Bharatiya General Conference Mennonite Kalisiya, India
|Bharatiya General Conference Mennonite Church|
India: World Factbook, 2009
Number of Congregations
The North American missionaries that would begin Bharatiya General Conference Mennonite Church arrived in India in 1900. The initial delegation consisted of two newlywed couples: Peter A. and Elizabeth Dickman Penner and John F. and Susie Hirschler Kroeker. Through negotiations with the local king—and, when that failed, through the political influence of the British Chief Commissioner—Penner and Kroeker were able to secure land in the villages of Champa and Janjgir. The Penners quickly set about establishing a mission station at the former location and the Kroekers at the latter. A year after his arrival, P. A. Penner wrote in his journal, “My views regarding India are like the price of sugar, subject to change.”
Three years later, Penner’s uncertainty was reflected in the statistics of the mission effort. After four years, the missionaries had only baptized three believers: two orphans and one patient of Hansen's disease (leprosy), who soon died. The latter of these converts grew out of what would later become the Bethesda church in Champa. The church began as the Bethesda Leper Home, a hospital where the Penners, despite their hesitation, treated and ministered to patients suffering from Hansen’s disease.
Nevertheless, the North American church pressed on, sending nine new mission workers between 1906 and 1909. Among them were P. J. and Agnes Harder Wiens, who founded a new mission station at Mauhadih in 1911. Also in the group were C. H. and Lulu Johnson Sackau, who in 1915 established another station at Korba. In 1912, the churches at Champa and Janjgir were formally organized. These were followed by congregations at Korba in 1915 and Mauhadih in 1916.
The exact origins of the Church Conference, which would unite these congregations under a single entity, are not entirely clear. Some histories point to an agreement made between the Champa and Janjgir congregations on December 31, 1912 as the starting point. The outcome of this agreement was an organization known as the “General Conference Mennonite Church for India,” a name that both reflected the denomination’s missionary beginnings and belied its continued status as a North American effort. Other histories have suggested that Conference did not officially take shape until 1922 with the founding of the mission’s final station at Jadgdeeshpur.
In either case, the decade between 1912 and 1922 served as a formative period during which the mission—and P. A. Penner’s program of “soup, soap, and salvation”—gave birth to a new denomination. Though it continued to depend on the mission, the Church Conference was conceived as an independent entity, distinct from the mission conference..
In 1942, a new constitution for the conference was presented. This constitution provided for delegates from each congregation as well as a central administrative group known simply as the “Governing Body.” In 1945, the change was formalized with the registration of the denomination with the Indian government. The church would be know as “The Conference of the Hindustani General Conference Mennonite Churches” until a subsequent name change in 1967.
With India’s political independence in 1947 came new opportunities for mission. Areas that had previously been closed to mission because of agreements with local Hindu leaders were opened to evangelism to tribal peoples. General conference missionaries were particularly active in the Surguja region, where Paul A. Wenger and Edward H. Burkhalter first baptized members in 1953. These baptisms signaled the beginning of the Calgary congregation, which officially joined the church conference in 1961, brining added cultural and linguistic diversity to the denomination.
Since its inception, the Church Conference had operated as an independent organization, parallel in many ways to the mission conference, but organizationally autonomous. During this period, the mission conference retained control of para-church organizations such as hospitals and schools. In the early 1950s, the North American mission created a committee to study the possibility of “amalgamating” the church and mission structures. By 1957, the committee had decided against amalgamation, a decision based largely on the negative experience of the “Old Mennonite” mission in Dhamtari, which had undertaken a similar consolidation effort in the late 1940s. As a result, the mission and church structures remained separate, a decision that J.P. Masih later described as “short-sighted” because it prevented many of the para-church organizations from engaging in the indigenization process.
After the decision was made not to amalgamate the church and mission conferences, the two organizations embarked on a program of “partnership.” This period saw the birth of a number of important organizations including the Joint Literature Committee in 1955, the Economic Life and Relief Council (TELARC) in 1968, and the Mennonite Literature and Radio Council (MELARC) in 1970. Also important was the work of the Rural Economic Development and Community Health Association (REACH), which partnered with Mennonite Central Committee in projects related to relief, development, and evangelism.
Despite these successes, the partnership was far from equal. The mission conference controlled the vast majority of the resources, and as a result, it determined which Indian leaders advanced within the mission’s organizations and which did not. Meanwhile, the church struggled to finance its programs and pay its pastors despite contributions from the mission workers. These inequalities came to a head in the 1970s, a decade that saw the downfall of the partnership model and move toward withdrawal on the part of the mission.
In 1958, the mission station opened a reading room, which offered Christian and secular books and periodicals to the community. The project was so successful that it outgrew its first home, and the mission bought land for a new facility in September of 1963. In 1961, the mission’s primary school was expanded to include a middle school.
In 1958, the Janzen Memorial School in Jagdeeshpur gained the status of a higher secondary institution.
In 1967, the Hindustani conference changed its name to the Bharatiya General Conference Mennonite Church. The change reflected the growing separation between the mission conference and the church, which by this point was almost entirely Indian. Still, the newly-renamed denomination struggled to fill the monetary and leadership gaps left by the declining missionary presence.
In 1968, the North American General Conference church adopted a new constitution that placed the Indian mission under the auspices of the newly formed Commission on Overseas Mission (COM). This change paved the way for more centralized control of mission activities. Verney Unruh, the new staff secretary for Asia, called on missionaries in India to speed the process of indigenization by granting Indians more seats on the boards of mission-controlled organizations. Even so, many missionaries were reluctant to comply, citing the inexperience and of the Indian nationals. Tensions grew, and in 1973, representatives from COM arrived in Raipur to meet with missionaries and Indian leaders. The outcome of the meeting was a decision to abandon the partnership model and to accelerate the shift of power and resources from the mission conference to the church. Under the plan, the mission’s Christian Nurture Board and Literature Board would become a part of the church conference while its three hospitals would become a part of the independent Emmanuel Hospital Association.Decisions such as this—which placed mission organizations under independent trusts instead of the church itself—have been criticized by church leaders because they eliminated potential sources of income for the church.
In 1977, BGCMK leaders decided to change the structure of the Governing Body. Instead of denominational leaders, the group would be composed of representatives from each congregation. This change was made in response to a growing gulf between the Governing Body and lay members, who were uncomfortable with the group’s sweeping power to make binding decisions for the church without their input.
1977 saw the first All-India Mennonite Women's Conference, which united women from all of the Mennonite denominations in India. This conference served as an extension of women’s ministries already taking place in BGCMK, such as the yearly women’s Sunday, women’s prayer cells, and women’s visiting ministries in Jagdeeshpur and Champa.
In 1989, Edward and Ramoth Burkhalter, the last General Conference mission workers in India, returned to the United States, ending nearly a century of mission involvement. The mission workers left behind them a church with 7,000 members and 25 congregations as well as a number of independent organizations including three hospitals and ten schools. In the words of J. P. Masih, “Nine decades adds up to a rich legacy.” It also adds up to a complex legacy, and one that has been the object of both gratitude and criticism from members of BGCMK.
In 1994, the BGCMK’s regularly scheduled denominational meetings were planned to take place in Janjgir in November. Prior to the meetings, however, the denomination’s secretary—at the request of some of some lay members—called for a dissenting meeting in Jagdeeshpur. The Janjgir meeting was canceled because of a lack of quorem, but the Jagdeeshpur assembly proceeded to elect denominational officers and to withdraw Rs. 320,000 (approximately $10,000) from the church’s bank account. The money never reappeared, and the resulting division polarized the church, leading to bankruptcy, litigation, and an overall decline. The two sides made a formal reconciliation in 2001, but according to J.P. Masih, the wound that the split created may never complete heal. He said that the conflict left the church crippled financially and ecclesiastically, causing some BGCMK members to join other denominations.
On January 14, 2002, J.P. Masih presented a proposal for the creation of an Indian Anabaptist Center to the Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India, an inter-Mennonite body. The proposal was approved, and shortly thereafter, the project received a Rs. 10,000 donation from J.K. Claudius of the Raipur congregation. The center was conceived as a Mennonite ashram, a traditional location for study and respite. It was designed around three institutes: one for church organization, another for the life of the church, and a third for peace-building.
Union Bible School
In 1929 the General Conference mission in Janjgir opened a Bible school for the purpose of leadership training. The school started with eleven students, and W. F. Unruh was its first principal. The Bible school offered a three-year degree program, a course of study that attracted students from other surrounding missions.. In 1947, the school’s name was changed to Union Bible School. The name change reflected the growth of institution, especially due to increased enrollment by students of other denominations. According to J.P. Masih, the school grew because of its prime location and because it offered training in Hindi. Still, in the 1950s, Mennonite students were drawn away from the school as the locus of mission activity shifted toward Jagdeeshpur in the south. In another setback, the North American mission decided in 1953 to cut funding for paid evangelism, prompting another drop in enrollment. In 1960 a tornado took off the roof of the Union Bible School building in Janjgir. The school’s operations were temporarily transferred to Saraipali, but when it became clear that the school could not thrive in its new location, the decision was made to close the institution. 
Despite the difficulties they have faced in recent decades, BGCMK congregations and organizations continue to serve and witness to their communities. In Jadgeeshpur, the Sewa Bhawan hospital recently started offering English-language classes and opened a new neo-natal unit. In Harrhmor, a three-hour drive from Korba, the villagers just completed a new church, which will be dedicated on December 13, 2008. Several of the villagers now serve as evangelists with the support of BGCMK and the Kosmunde Hebron congregation.
Key individuals in church life
Some of BGCMK’s most valuable resources are its leaders. During their recent trip to India, Ryan Miller and David Fast of Mennonite Mission Network identified some of the key leaders in the denomination. In addition to these individuals, a more complete—albeit dated—list of leaders can be found in Ruth Unrau’s volume A Time to Bind and a Time to Loose.
Premanand Bagh – Bagh studied at Serampore University, where he researched the sermon content of BGCMK pastors. He later studied at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminar, and he now teaches at Union Biblical Seminary.
Jai Prakash (J.P.) Masih – Masih attended Janzen Memorial School and later, Union Biblical Seminary. He then served as a pastor of a church near Korba before accepting a teaching assignment at the Beacon School in Kusmanda. Masih later attended Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana before moving to Chicago to work with Indian Christians.
Emmanuel Minj – Minj is the chairman of Bihar Mennonite Mandli and the director of the inter-Mennonite organization Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India (MCSF). Though he is not a member of BGCMK, Minj interacts with the denomination through his work with MCSF.
Shekhar Singh – Raised in Janjgir, Singh attended Union Biblical Seminary and Union Theological College. He pastored congregations in Jadgeeshpur and Korba, and he now teaches at Union Biblical Seminary.
Bagh, Premanand. "An analysis of present-day preaching in the Bharatiya General Conference Mennonite Church in Madhaya Pradesh with particualr reference to church's teaching on 'peace.'" M. Th., Serampore College, 1992.
Hollinger-Janzen, Lynda. "Indian church leader envisions Mennonite ashram." Mennonite Missions Network, 30 May 2002, Network News.
Juhnke, James C. A People of Mission: A History of the General Conference Mennonite Overseas Missions. Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1979.
Masih, Jai Prakash. Interview with the author, 3 December 2008.
Masih, Jai Prakash. "Leadership in Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church in India." M. Th., Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, 2002.
Miller, Ryan and David Fast (Mennonite Mission Network). Interview with the author, 20 November 2008.
Miller, Ryan. "Namasté." Beyond Ourselves (Mennonite Mission Network), Winter 2008.
Ratzlaff, Mrs. Harold (Ruth), ed. “The Korba, India story.” Reprinted from Missionary News and Notes. General Conference Mennonite Church, March, 1965.
Stephen, Samuel. “India.” In Mennonite World Handbook, edited by Paul N. Kraybill, 125-29. Lombard, IL: Mennonite World Conference, 1978.
Unrau, Ruth. A Time to Bind and a Time to Loose: A history of the General Conference Mennonite Church mission involvement in India from 1900-1995. Newton, Kansas: General Conference Mennonite Church, 1996.
- "India," CIA World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/graphics/maps/small/in-map.gif (accessed 20 September 2009).
- "Asia & Pacific." Mennonite World Conference. http://www.mwc-cmm.org/en15/PDF-PPT/2006asiapacific.pdf (accessed 17 October 2009)
- Juhnke, p. 19
- Ibid., p. 23
- Ibid., p. 19
- Stephen, p. 126
- Juhnke, p.35
- Ibid., p. 28
- Ibid., p.33
- Masih, “Leadership in Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church in India," p. 26
- Juhnke, p.30-31
- Ibid., p.30
- Ibid., 33-34
- Juhnke, p. 165-166
- Ibid., p. 167
- Masih,“Leadership in Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church in India,” p. 39
- Junke, p. 170
- Bagh, p. 147
- Juhnke, p.170
- Ratzlaff, p. 1-8
- Juhnke, p. 169
- Masih, “Leadership in Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church in India,” p. 25
- Juhnke, p. 171-172
- Ibid., p.172
- Miller, p. 9
- Masih, “Leadership in Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church in India,” p. 81
- Stephen, p. 127
- Masih, “Leadership in Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church in India,” p. 9
- Ibid., p. 37
- Masih, Interview
- Masih, "Leadership in Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church in India," p. 98-99
- Masih, “Leadership in Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church in India,” p. 19-20
- Ibid., p. 167
- Masih, “Leadership in Bhartiya General Conference Mennonite Church in India,” p. 25
- Miller, p. 5-7
- Miller, Interview
- Unrau, p. 209-210
- Ibid., p. 210
- Miller, "Namaste," p. 8
Matt Yoder compiled much of the information presented here in a student research paper for a spring 2009 Anabaptist History Class at Goshen College.