J. C. Wenger’s memories of writing Franconia Mennonite history

Written by Forrest Moyer on March 8, 2017

In 1976, MHEP Newsletter editor Joyce Munro interviewed John C. Wenger about his memories of writing the book History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference in 1936. It’s fascinating to read about the process of creating this substantial book that is still in 2017 the best source for information on some aspects of Franconia Mennonite history, including ministers who have served in the conference. The book is available for purchase at the Mennonite Heritage Center.

We’re forty years too late with this interview, but if you don’t mind testing your memory a bit, we’d like to know how the history of the Franconia Conference came to be written.

There was a great interest in conference histories at the time. In 1911 the [Mennonite Church] General Conference Committee formed a Mennonite Historical Library at Scottdale under John Horst. It was an ad hoc library that was formed and existed strictly to write a Mennonite history that would be supported by conference histories. Lancaster came out with their history first, in 1931. Ontario Conference followed with a history written by L. J. Burkholder and published in 1935. I copied his idea of a separate section pertaining to all the ordained men, past and present, of the conference.

Then the History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference was part of a larger trend in the preservation of American Mennonite history?

That’s right.

How did you get involved in the writing of this history? Weren’t you in school at the time?

Yes, I was in school. I had taken an approved leave of absence from Goshen College so that I could study at Westminster Theological Seminary. In the summer of 1935, John D. Souder approached me about speaking at the October meeting of the Historical Society. [John D. Souder with a few other local historians in 1930 had formed the Franconia Mennonite Historical Society.]  John D. had long been wanting someone to write a history of his conference district. Although he had collected many documents and notes on the subject, he himself did not feel qualified to write such a history. A month after asking me to give a talk at the Society meeting, John D. asked me if I would consider editing a history of the Franconia Mennonite Conference. I said, “Yes.”

At the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Historical Society at the Rockhill Mennonite Home on October 5, 1935, I presented a paper on “Conrad Grebel and the Swiss Brethren Movement.” After the talk, J. C. Clemens of Plains made the booster speech to have me write the history. I’ve always had a hunch that Dr. Elmer (E.S.) Johnson of the Schwenkfelder Library put a bug in John D.’s or someone’s ear, “Get this guy Wenger to write the history.” After the praise of Dr. Johnson and J. C. Clemens’ speech, I wrote in my diary, “It evidently is going through.”

J. C. Clemens (left) and E. S. Johnson chatting over the pioneer marker at Upper Milford Mennonite Church, 1957; Isaac Clarence Kulp to the right. Photo from the I. C. Kulp Collection.

When did you actually begin working on the history?

John D. Souder and I formally began the writing of the history on October 10, 1935. He came over to my study room at 222 Lincoln Avenue in Telford. After I had read Psalm 34 we knelt together and prayed, after which we sang “My Jesus, I Love Thee.” It was a tremendous moment for both of us. I was 24, going on 25, and he was 70.

Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville

Historian John D. Souder (1865-1942) created hundreds of commemorative fraktur drawings in the last few years of his life. The MHC holds numerous examples of his work.

How long did you expect the writing to take?

I had been asked to take off only one semester from Westminster Seminary. That was an utterly unrealistic projection. The history was not actually delivered to Scottdale until December 1936.

How was the history financed? Today, writing and publishing a book has become expensive.

At Souderton Church a meeting was held, I can’t quite remember when it was, to kick off the conference history project. An offering of $160 was collected to support me for the one semester. At the end of the year, when it became apparent that I’d be working for some time yet, John D. solicited 10 men who were asked to give $100 each to the project. I think one person backed out; of that money John D. gave me $250.

You have alluded to John D. Souder’s longstanding desire to see a conference history written and certainly he seems to have been active in helping to bring his dream to fruition–what exactly was your relationship with him in the actual writing of the book?

John D. had collected material for over 50 years–books, deeds, and papers that people had given him. He had made extensive notes of information that he had picked up from other people. He brought everything down to me, and I mean bushels of stuff! That was an exceptional act of kindness. In some cases where he had duplicate copies of books, he even gave me a copy. I sorted and read through everything.

Originally, the arrangement was that John D. was supposed to write the history, and I was supposed to flesh it out as well as edit it. But, honestly, I had so much background research and arranging to do that I ended up writing it. I did considerable soul-searching about the way the project was working out. After consulting with H. S. Bender at Goshen, I decided to put my name on the title page and dedicate the book to John D.

John D. and I worked closely together. He hauled me all over the country to see things and to visit historical libraries. I still remember the old Chevy he had. I’m sure that he was never reimbursed for all the money he spent in gas.

Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville

John D. Souder looking over the Lower Skippack Mennonite Cemetery, 1935.

It pleased him no end to chauffeur me around. In my diary I summarized a trip that we took on October 16, 1935. This will give you an idea of the ground that we covered in one day:

“John D. Souder and I took a trip. First we visited the homestead of Dielman Kolb, photographed Lederach tombstones on farm, etc. Then visited Warren Bean’s daughter, but Warren wasn’t home. Then visited the Skippack deacon, got the 1738 Alms-Book with the understanding that we get permission of Bishop Bean. Visited Lower Skippack Mennonite Church, and Henry Johnson, pastor and school teacher there since 1897. Then visited Evansburg Funkite Cemetery; then ate at Fair View–John D. paying.  Then made a transcript of the Funkite cemetery near the Norriton Lutheran Church. Then drove to Methacton Church. Saw Sower’s grave. Then called Bishop Bean on the phone and secured permission to borrow the 1738 Alms-Book. Home for supper.”

Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville

J. C. Wenger in the overgrown Funkite Cemetery at Evansburg, 1935. The photos from Wenger and Souder’s research trips were donated to the MHC in 1980 and are preserved today as the John D. Souder-J. C. Wenger Photo Collection (Hist. Mss. 11). Most of the images are of historic meetinghouses and churches, such as the Menno Simons Mennonite Church in Boyertown (pictured below), which closed in 1938.

Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville

John D. was very anxious to see the writing of the history move ahead as fast as possible. Every afternoon he came down to Lincoln Avenue, and he’d sit for an hour or so in my study while I worked. Sometimes I felt as though he was saying, “Produce, boy, produce.” Sometimes I couldn’t sleep nights because I felt pressured. Yet when I showed him parts of the book that I had completed, he was very pleased.

John D. and I got along royally. He really talked me up and said things like, “Now my work is done, now I can lay down my armor.” He really seemed to feel as though all the years of gathering information together had been for the purpose of this history alone. After the book was published, John D. gave each bishop at Conference a complimentary copy. They were astonished. They compared it to the Zions Harfe [slender German hymnbook of the Franconia Mennonites], and said, “We thought it would be a little thing like this.” John D. was proud of its bookish look.

Since your book had Conference support to some extent, did the conference review it?

John D. and I decided to ask Conference to approve the book. They were somewhat overwhelmed at the request. They appointed two brethren, W. R. Moyer and J. C. Clemens, I believe, to look at it. One read the first half, and the other read the second half. Their only comment concerned the Funkite split. They thought that I should add that the only historical record of that event is Christian Funk’s account, which is certainly true.

Many authors when they recall their first book have a few horror stories to tell. Do you have any?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I do! One of the worst experiences was with an old deacon from Bally–Abraham G. Ehst, I believe. He was 66 years old in 1935. Because I interviewed a great many bishops, deacons, and ministers, I had memorized a list of questions to ask each one so I could put what they said in perspective with other information I was getting. I asked Brother Ehst, when he was born. He said, “In 1896.”  I said that that couldn’t be right. You see, that would have made him only 41. He retorted that he guessed he knew when he was born. As politely as I could, I tried to disagree with him. Can you imagine a young squirt like me telling an old man how old he was? Finally Abraham Ehst went to the family Bible and looked up his birthdate–it was 1869. I guess he was thinking in German where his age would be stated as “neun und sechsig” and he just translated it wrong.

In trying to be polite on another occasion I made one person very upset. I went into Philadelphia to interview two very important General Conference historians, N. B. Grubb and S. M. Grubb, his son.  N. B. Grubb was 88 years old. He was very distinguished looking–tall and straight, handsome, with a moustache and a goatee. His son was about 65–stooped and ordinary looking. He also had carbuncles on his neck which made him rather irritable. After a very informative chat with them, I got up to leave. As I was saying goodbye, I said to S. M. Grubb, the son, “I hope you’re better in a couple of weeks.”  “A couple of weeks! ” he said.

Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville

S. M. Grubb in the pulpit of Second Mennonite Church, Philadelphia, decorated for Harvest Home Service, ca. 1902.

J. C., perhaps you could tell us what you would hope would be done now that History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference is almost 40 years old.

I’d like to see the history brought up to date. A lot has happened since that book. I think a photograph of every ordained man would be good. When I was writing my book, the Conference hadn’t accepted photography of members. Also, there’s a lot more to be researched and written on the Northern Churches–Siegfrieds, Settlement, Mt. Bethel, and Rothrock.

Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville

Frank Keller, Quintus Leatherman, Alvin Rosenberger and John D. Souder at the site of the former Mennonite meetinghouse and cemetery at Siegfried’s Bridge (Northampton Borough), Northampton County.