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3 Biggest Surprises in Orie O. Miller Biography

June 22, 2016

Writer Wednesday
Part III – 3 Biggest Surprises in Orie O. Miller biography

I’m finally sharing the last of my posts on John E. Sharp’s remarkable biography, My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story (Herald Press, 2015). I’m impressed with anyone who can spend a couple of years digging into the details and minutia of the long life of a person and not even be related to them—and write it so entertainingly (there’s a plot, there are characters).

Biographer John Sharp, singing at the Orie Miller Hall of Nations dedication at Eastern Mennonite University.

In the case of Orie O., there’s also a life history so important to not only the Mennonite church but the wider body of Christians and history itself. Orie’s thinking, service and witness were so advanced for his time (career spanning his 20’s to 70s—the most productive decades in perfect chronology with the corresponding years of the 1920s to 1970s). He left huge footsteps all across the 20th century.

Family issues. And there are some colossal surprises. Some we might expect out of the family life of any great (or average) person—where kids grow up to follow a way different than their parents. The books talks about how hard it is to be the child of a great figure, whether because the parent neglected or short changed his or her offspring, or because kids often feel that way even if they weren’t.

Sharp as biographer does not shy away from the departure of Orie’s first born child and only daughter, Lois, from Mennonite/Anabaptist ways as she grew up to love and marry an Episcopalian, Dan Beach. That may not seem like a big deal now. Many of us have done the same thing. Ahem. But to Mennonites of that time, Lois’s choices were a serious leave-taking from the faith of her father and mother.

Born only 13 months after Orie and Elta married, Lois waited six years for a sibling, Albert, and ended with four brothers. I was surprised to learn that Elta left three-year-old Lois with grandparents for a semester. Both Orie and Elta thought they would both be called to mission work overseas, so while Orie was overseas one spring, she prepared herself with Bible and mission courses at Bethany Bible College (Church of the Brethren) in Chicago, attending at the same time as a sister-in-law, Ruth. In any event, Lois and the other Miller children got used to their father being away for months at a time, on far-flung journeys to dozens of countries, all in the name of church work—mostly volunteer.

As a student at Goshen College where her father and grandfather were well known and highly respected, Lois was reprimanded for not only not wearing a typical Mennonite bonnet of the day, but “a hat with feathers” (p. 197). Orie would later say and be quoted by many regarding his only daughter, “Wherever we drew the line, she was outside of it.”

So Orie was human as a parent. Welcome to the club. Sharp writes that Orie and Elta eventually adjusted well to their Episcopalian son-in-law. Orie was likely much more suited than many Mennonites of that time to adjust to wider circles of faith because of his own ecumenical work and understandings.

Critics. A second surprise was learning that Orie was not so loved and respected by Mennonite leaders here in Virginia. Two of his bigger detractors were Ernest Gehman and George Brunk I. This was back in the days of Civilian Public Service, a joint program of the government and church widely lauded by many in the church as a helpful way to channel those conscientiously opposed to war into alternative service programs “doing work of national importance,” my father being one.


Dr. Ernest Gehman

The Virginia critics were worried that liberalism was creeping into the church’s traditional peace stance through this program. There was a showdown in 1942 right here in Harrisonburg which Sharp covers in much detail, while World War II raged. There was concern that secular pacifism by non-Christians and non-Mennonites was influencing the historic non-resistance of Mennonites. Orie countered that the Civilian Public Service program instead did much to teach a new generation of young people the historic non-resistance of Anabaptist Christians, in a church that had begun to leave its moorings on that issue.


Note which Ernest Gehman sent to me after our interview.

As a college journalism student at EMU, I had the opportunity to interview Ernest Gehman many years later, who was an innovative thinker of the time. He was known not only as a Bible scholar but also an inventor and strong proponent of the probability of intelligent life on other planets and visiting UFOs. That Dr. Gehman opposed Orie Miller was a surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been. His second wife, Margaret Gehman, was the most dedicated volunteer at our Mennonite Media office for many years after Ernest died, where she earned nothing but our deepest respect.


Ernest and his wife Margaret, right, enjoying some artwork at EMU with art professor Stanley Kauffman, left. Margaret was an artist also, along with being a P.E. professor!

Wide arms. But the biggest surprise I found tucked away in this volume is how Orie, in the 1950s, was fine with including a mosque for Muslims in a school launched by a Mennonite mission agency. Why had I never heard this?! Amazing. Back in 1926, Orie was appointed founding editor of Missionary Messenger, the mouthpiece magazine of Eastern Mennonite Missions, (which Orie also served in various board capacities). At Orie’s and others’ urging, EMM entered Somalia in 1953 to do mission work and when they built a secondary school, “Somali authorities asked Mennonites to include a mosque for the students, since 96-97 percent of Somalis were Muslim.”

Orie’s response? Hershey Leaman, according to an interview with Sharp, quoted Orie’s logic as “Well, yes, these people are Muslims. They’ve chosen to be Muslims. Why shouldn’t they have a place of worship? Look, if we are interested in those people hearing our witness, observing our lives, hearing how we approach God, then we also need to listen to them” (p. 316).

The matter was approved by the EMM board, long the most conservative of Mennonite mission boards.

I was struck by Leaman’s phrasing of Orie’s response, seeing this incident as an example of Orie’s missiology: you approach people respectfully … with care and love. “If they don’t have education, they should have education. If they don’t have adequate health care, they should have adequate health care. And if they don’t have a place of worship, they should have a place of worship” (p. 316).

A mosque in a Mennonite school in Somalia in the 50s! David W. Shenk, one of the long time mission workers in Somalia and numerous other heavily Muslim areas, is still one of Herald Press’s most prolific, successful, and faithful authors on topics of extending and receiving hospitality to and from Muslims—wherever we live. Shenk’s series of books, A Muslim and Christian in Dialogue, Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church, and the award-winning Christian. Muslim. Friend: Twelve Paths to Real Relationship are a tribute to devout Christian faith that can flourish even in conversation and relationship with brothers and sisters of the Abrahamic household of faith. (And of course here we’re discussing those Muslims who are devout but not radicalized.)

Truly Orie was a man ahead of his times—a man for all times. Thank you John Sharp, the project committee, and MCC who supported and made possible the writing and publishing of this remarkable history.

Here are the other two parts to this review:
Part I – My Connections to the Orie Miller story.
Part II – Orie O. Miller’s World Wide Reach.


If Orie was still alive and active in the church, I’m wondering, “What Would Orie Do?” (regarding so many issues). Your thoughts about issues and outreach he’d engage in?


Who are today’s Orie’s? And they don’t have to be Mennonite. You might recall that I too “departed” from being a card-carrying Mennonite. 🙂 


How have you found your calling?


My signed copy of My Calling to Fulfill.



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