Wadsworth Mennonite School (Wadsworth, Ohio, USA)

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The Wadsworth Mennonite School, or simply the Wadsworth Institute, was the common designation in English for an institution which operated from 2 January 1868 until 31 December 1878 at Wadsworth, Ohio, and which was officially the Christliche Bildungs-Anstalt der Mennoniten Gemeinschaft. This was one of the very first attempts of the Mennonites in higher education, preceded only by the seminary in Amsterdam, started in 1735, and contemporary with the Weierhof (German) institution of 1867 and certain normal schools of the Mennonites in Russia. It grew out of the movement for union among Mennonites in America which resulted in the General Conference Mennonite Church organized in 1860. In this connection more adequate training was felt necessary for ministers and church workers. A program of systematic explanation and solicitation was inaugurated with the result that the General Conference was able to authorize the school in 1863 and complete the building for dedication in 1866. The school as planned was to provide three years of instruction primarily in Biblical subjects and largely in the German language. Carl Justus van der Smissen, a university-trained Mennonite pastor in Germany, was induced to undertake pioneering service in the school and arrived in December 1868. In the meantime the school had been started under temporary supervision of Christian Schowalter with an assistant teacher and 24 students.

The program at Wadsworth was a combination of study and work. Rising at five o'clock and washing was followed by cleaning rooms, with morning devotions and breakfast at 7:30. The morning was given to study and instruction and the afternoon to work, each student being assigned projects in the yard, garden, or field. Supper at six was preceded by an hour of study and followed by another study period, with devotions again at nine. The school bulletin for 1876 listed a faculty of seven persons and three departments of instruction with courses as follows: Theological Department — Biblical History, Bible Knowledge, Exegesis, Doctrine Symbolics, Church History, History of the Bible, Catechism Instruction, Homiletics; German Department — Reading, Writing, Grammar, Spelling, Composition; English Department — Reading, Writing, Orthography, Grammar, Geography, Natural Philosophy, Logic, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and any of the branches usually taught in academies and colleges.

The influence of the van der Smissen family in the Wadsworth school was strongly felt. The father, mother, and two daughters were from a European culture with a background of books, music, and wealth, yet withal deeply spiritual and keenly interested in mission work, evangelism, and young people. They exerted a deep influence on the young men from the rougher American communities. Yet, because of conditions inherent in the situation, difficulties began to arise early in the life of the school. Friction developed within the faculty between those of European and American culture; misunderstandings arose between the supporting constituency of the East and West; and enrollment decreased. Debts were incurred and the total indebtedness increased year by year, amounting in 1876 to over $9,000.00. In 1877 a serious attempt was made to erase the indebtedness and eliminate friction. The school was divided into two separate departments, German and English; the former was the theological work under the German teacher, and the latter the English and normal school work under the English teacher. Women also were allowed to enroll. The number of theological students increased to 16 while the normal school operated profitably with 30 or more students, and after 1878 was called the "Excelsior Normal School." Better feeling resulted in these two years and the indebtedness was reduced, but it was apparently too late. The General Conference in 1878 was thoroughly discouraged. A special committee found the double arrangement of the school unsatisfactory and the location unsuited for a school in which the German language dominated. The theological department consequently was closed in December 1878, and the normal school department, which operated independently, closed in May 1879. The total enrollment for the first nine years was 310, or an average yearly attendance of 34. Some 209 different persons attended the school, of whom not less than 130 were from Mennonite families.

The Wadsworth school made significant contributions to the church in spite of its relatively brief period of existence. It promoted unification by challenging the congregations to work together and by developing friendships between students from widely separated areas. It showed, in spite of opposition, that higher education was not incompatible with humility and evangelical zeal. It developed over the decade a generation of trained ministers who in general marked the beginning of the change from the lay ministry to the trained ministry. It promoted certain forms of evangelical work which introduced a new spirit in many of the churches. This is particularly true in the cause of missions, which was deeply woven into the Wadsworth program. Though the school was closed it confirmed the sentiment for education and blazed the way for the institutions of the next century.


Christliche Bildungs-Anstalt der Mennoniten Gemeinschaft, Wadsworth, Ohio. Cleveland, Ohio: Verlagshaus der Evangelischen Gemeinschaft, [1875?].

Hartzler, J. E. Education Among the Mennonites of America. Danvers, Illinois, 1925.

Krehbiel, H. P. The history of the General Conference of the Mennonites of North America. [Canton, Ohio]: Published by the author, 1898-1938. 2 vols.

Kreider, Anna. "Beginning of Theological Training Among the Mennonites of America." Mennonite Life 14 (April 1959).

Smissen, Hillegonda van der. Sketches from My Life. Newton, KS: Bethel Deaconess Hospital, [1934?].

Verhandlungen der Allgemeinen Konferenz der Mennoniten . . . Erste bis Elfte Sitzungen. Berne, IN.

Records of the school at Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College (North Newton, KS)

Author(s) S. F Pannabecker
Date Published 1959

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MLA style

Pannabecker, S. F. "Wadsworth Mennonite School (Wadsworth, Ohio, USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 4 Aug 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Wadsworth_Mennonite_School_(Wadsworth,_Ohio,_USA)&oldid=134323.

APA style

Pannabecker, S. F. (1959). Wadsworth Mennonite School (Wadsworth, Ohio, USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 4 August 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Wadsworth_Mennonite_School_(Wadsworth,_Ohio,_USA)&oldid=134323.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 866-867. All rights reserved.

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