Under the cover of a dark September night in 1889, three children of Martin W. and Anna Zimmerman crawled into the newly constructed Lichty Mennonite Meetinghouse in Eastern Pennsylvania. Sent by their parents, they quietly tore out a newly installed pulpit and replaced it with a traditional small preacher's table, constructed by their father. Their mischief remained hidden for nearly nineteen years until Martin's wife Anna confessed their sins ten years after his death.

Meanwhile, the pro-pulpit and anti-pulpit factions boiled with anger. Traditional Mennonite habits of humility kept the feet of their lay ministers on equal footing with other members. For a number of years, a few Mennonite churches following Protestant patterns had added simple pulpits that raised their preachers six inches or so above the crowd. The three-member building committee in the Lichty congregation installed the innovative pulpit without consulting the congregation, igniting controversy and encouraging conservatives to argue that it was fair play to rip it out without consent.

Tearing the Fabric of Love

The pulpit fiasco was but one of many controversies that strained the love of North American Mennonites in the last quarter of the 19th century. Final ruptures tore the fabric in Indiana (1872), and then Pennsylvania (1893), Ontario (1889), and Virginia (1901), as Old Order Mennonites formed separate communions to protect old practices and protest innovations—Sunday schools, revival meetings, and preaching in English. During the same era, Old Order divisions splintered not only Mennonites, but also Amish, German Baptist Brethren, and Brethren in Christ groups.

Imbibing progressive Protestant emphases of the late 19th century, forward-looking leaders ...

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