A HISTORY OF THE MENNONITE WOMEN’S ORGANIZATION
By Ruth Lapp Guengerich
The Beginnings of an Organized Women’s Organization
Mennonite women in the late 1800’s were moved by the needs of others who were less fortunate. They responded by doing what they knew how to do – they cooked, they sewed, and they offered their domestic services to others. Their opportunities were more limited than ours are today, but that did not stop them. In fact, it was their faithfulness that has paved the way for us to serve in such a variety of ways today.
In 1894 the “Sisters of the Amish Mennonite church of Holden, MO” contributed $1.20 to the Chicago Home Mission.
In 1897 another group gave $2 to the same organization.
In 1898 women were contributing to the Mennonite Orphans’ Home near Orville, OH.
Sisters in Indiana gave clothing and two comforters. Women in Mahoning County, OH gave “a quantity of dress goods, three handkerchiefs, ½ bushel dried apples, 1 gal. of maple syrup, shoes and boys’ clothing.”
In 1898 the Sisters’ aid Society of McPherson, KS sent $15 to support one or more orphans.
The list goes on: women sent aid to orphans’ homes, to Chicago Home Mission, to the Kansas City Mission, to the Ft. Wayne Mission, to a mission in West Virginia.
These women were moved by what they were hearing about the needs of others. They gave what they could.
At one group they were asked to provide the feed for their horses when they drove their horse and buggy to their meetings. At another group they were asked to contribute 10 cents to cover the cost of needles and thread.
Some women visited ladies’ aid societies of other denominations where they observed these women doing Bible Studies in addition to their sewing.
The Sisters’ Mission Association of Clinton Amish Mennonite Church near Goshen, IN reported they had already studied several books, including a book about David Livingstone’s life and mission work, and about Isabel Thoburn. This gave them a more “mission spirit” than they had had before.
However, not everyone thought these Ladies’ Aid Societies or Mission Societies were a good thing. Ministers in many locations were hesitant to support these groups. They feared the women could not manage the group, and that they would become gossip sessions. Sometimes the leader of the group was the wife of a prominent leader or pastor – perhaps so the pastor could keep an eye on the women’s activities?
At some of the groups a man had to be present to lead the devotional and/or to pray. Was that because the women were too hesitant to lead, or did the men think they needed to legitimize the meeting?
Nevertheless, the women persisted, from eastern Pennsylvania, to Virginia, to Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Ontario. Women’s groups were forming in practically every Mennonite community. Much work was happening, and large sums of money were being collected to support home and foreign missions.
In 1924, Emma H. Shank wrote aboard the ship S. S. “Vandyck,” this letter to the members of this organization:
My Dear Sisters of the Sewing Circles: Greetings.
Our last days in the homeland were too full to admit the writing of a farewell note to you, but now as we spend our days in quiet out on the silent deep, there is time to review the events of the past thirteen months.
In rapid succession I think of the circles visited, of letters of inquiry from circles and from individuals, of many conversations with sisters in a number of states, and everywhere I have felt that there are those who have a genuine interest in their sisters in S.A. and a real desire to do something for them. This is encouraging and we hope that you may continue to try to know our field and work better, for the more you know the more definitely can you pray for us, and the more intelligently give and do for the support of the work.
Then I think, too, of the many kind offers to me personally of sewing and money for our equipment. For all this I again would express my appreciation. I certainly could not have done all the necessary sewing alone. Aside from this material help I want to make mention of the fine Christian spirit which prompted it all. The fellowship I have had with so many sisters is a very pleasant memory.
Isn’t it wonderful how a day or half day each month spent entirely for others lifts us out of ourselves, takes away a bit of our selfishness and makes us feel that there are those for whom we have a responsibility? It just shows how perfectly Jesus understood the human heart when He emphasized service so strongly for His followers. He knew that “to minister and not to be ministered unto” was the secret of joy and satisfaction in life. And so I hope that you may continue to find homes or institutions that you can help with your needles. This will help you keep you interests strong in others activities of the church and so we can depend on you for India and South America.
In conclusion I would say that we are very happy to go back to our work, bur we are ever conscious that one of our little family is missing. You are all sisters and many of you mothers so that you will understand in a measure what it means to leave our only daughter, just at the age (thirteen years) when she would seem to most need a mother’s care and protection and how I long to give it to her. But circumstances all seem to indicate that for her good we should leave her in the homeland with friends who have so kindly opened their home and hearts to her. Pray for us that we may in peace and confidence commit all to our Father’s care; and as we again take up our work will you be co-laborers with us in Him. It is your blessed privilege.
In Christian love,
EMM A H. SHANK.
Later. – Here we are at Rio de Janeiro. It is a wonderfully beautiful harbor and city. As we came in this evening, the city was all lighted up and then lights all around the water front, it make one think of the song, “Let the Lower Lights be Burning.” But figuratively very few lower lights are burning. There is not much evangelical work being done here and there is so much need everywhere.
EMMA H. SHANK
Part 2: History of Mennonite Women’s Organization of the Mennonite Church
By 1911 a larger organization emerged in Lancaster, PA – the Associated Sewing Circles of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, and before long other regional groups emerged as well.
Clara Eby Steiner (1873-1929) was one of the most important women leaders of these women’s groups. She was married to M.S. (Menno Simon) Steiner; during the early years of their marriage they spent time working at the Chicago Home Mission, and at the Canton Ohio Mission. Following these years of mission work they settled down to farming.
M.S. was very active in church committees, and was Chair of the Mennonite Board of Missions and charities (MBMC, now Mennonite Mission Network) for a number of years. Many of these committees met in the Steiner home, and Clara was the secretary for these meetings. She became well informed about the functioning of the Mennonite Church, and about missions. She attended conferences with her husband, and he had such confidence in her ability that one time when he was asked to give a talk at a Sunday School conference, he asked Clara to go in his place. She wrote her talk, sent it to M.S., who was traveling at the time, and asked him for his feedback of her paper. She was thrilled that when she received it back from him, he had made only minor changes to her paper.
Unfortunately M.S. died suddenly in 1911, when Clara was only 38 years old, and the mother of five children. She had a farm to run, children to raise, grief over the death of her husband, and was suddenly cut off from all the stimulating activities she had been involved in with her husband. She wrote to Daniel Kauffman, editor of the Gospel Herald, predecessor of our current publication, The Mennonite:
To be called to give it all up before I had reached 40, just as the children were becoming less helpless, and we believed with our riper judgment we could do better work, while at the same time calls were constantly going out for more laborers, was crucifying, to say the least…if I had not to give up my husband and the work I loved at the same time I would not have been so utterly forsaken….
One who is an actor can hardly realize how it all appears to one who has stepped aside and looks on. I suppose if I were not a woman I would have thrown [some] of my conviction across some of the scenes. (Klingelsmith, pp. 169-170)
Because of all her work with her husband, Clara Eby Steiner had a keen interest in missions, and was troubled by the difficulty women were experiencing in being accepted into mission work, unless they were married. She was very encouraging of her sisters to become educated and find their niche within the church.
For herself, following the death of her husband, she felt called to continue to be involved with missions through the Mennonite Woman’s Missionary Society (MWMS) which she helped establish. She had lost the stage she had been on while her husband was alive, but she turned her energies towards this new organization. She wrote a history of the MWMS in 1926, and described her call:
We received a definite call of the Lord to this work in 1911. Because it was so hard to believe that the Lord could use us in work of this kind we applied various tests; the tests, although we considered some of them hard, invariably led onward until it developed into a general organization. (Rich, p. 197)
While some church leaders seemed to feel threatened by the Mennonite Woman’s Missionary Society, Steiner was encouraged by others. G. L. Bender of the Mennonite Board of Missions wrote to her saying, “I think you should have the position of director as I believe you make an excellent executive.” (Klingelsmith, p. 170)
Steiner was, in fact, secretary of the MWMS from 1916-1926. Her vision for the MWMS was not just to be sewing circles, which was important work, but to be a general organization of home and foreign missionary endeavor, including:
Young Peoples and Children’s Circles or Societies
Individual Sunday school classes
She said, “We work in cooperation and harmony with the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities…Men will be treated courteously if they care to attend.” (Rich, p. 197)
Steiner appeared to work diplomatically, tactfully with individuals, congregations, and conferences.
Part 3: History of the Mennonite Women’s organization of the Mennonite Church
THE GREAT TAKEOVER
As you can imagine, Clara Eby Steiner carried an extremely heavy load after her husband died. In 1925 she was not well, and felt she needed to have someone else take over her work of managing the sewing orders that came in from the overseas missions stations, especially India. Clara wrote a letter to Emma Stutzman Yoder of Elkhart, Indiana, asking if she would be willing to take over this responsibility.
Emma did not write back, but her husband, S. C. Yoder, at the time executive secretary of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (MBMC) replied. He stated that his wife could not do this task, but the Board would be willing to act on the matter at their next meeting. He said that “calls have come from different parts of the country, asking for a central committee or official secretary appointed by the Board that could receive all the orders or requests for work and distribute them.” (Rich p. 202)
Now, people who knew S. C Yoder state that he was a very kind, gentle soul. It is not my purpose to malign him. One wonders, however, if Emma, his wife, did not want to do this task, or if, because of his position at the MBMC, that S. C. Yoder felt the authority to take over this work and make an appointment on behalf of the MBMC, so that they could have oversight of this work. At any rate, it felt to the women like a “takeover.”
In the March 4, 1926 issue of the Gospel Herald, S. C. Yoder wrote a letter which stated:
Dear Brother: (who was the brother? The editor?)
At the last Meeting of our Executive Committee we appointed a Committee of 3 sisters, Mrs. J. B. Moyer, Elkhart, IN is secretary. These sisters are to have charge of the distribution of the Sewing Circle work for the different missions stations and anyone of these stations desiring to have the Sewings work for them, may send their orders to Mrs. Moyer and she with her committee will distribute the orders among the different Sewing Circles of the United States. Also, if there are any Sewing Circles desiring to have work, they may send their orders to her and she will see that they will get something to do. I remain,
S. C. Yoder
Secy. M.B. of M. & C.
Mary Ann Cressman of Ontario and president of the MWMS read the letter in the Gospel Herald and wondered what was going on. She wrote to Sec. Yoder:
I was always under the impression that we were working under and with the General Mission Board, and always told our people so…the Executive of the Women’s Missionary organization to my knowledge has not been informed of any dissatisfaction on the part of the Mission Board and has not been approached upon this matter. May we then be entitled to and kindly ask for an explanation and what the Board’s attitude is towards the Woman’s Missionary organization.
Mary Ann Cressman never received an answer to her question and the women were understandably upset. Another participant in the MWMS, Mary Ann Gerig, said her feelings were beyond expression but felt the only thing to do was to “take it cheerfully and gracefully.”
For two years there were two organizations: one under the MBMC to do sewing for missions, the other to promote missions. But this arrangement did not work, especially in smaller congregations, so finally in 1927 Clara Eby Steiner and Mary Ann Cressman suggested that, because of their concern for the unity of the church, the Christian thing to do was to “acquiesce graciously.”
In the November-December 1927 Monthly Letter the women printed a statement to turn over their planning and work to the Mission Board. Clara Eby Steiner’s successor was her sister-in-law Martha Whitmer Steiner, and she wrote:
We feel the sisters’ missionary endeavor is the Lord’s work. His work is too important to allow differences, personal feelings and prejudices to enter. It is only as we can soar above the petty things of life and work unitedly together that the Christ life can be lived and His name be glorified.
Yours in Christian love,
Mrs. A. J. Steiner
In the Gospel Herald, June 26, 1929, the mission board issued this statement:
The church has not looked with favor on such a movement, not that it was not interested in women’s work but because it was feared that the organization of such a society would have a divisive influence. We can see a reason why there should be a women’s sewing circle organization, for this is distinctly woman’s work.
With a separate missionary society it is different.
Martha Steiner died in 1928; Clara Eby Steiner died in 1929; Crissie Yoder Shank died in 1929. One wonders if they died, at least in part, of broken hearts, because their convictions and energies were so thwarted.
The MWMS now became known as Sewing Circles, until 1947 when their name was changed to the Women’s Missionary and Sewing Circle Organization (WMSO).
In 1954 the name was changed to Women’s Missionary and Service Auxiliary (WMSA).
In 1971 the name was changed to Women’s Missionary and Service Commission (WMSC) and now related to the newly formed Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries, and was now considered copartners in the structure.
In 1995, with Mennonite Church “transformation” process, merging with the General Conference Mennonite church and becoming Mennonite Church, USA, the name was again changed, to Mennonite Women.
THE GREAT APOLOGY
About 60 years after the “great takeover” an apology was made. While Paul Gingrich was president of the Mennonite Board of Missions, at a public meeting of the MBM, he apologized to the women of the Mennonite Church, and especially to those who were in leadership of WMSC, as it was called at that time, for the insensitivity shown towards these very capable and dedicated women who had accomplished so much for the mission outreach of the Mennonite Church.
In a personal communication to this writer, from Paul Gingrich, dated January 22, 2007, he said the following:
I said on a variety of occasions how sorry I was that Mennonite church leaders of the past generation felt they needed to take control of the creative indigenous work started by “Women in Mission” and led by people like Clara Eby Steiner, Mary Burkhart, or Chrissy (sp) Shenk, mother of missionary David Shenk, and many others. What I was trying to say was that women were in the forefront of the great mission expansion and outreach in those early years but didn’t get much credit or recognition and I’m sorry for this oversight. This is not unlike what happened in Ethiopia during the Communist revolution. It was the women who set up the small house groups and led them. It was the women who took the risks and went to prison. After the Marxist gov’t was overthrown the men assumed leadership and relegated the women to lesser servant tasks. Recently, under the leadership of Mulugeta Assefa, graduate of AMBS and present head of the MKC church, women are now permitted in leadership roles. This was reported in the November 13, 2006 issue of Mennonite Weekly Review.
One can note that Paul Gingrich was but a tiny tot when this takeover occurred, so ask of what value was his apology? We accept this apology as a statement of recognition that some injustices had occurred, and while those decisions could not be undone, the public acknowledgement of the injustice helps in healing old wounds.
Today we can feel outrage at the injustice, but the graciousness of the women in 1926, 1927, and 1928 is also instructive to us. The acknowledgement of the injustice, we hope, will help us all be aware of the power of our decisions, and to be open-minded towards others’ vision, call to service, and interpretation of God’s call.
Gingerich, Melvin. “The Mennonite Woman’s Missionary Society.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, April and July, 1963.
Klingelsmith, Sharon. “Women in the Mennonite Church, 1890-1930.” Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 1980.
Rich, Elaine Sommers. Mennonite Women: A Story of God’s Faithfulness, 1683-1983. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983.