Radical Anabaptists Today: Part 4
Church at Salem
All of the Wanners enjoyed their peaceful new life at Campbellsburg, near Salem, Indiana. Joe and Mary Ellen Miller with their family also moved in from Pilgrimage Valley, even though they had hoped to join the group in Snyder County, Pennsylvania. Once more the Wanners and their friends set out joyfully, with good hopes, to build a model on earth of the Kingdom of Heaven. A church detached from the world as far as possible (farming with horse-drawn equipment, living without electricity), yet spiritually-minded, evangelistic, actively involving its children and young people until they caught the vision on their own.
Everything appeared to work well. Both Harry and Joe preached to a growing community. That first summer they baptized the three oldest Wanners, Christian, Warren and Virginia, who had found the Lord and thrown themselves into the cause. Christian, at sixteen, took on the job of teaching school and did well.
What is more, with the idea of "one true church" left behind, the prospects for wider fellowship seemed good. From Snyder County and Muddy Pond, the Wanners heard, a number of families (Troyers, Shrocks, Mazelins and eventually David Graber himself) had moved to Moore County, Tennessee. There they had found a very earnest, simple-living fellowship, founded by non-conference and Wisler Mennonites from South Carolina and Ohio. Very plain, yet driving cars and with electricity in their homes.
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For some time the little group at Salem considered unity with the new church in Tennessee (Altamont and Lynchburg) and Harry, who still remembered how to drive a car from his unconverted days, arranged to buy a truck from Roger Hess, a neighbor. Setting out on his bicycle to fetch it, however, he could not complete his mission. In his heart he felt the Lord speaking to him, "Like this, I cannot use you." So he turned around and came home on his bicycle, leaving the motor vehicle behind.
Determined to find more fellowship in Christ, the families at Salem heard of an interesting Amish group at Punxsutawney, in west-central Pennyslvania. Committed to radical Nachfolge (following Jesus) these people, led by Nicky Stoltzfus, Joe Eicher, and Gerald Hochstetler (later of Cookeville, Tennessee) had settled on small farms among the Allegheny Mountains. Living simply, but witnessing boldly, they had attracted a variety of people into their circle, including the Leo Schrock family, former sleeping-preacher Mennonites from Buffalo, Missouri.
On a trip east, Harry Wanner and Joe Miller found the fellowship at Punxsutawney so intriguing they decided at once to bring their families and live there. With the brothers Leo Schrock and Ed Schlabach, Harry felt an especially close bond in the Spirit. But right before Harry and Joe left for home these two confided they were not planning on staying at Punxsutawney. They felt uncertain about the direction of the church there.
In a sudden switch of affairs, Harry and Joe dropped their plans to move east. The Schrocks, Schlabachs and other families (including Nicky Stoltzfus himself) moved west instead, all settling at Salem, Indiana, in 1973.
The Honduras Connection
Still seeking fellowship, Harry Wanner and the church at Salem contacted a minister, Ira Headings, with a small group of followers in South Carolina. But they developed their strongest bond with a group of zealous Amish missionary families at Guaimaca, in Honduras, Central America. Ed Schlabach's brother-in-law, Monroe Hochstetler, served as bishop there, and visits back and forth convinced both sides they had discovered kindred spirits on the Pilgrim Way.
On the first of January, 1974, Monroe Hochstetler from Honduras assisted in a baptismal meeting at Salem, and from that point onward the church grew rapidly. Families moved in from Ohio, from Maryland, and from Central America. From all directions they came to join a truly awakened spiritually-minded Anabaptist community, holding to the narrow way.
Only that way did not stay narrow enough for some, the Schrocks and the Wickys, that chose to leave for Mansfield, Kentucky. Joe and Mary Ellen Miller, long-time friends of the Wanners, also left the church at Salem to join a radical, partially itinerant, fellowship with Daniel Bauman from Canada, whom they had known in Pilgrimage Valley.
During this time at Salem, the Lord allowed Harry and Grace Wanner to experience their last and greatest earthly trial together. On 20 April, 1976, their seventeenth child, a son they named Jason, joined the family. Unlike the rest, this birth brought dreadful complications. Even though an ambulance rushed Grace to the hospital she did not survive. So with seven girls and ten boys, the oldest twenty, the youngest newborn, Harry faced an uncertain future.
A year later, at a wedding in Ohio, he met a kind single sister, Mattie Troyer. The older children thought she would make a wonderful mother, and she did. After their marriage, she lovingly assumed responsibility for the little ones, and the Lord blessed Harry and Mattie's marriage with five more, bringing the total of Wanner children to twenty-two.
Church at Le Roy, Michigan
In twelve years, the church at Salem, Indiana, had flourished and matured. Many families had joined and thanks to the Spirit's work among them, the Gospel earnestly presented meeting after meeting, many young souls had found peace with God. Yet challenges remained. Harry Wanner, while he appreciated the church's radical separation from the world, wished for more English preaching so he could bring the neighbors in. (New arrivals had largely come from solid German communities.) True, a few "outsiders" kept showing interest, but Harry longed to throw open the doors for many more.
Along with this, the old "true baptism"/rebaptism question resurfaced only this time in a slightly different guise. One sister, on joining the church at Salem, requested rebaptism, as she had not been converted, she said, when previously baptized among the Amish. Some did not think it necessary. Harry felt it important.
Differences grew until 1981 when Harry, with his married son Warren, took a scouting trip to Michigan where they bought farms near Le Roy, in the rolling farmland of the central part of the state. Eric and Leah Kraly with their family, Edward and Junior Wanners, Alfred Gingerichs, Ernest and Virginia (Wanner) Helmuth, with a steadily-growing number of other families followed.
An enlightened church, sold out to Christ, eagerly evangelistic, yet holding to the narrow way, the new group at Le Roy promptly attracted seekers of all kinds. Joe and Susie (Martin) Troyer, formerly from Pilgrimage Valley, now living in Tennessee, sold their car and joined. So did contacts from near and far, both individuals and families, some of Anabaptist background, with a remarkable number straight from "the world".
Under Harry Wanner's guidance, the church at Le Roy built itself a meetinghouse and put out a sign to welcome visitors. Junior Wanner and Mahlon Byler began an evangelistic paper, The Midnight Cry. With preaching in English, evening meetings, and with Urie Shetler, a well-known Mennonite evangelist, holding a week of revival meetings, to which all the members came trotting in with horses and carriages; the neighborhood could not fail but take note of the Lord's work in their midst.
At the same time, Harry continued his search for like-minded brothers and sisters in the Lord, on fire for the Kingdom of Heaven. In particular he looked for a mature brother to help out with baptisms, church councils and communions. For a while he corresponded with John Sherk, bishop of the Orthodox Mennonites at Gorrie, Ontario, Canada. But when they had too many questions about how the church at Le Roy planned to keep house, he turned to Mose Miller, bishop of Peniel Christian Fellowship, a spiritually-minded car-driving group in Holmes County, Ohio.
After this, many more baptisms (and rebaptisms) took place at Le Roy, while the church's influence spread.
Please click on the following link to go to Part Five.