April 1999


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



     Abstract: 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.[1]  The Mennonites absorbed the structure with amazingly few changes, retaining the organ, altar, cross, double pulpits and stained glass.[2] 

     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.[3]  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."[4]  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.[5]  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.[6]  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.[7] 

     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."[8]  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 church).[9] 

     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.[10]  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."[11]  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 lodging-house."[12]  As with the Puritan churches, the interior arrangements were spare; containing only the three "essentials" of a Puritan church: pulpit, communion table and benches.[13] 

     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."[14]  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."[15]  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."[16] 

     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.[17]  Indeed the designs and theories developed in Amsterdam were formative in the development of Puritan, nonconformist architecture in England and America.[18] 

     Seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Mennonite writings about church architecture that might inform a comparative study of Puritans and Mennonites are scarce.[19]  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.[20] 



     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.[21] 

     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."[22]  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.[23] 

     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."[24]  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).[25]  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."[26]  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.[27]  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 measure.

     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.[28]  Robert Kreider has observed that this passion for new Mennonite buildings "brought to an end the simple 'meetinghouse' era."[29] 

     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."[30]  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.[31]  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.[32]  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.[33] 

     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."[34] 

     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.[35]  All the talk about grand buildings and Mennonite altars and crosses was likely "a rationalization in defense of a religious fashion," said Fretz.[36]  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."[37] 

     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."[38]  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."[39] 

     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."[40]  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?"[41] 

     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."[42] 

     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."[43] 

     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."[44] 

     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 architecture.[45]  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."[46]  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.[47] 

     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."[48]  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

[1] . 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

[2] . The Mennonites initially removed only the kneeling benches. These, they reported, were "in such bad shape." Return to Text

[3] . 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

[4] . 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

[5] . 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

[6] . 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 Text

[7] . 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

[8] . 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

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

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

[11] . 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

[12] . 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

[13] . 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

[14] . 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

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

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

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

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

[19] . 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

[20] . 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

[21] . 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

[22] . 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

[23] . 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

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

[25] . Church bulletin, July 3, 1955. Return to Text

[26] . 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

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

[28] . 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

[29] . "Architecture," ME, 5:34. Return to Text

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

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

[32] . The article appeared in 1955. Return to Text

[33] . 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

[34] . Krahn, "House of God." Return to Text

[35] . 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

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

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

[38] . R. C. Kauffman, "Minority Report of the Committee on Church Symbolism," n. d. (c. 1949). Return to Text

[39] . R. C. Kauffman, "Some Reasons for an Altar-Centered Chancel" (1955), 2. Return to Text

[40] . R. C. Kauffman, "Minority Report." Return to Text

[41] . R. C. Kauffman, "Some Reasons." Return to Text

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

[43] . 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

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

[45] . 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

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

[47] . 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

[48] . J. Randall Zercher interview, Feb. 7, 1997.

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