Fundamentalism and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario

Last week this blog reflected on the origins of fundamentalism. This blog looks more directly at the impact of fundamentalism on the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in the early 20th century.


T. T. Shields. Photo from Wikipedia

The modernist-fundamentalist conflicts appeared in most Protestant denominations after World War I, though the temperature of the debate was lower in Canada than it was in the United States, especially within the Presbyterian Church. The formation of the United Church of Canada in 1925, which brought most of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches together, preoccupied the attention of those groups in Canada.

The primary Canadian conflict took place within the Baptist community, when popular preacher Thomas T. Shields of the large Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto attacked McMaster University, then a Baptist school, for it theology. Several divisions among Baptists followed.

Most of the modernist-fundamentalist battles within the Mennonite Church took place in the United States, and involved a number of purges of leaders thought to be tinged with modernism, partly because of where they had done graduate theological study (typically Union Theological Seminary in New York or the University of Chicago). However, the resignation of John E. Hartzler as president of Goshen College in 1918 and his subsequent departure from the binational Mennonite Church as part of this purge, reverberated in Ontario. Hartzler was a good friend of Bishop S. F. Coffman in Vineland, and when Hartzler lost his Goshen position Coffman invited him to itinerate in Ontario until he settled on something else.


J.B. Smith. GAMEO photo

Helping to define the new theological terrain in Ontario were the eighteen “Christian Fundamentals” approved by the binational Mennonite Church’s General Conference in 1921. These tenets had originated in the Virginia Mennonite Conference and were drafted primarily by Jacob B. Smith, originally from Ontario, and then president of the new Eastern Mennonite School at Harrisonburg, Virginia.

One of the features of Mennonite fundamentalism, which accepted the virgin birth, scriptural inerrancy, and other tenets of fundamentalism, was the addition of an emphasis on separation from the world, especially in dress. This included the prayer veil for women, wearing bonnets instead of hats (women), modest dress, lack of jewelry, along with non-participation in war, non-swearing of oaths, etc. This emphasis on separation added a layer of meaning not common to other fundamentalists.


S. F. Coffman

Ontario Bishop S. F. Coffman was the editor who prepared the final text for the 1921 Mennonite Church delegates. Coffman agreed with the fundamentals in spirit but had been unsure whether an additional formal confession was required alongside the traditional Dordrecht Confession of 1632. He would not have been comfortable with the confrontational style of J. B. Smith or George R. Brunk, who actively tried to cleanse the Mennonite Church of leaders not in sympathy with their view.

Eventually the larger theological storm in the Mennonite Church took its toll in Ontario as well. The Mennonite mission workers in Toronto were very uncomfortable with dress regulations that were part of the symbols of “separation” that accompanied the Mennonite take on fundamentalist theology.

Congregations, too, were affected in various ways, as illustrated by the experiences of Wanner Mennonite Church in Hespeler (now part of Cambridge) and First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Each found a different path through the conflict; the former survived intact, the second was split in two.

Bonnets and prayer veils

Bonnets and prayer veils recommended for women in first half of 20th century. GAMEO photo

Wanner was much smaller than First Mennonite (in 1924 Wanner had 47 members to First Mennonite’s 293), and was located on the edge of the Mennonite community. Minister Absalom B. Snyder was a plain man himself who wore the bow tie and clerical coat with tails that he had worn before the uniform plain coat was heavily promoted. He was not comfortable refusing communion to persons over clothing issues, and bishop Jonas Snider, the Waterloo County bishop who usually served Wanner’s communion, would not have resisted Snyder’s milder approach. Snyder’s wife was one of only two women in the congregation to wear a cape dress (the other woman still wore her earrings along with the cape!). Many years later older members could only remember one time that communion was refused to women who did not wear the bonnet—when bishop Manasseh Hallman from the Wilmot District announced before serving that women who wore hats could not receive communion. Some young men also stayed back from communion in sympathetic protest on that occasion.

The First Mennonite approach was to challenge the conference. At the April 1921 semiannual conference of Waterloo County ministers and deacons, delegates approved a resolution that insisted the bonnet be worn in public at all times and directed that communion be withheld from women who continued to wear hats in public. Bonnets reflected appropriate separation from the world, fashionable hats did not.


Urias K. Weber. GAMEO photo

The conference said the resolution should be read before communion was served at churches. For reasons that later became contentious, Local bishops E. S. Hallman and Jonas Snider did not offer communion at First Mennonite Church that spring. In the fall First Mennonite minister Urias K. Weber had the resolution read as requested, but followed the reading by stating his opposition to it. In the fall Manasseh Hallman did serve communion at First Mennonite, though only a small percentage of the congregation took part.

Before the conference’s annual meeting in June 1922, 139 members of First Mennonite Church petitioned in protest of the bonnet resolution passed by the Ministers Meeting. Although an effort was made to table the First Mennonite petition, the delegates decided to appoint an investigating committee.

The committee’s three-page report to a special session of the conference in December 1922 reviewed twelve charges by the petitioners. It responded to each charge, then noted seven general findings and made four recommendations, none of which related directly to the bonnet worn by women. Rather, it was more generally critical of attempts “for the removal of conference regulations regarding the matter of dress,” a disregard for the baptismal vow, unfavorable parental influence, unharmonious spiritual oversight by leaders, and confusion about authority.

No legitimacy was given to a complaint about the inherent contradiction of the unenforced plain coat for men or the history of uneven discipline in the previous thirty years. The recommendations were vague, except for the one calling for greater clarity in defining bishop districts, and calling for a “solemn pledge of loyalty to the Church and her standards.” The special conference approved the findings and recommendations, and S. F. Coffman duly reported these to the Kitchener congregation in February 1923.

In Coffman’s report to the conference executive committee of the February congregational meeting, he noted there was significant resistance to the investigating committee’s report. When Coffman had asked the congregation for an expression of “loyalty to the principles of the Church and confidence in the work of the Church,” it naturally led to a “considerable discussion” on whether this implied acceptance of the conference resolutions. When Coffman asked the congregation to give its “expression of confidence” by standing, “a considerable number did not rise, especially among the young sisters, it being evident that the discussions were confusing to the minds of some, who, otherwise would have given loyal assent to the work of the Church and conference.”

The conflict was not resolved, and eventually led to a division and the formation of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, whose back property line virtually touched that of First Mennonite Church.

There were later divisions, including a division that saw the formation of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, a topic mentioned in an earlier blog.

For more discussion on fundamentalism and Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

The Lure of Fundamentalism


Charles Darwin and his son in 1841. Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

In the latter part of the 19th century theological tension arose in the Protestant evangelical churches in North America. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution created strong reactions.

Many Protestant leaders in “mainline denominations,” in their belief in historical progress, thought evolution was one of God’s ways of working. With an emphasis on truth and reason, they maintained the kingdom of God could be achieved on earth. They emphasized Jesus’ humanity more than his divinity and began to reframe the conversion experience from an instantaneous emotional experience to a gradual quickening of one’s moral life.

Perhaps even more divisive within the churches was the beginning use of historical-critical methods in studying the Bible. This approach led many to challenge the historical reality of some events recorded in scripture. Large segments of the Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodist denominations incorporated this new thinking by the first decades of the 20th century. Opponents called this path liberalism or modernism.


James Orr, one of the authors of The Fundamentals. Photo by George Eyre-Todd (1862-1937) via Wikimedia Commons

The opposition to the modernist direction in Protestant circles came to be known as fundamentalism after the publication in 1909 of a series of booklets called The Fundamentals that endorsed shared Christian beliefs on things like the nature of Jesus and the historical reliability of the Bible.

In the years prior to and after World War I, late 19th-century holiness theology and early 20th-century fundamentalism, but not modernism, influenced the two most culturally comfortable Ontario Mennonite groups: the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. The influence of Moody Bible Institute and Toronto Bible College on these groups through the training of men and women who became leaders has already been noted.

The more separated Mennonite groups, however, remained outside the doctrinal debates that began to consume these two more assimilated groups. The Amish Mennonites did begin to invite Mennonite preachers with a fundamentalist theology into their pulpits, and a few Amish Mennonite young people began to attend the Ontario Mennonite Bible School in Kitchener, which had a fundamentalist orientation.

Amish Mennonites who moved into Kitchener for employment began to join churches like First Mennonite Church. Even so, in this time period most Amish Mennonites remained focused on the local church community and the extended network of family relationships. As for the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and the Reformed Mennonites, they had explicitly rejected assimilation, and this included theological assimilation with either modernists or fundamentalists.


William Jennings Bryan. Photo by James E. Purdy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fundamentalism that took shape in North American Protestantism before and during the first part of World War I was attractive to Mennonites on another score—it was not especially patriotic, particularly among fundamentalists with a strong dispensational position. Dispensationalists believed World War I signaled the rapidly approaching return of Christ, and they were generally anti-political in their views. William Jennings Bryan, a strong fundamentalist generally appreciated by Mennonites for his anti-evolutionary stance, resigned from Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet as secretary of state over war policy. Even the Moody Bible Institute magazine published a defense of nonresistance in 1917, though it stated it disagreed with the position.

Fundamentalist patriotism increased markedly in 1918, but Mennonites remained attracted to the “two kingdom” implication of dispensational theology, with its heavenly and earthly kingdoms and its emphasis on not being unequally yoked with the world.

The holiness (and later fundamentalist) influences took the Ontario Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Conference of Ontario in quite different directions. The former group markedly decreased its emphasis on separation from the world, while the latter group enforced a new emphasis on separation through implementation of uniform dress codes.

This melding of visible separation with fundamentalist theology was a unique Mennonite hybrid response to the lure of fundamentalism.

Next week we’ll look at how this hybrid found the Mennonite Conference of Ontario focused on seemingly (in today’s world) narrow issues of how women dressed.

You can learn more about these themes in In Search of Promised Lands.

Ontario Mennonites and Genealogy

In my over 30+ years of work in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario one ongoing request was for assistance in working on a family history.

Resources have certainly changed since the print-based 1970s, and the amount of material available on the Internet at no or minimal cost is phenomenal.

Online Family History Programs


Home page of

For convenience, one can join one of the genealogy sites that help build your family tree. I belonged to for about a year. If you are comfortable with $180-$240 a year, that’s actually a decent way to go. Ancestry makes it easy to build your family tree, and gives smooth access to original sources like census records, marriage records, death records, and the like. You also get access to family trees of other researchers who may be working on the same family lines. Of course you’ve also seen Ancestry’s ads for having your DNA checked (for an additional fee). However because of privacy concerns, Ancestry and other sites of this sort, do not include searchable records for living persons. This can be frustrating  when you are trying to add second or third cousins and more distant aunts and uncles into your tree.

A cheaper alternative to Ancestry is FamilySearch, a family history site operated by the Mormons. It’s free, but is clunkier to operate, though it includes some of the same original sources at no cost. Both services allow you to add photographs, and to include documentation that you’ve used in building the tree.

I left after a year because I found that their most useful original resources for me could be obtained freely elsewhere, though with a bit more work.

Computer-based Genealogy Software

If you don’t want to keep your family data online, you’ll probably purchase one of the genealogy software packages for your home computer. I use Brother’s Keeper, mostly because it was bundled with the GRANDMA database I use and will describe below. It costs $45 U.S. for the registered version, which is usually a good a idea because it provides some support, and helps ongoing development of the software. A popular alternative is Legacy Family Tree which costs $40 US for the basic registered version. As with Brother’s Keeper there is a free version with fewer bells and whistles. If you have built a family tree on one of the online services, you can download them to your computer if you install some of this software later.

Big Online Databases of Family Information


Login page for GRANDMA Online

But where can you get a lot of family information in one place, you ask. This depends on the Mennonite historical stream from which you descend. If you are from the Dutch-North German-Russian line, your best sources are the GRANDMA database, and the Mennonite Genealogical Resources maintained by the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society.

GRANDMA includes information on 1.3 million persons, primarily of “Russian Mennonite” background. An online subscription for two years costs $20 U.S. The online version does not include date or place information on living people. To download the full database to your computer to use with your own software, the cost is $40 U.S., and includes more complete information. GRANDMA tries to reconcile entries so that an individual is included once, though not always successfully. Mennonite Genealogical Resources includes a wide variety of specialized databases that may be helpful in your search, including church records, local municipality records, etc.

If you descend from the South German-Swiss-Pennsylvania line, you have one large option. This is the Swiss Anabaptist Genealogical Association (SAGA). The database in 2017 included 5.2 million records, but the difference from GRANDMA is that no attempt is made to merge records. SAGA is a collection of dozens of genealogical files loaded by volunteers. Your online search covers all the databases, so that when you find your grandmother, you may see that she is listed in five different databases with varying amounts of detail provided in each. You need to discern which is most accurate, and over time you get to know which databases are most reliable on family lines of interest to you. The cost to be a member of SAGA is $10/year or $20 for four years. You’re on your own to discern quality, but a vast amount of information is available.


Ezra Eby Revived! website

If you are more Ontario focused, you have some smaller options. The two best are Waterloo Region Generations and Ezra Eby Revived!. Generations is hosted by the Region of Waterloo and is based on Ezra Eby’s 1895 Biographical History of Waterloo Township, with additions into the current generation. In 2017 it included 300,000 names with 1 million source citations and some images. Most names will have some connection with Waterloo County. Ezra Eby Revived is a project of Allan Dettweiler, a longtime local Mennonite genealogist. The database includes 250,000 names, and follows Mennonite family lines with less emphasis on local connections. So the information varies between the two sites; use them both. Ezra Eby Revived? is presently not closely maintained because of health issues.

If you do not descend from one of the two large streams, your genealogical research will take you to genealogical resources more related to your own ethnic heritage. The Ontario Genealogical Society and its branches, or the local history department of the public library might be helpful.

Mennonite Archives of Ontario

The Mennonite Archives of Ontario holds many resources for Mennonite genealogists. These include hundreds of published genealogies that might be of interest, some unpublished genealogies, personal manuscript collection of prominent and not-so-prominent Ontario Mennonites, Bibles with family listings, cemetery listings, some birth and death records, photographs, Mennonite periodicals in paper and microform (some of which include extensive obituaries), and good advice. Making an appointment with Archivist Laureen Harder-Gissing would be a good idea. This may be a place to visit after you have already begun your project with one of the online services.

Family history can be fun and addictive. It can also be frustrating. Be kind to those in your extended family who are willing to take this role upon themselves.


Sam Steiner’s ancestor chart for five generations

Mennonites and White Supremacy

The recent conflict in Charlottesville, Virginia over a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee prompted me to think about Mennonites and race. There were Mennonites among the counter-protesters to the “alt-right” groups assembled in Charlottesville, including Christian Peacemaker Teams and members of the local Mennonite church.

51LhIc+qLNL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_But Mennonite hands have not always been been on the side of racial equality. There have been many stories of Mennonites in Russia who have looked down on, or been paternalistic towards, their indigenous neighbors. There were Mennonite slave-owners in the U.S. prior to the Civil War, it remains a bit hazy just how many. I recall that some members of my home church in Ohio were opposed to allowing any African-Americans to live in our lily-white town. Mennonite colleges, like Eastern Mennonite University, did not admit African-American students until 1948. I have confessed in writing that in the early 1960s when my family visited my brother doing alternative service in inner city Chicago, I was a white racist going to the zoo in my attitude towards the black people I saw there. Even the Fresh Air program of the mid-20th century that brought many African-American children into Mennonite homes for two weeks in the summer, has been exposed for its implicit paternalism.

Racism has also been deeply imbedded in Canada, including amongst Mennonites, particularly in our attitudes and responses to the indigenous communities. Mennonites have settled land, including in Southern Ontario, with little thought of who lived on the land previously, or why they left.

But in this blog I want to look at more extreme forms of racism found in white supremacy movements, and the role that two former Canadian Mennonites played in the shaping of these movements.

Robert G. Millar

Robert Grant Millar (1925-2001) was the middle child in a large family born to Fred and Ida Millar, who were charter members in the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario. He married Elsie Fisher as a teenager in 1944. The New York Times reported in 1995 that in 1948 Millar had a life-changing spiritual experience, with riveting visions of world events like the widespread, bloody rioting that accompanied India’s independence that year. He also saw vast destruction in the United States, and said “I saw missiles coming out of the water before there were any Polaris submarines.”

According to the Los Angeles Times Millar moved to the United States in the 1950s from Kitchener, Ontario, after God told him, “Thou shalt go to the state called Oklahoma.” He followed God’s voice to Oklahoma City, he said, then to Baltimore, where he ran a youth camp. In 1973, Millar returned to Oklahoma with about 18 family members and bought the property near the Arkansas border that he established as Elohim City (City of God), and served as the pastoral leader of the group that never exceeded about 100 people.


Robert Millar in 1973. Oklahoma Gazette file photo

Robert Millar became a leading figure in the Christian Identity movement, that holds that European Caucasians are the true descendents of the twelve tribes of Israel. They believe Caucasians were the last created race, and implicitly superior to the others, especially Jews and those of African origin. It is a very racialized interpretation of Christianity. Christian Identity adherents do not allow any inter-marriage between races.

Elohim City was essentially a pacifist group until 1982 when Millar encountered a separatist movement called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, led by its founder, James Ellison, a militant white supremacist. Millar became Ellison’s spiritual advisor, and eventually Ellison married Millar’s granddaughter. Millar also became an advisor to other members of the extreme right.

The Elohim community became most notorious when it was learned that Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the Oklahoma City bombings in April 1995, was linked to persons who had lived at Elohim City, and that he may have called Elohim City two weeks before the bombing. No connection between McVeigh and Millar was ever found, and Millar cooperated with FBI investigations of the bombing, but the suspicions continued for years and is still reflected in literature about Elohim City.

Elohim City still continues today, with John Millar, one of Robert’s sons, as the pastoral leader of the group. One recent observer described them as having “a passive form of modern white supremacy.”

Ben Klassen


Ben Klassen. Wikipedia photo

A second Canadian Mennonite connection to White Supremacy has been Bernhard “Ben” Klassen (1918-1993). He was born in Russia. In 1923 or 24 the family escaped to Mexico, and in 1925 moved to Herschel, Saskatchewan. Here Klassen grew up and attended the Mennonite German-English Academy (now Rosthern Junior College) in the late 1930s. He went on to an engineering degree at the University of Saskatchewan in the early 1940s. According to his autobiography, Klassen’s anti-Semitism and pro-Hitler perspective were already well in place during these years.

Klassen moved to the United States where he saw more job opportunities. His right-wing views continued, and he joined the John Birch Society for six years, and worked on George Wallace’s presidential campaign in 1968, though he ended up feeling both movements were too compromised.


Ben Klassen’s tombstone. Rightpedia photo.

Ben Klassen dismissed Christianity as a Jewish religion designed to subjugate white people, and desired a “fully structured racial religion” for Caucasians. He self-published a book in 1973 called Nature’s Eternal Religion in which he set out the structure for a pagan Caucasian religion called the Church of the Creator. He was called the Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) of the church. Klassen established central offices for the church in North Carolina. A minister in his church was convicted of killing a African-American sailor in 1991. Ben Klassen committed suicide in 1993.

Millar and Klassen are two examples of Mennonites who have embraced explicit white supremacy. In both cases it seems to have been embraced as a younger adult.

What factors have shaped your understanding of racial relationships?

For me it was a “conversion experience,” being present at the last part of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in March 1965.


Chapman, Lee Roy and Joshua Kline. “Who’s afraid of Elohim City?” This Land. 12 April 2012. Web. 19 August 2017. .

Gazette Staff. “Making America hate again? Hate and extremist group activity on the rise.” Oklahoma Gazette. 15 April 2016. Web. 19 August 2017. .

Hastings, Deborah. “Elohim City on extremists’ underground railroad.” Los Angeles Times. 23 February 1997. Web. 19 August 2017.

Klassen, Ben. Against the Evil Tide. Creativity Book Publisher, 1991. Web. 19 August 2017.

Niebuhr, Gustav. “A Vision of an Apocalypse: The Religion of the Far Right. New York Times. 22 May 1995. Web. 19 August 2017.

Rightpedia contributors. “Ben Klassen.” Rightpedia. 3 September 2016. Web. 19 August 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. “Ben Klassen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 Jul. 2017. Web. 19 Aug. 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. “Christian Identity.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 15 Aug. 2017. Web. 19 Aug. 2017.

A more detailed description of Christian Identity can be found in Rightpedia, an alt-right encyclopedia at


Mennonites and the Blues

In my high school years in Ohio in the early 1960s, I became a fan of folk music, including Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Joan Baez and the Chad Mitchell Trio. It was not until I got to Goshen College in Indiana that I discovered the blues.

Paul-Butterfield-Blues-BandThe album that triggered the passion of a directionless university student was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and their “Chicago Blues” sound. This soon led to performers closer to the original, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dave van Ronk, Etta James and more. The blues seemed to connect with the pain of feeling disconnected from my roots while facing an uncertain future.

The Kitchener Blues Festival was held last weekend, and it lead me to wonder about Mennonites who have links to the blues.


Job (Mark McKechnie) refuses to be convinced by Sonny (Dan Bieman), the fundamentalist Christian, while the “High and Mighty” house band play in the background. Canadian Mennonite photo, November 21, 2012

I have two stories from Ontario. The first is about a Blues Opera, “Job’s Blues,” produced by Ross Muir, managing editor of the Canadian Mennonite since January 2005, and a member of First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Muir wrote the lyrics in 1988, long before he had any connection with Mennonites (he has a Fellowship Baptist background), but the play was not produced until 2012 when it was performed by the Grey Wellington Theatre Guild, in conjunction with The Grand River Blues Society, in six performances at Harriston Town Hall Theatre north of Waterloo Region. The opera is set in a bar and features God, Satan, Job (a blues singer), and Job’s “friends” — Eric a “new age” Christian; Gregg a prosperity gospel Christian; and Sonny a fundamentalist Christian, who each chastise Job about his sin.

“Job’s Blues” is the best combination of faith and blues I’ve ever seen. Ross has had a few nibbles since 2012, but none have come to completion.

Scrap-Metal-BluesThe second story is about a Toronto-based blues singer named Diana Braithwaite, who performed at the Kitchener Blues Festival with her partner Chris Whitely, to a very appreciative audience. She is a direct descendant of an African-American slave who settled in Wellington County, Ontario, part of the Queen’s Bush settlement. Her mother, Rella Braithwaite, was born near Wallenstein, Ontario, and her grandparents lived near Mennonites in that community, and went to school with them. The farm families helped each other with threshing, and shared farm equipment.

In June 2013 Diana Braithwaite spoke to the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario about stories she had heard about her ancestors and their Mennonite neighbors. Although it doesn’t mention Mennonites, her song, “Wellington County,” on her Scrap Metal Blues album of 2013 honors the early African-American settlers. This link of Mennonites and blues may be thin, but blues are clearly rooted in the African-American experience. And Black-Mennonite links in Canada is a historical topic that Timothy Epp’s scholarly work has significantly advanced.

Finding Mennonite musicians who sing the blues has proved difficult for me. An internet search led to only two — The Good Friday Blues Band in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, which performs only occasionally, and Bush Wiebe and the Mennonite Blues Experiment, based in Steinbach, Manitoba.

The Mennofolk website lists 94 performers. A few of them mention blues along with a variety of other genres, e.g. folk, rock, and bluegrass. If some of them have recorded serious blues, I would be happy to learn about them. I’ll add them to this blog, and try out some of their music!

I also wondered about blues written “about” Mennonites. One interesting song is “Mennonite Blues” by James “Super Chikan” Johnson, a Mississippi blues singer who clearly encountered Mennonites in his journey, mostly as a laborer on their farms. Less interesting is “Mennonite Blues” by The Electric Amish on their Barn to be Wild album.

What is your experience with the blues? Do you still listen to them? Why or why not?

You’ll learn nothing about the blues in my book, In Search of Promised Lands.

A Lazy Sunday Morning in Mennonite Country

My wife, Sue, and I attend an assimilated Mennonite Church (Rockway Mennonite) that chooses not to hold worship services on the August Civic Holiday weekend. The last several years we’ve started a tradition of driving about the countryside passing as many Mennonite churches as possible, both in variety and number, over a three-hour period.

This year we made it past 26 churches from 10 Mennonite denominations between 9:30 am and 12:30 pm. In addition we passed two churches with Mennonite roots that are no longer Mennonite. The churches we passed included:

  1. Kitchener Mennonite Brethren (service was underway; Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches)
  2. Rockway Mennonite Church (also in Kitchener, no service; Mennonite Church Canada)
  3. Martin’s Mennonite Meetinghouse (north end of Waterloo on King Street, no service this Sunday by the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Church)
  4. Conestoga Old Order Mennonite Church (Three Bridges Road near St. Jacobs, service underway; lot full of buggies)
  5. David Martin Meetinghouse (King Street North west of St. Jacobs, service underway; note the variety of buggies)


    David Martin meetinghouse near St. Jacobs

  6. Hawkesville Mennonite Church (service underway; Mennonite Church Canada)
  7. David Martin Meetinghouse (Ament Line near Linwood, service underway)


    David Martin meetinghouse near Linwood

  8. Linwood Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Ament Line, closer to Linwood than the David Martin meetinghouse, service underway)


    Linwood Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse. Note the row of bicycles. These are not allowed by the David Martin Mennonites

  9. Countryside Mennonite Fellowship (Herrgott Road near Hawkesville, service underway; they are part of the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship)


    Countryside Mennonite Fellowship. We noted the cars brighter colors than some of the other conservative Mennonite groups.

  10. Peel Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Line 86 west of Wallenstein, no service this Sunday)
  11. David Martin Mennonite meetinghouse (Line 86 east of Wallenstein, no service this Sunday)
  12. Elmira Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Church Street, service underway)
  13. Elmira Mennonite Church (service ending; Mennonite Church Canada)
  14. Calvary Conservative Mennonite Church (Arthur Street, eight km. north of Elmira, service underway; Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario)


    Calvary Conservative Mennonite near Elmira; the cars are black or gray in color.

  15. Creekbank Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Concession 9, 12 km north of Elmira, no service this Sunday)
  16. North Woolwich Old Order and Markham Mennonite meetinghouse (Sandy Hills Drive, north of Floradale, service underway)


    North Woolwich meetinghouse, with Markham-Waterloo Conference Mennonites. The vehicles are all black. This picture is from 2016.

  17. Floradale Mennonite Church (service underway; Mennonite Church Canada)
  18. Crystal View Mennonite Church (Floradale Road, Floradale, service underway; Midwest Mennonite Fellowship)


    Crystal View Mennonite Church in Floradale. These cars seemed a bit plainer than at Countryside Mennonite Fellowship.

  19. Weaverland Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (Buehler Line near Hesson, service underway)


    Weaverland Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse

  20. Bethel Conservative Mennonite Church (William Hastings Road near Millbank, service underway; Nationwide Fellowship Churches)


    Bethel Conservative Mennonite Church, Millbank. The building formerly belonged to a Bethel Conservative Mennonite Church that was part of the Midwest Fellowship. A division in the congregation led to creation of the Milverton Conservative Mennonite Fellowship. When the original Bethel congregation closed, the Milverton group bought the building and assumed the name.

  21. Heritage Mennonite Church (Millbank, no service?, building for sale; Biblical Mennonite Alliance)


    Heritage Mennonite Church in Millbank

  22. Riverdale Mennonite Church (Perth Line 72 west of Millbank, joint service with another church; Mennonite Church Canada, closing the end of August 2017).
  23. David Martin Mennonite meetinghouse (William Hastings Line near Crosshill, no service, or everyone has departed by 12:10 pm)
  24. Crosshill Old Colony Mennonite Church (probably had service that was over)
  25. Crosshill Mennonite Church (Hutchison Road near Crosshill, service over; Mennonite Church Canada)
  26. Martindale Old Order Mennonite meetinghouse (service just ended; Durst Road near Heidelberg; there was also a schoolbus full of persons from a distance).

With the Martindale Old Order services being over (12:30 pm), we know that we’ll find no more active services in Mennonite churches, and we head home.

The two churches with Mennonite roots that we passed were the Emmanuel Evangelical Missionary Church in Elmira and the Wallenstein Bible Chapel just south of Wallenstein.

We were impressed by how full the parking lots were on a sunny holiday weekend Sunday morning, especially at the David Martin and Old Order Mennonite meetinghouses. Sunday worship has remained central in their lives, with no distractions of sports activities or a late brunch with the New York Times or disappearing to the cottage. It is a discipline that has helped to keep these groups thriving.

Another delight on our drive was finding a few David Martin Mennonite fields with stooks of grain, a sight that is becoming less and less in Waterloo Region.


Stooks of grain on Hemlock Hill Drive near Hawkesville

All in all, it was a nice way to spend a sunny Sunday morning in August.

Becoming a Toronto Blue Jays Fan

Since this is the dead of summer, and Mennonite history feels a little distant, and even though the Toronto Blue Jays have fallen on harder times, it has caused me to reflect on how I became such an avid baseball fan. In October 2015 I wrote a blog about Mennonites and Major League Baseball, but didn’t talk about why it mattered to me.

When I was growing up in eastern Ohio on a small 80-acre farm, two of my siblings, my oldest brother and my second-oldest sister, were baseball falls, following the Cleveland Indians. In the 1950s the Indians were a competitive team, unlike the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were about an equal distance away. (In 1954 the Indians won 111 of 154 games in the regular season, but lost the World Series in four straight games to the New York Giants; in contrast Pittsburgh won 53 of 154 games and finished in last place.)

Miss-MantleMickey_Mantle_1953In the third grade, 1954-55, I really liked my pretty, young teacher, whose name was Melva Mantle. My clear memory is that this positive association with Miss Mantle turned me into a New York Yankees fan, with their (also) young (age 22) star center fielder, Mickey Mantle.

My love for baseball means I cannot even count the number of times I read Duane Decker’s series of baseball books for boys about the “Blue Sox,” and I had my mother make a T-shirt with “Blue Sox” imprinted on the front.

On radio I was restricted to listening to Cleveland games (with play-by-play announcer Jimmy Dudley). My married oldest brother had a TV, and occasionally I’d get to see a New York game on a Saturday afternoon. On a few occasions, I saw a game in Cleveland, and saw Mantle hit one of his majestic home runs.

My interest in Major League Baseball continued at a lessened pace in my college years, but my year of poverty in Chicago in 1967-68 found me still going to several Chicago Cubs games, since seats in the bleachers were quite cheap. Leo Durocher was the manager, and Ernie Banks still played every day. Ron Santo and Billy Williams were the team stars, and Canadian Fergie Jenkins led the pitching staff, winning 20 games that year (and pitching 20 complete games) in 308 innings.

My move to Canada in late 1968 coincided with Mickey Mantle’s retirement from baseball. I remained a nominal Yankees fan, but never liked George Steinbrenner when he took over ownership of the Yankees in 1972. I was more than ready to switch my allegiances when the Blue Jays launched in 1977.


By Jerry Reuss (1988 Toronto Blue Jays Exhibition Stadium 11) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Although it was an odd ball park, old Exhibition Stadium had a kind of intimacy that the Skydome/Rogers Centre will never match. I still go to two games a year, and watch all or part of Blue Jays games when at home. I use my IPad to keep linked to statistical information at Gameday on while watching the game.

I well remember the small group from our church meeting in our home on October 23, 1993.  After our usual sharing, we watched game 6 of the World Series. My wife, Sue, who was not yet an avid baseball fan, went to bed because she was preaching the next morning at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church. Needless to say, the small group erupted when Joe Carter “touched ’em all” to win the series. (Sue has reminded me, that she has “mended her ways” and is now an avid Blue Jays fan.)

Erik Krath, 2015.

Erik Kratz speaking on January 29, 2015. Minda Haas Wikimedia Commons.

I was also inordinately pleased when Mennonite Erik Kratz briefly played for the Jays in 2014.

If you are a baseball fan, how did it come about? What keeps you attracted? What caused you to lose interest?

Go Jays!

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference comes to Ontario

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference has a long history reaching back to the early days of Mennonite life in Russia. In 1812 in the Molotschna Mennonite settlement, a division took place between Klaas Reimer, who had been a minister in Danzig, and a new church Ältester (bishop), Jacob Enns, who apparently was arbitrary and inconsistent in church discipline, came into conflict with local Mennonite civil authorities, and was thought to have a weak spiritual life.

Reimer believed the church did not discipline its members adequately and that moral standards in the Mennonite community were low. Reimer and a like-minded minister in the Chortitza colony began to hold separate services and refused to participate in communion services at the main Mennonite churches.

In 1815 Reimer was chosen by lot by his followers to be an Ältester, but he was not ordained until 1817. Reimer’s group, because it was so small, was known derisively as the Kleine Gemeinde (small church), as distinguished from the Grosze Gemeinde (large church).

The Kleine Gemeinde remained small, and faced many struggles because the local government officials and the Grosze Gemeinde worked jointly in discipline and punishment. The emergence of the Mennonite Brethren as a Pietist renewal group in the 1860s provided the Kleine Gemeinde with more legitimacy as the Russian Mennonite religious community became more pluralistic. Nonetheless, the Kleine Gemeinde went through its own significant conflict in the 1860s, and members of the Kleine Gemeinde helped to form another group that became the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren.

As was the case with the other Mennonite groups in Russia, when the government in the 1870s threatened to eliminate military exemption as part of its desire to Russianize the Mennonites and other foreign colonists, the Kleine Gemeinde became part of the Mennonite migration to North America. About two hundred families were part of the 1870s migration; over 80 percent of the Kleine Gemeinde families settled in Manitoba.

In 1948 recurring concerns about spiritual faithfulness in modern North American society led about one hundred families to immigrate to Mexico under Kleine Gemeinde Ältester Peter Reimer in search of less troubled theological lands. Some of their concerns included increasing use of wedding dresses, use of musical instruments in the churches, and use of tobacco.

The emigrants also wanted to maintain control of their children’s education, and, in the postwar era, they had concerns about the security of their exemption from military service in Canada. It was this group that joined the search for a Mennonite “promised land” in Mexico, though they were more culturally assimilated than the Old Colony and Sommerfeld groups that went to Mexico in the 1920s.

By the mid-1950s the Kleine Gemeinde in Mexico had separated from the Kleine Gemeinde remaining in Canada, who were turning to English and a more evangelical theology. Some of the Kleine Gemeinde in Mexico moved to Belize in subsequent years.

The Canadian Kleine Gemeinde changed its name to Evangelische Mennoniten Gemeinde in 1952 and to Evangelical Mennonite Conference (EMC) in 1959. The more evangelical theological self-understanding did not include an explicitly premillennial or fundamentalist stance. Like the EMMC, the EMC traveled the path from Separatist Conservative (SC) to Assimilated Mennonite (AM) during these years. In addition to the language change, they welcomed flexibility in baptismal mode and the use of musical instruments in church, and they established a separate mission board. More pastors became trained and salaried. Like the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, the EMC also joined the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference had some outreach to Low German Mennonites who lived in Mexico, though it was less intense than that of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, which began outreach to the Old Colony immigrants to Ontario already in the 1960s. The EMC did not begin a mission work in southern Ontario until 1976, although there had been a mission in northwestern Ontario at Stratton in the late 1960s.


Lorna and John Wall, 2004. Photo from The Messenger

One couple who symbolized the target group for the EMC was John and Lorna Wall. Both grew up in Mexico; John was part of the Old Colony Mennonite Church and Lorna was Kleine Gemeinde. They were baptized and married in Mexico in the Kleine Gemeinde church. They moved to Canada in 1986, and then lived in Seminole, Texas, for two years before returning to Canada. John worked as a welder and attended the Aylmer Bible School in the evenings. They were active in the Mount Salem congregation near Aylmer, and they eventually studied at Steinbach Bible College before undertaking more formal church leadership.


Mount Salem EMC as portrayed in The Messenger, the denomination’s periodical, in 2015.

The Mount Salem church held its first service in September 1976. The EMC board of missions had heard “there’s a big field open and no workers,” which reflected an interesting lack of recognition for the work in the area by the EMMC and the fifteen-year presence of organized Old Colony churches. The congregation formally organized in 1977 and bought a former public school building late that same year.

The EMC next established mission efforts directed at Low German-speaking Mennonites in Virgil, Ontario (1988), and Leamington (1990). The Virgil effort soon withered, but after a slow start the Leamington congregation prospered, with assistance from the Mount Salem congregation. They began with German-language singing services and held services for over five years in the chapel at the United Mennonite Educational Institute. New congregations also began in Straffordville (1997), Tilbury (2000), and Tillsonburg (2000).

In 2017 the active EMC congregations in Ontario were The Church of Living Water (Tillsonburg), Grace Community Church (Aylmer), Leamington Evangelical Mennonite Church, Mount Salem Community Church, New Life Christian Fellowship (Coatsworth), the Straffordville Evangelical Mennonite Church, and the Evangelical Fellowship Church (Fort Frances).

Ontario is not the Promised Land

Last week this blog discussed some Ontario Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites that have moved to Prince Edward Island. This pursuit of cheaper land and better economic opportunity continues a long-standing pattern that began already in the 19th century.

Southern Ontario held less promise for many Mennonites by the 1870s after several generations of Mennonite settlement. The price of good agricultural land was becoming prohibitive for families needing to provide farms for many sons. The worldwide Long Depression that began in 1873 drove down agricultural prices, and many countries adopted protectionist import policies that limited trade. The agricultural economic malaise continued into the 1890s and encouraged struggling Ontario farmers to explore new opportunities. Many Canadians, not just Mennonites, sought new opportunities in the larger United States market because of low agricultural prices and the trade protectionism practiced by North American and European countries. Canadian historian Donald Creighton says the out-migration to the United States “began to reach the most alarming proportions.” In 1887 the Toronto Mail wrote that there was scarcely a farmhouse in the older Canadian provinces “where there is not an empty chair for the boy in the States.”

Mennonite agriculturalists began to move to Michigan and elsewhere in search of cheaper land. Mennonites from Waterloo County had already settled near Brutus in the 1870s, at the northern end of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. As the newcomers came, this group subsequently divided in 1886 into an Old Order group and a group affiliated with John Funk of Elkhart, Indiana; Old Order bishop Abraham Martin traveled there in the 1890s to perform baptisms. Peter Ropp, originally from the Ontario Amish community, joined a Mennonite congregation in Pigeon and became a leading Mennonite minister there. This settlement, located near Saginaw Bay, began about 1890, and included persons from both the Amish Mennonite and Mennonite Church of Canada communities.

The Pigeon church was first organized in 1894 under Daniel Wismer of Berlin, Ontario. The congregation remained part of the Mennonite Church of Canada for about 22 years before transferring to the Indiana-Michigan Conference.


Amos Bauman. GAMEO photo

Other Ontario Amish and Mennonites seeking better economic alternatives moved to Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Colorado, Virginia, Oregon, and New York, though many of these eventually returned to Ontario or moved on yet again to other locations. One example was Amos Bauman, an Ontario Mennonite, who was ordained as a minister in the Stauffer Mennonite Church in Iowa. In 1903 Bauman moved to what is now Alberta, where he became the first bishop in the new Alberta Mennonite Conference there. After the Mennonite Church of Canada silenced him for his controversial views on sanctification, he affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Thus this leader from Waterloo County, Ontario, traveled theologically from the Mennonite Church of Canada to the conservative Stauffer Mennonite Church, back to the Alberta Mennonite Conference, and finally to the Mennonite Brethren in Christ.


For the Ontario Amish, beginning in the late 1870s there were small emigrations to Nebraska, Minnesota, Colorado, Virginia, and Michigan. Other than Michigan, most of these communities failed over time, with settlers returning to Ontario or continuing on to other locations in the United States.

In about 1874, Erb, Jantzi, Ulrich and other Amish families from Waterloo County moved near Milford, Seward County, Nebraska. They joined other Amish from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois at a time when governments both in Canada and the United States were offering land in Manitoba, Kansas and Nebraska to settlers at low prices. This was at the same time such offers were being made to Mennonites from Russia.

In 1883/84 Gerber, Boshart, Schweitzer, and Kennel families moved to O’Neill, Holt County, Nebraska where a small Amish Mennonite community existed until the 1940s.


Magdalena Brenneman Gerber. Photo from Minnesota Meanderings

Another such settlement was in Nobles County, Minnesota. Bishop Joseph Gerber and his wife, Magdalena, went there from Ontario in March 1893 and ordained another minister and deacon before the end of the year. By 1894 the settlement included 12 families. Interestingly, even though Bishop Gerber had favored building a meetinghouse for Amish worship in Ontario, none was ever built in the Nobles County community. Consequently they were able to remain in fellowship with both house Amish and church Amish.

At least 35 Amish families lived in Nobles County by the time the settlement came to an end in 1910, due not to the failure of crops, which were generally good, but because of internal dissension. Already by 1903 some families (and ministers) began to leave. Bishop Gerber and half the community left for Oscoda County, Michigan, in 1908, where they founded an Old Order Amish settlement. Minister Valentine Gerber and deacon Joseph Gerber, the two remaining ordained men, returned to Ontario in 1910. Joseph Gerber joined the East Zorra congregation, and Valentine Gerber affiliated with the Blake (Huron County) congregation, but was a member of the Nafziger (Beachy Amish) congregation when he died.

What will happen to the Amish and Mennonite migrations to Prince Edward Island, remains to be seen. But their venture in search of cheaper land has antecedents going back more than 140 years.

I’m indebted to Bruce Jantzi, ed. Minnesota Meanderings: the Amish Mennonite Settlement in Nobles County, Minnesota 1891-1910 for some of this information.

To read more Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

The Amish on Prince Edward Island

In early 2016 I wrote about Ontario Old Order Mennonites and Amish who were considering establishing daughter settlements on Prince Edward Island. I quote some of it below:

This is not the first time these groups have considered Prince Edward Island as a destination because of its rural nature and relative isolation. In the late 1960s members of the Aylmer Amish community considered moving there in the wake of some of their conflicts with government officials. In the end a few went to Honduras, and the rest stayed in Ontario.

Today the primary motivation for these explorations seems to be good, cheap agricultural land. At least 10 families from the Milverton and Mount Elgin (near Woodstock) Amish communities have bought or contracted for farms in Kings County, eastern PEI near the town of Montague, according to an article in The Guardian (a Charlottetown newspaper). According to a local realtor, conversations with the Amish began in 2013. The Guardian editorialized in favor of welcoming the Amish already in October 2014. The cost per acre in PEI is 10-15% of the cost per acre in their part of Ontario. (See also a recent article in the Toronto Star.)

There is also real interest from Old Order Mennonites from Woolwich Township, Region of Waterloo, and from the Mount Forest Old Order Mennonite community. Another article in The Guardian suggests this exploration is not as far along, though two groups of over 20 persons have visited PEI to look at farms in Queens County and southern Kings County. More visits are planned for this spring.

Summer-SausageThis exploration became a reality later in 2016. Several weeks ago, my wife Sue and I had the opportunity to find two Old Order Amish settlements on PEI during a vacation there. We knew only general locations based on newspaper articles. We searched back roads north and east of Bridgetown, and had about given up that part of the search, when Sue spotted from Highway 4, just west of Bridgetown, a clothesline full of Amish-colored clothing. There was no mailbox, but a hand-painted sign advertised Summer Sausage and Maple Syrup. As I took a picture of the sign a horse and buggy turned in the lane, and across the road a young Amish lad was dealing with the truck delivering feed.

Harness-ShopThe next farm, identified as a Kuepfer family, advertised a harness shop and “free-range brown eggs.” This settlement, seemingly the smaller of the two on PEI, was composed of Amish from the Milverton area of Ontario.

We then explored between Montague and Summerville. On a sideroad west of Montague we found the first of many Miller families, again alerted by a clothesline of colorful wash.

BakeryWe soon found, east of Summerville on Highway 3, more Miller families, including a Miller bakery that unfortunately was not open on the day of our exploration. We did not linger to take more pictures, since a young Amish girl in a dark green dress was walking towards us on the side of the road, and we didn’t want to cause alarm, or invade their privacy by taking their picture.

This settlement appeared to be larger than the “Milverton Amish” settlement at Bridgetown. There was much evidence of new buildings being erected in this settlement, and it seemed relatively compact, which speaks well for its long term prospects. Besides the multiple Miller families, we also saw Byler and Troyer family names. The roots of this settlement are the Old Order Amish community around Norwich, Ontario. These Amish are somewhat more conservative than the Milverton Amish.

SignThe CBC in Prince Edward Island provided an “Amish 101” article in 2016 that is quite helpful in distinguishing the two groups. The PEI government has also begun to erect road signs near the Amish communities on the larger roads, though “evidence” of horses was not as easily spotted as on some Region of Waterloo roads!

After our return to Ontario, we learned that five Old Order Mennonite families have also moved to Prince Edward Island this summer (2017). They are located near Hunter River, where they have purchased an old church for their worship.

Many thanks to Sue for writing down clear details on names and images as we explored these settlements. Her own blog, A Nourished Spirit, will share more about our Maine/PEI vacation in coming weeks.

To learn more about the Ontario Old Order Amish and Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.