Autobiographical notes: J. C. Clemens

Written by Forrest Moyer on April 5, 2018

Jacob Cassel Clemens (1874-1965) was pastor of Plains Mennonite Church and a well-known evangelist in Mennonite circles. In 1979, the MHEP Newsletter published his autobiographical notes written in 1954. The manuscript is in his papers archived at the MHC (Hist. Mss. 3).

Clemens’ reflections on the first half of the 20th century, as he experienced it, are illuminating. They remind us how much has changed in the last century, but also that many of our ancestors’ experiences are similar to ours—love and work, change and sacrifice, fulfillment in unexpected places. A man who expected to be a banker was called to preach, and the course of his life and that of his family was reshaped by this role in a community that was changing rapidly.

Pre school days

I was born April 2, 1874, one mile east of Harleysville, Pa., the third child of Jacob N. and Eliza K. Clemens; on a small farm of 21 acres located on a road leading from Harleysville to the nearest railroad station at Souderton, Pa. My earliest recollections are that I was brought up in a Christian home and was taken along to Church regularly to the Salford Mennonite congregation where my parents held membership. All services were conducted in the German language.

My maternal grandparents were neighbors, Jacob Cassel’s, and I stayed with them much. He was a shoe maker and it is fresh in my mind how he allowed me to use his tools and drive wooden pegs in blocks, as he drove them in leather soles. He furnished me with candy and she with cakes from the baker who didn’t come around so often so that the cakes got real hard betimes. We relished them nevertheless.

Both my father and my grandfather Cassel wore beards and dressed in plain garb. The testimony against the use of tobacco was not so strong in those days so they indulged to some extent. Some Sisters [female church members] also smoked. Grandfather Cassel kept a diary up to his death at the age of 72; his books written in German are still extant. For a number of years he taught a German school in a public school near Harleysville during Summer vacation. He was a help to me in the German language.

Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville

Inscriptions of J.C.’s grandfather Jacob Cassel and great-grandmother Elizabeth Landis Cassel in a 1736 Bible from the Landis family. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of the family of J.C. & Hanna Clemens (1982.3.2)

Public school days 1880-1890

Our home in Franconia was only one half mile from Detwiler’s schoolhouse (this building was lately moved because of the super highway [Northeast Extension of the PA Turnpike]); teachers were Charles Brunner, Abram Nyce and Burns Johnson. The school room was equipped with a big blackboard, rather long rough desks and benches without backs holding four or five pupils; all benches about the same size; pupils averaging in age from five years to eighteen or more.

A physically capable teacher was a requisite. Slates and slate pencils worked out the mathematical problems. Our farm gave chores for morning and evening occupation and for Summer vacation which lasted six month. In the Summer time we attended Sunday School at Franconia in the afternoon on Sunday. A large group assembled and walked the few miles. Sunday School literature consisted of German ABC books, Questions and Answers on Bible doctrine and New Testament reading classes. Most of the time was occupied in singing Gospel songs, which was done in a rousing spirit led by able choristers. When I was ten years old our family had increased to six children, so father bought a 75 acre farm at Mainland, Pa. which was better fitted for a large family.

There was quite a difference in the type of teachers in our elementary schools; John B. Bergey was a good teacher, Jacob U. Brunner had no control of the pupils. The last three years of my elementary school days I had my brother-in-law Frank B. Bartholomew who was a great help to me and encouraged me to continue my schooling after finishing the grades.

The boy on the farm

On the farm many hands made light work. At eleven I was allowed to have a span of horses and plow while an older brother had the other team; so with two teams we went around the field until we heard the dinner bell ring the welcome peal. The horses likewise neighed the welcome.

This home was ideal in every respect in our estimation; situated on the banks of the Skippack Creek, which fifty years ago was a larger stream than it is today and afforded fishing, swimming and skating in winter time. Walnut and shellbarks were plenty; a good sized apple orchard had abundant fruit for a large family, now mother, father and eight children.

Farmhouse at Mainland where Clemens grew up, photographed circa 1950.  J.C. Clemens Papers, MHC.

We had a good size dairy feeding in a large pasture along the creek; milking by hand was the vogue then of course. The milk we would haul to the creamery with horse and buggy, or sled in the wintertime. We boys were allowed a pigeon loft and reaped the income of squabs sold. That gave us a little spending money.

Our evenings were mostly spent at home except sometimes in the country store which was so nearby, where we would sit around the hot stove in the winter and discuss, but not settle, world problems. Our place of worship now was the Towamencin Mennonite church, in which cemetery our parents are buried. The pastor Christian Allebach was a great friend to young people and was an inspiration to me up to the time of my ordination in 1906 at the Plain congregation.

Preacher Christian Allebach–“great friend to young people”–and wife Amanda with granddaughter Blanche Umstead, circa 1914. Allebach-Cassel Family Papers, MHC.

Teaching school

My parents could not provide financially for an extended course of study for the teaching profession, so after a few Spring terms at the Sumneytown Academy, I took an examination for a teacher’s provisional certificate and passed. The School Board of Lower Salford township entrusted me to teach Heckler’s school though I was only seventeen. I could thus earn money during the winter and continue my studies during vacation at Sumneytown and later at Perkiomen Seminary. My earnings at the beginning were six months at $33 a month.

My goal was a State Teacher’s Certificate, which I earned in April 1899. In all I taught twelve terms: one year at Heckler’s, two years at Metz’s, four years at Sunnyside, Hatfield, and five years in the Borough of Hatfield.

When I came to mature years, teaching seemed to be my life work; but in 1904 an offer came to me for a Bank job which would allow me more income to provide for a family. My teaching experience however was a valuable asset to my ministry later in Church work.

In Lower Salford we had debating societies during the winter months, which met weekly at Alderfer’s (Muskrat Hall) School, a valuable experience.

Clemens as teacher at Sunnyside School, Hatfield, circa 1900. Clemens Papers, MHC.


Through my school work I got acquainted with Hanna C. Rittenhouse, daughter of Jacob K. and Eliza Rittenhouse. She was born March 16, 1880 in Towamencin Township. After an acquaintance of about three years, I got the consent for marriage, in this wise: In those days it was the policy of getting a definite consent of the espoused father, if he was living, to go ahead with the marital program. This was more of a hazard when the character of the father was austere. I undertook when he helped me to unhitch the horse one time and the nag was between us, and happily the answer was OK.

We were married May 27, 1899 at the parsonage of Rev. James L. Becker, Lansdale, after which a reception was held at the Rittenhouse home where invited guests assembled. It was the custom that Mennonite ministers married only church members. We became members of the Plain Mennonite church the next year 1900. We are now married 55 years. We have six children, 23 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. One daughter-in-law, Clara Ruth Clemens, passed on.

Former meetinghouse of the Plains congregation, as it appeared when J.C. and Hanna became members in 1900. Photo taken circa 1920, a few years before the house was torn down and replaced. The man in the photo is unidentified. Plains Mennonite Church Collection, MHC.

From banking to preaching

When I entered the bank I was first Treasurer [cashier?] of the Lansdale Trust and Safe Deposit Co., and later Teller of the Citizen’s National Bank of Lansdale. I was called to the ministry Nov. 14, 1906. I shared the lot with Abraham Rittenhouse, David Allebach, Isaiah Lapp and Enos Godshall. We lived on Richardson Ave., Lansdale. We had three children then.

I now had a double task, and for two years I stayed in the bank and studied [prepared sermons] at night, which exacted too much of my strength. Later farm work corrected that. When I attended funerals during the week or special meetings, I used to catch up on book work in the bank in the evenings and I did not get my rest.

In 1909 Allen Swartley’s wife and two children died of typhoid fever. The mother was a sister to my wife, so we moved to their home and helped out for two years. Two years later we bought the present home on the Allentown Road. Three more children were born here.

The J.C. and Hanna Clemens farm on Allentown Road. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of Catherine E. Bucher (1988.60.6)

In my early ministry we traveled with horse and buggy. This took time; for instance, Springfield [northern Bucks County] appointment was 24 miles away. Dewey could trot it in four hours. Of course we would not return the same day. There was an advantage; it brought a closer fellowship with those you visited in their homes.

Many calls came to my lot because there was a demand now for English preaching when nearly all of our ministry then preached in German.

I had to study hard to get Bible material for funerals, marriages, and regular preaching services. As of today our young people have a chance to get [learn] the Bible by definite courses which were established [after my ministry began]. I had to go to the BOOK and dig out for myself.

My family on the farm

We started on the farm with a struggle. Not that we had debts or interest on mortgages to meet—we had saved some money ahead—but our farm lacked fertility and the farmer needed experience; the potatoes were too little and the cows didn’t fill the bucket. The owner ahead of me did not keep cattle, and after a few years the production improved. Our main produce were chickens, eggs and vegetables that we disposed of with horse and wagon in the town of Lansdale. The children got useful employment and experience on the farm in this way.

In those days we didn’t look for ministerial support and in fact we didn’t need it. There were some of the ministers in debt and the churches liquidated the debt. We were blessed of course in having very little sickness and no death, which avoided many expenses. The children were able to finish the grade school and high school. Some took additional Business Courses and one took college.

Music was a feature in the Clemens family. Grandfather Clemens loved music and led singing in the church. Our family studied and taught instrumental music—violin and piano for the home. Group Singing was practiced continually.

Clemens family at the 50th anniversary of J.C.’s ordination, 1956. Children (left to right): James, Betty Nyce, Jacob, Paul (pastor of Methacton Mennonite Church), Ruth Landis, Ernest. Clemens Papers, MHC.

Evangelistic work

In 1914 the Franconia conference granted for the first time the permission to have evangelistic meetings; my first call came in December of that year. I preached seven sermons at the Providence congregation; five souls confessed Christ and encouraged me to enter the evangelistic field. Between 1914 and 1941 my work was strenuous in that kind of work, and since that time the Doctor’s advice was to take it more easy; so “I came apart and rested awhile.” I should have relaxed more before.

Those 27 years afforded a wide experience in the Mennonite Church and meant much to my wife and children staying back and keeping the home fires burning. The poultry and the truck farm with the marketing of produce kept the family busy. We had a ready market in Lansdale which afforded us a living. The children worked for us until they were of age and then we helped them to get a start in life.

The one thing we dreaded in Evangelistic work was to be away from home, usually when our train pulled out from Lansdale, we counted the days when we would be home with the family. There is no place like home for rest when the night comes. Although strange beds are comfortable, it makes a difference.

Most of the appointments were in Pennsylvania, but I had revivals in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Ontario. Lancaster was a fertile field for converts in my early ministry. Looking back over the records not all remained faithful that started out but then again I see others that were and became useful in the church; among them are preachers and missionaries, which is encouraging.

I went through the lot four times for bishop and always got free, which I reckoned gave me freedom for Evangelistic work. The Bishops in our area have many tasks that tie them down and make them stay at home. There was some complaint against me for being away too much. They had patience and always gladly welcomed me home. I shared the lot for bishop with Abraham G. Clemmer, Joseph Ruth, Arthur Ruth and John Lapp.

J.C. and Hanna in Vermont on a preaching trip, circa 1950, at the home of pastor Wellington K. Alderfer. Clemens Papers, MHC.

Secretaryship of the Franconia Conference

When I was ordained in 1906, conference had no secretary and no minute book. A few individual members kept account of the happenings, but there was no official record. In October 1909, I was appointed the first secretary and kept the minutes for about forty years. I had interesting experiences through the two world wars in correspondence with government officials. We hold letters sent to me as Secretary of conference from President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker in the first world war, and one from Gen. Hershey in the second world war.

While keeping the minutes, getting them printed and mailing them took much of my time, the fact of handling the work of the church as secretary made a valuable impression on my life. The last active work as secretary was revising the conference discipline and writing out a proposed Constitution and Bylaws, which were adopted as prepared by the executive committee by the conference on May 1, 1947. It is interesting to know that this happened just one hundred years after the split when John Oberholtzer was asking, among other demands, for a constitution and bylaws. He evidently was one hundred years ahead of time or the rest behind in some respect. Oberholtzer had a number of aggressive followers, and that caused the split.

All the minutes since 1909 are written in longhand in a well-bound book; it is considered a valuable record. Goshen College Historic Library committee asked permission to make a photostatic copy of the minutes, which they did.

Minute book kept by J. C. Clemens. Franconia Mennonite Conference Archives, MHC.

Changes in the last fifty years

I have been a member of the Mennonite church 54 years and a minister for 48 years, and it is indeed interesting to notice the changes that have taken place in that time. I would say the steps were progressive steps and not regressive, as a whole. We read of the workers of the church at Antioch, “And when they were come and gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them.” Acts 14:27

1. Change from German to English preaching

Only when English-speaking men visited from the west or from Virginia would we hear English [preaching] and the young folks would get the full benefit of the message. Brother A. O. Histand from Doylestown and Bro. Warren Bean from Skippack exercised themselves in English, until Bro. Joseph G. Ruth and myself were ordained. Singing also changed from German to English. Sometimes at the close of the service they would sing an English hymn out of a song book called Hymns and Tunes. The German language was carefully guarded and preserved as the language that God would prefer. Because of this some outlying congregation dwindled to nothing or nearly so. Other things being equal, the best sermon is the one that is best understood. Today all sermons are in the English language as well as our hymns. Betimes to satisfy the older folks a beautiful German song is sung which is indeed very inspiring to those that lived fifty years ago.

2. Age of applicants for church membership

This is rather an interesting subject at this time because Child Evangelism is under discussion; that is, what is the proper time for children to be baptized and received into church fellowship? That is not my subject here, just to notice the change in the last fifty years. When sister Clemens and I were baptized, the class was all married folks. This was the custom at that time. I talked to an unsaved single man at one time about his soul salvation; his answer: I did think already of getting married and then join the church.

Alpheus Allebach, son of preacher Christian of Towamencin, with wife Margaret Cassel at their marriage in 1902 (before baptism and church membership), and twenty years later as active church members in plain attire, with son Alpheus. Allebach-Cassel Family Papers, MHC.

About 40 years ago, typhoid fever hit our community and took a Christian mother, a daughter age 13 and son age 22; the children were not members of the church. This had a vital effect on our young people and on our church policy. A daughter age 16 was home from school and sick in bed, and the doctor was called and found nothing physically wrong; so I was called and the parents told me to find out what was the matter and if she wanted to become a Christian she would have dare to [?]. After [then] she disclosed that she really was sin-sick; she was well bodily. From that time on our members mostly come in their teens and a few prior to that age. The rule now is [to] first become one with the Lord and later one in marriage if they so decide. This avoids mixed marriages and is a means of holding our children for the church.

During the last fifty years our membership had doubled. After starting out [mission] stations like Lansdale, Norristown and Worcester, our membership necessarily diminished some. If you count the growth of those stations it was no loss but a decided gain. The proportion of single members to those that are married or that were married is now 1 to 4. This change is remarkable.

3. New activities in the church besides revivals

The first Bible conference was held at Doylestown in 1912; Daniel Kauffman and S. G. Shetler were the instructors. This had a tendency to unify the church on Bible doctrine, although some left the church on account of the teaching on nonconformity. Sunday School conferences were held to promote the work of the Sunday School. Teacher Training courses were also encouraged in winter Bible study classes. Early in our experience, we had no evergreen [winter] Sunday School; it would close in the fall and reopen in the Spring. The Plain congregation had a teachers meeting since 1923. I would say it was a big help to our workers in unifying their doctrine and belief.

Summer Bible School gave us contact with our neighbors and their children. Some of our members answered the call for relief work, namely Jacob R. and Mildred Clemens spent two years in Ethiopia, Naomi Derstein in France. Church-wide we have a number that are giving volunteer service and I-W alternative service.

The Mission enterprise took remarkable steps in the last fifty years. The initial step only dates back to April 6, 1917 when the Norristown Mission was formally opened. The Franconia Conference had supplied preachers for the Philadelphia mission as far back as 1899. When we look around and see all the stations that have been established since, and some of them have developed into organized churches, the situation is very heartening.

Foreign fields are just now opening to us. Two families—the Paul Yoder family and the King family—have responded.

Steel City Mennonite Mission, Bethlehem, PA, circa 1954. Photo by Frank Keller. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection; gift of Marlene Keller Benner.

4. Change in Sunday collections

Fifty years ago the deacon handled the funds for the poor which was the only money that came in unless there was building going on. The collection in 1905 was $33 for the Poor Fund. In 1906 it was $52.75. Today for all purposes the collections amount to approximately $15,000. That does not say that the people didn’t help each other then but the world wars made a big change, mission work and relief work, earning capacity, inflation and withal the spirit of giving, the method of collecting, all has contributed.

The Plain Congregation is not in debt. It was favored by the Evers family estate so that the basement could be improved. It is still in need of classrooms when funds are available. Other estates also left small donations. We are having capable trustees.

The pulpit from which Clemens preached for many years, at Plains meetinghouse, before remodeling in 1959. Notice the small offering boxes by the doors. Plains Mennonite Church Collection, MHC.

Value of keeping records

It does seem that the innate nature of keeping records was handed down both from my father and mother’s side. So we may now look back and see what was going on both for evil and for good.

The winter Bible study classes kept me busy, especially in the beginning when they were first started. Young people from the seven central churches of the Franconia district would meet at one church with great interest. For instance in the winter of 1936-37 they met at the Plain church; the subject was the first unit in Teacher training. One hundred and fifty papers were handed in from the adult class, and over half of them took the final test and received credit.

Another year we would meet at Line Lexington, Rockhill and Salford until later the several congregations would have classes of their own. In reviewing these records we notice how our young people now have privileges of definite Bible study that we did not have fifty years ago.

Record of preaching appointments

I have an almost complete record of my services as a preacher for 48 years. My first appointment was Line Lexington, Nov. 18, 1906 where I made a few introductory remarks. My first discourse from a text was at Towamencin, Dec. 2 [the same year], using Matt. 21:9. You can see from this record that the neighboring congregations frequently exchanged pulpits. That has changed now. The first funeral sermon I preached was Jan. 2, 1907–a child, Arthur C. Moyer; used Job 1:21. The first marriage ceremony that I had charge of was Lizzie Bean, the daughter of Pre. Warren Bean, married to John Guntz at the home of the bride in 1910.

My first preaching away from home was in the Fentress, Va. district where the Brethren Samuel R. Landis and Abram C. Moyer had invited me to accompany them to visit A. D. Wenger. I preached at the Warwick church, Dec. 12, 1909.

Another interesting visitation tour back in Nov. 1910: Bro. Amos Kolb and I visited the churches in southwestern Pa., namely Altoona, Pleasant Grove, Roaring Springs, Ore Hill, Weaver Church, Stahl Church, Thomas Church, Blough Church, Springs, Scottdale, and Masontown. This gave us many contacts with the brethren in their homes. The only handicap on this trip was the snow; we were snowbound a few times; we enjoyed it thoroughly. This was my first acquaintance with the [Mennonite] Publishing House and its staff of workers; quite small then.

From 1914 to 1941 the records show that I was in the Evangelistic field. I kept a record of converts; most of them were young then but today are mature, and every once in a while I come in contact with them and they kindly remember us; so I can check back on my record maybe 25 or 30 years ago and there I find their names and quite often their age too.

Record of services listing 49 “confessions” [converts] after Clemens preached at Goodville Mennonite Church, Lancaster County, on December 15, 1923. Clemens Papers, MHC.

In August 1937 I filled an appointment at the [Mennonite] General Conference at Turner, Oregon and spoke on the qualifications of the Ministry. Clayton Derstine had rented two railroad coaches which took us on a five weeks journey, stopping at Chicago; Minot, N.D.; Creston, Mon.; Portland, Ore.; Turner, Ore.; Windsor, Cal.; Los Angeles Upland Bible Inst., Cal.; Holbrook, Colo.; LaJunta, Colo.; including the Grand Canyon—a memorable tour.

The records of funerals with the age of the departed on my books serve as important data. With the aid of David K. Allebach we have a list of the burials at the Plain Mennonite Church. The trustees have a blue print made at this time.

Botanical record

Looking back through my herbarium, I noticed that I analyzed my first flower in March 1897 and find it in good shape; found it on the southern slope of the Skippack Creek and named it SPRING BEAUTY. Through the rest of my life, both sister Clemens and myself had our eyes open to wild flowers. We have a collection of over 200 flowering plants, including 15 orchids, and besides we have 29 specimens of ferns. The interest here is where and when you located them, and to get acquainted with their haunts where they like to grow. For instance, I found Trailing Arbutus on the hills of Valley Forge; the Pitcher Plant near Oscar Burkholder’s home in Canada; the Oak Fern at Luray, Virginia; a rare Walking Fern on the banks of the Branch Creek.

Clemens Papers, MHC.

Family records

In my later life, family history became one of my hobbies. In 1940 my parents, children and grandchildren had their first reunion on the home place at Mainland. Since, we have been meeting annually and they pressed me to write a Clemens history; that is, a Genealogical History of the Clemens Family and Descendants of The Pioneer Gerhart Clemens who emigrated from Switzerland [actually Germany] and settled on a branch of the Perkiomen near the Salford Mennonite Church.

This task occupied eight years of my later days. The Clemens Reunion made themselves responsible for the publication. Three hundred copies were published and most of them are sold.

Since I always had an interest in family records I was called to give talks on a few other occasions at family reunions besides our own, namely Kriebel, Allebach and Kulp.

A more important family is the household of faith. I did have the experience of teaching Church History and always enjoy it. I had been a member of the Historical Committee for many years, also the Publication Board of the General Conference, and helped to organize the Historical Society of the Franconia Conference as well as the [conference] library at Souderton.

Clemens and fellow historian Elmer E. S. Johnson at the Upper Milford Mennonite historical marker, 1958. Clemens Papers, MHC.

Age of retirement

Preaching in the Mennonite church evidently is a life job, the tenure of office is through good behavior until death. In my experience we had a few cases where leaders had outlived their usefulness and would not ask for help nor would they retire. Now, while age itself is not necessarily the deciding figure, it does enter in. When I was 75 I asked for ministerial help for two reasons: I was not well, also I wanted to set an example for others that were older than I was and did not see the need of retiring.

The Lord provided help in two ways: a young man ordained, and restored my health to a large extent. The responsibilities are shared and the work is lighter. I have much time to read and meditate, and praise the Lord because of what he has done for us, as well as serve him in a small way.

We have 100 members in our Franconia conference [ministerial] body at this time and I am the oldest in age so that I need not look for many years to stay. In ordination, Amos Kolb was ordained one half year ahead of me, both in 1906. All the rest are new[er] members.

An outstanding leader of our conference during the first 11 years of my ministry was Bishop Andrew Mack. He was the moderator and leader of men. He was both progressive and conservative. In fact, when new activities were presented, he did not turn them down flat until he looked into the matter and discovered their merits. I have reference to mission work, evangelistic work, etc. and his method of dealing with those members that flatly opposed anything new. For instance, when the first Bible conference was held in Doylestown, he attended and gave a favorable report at the next conference. For about three years from 1914 to 1917 he worked hard to have an old people’s home. It finally came the same year in which he died (1917).

In the summer of 1914 he [Mack] invited me to go with him to visit a number of congregations in Lancaster County. He would preach German and I should preach English. We worked together and slept together and had pleasant experiences in the homes that we visited. It was surprising how he held the interest and attention of the young people even though he spoke German.

The moderator of our conference now is John Lapp, also my colaborer since 1933, who as a little boy grew up to a big man in my time and was twice ordained. How times pass. Abram Wambold, our deacon, was ordained in 1917, and lastly Wayne Kratz [was ordained] to take my place in 1950.

The reflections are interesting and we do not always fit into the new pattern when we arrive at our age. One thing is there is too much going on, too much noise. Old folks like a lot of rest and quietness; but the grace of God is always sufficient. Our children and grandchildren are so good to us and help as they are able to.

J.C. and Hanna fishing, circa 1955.