Someone once said that the seven last words of a dying church are: “We’ve never done it that way before.” For leaders who are dreamers and visionaries, these words can be a dream-killer and can dampen vision.
I have been on a spiritual journey retracing the roots of the North Carolina District Conference, which once included 13 churches in North Carolina and Tennessee. What intrigues me most about this journey is how this work all came about thanks to a wonderful, spirit-filled lady by the name of Emily C. Prudden. I thought I knew all about Miss Prudden from hearing stories from the Hortons, Hattons and Lipfords and from reading the 1984 book written by Katherine Siemens Richert, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which is no longer in print.
A few weeks ago, pastor Larry Smith of West End MB Church and I decided to drive up to Elk Park, NC, to see if we could find the two schools built by Miss Prudden, which were the birth place of the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren mission work here. After we found the location and the remains of the foundation, we headed back to Lenoir. About half way back, we ran across a historical road marker in Blowing Rock, NC, that read: “Emily Prudden 1832-1917 Missionary. Founded 15 western N.C. schools including Pfeiffer College forerunner. Her Skyland Institute stood here.”
It seemed to both of us that this was the first time we had ever seen this historical road marker—until Peggy Goertzen reminded me a few days ago that I was with her when she took a picture of this marker in 2006.
Well, my wheels began to turn. Where were the other 13 schools? Just who was this Emily Prudden? How could I find out more about her? So, I googled “Emily Prudden Elk Park” and found several websites with a wealth of information,
including her birth place, that she opened her first school in Gaston County in 1884 and two schools in Elk Park, one white and one black. Another school in Hudson, NC, only a few miles from Lenoir, was her most successful school. It relocated to Misenheimer, NC, and became Pfeiffer College.
This was truly intriguing, but what encouraged me the most, especially after all of our conversations around women in the ministry, is the fact that the one person used by God to start the MB work in North Carolina was a missionary and educator named Emily Prudden. A woman sent by God with a dream and a vision that was unstoppable, even when people told her, “We’ve never done it that way before.” These words no doubt motivated her to keep going and not to give up.
After reviewing a policy that was affirmed in 1999 that stated that women be encouraged to minster in the church in every function other than the lead pastorate, The Life Center Church was compelled by the Holy Spirit to do something that has never been done here before: ordain the first woman as associate pastor and the first husband and wife team as youth pastors. As with Emily Prudden, The Life Center Church and NCDC decided just because something had never been done here doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.
Thank you, Emily C. Prudden, for being obedient to the Spirit of God and using your giftedness to become a pioneer missionary and educator in North Carolina. We belong to this great family of Christ followers because of men and women who refused to give up or give in to adversity in spite of the cost. That is why I refuse to allow the work of the Mennonite Brethren to lose its momentum in North Carolina. God is on the move here today as he was in 1898.
Terry W. Hunt is pastor of The Life Church in Lenoir, North Carolina, and has served as the Eastern District Conference (formerly North Carolina District Conference) minister since 2005. Hunt has lived and worked in North Carolina his entire life and spent 17 of 31 years as a bivocational pastor while working as a plant manager in the furniture industry. He is very active in his community and with USMB. He and his wife, Kathy, have four daughters and four grandchildren.