Literary Societies

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Literary Societies, community organizations for the cultural, literary, and social development of their members, were a common feature of the North American cultural scene in the 19th century and after. They died out in the mid-20th century and were replaced by other community clubs, such as women's clubs, men's fellowship groups of various kinds, etc. They were introduced into American Mennonite life primarily as young people's clubs, first in academies and colleges and then in local congregations. Elkhart Institute founded in 1894, and its successor Goshen College had such societies until the 1950s, and they played a major role in student life. Eastern Mennonite College and Hesston College also had such societies.

Literary societies were common in Mennonite Church (MC) congregations from about 1920 on. One of the first was organized in the Yellow Creek-Holdeman congregation near Wakarusa, IN, about 1900, but it soon died out. The first permanent society was organized in the Forks Mennonite Church near Middlebury, IN in 1910 followed by one in the Middlebury congregation in 1912, and three more in 1913 at Elkhart, Nappanee, and Clinton Frame near Goshen. By 1924 a state convention of literary societies within the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference district was organized which met annually. The development in Ohio and Illinois was similar, state conventions also being organized. Later, with the organization of Mennonite Youth Fellowship (MYF) on a North American scale, with its emphasis on religious activity, the role of the literaries declined, and they were displaced by local MYF organizations. State MYF conventions also displaced the state literary conventions. Literary societies in Mennonite Church and Amish Mennonite communities also flourished in Ontario, though there was never a provincial-wide organization. As in the United States, these literaries were displaced by the Mennonite Youth Fellowship in the 1950s.

The literary societies furnished avenues for expression and social fellowship which often contributed much to personal growth and development through their monthly meetings in the homes of members. At times they lost some of their literary character and became largely social gatherings. In order to promote high quality of work and experience the Young People's Problems Committee of the Mennonite General Conference (MC) arranged the publication of the Young People's Literary Society Manual (Scottdale, 1934, 148 pp.), written by C. F. Yake. The Illinois state organization, the Mennonite Literary Society of Illinois, in 1925 began the publication of the The Literary Helper (Vol. 1, Sterling, IL, 17 pp.), designed to aid local societies in their work of organization and programs; only one number appeared. In 1937 Raymond Yoder, traveling secretary for the Indiana-Michigan Literary Convention, published a history of all Indiana literary societies under the title Indiana Literaries (pp. 184). Literary societies were apparently chiefly characteristic of the midwestern and Ontario Mennonite (MC) Church. Few similar organizations developed elsewhere in this group, and apparently none at all in other Mennonite branches, except in schools and colleges.

The General Conference Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren literary societies found their chief field of activity in the schools, particularly the colleges -- Bethel College, Tabor College, Freeman Junior College, Mennonite Collegiate Institute, Rosthern Junior College, Mennonite Brethren Bible College, and Canadian Mennonite Bible College.

At Bethel College there were in the earliest days a German Schiller-Verein and an English Platonian Society. During the seventh school year they were replaced by the Belles Letters Society, Germania Verein, the Juvenile Society, and the Parliamentary Law Club. The emphasis was placed on reading, writing of essays, and music. In the college papers many of the results of the societies were published. Tabor College and Freeman College had similar organizations. These societies also faded away by the mid-20th century.


H. P. Peters, History and Development of Education Among the Mennonites of Kansas. Hillsboro, KS, 1925.

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Cornelius Krahn
Date Published 1955

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Bender, Harold S. and Cornelius Krahn. "Literary Societies." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 21 Jul 2024.

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Bender, Harold S. and Cornelius Krahn. (1955). Literary Societies. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 353. All rights reserved.

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