Woodlawn Mennonite Church (Chicago, Illinois, USA)

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Vincent and Rosemarie Harding.
Source: Mennonite Historical Bulletin

The Woodlawn Mennonite Church had its roots in Vesper Services held at the new Mennonite Biblical Seminary (MBS) in Chicago, Illinois, in February 1947. Initially, services occurred bimonthly. By fall, they took place biweekly on Sunday afternoons in the adjacent Kenwood New Church, a Swedenborgian congregation. The first half of the afternoon consisted of a worship service, including hymn singing, scripture, prayer, and an anthem by the seminary choir directed by Marvin Dirks. The second part of the service was an address on a topic of interest to Mennonite people.

In the summer of 1948, the Seminary organized a Sunday school because of the increasing number of children in the MBS community. It also began to consider establishing a church. By 1949, the MBS community included almost 100 persons. The Woodlawn Mennonite Church was formally organized on 28 January 1951 with 53 charter members. Later that year, the seminary purchased the Kenwood New Church when that congregation relocated. It took possession of the building in February 1952 and began to worship on Sunday mornings.

These years saw many African Americans moving into the community. Indeed, between 1940 and 1955, the four blocks around the seminary changed from 98% Caucasian to 98% African American. A Woodlawn Sunday school photo from 1954 shows that over half of the church's children were African American. Woodlawn thus became an early effort at a Mennonite inter-racial church. This change occurred as Mennonite Biblical Seminary planned to move from Chicago to a new campus in Elkhart, Indiana. The General Conference Mennonite Church's Board of Missions did decide the Woodlawn church should continue after the departure of the Seminary. A Voluntary Service unit continued in the Woodlawn area.

A bolt of lightning struck the church on 22 July 1960. Bricks and stones fell from the top of the church tower to the ground. One piece of masonry weighing between 100 and 150 pounds cracked a step in the entrance as it fell from the 40-foot tower.

In the 1960s, the Woodlawn church became actively engaged in the civil rights movement. For a number of years, it ran a bookstore and coffee shop called "The Quiet Place." Warren Moore and Ed Riddick, both associated with Woodlawn, were arrested in the Selma-Montgomery march in 1965. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the church on one occasion, and Woodlawn became a training center for civil rights activity.

Curtis Burrell, a summer associate pastor in 1965 and one of the congregation's pastors beginning in 1966, worked with the Blackstone Rangers gang that dominated the community. A controversy between Burrell and the Black Stone P. Nation (as it was later called) culminated in 1970 with arson at the Woodlawn church and threats on Burrell's life. Jesse Jackson preached at an outdoor service the Sunday after the fire.

The aftermath of the fire led to increasing tensions within the Woodlawn congregation and between Curtis Burrell and the Central District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church. The church building remained boarded up until it was sold in 1972 to the South Side Missionary Baptist Church. The Central District stopped Burrell's salary in August 1971, after which Burrell started a group called the First Church of Man, which met in his home. The denomination regarded the Woodlawn Mennonite Church as closed on 18 April 1972.

The Woodlawn experiment in an interracial church did not survive the tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s, but the many young Mennonite people who served in the VS unit and helped in the church left their own indelible mark on the larger Mennonite Church.


"Arsonists set fire to Woodlawn Church." The Mennonite 85, no. 30 (25 August 1970): 507-508.

"Burned Woodlawn church building sold." The Mennonite 87, no. 22 (30 May 1972): 362-363.

Franz, Delton. "The Mennonite Church on trial." The Mennonite 72, no. 21 (21 May 1957): 324-325.

_____. "Services outside a burned-out church." Central District Reporter (15 September 1970): A1-A2.

_____. "Why is Woodlawn Church in the middle of Chicago's civil rights?" Central District Reporter (15 February 1966): A8-A9.

Friesen, Jacob. T. "Debate Woodlawn strategy." The Mennonite 86, no. 32 (7 September 1971): 528-529.

"Mennonite Biblical Seminary." The Mennonite 66, no. 9 (27 February 1951): 146.

Pannabecker, S. F. "The Seminary--after four years." The Mennonite 64, no. 17 (26 April 1949): 8.

Rich, Elaine Sommers, ed. Walking Together in Faith: The Central District Conference, 1957-1990. Bluffton, Ohio: The Conference, 2003: 101-103.

"Seminary announces vesper speakers for coming months." The Mennonite 62, no. 44 (11 November 1947): 8.

"Woodlawn Mennonite Church struck by lightning." The Mennonite 75, no. 33 (23 August 1960): 547.

Additional Information

Address: 1143 East 46th Street, Chicago, Illinois



Denominational Affiliations: Central District Conference

General Conference Mennonite Church

Pastoral Leaders at Woodlawn Mennonite Church

Name Years
of Service
Willard W. Wiebe (1917-1967) 1951
Henry W. Goossen (1916-2009)(Summer) 1951
Robert S. Kreider (1919-2015) 1951-1952
Jesse N. "J. N." Smucker (1892-1983) 1952-1955?
Floyd G. Bartel (1929-2017)(Associate) 1954-1956
Delton W. Franz (1932-2006)(Co-pastor) 1956-1968
Vincent G. Harding (1931-2014)(Co-Pastor) 1957-1961
Peter J. Ediger (1926-2012)(Interim) 1964-1965
Roland Cole (Associate) 1964-1965
Curtis E. Burrell, Jr. (Associate)

Membership at Woodlawn Mennonite Church

Year Membership
1951 53
1960 62
1970 98

Original Mennonite Encyclopedia Article

By Melvin Gingerich. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 977. All rights reserved.

Woodlawn Mennonite Church (General Conference Mennonite), Chicago, Illinois, located at 1143 East 46th Street, was organized as a congregation in 1951. It grew out of a Sunday school which had been operated several years before that by the staff and students of the Mennonite Biblical Seminary. J. N. Smucker came as the first pas­tor in 1952. It is a member of the Central District Conference. It is an interracial church in an area of growing African American population. In 1959 it had 51 mem­bers, with Delton W. Franz (served 1955-1968) and Vincent G. Harding (served 1958-1961) serving as co-pastors.

Author(s) Samuel J Steiner
Date Published November 2022

Cite This Article

MLA style

Steiner, Samuel J. "Woodlawn Mennonite Church (Chicago, Illinois, USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. November 2022. Web. 17 Apr 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Woodlawn_Mennonite_Church_(Chicago,_Illinois,_USA)&oldid=174263.

APA style

Steiner, Samuel J. (November 2022). Woodlawn Mennonite Church (Chicago, Illinois, USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 April 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Woodlawn_Mennonite_Church_(Chicago,_Illinois,_USA)&oldid=174263.

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