Juanita Lark Building Dedication at Goshen College

Regina Shands Stoltzfus

On February 10, Goshen College officially renamed its Welcome Center to honor Juanita Lark, the college’s first African American graduate. The daughter of James and Rowena Lark, mission workers and influential church planters, Juanita Jewel Lark graduated in 1943. On the day of the dedication, members of the Lark family visited the campus, and Linda Lyons, a niece of Juanita Lark, shared stories of her aunt’s time at Goshen College.

James Lark was the first black minister ordained in the Mennonite Church, becoming a bishop in 1954. The Larks planted six churches and spent much of their time in the 1940s, 50s and 60s as consultants to Mission Boards, conferences and congregations regarding planting new churches in black and urban areas.

rowena-lark-rehoboth-campground-ca-1955

Born in 1888 in Savannah, Georgia, James Lark was baptized there at age sixteen in a Baptist church. He attended the Quaker Institute for College Youth in Cheney, Pennsylvania (now Cheney State College). James and Rowena married in 1918, and the couple had six children. In 1927 the family made their first contact with Mennonites when they moved to a farm near Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Members of the Rocky Ridge Mission Church invited the children to Sunday School; Rowena Lark also began to attend and eventually became a member. Later on her husband and three of their children became members. Rowena Lark later reflected:

“It was the literal fulfillment of scripture that caused me to join Rocky Ridge Mission. As I saw these faithful Christians coming eight or more miles from their homes and gathering up in their cars Italians, Poles, Dutch, American Negroes, and Germans, to take them to the house of the Lord, I was made to feel that here is a group of Christians who are really making their religion practical.”1

For Rowena Lark, Mennonites represented Christians who took their faith seriously; the evidence of this was the willingness to traverse racial and cultural boundaries to bring the word of God into the lives of all people and also meet their physical needs; the willingness to rub shoulders and share possessions. This was later reflected in the couple’s own ministry, when James Lark became the first African American Mennonite minister in 1944 with Rowena a capable partner in that work.

In February 1945, the Larks had become full time workers in Mennonite mission work in Chicago. They organized and presided over children’s activities, including boy’s club, girl’s chorus, and camp program. In 1949, the Larks purchased ten acres of land in rural Hopkins Park, Illinois for a Sunday School camp for children; in gratitude, Rowena named it “Rehoboth” after Genesis 22. This was the site that eventually became Rehoboth Mennonite Church.

The 1940s continued to be a relative swirl of activity concerning the convergence of African American and white Mennonite worlds in the midwest. The Voluntary Service unit that was established in Saginaw, Michigan eventually lead to the planting of Ninth Street Mennonite Church (now Ninth Street Community Church), and the Gladstone Mission was initiated in Cleveland. That mission led to the planting of the Lee Heights Community Church. Yet the Larks found themselves frequently impatient with the slow pace of white administrators who held the purse strings and made final decisions on various urban ministries. The work was urgent; as Rowena wrote to a friend – there was so much to be done. She also was sharp with those who would denigrate Black people and Black culture.  According to Leroy Bechler, Rowena Lark

“grieved and was not always patient with those who reflected an inflexible or critical spirit of the Black community or Black worship.  She was a woman ahead of her time – reading, studying – learning Spanish and going to Mexico to live for a number of months after she was 70 years old.”2

The Lark family legacy, realized in part by the naming of the Juanita Lark Welcome Center on the Goshen College campus, is an important reminder of this history of interracial partnership and the broadening nature of Mennonite identity, and an acknowledgement that this work continues into the present day.


  1. James and Rowena Lark Collection, Hist Mss 1-566, Box 1, Folder 4a, Bethel Mennonite Church (Chicago, Il) Mennonite Church USA Archives, Goshen, Indiana (MCA-G) 
  2. Urban Pioneers Interview, #2003-49, Box 1 Historical committee, Urban Pioneers Interview Project 2001-02. 

Faithfully Your Fellow Watchman

Joel Horst Nofziger

A collection recently donated to the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, included a diagram depicting “Goshen College and the Fruits Thereof.” It shows six main branches, with a plethora of fruit growing from them: worldliness, unsound literature, hypocrisies, disloyalty, unsound teachers, and modernism. In the bottom corner, a note—”Lest we Forget! JHM”1

Tree Diagram Modernism.jpg

(Bishop) John Heer Mosemann was heavily concerned with Modernism, which he saw as seducing the youth away from the Church and pointing to false spiritual answers elsewhere. In 1904 Mosemann was ordained a minister by Chestnut Street Mennonite Church, Lancaster Mennonite Conference, part of a new wave of leadership alongside Peter R. Nissley and John H. Shelly. In 1926 he became bishop of the Lancaster district, and was a well known as an evangelist and ardent conservative voice. He was strongly influenced by George R. Brunk and Brunk’s Mennonite Fundamentalism. Mosemann was involved in missions, education, publishing, and conference work.2

In a letter addressed “To my dear fellowbishops” dated March 2, 1929, Bishop John H. Mosemann justified his suspicions about “the brother working in our midst,” either Ernest E. Miller or George J. Lapp, both missionaries to India. After listing the suspicious involvements he states,3

Naturally the question arises how can he do these things? There are reasons for this which may find their explanation in the following items.

  1. He received his education in the former Modernistically corrupt Goshen College. He does not seem to have shaken much of this teaching off. [Formatting in original document]
  2. This Modernistic College intended to Liberalize and Modernize the entire Mennonite Church. For years they were wishing to have a faithful lieutenant in this County. They are seeking to Liberalize the Church every where and are succeeding rapidly as one faithful old pillar after another is passing away in the Church.
  3. They taught Modernistic doctrines. evolutionary ideas. World Betterment views. Against the “Faith of the Fathers.” They opposed the doctrine of the Plenary Verbal Inspiration of the Scriptures. They disbelieved in the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. They denied the efficacy of the blood of Christ and believed the self righteous doctrine of Salvation by Works – good character. In other words the delusive doctrine of Unitarianism.
  4. They were taught to al[m]ost worship Harry Emerson Fosdick the noted Modernist – veneered and polished Infidel as well as other present day Modernist’s. [sic.]
  5. They were taught to be rebellious to their Church leaders and to their Conferences.
  6. They were encouraged to return to their homes and revolutionize their Church and Community. A vivid example we have seen in the workings of Pre. Amos Geigly.
  7. Another aim they seem to have was to get their product in all manner of positions in the Church [. . . .] Some years ago it was easily seen that the Goshen element were seeking to control General Conference [. . .]
  8. It was the purpose to compel every prospective missionary to complete their education at Goshen College, which accounts for the large number of liberal missionaries now on the field. Thus every missionary would eventually become of the liberal type.

[. . .]

The Liberalists in the Dunkard Church have pushed this matter to the limit so that the conservatives are powerless to do a thing unless they wish to leave the Church. We are heading in the same direction but may be able to do something if it is done quickly, firmly, courageously and uncompromisingly. [. . .] If I am in error on any point I wish to beg pardon. However I must clear my skirts and therefore speak in plain terms.

Faithfully your fellow watchman

It should be noted that while Mosemann and others made numerous and loud accusations suspecting the India Mission in particular of “un-Christian activities,” no doctrinal deviation was ever proven.4

Today, Mosemann’s exhortation, “lest we forget,” is still true, but for reasons he might not recognize. Suspicions about Goshen College have mellowed. In some ways, the conflict within Mennonite churches over Modernism feels settled, though the results can be seen across the strata of Anabaptist groups existing today (the conflict within MC USA today over sexuality has clear antecedents in the same fight, with the method in which scripture is used being a clear indicator). And it can be easy to dismiss Mosemann as misguided in the same way he would have thrown out the Modernists from the Church, or write him off as a cautionary tale about being on the wrong side of history.

But John H. Mosemann was doing his best to live a faithful Christian life. When doing history, it is important to remember that the subjects of inquiry were real and are deserving of respect on the basis of their humanity. Perhaps we differ from Mosemann on how to live our faith today, or perhaps not, but we should not forget that he was trying his best to produce “good fruit.”


  1. John H. Mosemann, “Tree Diagram,” n.d.,Noah L. Landis Collection, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa. 
  2. John L. Ruth, The Earth Is the Lords (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001), 770-71, 881, 907; Mosemann, John H., “Moseman, John Heer (1877-1938)” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mosemann,John_Heer(1877-1938)
  3. John H. Mosemann  to “my dear fellowbishops,” March 2, 1929, Noah L. Landis Collection, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Lancaster, Pa. 
  4. John Allen Lapp, The Mennonite Church in India 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1972), 61.