My connections to the Orie O. Miller story
Part 1: My Connections to the Orie O. Miller story
My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story by John E. Sharp,
published by Herald Press, 2015.
If you are under 60 you are probably thinking, who was Orie O. Miller and why should I care? If you are a Mennonite and lived or grew up west of the Mississippi and are over 60, you may also not be familiar with him. But in my growing up home, his was a household name. And not just because he was a distant cousin.
If Orie’s life story were written as fiction, no one would believe it. Critics would call it not realistic to have a main character who was a pioneering visionary for the church who created real change impacting millions for generations, who was also a wealthy shoe salesman who made lots of money even through the Depression, but gave much of it away to the church institutions he served and from whom he never drew a salary, and married two women both named Elta. (Yes, the first Elta died.) There are also family dramas as children grew up to make adult choices, some of which did not make Orie or their mother happy. Finally, he was a man who wore both the plain suit of his Mennonite forbears just to keep conservatives happy, and underneath wore a necktie for his business counterparts!
If you enjoy history or biography and have any interest in the Mennonite church and one of its most influential members of the 20th century, you will be fascinated by this book. (And yes, there is an Orie O. Miller blog written by the biographer, where you can find details about many of the bolded items above.)
I was snagged just reading the author’s preface to My Calling to Fulfill, because author John Sharp’s personal history learning about Orie O. intersects with my own in an weird way.
John relates how on January 11, 1977, he was a recent college grad taking minutes at a meeting of the Mennonite Board of Education (MBE) at the Four Horsemen Hotel in Chicago. The room was abuzz that Orie Miller had died the day before. John was clueless.
“Who is Orie Miller?” John hissed to the person next to him. A long time MBE staff member leaned over and filled in the young whippersnapper.
I had also taken minutes at the Four Horsemen Hotel for a meeting of the Inter-Mennonite Media Group soon after graduating from college, probably 1977 or 1978. The Four Horsemen was popular with Mennonites because, yes, it had cheap rooms and probably did not charge for meeting space.
So I got to be part of the Four-Horsemen-hallowed-Mennonite-meeting-space with its bare, austere, late 70s low-priced (but clean) motel décor. I’m sure Orie attended many a Mennonite committee or board meeting there himself.
Our old farm, photo 2013. Orie Miller grew up not far away.
Similar roots. Unlike John, I did know the name Orie Miller from my parents. I never met Orie; perhaps I heard him speak at some event that I don’t recall. But growing up on a farm in Northern Indiana not more than 20 miles from a farm where Orie grew up, Mom and Dad often talked about Orie’s dad, bishop D. D. Miller. I don’t think I knew (or cared back then) that we were actually related, like thousands of other Mennonites who are offspring of Jacob Hochstetler, (see that history here).
Ok, Orie was a distant cousin, but that counts. That Hochstelter clan now even embraces the likes of actress Katey Sagal, as recently revealed on TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Show, with author/church administrator Ervin Stutzman.
My great grandfather Moses P. Miller, far left, and his wife Eva Hostetler in front (who pioneered in Hickory County Missouri during the same time Orie’s parents did).
Orie’s father D.D. Miller and my grandfather Uriah Miller were also both part of the Miller kinfolk who trekked westward to Hickory County, Missouri in search of cheap farm lands. After a miserable farming stint there, they moved back to northern Indiana where life was easier. D.D. was four. My grandfather Uriah was born in Missouri and his family moved back to Indiana when he was 3 months old. These stores were part of my family lore—wondering how on earth it was to wash diapers traveling in a covered wagon with a 3 month old baby. (My husband remembers my relatives attaching stories of Indians to this journey—probably mixing Uriah’s story up with the Indian attack of 1757 in the French and Indian War, while the Miller Missouri move happened more than 100 years later.)
D.D. went on to be a “widely traveled evangelist, bishop of a number of Amish Mennonite congregations, and an officer on numerous church boards” according to John’s biography. D.D. was known for being a very strong conservative Mennonite (for Indiana Mennonites, at least compared to Lancaster Pennsylvania Mennonites). In fact, the biography begins with D.D. making a snowy 15 mile carriage ride to visit his son Orie at Goshen College, extremely concerned about Orie perhaps turning too liberal under the influence of Goshen. (Orie had given him a college text to read.)
Orie’s early history. Orie graduated from Goshen College (where my two sisters both graduated), and early on, he often sensed a calling to ministry and had considered going to seminary.
One call almost came when Maple Grove congregation in Topeka (Ind.) needed a pastor. This was about a hundred years ago, 1917. A representative of the congregation approached Orie casually about the opening; but the call never came (search committee miscommunication) and finding his life work continued to be a prevailing theme for 10 years, triggered by multiple rounds of being selected for possible ordination through “the lot” in various locations including Ephrata Mennonite (Pa.) where he became a member after he got married. Yet he was never ordained, and the biographer writes about how this was a point of perplexity for the young Orie. Why was his “lot” not chosen, repeatedly? What did God mean for him to do?
In one such scenario, John writes, “Orie had little doubt the lot would fall on him.” The “lot” method used a slip of paper, typically inscribed with a scripture like Proverbs 16:33 (KJV) “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” inserted into a stack of Bibles (or sometimes hymnals). The candidates—carefully chosen and processed—would line up on a church bench and each be given the opportunity to pick a book—like drawing straws. The thinking was that a pastor’s call should not be based on congregational voting or popularity, but the Holy Spirit and God’s leading.
“With the drawing of the lot, one man’s life, and that of his family, would be changed forever,” writes John. Orie apparently first reached for one book, then paused and took another. The man next to him, Amos Horst, then took the book Orie passed over. You guessed it. The lot fell upon Amos instead.
That shook Orie’s confidence and sense of God’s call on his life—and even after multiple times of nomination for ordination, Orie was never ordained. But we will see how God mightily used Orie in amazing ways in several more posts I’ll write about his life as described in John’s captivating biography.
Daddy as deacon with his plain coat, at the rear entrance of church where we usually entered and left, long after everyone else.
My father’s ordination. But John’s sentence about ordination took hold of me as I thought of my own father. Dad drew the book with the slip of paper and was ordained as deacon of North Goshen Mennonite Church. His occupation was a full time farmer and he didn’t even have a high school education. But Daddy serving as a deacon (not paid) undoubtedly changed our family life, for the better, in ways I never truly pondered.
We grew up close to the pastor’s families—simply by nature of Dad serving alongside two wonderful pastors (in sequence), Russell Krabill and Don Augsburger. We were not quite PKs, but called ourselves DKs as we hung out frequently with the PKs. There was a certain sense of living under the ministerial microscope and that we’d better behave. Not that we always did.
My mother, as the deacon’s wife, often administered the sacrament of “the holy kiss” to newly baptized women; she helped prepare for communion by washing all the little glass communion cups; we washed and dried the towels for footwashing. I think some other women helped with that sometimes, and she was just glad she didn’t have to iron any strings on the towels as one church did which she belonged to later. The strings on the towels allowed each footwasher to “gird” him or herself with the towel, somewhat like Jesus did in the Biblical story!) But by far her most distasteful job was telling women when their dresses or sleeves were too short or their necklines too low. (To be fair, I don’t think she was asked to do that more than one time, but still.)
In those days a deacon’s job was to visit the widows and orphans, as it says in the New Testament, and Daddy often took us along on those visits, which was frequently eye opening to the suffering of those in the neighboring community. The area right around our church was and still is one of the economically struggling areas of Goshen.
North Goshen Mennonite church, 2013, at the same rear entrance where my family posed in the picture above.
It kept Daddy in an inner circle and placed him on committees or in positions where he eventually was asked to serve as treasurer of Indiana Michigan conference. Being in that circle helped make him a strong believer in and proponent of the local Christian (Mennonite) high school and Mennonite colleges.
But perhaps more importantly, his role brought us as a family in close relationship to people like the older deacon and his wife, who by that time was no longer was an active deacon: Henry and Lizzie Weaver. They were such beloved older saints by the time I was old enough to relate to and remember them. We would go to their home for “cottage prayer meetings” (before small groups were invented) and Lizzie would serve us some of her cookies, I’m sure.
These kinds of exposures, Dad’s own “education” in Civilian Public Service that I’ve written about several times, and Mother’s own faith and dedicated service, wielded enormous influence on our own lives as children and as a family. Thanks be to God.
Daddy reading his Bible faithfully every morning, here at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp.
Part II – Orie’s 5 year plan and how Mennonite work spread all over the world
Part III – Biggest surprises in Orie Miller biography
Was there an event, occurrence, person or persons – who changed your life or that of your family?
You can purchase My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story here.