I say very little about Mennonite World Conference (MWC) in In Search of Promised Lands. However, the 16th assembly of Mennonite World Conference begins in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on July 21. This leads me to recall the experience of Ontario Mennonites who hosted the 7th assembly from August 1-7, 1962 in Kitchener.
Mennonite World Conference started in 1925 when European Mennonites began a series of meetings to deepen ties among the growing number of Mennonite groups, to remember shared histories and to strengthen their common spiritual interests. These meetings were intially held every five or six years in European locations like Zurich (1925), Danzig (1930) and Amsterdam (1936) with a relatively small number of Mennonite leaders participating. After a break during World War II, North American Mennonites became much more involved in these meetings, and the meetings became much larger, attracting lay people as well as leaders. Assemblies were held in Goshen (Indiana)/Newton (Kansas)(1948), Basel & Zurich, Switzerland (1952) and Karlsruhe, Germany (1957). The 1957 assembly created a more formal structure for MWC, and redefined its purposes to include “regularly recurring meetings of brotherly fellowship” in order to strengthen “awareness of the world-wide brotherhood” and “to deepen faith and hope and aid the church in its ministry to the world.” The earlier emphasis on appreciation for the historic heritage of faith was no longer featured. Thirteen hundred people participated in the Karlsruhe assembly.
The seventh, and by far the largest assembly to that time, came to Kitchener in 1962. Over 12,000 persons registered for the event, almost 10 times the number that participated at Karlsruhe, which had previously been the largest assembly. Six thousand of these persons were housed by local Mennonites during the conference. This was a massive organizational effort for the meetings held for a week in the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium. Hundreds of local Mennonites volunteered for duties including arranging housing, ushering at mass meetings, preparing food, and registering delegates.
Harold S. Bender, Dean of Goshen Biblical Seminary in Indiana and a longtime Mennonite leader in North America, had served as President of Mennonite World Conference since 1952. He envisioned MWC not only as a tool to help keep the worldwide Mennonite community together, but also as a place where the worldwide Mennonite community could reflect together more theologically. The latter was a new concept that had not been part of MWC’s mandate earlier.
Bender was terminally ill with cancer at the time of the 1962 meetings, and was not able to attend the early part of the meetings. He did appear at the closing sessions where he expressed some of these sentiments on MWC’s future. Some historians of Mennonite World Conference have suggested the Kitchener assembly was a crowning work of Harold S. Bender, who died six weeks later on September 21. On a more ironic note, in later years a few persons also recalled that Harold Bender had mentioned the death of Marilyn Monroe in his public comments. Monroe had died early Sunday morning, August 5. It appeared later this was a faulty memory, but it made for an interesting story that circulated in Mennonite circles for several years.
Since 1962 Mennonite World Conference has become the focal point where almost all Mennonite groups from six continents meet. The majority of Mennonites now live in the global South. MWC has become a worldwide communion with increasing theological conversation at a time when Mennonite theology globally is becoming more and more diverse.
I am indebted for much of this analysis from an article by John A. Lapp and Ed van Straten, “Mennonite World Conference 1925-2000: from Euro-American
Conference to Worldwide Communion,” in Mennonite Quarterly Review 77, no. 1 (Jan 2003): 7-45.
To learn more about Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.
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