Ascension Day Divides Ontario Mennonites

The Old Order Mennonites in Ontario emerged over a 15 year period, from the 1870s until the final division within Mennonite Church of Canada (as it was called in the 19th century) took place in 1889.

Difficulties steadily increased between those who were cautious about accepting influences from revivalist groups like the Evangelical Association and United Brethren, and those who thought these influences were both healthy and necessary. The sore points included Sunday schools for children, revival meetings, evening prayer meetings filled with testimonies by both men and women, and increasing use of English in the non-Sunday morning meetings.

Sunday schools were a concern because the teachers were not ordained church leaders, and included women, unbaptized adherents in the congregation, or even members of other denominations. In the early years, the lesson helps were published by non-Mennonite organizations. The prayer meetings also provided women a higher profile than was customary. And increased usage of English language dramatically lowered linguistic protective barriers against the surrounding culture. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the revivalist influences were greatest in areas with a less dense Mennonite population—the southern parts of Waterloo County, and the Markham and Niagara Peninsula areas.

The leader in Waterloo County of the more cautious Mennonites was Bishop Abraham Martin (1834-1902). At one time in the 1870s he had offered to accept evening prayer meetings if the other side would give up Sunday school. This didn’t happen.

To accommodate its more cautious members, in 1888 the ordained leaders in Waterloo County tried to tighten the regulations on who could teach in Sunday school (only Mennonite church members in good standing), but the rupture was by then too deep.

Calendar of Appointments

Calendar of Appointments for 1889

Annual meeting schedule

Schedule for Annual Meeting for fourth Friday in May.

The final catalyst for the division is laughable when viewed today. Because Waterloo County had the largest number of churches, ministers from that district prepared the printed Calendar of Appointments that outlined where services were held each Sunday, as well as the dates for communion services and the annual and semi-annual meetings of ordained leaders. By tradition, the annual meeting of ordained leaders was held the last Friday in May.

In 1889 there was a complication however. Ascension Day fell on Thursday, May 30. Congregations held services that day, and the annual conference was scheduled for Markham on May 31. The calendar editors thought this close timing could be difficult for ministers who needed to preach on Thursday and still travel to Markham for Friday morning. So they set the annual meeting for May 24, the fourth Friday in May.

Old Order Calendar

Old Order Mennonite calendar for 1891

This created the pretext for the two sides to divide, with the ability to blame the “other side” for the division. On May 24 three bishops, 16 ministers and a number of deacons met in Markham for the Calender’s scheduled annual meeting. One week later, on May 31, three other bishops (Abraham Martin, Christian Reesor, and Christian Gayman), and most of the ministers from Markham, Cayuga, Rainham, and Woolwich Township met at the same place for their annual meeting. Old Order bishop Christian Shaum from Indiana met with them, which reinforces the notion that a division was virtually already planned when the scheduling anomaly became apparent.

As might be expected, each group considered the other to have departed the conference. Two years later, the less assimilated group published its own calendar using the term, Alt-Mennoniten Gemeinde in Ontario (Old Mennonite Church in Ontario) as its official name, although “Old Order Mennonite” soon came into more common usage.

Learn more about this division in In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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One thought on “Ascension Day Divides Ontario Mennonites

  1. I’ve seen little booklet calendars like that in the church history drawers at The First Mennonite Church in Vineland… Now I understand why they felt it necessary to write up a schedule of who was preaching where (I always thought it was odd to do that). Thanks for this interesting blog post!


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