We are a community of faith that is seeking to reflect John 14:6 into lives and into our local community.
God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as a community of grace, joy and peace, so that God's salvation message, healing and hope flow through us to the world.
The Lower Deer Creek Church was organized in 1877 as the result of a rapidly growing Amish community. It found itself increasing in numbers to the extent that a house could only contain so many people of the congregation for services. Another congregation needed to be organized so all might be able to attend in another home. Let us step back a number of years and examine the beginning of the church movement in Iowa.
In 1846 Daniel P. Guengerich and family, William Wertz and family and Joseph J. Swartzendruber (single) came down the Ohio River by steamboat, then north on the Mississippi to Bloomington (Muscatine), Iowa. There they unloaded their wagons filled with the possessions that they were able to bring for their families for a week while the three men proceeded on to Washington to secure the claims they had staked out the year before.
William Wertz located a log cabin in the vicinity of Amish occupied by a single man named John Lambert. After Wertz stated his reason for being here, Mr. Lambert invited them to move in with him until they had time to locate more permanently. Daniel and Joseph located an empty cabin about twenty rods east of the present Lower Deer Creek cemetery. After the families were moved into their temporary quarters they proceeded to lay out their claims and began to plan homesteads for permanent dwelling.
William Wertz homesteaded eighty acres on the present Rolland Yoder farm, erecting a log cabin across the road from the Miller Sisters’ buildings. Daniel staked out one hundred twenty acres, where Ronald Hartzler lives and on west including a short section on Deer Creek. Joseph homesteaded at Hickory Grove in the vicinity of Don Hochstetler’s farm. Joseph, however, became discouraged that summer and returned to Maryland that same year where he married and set up farming. Ten years later he moved to Iowa again and took up residence on his original homestead. Also in the fall of 1846 Peter B. Miller and family arrived and became part of the new settlement. He was the ancestor of Dr. Jay R. Miller of Wellman.
In 1847 Daniel Guengerich "staked and deeded", as it was called, another eighty east of where he lived. This included the land on which the Iowa Mennonite School is located. He cleared enough land immediately west of IMS, on the present Ronald Hartzler farm, so that he was able to plow and plant eight acres that year. A year later he had the opportunity to buy a claim in Washington County for thirty dollars on another eighty located one and one half miles north of Kalona, presently own by Joe Hershberger. This land suited him better than where he was living, so he decided to build his first permanent home there. Here he constructed a new log cabin measuring 14 by 16 feet in size and he hewed the interior slab from each log so they would have a nicer finished wall. They moved to this location in 1849 and built up the place also improving the land for the next twenty-five years.
These three families lived here alone until 1850 when three more families arrived. In 1851, eleven more families moved here among them two ordained ministers, Jacob Swartzendruber and John P. Guengerich. With the new settlement now becoming well established, it was now possible to organize a formal church system with regular services. The question may be asked here, just what brought these people so far from the larger churches in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio? Was it the rich Iowa farmland they had heard of, or were they seeking a higher spiritual interest? This question may be partially answered by an entry in some of Daniel P. Guengerich’s writings of 1846 when he made this statement, "I finished fencing in ten acres, eight acres prairie was then broken up, but the best was still missing. We still have no church, not until 1851 when more families arrived, among whom were my dear mother and step-father Jacob Swartzendruber. He then was chosen Bishop, and so with the blessings of God the church grew." In 1851 in Daniel’s new log cabin the first church assembled. Christian Swartzendruber and Joseph Goldsmith, both bishops from the Lee County Amish community, helped establish the first church in this community. They also decided at that time to meet every three weeks.
The following year they again assembled in Guengerich’s cabin with the Lee County bishops for communion and they also ordained Frederick Swartzendruber to the office of deacon. In 1853 Jacob Swartzendruber was ordained as bishop in the same cabin. This completed the ministerial leadership and the new congregation was on its own.
It may be well to note at this point that the communion cup used by Jacob Swartzendruber and later on by his son Joseph J. together with Joseph Goldsmith’s Bible is on display at the Iowa Mennonite Museum. Also a communion cup that went through the church fire in 1956 is also part of this exhibit. Melvin Gingerich had acquired the first cup mentioned from his grandfather David Reber and presented it to the Museum at the time of its dedication.
The first church in this community was a strong, smooth operating organization and it grew rapidly as more families continued to locate here. By 1862 it had become so large they could no longer conveniently have services in one house, so they decided to divide the area and have two churches. Using the location of the present Highway 1, they divided the community into two districts. The east church was named Sharon and the west church was named Deer Creek. This arrangement did not last too long until the two churches were again crowded for space as more settlers arrived and the families that were here grew up and needed more space.
In 1877 they divided the two churches into four congregations, using the road as a line from the Twin County Dairy east they divided the Sharon section into North Sharon and South Sharon. To the west they used the first road west of Deer Creek running north and south past Leroy Ropp’s as a line naming the west side Upper Deer Creek and the east Lower Deer Creek. At this time, the Lower Deer Creek congregation came into being.
The first ministers in charge of this new church were Abner Yoder (bishop), Peter Brenneman (minister), and Jacob F. Swartzendruber, ordained one year later in 1878. Abner Yoder was from the Sharon district but also was active in this office when other churches called for his services. Peter Brenneman was the first resident bishop ordained in 1881. Joseph J. Gingerich and David Reber were also ordained to the ministry in 1878. This church again grew in numbers as had the previous churches and by the late 1880s they again were faced with an overflow crowd. In 1888-89 something different began to develop in the community when a group of people from both the Sharon and Deer Creek areas decided to construct a building about two miles southeast of Amish (Joetown), Iowa. This building would be used for both Sunday School and Church services. Prior to this time, Sunday Schools were conducted at rural schoolhouses. Since this project was supported by some people from all of the four churches in the community, it was named the Union Church. This development caused both of the Deer Creek churches to revaluate their thinking about dividing again. Why not have large enough buildings constructed to accommodate the larger congregations? This caused some discussion in relation to the Sharon churches but they agreed to it, as long as the former Amish relationships would remain the same. In 1890 both Lower and Upper Deer Creek congregations erected almost identical buildings 36 x 54 feet at a cost of $1300 for each building.
The Lower Deer Creek church was now located on the northeast quadrant of the crossroad one half mile northwest of Amish, Iowa. This plot of ground was purchased from C.D. Yoder for $1.00. A number of people thought it would be good to have some protection from their teams, especially in times of bad weather, so it was decided whoever would like to have this extra service should help build and maintain his own shed. In 1907, they built a long shed along the north side of the grounds containing thirty-six stalls. In 1917, more sheds were erected along the east side and further west to the road as the need arose.
At the time this church was built, a building committee consisting of three men was appointed to this task. They were John B. Miller, Emanuel P. Hershberger and John Schlabaugh. When the church became operational, these three brethren were then appointed to be the first trustees. One of their first decisions was a matter of finances. In order to maintain the building they would charge a levy of $2.50 a year for men and $1.50 for women. This then created their first treasury.
Another interesting sidelight developed soon after the church was in use. Instead of referring to this place by the long name, it seemed to have become known as the "Bush" church, this being the Pennsylvania Dutch expression for "Timber." The main reason probably for this term was that it was located in a small clearing of a very heavily wooded section of the land. Also it was quickly identified because there were practically no trees at either the Union location or Upper Deer Creek. Later as the church began to use the English language in 1917 the word "Timber" became a common name of identification. Even though this congregation now had a church house, they remained faithful to Amish belief and practice. They now had services every other Sunday but no evening meeting, instead the young folks still gathered in homes from the various churches in the community for the Sunday evening "Singing" and social time. There was no Sunday School in conjunction with the church service at this time as yet. The Sunday School was generally held in local school houses on the Sunday night that there was no church service. There also was a feeling that the Church and Sunday School should remain separate institutions by some people in the community, so it remained this way for a while.
With the passing of Abner Yoder and Peter Brenneman, both having the bishop oversight in their time, William K. Miller, Bishop at Upper Deer Creek, became acting bishop until 1887 when Jacob F. Swartzendruber was ordained to that office. He then, with David Reber and Joseph J. Gingerich, were active in the new building program in 1890. Everything seemed to prosper in this new arrangement for several decades while the surrounding community became quite well established and advanced considerably from its early pioneer days. New inventions and improved ways of doing things began to make life a little easier and more pleasant. This began to cause some differences between the Sharon and Deer Creek communities. The Sharon people did not tend to go along with some of the new changes. This caused a more progressive nature in the west area then in the east district and it also resulted in some cultural differences.
By 1910 telephones were being installed in the local neighborhood by non-Amish residents. Occasionally someone in need of a doctor or some other emergency would use one of these phones in the community. At the same time they did not like to impose on their neighbors for this service as the church had not been particularly friendly toward this new invention. But a number of people in the church could not see any spiritual hindrance in this new convenience and thought they would like to own one if the church did not oppose. Finally, after some years of discussion, the ministers decided to let the church vote on the matter presuming it would be defeated. After the vote was taken it was announced by Bishop Swartzendruber that the issue was defeated. However, after this verdict was issued a number of people did not attend services and this number grew until over half of the church was involved. This group then decided to have services of their own the Sunday that the other group did not use the building. After all, they reasoned, it was their building same as the rest of the congregation. David Reber and Jacob S. Yoder also met with them during these times hoping to work out a satisfactory solution for the situation. In time, the larger group negotiated to buy the others’ share of the building which settled the difference. Jacob Swartzendruber then left this congregation as minister and bishop and joined the Sharon churches. Under the leadership of David Reber and Jacob S. Yoder, the church was reorganized. Andrew Schrock, bishop from Metamora, Illinois, accepted the invitation to become acting bishop. In 1914, they were well organized again and they also changed the Amish to Amish Mennonite and the Sharon title then became Old Order Amish. This same year, Joe. L. Hershberger was ordained to the ministry. Joseph J. Gingerich did not affiliate with the new order as minister, nor did he take up membership with the Sharon churches. He passed away in 1916.
In 1915 some different plans for worship were adopted. They decided to have a Sunday School alternately with the regular church service. Instead of meeting every two weeks they would meet every Sunday. There were no evening meetings and everyone seemed to enjoy the new arrangement. The first regular evening services were not held until 1917. Interest was good in the new church order and the size of the congregation soon filled the building, so the time had come again that either they must divide or increase the size of the facilities. After some consultation they voted to build a larger multi-purpose structure that would well accommodate all church activities. The old building was dismantled so they could build on the same location. The new building had a basement, 40 x 60 feet in size with a large room built onto the main auditorium 32 x 27 feet in size. This room could be sliced by means of folding doors and was called a "Wing." Its purpose was two-fold, It would be used for the primary department of the Sunday School and opened up for overflow crowds for the church. This new church building was erected at a cost of $7,000 and was finished in 1917. In 1917, David D. Miller was ordained to the ministry and in 1918, John Y. Swartzendruber was ordained to the same office. Also, George Reber was received as Deacon from the Colorado district. Relief programs were being instituted at about this time so the first "Sewing Circle" was organized in 1918. John Y. Swartzendruber was ordained bishop in 1919. The congregation also applied for membership in the Western Amish Mennonite Conference that year. This was their first official conference affiliation. This conference only lasted three more years and then by redistricting this area they formed the Iowa-Nebraska Mennonite Conference, in 1921 this new conference had its first meeting at Lower Deer Creek and has been active ever since. After joining this conference, they dropped the title "Amish" and became a full fledged Mennonite congregation.
The next twenty years were very progressive years for Lower Deer Creek. It was during this time that both District Mission and Foreign Mission interests developed very rapidly. There were Bible Conferences, Winter Bible Schools, Summer Bible Schools, Young People’s Bible Meeting, Evangelistic Services, local Mission Projects, Literary Society, an organized fellowship for young people, and more. In 1940 they needed more space again so they finished a large room in the basement, installed a new oil furnace, and improved the basement in general for more operating efficiency. The Primary Sunday School department was moved downstairs to the new room, and the "Wing" was used for an expanded adult Sunday School. The following year, 1941, General Conference was located here because of its central location in the church community. This was one of the largest church related projects ever undertaken by all the Mennonite churches in the area.
In the first half of the nineteen forties, World War II made its impact upon the church. The Civilian Public Service program took many young fellows from both the church and the farms. This special system was an alternative service provided by the government for Conscientious Objectors opposed to compulsory military service. From this program the overseas Pax service was instigated, V.S. or Voluntary Service, and IW Alternative service were set up. These service agencies are all in operation yet an are no longer limited to young fellows but people of all ages are active in this type of voluntary service.
On Sunday morning, January 29, 1956, the church house was destroyed by fire. The church had just completed an interior rebuilding and painting job the year before for better operating efficiency. Clark Brenneman was janitor that year and he recounts the story as follows: They had made this project a family affair and generally did the weekly cleaning on Friday. In the winter when it was cold, they would turn the thermostat up a few degrees to bring the temperature up for Sunday, the heat always being turned low on Sunday evening after the service. On Saturday he would go to the church and check everything and turn on a little more heat if necessary. On this particular morning it was cold, so he went to the church at five in the morning and turned up the heat for normal Sunday use and everything seemed to be fine. He went home to finish up morning chores, but before he was through, they noticed large columns of black smoke from the one chimney and by the time they arrived the northeast corner to the building was in flames.
The following week arrangements were made to have the services at the Iowa Mennonite School auditorium until other plans could be made. After regular services were again organized at the school they also decided to add a Junior Department to their Sunday School curriculum. This had not been done previously because of inadequate facilities at the church. This plan became a permanent reality when they moved into the new church.
Plans for rebuilding were immediately set in motion, a building committee consisting of Ed L. Swartzendruber, chairman; Ray A Yoder, secretary; Homer Brenneman, Truman Erb, and Ray V. Hochstetler were assigned to this work. Herman Yoder was appointed treasurer. The result of their planning and work is the present day church building. Dedication service for the building was held on January 20, 1957, or one week less then a year after the fire. Sanford G. Shetler of Hollsopple, Pennsylvania, was guest speaker for this service and he then continued a week of Evangelist services.
Costs of building churches are rather nominal in Mennonite circles because of cooperative effects by not only the members, but generally the community. Many hours of donated labor and time help lift and distribute the sacrifice needed financially for such projects as this. The actual cost of this building was $76,000 and there was no debt when the work was finished. In fact, more funds were received than were used so they were set aside for future use or improvements. All churches built by the Lower Deer Creek congregation were debt-free upon completion, which indicates to some degree the spiritual nature of this congregation through the years
This building has now been in use for twenty years and it's asset to the church and community has gone beyond expectations. The collective efforts of this brotherhood under the leadership of John Y. Swartzendruber, Dean Swartzendruber, Robert K. Yoder and more recently the Board of Elders, Max Yoder, Jim Hochstetler and Lowell Brenneman, have expanded into many new avenues of service during this period. We have all greatly profited both spiritually and physically for the fulfillment of that early vision of Daniel P. Guengerich when he said, "The best is still missing, we have no church."
written by Clarence Bender (prepared for the Centennial History in 1977).
Updated 2017 -
While the values of the congregation remain, some things have changed from Clarence Bender’s history of 1977. In 2000-2001 the congregation reorganized its working structure to include a Church Council to oversee the administrative work of the church to allow the elders to focus on the Spiritual life of the congregation. Also in 2000 Lower Deer participated in the changes when Iowa – Nebraska Conference became Central Plain Mennonite Conference and joined with the conference in forming the new denomination of Mennonite Church USA in February of 2002. Renovations in 2012-14, include remodeling the offices and foyer and adding a play area for the children. On January 31, 2016, the congregation voted to leave Central Plains and Mennonite Church USA to become part of the EVANA network of churches. (update by Don Patterson 2017)
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