A History of Bethany Mennonite (@ 60th Anniversary)

From our 60th anniversary celebration.  A historical reading:

Reader 1 Steve: Sixty years ago, it became a congregation I proudly claim the honor, of being the youngest member of that beginning of Bethany Mennonite The three families, the Howards, the Wilmers and the Lloyds (I don’t remember families being called by their last names in those early years) gathered for “The Picture.” There were actually four families that came from Franconia Conference to start the mission church. I don’t know why-“‘the Abes” weren’t in it. But I remember I was sitting there on my mother’s lap. Well, I don’t actually remember that day. Birthday # 2 was still severaliponths away. But I have seen “The Picture” so often that it .just seems that I can remember being there. We all looked so excited and full of energy. This is the look that people get when they. don’t have a clue what the future will bring.

I do remember somethings from those early years, the 50s: Sliding down the old stair railing. Adults didn’t seem to realize God meant it to be part of a children’s playground; Multigenerational church socials in the damp and dark church basement Funny what stays in your memory. Lois KuIp and Lester Lerch singing “Do-Re-Mi” at a talent show in that basement. Took them a l000000ng time between giggling spasms to complete the song.

I remember sitting in the hay wagons every fall behind Howard and Wilmer’s Ford tractors eating crisp Macs. Those dark back roads of Vermont. I learned to, keep an eye out for the tree

branches that might sweep down and get you. Sometimes there were older boys hanging in those branches trying to scare us I was not scared. Hay rides in October were how we Mennonites got around celebrating Halloween.

I remember the four girls, Judy, Judy, Lois, and Ruthy, singing in a quartet one Sunday evening service. Actually I remember them giggling while we all tried to sit in stoic reverence as they tried to finish the song. My sister Judy and I were remembering this a couple weeks ago when we were In Vermont for our Moyer family reunion Judy remembers Ruthy being the #1 giggler.

For Sunday evening services we’d often have films, usually from MCC, and I’d watch the men rewinding the film on the big movie projector. Couldn’t wait till I was old enough to be the man who had that job. Of course when I was old enough to be ‘the man,’ that projector was an ancient relic.

Everybody, and I do mean everybody, gathered for spring cleaning, inside and outside. twas, for me, one of the perks of male hierarchy. I got to work outside. Yes! That Mennonite work ethic. My father modeled it even in later years when he tried not to let even a heart attack keep him from being there and doing his share.

I remember growing up in two worlds. The church world and the Vermont secular world. They seemed very different. I sure didn’t find good answers for how to move from one to the other. We all kind of learned the hard way, as individuals, families and a congregation, that transplanting ethnic Mennonites into a, well yes, foreign culture, was probably not the best way of planting a church. The lines of what is right and what is wrong are not always so clear when we are in the middle of it Hard lessons were learned, maybe too hard sorretimes I saw my parents having to learn and relearn and still remain faithful to their call

I remember when Nevin and Lourene came to be pastors. At the time, we said that Nevin came to be the pastor. Looking back, I can only think of them as being co-pastors. On Nevin’s 24th birthday, I was 12. He became a mentor for me. When I think of God intervening in my life, I wonder where I would be if…. and of their importance to Ann and me in our early years of marriage and of things that happen fo which we can find no explanation

Being at Bethany in my coming of age years during Vietnam. Living in the two worlds. We were a peace church. Churches around us were God:and country. The couples coming from Pennsylvania to serve 1-W assignments in Hanover and worshiping with us. Practicing conscientious objection to war. Boys I went to school with going to Vietnam to serve. Some not returning or not the same Most from the lower economic population This remain, s with me today in the war-crazy, inequitable world we live in. 1

I could keep on saying a whole lot more. I suppose we can all wonder, “what if?”  What if a group of nameless church leaders from Franconia Conference in the middle of the 20th century hadn’t decided there was a need to start a church in Plymouth Vermont called Bethany Mennonite (the building they found just happened to be in Bridgewater).

What if my parents, Alice and Lloyd Moyer, hadn’t felt called to serve in the beginnings of that church…? I can’t even begin to imagine how different my life would have been. I am very glad they did what they did.

How many lives would have been different if Bethany Mennonite hadn’t…? Of course, our three children have been heard to say, “What if… our parents hadn’t moved us from Vermont all the way to the west coast and San Diego, California” ……Oh well!

– Brad Moyer was one year old in the summer of 52.


Reader 2 Gwen: When Mennonites first came up here they stayed at the Coolidge Homestead and had Bible School at the Plymouth Church. Clayton was 5 1/2 and Lewis was 4, and both went. Mr. Landis was the minister. The building was. nothing like it is now. There were two big rooms with wooden doors that rolled right back into the wall, and the stairs went straight up from the front door. Every one o my kids went to Sunday School there from when they were 4 years old until they left home. I took a class for 2 or 3 months and read a book got baptized there on October 3, 1959.

I feel the church is like one big happy family. I remember once when Jim and Aldine were here we had a “breaking of bread service.” It wasn’t a regular communion service Each person was given a small bread roll, and We went around and broke off a piece of our roll and gave it to someone else until our roll was gone. That service felt exactly like a great big pair of arms was holding the whole congregatipn in a big hug. It was a wonderful feeling. I asked Carroll Earle how he felt about it and he said he felt exactly the same way.

I didn’t go to church for a lot of-years after they kicked out Mr Mitten I felt if they could kick him out they could kick me out too He was such a generous man Jim Mitten would take wood or potatoes from his own cellar to help someone out. We had a big old bus and he would go clear to the end of the lake and up the Plymouth Notch mountain. He would say, “Does anyone want to get out and push?” He called me the best pumpkin pie maker in Happy Valley. When Peggy was born, Mrs Millen (Katherine) came up every day and bathed the baby and took the dirty diapers and linens away to wash. We were carrying water from the brook at that time When the bishop said that Mr. Millen would have to leave he didn’t say anything, but Katherine lit into him. Fifty seven of us signed a petition asking that he be allowed to stay but he wasn’t allowed. I came back to church after Cliff passed away.


Readers (together) Steve, Gwen, Marcia, Andrew, Anna and Calef: SummerVacation Bible School was BIG


Reader 4 Marcia: I went door to door asking if families would like to send their children.


Reader 2 Gwen: Just before they bought the building here in Bridgewater, they held Bible School at the Pinney Hollow school house.


Reader 5 Andrew: I taught a Bible School class every year from the time we started attending Bethany (47 years ago) until it was discontinued. Bethany was actually started after groups from Pennsylvania came to the area in the summer to teach Vacation Bible School. Members of the church eventually took on the teaching. Transportation for the children was provided using a vehicle owned by the church and then the town school bus. Bible School was Monday through Friday mornings for two weeks. When there were over 100 children, we were unable to accommodate them in the church building so we used the grange hall next door for some classes. Teachers camp from the other churches in Bridgewater and from the community as well as Bethany.


Reader 1 Steve: I am pretty sure that I completed every year of each curriculum . ….. I can’t believe I really did that.


Reader 2 Gwen: I taught my’ first Bible School class when Peggy was 4 years old. I started with nine 4-year-olds but one boy got strep and another cried all morning so I was left with six girls and one boy. That boy could swear up a storm. He never had pennies for the offering. One morning he had a jingly pocket. I asked him what that was. He said, “Pennies.” I asked why he hadn’t put them in the box. He said he didn’t have them then. I asked where he got them. He said out of the box. I asked him why he had done that. He said it was because he never had any pennies. I said, “Well you will novy “Later I kept Ben Derstine and the very young children of the other teachers so they could teach Bible School.


Reader 6 Anna: One of great memories I have is of Bible School. The first time I walked into the church as a young child I felt warmth, joy and love, which made me feel very welcomed. I couldn’t wait till the next day so I could go back, and it hasn’t changed. Now I’m older and doing different things there, but it has the same feeling when I walk in.

Reader 14 Calef: I remember Nevin taking us on a bus into Rutland to go bowling. We’d come back and have hot chocolate at the church. Or Kool Aid and Ritz crackers.


Reader 5 Andrew: As people became more mobile and more women began working outside the home, teachers became more scarce and we decreased to one week Competition from other summer activities also effected attendance. We held Bible School in the evening for at least one year, but attendance remained low. Community children began attending Bethany Birches Camp, and Bible School ended Members of Bethany are very active in the operation of the camp, and we are seeing a great ministry for children there. Jesus said “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven”

Reader 3 Lilli: I remember many fun Sundays in the 50’s when our families got together in the afternoon, for supper and into the evenings On cold, sunny winter afternoons, we’d take fast toboggan rides down Beulah & Howard Kulp’sJong, steep, mountain. We’d take a break inside for hot chocolate by the fireplace. After dark, Howard would play his trumpet, & we’d sing. On Jean & Wilmer Schmell’s fields up behind their barn, we’d sled and learn to ski. We had wooden skis with very !oose bindings. Abe Landis came down one time in his long Sunday overcoat & top hat.

Reader 4 Marcia: We came tb Bethany in the mid ’60s and found it to be an active church. There was year round Sunday school, clubs for the kids during the week, and usually a Bible Study at church or in homes. monthly women’s group knotted quilts and ended each evening with a devotional.


Reader 3 Lilli: In summer, Ruth & Lois would take us kids for rides in their open Jeep on the dirt road behind their house. Some warm days we’d hike to the top of Blueberry Ledges & down the other side to Walt and Faith Rittenhouses.  Lloyd and Alice Moyerhad large snapping turtles in wooden pens in their garage. I don’t know if we ever tasted them at dinner. Alice was a delicious cook & baker. Bessie and Abe Landis, had a large living room for playing all sorts of board and card games. If the weather was warm, we were outside playing softball, badminton, croquet, and hide ‘n seek.


Reader 4 Marcia: Bethany worked closely with the other churches in the area, especially-with the Congregational Church in Bridgewater where Pam Lucas was pastor. When Nevin had a brain aneurysm, the Bridgewater church was very supportive of this congregation in many ways. They held a fund raiser for Nevin by having a community potluck meal that brought many, many people together.


Reader 7 Naomi: Nevin and I came to Bethany in 1963 pregnant with Nevin Kent and also pregnant with ideas for the perfect church. What a rude awakening to find that a church is made up of human beings and so perfection is out of the question! We learned so much about community and what the important things in life are. In 1965 Lloyd & Alice Moyer bought some land in Plymouth. Lloyd told Névin he would like to donate land for a children’s camp. He said he didn’t know how to begin, but the land was there. Lots of Nevin’s time was spent following that dream, and the church was so good about supporting him in this (most of the time.) When Nevin had a brain aneurysm in December of 1979, the church was helpful with the children and all — in the midst of their own grief. In June of 1983 we left for Virginia The church gave us a lovely scrapbook at our farewell.  I look at those 20 years as years of profound learning, and I’m crying as I write and think about those times.


Reader 8 Gerry: I saw the “Face of God” many times through nature during my 17 years of ministry in Vermont. More significantly were the words and actions of people throughout my ministry at Bethany.  Upon my arrival there on June, 1984 with our personal belongings, many people’ came out to help unload the truck. Wilmer Schmell asked if we wanted a garden. We did but we didn’t have the equipment to work a garden. He said, “Oh, I’ll come down tomorrow and plow it for you and ask Carroll Earle to disc it.” Thus began many summers of gardening, with the help of Wilmer and Carroll. During that weekend visit, following worship on Sunday, June 3, the Moyer family invited me to join them for lunch at a Chinese restaurant in West Lebanon and to visit their father, Lloyd, in the hospital awaiting heart surgery.’That was my first pastoral hospital visit, although I Hadn’t ‘Yet been installed as pastor.

That evening, Wilmer and Jean Schmell invited me to attend the high school graduation at Woodstock Union High School. Three young people from Bethany were graduating. When we arrived as a family on July 9, our furniture and belongings were in disarray in the parsonage. We began by putting the kitchen in order. Wilmer  stopped by to see if we needed anything. Soon Elsie Breneman stopped by bringing us a very nice meal.

On September 9, I was licensed and installed as pastor of the church by our overseer, Noah Kolb. The expressions of love, support and encouragement from the congregation reflected the face of God.

My employment with the church was 3/5 time. I needed additional employment as we were committed to having Aldine be an “at-home-mom” while our children were small. Franconia Mennonite Conference had indicated a good possibility of part time employment in church development in Vermont, but that didn’t develop. They encouraged me to seek other employment when I shared this with our congregational chairperson, Ken Hershey, he immediately offered me a job with Larken for two days a week.

The conference had actually set aside funds to support a church planting position in Vermont. The Bethany Birches Camp Board, knowing about my experience in Christian camping ministry, decided to approach the conference to see if those funds could be used to hire me as executive director of the camp. They obliged beginning the following year. On December 31, I terminated my employment with Larken and on January 1 began receiving a salary from Bethany Birches Camp for two days a week, thus completing a full time employment package with the church and camp which lasted for 13 years, a wonderful arrangement for me.

When I was ordained the congregation presented me with a gift, a copy of the Believers Church Bible Commentary on the book of Jeremiah, the first in the series. The note inside the front cover says, “This book presented to James W. Musser on the day of ordination, March 15, 1987 as a token of love from the Bethany Mennonite Congregation at Bridgewater Corners, Vermont.” I have since acquired the rest of the series.

In 1991 I encountered my first challenge with mental health issues. The outpouring of love from the congregation and community with visits, cards, flowers, meals and a brief break from pastoral responsibilities to heal clearly showed me the “Face of God.” A special visit from our overseer, Hubert Schwartzentruber, to talk and pray with me was warmly received. I believe God is often present when we don’t recognize it.  I suspect I could write of many occasions if I had been paying attention to the way God was moving and working in our midst while I served as your pastor from 1984-1997.


Reader 10 Robert: Some thoughts about Bethany surrounding Ada’s death: Several people took care of the practical aspects of feeding people at the calling hours and after her funeral, for which I was very grateful It was hot and someone made a lot of iced tea. We had no money for her burial plot but Lloyd and Alice loaned us money for that, and!the church paid for her stone. It was very humbling to have others give us this gift.

Aldine read a story at Ada’s funeral and talked to the children about Ada, what she liked and how she was going to be missed. Aldine also had activities later in the year for children to express their feelings about Ada dying.

Leland wrote a letter about how the congregation would sorely miss her presence in the church. He said he would have enjoyed teaching her, he loved her “good old fashioned name,” and he recognized the larger loss it was for Steve and me as her parents and Sam as her brother. Leland and Elsie made a special effort to connect with Sam during his childhood.

I was aware that it was very uncomfortable for some in the congregation to watch us grieve. They wanted to somehow fix “it” so we could move forward. A month or so after Ada’s death, a visitor came to Bethany and commented that he didn’t know what had occurred here but he sensed we were all in shock.


Reader 9 Karen: Standing on the porch facing south, gazing at the light on the mountain behind Putnam’s house, I felt that God was present. In the challenges of seeking meaning in the gathered community of faith, Ifelt hope. The beauty of the setting in which the building is located made me appreciate our Creator and believe that Bethany Mennonite Church had a future.

The early morning walks and talks with Linda Maham, Mary Mosher and Merrideth Hathaway gave me a sense of connection with the community that I cherish. We would gather at the church with our flashlights before our day of work began. This was a life-sustaining activity for me when I was adapting to how I fit into Bethany. f

Amanda Williams had a dream to begin an exercise group called “Body and Soul.” One of the first times I was at the post office in Bridgewater Corners Amanda came and introduced herself to me with this dream. It was exciting to feel the passion and vision she had. More than 30 women participated through the years at Bethany.

God’s face was present in the walks and talks through many back roads with other women through the years We valued friendship, faith, and health.

The visits with Gladys who lived across the street kept me in touch with many happenings in the area. Through her, Jim and I were often asked to sing at the grange for the Community Service Award events.

God’s presence was felt in families from the village who brought their young children to the parsonage for childcare Conversations relevant to life happened at daily drop-off and pick-up times. I felt joy watching my children play- Among many others in the field in a safe, open environment.

Serving on the worship commission gave an opportunity for the Spirit of God to move in my spirit as we planned worship. Tears would well up in my eyes when God would show up in the choosing of a song or scripture appropriate for a theme.

I experienced God at the annual gathering on Christmas Eve to celebrate God sending Jesus to us in human form I remember with fondness the after-service fellowship in the parsonage of regular worshipers and neighbors.

During my time at Bethany, the face of God was found in beauty, uncertainty, brokenness, friérids, nature, yearning, growing, loving, kindness, compassion, courage, joy, intimacy, redemption, celebrating Jesus, imagining … Blessings as you journey on.


Reader 11 Julie: I moved to Vermont fourteen years ago and started attending Bethany Mennonite Church that fall. I attended regularly, with a brief time-out to attend Friends Meeting in Hanover, for the next twelve years. Then I began attending church in Randolph but have maintained connections with many people at Bethany Mennonite ‘Church. “Connection” is a theme in John 15. Jesus is the vine, God the vine dresser, and we are the branches. Alone we can do little but when we’re connected to one another and to Jesus, we can show God’s Love. These connections were made clear to me in the winter and spring of 2001 when I had surgery and chemo treatments at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. I was connected to God’s Love through many people at Bethany; we were all Jesus’s friends and thereby able to demonstrate and experience God’s Love. For that experience I continue to be very grateful.


Reader 12 Scott: When we planned to come to Bethany in 1999 for an initial exploratory visit, I was asked whether I would bring the message, even though I was not yet officially a pastoral candidate. Bethany had been without a pastor for two years and the search committee chair said they were always glad for

someone to speak on Sunday mornings. I came that Sunday expecting a tired congregation. Instead I found an energetic, thoughtful, welcoming group of people. I remember preaching with Andrew asleep in his car seat in the aisle. I remember Lilian sitting with Larry and Althea. I remember Jean saying in sharing time that we were held in the palm of God’s hand, a phrase that had become strangely meaningful to me as I was in the process of searching for a church after seminary. I remember good music with rich harmony and drumming. I remember Steve saying if I didn’t come back as pastor he hoped we will feel welcome to come back to visit. I don’t know if these memories are factually accurate, but 1 know they’re true. They represent truths that continue. We are still glad for someone new to speak to us on Sunday morning. I still find uncanny connections between my life and things people say in the sharing time. We still have energetic singing with rich ‘harmony. Andy is still mellow, and Lilli is still entrusting herself to people in the congregation And people still welcome me and our family as pastor and friends.


Reader 13 Denise: I first visited Bethany Mennonite after Julie had invited me to church a few times and I finally said yes. I wondered if I would “fit in.” I needn’t have worried.

The first thing that struck me was the beautiful singing with everyone doing harmony a choir. We were all the choir! That made so much more sense tome than a church where a small select group does the lion’s share of the singing.

I also worried that I would feel out of place because I am not sure of my beliefs, and I thought other people might try to push me in one direction or the other. No such thing has ever happened, which has allowed me to slowly and comfortably examine what I can say I believe – or at least 1 want to believe In fact, I have been tremendously impressed with the openness of the members in discussing their own musings and wrestling with issues of belief and faith. My background includes many religious influences, and I have never heard a religion belittled or dismissed by members of Bethany.

Another big attraction was the great sense of a welcoming and open community among members. I felt valued and enjoyed many conversations after church that increased my sense that Bethany was a great group to be a part of. My attendance has been more consistent in the, last year or so, but before that I would still tell people that Bethany was “my church.” I had attended another church for a few years before I came to Bethany, but I had never shared openly in three years. After being at Bethany only a short time I felt comfortable sharing during reflection time. This was due to the open and accepting atmosphere here, rather than a dogmatic or image-conscious atmosphere.

So I am grateful to have found Bethany, and to be able to call myself a part of the community here. It is a place I can grow spiritually, keep learning and be challenged.

All: So be it


God as leader

This post was written by Brandon in 2012:

Most Christians desire to follow Christ.  This is, after all, the nature of the word Christian (that we would be little Christs).  Within the Bible there are a few models for leadership and governance.  They all share the same starting point – God as leader and governor (see Isaiah 33:22, Psalm 95, 47, 23, the whole story of the Israelites and the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels).  We hope for this at Bethany, that we will follow God as leader.  Here are some of the ways we try to let God lead:

  • Each person has a seat at the table – who of us knows which person God will use and in which ways?
  • Jesus accomplished this best – letting God lead. So we must look to him (he is alive, after all), trust him and be obedient to his teachings.
  • Because God may use any person, and because we are each valuable in God’s sight, we must meet together to talk, discuss and discern.  This meeting together will also teach us to obey the second most important command we’ve been given – to love our neighbor as ourselves.
  • Because we can’t meet all the time about everything, we have commissioned individuals to serve on committees with specific jobs (a little like the apostles did in Acts 6).  These groups report to the whole group at our regular gatherings. You can see a list of the church’s commissions here

60th Anniversary!

We had a wonderful gathering in August to celebrate the church’s 60th anniversary. Here’s some text copied from an article on the Franconia Conference Blog found here: http://franconiaconference.org/news/bethany-celebrates-60-years-with-stories

Bethany celebrates 60 years with stories

On August 12, Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater, Vermont, celebrated their 60th anniversary.  As part of their celebration, people from the church, community, and the conference shared their memories from the last sixty years.  The following article is adapted from those stories.

Bethany 60th

Izzy Jenne, Anna Hepler, Annabel Hershey Lapp enjoying themselves at Bethany’s 60th anniversary celebration. Photo by Karen Hawkes.

Sixty years ago, it became a congregation. Three of the four families that came from Franconia Conference to start the mission church gathered for “The Picture.” We all looked so excited and full of energy. This is the look that people get when they don’t have a clue what the future will bring.

I remember some things from those early years, the 50s: sliding down the old stair railing (adults didn’t seem to realize God meant it to be part of the children’s playground); multigenerational church socials in the damp and dark church basement; sitting in the hay wagons every fall eating crisp Macs on hayrides through those dark back roads of Vermont. I learned to keep an eye out for the tree branches that might sweep down and get you.

I remember growing up in two worlds, the church world and the Vermont secular world. They seemed very different.  We all kind of learned the hard way, as individuals, families, and a congregation, that transplanting ethnic Mennonites into a “foreign culture” was probably not the best way to plant a church.  Hard lessons were learned, maybe too hard sometimes. I saw my parents having to learn and relearn and still remain faithful to their call.

I remember once when we had a “breaking of bread service.” It wasn’t a regular communion service. Each person was given a small bread roll, and we went around and broke off a piece of our roll and gave it to someone else until our roll was gone. That service felt like a great big pair of arms was holding the whole congregation in a big hug.

Summer Vacation Bible School was a BIG, two-week affair. I went door to door asking if families would like to send their children and we drove them every day in a vehicle owned by the church and then the town school bus. When we grew to over a hundred children, teachers came from the other churches in Bridgewater and from the community as well as Bethany.

One year, I had a class of 4-year-olds with six girls and one boy. That boy could swear up a storm. He never had pennies for the offering. One morning he had a jingly pocket. I asked him what that was. He said, “Pennies.” I asked why he hadn’t put them in the box. He said he didn’t have them then. I asked where he got them. He said out of the box. I asked him why he had done that. He said it was because he never had any pennies. “Well,” I said thoughtfully, “you will from now on.”

Bethany worked closely with the other churches in the area, especially with the Congregational Church in Bridgewater. When [Pastor] Nevin had a brain aneurysm, the Bridgewater church was very supportive of this congregation in many ways. They held a fund raiser for Nevin by having a community potluck meal that brought many, many people together.

I saw God’s face in the early morning walks and talks through many back roads with other women through the years. We would gather at the church with our flashlights before our day of work began. We valued friendship, faith, and health.

I saw God’s presence in families from the village who brought their young children to the parsonage for childcare. Conversations relevant to life happened at daily drop-off and pick-up times. I felt joy watching my children play among many others in the field in a safe, open environment.

The first thing that struck me when I came to Bethany for the first time was the beautiful singing with everyone doing harmony and no choir. We were all the choir!

There are many more stories to share.  Sixty years of them.  And it makes me wonder, “What if?”

What if a group of church leaders from Franconia Conference in the middle of the 20th century hadn’t decided there was a need to start a church in Vermont called Bethany Mennonite…?



This is copied from the Vermont Standard – http://www.thevermontstandard.com/2011/01/bethany-mennonite-church-of-bridgewater-a-history/

Bethany Mennonite Church of Bridgewater: A History

JANUARY 27, 2011


By Laura Power
Special To The Standard
In the spring of 1952, three families from eastern Pennsylvania moved to Vermont. They left friends and relatives in their home communities near the town of Blooming Glen; they abandoned jobs and businesses. Between them, they had seven children; none among the six adults had the promise of paid employment in the Green Mountain state, nor even any prospects. What Lloyd and Alice Moyer, Howard and Beulah Kulp, and Wilmer and Jean Schmell did have was a sense of purpose. At the behest of the Mission Board of the Franconia Conference of Mennonites, they hoped to establish and nurture a new church in Bridgewater Corners.
The Mennonites then in Vermont amounted to barely a handful; a few met for worship at churches in Andover and Bartonsville. In fact, Mennonites were, and are, scarce across all of America; in the 1950’s just seven states counted follower populations of 5,000 or more. And outside their own close-knit communities clustered mostly in pockets of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Indiana, Illinois, California, and Iowa, the Mennonites were often viewed as a cult-like sect. But the Moyers, Kulps, and Schmells believed in the Christian tradition of spreading the teachings of Jesus, a practice re-energized among the Mennonites by a revivalist movement in the mid-twentieth century. So, honored by the opportunity to serve their church, but also apprehensive, the little group set out with the mindset that God and hard work would somehow take care of their needs.
Vermonters in Bridgewater and Plymouth were not completely unfamiliar with the denomination’s practices and beliefs. When gas rationing ended after World War II, Mennonites traveling through the area noted a dearth of open, flourishing churches, a circumstance they attributed to tepid community support and a shortage of pastors returning to Vermont after the war. As a trial undertaking in 1947, the group ran two-week-long vacation Bible Schools for children in seven central Vermont communities. Their door-to-door solicitations for students were fruitful. “Amazingly people sent a large number of children,” noted John Lutz, an active church member in the 1960s and a former Mennonite pastor. The leaps of faith by parents enrolling their children were rewarded with “the sheer goodness that they felt in the interactions with those who taught…” added Lutz.
After five years of successful summer Bible Schools, the Franconia Mission Board bought a building and six acres located a few hundred feet south of the Ottauquechee River on Route 100A in Bridgewater Corners. The structure, Wilmer Schmell wrote in his memoirs, was “a large private home with porches and columns on two ends and looked like a public building.” Vermonter Josiah Josselyn built it in the mid 19th century, probably in1840, from lumber milled around the corner, on property that he bought from his father-in-law. It was a big, rambling house, with a barn attached at the rear. In 1876, Josselyn also designed and commissioned the construction of a hall, reportedly the first Grange Hall in Vermont, on the adjacent property. There isn’t much recorded history of the house itself. It stayed in the Josselyn family for many years, until the early twentieth century, and then changed hands a few times.
When the Mennonites bought the home in 1952, the seventeen-room building was in need of repair and renovation. Its only running water came from two pitcher pumps. The lone bathroom was supplemented with an indoor privy in the barn end of the building. The five-holer “was carrying togetherness a little too far,” wrote Schmell.
A group of volunteers left Blooming Glen after an evening Easter service and arrived in Vermont the following morning to begin work to convert part of the structure into a meeting house, and the rest into a parsonage. So many volunteers worked on the building that Schmell recalls it “led to the false impression by some [people in the community] for a long time that we owned things in common. A few thought we might be Communists.” The church’s pastor, Abram Landis, and his family moved in nine weeks after the work began. The first service was held on June 29, 1952. One hundred and fifty six attended the dedication in July. The Kulps, Moyers, and Schmells, along with Landis, chose the name “Bethany Mennonite” for the new church, after the place outside of Jerusalem that Jesus reputedly visited and from where he is said to have ascended into heaven.
The Mennonites are named for Menno Simons, a Roman Catholic priest born 1496 in the Netherlands. Simons did not found the Anabaptist movement from which the Mennonite denomination sprang, nor was he its most prominent devotee. But as its apostle after leaving the Catholic Church in 1536, he traveled throughout northern Germany teaching and forming congregations. Within several years, disciples of the faith began to be known as Mennonites.
The first Anabaptists surfaced in the 16th century, before Menno Simons’ conversion, as a splinter of the Protestant Reformation, a movement to ameliorate some practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Anabaptists, meaning “again” Baptists, rejected the notion of infant baptism, finding no scriptural basis for it. Instead, they advocated adult baptism for people who were willing to publically attest that they were followers of Christ, a philosophy that necessarily entailed a separation of church and state. Embracing such a doctrine in Europe in the 1500’s was dangerous; of Simons, Mennonite historian Daniel Cassel wrote, “he would go into the depths of the forest to minister to his scanty flock assembled there; again in the caves of the earth he gathered his faithful ones…They were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike.” Some estimate that thousands of Anabaptists were beheaded, drowned, or burned at the stake. In areas where their beliefs were marginally tolerated, the Anabaptists endured oppression of other kinds; they were not allowed to inherit land, for example, were barred from trade guilds and universities, and made to pay special taxes.
Still, the Mennonite sect in Europe took hold and grew slowly. English Quaker William Penn’s invitation to enjoy religious freedom in land he’d been granted in the new world, however, sparked a migration among them that began in 1683. An estimated 8,000 Mennonites migrated from Switzerland and Germany in waves over two centuries; in the late 19th century, another 18,000 came to the United States and Canada from Russia, where their ancestors had resettled one hundred years prior. By the time the Schmells, Moyers and Kulps, were setting down roots in Vermont, Mennonites in the United States numbered close to 160,000.
The three families adjusted to life in their adopted community. Wilmer Schmell had received an unexpected loan and was able to buy a house in Plymouth. A local contractor and neighbor stopped by as Schmell was remodeling his kitchen, noted the quality of his work, and offered him a job. The Kulps and Moyers had sold property in Pennsylvania, so Howard and Beulah Kulp bought a farm in Hale Hollow, also in Plymouth. Kulp found a job as a Singer sewing machine salesman. The Moyers purchased a home off Route 4 in Sherburne (now Killington). Lloyd Moyer brought a sizeable cable tool rig with him, and looked for work drilling water wells. The first job was six months in coming, and the unpredictable sub-terrain in Vermont soon taught him why the drilling price per foot here was triple what he’d charged in Pennsylvania. But he persisted, and his first well, in Tyson, was successful and led to other work.
The police chief from Souderton, Pennsylvania, near the families’ home church in Blooming Glen, brought the group a big red bus, the former coffee wagon for the Souderton Fire Company. Bethany Mennonite used it to pick up and drop off children, and some adults, who attended Sunday School and church services. Congregants back in Pennsylvania supported the church financially at first and in other ways as well. “We had visitors almost every weekend in our homes the first summer and fall,” wrote Schmell.
The vacation Bible School continued to be popular, its average enrollment increased from 80 or 90 per session to nearly 200 when combined with the summer schools of the Bridgewater Congregational and Center Churches. Bethany Mennonite Sunday services usually drew between 60 and 100.
Schmell found more and more work as a carpenter and builder. He and his wife also bought 1800 laying hens, they had been in the chicken business in Pennsylvania, and sold eggs door-to-door in Rutland one day a week. The opening of the Killington Ski Area in the late 1950’s created a boom in demand for water wells, and Lloyd Moyer drilled many of them. “He was trusted as an honest driller and had a backlog of wells to drill,” wrote Schmell, “so his Ottaquechee Drilling Company operated three rigs for a while.”
In the late 1950s, Schmell and another carpenter built the White Cottage Snack Bar for the Kulps. Beulah Kulp cooked minute steak sandwiches made from the shorthorn beef cattle the family raised on their farm. “A few in the community thought it would not be a success because they were not open Sundays for business,” wrote Schmell, “However, they did quite well even though they were not open in winters either.” In 1961, Schmell oversaw construction of the Ottauquchee Motel for Abram Landis, Bethany Mennonite’s first pastor. A few years later, Schmell built his own motel, the Farmbrook in Plymouth.
The three Bethany Mennonite founding families remained in Vermont for decades, carving out a role for their church in the religious community and inscribing the local landscape with the marks of their perseverance and singular work ethics. “We made many mistakes and learned a lot,” wrote Schmell of the group’s endeavor in Vermont, and, he added, they grew “to love and to appreciate Vermont and its people.”
Today, Bethany Mennonite’s low-key but dedicated congregation of thirty or forty meets weekly in the same sanctuary that volunteers from Pennsylvania created nearly sixty years ago. The presence of pews is perhaps its only characteristic that fits with a conventional physical envisioning of a church. “There is a pulpit,” says pastor of twelve years Gwen Groff, but “It’s back in a little closet.” A simple podium for speakers better fits the church’s flat hierarchy, she adds.
The congregation is part of the Mennonite Church USA, an umbrella organization that guides about 110,000 followers in forty-four states. All told, according to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia, there are about 360,000 Mennonites in the United States, including the Amish and twenty-five or so smaller Mennonite denominations derived from the Anabaptists. “There’s a whole spectrum between Amish, Amish Mennonite, conservative Mennonite with very visibly different dress, lifestyle, whether they drive cars, have electricity, wear the head covering,” says Groff, “This church [Bethany Mennonite] is liberal, in dress, in lifestyle. In theological beliefs, we have a pretty good diversity.”
Congregations of the Mennonite Church USA are relatively independent. Their twenty-four article Confession of Faith describes underlying doctrine, but, says, Groff, “There is not an expectation that every church or even every minister will subscribe to every belief in that Confession.” All denominations are united in that they read the bible seriously, as a guide for life. In addition to basic Christian precepts, the Mennonites strongly emphasize peace and justice. “It’s been a pacifist denomination since the beginning,” says Groff. She notes that the Mennonite church in Taftsville was begun in 1957 to accommodate men who, due to their status as conscientious objectors to military duty, opted for “1-W” tours at the then Mary Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover, NH. Mennonites also stress service, “doing God’s work and being in the community,” says Groff, and the discipleship of following Jesus.
Bethany Mennonite, compared to many congregations, is “very lay-led,” says Groff, “anybody here can serve communion, pray the pastoral prayer, or preach.” Weekly services generally focus on the sermon, but singing is also important. Mennonites have been singing four-part, acapella harmony for about 400 years. A rich blend of voices at Bethany Mennonite is not limited to an occasional, rehearsed chorale, it’s heard in almost every hymn, every Sunday. It’s a special way for worshippers to pray together in a service that otherwise includes little ritual. The singing, Groff says, helps congregants “to address God together as a community. Singing reminds us that we need each other. We can’t harmonize alone.”
A labyrinth in the field behind the church is also testament to the congregation’s facility for finding means to create community and express devotion. To make the maze, Groff let the grass grow long before cutting it, then with the trimmings laid out a pattern in a classical seven circuit design. After another week or so of growth, she cut the grass again, between the lines she’d laid out. Although Groff originally intended the labyrinth as a vehicle for her own meditation and prayer, eventually, the church’s worship committee decided to incorporate it into their annual summer outside worship service. First, the children of the congregation run to the center, get grapes and goldfish, then run back out. Next the adults quietly contemplate as they silently pass by each other and trace the maze’s paths. “It’s really beautiful when people walk in it,” says Groff, “This is a good group of people, a good group to join to try to figure out what it means to follow Jesus.”
The Bethany Mennonite Church is at 169 Route 100A in Bridgewater Corners. Sunday church service is at 9:45, and is followed by Sunday School. The church is also affiliated with the Bethany Birches Camp in Plymouth, which conducts summer and winter programs for children.