John Wolf Miller, a Principled Maverick

One of my colleagues at Conrad Grebel University College for many years was John W. Miller. (People are bemused by that middle name–his mother was a Wolf, and giving a child as a middle name the mother’s maiden name was typical in Pennsylvania German Mennonite families of that era.)

I would have first met John at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois which he founded in the 1950s. My brother, Albert, had been one of the Goshen Biblical Seminary students who was influenced by John to explore living in Christian community. Albert and his wife, Carol, have been part of that community for over 50 years.

John came to Conrad Grebel in 1969; I arrived five years later. I remember John as a  quiet person who did not spend a lot of time in the faculty-staff lounge. He was more likely to remain at his desk with the office door open, several offices down from the lounge, intensely focused on whatever project engaged him at the time. His hearing loss may have helped maintain his remarkable focus. If you did engage him in conversation, he was very congenial, with a pleasant sense of humor.

I took a couple of courses from John, I don’t remember if for credit or as an auditor. His course on the Parables of Jesus was very enlightening, providing perspectives on the New Testament I had not previously considered.

I also recall the many years John cared for his wife, Louise, as she struggled with Parkinson’s disease. One heard stories of how they regularly played tennis together, with John hitting the ball in such a way that she didn’t have to move far to hit a return.

In later years John became isolated from other faculty in some of the positions he took on internal Conrad Grebel controversies. I particularly remember one college council meeting, after John’s retirement, in which he came to sternly lecture the council on a personnel issue in which he disagreed with the decisions made.

John Miller marched to his own drum on many issues during his life. He was unafraid to stand alone on a point of principle. He was one of those very interesting characters that J. Winfield Fretz brought to Conrad Grebel College to teach in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Below is a new article on John W. Miller that I have written for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. To see the bibliography and listing of books written by John Miller, go to the GAMEO website.


John & Louise Miller, 1992

John Wolf Miller: professor, author, and founder of Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois, USA was born 22 December 1926 in LancasterPennsylvania, USA to Orie O. Miller (7 July 1892-10 January 1977) and Elta Wolf Miller (20 May 1893-14 February 1958). John was the third son and fourth child in a family of one daughter and four sons. On 18 September 1949 he married Louise Frances Heatwole (25 November 1928-12 February 2015); they had three children—Christopher, Jeanette and Karen. John W. Miller died 2 December 2017 at the home of Lowell and Jeanette Ewert. John and Louise Miller were buried in the Blenheim Mennonite Cemetery near New Dundee, Ontario.

John grew up in an unusual Mennonite family in Akron, Pennsylvania, since his father, Orie, was both part of the Miller Hess Shoe Company, founded by his wife’s family, and a founder of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), also based in Akron. The Orie Miller family was wealthy, though Orie was gone from the family for extended periods of time because of his business and MCC responsibilities. At the age of six, John suffered complications from scarlet fever that left him deaf in one ear.

John Miller attended Eastern Mennonite School in HarrisonburgVirginia for his secondary school education, graduating in 1945. It was here that he came to know Louise Heatwole, though they did not begin to date until both attended Goshen College in Indiana. John spent his first years of college at Eastern Mennonite College, but graduated from Goshen College in 1948 with a BA in Bible. Louise graduated a year later.

Both John and Louise Miller intended to study medicine after graduation, and eventually to serve in overseas mission. However, Harold Bender asked John to train in Old Testament studies in preparation for teaching at the evolving Goshen Biblical Seminary. After an intense meeting in summer 1948, John agreed.

Since he had taken science courses as an undergraduate, Miller also wanted to strengthen his background in literature. Consequently, his graduate studies led to degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary (BD, 1951), New York University (MA in Literature, 1951), and the University of Basel (ThD, 1955). His doctoral dissertation explored the influence of the prophet, Jeremiah, on the prophet, Ezekiel. It was published as Das Verhältnis Jeremias und Hesekiels sprachlich und theologisch Untersucht: Mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Prosareden Jeremias. During his studies in Europe, John was an active participant in the Concern movement.

John W. Miller returned to teach at Goshen Biblical Seminary from 1954 to 1957. During these years John and Louise were influenced by renewal movements like the Iona Community in Scotland, and especially the Woodcrest Community of the Society of Brothers. A “Fellowship House” at Goshen College explored the implications of living in a disciplined Christian community. John’s active participation in this movement led to conflict with Paul Mininger and Harold Bender, the president and dean of the college.

The possibility of linking a new community with a voluntary service program in Chicago became an option pursued by John and Louise Miller, with the assistance of John’s father. This was enabled when Paul Mininger asked Miller to take a three-year leave from teaching “to deepen [his] experience of the Mennonite Church.” This ended in John and Louise Miller’s move to 727 Reba Place in south Evanston, near the northern border of Chicago, and the formation of what became Reba Place Fellowship, a communitarian Christian fellowship. Although Miller assumed he would return to Goshen Biblical Seminary after three years, he was replaced at the seminary before his leave had ended.

For most of his years at Reba Place Fellowship, Miller worked as a counselor and administrator at the Chicago State Hospital, a facility for the mentally ill. He became influenced by the insights of Freudian psychology during this time; this had a profound impact on his later theological thinking. He also did some teaching at the North Park and Garrett Theological Seminaries.

In 1969 John W. Miller was invited to teach at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario in the area of Biblical studies. He retired from the college in 1992. During his years at Conrad Grebel, he was actively engaged in lay leadership training in the college’s adult studies program. He also served as the first chair of the Religious Studies department at the University of Waterloo, beginning in 1976.

At Conrad Grebel, John Miller became a prolific writer, including a regular column in the Mennonite Reporter during the 1970s. His academic writing especially focused on New Testament themes of the parables and the historicity of Jesus Christ. His writing on the latter topic became controversial, and some critics believed his theological positions were not adequately orthodox.

Miller also placed strong emphasis on the fatherhood of God, and extended that emphasis to leadership questions within the church and family. This also created dissonance with emerging feminist theologians and within the Kitchener-Waterloo house churches in which he was an active leader, and in which he was ordained as a pastoral leader by the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada in 1992.

After his retirement from Conrad Grebel, John Miller developed lay Bible study courses for a program called the Blenheim Bible Study Program, so named because of its connection to the Blenheim Retreat Centre near New Dundee, Ontario that was administered by the Blenheim Ecumenical House Church(formerly part of the K-W House Church) in which John and Louise Miller were members.

John W. Miller was a capable administrator and a passionate and tenacious scholar who did not avoid taking minority positions on matters of theology or college administration. He was able to communicate effectively both with lay people and fellow academics. Illness in his later years prevented his ability to speak, though he continued work on writing projects until days before his death.

A Brief History of Menno Singers

Historically whether a Mennonite congregation in Canada had a regular choir in Sunday worship told one much about the historical roots of the congregations. Amish congregations and Mennonites from Pennsylvania did not have choirs in churches, though Mennonite educational institutions like high schools and postsecondary institutions from early in their history had choirs that toured congregations with special musical programs on Sunday evenings or other times.

Mennonites whose roots were in the 1920s immigration from Russia brought the notion of regular choirs along with them; they had developed in Russia many decades before.

Below is a draft article for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) that I drafted about Menno Singers, a non-professional choral group in the Region of Waterloo that has existed since 1955.  It is no longer a strictly Mennonite choir, but still has a majority of Mennonite choristers.

Menno Singers, a non-professional community choir, gave its first performance in December 1955. Abner Martin, Harold Good, Doris Moyer and Edith Shantz founded the choir. All of them had participated in a touring chorus of students from Goshen College in Indiana, and desired a similar choral opportunity in the Waterloo County area. They were also Rockway Mennonite School graduates who wanted to continue to sing classical choral music. Although it began as a Mennonite group, over time non-Mennonite choristers have also participated in Menno Singers.

In its early years, the choir followed the pattern of Mennonite college choirs from the United States, and sang only a cappella music, in English, and raised money only through free-will offerings. Finally in 1962 it hired an orchestra, charged admission for the first time, and sang a two-hour setting of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin. This marked a significant change in the aspirations of the Menno Singers.


Menno Singers in 1966. Abner Martin in suit at left of second row. David Hunsberger photo at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario

cdcover_winters_snowMenno Singers established an association with Conrad Grebel College in 1974; this extended into the 1980s. In 1975 Menno Singers began to apply for grants to support its programming, initially from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, and later from other foundations. It has produced three recordings – Rachmaninoff’s Vespers in 1992, See Amid the Winter’s Snow in 2000, and Cloths of Heaven (2009).

Mennonite Mass Choir, sponsored by Menno Singers, began in 1974, and provided opportunities for amateur singers to perform major choral works with professional soloists and orchestra. While participants were not auditioned, they needed to be able to read music and attend regular regional rehearsals. Initially held annually, mass choir events became more occasional in the 2000s.

Menno Singers established an Abner Martin Music Scholarship after Martin’s retirement as director. The first award was made in 1981. The annual scholarship has been given to deserving Mennonite music students.

In 1997 Menno Singers experienced a difficult period when the newly-appointed director, Wayne Gilpin, lost the confidence of the Menno Singers executive over differences in philosophy and spending, and was dismissed just prior to Christmas. The dispute received much coverage in the local press. Fortunately, Peter Nikiforuk was then appointed and served the next 20 years.

In the 2000s Menno Singers cooperated closely with the Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir (founded in 1965 by Helen Martens at Conrad Grebel College) and the Menno Youth Singers (founded in 2004 by Judith Bean). Together these groups became known as the Menno Singers family of choirs.


Brandon Leis

Menno Singers directors have included Abner Martin (1955-1969, 1973-1979); Jan Overduin (1969-1973, 1979-1984); William Janzen (1984-1987, 1988-1995); Leonard Enns (Interim)(1987-1988); Robert Shuh (Interim, 1995-1997); Wayne Gilpin (1997); Peter Nikiforuk (1998-2017; Brandon Leis (2017-present). William Janzen and Robert Shantz also filled in on several occasions when Abner Martin was unable to direct because of illness.

Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Rodney J. Sawatsky

Rodney J. Sawatsky was the fourth president of Conrad Grebel College (1989-1994). There have been earlier blogs on J. Winfield Fretz, Frank H. Epp and Ralph A. Lebold.

Rod Sawatsky and I both began to work at Conrad Grebel College in 1974 when he came from Canadian Mennonite Bible College to Ontario to teach and serve as academic dean, while I began half-time in the Mennonite Archives at Conrad Grebel.


Rod Sawatsky speaking at an Inter-Mennonite Conference (Ontario) retreat in 1985. In the background are Bernhard Stobbe and Herb Schultz. Photo by Sam Steiner.

We shared a deep interest in Mennonite history and Mennonite church politics. He was very supportive of my increasing involvement in denominational activities, especially the integration of three Mennonite regional conferences in Ontario in 1988 into what is now known as Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

Rod was known for his booming voice, the way he leaned back while thinking out loud, and for the extremely gracious hosting he, together with his wife, Lorna, frequently did in their home.

Rod was an innovative academic dean, and the years that he and Ralph Lebold were the leadership team at Conrad Grebel stand out in my own memory. Projects like a graduate degree in theology, and the launch of the Conrad Grebel Review as an inter-disciplinary Mennonite academic journal were important to Rod.

He became president of Conrad Grebel at a time that became very difficult for the College. Financial challenges included an ambitious capital fund drive that fell well short of its goal, meaning only a part of the planned expansion could be built. Changes in government funding to post-secondary education ultimately saw the number of Conrad Grebel’s faculty members shrink by a third. Not surprisingly the financial challenges also created tensions within the faculty that resulted in conflicts that received publicity well beyond the college.

Perhaps providentially, Rod received an invitation to become president of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania in 1994. His experience as president there was an extremely positive one, and ended because of his early death from brain cancer in 2004.

My memories of Rod’s years at Conrad Grebel are overwhelmingly positive, particularly as I remember many informal conversations in the staff lounge about the state of the Mennonite church in Ontario, in Canada and in North America.

Below is the article in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online about Rod Sawatsky by Margaret Loewen Reimer. For a bibliography of his writings, go to the article.


Rod and Lorna Sawatsky, 2002. Family photo

Rodney James “Rod” Sawatsky: church historian and college administrator, b. 5 December 1943 in Altona, Manitoba, the second child of Jacob and Catherine (Loewen) Sawatsky, who both predeceased him. He was baptized into the Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church (Conference of Mennonites in Canada) in 1961. He was married to Lorna Ewert, daughter of Agnes (Regier) and Elmer Ewert, in 1964 at the North Star Mennonite Church in Drake, Saskatchewan. Rod and Lorna had three daughters: Tanya, Lisa and Katherine.

Rod graduated from Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and from Bethel CollegeNorth Newton, Kansas, before pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota (MA in History, 1969) and Princeton University (MA, 1972 and PhD in Religion, 1977). He and Lorna, a musician and teacher, taught at the Menno Bible Institute in Didsbury, Alberta, for a year (1965-1966), before Rod was hired to teach history at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC). He taught at CMBC from 1967-1970 and 1973-1974. Rod and Lorna were active members of Charleswood Mennonite Church during this time.

In 1974 Rod Sawatsky was appointed Academic Dean at Conrad Grebel College, the Mennonite college at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, under the presidency of Frank H. Epp. He also taught courses in Mennonite history and new religions. Probably his most popular course was “Sects and Cults,” which looked at new religious movements such as the Unification Church (Moonies). Sawatsky was also interested in issues of religious liberty and testified several times in court on behalf of minority groups. Sawatsky presented the Benjamin Eby Lecture at Conrad Grebel College in 1982 on the topic, “Commitment and Critique: A Dialectical Imperative,” outlining the role of Christian education in a pluralist community. In 1990 he helped organize a conference of church-related colleges in Canada entitled “Educating for the Kingdom?”

Besides his commitment to education, Rod had a keen interest in the history and development of the Mennonite church. In the early 1980s he wrote a widely-circulated article entitled “Autonomy and Accountability: Church Polity within the Conference of Mennonites in Canada.” In 1985 he presented the Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College on “Authority and Identity: The Dynamics of the General Conference Mennonite Church” (published by Bethel College in 1987).

In 1989 Rod became president of Conrad Grebel College, a position he held for five years. Under Sawatsky’s leadership, the college added new programs and hired several outstanding scholars. Lorna taught early childhood music.  They were members of Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario.

In 1994 Rod was appointed president of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, a liberal arts college with roots in the Brethren in Christ Church. In his 10 years there he led the college to a new mission and identity that emphasized excellence, diversity, international study and a spirit of service and engagement in society. His leadership resulted in an increase in enrolment and a considerable expansion of campus facilities and programs. Lorna, as “first lady” of the college, was active in campus life, planning and hosting events and supporting school activities. During this time, Rod was active in several educational organizations, including the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Christian College Consortium, and the Council of Independent Colleges.

Rod’s life was driven by his passion for education within a Christian college environment. Christian scholarship is a holy calling, he argued in one of his last publications, “The Virtue of Scholarly Hope,” a prologue in the book Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (Oxford University Press, 2004). An optimist and visionary, he was always eager to pursue new possibilities. Deeply committed to the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith, Sawatsky was also committed to engagement in the wider church and culture, ever alert to new developments and ideas in the church and in society.

Rod Sawatsky died of brain cancer on 27 November 2004 at the age of 60. He was buried at the historic Detweiler Meetinghouse cemetery near Kitchener, Ontario.

Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Ralph A. Lebold

Conrad Grebel University College’s third president was Ralph A. Lebold, who died recently on October 31, 2017.

I first met Ralph Lebold in 1973/74 during a year that Sue and I lived in London when I attended law school and quickly learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Ralph was nearing the end of his time as the pastor at Valleyview Mennonite Church, and had accepted the new role of Conference Minister that would begin in summer 1974.

I recall Ralph’s wit from one conversation that year between Sue and Ralph after one of his sermons. Sue had been very impressed by the content, and told Ralph he had preached “an incredible sermon.” He immediately responded, “Oh, I had hoped it would be credible!” I don’t remember the sermon, but I do remember Ralph’s comment.

A biography for Ralph Lebold in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online has not yet been written. What follows are some of the things that might be included in such an article.

At his funeral I heard someone describe Ralph Lebold as an entrepreneur within the church–not about making a lot of money, but in helping to innovate new programs and approaches to ministry that had an influence on the Mennonite Church throughout North America. These included the founding the Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp (1962), the provision of Supervised Pastoral Experience in a congregational setting for seminary students (1969), early encouragement for women to serve in pastoral leadership (1976), and founding Shalom Counselling Services (1982).


Ralph Lebold, 1953. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Ralph was born in the town of New Hamburg in 1934, but the family moved to a farm near Wellesley in 1945. He left school after grade 8, which was customary for Amish Mennonites at the time, and happily worked on the farm for several years. By the late 1940s he began to attend Wellesley Winter Bible School, where he met his future wife, Eileen Erb. About 1951 he switched to attending the Ontario Mennonite Bible School in Kitchener, and graduated from OMBS in 1953.

Ralph continued in the pre-university course at Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute in 1953/54, and enrolled at Eastern Mennonite College in 1954, where he received his BA in 1958.

Ralph and Eileen married in 1955, and they would have three children — Connie, Marvin and Cindy.

The family moved to Goshen, Indiana in 1959 where Ralph studied at Goshen Biblical Seminary, and from which he graduated with a BD degree in 1961. He began pastoring the King Street Mennonite Church in London, Ontario that fall. In 1963 the congregation moved to a new location in northeast London, and became known as Valleyview Mennonite Church.

In 1966-1968 the Lebold family took a one-year leave and moved to Chester, Pennsylvania where Ralph studied at Crozer Theological Seminary for an MTh in Pastoral Care and Counselling (1968). Ralph provided some pastoral services to Valleyview during the second year of the program.

The Lebolds then returned to London and Valleyview where in 1969 Ralph launched a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program in association with the Associated (now Anabaptist) Biblical Seminary. That first fall three seminary students spent a year at Valleyview working both in the congregation and at the London Psychiatric Hospital where Ralph was a Teaching Chaplain, while also serving half-time at Valleyview.

In 1974 Ralph Lebold became the first Conference Minister for the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference. (Orland Gingerich had served in a similar, reduced role of this type in the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference beginning in 1966, and the position of a full time paid conference minister had begun in some Mennonite Church regional conferences in the U.S. in the late 1960s.)  Of course this led to jokes about a Mennonite “pope.”

It was during the conference minister years that Ralph encouraged women to pursue pastoral leadership. In 1976 he suggested that Doris Weber be commissioned for pastoral service alongside her ordained husband, Rod. By 1978 this status was changed to ordination. Other women in leadership soon followed.

In 1978 Ralph Lebold began work in the new DMin program at the Toronto School of Theology; he received his degree in 1980 with a research project on “The evaluation of the pastoral leader in the context of the congregation.” This led to a later book, Learning and growing in ministry : a handbook for congregational leaders published by the Mennonite Publishing House in 1986.


Conrad Grebel College’s first three presidents: L-R, J. Winfield Fretz, Frank H. Epp and Ralph A. Lebold. 1979 photo from the Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Ralph served in the conference minister role until 1980, and likely would have continued longer except for a call asking him to consider becoming president at Conrad Grebel College in 1979. He was familiar with some of the issues at the College, having been called to help work at an internal conflict in 1977, and had been involved in the School of Adult Studies based at the college for several years. He accepted the position, and served from 1979 to 1989.

Ralph Lebold’s ten years as president at Conrad Grebel College were good years for the College. Ralph worked well with his Academic Dean, Rod Sawatsky, who succeeded him as president. In 1988 the college received a new charter, permitting it to grant a range of degrees in Religious Studies, leading to the beginning of the MTS program at the College. The Peace and Conflict Studies program also deepened and expanded. In my own memory of my time at Conrad Grebel, these were the “golden years” at the College, with everyone pulling the same direction, and relationships with the Mennonite constituency flourishing.

In 1989, Ralph took on a joint assignment with the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and the new Mennonite Conference (now Church) of Eastern Canada (MCEC) in Pastoral Leadership Training, the part of his vocation that gave him the most energy. He continued in this work until retirement in 1997.


Ralph Lebold counsels me about retirement at my December 2008 retirement dinner. I seem startled by the possibilities!

In 1991 Ralph was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, a disease with a prognosis of up to three or four years. Although his health went through cycles, new treatments extended his life 26 years. During most of those years he was able to make strong contributions to the local conference, to Waterloo North Mennonite Church, where he was a charter member, and as a mentor to many younger leaders in the church.

Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Frank H. Epp

Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario just inaugurated its eighth president, Marcus Shantz, and mourned the death of its third president, Ralph A. Lebold. For the next couple of weeks I want to reflect on the lives of the Grebel presidents who have died.

I earlier did a blog on Grebel’s first president (1963-1973), J. Winfield Fretz, so I will not repeat that one.

Grebel’s second president (1973-1979) was Frank H. Epp, a native of southern Manitoba. He started teaching at Conrad Grebel in 1971, moving with his family from Ottawa where he had pastored the Ottawa Mennonite Church and begun research on what became volume 1 of the Mennonites in Canada series. When he came to Waterloo, he also began the revival of the bi-weekly inter-Mennonite Mennonite Reporter newspaper, and served as its editor for two years.

I had determined to finish my BA at the University of Waterloo about the time that Frank Epp had come to Waterloo. I had recalled Frank from my Goshen College student days when he came and lectured publicly about the Vietnam War. He had made a strong impression on me, and so I signed up for many of his Mennonite history/Canadian minorities courses at Conrad Grebel.


Conrad Grebel College in 1974, after the Academic Building was added. GAMEO photo

Frank Epp was an intense, driven man for causes in which he believed. He wrote and spoke with passion and clarity about the Middle East, Vietnam, U.S.-Canadian relations and other things. He also wanted a larger role for Conrad Grebel College academically, and added the Peace and Conflict Studies program and expanded the Music department. He brought influential young faculty members, like Rod Sawatsky, Conrad Brunk and Len Enns on board, and stabilized music administration with Wilbur Maust. To house this growing program, he built an “academic building” completed in 1974.

Frank Epp’s passion for detail led him to micromanage and to tightly control finances, and sometimes led him into conflict. The final years of his presidency included some troubling times within the College community, and his post-presidential years at Grebel found him often isolated from other faculty on internal issues.

Despite this, Frank Epp was one of the two ro three most influential teachers in my life, helping to shape my worldview at a time I was finding my way back to the Mennonite Church. And I am forever grateful that Frank hired me as the archivist for the Mennonite Archives of Ontario in September 1974.

Below is the text of the article on Frank Epp in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online by Adolf Ens. For the bibliography of his published books, go to the GAMEO article.

Frank H. Epp

Frank H. Epp. GAMEO photo

Frank H. Epp: churchman, journalist, educator, and author; born 25 May 1929 in Lena, Manitoba, the third of 13 children of Heinrich M. Epp (1904-1958) and Anna (Enns) Epp (1902-1958). On 27 June 1953 Frank married Helen Dick of Leamington, Ontario and they had three daughters (a son died at birth). Frank died on 22 January 1986 in Kitchener, Ontario.

Educated in theology, mass communication, and history, Epp began his professional career as a public school teacher and was professor of history at Conrad Grebel College at the time of his death. He was president of Conrad Grebel College, 1973-1979. Under his leadership the college expanded to include a new academic building as well as programs in music and peace and conflict studies. An ordained minister, he was a part-time pastor in four Mennonite congregations in Canada and the United States.

His extensive public writing career began in 1951 as editor of the Jugendseite, the youth section of Der Bote, which served General Conference Mennonite youth in Canada. As founding editor of The Canadian Mennonite (1953-1967) and Mennonite Reporter (1971-1973) he exercised a broad and sometimes controversial influence among Mennonites in Canada at a time when many of them were in a language transition from German to English.

From 1957-1963 he was director and regular speaker for the Conference of Mennonites in Manitoba‘s “Abundant Life” radio program. During most of this time he also served the Board of Christian Service of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada in various capacities. He was a board member of Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCCC) from its inception in 1963 until his death and was chairman of the international MCC Peace Section, 1979-1986. From 1972-1978 he was on the presidium of Mennonite World Conference.

Beyond the Mennonite churches, Epp served on four committees of the Canadian Council of Churches (1967-1973) and was appointed to two advisory bodies by the federal government (Immigration, 1968-1977, and Multiculturalism, 1980-1985). For two years (1970-1971) he served as Executive Director of the World Federalists of Canada, and after 1980 was active in the United Nations Association of Canada. In the 1979 and 1980 federal parliamentary elections he was a candidate for the Liberal Party in the Waterloo (Ontario) constituency.

Epp’s research travels, related to peace education and writing projects, included numerous trips to the Middle East (6), Southeast Asia (3), and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (3). Epp’s twelve books include three on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and three on Mennonites in Canada. These included Mennonites in Canada, volumes I and II; he was working on volume III at the time of his death. His other books deal with educational institutions and with peace and refugee concerns.


Women’s Organizations among Ontario Mennonites

While women’s organizations in Protestant churches did not exist as separate groups until the last part of the 19th century, one could almost have considered Sunday schools as women’s organizations. By 1900 in Methodist Sunday schools fully 80% of the volunteers running the schools were women. The formation of urban missions also created new opportunities for local Mennonite congregations as they began to help provide food and housing as well as remuneration for the workers. Women in particular began to organize local groups to help provide such assistance. Here, too, Mennonite congregations were influenced by their neighboring denominations to introduce these innovations.

Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, United Brethren, and Evangelical Association congregations in Ontario had already launched Ladies Aid organizations in the 1870s and 1880s. While some Mennonite women had provided funds or clothing for specific needs or institutions, however, no formal organizations developed until the first decade of the 20th century.

The first Mennonite women’s organization in Ontario emerged in the Waterloo (now Erb Street) Mennonite Church in 1908 as a direct result of the new Toronto Mission started by the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. Lena Weber, who had been one of the first workers at the mission, returned to her home congregation and continued to advocate for the mission. The mission, in cooperation with the Toronto Children’s Fresh Air Mission, arranged for city children to stay with Mennonite families in Waterloo.


Ida Stauffer Snider, 1912. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

After seeing the poor state of the children’s clothing, the Waterloo congregation’s women held a sewing bee at Lena Weber’s home to provide clothing. With bishop Jonas Snider’s blessing, they decided to formally organize a group known as the Waterloo Charity Circle. Ida Stauffer Snider was elected its first president in April 1908. Several months later the women at the Berlin Mennonite Church (now First Mennonite) also organized a society. The third organized circle began at Wanner Mennonite in 1915.

During World War I, interest in relief work speeded the formation of women’s societies in Mennonite congregations. A binational organization related to the Mennonite Church, the Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS), formed in 1916, and was headed initially by Mary Burkhard, a widow and former missionary to India. This group asked Mary Ann Cressman to be the Mennonite Conference of Ontario representative. Cressman got her local group in Kitchener (the new name for Berlin) to ask the conference’s ordained leadership for their blessing.


Mary Ann Cressman and her husband, M.C., ca. 1890. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

In November 1917 the conference’s executive committee, chaired by Lewis J. Burkholder, gave enthusiastic support to local sewing circles and encouraged participation in the WMS. As part of her duties as president of the churchwide women’s organization, Mary Burkhard, together with Mary Ann Cressman, then visited congregations in Ontario to encourage the formation of societies in each congregation. About 20 new societies began at that time.

Mary Ann Cressman continued to hold significant leadership positions in the denominational organization, including president from 1924 to 1929—a time of considerable conflict between the women’s organization and the male-led Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities. The board expressed concern that this autonomous women’s mission organization was not formally accountable to the denominational structures and used its own judgment in directing the significant funds it raised. Thus the male-led mission board set up a Sewing Circle Committee of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities that bypassed the autonomous group.

The Mennonite Woman’s Missionary Society reluctantly sanctioned the change and went out of operation, but several leaders of the women’s movement left the Mennonite Church because of the heavy-handed male interference. However, the Ontario women’s organizations did not resist the changes demanded by the U.S.-based mission board.


St. Jacobs Mennonite Church women quilting for the Mennonite Relief Sale in 1967. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

The local women’s organizations usually met monthly, often in homes. Members paid a small monthly fee as well as special offerings for particular projects. A devotional time and formal minutes were often a part of the meeting. As newer church buildings with basements became available, the meetings often moved to the meetinghouses. Although the initial impetus was the creation of garments for the poor in the city, and later for war relief, the existence of women’s organizations also fostered more organized visitation to the congregation’s sick, organized assistance for families at times of bereavement, and provisions for the poor in the local community.


Annie Lichti and her husband, Christian. Family photo

It is less certain when the Ontario Amish Mennonite women began to formally organize groups. The conference itself was not formally organized, and no district secretary had been identified by the Mennonite Woman’s Missionary Society for the Ontario Amish Mennonites in 1916. At the end of World War I, when the Non-Resistant Relief Organization called for relief clothing, several of the Amish Mennonite congregations responded; for example, East Zorra women contributed forty-eight garments. However, formal records from the groups do not begin until the early 1920s when women like Magdalena “Mattie” Ropp and Annie Lichti gave leadership at East Zorra and Wilmot, respectively. The organized circles in the Wellesley area came later.

The women of the Mennonite immigrants who came from the Soviet Union in the 1920s organized local societies fairly quickly, but they did not relate closely to coordinated activity. They had not yet established regional or provincial societies to provide such coordination. An exception was the Vineland United Mennonite group, which worked with The First Mennonite Church in Vineland to provide materials for MCC. The fact that Vineland native John E. Coffman worked for MCC in England likely provided impetus to this cooperation. The United Mennonite women in Essex County did not form a regional women’s organization until March 1944. Until then, the individual Vereins (societies) sewed for relief through the Red Cross, sometimes in conjunction with other Protestant church groups in their community. In Niagara, some of the groups prepared dried fruit to ship overseas.

The Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) had congregational sewing circles as early as the 1910s but had no denominational or regional coordinating body in those years. About 1916 the Markham congregation initiated a missionary society that made quilts and clothing for an organization in Edmonton, Alberta. In 1922 the New Dundee women organized to provide help for the conference’s city missions. They agreed to meet in homes once monthly. They first made rag mats and bedding and supplied fruits and vegetables for their mission at St. Thomas, Ontario. A provincial women’s society for the Mennonite Brethren in Christ in Ontario was not organized until 1939.

The more separated Mennonite groups like the Old Order Mennonites did not have women’s organizations in this time period.

For more information on the role of women in Mennonite communities, read In Search of Promised Lands.


How I got to Canada

Yesterday, October 22, I talked with a Sunday school class of teenagers at my church about my experience during the Vietnam War. In preparing for telling this story, I noted that October 25 was the 49th anniversary of my entry into Canada.

It’s been a little while since I’ve reflected on that experience, and I again beg forbearance for using another blog post as personal memoir.

First a bit of context. I grew up in a small Mennonite community in Mahoning County, Ohio, on the border with Pennsylvania. My father, David Steiner, was the minister and bishop in the congregation of 100 members in my community, as had been his father, A. J. Steiner, before him. There had been four generations of ministers before that back into Europe. My mother, Katie, was an elementary school teacher and a 1930 graduate of Goshen College in Indiana. I was the youngest of six surviving children.


Barry Goldwater, ca. 1962. Library of Congress photo

In my high school years from 1960-1964 I became a philosophical mixed bag combining religious agnosticism with political conservatism. While I rejected what I considered to be a naive Mennonite faith, I embraced a naive American patriotism that scorned the growing Civil Rights movement and believed Fidel Castro was a real threat to the United States. I favored Barry Goldwater in the upcoming 1964 election.

President John Kennedy had been assassinated less than one year before. In 1964 the U.S. war in Vietnam was beginning to heat up, though few Americans had yet been killed. The Cold War was expanding – the Berlin Wall had only recently been erected. The Civil Rights movement, then primarily in the Southern States, was making Americans uncomfortable as African-Americans called for justice in voting rights, education and basic human services.

I turned 18 a couple of weeks after I entered Goshen College as a freshman in September 1964. As was the legal requirement for all American young men, I registered for the military draft at that time. Normally Mennonite young men also stated their desire for conscientious objector status at time of registration, submitting the appropriate forms requesting that status. I didn’t do so, but wrote to my parents that I was neither a pacifist nor a Christian.


Goshen College Foolscap, 1964/65

My first year at Goshen was a difficult one–I enjoyed playing cards (bridge) more than I did the classroom work. I discovered I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was, and my social introversion isolated me within a fairly small group of friends. During fall 1964 I could best be identified on campus by the Barry Goldwater election sticker on my briefcase.

In March 1965 I joined a carload of students who wanted to check out the third Selma-Montgomery march–the one that actually got to Montgomery. I can say without qualification that March 24-25, 1965 was a conversion experience for me in my worldview.

During that car ride into Alabama I finally became emotionally involved in the visible racial injustice that had always been around me. For the first time I experienced internally the underside of the American way of life through the hatred in the eyes of white people, and the huge class disparity I saw between whites and African-Americans. That’s ironic, since my older brother, Albert, had been in a Mennonite voluntary service unit in the near south side of Chicago, and I had visited him several times with my family. But the poverty and repression of black folks living in the south side of Chicago was a curiosity – something to see but not to absorb internally.


Entering  Montgomery on third Selma to Montgomery March. Martin Luther King in center. AP photo used by Daily Beast

In Montgomery, Alabama we Goshen students were billeted with the demonstrators at the City of St. Jude, a Catholic complex that included a  high school, hospital and church. It was surrounded by a chain link fence, and every ten feet around the perimeter of that fence a United States soldier, armed with rifle and bayonet, protected an estimated 10,000 of us from other Americans as we slept. The night of the 24th we enjoyed a concert from the likes of Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Nina Simone and The Chad Mitchell Trio, as well as some words from Martin Luther King. After the march to the state capitol building with 25,000 others the next day I was a different person. I heard the hopes and dreams of black men and women, in sharp contrast to the white hatred and black poverty around me.

When I returned to Goshen College from Montgomery, Alabama, I recognized I could not kill another human being on the basis of political (or economic) differences. I also saw the need to combine social justice with my new-found (or rediscovered) pacifism. Belatedly I registered with my draft board as a conscientious objector, but on philosophical, non-religious grounds. I argued that life was inherently sacred, and that I did not have the right – ever – to terminate another human life. I believed I did not have the wisdom to make that kind of decision, nor did I believe Lyndon Johnson had that authority. Since I was still a student, no action was taken on my application.


Demonstration in New York City with other Goshen College students in January 1966. New York Times photo

By 1966-67 the number of American soldiers going to Vietnam– disproportionately young, non-white and poorly educated– increased. The political conversion I had experienced led to an activist phase in my life. I joined radical student organizations
like Students for a Democratic Society and participated in mass demonstrations in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York City.


Petition against my suspension for not turning in chapel cards. Goshen College Maple Leaf photo

The culture of the “1960s” also came to Goshen College. On three occasions I was suspended from the College – the first time for illegally entering a building, the second time (for a semester) for refusing to hand in computer cards to track my attendance at compulsory convocations/chapels. The last time, in the fall of 1967, it was an indefinite suspension for my role in the Menno-Pause underground newspaper described in another blog.

From the fall of 1967 until my move to Canada in October 1968 I lived on the north side of Chicago, Illinois, most of the time with a fellow Menno-Pause editor, Jim Wenger. I  focused my attention on military draft issues. As long as I had been a student, my military obligations had been “deferred.” Now this was no longer the case. A series of legal procedures unfolded that included two appeals to local and state draft boards. At my local appeal back in Youngstown, Ohio, the Draft Board was only interested in whether I had a formal religion. They refused to hear my arguments, or to hear a character witness I had brought along with me. The hearing probably lasted all of 5 minutes. My appeal to the state board was also denied.

I worked for some months as a supply clerk at a hospital in Evanston, Illinois. Some of my co-workers were Mennonite young men who were putting in their two years of “alternative service.” Throughout the Vietnam War it remained relatively easy for young
men from peace churches like the Mennonites and Quakers to avoid military service if they stuck to the routine. Sincerity of belief (for a Mennonite) was not a crucial factor, and some of my Mennonite co-workers at the hospital thought North Vietnam should be bombed to oblivion to stop the Communists. I also learned the hospital liked to hire Mennonites to do alternative service in order to avoid hiring African-Americans “from the South Side.”

Gradually, I became more absolutist in my position. I connected with the Chicago Area Draft Resisters (CADRE) . This group, formed by Gary Rader, an ex-Green Beret, advocated open resistance to the draft, including the step of going to prison. They generated much literature for distribution at high schools, provided draft counselling for minorities, and joined in demonstrations against the war. I participated in an increasing number of these activities.

In March 1968 I received an order to appear for a physical, in anticipation of potential induction into the army. In response I tore up my draft card, which all American men were legally required to carry, and mailed the pieces back to the draft board informing them I would no longer participate in the military system. Among other things in my letter to the draft board, I questioned the use of death as a technique for conflict resolution.

I also questioned the alternative service system, lovingly embraced by Mennonites for decades. I believed “alternative service” simply helped the U.S. military system work more efficiently as Mennonites and other pacifists often performed meaningless service that aided the “national welfare” or replaced the work of others who needed employment.

Word quickly spread at the hospital about what I had done. I was promptly fired from my position.

I soon received an induction order for April 20, 1968. I returned to Ohio to publicly refuse induction. I created a one-page handout outlining my reasons for refusal. My demonstration was in front of the federal building in Youngstown, Ohio, where men were to board a bus for transport to Cleveland for induction. My sign included my induction order, and was headed, “I must resist because I cannot help mankind by destroying it.”


L-R: Dan Leatherman, Albert Steiner, Tom Harley, Sam Steiner, FBI agent

Four persons joined me in the protest–my older brother, Albert, my political science prof  from Goshen College, Dan Leatherman, and my friend, Tom Harley. The fourth person was Lowell Rheinheimer. The fact that actually moved me the most was my 67-year-old mother telling me that if no one else had come to stand with me in the demonstration, she would have done so.

The demonstration took place 16 days after Martin Luther King, the most prominent of the pacifist Civil Rights leaders, was assassinated in Tennessee. The aftermath of that assassination had led to violence and burning in many U.S. cities, including Chicago. The sheet I handed out at my demonstration pointed to King’s death as further evidence that death and violence, state-sanctioned or not, was an inadequate response to conflict.

After I lost my job, I could no longer pay my part of the rent. CADRE had friends of draft resisters who provided housing for those who needed it. For a couple of months I lived in a large apartment while the renters were on an extended vacation. The other folks living in the apartment included a small-time drug dealer, and a hippie “guru”, who with his 15-year-old female partner officiated at “weddings” for like-minded souls. They were later arrested for this.

As my finances dwindled I sold possessions like my camera to maintain myself. At the lowest point I sold my blood for money, and lived on 18 cents a day, enough to buy a Kraft dinner.

When my CADRE-provided lodgings ended, my friend, Jim Wenger, took pity and allowed me to move back to his apartment even though he now had another roommate, and I could contribute nothing to expenses.


Police riot at Democratic National Convention, 1968

It became a time of waiting for the government to take action. On one occasion the FBI invited me to come downtown for a chat. They were non-committal on when I would be arrested.

The Democratic National Convention was held in Chicago in late August. Lyndon Johnson had pulled out of the presidential race, and the convention became a focal point for protests against the Vietnam War. I participated in a number of the demonstrations in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. The police riot on the last night of the convention in late August resulted in hundreds of arrests and injuries when police charged demonstrators from three sides forcing demonstrators into crowded streets in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. I escaped that charge at the last moment because of access to a friend’s car parked nearby and a warning from a police officer that something was about to happen.

My experience during the Democratic National convention left me disenchanted with the radical Left in the United States. I came to believe that the New Left leaders, like Tom Hayden, also invited violence against the masses to help bring their revolution to fruition.

My emotional health began to suffer and paranoia increased. I took a civil service exam, hoping to get a job with the post office, but wondered whether it was worth it, since I could be arrested at any time. I heard rumors that neighbors had been contacted asking if I was still living at the apartment. An emotional crisis in late September 1968 led me to go to Goshen to see friends; this visit included a long conversation with Sue Clemmer in the cemetery near the seminary building at Goshen College. On October 13  three Goshen students, Dean Jost, Carol Beechy and Sue Clemmer came to Chicago almost as an “intervention” to persuade me to go to Canada, as well as to celebrate the first anniversary of Menno-Pause.


Donovan, 1969. Wikipedia photo

One of these visitors had become especially important to me. Sue Clemmer and I had been part of the publications “Bruderhof” at Goshen College, and initially were just friends. But in the turmoil of 1968 my attraction to her went much deeper. We had talked more deeply several times that August as we reflected on earlier romantic disappointments we had each experienced. We went to a concert that weekend, along with other Goshen people, to hear Donovan, the Scottish-born singer/songwriter.  Somebody else must have bought my ticket.

Our relationship changed for good that weekend, and Sue was key in persuading me to pursue the Canadian option. I returned to Goshen with my friends and a suitcase of clothes, and made plans for departure. Dan Leatherman, my political science prof, had married a Canadian woman, Kathryn Shantz, whose family was rooted in Waterloo County, Ontario. He offered to drive me to Canada as part of a family visit. I agreed and asked Sue to go along with me as support. After some hesitation she agreed to postpone taking an exam for graduate school, and joined me on the trip.

We drove into Canada as visitors on Friday, October 25, 1968. As it happens, Kathryn Leatherman’s oldest sister was Lorna Bergey, who later became a mentor to me in matters of Ontario Mennonite history. My first night in Canada was at the home of another sister, Beth and Paul Good, and on Sunday morning we attended the Blenheim Mennonite Church, where I was a bit of a curiosity. The Leatherman family and Sue then returned to Goshen.


Jim Reusser in 2005. Sam Steiner photo

I contacted a former roommate from Goshen College, Peter Enns, and was invited to stay at the home of his parents for a few days as I sorted things out. A visit to Walter Klaassen at Conrad Grebel College (who I understood to be involved with assisting draft dodgers) resulted in being put in touch with Jim Reusser, then pastor at the Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Jim arranged for me to be a lodger at his wife’s aunt’s home. Stella Cressman was a retired single women who lived on Pandora Ave., and had rented rooms previously. Jim also contacted Lester Zehr, a parishioner at Stirling Ave., and president of Zehrs Markets. Lester gave me a job as a grocery clerk at the store at Bridgeport Road and Weber Street in Waterloo. I have been forever grateful to Jim Reusser for his assistance, and mourn his recent death.

The next weekend the Leatherman family and Sue Clemmer came to Canada again to take me back to the border to apply for landed immigrant status. It was possible in those days to apply for this status at the border. From my draft counselling days I understood that the Port Huron/Sarnia border point was “friendlier” than the Detroit/Windsor point. So on Saturday, November 2, we returned to the U.S. through Detroit and went to Port Huron to cross the border again.

Immigration-card-1968When we crossed the border at Sarnia I indicated I wished to apply for landed immigrant status. While the Leatherman family and Sue waited, I was taken for an interview by an immigration official. Canada was already using a “points” system that gave points for years of education, proficiency in English and French, whether a job offer was in hand, location of intended residency, and other things. There were significant points also available at the discretion of the border official.


Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 1968

The interview went quite smoothly, and as had been mandated by the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, no questions about my military status in the U.S. were asked. (Canada did not have a military draft, so this was not considered relevant on the matter of immigration.) After the official had told me I had been accepted, he asked if I was a draft dodger. I said that I was, and he then asked if I knew the consequences if I tried to return to the United States. He was very friendly and gracious throughout.

Unknown to me, I had been indicted on October 30, 1968 by a grand jury in Cleveland, Ohio for not submitting to induction. I have always assumed I missed arrest by a week or so. My departure from the U.S. meant I missed a scheduled court date in December 1968.

Thus began my life in Canada, and particularly in Waterloo County, Ontario. In about a year, Peter Enns’ father, Jake Enns, got me a job at the Mutual Life Assurance Company, where I worked several years, mostly as a computer programmer.


A visit to Canada in January 1969

Sue Clemmer remained a lifeline as I adjusted to a new world, and battled my feelings of guilt for not going to prison. Sue came to Canada after she graduated from Goshen College in 1969, and we were married at Conrad Grebel College on August 2, 1969. The wedding was also the first time I met her parents, who were understandably less than enthusiastic about their daughter’s decision. Fortunately we developed a very positive relationship over the years.

For the next seven years the FBI would annually visit or call my parents to ask if I had returned to the United States. It apparently became very cordial over time. My parents instructed me not to return for their funerals if one of them died.

In 1975 I asked the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to look into my case from a legal point of view. It appeared several U.S. Supreme Court decisions bore directly on my case. The court had declared that inductions could not be speeded up if someone missed a physical, and more importantly, they had ruled that religious affiliation had no bearing on conscientious objector applications. They ruled that “sincerity” of belief was the key factor, not church affiliation. After the ACLU submitted a brief in late 1975, and my application was heard in federal court, the charges against me were immediately dropped. I was able to visit Sue’s family in Souderton, Pennsylvania, for the first time at Christmas 1975.

Our first years in Canada were not easy. We did not find our way back to the Mennonite Church until the early 1970s. This was influenced by Sue’s employer at Provident Bookstore, Aaron Klassen, who with his wife, Helen, became something of parental figures for us. For some time I continued to deal with feelings of guilt for not following through on going to prison.

The reality that so much of the help we had received had come from Mennonites who did not judge us, was not lost on us. We became attracted to Rockway Mennonite Church, then meeting in the library at Rockway Mennonite School. John Snyder was formally the pastor, but leadership came from many people like Norman High and Wilson Hunsberger, and no ideas about faith were dismissed out of hand. We slowly became more involved, and when I returned to studies at the University of Waterloo I became an intellectual disciple of Walter Klaassen and Frank H. Epp in the study of Anabaptist and Mennonite history.

One thing led to another, and I ended up for 33 plus years in the Mennonite Library and Archives at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, and Sue ended up as a Mennonite minister. We could have found no better home.

My experience with the U.S. draft has appeared in print in the following places:

Melissa Miller and Phil Shenk, The Path of Most Resistance: Stories of Mennonite Conscientious Objectors Who Did Not Cooperate with the Vietnam War Draft. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1982: 95–114.

Sam Steiner. “Confessions of a Lapsed Radical.” Mennonite Historical Bulletin 52, no. 4 (October 1991): 6-10. Available at  

Samuel J. Steiner,  “Alternative Service or Alternative Resistance? A Vietnam War Draft Resister in Canada.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 25 (2007): 195–204. Available at

My story has also been interpreted in a drama authored by Rebecca Steiner, Gadfly: Sam Steiner Dodges the Draft, and put on in fringe festivals across Canada in 2012, and at Goshen College in 2013 by Theatre of the Beat.

The Mennonite Church and Homosexuality

In the late 1960s and 1970s the question of the appropriate response to homosexuality arose among Christian denominations in North America, including the Mennonites. Prior to that era it was accepted with little discussion that homosexual people were to be excluded from the church community. In 1969 same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in Canada through legislation introduced in 1967 by then justice minister Pierre Trudeau. By 1982 Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms protected homosexual persons against legal discrimination, and this was even more explicitly stated by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1995. In 2005 the Canadian Parliament legalized same-sex marriage. These and other national legal changes forced all religious groups to clarify and restate, or modify, their previous understanding on homosexuality. Mennonites were no different.

For conservative and Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups in Ontario and elsewhere these legal changes did not alter their previous understandings. Homosexual behavior continued to be punished as contrary to teachings in the Bible, and homosexual persons were expelled from congregations. Most typically, homosexual persons would “voluntarily” leave the community, often with great pain. Some conservative denominations permitted membership for a person with a homosexual orientation if the individual lived a celibate life.

Brethen Mennonite Council symbolConversations about homosexuality within the more assimilated (i.e. “mainline”) Mennonite denominations like Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches began in the 1970s. This also occurred in the USA. The Brethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns (BMC, now Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests) formed in 1976 to advocate for gay and lesbian persons in the Mennonite and Church of the Brethren denominations and to encourage greater dialogue within the church. More recently, beginning in 2008, a Pink Menno campaign was launched, primarily focused on Mennonite Church USA in an effort to create more openness.

Martin Rock

Martin Rock, founder of BMC. Source: BMC oral history project

BMC did not have a regional chapter in Ontario until 1984. Its first overt activity in Ontario took place at the Mennonite Church’s 1979 biannual general assembly held at the University of Waterloo and known as Waterloo ’79. On the BMC representative’s first day at the conference he discovered an “assembly line” at Conrad Grebel College tearing a page out of a large stack of songbooks. It was #91 in Sing and Rejoice!, which was to be the hymnbook for the conference. The third verse of that hymn said “Praising God is the privilege of all; Black and white, straight and gay, old and young, short and tall.” An


The offending line in Sing and Rejoice!

Ontario Mennonite had complained about the verse, followed by pressure from congregational leaders. Rough censorship was the immediate solution for the general assembly, and the third verse was omitted in later printings of the songbook. Later in the meetings a BMC member was prevented from circulating a small brochure on What is the appropriate Christian Response to Homosexuality. This was the beginning of a decades-long series of unsuccessful BMC attempts to have exhibit space or formal recognition at Mennonite Church delegate sessions.

By the early 1980s Mennonite and other Protestant church bodies began to issue formal statements, sometimes after lengthy study processes. A number of works by Mennonite academics also appeared for use by congregations. The debate, as with the earlier issue of accepting divorced and remarried members, was over how to interpret key biblical passages, especially the New Testament passages of Romans 1:24–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10.

Those pleading for welcoming gays and lesbians argued these passages addressed cultural issues faced by Christians in the first century that were not equivalent to late 20th-century sexuality issues. Those who wished to retain barriers against homosexual behavior said these Biblical passages were timeless in application and self-evident in meaning. People on both sides also expressed strongly held contrary views on the causes of an individual’s homosexual orientation and whether that orientation could be changed through therapy.

The earliest Mennonite statement explicitly on homosexuality and the church, by the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (1981), suggested that homosexual activity was sinful, but that homosexual orientation was not. All subsequent resolutions by Mennonite denominational bodies took essentially the same stance, including those by the General Conference Mennonite Church (1986), Mennonite Church (1987), Conservative Mennonite Conference (1995), Conference of Mennonites in Canada (1998), and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (2004). The confessions of faith of all Mennonite denominations have continued to support this view up to 2017.

Notwithstanding the official denominational positions, a growing number of voices advocated the acceptance into the church of gay and lesbian Christians who were living in same-sex relationships. These calls primarily occurred within the binational Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. These denominational bodies eventually restructured as Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada between 1999 and 2001. Sometimes these growing voices of acceptance included entire congregations that publicly welcomed gay and lesbian persons in relationships to full participation in the church, and identified as publicly “welcoming” congregations. Two MCEC congregations that joined the Supporting Congregations Network quite early were the Warden Woods (Toronto) and the Olive Branch (Kitchener-Waterloo) congregations, though both of these congregations later closed.

The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Canada has continued to have discussion as well, though none of its congregations has become “welcoming.” They held study conferences in 2013 and 2015 on human sexuality, though the study conference leaders tried to restrict input to positions that reflected the confession of faith. This does not mean that there is no support for LGBTQ people in Mennonite Brethren churches, but congregations have not achieved the unity required for a public statement. (My thanks to Arli Klassen for pointing me to these links.)

One Ontario example of welcoming ministry to the LGBTQ community concerned Ron Lentz, a nurse and Mennonite from Pennsylvania. He came to Canada in the 1970s and contracted AIDS in 1982. He was fired from the Toronto Western Hospital for having AIDS, but later won reinstatement through a legal challenge. He helped to found an AIDS drop in center in 1987 described as “a blend of Alcoholics Anonymous and Mennonite Community principles.” His December 1988 death was remembered in a January 1989 service at the Danforth Mennonite Church in Toronto.

Welcoming congregational initiatives generated several, sometimes contradictory, types of response within denominations. In a number of Mennonite Church USA area conferences it resulted in the expulsion of the congregations from the area conference (and the denomination). Expulsion occurred also in Canada, but less frequently. No Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) congregations in Ontario were expelled for their openness to full membership and participation by gays and lesbians, partly because of a concerted effort of Mennonite Church Canada and MCEC leadership to maintain  dialogue between the interpretive factions. The dialogue approach by these leaders, however, caused some more conservative Mennonite Church Canada congregations, particularly in western Canada, to withdraw from the denomination.

Since 2000 there has been acceleration, both in the pace of interpretive change and theological tension,  within both Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Two Mennonite Church USA area conferences have authorized ministerial credentials for gay or lesbian pastors who were in a same-sex relationship. At the same time, a number of congregations and three area conferences, including the large Lancaster Mennonite Conference, have withdrawn from Mennonite Church USA. This turmoil has had a devastating impact on the denomination, threatening the financial viability of some of its programs and diverting attention from other issues.

Being a Faithful ChurchFor its part, Mennonite Church Canada went through a multi-year discernment process from 2007 to 2016 called “Being a Faithful Church.” It encouraged each member congregation to undertake a study of Biblical interpretation, especially in the area of human sexuality, and to provide feedback to the denomination on possible ways to move forward on the issue. The delegates at the denomination’s annual meeting in 2016 approved a resolution that stated the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective continued to serve the church, while acknowledging there were different understandings within MC Canada on committed same-sex relationships. It called for the denomination to create/leave room “to test alternative understandings from that of the larger Body to see if they are a prophetic nudging of the Spirit of God.”

This compromise was unsatisfactory for many on both sides of the issue. More congregations on the conservative side withdrew from Mennonite Church Canada, especially in western Canada. Others felt the action was much too cautious, and called for explicit acceptance of LGBTQ people. The impact on Mennonite Church Canada has been similar to that in Mennonite Church USA. A reduction and decentralization of denominational programming in Mennonite Church Canada is underway, in part because of increasingly reduced financial support from its congregations. A reduction in financial support has been common in many Protestant denominations, including other Mennonite groups. Controversy over issues of human sexuality has not been the only factor in this reduced congregational giving, but it has been a significant factor within Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada.

As evidence of the distance Mennonite Church Canada has travelled on this issue in recent years, on September 28, 2017 the General Board of MC Canada issued an apology to its LGBTQ members. In this apology, the General Board confessed it had not permitted the continuing loving dialogue called for in its predecessor denominations’ human sexuality statements in 1986 and 1987, and confessed that many LGBTQ persons had felt silenced even during the “Being a Faithful Church” process.

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC), an area conference of Mennonite Church Canada, is located primarily in Ontario. To this point in 2017 no congregations in MCEC have withdrawn over the issue of sexuality, though it appears several congregations are contemplating such an action.

Nonetheless there has been deep pain within Ontario MCEC congregations over the issue. One of the most visible cases was that of an associate pastor at the Toronto United Mennonite Church (TUMC). She began serving on the two-person pastoral team in January 1999. In April 2002 she declared to the congregation her lesbian sexual orientation and revealed that she was in a dating relationship with a Mennonite woman from another congregation. This disclosure led both TUMC, and MCEC, which oversees ministerial credentials, into long discernment processes. Two congregational votes on June 21, 2003 resulted in inadequate support for the associate pastor’s continued employment in the congregation. Meanwhile, MCEC immediately ended  a process that would have led to her full ordination. This painful story received much visibility in the church press within and beyond the Ontario Mennonite community.

The leadership of MCEC then took a deliberate decision in 2004 to not exclude congregations who were welcoming to LGBTQ persons. This was outlined in a document, “Pointing a Direction on Homosexuality.” Since that time a number of MCEC congregations have self-identified as welcoming to LGBTQ persons. This was done through formal statements, including statements on congregational websites, as well as inclusion of the rainbow symbol on their websites.

At the time of writing, after a quick search of MCEC congregational websites, I had identified ten mostly urban MCEC congregations that self-identified as welcoming to LGBTQ persons on their websites. These included Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church (Kitchener), Erb Street Mennonite Church (Waterloo), Waterloo North Mennonite Church, Rockway Mennonite Church (Kitchener), St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, Breslau Mennonite Church, Community Mennonite Church of Stouffville, Toronto United Mennonite Church, Hamilton Mennonite Church and Ottawa Mennonite Church. I believe there are other congregations with welcoming statements that could be listed. I may have missed some. I would appreciate updates that could be added to this page. Congregational statements can be sent to me at steiner.sam [at]

Stirling Statement

Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church’s statement on their website, 2017. See also their Litany of Lament and Confession

I was prompted to reflect historically on Mennonites and homosexuality in this blog by a controversy occasioned by the inclusion of a paid supplement sponsored by the Maple View Mennonite Church of Wellesley, Ontario in the September 25, 2017 issue of Canadian Mennonite. The supplement adapted a statement by the Evangelical Free Church of America on human sexuality that was an uncompromising restatement of the traditional exclusionary view on homosexuality. I engaged in the social media discussion on the Mennonite Church Canada Facebook group by defending the right of Maple View Mennonite Church to place such an ad, though I questioned whether it would be effective. A vast majority of social media voices felt the supplement should not have been included by Canadian Mennonite because it did not invite dialogue and was harmful to the LGBTQ community that had already suffered much from the church. The response of the Canadian Mennonite at time of posting the blog was incomplete. On its Facebook page it said it “acknowledges the deep pain and anger that was caused by the Maple View supplement,” but would make a fuller statement the following week. The formal response came in this statement (also published in the print edition of October 23), though the statement was not well-received by most of the early responses to it.

The consequences of this controversy within Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada will remain unclear for many years. Certainly denominational structures are changing and shrinking. The reasons include aging demographics, a desire for more localized programming, a fading interest in the institutional church, along with weariness and dismay over painful controversies. The matter of relating to its LGBTQ communities has been one such controversy in the Mennonite community.

To learn more about Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands.

I obtained some of my information on the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests from its periodical, Dialogue.

Missions in Québec–Janet Mills Martin


Richard Lougheed, 2014

In recent days I’ve been reading a manuscript by Richard Lougheed, a church history professor at the École de Théologie Évangélique de Montréal. in Québec. The manuscript is about the history of Anabaptist mission efforts in Québec, including those of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario (now Mennonite Church Eastern Canada), the Mennonite Brethren, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonites (Holdeman Mennonites) and the Brethren in Christ (now Be in Christ). Richard is a church leader who came to know the Mennonites well while serving as an Anglican-United Church pastor in Rouyn-Noranda during the years that Robert Witmer was the leader of a small Mennonite congregation there. Richard became a Mennonite, and has done much to gather the history of Mennonites in that province.

His manuscript will hopefully soon become a book, covering an oft-neglected part of Canadian Mennonite history.

It brought to mind the efforts within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in the 1950s to launch a mission effort in Québec. Two of the pioneers in this effort were Janet and Tilman Martin. They were a bit of an odd couple — Tilman was born an Old Order Mennonite, but ended up at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church and Ontario Mennonite Bible School. He went on to study at Toronto Bible College where he met Janet, an woman born in London, England.

Janet died in 2002; Richard Lougheed wrote a short article on her for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), which is reproduced below.

Janet Martin, 1982

Janet and Tilman Martin, 1982. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Janet  Martin: Quebec missionary, born as Janet Madeleine Mills in London, England on 18 June 1933 to Basil Mills and Margery Roland. After being raised in a secular setting she was introduced to the idea of Christian faith when evacuated to Wales. After World War II she immigrated to Canada with her parents. Janet came to personal faith in the Harrow Associated Gospel Church and was baptized by them in Lake Erie, Ontario. She later attended Toronto Bible College, where she met fellow student Tilman Martin. They married in Harrow on 6 June 1953. Janet Martin became a member of the St. Jacob’s congregation of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. She and Tilman continued their education at Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute.

From 1954 on Janet Martin was in full-time service for the church with Tilman — one year in Waters, Ontario and 46 years in Quebec. She and Tilman were the pioneer missionaries for Quebec along with Harold and Pauline Reesor, sent by the Mennonite Board of Missions (Elkhart) and later the Mennonite Mission Board of Ontario. The Martin and Reesor couples arrived in Quebec in August 1956. Janet Martin participated fully in ministries in Montréal-Nord (1957-1973), Joliette, the Camp Le Sablier and in the prisons where Tilman served as chaplain for 15 years. She often opened their home to prisoners on parole or on visits. In fact through their home base Janet Martin provided radical hospitality for children, grandchildren, those revolving around the church and others in need. Janet Martin spent her retirement actively engaged in the Ottawa Mennonite congregation. She had five children, one of whom died young. Janet Martin died in Gatineau, Quebec on 29 July 2002.

Martin was a pioneer missionary, musician (particularly solo vocals), and correspondent in French for l’Aurore newspaper and in English for The Canadian Mennonite. Janet Martin served as longtime liaison between Mennonite Church Eastern Canada and the Quebec churches. As a historian she collected enough documents to provide a beginning for the archives of the Société historique Mennonite du Québec.