Bluffton, Ohio, was a village of 2,000 inhabitants in 1948 (3,896 in 2000), located in the northeastern corner of Allen County. It was surveyed in 1837 under the original name of Shannon, but in 1872 the name was changed to Bluffton. It is the home of Bluffton University, the First Mennonite Church, the Evangelical Mennonite Church, and the Bluffton Community Hospital, which was originally organized by the Mennonite churches of this community, but later turned over to the town and general public.
Between Bluffton on the eastern edge, and Pandora, in Putnam County, seven miles (11 km) northwest of Bluffton, was located in the 1950s the solid Mennonite Swiss community of some 2,000 members of four congregations of the General Conference Mennonite Church, one Reformed Mennonite, and one Evangelical Mennonite, the latter formerly called Defenceless Mennonite—all of Swiss extraction.
The pioneer Swiss settlers in this community were Michael Neuenschwander and family, who came here from near Belfort, France, just across from the Swiss border, by way of Wayne County, Ohio; and in 1833 located on an unimproved timber farm, several miles northwest of the present village of Bluffton. Neuenschwander was followed the next two years by other Swiss, some by way of Wayne and Holmes counties, and others directly from Switzerland and from France just across the Swiss border. These were Christian Bücher, Christian Suter, John Moser, Ursus Amstutz, John, Christ, and Ulrich Boesiger, John Luginbuhl, and Christian Steiner. During the next 20 years, from the same Swiss and French regions, and from the Swiss settlement in Wayne County, new arrivals continued to augment this pioneer settlement with such names (in their modern anglicized spelling) as Amstutz, Althaus, Burkholder, Bixel, Basinger, Diller, Gerber, Gratz, Geiger, Hilty, Hofstettler, Lugibill, Lehman, Locher, Moser, Niswander, Schumaker, Schneck, Sommer, Suter, Steiner, Welty, Zuercher, etc.
The first minister in the new settlement was Christian Steiner, an ordained minister from near Belfort, France, who, arriving here in 1835, was invited to serve as minister, and began to hold services in the homes of the settlers. Complete congregational organization, however, was apparently not effected until two years later, when Christian Suter was selected as an additional minister and Christian Basinger as deacon. As the congregation grew, and as the older ministers died, new ministers and elders were selected from the home congregation by lot, to replace the old and serve the spiritual needs of the growing community. An outstanding elder, who served the congregation during the whole of the latter half of the century, was John Moser, who was born in Wayne County, but arriving here in 1852, was elected minister the next year, 1853, a year long remembered as the year of the typhoid epidemic, when 30 members died of that disease. Moser was elected elder in 1864, and served faithfully in that capacity until his death in 1908. He was the last of the old guard, a prosperous farmer, with no special preparation for his ministerial calling, selected by lot, and unsalaried. During this long period of service he saw many of the old traditions and practices changed to the newer methods more suited to the spirit of modern times—the introduction of Sunday schools, evangelistic meetings, an educated and salaried ministry, the passing of the German language as the sole language of worship, and the sponsoring of a college. (He laid the cornerstone of Central Mennonite College in 1901.) To his credit be it said that during all these changes he guided the course of the church, amid many differences among the members, without a serious break in the solidarity of the congregation. Moser was assisted in his later years, and followed as elder, by J. B. Baer, 1903-1909, the well-known traveling evangelist for a time for the General Conference Mennonites; and by William Gottschall, 1909-1923, the last pastor of the united congregation, before the separation into the four congregations now existing.
For the first few years worship was held in the homes of the members, but by 1840 there was a demand for a meetinghouse, which was built of logs, in the midst of the settlement, several miles northwest of Bluffton, in what is now Putnam County. This building was enlarged several times later, the last time in 1876, when it was known, because it was painted white, as the "Old White Church." In the meantime as the settlement moved toward the south, the members in that region desired a second meetinghouse for that area, which was built near the present Ebenezer Church, in 1846. This building, too, was rebuilt several times, and is now known as the Ebenezer Church. In 1888 a large brick building was erected several miles north of the Old White Church, now called the St. Johns Church, replacing the former.
By 1900 a number of the members from the country had moved into the two villages of Bluffton and Pandora, and demanding first, separate Sunday-school services, and, later, special worship service, finally built separate church buildings, Pandora in 1905, and Bluffton in 1906. The Pandora church, known as the Grace Church, formed an independent organization at this time, but the Bluffton church, known as the First Mennonite Church, remained a part of the main congregation until 1918, when it, too, became independent. When the St. Johns congregation also formed a separate organization in 1923, what had once been a single compact congregation now had separated into four, each with its own pastor and constitution—Grace, First Mennonite, St. Johns, Ebenezer.
This large Swiss church was not without its internal difficulties during the early years. Numerous outside influences frequently attempted to break the solidarity of the church with special religious practices and controversial ideas. In 1844 the followers of John Herr of Pennsylvania, the Reformed Mennonites, gained a few followers, who formed a new organization some years later and finally built a meetinghouse in 1876 near the Old White Church. In 1846 John Thut, who had arrived as a minister from the (old) Mennonites in Holmes County, after unsuccessfully attempting to introduce feetwashing in connection with the communion services against the wishes of the other ministers, withdrew, and with a few followers organized a separate congregation, affiliating with the (old) Mennonites, under the name of the Zion congregation. The church usually went by the name of the American Mennonites locally, no doubt, to distinguish them from the large Swiss group, though the Zion group was composed largely of the same Swiss ancestry as the others. They erected a church building five miles (eight km) west of Bluffton in 1857. The congregation was dissolved in 1925, and most of the remaining members joined the First Mennonite Church in Bluffton.
A little later, in 1884, Abraham Steiner, a minister in the Zion Church, because of some differences with other members, invited Henry Egly, the founder in Indiana some years before of what was known for a time as the Egly Church, to hold a series of meetings in near-by schoolhouses. Egly, who stressed especially a more emotional and evangelistic type of religious life than that practiced by either the Zion or Swiss congregations at the time, secured a number of followers from both groups, and organized what was known as the Defenceless Church, with a meetinghouse built in 1886 between the St. Johns and the Reformed Mennonite churches. This meetinghouse was removed to Bluffton where the congregation now worships. The name was changed from Defenceless Mennonite to Evangelical Mennonite.
Some time later the Missionary Church Association found entrance into the membership of the Defenceless Church, and occasionally gained a few scattered members from the other churches. They had congregations in the 1950s both in Pandora and Bluffton. These defections were not large numerically and did not greatly influence the course of church activities of the main Swiss body.
These Swiss Mennonites, coming as they did largely from the small farms in the foothills or the plateau of the Jura Mountains in Switzerland and the near-by Alsatian region just across the border, brought with them and retained here the traditional religious practices and social customs of the Mennonite small farmer in the homeland. Life here at first was not easy. The timber on their small farms had to be cleared, markets were far away, and conveniences were few. Their religious life was equally simple. Their ministers were chosen by lot from the laity, without special preparation or education except that received by a few month's attendance in the winter in the little log schoolhouse in the neighborhood, and they served without salary. Religious worship was inclined to be formal and lengthy. The long prayers, the lengthy hymns from the old hymnal led by a Vorsänger in a slow tempo, the sermon, and the testimony of all the ministers and deacons present as to the soundness of the truth as delivered by the preacher of the day, all this took several hours of time. Discipline was strict. Excommunication for the breaking of the moral law or church regulations was not uncommon. Among the violations thus punishable were moral lapses, outside marriage, membership in a secret society, and others. Avoidance and feetwashing, however, two controversial practices which were the source of a great deal of trouble all through Mennonite history, were not practiced by the church. Throughout the Civil War and up to World War I in 1917, they remained consistently nonresistant, both in theory and practice. The language of the pulpit remained German well into the beginning of the 20th century, though English was used exclusively by mid-century. But the Swiss dialect was still commonly heard on the streets of Pandora and Bluffton in everyday conversation by the middle-aged and older men and women.
With the exception of the social contacts and interchange of ministerial visits with their fellow Swiss communities in Wayne County, and Berne, Indiana, the local Swiss church remained independent of any other church affiliations until well toward the close of the century. Changes were gradually taking place, however. Sunday schools were introduced in the late seventies. In 1893 the congregation entertained the session of the General Conference Mennonite Church, at which time it joined that conference. Members were moving to town. Both J. B. Baer and Gotschall were men of special training. Young people's meetings were introduced and mission interest stimulated. Young men were beginning to go to college and enter various professions, though few of these ever returned either to the church or home community. In 1900 this congregation together with the other congregations of the Middle District joined in the founding of Central Mennonite College. In the 1950s the four congregations which grew out of this original settlement were among the more progressive members of the General Conference. From this community went out in the first half of the 20th century more than two score of missionaries, over a score of ministers serving in other fields of service, a number of doctors and lawyers, businessmen, high school teachers, college professors, and a number of leaders in political life, including several judges, one congressman, and one United States senator, the latter of whom lay buried in the Ebenezer cemetery. Not all of these were, of course, members of the Mennonite church. The following Mennonite congregations were found in 1953 in this community: General Conference—Ebenezer, 507; St. Johns, 230; Grace, 442; First Mennonite, 523; Reformed Mennonite, 50; and Evangelical Mennonite (Defenceless), 54.
Hirschler, E. J. A brief history of the Swiss Mennonite churches of Putnam and Allen counties, Ohio : written for the centenary of the origin of the Swiss Mennonite churches held on July 4, 1937 at Bluffton, Ohio. [Bluffton, Ohio: General Centenary Committee of the Swiss Mennonite Churches of Putnam and Allen Counties, Ohio], 1937.
Gratz, Delbert L. Bernese Anabaptists and their American descendants. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1953. Reprinted Elverson, PA : Old Springfield Shoppe, 1994.
|Author(s)||C. Henry Smith|
 Cite This Article
Smith, C. Henry. "Bluffton (Ohio, USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 22 Dec 2014. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Bluffton_(Ohio,_USA)&oldid=75755.
Smith, C. Henry. (1953). Bluffton (Ohio, USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 December 2014, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Bluffton_(Ohio,_USA)&oldid=75755.
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