennonites shared with other Protestant Reformation-era groups a suspicion of divine healing that was thought to be tainted with Roman Catholicism. In addition, a dispensationalist interpretation of church history tended to relegate the miraculous to the apostolic era.

All the same, the latter part of the nineteenth century in America witnessed an amazing revival of interest in divine healing. Movements as varied as Christian Science and holiness healing campaigns caught the imagination of millions. Part of the unease that Mennonites felt toward divine healing was almost certainly influenced by the fact that these popular impulses occurred outside the boundaries of the Mennonite Church. The emotionalism, lack of accountability, questionable financial dealings and theological presuppositions associated with these movements made most Mennonites very dubious. Still, Mennonites were unmistakably touched by the mood of the era.

Anointing among Mennonites developed as a moderate, middle-of-the-road way forward. On one side was the weight of tradition that included a suspicion of divine healing and, paradoxically, the ways of the folk healer, braucher or powwower. On the other side blossomed the popular and sensational healing movements that trumpeted strange philosophies and therapies or spotlighted individuals presumed to have the gift of healing. Mennonite leaders of this era, from roughly 1870 to 1920, looked both ways.

Toward the traditional flank, they promoted anointing as an expression of church and spiritual renewal while seeking to honor and protect the core values of the church. These efforts of renewal were self-consciously intended to rescue the church from stagnation and equip the church to face the challenging question of being Mennonite in a rapidly-changing world.

Toward the other side-the popular evangelical healing movements-Mennonite leaders allowed and then taught anointing in what amounted to a measured and careful accommodation. By means of anointing, the church maintained a guiding role in the province of divine healing. In essence, what the church did was to acknowledge through anointing that divine healing could still be realized today if sought of God rightly. This healing, however, was given to the church as a whole, the obedient, willing and praying body, not to single individuals. Divine healing could be sought within the secure embrace of the church.

If the advent of anointing among Mennonites is properly assessed as a form of accommodation, this lends further credence to the Brethren-source hypothesis. The Brethren were especially eager to recruit among Mennonites claiming that the Brethren emphasis on the ordinances established their fellowships as the best embodiment of the early church. Perhaps, therefore, it was no accident that “ordinance” language became, for a time, very prominent in Mennonite theology, and that anointing qualified as one of the seven official ordinances.

In the early years, anointing was encouraged and justified, less through extensive theological reflection, than simply because it was explicitly described in the Bible in language that recommended, if not mandated, its practice. This lack of theological engagement is apparent in the fact that little attention or instruction was given to the form of the rite. Simple obedience was more important than careful and detailed ritual adherence.[79]

Although the practice of anointing retained a tenuous place in the life of the church in the first decades of the twentieth century, many Mennonites came to embrace it as a means of seeking divine healing rooted in the church community. In his groundbreaking Manual of Bible Doctrines (1898), Daniel Kauffman concluded his chapter on anointing with a section on “Divine Healing.” In light of the fact that Kauffman’s influence spanned from the early years of anointing’s introduction into Mennonite life to when it was disseminated as official church doctrine, this early statement by him provides a fitting conclusion to this analysis of origins:

It is a sad fact that a question of so much importance [divine healing] should be so much abused. That the Bible teaches that God heals temporal as well as spiritual diseases in answer to prayer there can be no doubt; but it is equally true that many of our modern “divine healers” are impostors. Because the doctrine of divine healing has been abused, let us not therefore say that it is not scriptural. Christ taught and practiced it, the apostles taught and practiced it, recent facts substantiate the doctrine, and why should we doubt . . . that God answers [our prayers] according to His abundant wisdom.[80]

During the following years, anointing the sick with oil did go on to find a secure and valued place in Mennonite worship life. Recent worship resources like Hymnal: A Worship Book and the Ministers Manual edited by John Rempel contain helpful liturgical elements for this ministry of worshipful healing. Indeed, anointing with oil appears to be more common than ever among Mennonites, utilized in both public and private settings for a wide range of needs. There remains, however, a paucity of materials that carefully address the underground theological streams shaping this practice, and their confluence or divergence to the historical springs of Anabaptism. This relationship bears further study and research.

[*]Mark R. Wenger is co-pastor of Springdale Mennonite Church, Waynesboro, Virginia, and associate director of the Preaching Institute at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
1. Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1939), 23.
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[2]. Theron F. Schlabach, Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1988), 295.
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[3]. Ibid., 295. Schlabach argues for calling this period and the new developments a “quickening” rather than an “awakening.” He is more inclined to view this period as a mixed blessing than other Mennonite historians who attribute the worldwide reach of Mennonites today and the vibrancy of Anabaptist/Mennonite life partly to the “awakening” that began from 1870 into the twentieth century.
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[4]. John C. Wenger, Glimpses of Mennonite History and Doctrine, rev. ed. (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1947), 150.
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[5]. “Anointing with Oil,” ME, 1:128.
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[6]. John Rempel, who edited the Minister’s Manual (Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life Press, 1998), does write that “references in post-sixteenth-century Mennonite and Baptist literature refer to anointing for healing” (207). In a telephone conversation with him in September 1998, however, Rempel was unable to cite specific historical references about anointing by Mennonites prior to 1870.
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[7]. Roman Catholic formularies from the third and fourth centuries included instructions and prayers for the blessing of oil for health and healing. Over the centuries, the application of the ritual and its meaning migrated. Medieval scholastics incorporated anointing-“extreme unction” as it came to be called-into the list of seven official sacraments conveying an infallible spiritual effect. Employed as “last rites” it guaranteed that the slate of the human soul was wiped clean of unconfessed sin.
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[8]. Thieleman J. van Bracht, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, 5th Eng. ed. (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 423.
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[9]. Ibid., 778-779.
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[10]. John H. Yoder, trans. and ed., The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1973), 71-72.
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[11]. Neither the Schleitheim Confession of 1525 nor the influential Dortrecht Confession of 1632 make any mention of anointing the sick with oil.
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[12]. Cited in James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 263-264.
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[13]. James F. White, A Brief History of Christian Worship (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 130.
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[14]. The classic history of these movements was written by C. Henry Smith, The Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania in the Eighteenth Century (Norristown, Pa.: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1929).
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[15]. Schlabach, Peace, Faith, Nation, 38.
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[16]. Albert N. Keim, “Introduction” in Schlabach, Peace, Faith, Nation, 12.
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[17]. Sociologist Carl Bowman charted the mid-nineteenth-century ritual practices of eight religious groups in the United States: Brethren (Dunkers), Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians. Of these eight groups, Bowman found that anointing was “generally present” in only one of the groups-the Brethren. Although the Brethren shared most of the same worship practices with Amish and Mennonites, more than with any other group, Bowman’s research confirms that anointing was “generally absent” among Amish and Mennonites of that era.-Carl F. Bowman, Brethren Society: The Cultural Transformation of a “Peculiar People” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 74.
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[18]. Herald of Truth 7 (May 1870), 73.
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[19]. Morton Kelsey in Healing and Christianity points to the profound influence that John Calvin and Martin Luther had in leading Christians to relegate the church’s healing ministry to a former dispensation. “For a long time this conclusion remained more or less implicitly among Protestants. Most people simply accepted that there were two parts to God’s history; that miraculous events like healing happened in one of them, but would not happen again.”-Healing and Christianity (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 24.
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[20]. Emphasis added. Amos Hoover, comp. and ed., The Jonas Martin Era: Presented in a Collection of Essays, Letters, and Documents that Shed Light on the Mennonite Churches During the 50-Year Ministry (1875-1925) of Bishop Jonas H. Martin (Denver, Pa.: Amos B. Hoover, 1982), 63-64. Recall that a year earlier Blosser’s Virginia ministerial colleagues could not come to agreement on anointing.
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[21]. Jacob N. Brubacher, Lancaster, Pa., to John F. Funk, Elkhart, Ind., ALS, Aug. 7, 1885, John F. Funk Collection, AMC, Goshen, Ind.
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[22]. A later exception to this rule is Linden Wenger, who claimed that the writings of the Mennonite forefathers “reveal that they taught and practiced individually the seven ordinances which we hold today.” Nonetheless, Wenger conceded that anointing finds the weakest basis in early Anabaptist/Mennonite writings and “may or may not” have been practiced among early Anabaptists. Linden Wenger, “Rethinking the Christian Ordinances,” Christian Ministry 3 (Oct.-Dec. 1950), 135.
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[23]. Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War, 124.
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[24]. See Loewen, One Lord, One Church, 27.
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[25]. Emphasis added. “Proceedings and Reports of Mennonite General Conference” (Aug. 24-26, 1921), MSHL&A, Harrisonburg, Va.
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[26]. From Herold der Wahrheit 30 (Oct. 15, 1893), 309-310 as cited in Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War, 39. Historian James C. Juhnke has argued that “most significant innovations in Mennonite faith and practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came from the west and were resisted by the east.”-Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War, 38.
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[27]. Minutes of the Indiana-Michigan Conference, 1864-1929 (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1938), 17.
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[28]. Ibid., 20. The meeting was held on Oct. 9, 1873.
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[29]. HOT 15 (Apr. 1878), 56-57.
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[30]. Coffman grew up in Rockingham County, Va. His formal study included teacher training in 1875 at Bridgewater Normal School, a Church of the Brethren establishment. One of school’s founders, a Dr. Bucher, had invited Coffman to attend. A close friendship developed between the two men, with the older professor reportedly offering to let Coffman borrow any books he wished from his personal library. They kept in touch by correspondence in the years to come.-M. S. Steiner, John S. Coffman, Mennonite Evangelist (Spring Grove, Pa: Mennonite Book and Tract Society, 1903), 22-23.
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[31]. Emphasis added. John S. Coffman, “Diary,” J. S. Coffman Collection, AMC, Goshen, Ind., Hist. Mss. 1-19, Box 1. Apparently, Coffman wrote of this event to his family in Virginia, one of whom wrote back (Sept. 25, 1881): “Did you hear from that sick woman since you was [sic] there. You said you anointed her with oil. I often wondered wether [sic] that passage of scripture was not to [sic] much neglected. What kind of oil did you use'”-ALS, AMC, Goshen, Ind., hist. mss. 1-19, Box 6.
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[32]. Cf. HOT 1 (Nov. 1864), 71-72 and HOT 6 (Apr. 1869), 50.
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[33]. Sem Sutter, “John S. Coffman, Mennonite Evangelist, (1848-1899),” TDS (University of Chicago Seminar Paper, 1974), AMC, Goshen, Ind. See especially notes 52 and 53 on page 12 of this manuscript.
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[34]. This is also the earliest classification of ordinances into a bounded group of seven. J. S. Coffman, Fundamental Bible References (1891) located in MSHL&A, Harrisonburg, Va.
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[35]. “Minutes of the Missouri-Iowa Conference,” AMC, Goshen, Ind.
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[36]. Minutes of the Kansas-Nebraska Conference, 1876-1914 (Scottdale, Pa.: MPH, 1914), 61.
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[37]. For example: HOT 8 (August 1871), 118; 14 (Dec. 1877), 183-185; 20 (July 15, 1883), 215; 21 (Mar. 15, 1884), 91; 22 (Jan.15, 1885), 20; 22 (Apr. 15, 1885), 117; 22 (June 15, 1885), 180; 22 (Oct. 1, 1885), 290-291; 22 (Oct. 15, 1885), 310-311; 25 (Dec. 1, 1888), 353; 36 (Aug. 15, 1899), 244-246.
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[38]. Leonard Gross, “The Doctrinal Era of the Mennonite Church,” MQR 60 (January 1986), 85.
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[39]. Daniel Kauffman to J. S. Coffman, ALS, May 21, 1896, J. S. Coffman Collection, AMC, Goshen, Ind.
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[40]. Daniel Kauffman to J. S. Coffman, ALS, June 18, 1896, J. S. Coffman Collection, AMC, Goshen, Ind.
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[41]. Daniel Kauffman, Manual of Bible Doctrines (Elkhart, Ind.: Mennonite Publishing Co., 1898), 12.
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[42]. Ibid.,175-176. One cannot help but wonder how Coffman and Kauffman came up with a definitive list of seven Mennonite ordinances. The enumeration sounds suspiciously like a Mennonite equivalent of the seven sacraments of Roman Catholicism. The list could have easily included other actions such as ordination and church discipline. Perhaps seven, the numerical symbol of completeness, appealed to the didactic and systematic minds of Coffman and his protg. Herald of Truth 36 (Aug. 1, 1899), 225, reported on Coffman’s untimely death at age 51 and noted that, at his request, he had been anointed by Bishop Daniel Johns just days before his death. Coffman’s diaries, in the months leading up to his death, supply a poignant, intimate portrait of a man wrestling with God as his health deteriorated.
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[43]. Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War, 113-116. The following description is largely dependent upon the pithy summary provided by Juhnke.
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[44]. “Charts,” John S. Shoemaker Collection, AMC, Goshen, Ind.
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[45]. The Gospel Witness began publishing Apr. 4, 1905; the last issue of Herald of Truth appeared Apr. 9, 1908, after which they were combined into Gospel Herald, owned by the Mennonite Publishing House, Scottdale, Pa., with Daniel Kauffman as editor.
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[46]. Jacob Woolner, “Anointing with Oil,” HOT 43 (Mar. 15, 1906), 86-7; David Garber, “Anointing,” HOT 43 (May 17, 1906): 173; J. M. Shenk, “Anointing With Oil,” HOT 43 (May 31, 1906), 193-4; “Anointing with Oil,” HOT 43 (November 22, 1906), 442.
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[47]. Daniel Kauffman to J. S. Coffman, ALS, May 21, 1896, J. S. Coffman Collection, AMC, Goshen, Ind.
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[48]. See Schlabach, Peace, Faith Nation, especially 28-32, 95-105, 205-207, and 319-321 for a reading of Mennonite history though the lens of humility. For an emphasis on Gelassenheit, see Sandra Lee Cronk, “Gelassenheit: The Rites of the Redemptive Process in Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite Communities” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago Divinity School, 1977).
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[49]. Walter Klaassen, “The Anabaptist Tradition,” in Caring and Curing, eds. Ronald L. Number and Darrel W. Amundsen (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1986), 273-274.
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[50]. Schlabach, Peace, Faith Nation, 301-321.
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[51]. Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War, 30-31.
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[52]. Martin E. Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1984), 319.
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[53]. Donald Meyer, The Positive Thinkers: A Study of the American Quest for Health, Wealth and Personal Power from Mary Baker Eddy to Norman Vincent Peale (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1965), 66.
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[54]. Marty, Pilgrims in Their Own Land, 320.
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[55]. George R. Brunk, “Scriptural Reasons Why: Anointing with Oil,” Gospel Herald 17 (June 19, 1924), 243.
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[56]. Meyer, Positive Thinkers, 81.
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[57]. Simpson’s healing doctrine postulated a unique understanding of Jesus’ resurrected body being available for the Church. “His bodily energy vitalizes your body, and you can take it, you have a right to take it today . . . . His nerves, and heart and brain and bodily strength are for my own life.” (p. 5) “It is an awfully sacred thing to have the very blood of Christ flowing in your veins” (p. 9).-A. B. Simpson, Divine Healing (New York: Alliance Press Co., n.d.), located in L. J. Heatwole Collection, MSHL&A, Harrisonburg, Va.
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[58]. Emphasis added. Joseph Elkinton, “Journal,” Jan. 25, 1897, 74-75 in Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore, Pa. Cited by John L. Ruth, The Earth Is the Lord’s (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2002), 669.
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[59]. “Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster Conference,” approved Oct. 7, 1881, LMHS, Lancaster, Pa. Cited in Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s, 669.
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[60]. “Dowieism in the Light of Divine Healing” HOT 37 (Sept. 1, 1900), 259-260.
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[61]. Anna J. Yoder, “Trusting God’s Promises to Heal the Sick,” HOT 20 (July 15, 1883), 215; “The Lord our Healer,” HOT 22 (Apr. 15, 1885), 117.
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[62]. J. K. Zook, “Faith Cure,” HOT 36 (Aug. 15, 1899), 244-246.
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[63]. John F. Funk, “Miracles,” HOT 14 (Dec. 1877), 185.
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[64]. Harry A. Brunk, History of Mennonites in Virginia (Staunton, Va.: McClure Printing Co., 1959), 1:195.
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[65]. In a letter from Daniel Kauffman to J. S. Coffman in 1896 we catch a glimpse of the stir from a healing campaign in his hometown of Garden City, Mo.: “There is a man by the name of Coleman here from Kansas City whooping things up along ‘second grace’ lines. He has been here for over three weeks. He has his altar, and has people to worship at its shrine and receive the baptism of fire. Several have received this baptism, and it makes them feel happy. Bro. Coleman is reported to have healed Sister Yoder, Sister Byler, and quite a number of others. They have got so far along that they see visions, and God only knows what they will accomplish before they get through. Well, needless to say that our people are very much excited. They fear that this business will go on until the church is ruined.”-Daniel Kauffman to J. S. Coffman, ALS, Mar. 31, 1896, J. S. Coffman Collection, AMC, Goshen, Ind.
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[66]. Ibid., 183, 185. Bear in mind that as he wrote this, Funk had five years earlier been party to the decision by Indiana Conference to allow its ministers to anoint the sick who requested it. Within a few years Funk himself introduced J. S. Coffman to anointing the sick with oil.
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[67]. J. S. Coffman, “Fundamental Bible References” (1891), 3.
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[68]. For this description of powwowing and assessment of its place in Mennonite life, I am largely dependent on an article by Gerald E. Suter, “Powwowing: Folk Medicine or White Magic,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 3 (July 1980): 17-23. Other more general studies of powwowing include: Wayland Hand, American Folk Medicine (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1976), 235-258; Don Yoder, “Twenty Questions on Powwowing,” Pennsylvania Folklife 15 (Summer 1966), 38-40; John A. Hostetler, “Healing Arts and Cures,” Christian Living 1 (Aug. 1954), 7-9, 38.
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[69]. “Powwowing,” ME, 4:208.
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[70]. “Conference Record Containing the Proceedings of the Kansas-Nebraska Mennonite Conference, 1876-1914,” (no publisher or date), 100, located in Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, Ind. Other examples of linking, but sharply contrasting, anointing and powwowing are Eli Witmer, “Powwowing,” Gospel Herald 2 (Mar. 31, 1910), 836; George R. Brunk, “Scriptural Reasons Why: Anointing with Oil” Gospel Herald 17 (June 19, 1924), 242-243, 253.
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[71]. “Powwowing,” Tract No. 611, (MPH, n.d.), located in the MSHL&A, Harrisonburg, Va.
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[72]. Brunk, “Scriptural Reasons Why,” 253.
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[73]. Indeed, there is evidence that powwowing and anointing may have occasionally overlapped or been applied simultaneously. George R. Brunk condemned a dual approach. “When men have been anointed with oil in the name of the Lord, and in accordance with the Scripture, and a wicked un-Christian man pow-wowing or ‘trying’ at the same time with mutterings, and sticks and strings, etc., and the man recovered, who received the honor? The powwower!” “Scriptural Reasons Why: Anointing with Oil” Gospel Herald 17 (June 19, 1924), 243.
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[74]. Dale R. Stoffer, Background and Development of Brethren Doctrines, 1650-1987 (Philadelphia: Brethren Encyclopedia, 1989), 57. ME, 1:423.
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[75]. Donald F. Durnbaugh, “Relationships of the Brethren with the Mennonites and Quakers, 1708-1865,” Church History 35 (1966), 39-40.
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[76]. Minutes of the Annual Meetings of the Church of the Brethren, 1778 to 1909 (Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Publishing House, 1909).
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[77]. Daniel Kauffman, “Scriptural Reasons Why,” Gospel Herald 7 (Jan. 7, 1915), 651.
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[78]. In 1992 Brethren and Mennonites cooperated to publish Hymnal: A Worship Book. This new hymnal includes hymns and worship resources especially intended to accompany a service of anointing the sick. Although this large and expensive collective venture sheds no direct light on the Brethren origins of anointing among Mennonites, it does illustrate the ongoing sense of kinship shared by Brethren and Mennonites.
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[79]. The historical papers of John F. Funk contain two handwritten samples from the 1890s with wordings apparently prepared for an anointing service. But the Minister’s Manual compiled by Funk and John S. Coffman in 1890 made no reference to anointing, even through its fourteenth printing in 1979.-John F. Funk and John S. Coffman, Confession of Faith and Ministers Manual (Elkhart, Ind.: Mennonite Publishing Co., 1890).
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[80]. Emphasis added. Kauffman, Manual, 176-177.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Anointing Among Nineteenth-Century Mennonites
MQR 79 (January 2005)