The timing was good for John E. Sharp to write his recent biography of Orie O. Miller, My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story. Thirty-eight years have passed since Orie Miller’s death, allowing time for objective evaluation of this man who greatly influenced the Mennonite Church. And there are many people still living, who in their younger years worked closely with Orie Miller and still have vivid memories of working with him.
Orie’s life span, 1892-1977, parallels the institutional development of the Mennonite Church. Sharp’s book tells how Orie played a very significant role in starting many of those church programs and assisted in the growth and development of others, especially Mennonite colleges. This book provides a historical perspective of the major Mennonite programs from the years 1920 to 1970. Orie was part of most of them, and the book shows Orie at work, at home and abroad, doing the work of God’s kingdom. The story starts with his early life as the son of an important church leader, D. D. Miller in Elkhart County, Indiana. It continues through his marriage to a young woman from Akron, Pennsylvania, and his taking up residence there. He lived his entire adult life in Akron, but his work for the church and the shoe business took him on trips all over the world. In Akron, he became part of the more conservative Lancaster Mennonite Conference, helping to start Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities and being part of the Ephrata Mennonite congregation. He also helped to manage a shoe factory and reared a family of five children. Sharp’s book tells stories of his church, family, and business activities in a very descriptive way.
How did the man accomplish so much? The book describes his administrative skills and insights. A highly disciplined person, he was continually thinking of visionary plans for the many institutions that he served. In talking to missionaries and administrators, he would often inquire about their five- and ten-year plans. Sharp writes that Orie learned this from his business experiences and his early years as a relief worker following World War I. Miller’s personal faith and his strong loyalty to the Mennonite Church added a spiritual dimension to his life’s work.
Sharp’s book points out that Orie had his critics. Mennonite Fundamentalists in the 1930s and 1940s were especially outspoken. He was once referred to as a “dangerous man” because he worked closely with Quakers, Church of the Brethren leaders, and more liberal Mennonites to develop the CPS program and establish a unified peace witness in Washington, D.C. Young Mennonite scholars in Europe criticized him and other leaders for exercising too much authority in church matters. Orie, himself, wished that he would have more time to spend with his wife and growing children.
While being a strong and persuasive leader, he talked in a soft-spoken manner. He would sometimes become emotional. The book gives several occasions where Orie wept openly.
Orie Miller was filled with passion to serve God and the church. This burning desire drove him to work very hard and travel many miles. It is also what made him so persuasive in asking others to serve. One of Orie's well-known quotes was, “When the church asks you to serve, let your answer be yes unless there is a good reason to say no.”
John Sharp’s book is most informative and enjoyable. Readers will like the many good black-and-white graphics of Orie and his family and associates. Yes, the book is a story, the story of a man and the church that he served.
Biographer John E. Sharp suggests most Mennonites younger than 60 are unacquainted with the life of Orie O. Miller. An extraordinarily influential lay leader in the Mennonite Church, Miller was an entrepreneur who served a long tenure as chief executive of Mennonite Central Committee. He and others developed a host of programs and organizations, including the Civilian Public Service church-government partnership, Mennonite Economic Development Associates and Menno Travel Service.
Raised in an Indiana Amish Mennonite farm family, Miller took inspiration from his father’s ministry in Mennonite congregations and his parents’ appreciation for books and education. Arriving at Goshen College in 1910, he studied business and within two years joined the school’s business faculty, simultaneously taking courses in the liberal arts.
Drawn to ministry, he assumed he would be called to serve a Mennonite congregation or go abroad as a missionary. Ironically, however, the biography’s title, My Calling, references a key theme of Miller’s life: Instead of a ministerial career, he joined—reluctantly—the successful shoe-manufacturing business in Lancaster County, Pa., owned by his wife’s family.
Miller’s calling, he eventually discerned, was to combine Christian service with business. The entrepreneurial Miller, “after struggling mightily,” Sharp says, “accepted his gift for administration . . . . expressed in a myriad of ministries.”
Sharp offers a portrait of an admirable servant leader, given to diligence, discipline and humility. Considering Miller’s access to wealth and interest in financing churchwide endeavors, his economic philosophy as a mid-20th-century American capitalist is telling: “It’s OK to make money, but you don’t want to die a rich man.”
Never ordained but generally respected in his adopted Mennonite milieu of eastern Pennsylvania, Miller turned his business base in the community of Akron into the organizational home for MCC and the locus for multiple faith-based enterprises: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, Goodville Mutual Casualty Co., Landis Homes.
In this telling, Miller had a consistently broader outlook than Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders whose concern for discipline in dress and other cultural matters Miller regarded as provincial. Not given to drama, he picked his battles with eastern conservatives and sometimes acquiesced, sometimes pushed back, usually in low-key style.
Further, Sharp suggests that Miller “represented his generation’s Protestant pattern of paternalistic missions, and he embodied great authority, yet . . . . his paternalism did not mean imperialism or colonialism.”
Based on Miller’s correspondence with family and associates, as well as dozens of personal interviews, this volume offers an appreciative, insider’s look at a Mennonite leader whose progressivism and global outlook, Sharp asserts, remain exemplary in the 21st century.
This approach, of course, has limits, since readers of Mennonite history might wish for a more critical analysis of what constituted colonialism, or patriarchy, or ethnocentrism in North American Mennonite institutions’ recent past.
While Sharp’s biography bypasses those issues, other scholars are certainly engaging that work, including Alain Epp Weaver in his edited volume A Table of Sharing (2011), a provocative analysis of MCC’s first 90 years.
And while Sharp lauds Miller’s business acumen and managerial style, he leaves opportunities for others to bring a critical eye to North American Mennonite business practices, as Canadian historian Janis Thiessen has done in her labor-oriented appraisal, Manufacturing Mennonites (2013).
My Calling to Fulfill is a commissioned work, with funding provided primarily by MCC, as well as from the Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society, based in Harrisonburg, Va., from the financial services organization Everence, and other sources. Significantly, however, no shoe company is among the underwriters. The once-lucrative Miller, Hess and Co. filed for bankruptcy in 1984, seven years after Orie Miller’s death.
Miller died “according to plan,” his biographer concludes, having directed members of his family that his assets were to be given away. Today, the eastern Pennsylvania shoe factory building that in decades past undergirded Miller’s bent for Christian service has been repurposed as headquarters for Ten Thousand Villages, the successful fair-trade organization.
“I just kept reading the Miller biography! The vast research by the author, John E. Sharp, brought stimulating human interest details of both Miller’s work and the context of the church and community where he lived. I was amazed how some conservative Virginia Mennonite Conference leaders in the 1940’s tried to derail Miller’s leadership and work in establishing the new Civilian Public Service in WWII. Through his vision and persistence, Miller prevailed for the good of all.”
“Sharp’s biography captures effectively the character and commitments that made Orie Miler one of the most consequential Mennonite leaders of the twentieth century.”
“Sharp brings to light details of how Orie Miller coaxed quiet Mennonites of North America to serve the world during some of the most challenging times of the twentieth century.”