Celebrating Swiss Mennonites


By Greg Hoersten - For The Lima News



The Swiss Mennonites of the Bluffton and Pandora areas are celebrating the 175th anniversary of the building of their first church, pictured here.

The Swiss Mennonites of the Bluffton and Pandora areas are celebrating the 175th anniversary of the building of their first church, pictured here.


Allen County Historical Society photos

The interior of the first church was extremely plain, with simple benches. The sexes were separated.

The interior of the first church was extremely plain, with simple benches. The sexes were separated.


Allen County Historical Society photos

Ebenezer Church was built in 1869. It and St. John Church served the same congregation.


Allen County Historical Society photos

Sam Hochstettler poses for a photo with his wife with grandchildren. The photo was taken by Herman Kindle.


Swiss Community Historical Society photos

First row, Ed Miller and Sam Amstutz. Back row, Wilber Wenger and Christ Amstutz. They are posing for a photo in 1907 with cylinder records.


Swiss Community Historical Society photos

Sunday’s celebration of the Swiss Mennonite 175th anniversary will take place at the site of the original church building, near 17876 County Road 4, Pandora, and at Ebenezer Mennonite Church, 8905 Columbus Grove Road, Bluffton.

Among the planned events: From 3 to 6 p.m. at Ebenezer church, there will be an exhibit focused on Bibles, prayer books and hymn books, including a Froschauer Bible. Each of the four churches — Ebenezer, St. John, Central and Grace — will have exhibits at the site of the original church where tents will be set up. Also at that site, professors Gerald Mast and Perry Bush, both of Bluffton University, will give talks as will preacher Myron Augsburger. From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., a traditional Swiss meal of homemade sausage and sauerkraut, potatoes and pie will be served with a suggested donation of $7. From 7 to 8 p.m. Augsburger will lead a worship service.

The event, which is sponsored by the Swiss Community Historical Society and the four Swiss Mennonite churches, is open to the public. In case of inclement weather, all events will take place at the Ebenezer Mennonite Church.

BLUFFTON — The Swiss Mennonites who settled in the Bluffton and Pandora area in the 1830s were a hardy group. They had to be.

The land they settled — heavily forested and with the Great Black Swamp looming to the north — required back-breaking labor to clear and cultivate. Raccoons and squirrels preyed on their crops, wolves preyed on their livestock and mosquitoes preyed on them.

On Sundays they went to the church, and that was no picnic either.

“The benches were made from the first slabs sawn from a log, so they were round below and flat on top,” P.B. Amstutz wrote in a 1925 history of the Mennonite settlement. “There were no backs on the benches to allow one to sit more comfortably, or to lean forward, to bow one’s head and give the sandman an opportunity to do his work” during the lengthy services.

This Sunday, the Swiss Mennonites mark the 175th anniversary of the construction of that log church on North Phillips Road.

Hardship was not new to the Swiss Mennonites. From the beginning, the group was persecuted and pushed around. According to the 1937 “Centenary History of the Swiss Mennonites of Putnam and Allen Counties, Ohio,” the group descends from “the Anabaptists of Switzerland, in particular those of the Emmenthal of the Bernese Oberland.”

This group split with the Swiss Reformed church when it allied with the state. “In 1525,” according to the centenary history, “they established independent congregations known as the Old Evangelistic Baptist-minded churches …” But because they rejected infant baptism in favor of believer’s baptism later in life they were called Anabaptists, from Latin for one who is baptized again.

According to the centenary history, “the power of the Swiss cantons was at once against them. Some of them suffered martyrdom by beheading or drowning, others were sold to the Venetian government as galley slaves, but a large majority was banished from their native land.”

Many found refuge in the Rhenish-Palatinate in Germany as well as in the Alsace region of France and in Holland. As early as the 1780s, Anabaptists began immigrating to Pennsylvania. In 1816, Delbert Gratz wrote in his 1953 work titled “Migration of Bernese Anabaptists to America in the Nineteenth Century,” the first Bernese Anabaptist came to America. “The number leaving continued to increase until 1830, when it reached its high point. Other periods seeing considerable Anabaptist migration were the 1850s after the failure to be allowed military exemption and again in the 1870s when compulsory military training was actually carried through.”

It was only in America that the Anabaptists came to be called Mennonites, according to Gerald J. Mast, professor of communication at Bluffton University. Menno Simons was an influential Dutch Anabaptist whose writings were translated into German and read by the Swiss Anabaptists. Simons had a strong influence on the Swiss Anabaptists, Mast said.

Many of the Swiss Mennonites “undertook a long and tedious journey by wagon and ship to the American frontier among the forests of Wayne County, Ohio,” the centenary history notes. As these congregations grew and available land became scarcer “some of their members were looking for cheaper lands farther west.” Often, Mast said, the lands the Swiss Mennonites settled had been vacated by Indians who had been forced west of the Mississippi by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Among the Swiss Mennonites headed west was Michael Neuenschwander, who in 1833 became the first to arrive in this area, settling along Riley Creek in what was then part of Putnam County. “The first thing he did was to build a hut from branches and leaves, and it only was waterproof when it did not rain,” Amstutz wrote. Eventually Neuenschwander built a cabin and began clearing the land.

“But the troublesome stumps and roots remained, and one labored hard to loosen and work the soil to plant seeds,” Amstutz continued. Once the crop was in, four-legged trouble emerged from the surrounding forest. “The raccoon came at night and had a good meal of corn, whereas the squirrels, which numbered in the hundreds, caused many a kernel of wheat not to get to the mill. The wolf also often was an uninvited guest and was feared especially in the winter. Little pigs or lambs were a treat for a hungry wolf.”

Despite the difficulties, Neuenschwander soon had company. “In the fall of the year 1834,” according to the centenary history, “Christian Bucher, Christian Suter, John Moser and Ursus Amstutz also arrived from Wayne and Holmes counties and settled near Riley Creek. In the spring of 1835, the brothers John, Christian and Ulrich Boesiger and John Lugibuhl came from Alsace.” In the fall of 1835, Christian Steiner, the group’s first minister, arrived from Europe.

“During the first few years services were held in houses, barns and on nice days under the arms of some protecting tree,” Gratz wrote. “In 1840 the first log church was erected two miles north and two miles west of the present village of Bluffton. This was also used for school purposes and in 1857 was enlarged and changed into a frame building.” This church, by now known as the Old White Church, was on North Phillips Road which, along with County Road 4 in Putnam County, is the heartland of the Swiss-Mennonite community.

The 30-by-40 foot church had doors on the east and west sides, Amstutz wrote, explaining that the men entered and sat on the east side while women entered and sat on the west. “The church services were well attended; only illness and accidents kept anyone away. Regardless of the weather, when it was time to go to church, one got ready and went.”

In 1846, a second meeting house, known as the Bucher Church, was constructed south of the Old White Church. In the days when travel could be difficult, the Swiss Mennonites used both churches. “If you happened to be at the southern edge of the settlement, or at the northern edge, it was convenient at least one Sunday a month — because initially they met every other Sunday — to have a service close to your house,” Mast explained. “So that started the pattern of having two different meeting locations for the same congregation.”

The Bucher Church was replaced in 1869 by the Ebenezer Church which was constructed across the road. Twenty years later, St. John Mennonite Church was built two miles to the north of the Old White Church. Ebenezer and St. John, both of which survive today, served the same congregation. Between them, a marker shows where the Old White Church stood.

In 1893, the Swiss Mennonites affiliated with the Central Conference of the Mennonite Church and, in 1899, the conference opened Central Mennonite College. In 1913, the college became known as Bluffton College. Today it’s Bluffton University.

The college, Mast said, was a sign of the emergence of a professional class among the Swiss Mennonites in the late 19th century. More and more Swiss Mennonites, who had been a mostly rural people, were living in town. Reflecting that shift, Grace Mennonite Church was built in Pandora in 1905, while Central Mennonite Church opened in Bluffton the following year.

Today, the four congregations that arose out of the Swiss-Mennonite congregations number about 1,200, according to Mast.

The Swiss Mennonites of the Bluffton and Pandora areas are celebrating the 175th anniversary of the building of their first church, pictured here.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2015/08/web1_1st-church.jpgThe Swiss Mennonites of the Bluffton and Pandora areas are celebrating the 175th anniversary of the building of their first church, pictured here. Allen County Historical Society photos
The interior of the first church was extremely plain, with simple benches. The sexes were separated.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2015/08/web1_Interior-1st.jpgThe interior of the first church was extremely plain, with simple benches. The sexes were separated. Allen County Historical Society photos
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2015/08/web1_logo.jpgAllen County Historical Society photos
Ebenezer Church was built in 1869. It and St. John Church served the same congregation.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2015/08/web1_Ebenezer-orig.jpgEbenezer Church was built in 1869. It and St. John Church served the same congregation. Allen County Historical Society photos
Sam Hochstettler poses for a photo with his wife with grandchildren. The photo was taken by Herman Kindle.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2015/08/web1_IMG_20150804_144326.jpgSam Hochstettler poses for a photo with his wife with grandchildren. The photo was taken by Herman Kindle. Swiss Community Historical Society photos
First row, Ed Miller and Sam Amstutz. Back row, Wilber Wenger and Christ Amstutz. They are posing for a photo in 1907 with cylinder records.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2015/08/web1_IMG_20150804_145306.jpgFirst row, Ed Miller and Sam Amstutz. Back row, Wilber Wenger and Christ Amstutz. They are posing for a photo in 1907 with cylinder records. Swiss Community Historical Society photos

By Greg Hoersten

For The Lima News

Sunday’s celebration of the Swiss Mennonite 175th anniversary will take place at the site of the original church building, near 17876 County Road 4, Pandora, and at Ebenezer Mennonite Church, 8905 Columbus Grove Road, Bluffton.

Among the planned events: From 3 to 6 p.m. at Ebenezer church, there will be an exhibit focused on Bibles, prayer books and hymn books, including a Froschauer Bible. Each of the four churches — Ebenezer, St. John, Central and Grace — will have exhibits at the site of the original church where tents will be set up. Also at that site, professors Gerald Mast and Perry Bush, both of Bluffton University, will give talks as will preacher Myron Augsburger. From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., a traditional Swiss meal of homemade sausage and sauerkraut, potatoes and pie will be served with a suggested donation of $7. From 7 to 8 p.m. Augsburger will lead a worship service.

The event, which is sponsored by the Swiss Community Historical Society and the four Swiss Mennonite churches, is open to the public. In case of inclement weather, all events will take place at the Ebenezer Mennonite Church.

Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]

Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]

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