Women's Missionary and Service Commission (Mennonite Church)

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1958 Article

The Women's Missionary and Service Auxiliary was an auxiliary organization of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (Mennonite Church), Elkhart, Indiana. It grew out of the sewing circle and women's missionary organizations which developed during the first half of the 20th century in the Mennonite Church congregations in the United States and Canada. As early as 1895 Mennonite women in eastern Pennsylvania were sewing garments for the poor. As a result of the work of Mary A. Mellinger in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the Paradise Sewing Circle was organized in 1897. The Associated Sewing Circles was organized in Lancaster County in 1911. As early as 1900 a Sisters' Sewing Circle was organized in the Science Ridge Mennonite Church, Sterling, Illinois. During that decade other circles were organized in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, and Ontario. As early as 1911 Mennonite (MC) women, under the leadership of Clara Eby Steiner (1873-1929) of Columbus Grove, Ohio, began to promote a general society of sewing circles. With the formation of a general organization, Mary Burkhard became its president, serving 1916-1923. She was followed by Mary Ann Cressman 1923-1930, Lina Z. Ressler 1930-1937, Cora Buzzard 1937-1944, Ruth B. Miller 1944-1950, and Minnie Graber 1950- . Clara Eby Steiner became the first secretary of the organization, serving 1916-1926, during which time she wrote many letters to promote sewing circles. A third pioneer was Ruth A. Yoder, who served as treasurer of the organization 1916-1929. Mary Ann Cressman, Crissie Y. Shank, Mary Ann Gerig, and Stella S. Kreider were additional members of the general committee in the 1920's. In 1917 the women's organization became churchwide, when general officers and branch secretaries to cover the entire church were elected, and in 1924 its permanent constitution was adopted. In her second annual newsletter, secretary Clara Eby Steiner reported that for the year ending 31 March 1919, thirteen branch secretaries had reported total receipts of $13,763.58. In addition they had reported 11,957 garments made and at the same time the Friends reported 27,189 garments given to them for war relief by Mennonite women. By March 1920 the organization had 13 branches, 124 circles, and 2,262 members.

Beginning in 1922 the organization operated under the name Mennonite Women's Missionary Society. Because of a lack of good coordination between this society and the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, in 1928 the Board accepted a report providing for a "Woman's Mission Committee" to operate under the Mission Board. In its printed constitution of 1933 the name adopted for the committee was "The General Sewing Circle Committee of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities." Misunderstandings arose during this time of the transition of the women's society from an independent status to one of dependency on the Mission Board, and consequently for a time the membership in the new organization was less than half of what it had been in the former society. Eventually membership in the new organization surpassed the highest membership obtained by the old and was widely accepted. The WMSA met annually in connection with the annual meeting of the Mission Board.

In 1947 the committee was again reorganized, its name was changed to Women's Missionary Sewing Circle Organization, and from that time it was regarded as an "auxiliary of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities." In January 1954 its first full-time secretary was appointed. With the rapid growth of the organization and the extension of its activities into areas beyond sewing, the name was changed to Women's Missionary and Service Auxiliary in its 1955 annual meeting. President Minnie Graber reported, "We strive toward the vision of concerting the efforts of every Mennonite woman and girl to the total program of the Mennonite Church so that wherever the church is found, in city or country, at home or abroad, in charitable or educational institutions, in community efforts, in relief to the ends of the world, there we may be found enhancing the attractiveness of the Gospel and giving expression to the love of Jesus."

The 1958 secretary's report listed 826 auxiliaries or local units, of which 236 were girls' auxiliaries, with a total membership of 15,690. Cash receipts during the year totaled over $175,000 and other contributions amounted to a value of more than $121,000. More than 71,000 garments were received besides large amounts of bedding and linens, baby garments, Christmas bundles, and other material aid gifts. Between the local groups and the general organization were the district organizations through which the national officers worked. Emphasis was given to women's fellowship meetings, in which mission and home interests were discussed and prayers offered for the work of the church. A literature secretary was responsible for producing the Daily Prayer Guide (1951- ), of which 12,000 copies were printed for 1958, and the WMSA Monthly (begun in 1930 as Missionary Sewing Circle Letters), which had a circulation of 11,800. A suggested reading list (twelve books) in flyer form was printed and distributed in 1957. The general committee had begun work on A Handbook for the use of its local and district officers. The executive secretary carried out the assignments of the general committee, prepared the Program Guide for the use of the local auxiliaries, prepared publicity, and informed the auxiliaries of the mission needs of the church. A secretary of home and special interests promoted prayer fellowships, homemakers' organizations, and mission study groups. The secretary of girls' activities promoted girls' missionary and service auxiliaries, supplied materials for a page on "With Our Girls" in the Monthly, and served as assistant Junior Activities Secretary on the Commission for Christian Education. -- MG

1989 Update

The Women’s Missionary and Service Commission was a churchwide organization with a special interest in women’s and girls’ activities in the church. It was recognized for its many years of significant ministry as a mission and service agency of the church. It sought to involve the women and the girls in the church through its conference and congregational organizations and activities. In the Mennonite Church reorganization in 1971, the Women’s Missionary and Service commission (WMSC, formerly Women’s Missionary and Service Auxiliary) was placed in an adjunct relationship with the newly formed Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries.

Executive secretaries to the 1980s included Beulah Kauffman, Barbara (Bender) Reber (1978-1988), and Marian Hostetler (1988-). Velorus (Gingrich) Shearer of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania served as editor of the monthly publication, Voice, after 1978, replacing Lois Gunden Clemens (1960-1978). During the 1980s a concerted effort was made to involve women in business and the professions as well as homemakers. In 1979 a committee composed of Alice (Weber) Lapp, Jocele (Thut) Meyer, Emma (Sommers) Richards, Barbara K. (Bender) Reber (chairperson), and Leonard Gross (consultant) was formed to begin writing the history of Mennonite Church (MC) women. Mennonite Women 1683-1983: A Story of God's Faithfulness, ed. by Elaine (Sommers) Rich, was released in the spring of 1983.

In 1983 the Bylaws Revision Task Force presented to the General Assembly (MC) recommendations for some structure changes. This was approved on 5 August 1983 at the Bethlehem, PA, General Assembly. This placed the WMSC as an Associate Group in the Mennonite Church. The General Assembly’s constitution permitted special interest groups to request recognition by the General Board as associate groups, with their guidelines subject to approval by the General Board. Such associate groups continued to maintain primary relationships in the regional conferences. Organizations which qualified as associate groups appointed up to six delegates to the General Assembly and members to the General Board.     

The Women’s Missionary and Service Commission merged with Women in Mission (General Conference Mennonite Church) in 1997 to form Mennonite Women. Following the realignment of the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Church (MC) and the Conference of Mennonites in Canada into Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, Mennonite Women USA formed in 2003. It worked in partnership with its Canadian sister organization, Canadian Women in Mission, to produce print resources. -- BKR


Klingelsmith, Sharon. "Women in the Mennonite Church, 1900-1930." Mennonite Quarterly Review 54 (July 1980): 163-207.

Rich, Elaine Sommers. Mennonite women : a story of God's faithfulness, 1683-1983. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983.

Author(s) Melvin Gingerich
Barbara K. Reber
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Gingerich, Melvin and Barbara K. Reber. "Women's Missionary and Service Commission (Mennonite Church)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 Jun 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Women%27s_Missionary_and_Service_Commission_(Mennonite_Church)&oldid=143794.

APA style

Gingerich, Melvin and Barbara K. Reber. (1989). Women's Missionary and Service Commission (Mennonite Church). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Women%27s_Missionary_and_Service_Commission_(Mennonite_Church)&oldid=143794.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 975-976, v. 5, p. 935. All rights reserved.

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