Mennonite Weddings at Home and Church

Anna Showalter

When people find out that I am planning my wedding for this summer they often ask, “What are Mennonite weddings like?” Sometimes I respond saying, “no dancing, no alcohol,” and enjoy watching the disbelief on my non-Mennonite friends’ faces. In reality, however, there are as many ways to have a Mennonite wedding as there are Mennonites. Despite the inevitable diversity of practice across North American Mennonites, my study of Gospel Herald essays and marriage announcements between 1908-1960 made it clear that Mennonite Church leaders felt strongly that important matters of doctrine and practice were at stake in how church members conducted their marriage ceremonies. Beyond the problem of dress, music and the wedding ring was the question of home wedding versus church wedding. The primary concern was that weddings, whether at home or church, be consistent with Mennonite commitment to simplicity and non-conformity to the world. The shift from home weddings to church weddings meant that weddings were no longer semi-private events but full congregational occasions. Though there is little discussion of what is at stake with this shift in the Gospel Herald it strikes me as a question to pursue. How does the inclusion of marriage vows in congregational worship reflect Mennonite beliefs about marriage in relation to our beliefs about the church as the family of God?

At the turn of the twentieth century, (Old) Mennonites had a firmly established practice of holding wedding ceremonies in the home of either the bride or the officiating bishop. The services were small, involving a handful of close friends and family, often on a Tuesday or Thursday. Gospel Herald marriage announcements usually described these events as a “quiet wedding.” In the late 1920s, however, an occasional “church wedding” appeared in the listing of recent marriages. The trend continued to build slowly so that by 1957 the majority of weddings were held in churches rather than homes.1

Though less is known about Mennonite weddings prior to the twentieth century, we do know that the shift to church weddings did not come without a precedent. The 1890 Minister’s Manual instructs officiants that “The marriage ceremony, according to our present usage, generally takes place at the home of the bride. There is apparently no reason, however, why it should not be performed in the meetinghouse at the time of public services, according to the custom of our brethren in former times, and as is still the custom with some Mennonite churches.”2 An eyewitness account of a nineteenth century Reformed Mennonite wedding describes such a wedding. The couple stood up during Sunday morning worship after a sermon on marriage and divorce, said their marriage vows and then took their (segregated) seats in the congregation.3

Historical precedent or not, the shift back to church weddings in the 1930s and 40s in Mennonite Church communities raised questions and concerns for some. Virginia Conference, for instance, ruled against church weddings entirely in 1900 but modified the prohibition in 1914 to permit weddings to take place at church during regular services.4 The question was still debated in 1944, and Ruben Brubaker wrote to the Gospel Herald to express his concern. “[I] would not encourage the practice of church weddings for [I] feel they will cause drift into worldly practices.”5 A church wedding opened the door for a larger congregation, and increased the visibility of the couple as they made their vows. Even if the wedding was conducted without the pomp and circumstance of attendants, processional, special clothing and flowers, a church wedding would still be a larger, public event in contrast to the “quiet wedding” of previous years.


John and Doris Sollenberger married December 9, 1951 during Sunday morning worship at the Rowe Mennonite Church. The bride wore blue.

My own grandparents exchanged their marriage vows during Sunday morning worship at the Rowe Mennonite Church near Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1951. They wore their Sunday best and stood up during church at the appointed time to say their vows. My grandma remembers her mother-in-law cautioning her against this plan in favor of a low-profile home wedding that would not draw unnecessary attention to the couple. My grandparents, however, felt that since Grandpa had recently been ordained as a minister, it was fitting for them to take their marriage vows in the midst of their church community.

Despite a cautious attitude toward church weddings in general, several essays in the Gospel Herald show that my grandparents were not alone in believing that the church body gathered at the meetinghouse was potentially an ideal context to make marriage vows. One voice representative of this view was Amos Weaver of Ronks, Pennsylvania. In 1956, he noted the shift to church weddings as a positive change:

Until about 10 years ago Mennonite church weddings were practically unknown in many communities. Today, any other type of wedding is a rare thing. To have this very important God-given ordinance of holy matrimony solemnized publicly in the church of Christ certainly seems right and proper for a Christian. Many of us will say it is a change for the better.

Amos Weaver went on to clarify that this change could only be positive if done with the utmost simplicity within the context of regular church worship. Any added frills would obscure the advantage of explicitly placing marriage vows in the midst of corporate worship. Weaver described the church wedding he would advocate:

We could have a church wedding with all of the advantages of the church’s sanction and blessing by including it in a regular church service without all the fanfare we now have. I believe all the truly spiritual values to be had in a church wedding for the bridal couple and for the brotherhood would be retained and enhanced by a simple marriage ceremony in connection with a regular Sunday morning or Sunday evening service. No dramatic arrangements staged for the bridal party to enter at timed intervals, and no tableau of specially gowned attendants would be necessary.6

It appears that for Weaver and his like-minded contemporaries, the primary issue at stake was simplicity, economy and non-conformity to worldly wedding practices. I wonder, however, if in addition to the exhortation to simplicity, a subtext running underneath conversations about changing wedding practices is the question of how marriage vows belong in the life and worship of the church. Perhaps unarticulated in the hesitation to shift weddings from semi-private events to full congregational occasions is concern about a fine line between elevating the romantic couple in the public eye and maintaining the simplicity of a community of Christian brothers and sisters.

My study of Mennonite home and church weddings leaves me with more questions than answers. For instance, is it possible to read the inclusion of marriage vows in congregational worship as potentially, very subtly, obscuring the Christian claim that it is our baptismal vows rather than our family ties that constitute our membership in the family of God? Alternatively, could such an inclusion be read as acknowledging the particularity of the marriage vow while placing it in the context of community instead of romanticizing the idea of an insular, self-containing couple? In a cultural moment in which marriage practices are changing, today Mennonites have the opportunity to again consider how to make marriage vows in a way that communications our convictions about human marriage and the family of God.

  1. Orville R. Stutzman, “Vital Statistics,” Gospel Herald 50 (Nov 12, 1957): 970. 
  2. Confession of Faith and Minister’s Manual (Elkhart In: Mennonite Publishing Company, 1890). 89. 
  3. Phebe Earle Gibbons, Pennsylvania Dutch and Other Essays (Philadelphia Pa: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1872), 28-31. 
  4. Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference (1835-1938), (Scottdale Pa: Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1939), 56, 109. 
  5. Ruben Brubaker, “Church Weddings,” Gospel Herald 37 (October 13, 1944): 557. 
  6. Amos W. Weaver, “Weddings,” Gospel Herald 49 (June 26, 1956): 622. 

Holding to the Jot and Tittle: Deaconesses in Virginia Conference

Anna Showalter

I grew up in a Mennonite community that did not recognize women in positions of church leadership.  As times changed, I assumed that my sisters and I were the first generation of women in our family to imagine that our calls to ministry might be affirmed and even ordained by the Mennonite Church.  Imagine my surprise when my dad discovered that my great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Shank Showalter, was ordained as a deaconess in 1889 to the Middle District of Virginia Conference!  As much as I celebrated the rediscovery of my deaconess matriarch, I also learned that church polity, influenced by a renewed zeal for doctrinal conformity, significantly confined the role of the deaconess, eventually making it obsolete.


Deaconess Elizabeth Shank Showalter

Deaconesses were an anomaly in the (Old) Mennonite Church except for in the Middle District of Virginia Conference, where around 28 women were ordained as deaconesses loosely between the years of 1861-1962.1  Deaconesses were appointed to assist ministers in providing for the pastoral care and physical needs of women and girls and to help facilitate services of baptism, communion and footwashing.2  The role of deaconess, at its best, offered women an outlet for meaningful (albeit modest) ministry in the church complete with public affirmation through ordination (of a kind).  However, as power consolidated around conferences and Bishops, Mennonites began emphasizing doctrinal and behavioral uniformity.  As a result, the role of deaconess was significantly curtailed to focus heavily on monitoring women’s dress and behavior.  

Mennonite historians have amply documented increases around the turn of the century in ordered organizational structures in conferences, which consolidated power to Bishops and enforced order in doctrine, dress, and congregational life.3  This institutionalization was part of an attempt to secure and clarify Mennonite identity so that it could withstand the challenges of a modern era.  Maintaining doctrinal and behavioral compliance was a struggle, however.  In 1919, the Middle District of Virginia Conference reported that out of its 700 members only 100 men and 175 women “conform to the regulations of the church.” Leadership addressed this problem, saying, “We need to redouble our energy.  We need to hold to the…jot and tittle and it is necessary to place more emphasis on this subject now since the world is against it.”4

The responsibility for holding women to the “jot and tittle” fell to deaconesses.  Their work increasingly consisted of “visiting women and girls, members of the church who were out of line in dress, morals and conduct.”5  Holding the line included ensuring that other women were dressed properly, particularly for communion and baptism, sewing suitable garments for converts in mission posts and “visiting” (a euphemism for correcting) those who did not comply.  

Some deaconesses fully embraced their role in holding the line. Deaconess Betty Keener believed wholeheartedly in the importance of the bonnet and plain dress.  A missionary with her husband in West Virginia from 1909-1912, she sought to bring the women there into compliance with Mennonite standards of dress.  She was appalled to learn that “fault had been found” in a convert who ceased to wear her bonnet because she didn’t feel comfortable being the only woman her community to do so.  The woman was seen in “one of those big straw hats and jewelry.” The sister in question “flew off the handle” when confronted and said, “ If you can’t carry me as I am, scratch my name off the book.”  Betty expressed her disappointment.  “How could she?  How can it be possible for her whom we thought consecrated to fall away so soon?  What has done it?”6  

Other deaconesses, however, had more empathy with the “transgressors” and felt the burden of enforcing standards.  Frances Suter Harman, daughter of deaconess Pearl Suter, recalled impressions of her mother’s ministry in the 1930s and 40s.  “The deaconesses of those later years often felt that their duties were becoming onerous, as they tried to hold the line with the rules for the dress of the women.  They did this for the bishops who felt they should not become involved in overseeing that the women and girls were dressed properly for baptism and communion.”7  Another daughter remembers feeling how much her mother worried about the task of visiting sisters who had fallen into sin—a task assigned by church leadership as hers to “deal with.”

By the 1940s and 50s, as the work of the deaconess became more “onerous,” fewer deaconesses were ordained, and finally in 1962 the Middle District Ministerial Council decided that the wives of ordained men would perform the duties of deaconess but without title or ordination.  In her study of Virginia Conference deaconesses, Ruth Lehman suggests that the ministry of deaconesses had “become so mundane that the vision of the possibilities for the office in the life and growth of the church were no longer seen.”8  Someone still needed to bake communion bread, wash out basins for foot washing and attend to women’s needs in the church, but the role of deaconess had become so confined to upholding discipline that there was no longer vision for a recognized ministry role for women in the church.   The ministerial council decided that pastors’ wives should take over these tasks.  Thus, church polity, with its solidifying institutions and insistence on doctrinal and behavioral uniformity, first curtailed the role of the deaconess before finally phasing it out.

Thus, church polity, with its solidifying institutions and insistence on doctrinal and behavioral uniformity, first curtailed the role of the deaconess before finally phasing it out.

The story of my deaconess great-great- great-grandmother was completely forgotten by my family until my dad stumbled across it while doing family research.  We are surprised that my grandpa, a knowledgeable Mennonite historian, never told us about it.  His cousin compiled the deaconess list at the archive so surely he would have seen it.  We will never know if Grandpa didn’t know about his deaconess great-grandmother or if he chose not to talk about it because of his opposition to women in leadership.  In any case, those of us who know about Elizabeth Showalter and the deaconesses of Virginia Conference have the opportunity to remember forgotten leaders of our past and to be aware of how church polity continues to affect marginal leaders in our own day.  

Today women serve in a variety of roles in Virginia Mennonite Conference and are ordained as pastors.  Concerns about holding to the “jot and tittle” no longer pertain to plain dress, but issues of authority, decision-making, compliance and discipline continue to affect leaders in minority positions.  Are negotiations between ministry on the margins and conference polity once again “onerous?”  The future of a viable ministry for leaders in minority positions may depend on the answer to that question.  

  1.  Ruth K. Lehman, “Deaconesses of the Middle District of Virginia Conference,” (class paper, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, 1989), 40-42. 
  2.  Lehman, 14. 
  3.  James C. Juhnke,  Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930, vol. 3: Mennonite Experience in America (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989), 119. 
  4. Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference (1835-1938), (Scottdale, Pa,  Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1939), 125. 
  5. Lehman, 14. 
  6.  Henry Brunk, History of Mennonites if Virginia 1900-1960, (Verona, VA. McClure Printing Company, Inc., 1972), 188. 
  7.  Lehman, 17. 
  8.  Lehman, 22.