Organization of Conferences
If the seat of personal religion is in the soul, the outward expression of it is through the body. This is a truism. It means that, if groups of Christians combine, there must be organization. But there are limits in the organization of Christian people, more or less definitely expressed in the New Testament, which must not be lost sight of. In the Roman Church the organization has become highly centralized, and history has shown us that this extreme and unscriptural form of centralization has throttled the life of the individual Catholic Christian and has robbed him of his God-given freedom.
Our German churches have been slow in organizing their forces and have erred perhaps on the side of undue conservatism, but in the main they were right. The local church in Baptist polity is a republic with full "state's rights," which it surrenders only when the welfare of the whole group of sister churches demands such surrender. This is the scarlet thread which runs through all Baptist history, and, from the very first, our "fathers" had such a clear recognition of this truth that they went on record affirming that even resolutions adopted by a local Conference did not bind the local church unless it chose to ratify them.
How was the organization of Conferences among us effected? A bare outline of names and dates would lack in interest for those who would like to trace the background of movements which gave our much scattered churches a more centralized organization and enabled them to work in unison with one another for a common cause,
1. The First Local Conference
The first of the present nine local Conferences was formed at Philadelphia, Pa., in 1851. Five ministers were present, Fleischmann, Eschmann, Henrich, von Puttkamer and August Rauschenbusch, and three lay brethren. The statistics, the first ones printed, enumerated eight churches with a membership of 405.
The steps which led to this organization are stated in the Minutes. Among the leaders of the scattered groups of German Baptists there had grown up a desire for a fuller and better interchange of views on questions pertaining to church practice and on questions as to how the specific mission of the churches could more effectively be carried on. There was much time given to these discussions. They wanted to know, for example, whether a local church ought, under certain conditions, to exclude members from participation in the Lord's Supper, and whether membership in a secret organization, like the Masons or Odd Fellows, should be tolerated. They voiced the necessity for a printed statement of their religious beliefs and for some definite rules for church procedure; they thought the time had come for issuing a German hymnal and a German monthly which should be the recognized organ of the churches. This last subject seemed to have held the center of their discussions. They sought the advice of their American brethren in Philadelphia on some of these wants, and, on one afternoon, a delegation of the Board of the American Baptist Publication Society was present, and these men pledged them their assistance in furnishing them with a "Statement of Beliefs and Rules of Order" and also with a "German Hymnal," provided some of their number would furnish the German manuscript which the Publication Society stood ready to print. In the course of a few years both books were issued, Henrich translating the shorter confession known among American Baptists as the New Hampshire Confession, and August Rauschenbusch preparing a hymnal which was long in use among our churches by the name of "Die Pilgerharfe." The use of this hymnal was curtailed by the introduction of the "Glaubensstimme," which the churches in Germany had issued and which Baptists from the "Fatherland" preferred. But the American brethren were not willing to engage in the publication of a monthly paper because, as they expressed themselves, with the small membership at that time this would not be a paying venture. They counseled the German brethren to wait awhile. It seems, however, that this matter of a church paper weighed upon the minds of the German brethren more heavily than other matters, and they went forward alone with the result that, in August, 1858, the first number of the "Sendbote des Evangeliums"--Gospel Messenger"--appeared under the editorship of Fleischmann. This is the history of the birth of our "Sendbote" which has now lived to reach the Psalmist's age of "three score and ten" and does not yet show any marked signs of senility.
The name under which the first Conference should be kn6wn was "Conference of Ministers and Helpers of German Churches of baptized Christians, usually called Baptists." The Constitution made the provision that the churches might join in a body and then be represented by delegates. The idea underlying this conception of a conference was surely not in harmony with Baptist usage, but was copied from German Separatist gatherings in Switzerland. Baptist Associations are conferences of churches, and these churches are represented by delegates, both ministers and laymen. This later conception, however, was a gradual growth in our polity. The change was first made in the Constitution of the Eastern Conference in 1870; it was followed by the Western Conference in 1879, and all Conferences subsequently organized have adopted the change and now are conferences of churches rather than of Ministers and Helpers and Delegates.
We have given much space for the story of this first Conference because the genesis of some very important movements in our organization work lies here.
2. The Western Conference, 1859
The period from 1851 to 1858 was most remarkable for the planting of large numbers of local churches. The eight churches of 1851 had increased to 30 and the membership from 405 to 1810 during this time, and the statistics of this latter year enumerate by name 24 additional groups, scattered over the middle states with a membership of 515, which had not yet effected an organization. Baptisms for the year 1858 were given at 448.
This increase in numbers and the fact that the small groups were so widely scattered, were the reasons for dividing the original body into an Eastern and Western Conference.
The first Western Conference met at Spring-field, Ill., and there were present 8 ministers, 2 licensed helpers and 6 delegates from churches. The statistical table enumerates 16 churches with a membership of 495. The most important business of the Conference was the formation of a Missionary Society, the object of which was to solicit funds for vigorously carrying forward home as well as foreign missions. This emphasis on missions and the practical step later to make the Conference itself a missionary body was far-reaching, for the older organization, the Eastern Conference, followed in 1867 with a similar movement, and every other Conference organized thereafter made a provision that missions should be the most important business at the yearly gatherings.
Missionary Pastors of the Second Generation
But the first Western Conference also founded a monthly church paper which should be the property of the body and be controlled by it. It bore the significant and striking name "Biene auf dem Missionsfelde" (The Bee on the Missionfield). Philip W Bickell [Baptist Herald, June, 1923.] who was pastor at Cincinnati, O., at this time, was elected its editor. There were many protestations that this new monthly should be no competitor of the "Sendbote," but that could not be prevented, for the rank and file of the membership was composed of people of limited means, and, moreover, the postage rates on second class mail at this time exceeded the subscription price of the paper, making it therefore very hard for the "Sendbote" to secure patronage in the western churches.
3. The First General Conference, 1865
The first General Conference, known among the churches by its German name "Die Bundes konferenz," met in Wilmot, Ontario, in 1865, and has met regularly every three years since then.
The necessity for an organization still more centralizing in its character than the two local Conferences, was brought about by the fact that since 1859 there were two denominational papers in circulation in a territory and among a constituency which could scarcely support one such paper. The danger of dividing the feeble forces became more apparent as the years went by, and when the deficits reported at each of the yearly gatherings became an established condition. There were some lively discussions of ways and means to correct this condition, but the only corrective an amalgamation under one central control-did not seem to have force enough to win out. The "fathers" on both sides would not give up the "Biene" nor the "Bote," in spite of the two-fold fact that the editors were getting nothing for their services and that their papers were in a chronic state of debt. Moreover, the "Sendbote" had already passed into the control of the second editor, A. Henrich, and he was anxious to be relieved of the "worry and responsibility." In the meanwhile, another most potent development had taken place. The energetic editor of the "Biene," a newspaper man by training and instinct, had the sagacity and foresight of founding a Sunday school monthly, "Der Muntere Saemann," (The Cheerful Sower), and also to edit and publish a small Hymnal for the use of the Sunday schools which bore the picturesque name of "Singvogelein" (Little Song-bird) and both of these publications had found instant and ready acceptance in our churches east and west. Of necessity both had to be private undertakings, for the larger body to which Bickel belonged moved too slowly.
The question arose whether the "Saemann" could not also be made the property of the Conferences.
All of this was being consciously felt in 1864,. when both Conferences sent out the call for a united gathering for the following year. The Western Conference even outlined what it thought ought to be the business for such a united gathering: the amalgamation of both denominational papers, the formation of a publication society which, in addition to the publishing of the paper, should also make provision for issuing tracts and books, and the purchase of the "Saemann," to which the owner and editor had consented.
The delegates, to the number of 54, from 33 western and 25 eastern churches, met for this their chief business, at Wilmot, Ontario. Fleisehmann was chosen moderator and J. S Gubelmann and J. C. Haselhuhn secretaries. There was absolutely no friction on the great question which had brought the delegates together, on the contrary, fraternal unity has seldom been more marked than at this gathering. The "Sendbote," as the older of the papers, was continued, Bickel was elected editor with Fleischmann as an associate, but the former was to devote his entire time to the new enterprise-also to the business end of it. The "Biene" was buried without a funeral and the "Saemann" was purchased from the owner for $400, but the Sunday schools were asked to contribute this sum. The new Publication Society was capitalized for the princely sum of $1000, and this money was to be raised by the churches in a series of special collections. Cincinnati, O., the home of Bickel, became the headquarters for the united publishing interests and remained such until 1871, when a more adequate place was found at Cleveland, O.
The trend of business at this first General Conference may be seen in a few other subjects which engaged the attention of the brethren. The raising of a Fund for an orphanage and one for the maintenance of widows of ministers was discussed, and ministerial education received some attention. In connection with the last named subject two committees were elected, one, called the "Prufungs-Komitee" (Examining Committee), consisted of six ministers, three for the western and three for the eastern sections of our country, and its only duty was to examine young men who desired to enter the Seminary at Rochester, N. Y., as to their fitness to enter there; the other committee was chosen from those ministers who lived in and near Rochester, and its duty was to attend the Spring Commencements in the capacity of examiners, the examinations at that time being held orally. This was the genesis of the present "School Committee" which now meets at Rochester in a body in the fall of each year, to examine the new men who enter as to their Christian experience, their ability and worthiness to pursue a course of study for the ministry. The supervision of the internal affairs of the German Department is also now in the hands of the "School Committee," while formerly this was a faculty duty.
It is a matter of great surprise that the very important subject of unified missions was not even mentioned at this first General Conference, but the reason for this omission was the fact, that missions were still looked upon as the exclusive prerogative of the local conferences.
As already stated, the General Conference has met triennially since 1865, but it is today an organization vastly more centralized and important and, obviously, the organ of a much larger number of churches than at its first gathering. It too has gone forward in its activities and has created for itself a very important place in the polity of the churches. If this organization were blotted out, the German Baptist movement in this country and Canada would have lost its unifying factors. And yet the General Conference never was, nor could it ever be, a separate incorporated body. It is a holding concern. Its triennial gatherings are the general or national gatherings of a number of separate, incorporated bodies, each having its own constitution and by-laws according to which its business must be transacted. These bodies have been founded at various times and have obtained legal sanctions in the states where they were incorporated, and then have been articulated without any necessary change in their constitutions. The decisions of the General Conference are respected by the churches, for they represent the action of the entire body of German churches represented by their delegates.
At present the General Conference embraces the following societies: 1. The General Missionary Society of the German Baptist Churches of North America; 2. The Educational Union of the German Baptist Churches of North America; 3. The German Baptist Publication Society, and 4. The German Baptist Orphanage Society. There is a movement on foot of adding a number of other bodies which are doing charity work, notably the three Homes for the Aged in Chicago, Ill., Philadelphia, Pa., and Portland, Ore., but there is some hesitancy on the part of the local organizations to take this step and, moreover, the wisdom of the movement is very seriously questioned.
Of these incorporated bodies just mentioned, the first one named in the list is rightly considered the most important. Its Constitution not only gives it supervision over the entire missionary activity, both foreign and home, but it may aid in chapel building, hold mortgages on all kinds of property and give pensions to aged and incapacitated ministers.
In accordance with its wide functions, the General Conference elects for the term of three years the following officers in the name of the societies represented: the General Missionary Secretary and the General Treasurer, for the General Missionary Society; the Editor, the Business Manager, the Board of Trustees and the Publication Committee, for the Publication Society; the Board of Trustees and the "School Committee," for the Educational Union, and whenever necessary, it proposes the election of professors to the New
York Baptist Union, which organization supports the Rochester Theological Seminary. It also elects the Directors for the Orphan Society
At the General Conference at St. Paul, Minn, in 1922, a national "German Baptist Young People's and Sunday School Workers' Union" was organized, but the status of its affiliation with the General Conference has not yet been worked out Its present Constitution makes it a separate organization, but its functions are rather those of a department of the General Missionary Society, which also is called upon to defray its expenses.
At the meeting of the General Conference in Chicago, Ill., in 1919, a movement was started to raise one million dollars, during the three years following that date, for all the missionary and benevolent activities of the German churches, which movement has been successful beyond all expectations. This movement had not been planned beforehand but was wholly spontaneous and called forth an enthusiasm quite unique in the history of our churches. It already has had a far-reaching consequence, for at the subsequent gathering, in 1922, the budget system of raising the funds for all our missionary and philanthropic activities, under the name of "Mission and Benevolence Offering" was inaugurated. This budget carries a prospective need of $950,000 for the three-year period.
4. Other Local Conferences
The churches affiliated with the Western Conference grew in numbers and membership during the seventies and, in 1880, that Conference went out of existence. In its stead three Conferences were organized in 1881, the Central, Northwestern and Southwestern. In 1884, the Texas churches formed a separate conference, and in 1895, the churches of the Pacific coast did likewise. In 1898, the churches of the Atlantic seaboard separated from the Eastern Conference. In 1902, the churches in the three western provinces of Canada, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and in 1909, the churches in North and South Dakota, founded separate Conferences. There are now nine local conferences covering the vast territory and meeting annually. These yearly gatherings are much like the State Conventions of the American Baptist churches, the missionary work within their boarders receiving chief attention at the meetings.
Wherever it is possible there are also "Vereinigungen" (Associations), but their object is mostly inspirational; in many cases they meet oftener than once a year.