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Emanuel-Suter

Sunday schools shape Christian faith

November 22, 2019
by Elwood Yoder
Bible and Social Studies teacher at Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, Va.

Emanuel-Suter

Emanuel Suter (1833-1902) helped established Sunday schools in VMC. Virginia Grove Weaver photo

The Sunday school movement in Virginia Mennonite Conference had an uncertain beginning 150 years ago. In 1869, seventeen Virginia ministers barely got the two-thirds majority needed to pass a resolution allowing Sunday schools. Only one of the three bishops in that 1869 Conference meeting supported Sunday schools.

Fortunately that supporting bishop presided over Emanuel Suter’s church. The Sunday school initiative in Virginia Conference may have begun around Suter’s kitchen table, by a letter written two years before the 1869 resolution. It’s not an overstatement to point to Emanuel Suter’s 1867 letter to Herald of Truth as the real beginning of Sunday schools in VMC.

Suter wrote his dynamic letter on a Sunday morning from his home west of Harrisonburg. He had six children aged ten and under running around while he penned his thoughts. In a stirring letter to Mennonite readers across the United States, Suter called on believers to use their gifts for God’s kingdom. That’s exactly what Suter did in the last four decades of the 1800s. Though not ordained, Suter had the wisdom, leadership skills, and organizational abilities to lead the Sunday school movement in Virginia Conference. Until his passing in 1902, he worked tirelessly to establish Sunday schools, likely remembering those children underfoot at his kitchen table.
 

Marie Blosser’s Sunday school class at Weavers Mennonite Church, 1932. Gail Trissel photo

Marie Blosser’s Sunday school class at Weavers Mennonite Church, 1932. Gail Trissel photo

 
Those opposed believed that: Sunday schools might allow non-Mennonites to teach their children; Sunday schools would allow women to teach publicly; it was just following the fashions of the day; the Bible did not mention Sunday schools. About 15% of Middle District Mennonites left the Conference in 1901, partially over the Sunday school issue.

By the mid-twentieth century, Sunday schools had grown and thrived in many Conference congregations. At Weavers Mennonite Church, for instance, the average attendance for Sunday school in 1961 stood at 268. Sunday schools met the needs of Bible teaching and faith formation. 

Paul Glanzer, with Layne Fawley, taught Sunday school at Zion Mennonite Church to disabled adults, 1985-2005. Wayne Showalter photo

Paul Glanzer, with Layne Fawley, taught Sunday school at Zion Mennonite Church to disabled adults, 1985-2005. Wayne Showalter photo

 
Minister Paul Glanzer and his wife Isabel, along with their disabled son Jerry Glanzer, came to the Zion Mennonite Church in 1985. For about twenty years Paul taught a Sunday school for his son Jerry and others like him. A van load attended Paul’s class from Pleasant View, Inc., in Broadway. Paul helped the disabled adults sing, pray, and learn about God from his teaching.

Today, 150 years later, Sunday schools are still vital in the lives of many Virginia Conference churches. It takes dedicated leaders and teachers to conduct a Sunday school program. Laura Suter Wenger (1873-1959), for instance, daughter of Emanuel and Elizabeth Suter, taught Sunday school for forty-five years. 

Joy Yoder, Sunday school teacher at Zion Mennonite Church for the past thirty years, with her second and third grade class, February 3, 2019. Elwood Yoder photo

Joy Yoder, Sunday school teacher at Zion Mennonite Church for the past thirty years, with her second and third grade class, February 3, 2019. Elwood Yoder photo

 
I recently saw a photo taken from the back of a Sunday school class at Lindale Mennonite Church. A lay member of the congregation led a large group of children in prayer. The attentive children had their heads bowed and were learning how to pray. This writer’s three-year-old grandson sat in the front row, with his head bowed in prayer. For those of us who care about teaching Scripture to children, Sunday school continues to be a great place to shape Christian faith.

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