John S. Coffman (1848-1899) of Elkhart, IN was one of the first evangelists to hold a series of meetings in Franconia Mennonite Conference, in November 1896. His tour lasted three weeks, during which he preached in all but one congregation in the conference. In his diary, he recorded impressions of the places and people he met, giving us a rare view of local Mennonite culture. The diary is archived at the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Elkhart and was published with permission in the MHEP Newsletter, Sep. 1985. This transcription was made by Joel Alderfer at that time.
Coffman’s English preaching was difficult to understand for many local Mennonites, who used only German language in church and Pennsylvania Dutch at home and business. At Deep Run (the one congregation he did not visit), Coffman was refused welcome by old preacher John Gross who was probably defending the continued use of German in Bucks County, where there were many English neighbors. Gross likely was also opposed to the innovation of “evangelistic” meetings. John Coffman wrote in a letter to M. S. Steiner on Nov. 19: “In one place in Bucks County, I was not wanted by one dear aged brother…. Appointments have been made at all the other principal places.”
Coffman’s preaching tour had a definite effect on the conference community; there were large membership classes at Blooming Glen and other places just after his visit. Young, unmarried people began to join church; previously the practice was to join after settling down into marriage. At Bally, Coffman noted with concern that there was only one unmarried member, and he complained in the letter to Steiner: “You can hardly see the young people at all…. [It is] almost impossible to speak a word to them at church….”
This past weekend (Nov. 2019), a historic reconciliation ended the long division between Franconia Conference and the “Oberholtzer faction” as Coffman called it (the progressive Eastern District Mennonite Conference). In 1896, there could be no fellowship between Franconia and Eastern District. Today, the bodies have re-united to form one of the largest Mennonite conferences in the nation. We get a sense from Coffman’s description of the crowds at Blooming Glen, Souderton and Franconia, that westerners were impressed with the number of Mennonites who lived in eastern Pennsylvania, but puzzled over their old-fashioned and less “educated” lifestyle.
Coffman’s tour began at Doylestown. Initially uncertain how he would be received, he was warmly welcomed:
I never felt more timid not knowing the people or their favors or prejudices.
Friday, Nov. 13: A fine bright day, but the roads are muddy, not deep. Red clay soil all the way. Last night I stayed with Bro. John Walter near Chalfont. This morning they took me to call on Bro. Abram High’s. They buried their only son a short time ago. An only daughter is left. Sister High is sick in bed yet. She needs much comfort. From there we went to Doylestown Church to meeting. The house was filled (nearly). I never felt more timid not knowing the people or their favors or prejudices. Text. Matt 20: 6. “Why stand ye all the day idle?” I was deeply moved with the kindness shown me by all. Bro. John L. Gross took me to Bro. David L. Gehman, and our young Bro. Abraham O. Histand, just ordained this week was there also. Bro. Gross and I called at Jacob Bergey’s. Sister Bergey is very low. Had devotions with her. This evening I took supper with Bro. William Gross and had an evening visit with him.
Bro. W. Gross talked very much and learned many inside conditions of the church from him.
Saturday, Nov. 14: Quite chilly this morning. The folks say it is cold. The ground is frozen, but thawed out this forenoon. Last night I stayed at John Gross’ at Fountainville. This morning he took me to the meeting at Plumstead. There was a fair attendance, but not a full house. I met the brethren Leatherman and Rush from the Deep Run church. Text, Matt. 5:14 16. This is likely my farthest point east. I went to Henry Shelly’s for dinner. Here I met old Bro. [schoolteacher] Jacob Gross–will be 90 years old the 29th of January. I did not see his brother, Old Bro. Preacher John Gross. Bro. Shelly took me to Henry Kratz. Bro. Henry Rosenberger met us there. We had quite a company of folks here. William Gross and daughter came. We spent a pleasant evening. Bro. W. Gross talked very much and learned many inside conditions of the church from him.
A multitude of members here, probably the next to largest membership in this part of the state.
Sunday, Nov. 15: A fine bright day. The ground was frozen this morning and the air was fresh all day, but not cold. Some mud in the roads. Last night I stayed at old Jacob Kratz’ or rather Henry’s, the old home of sister Funk. I had a most enjoyable visit. The sisters Emma and her aunt Annie are entertaining company. Meeting at Blooming Glen. The large house was densely crowded. A multitude of members here, probably the next to largest membership in this part of the state. Close attention. Text. Matt. 16:18. I spoke also to the large Sunday School. After church I was with the young preacher Peter Loucks. Then we visited a young sick sister Sallie Moyer. A most resigned and beautiful soul. We spent the evening with a house full at the home of Bro. Preacher Abram F. Moyer.
Rockhill and Souderton
The great congregation listened with intense interest.
Monday, Nov. 16: The weather is very fine. The air is mild. Last night I stayed at Bro. Abram Moyer’s near Blooming Glen. He brought me to the meeting at Rockhill Church. There was not a large congregation here, but attentive. I met here Bro. Samuel Detweiler the newly ordained Bishop. I met also Bro. Joel Good of Chester Co. I took dinner at Bro. Abel Horning’s. He is an old friend of my father who visited Virginia some years ago. We had a nice company of folks here. They took me then to Bro. Herman Godshall’s in Souderton. He asked many questions, and gave me much encouragement. There was meeting this evening in our church in town [Souderton]. A densely crowded house. Text. Luke 14:16. Excuses. The great congregation listened with intense interest.
Today I enjoyed the time very much and begin to feel easier.
Tuesday, Nov 17: A most beautiful day. The air is very mild, like early fall. The day was clear and bright. Last night I stayed at Bro. Deacon Henry C. Krupp, who took me to call on a young sick Brother in Souderton–Freed–a cousin to the Freeds in Medina Co. Ohio. Then we drove to the Line Lexington church where the house was well filled. A good many young people. They have a few converts. Text Rom. 6:23. The two sides. We then visited with the Deacon Bro. George Walter. Bro. Krupp then brought me to Bro. minister John Rosenberger. In the evening we visited Bro. Abram Moyer. Today I met the old bishop Bro. [Samuel] Leatherman. Today I enjoyed the time very much and begin to feel easier.
It was quite an effort to interest the people as some do not understand English well.
Wednesday, Nov. 18: Some clouds this morning, but a beautiful day. The air was too warm for heavy clothes. Overcoats are a burden. Last night I stayed at Bro. John Rosenberger, Hatfield. He and sister R. brought me to the meeting at the Plain [Plains] near Lansdale. The ministers are Henry Godshall and Jonas Mininger, Deacon Abram Kulp. The attendance was not very large but fair. Text, Matt 13:3. The parable of the Sower. It was quite an effort to interest the people as some do not understand English well. We took dinner with Bro. Henry Godshall. Bro. Allebach was there also. Bro. Christian Allebach took me over supper to Bro. Deacon Abram Kulp. Had a good visit. Then I came with Bro. Allebach to his home in Kulpsville. Had a social meeting at the house of old Bro. Henry Krupp nearby.
I am sad to see so many fine young people here not in church. There is surely direct work needed.
Thursday, Nov. 19: Some clouds and just a light sprinkle of rain this afternoon. A breeze from the north and the air is much cooler, but not cold. Last night I stayed with Bro. Christian Allebach in Kulpsville. This morning I walked to the Towamensing [Towamencin] Church. Here lies the body of General Nash who was killed at Germantown in the war of 1812 [actually the Revolutionary War], and some other soldiers are buried here. A good attendance and the best interest I have had, I think, in these parts. Bros. Allebach, John Hunsberger and Jacob Stauffer were present. Text, Matt. 9:16, 17. The old garment etc. I was over dinner at Bro. Stauffer’s. Bro. Hunsberger took me to make a call at Joseph Hunsberger’s. Had a pleasant time with his family. Then to Bro. [John] Hunsberger’s for the night. I am sad to see so many fine young people here not in church. There is surely direct work needed.
This was the smallest congregation I have had on this trip.
Friday, Nov. 20: Chilly and breezy today, but the weather is still fine for the time of year. Last night I stayed at Bro. John Hunsberger’s, Center Point. His son-in-law Harry Davis with his family of three children lives in the same house. This morning I walked about 2 miles west to Worcester meetinghouse. This was the smallest congregation I have had on this trip. Text, John 15:4, Abiding In Christ. Bros. Henry Wismer, Jacob Mensch, and John Hunsberger were present. After church, Bro. Wismer took me to Henry Hebener. Bro. Hunsberger was also there. We then made a call at old Bro. John Metz, 93 years old, and brisk on his feet. His daughter Katie has lain in bed an invalid for 45 years, yet she appears cheerful and happy. Her sister Lizzie cares for her.
The young people are not members here and there are few members.
Saturday, Nov. 21: The air is not cold, but is quite chilly. Some sleet and misty rain last night and this forenoon. Gloomy all day. Last night I stayed with Bro. Henry Wismer. His son and family of one child live in the same house. We started early and came by Collegeville and Trappe. Here I called on my normal teacher of 1874-5, Sliede [Alcide] Reichenbach. Had a pleasant talk for a few minutes. We came over dinner to Bro. Joseph Gander’s, Royersford. This afternoon at 2 P.M. there was meeting at Providence. The congregation was small. Prof. Reichenbach and wife were present. I spoke from Titus 2:11-12. Purity and Church Unity. I met Bro. John F. Culp of Chester. Took supper at James Detweiler’s. Meeting this evening. The young people are not members here and there are few members. Text James 4:14. What is your life in the general[?] sense.
Upper Skippack and Salford
A large house and packed with eager hearers. But quite German.
Sunday, Nov. 22: Some clouds, but the day was rather fine, yet the air is crisp and chilly. Last night I stayed at Bro. John Gotwals, Collegeville. Bro. & Sister G. took me to the meeting at Skippack. A full house. But the congregation is very German. Text, John 12:23. Conditions of Salvation, which cluster around the cross. I took dinner with Bro. Jacob Mensch. Quite a company present. At 2 P.M. there was meeting at Salford. A large house and packed with eager hearers. But quite German. Text, 1 Cor. 1:30. What Christ is in us, or made to us. I went with Bro. Minister Jacob Moyer over supper. Here Bro. Gotwals left me. Meeting at a Union Chapel at Harleysville. A densely packed house. Text, John 3:16. God Loves the Lost Sinner. There was 3 sermons of an hour each. I had all kinds of hearers this evening.
It is an immense building, and the members nearly fill it…. But many failed to understand the [English] language.
Monday, Nov. 23: The weather is fine today. Not cold for the time of year but there was a heavy frost and the ground was frozen this morning. Last night I stayed at Bro. Henry Bower in Harleysville. I was glad to meet him and find him so much interested in the good work. I visited old sister widow Isaac Clemens [minister] at Doctor Groff’s. Then we hurried to the meeting at Franconia at 9 A.M. Probably the half of the congregation was there. It is an immense building, and the members nearly fill it. Text, Heb. 9:1. Ordinances. This is the first church sermon I used. But many failed to understand the language. I then visited Abram Clemmer [deacon], then Bishop Josiah Clemmer, the leader of the Eastern Pa conference [Franconia Mennonite Conference]. Had a very pleasant visit with him. He took me to Bro. Deacon Henry Krupp after dark.
I see plainly that the Pa church will have to be preserved by the better educated.
Tuesday, Nov. 24: Cloudy this morning, and some clouds all day. But only a little sprinkle of rain. Not cold. Last night I stayed at Henry C. Krupp’s, where I have my washing. They started early with me for the Swamp church north of Quakertown. Here is the vicinity where the Oberholser [John H. Oberholtzer] faction took the larger part of the church, and the meetinghouses. A.B. Shelly has that branch in charge now. Bro. John A. Beidler has our congregation [Franconia Conference Swamp Mennonite Church]. Not many at church today, mostly members. Text 1 John 1:7. Christ the Remedy for Sin, and fellowship in the higher life. Took dinner with Isaack Longacre. Jon, his son, is a member and a teacher in the public schools. Bro. Beidler and sister B. took me to Bro. David Gehman, Fruitville, near Bro. Andrew Mack. After supper we came to Bro. Mack’s. I see plainly that the Pa church will have to be preserved by the better educated.
There was not a large attendance as the membership is small. Only one single [unmarried] person is a member.
Wednesday, Nov. 25: The weather is mild but not clear this morning. Fine for the time of the year. Last night I stayed with Bro. Andrew Mack. His son Eli lives with him, Bally P.O. This forenoon there was meeting at Bally, Hereford [actually Washington] Township. There was not a large attendance as the membership is small. Only one single person is a member. Text, John 11:44. The Resurrection–the putting off of grave clothes. We took dinner at Bro. John M. Ehst, Clayton. We then made a call at Bro. Enos Gehman, at the watch and clock shop. Then we visited with Bro. Henry Mack over supper. Had a talk with Bro. A. Mack and the family. My visit with Bro. Andrew was very satisfactory. Bro. Henry took me to Dea. Bro. Reuben Eshbach.
…I had a most delightful view of the country where our people live, from the top of the ridge.
Thursday, Nov. 26: The night was drizzly, but only a little rain. The air is mild like early fall. This afternoon was most beautiful weather. Last night I stayed with Bro. Reuben Eshbach, the father of Dilworth G. Eshbach, a young man I met in Kansas some years ago. We went to the Thanksgiving meeting at Boyertown. The church is in the village. The attendance is not large as the membership is small. Text 1 Cor. 10:26. Three forms of Thanksgiving, formal, heart, practical. I took dinner at Bro. Abram Gehman, who lives at the old Gehman home. Bro. G. brought me to Bro. Henry Krupp’s at Souderton, quite a drive but I had a most delightful view of the country where our people live, from the top of the ridge. Supper at Bro. Henry Krupp’s. Meeting at Souderton. Bro. Abram Moyer spoke. I followed on Jer. 7:20. Seed time and harvest.
Friday, Nov. 27, was spent visiting friends in Philadelphia, including Joseph Elkinton and other Quakers (“…I had a fine visit with the Friends, and learned many good things from them.”)
Saturday, Nov. 28, through Monday, Nov. 30, Coffman was back among Mennonites in Bucks County. Other than preaching to the Sunday School at Doylestown, he gave no sermons but spent the time visiting in homes. On Monday, he made an interesting note about Blooming Glen:
…Took supper at Frank Swartz, and then a number went with me to Perkasie where we had a very pleasant visit with Bro. Dr. [Daniel] Landis. Had a social meeting [prayer meeting], all taking part in a ? word. This is not usual with these people, but they apparently enjoyed it. I see that very special care must be taken with these Blooming Glen people or they will be[come?] worldly.
I see that very special care must be taken with these Blooming Glen people or they will be[come?] worldly.
Tuesday, Dec. 1: Cold but not severe. There is a covering of snow on the ground. The cold seems severer because of the warm weather of last week. Last night I stayed at Dr. Landis in Perkasie. This morning at 6:20 I left for Lansdale and Norristown and Royersford, and walked across [the Schuylkill River] to Spring City. Bro. Jonathan Kulp [Kolb] came to the Pa. depot for me, and soon we were at his house. Had meeting at Vincent, 1 mile from Spring City at 10 A.M. Text Matt. 16:18. The Church and her foundation. I took dinner at John Latschar [Latshaw]. Sister L. is poorly. Had worship. Called at Keimes store to see the girls who were our visitors last summer. Then I took supper at John F. Kulp’s. About a full house this evening, 7:30. Text, Isaiah 35:8. Simplicity of the plan of salvation.
Only a few members left. God forgive our people for not working more directly in building up our congregations.
Wednesday, Dec. 2: Cold. The ground is frozen and the snow stays well on the roofs and the fields. Cloudy, and a breeze from the east. Snug winter weather. Last night I stayed at Solomon Good’s, where old Bro. Joel Good lives and sister Bechtel with her two boys. Solomon took me to the meeting at Coventry, one of the oldest meeting houses of the Mennonites (I think built in 1727) [a curious reference, the meetinghouse was rebuilt in 1890]. Only a few members left. God forgive our people for not working more directly in building up our congregations. Text, Matt. 25:6. The Ten Virgins. I took dinner at Preacher Bro. Jacob Hunsberger. Samuel B. Latshaw took me to his house, then to Elias Latshaw’s over supper, then back to Bro. Hunsberger’s, and they took me to Coventry for the evening meeting. Not large attendance. May God yet build up this dying congregation. 56 Text, 2 Cor. 4.7. Treasure in earthen vessels.
Final meeting at Vincent
I spoke of the needs of the church here, and appealed to the young people to stand by the doctrine of their fathers as taught by Christ and his apostles.
Thursday, Dec. 3: The day was rather fine. Some clouds. The snow still lightly covers the ground. The air is cold. Last I stayed at Jacob Kolb’s ½ mile from the meetinghouse [Vincent]. There was a good attendance at 10 A.M. About all the members were present, and many outsiders. Text, Acts 24:25. Pauls reasoning, and Felix’ convenient reason. I also spoke of the needs of the church here, and appealed to the young people to stand by the doctrine of their fathers as taught by Christ and his apostles. I invited the unconverted to come up, after the meeting, and confess Christ. Three came –John Gunse [Guntz] and wife, and Amos Kolb [later a bishop]. Took dinner at widow Funk’s. Called at Keimes. Arrived at Kinzer [Lancaster County] at 6:45. Bro. Eby took me to his home, where he had his house full of neighbors. I spoke to them from Rom. 11:33-36.