When some Old Order Mennonites almost became Mennonite Brethren

Old Order Mennonites have an understanding of personal salvation that differs from the evangelical Protestant community. They live in the trust that they will be saved, but shy away from confident statements about the assurance of their salvation. They do not emphasize a crisis conversion experience, and believe that their daily lives should be the evidence of their Christian faith.

This has made them, and other Mennonite groups with similar views, the target of evangelical Mennonite and non-Mennonite groups alike. In the 1920s Old Order Mennonite leaders would have acknowledged the need for a new birth, but its leaders would not have been familiar with the modernist-fundamentalist controversies that divided Protestantism and some Mennonite groups in those years.

Some Old Orders attended evangelistic meetings sponsored by evangelical groups, and were attracted to the clear doctrines of fundamentalism. A significant fundamentalist influence came from the Christian Brethren (Plymouth Brethren), who preached to audiences in Linwood and Elmira in the 1920s and early 1930s, including numerous Old Order Mennonites. The Brethren emphasized the assurance of salvation for those who had truly been born again.

Henry H. Janzen in 1952

Henry H. Janezn in 1952. Courtesy Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Winnipeg)

In October 1931 a Sunday school started in Hawkesville, with the support of the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church and others. The Hawkesville Gospel Mission, technically an independent mission with mostly Mennonite Sunday school teachers, was led by Israel Martin, who had left the Old Order to join the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1928. Soon he organized Sunday evening services that attracted members of the Old Order and others. Guest speakers included Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and non-Mennonite preachers, including Henry H. Janzen of the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church and Frank Guthrie of the Plymouth Brethren. Frank Guthrie was a lay leader in the Plymouth Brethren assembly in Guelph and had been preaching among the Old Order as early as 1923. Janzen and Guthrie had a cordial relationship, and became the most popular speakers at the Hawkesville Gospel Mission.

By 1934 a number of regular participants at the Hawkesville Mission became interested in receiving baptism by immersion. On September 9, 1934, over one thousand persons observed an immersion baptism in the Conestogo River near Wallenstein; Henry H. Janzen performed the baptisms. Many of those baptized were already baptized members of the Old Order Mennonite Church, so this act was a repudiation of their Old Order membership. The initiation of a weekly communion service, following the Plymouth Brethren pattern, also rejected traditional Mennonite practice.

Despite the mass baptism, it remained unclear which denomination the new group would join. One faction favored formation of a Plymouth Brethren assembly. Those led by Israel Martin favored membership in the new Ontario Mennonite Brethren Conference, led by their mentor, Henry Janzen. It took a while to decide, and the group finally mixed the polities of the Plymouth Brethren and Mennonite Brethren; it practiced weekly communion (a Plymouth Brethren practice), but also retained Mennonite practices of feetwashing and formal appointment of a pastor. It also rejected combatant service in the military, a Mennonite Brethren position. It retained the prayer veil for women who came from an Old Order background, but did not require it of those from other backgrounds.

Finally by the end of 1935 the Plymouth Brethren position had become dominant within the Hawkesville group, and Henry Janzen was no longer routinely invited to preach, though he still spoke several times to the group in 1936. Janzen’s last invitation to speak at the Wallenstein Bible Chapel, as the established congregation became known, was for a Sunday evening, not many years before his death in 1975.

I have wondered how the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches would have changed if these former Old Order Mennonites had made a different decision in the 1930s.

To learn more about Ontario’s Old Order Mennonites read In Search of Promised Lands.

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One thought on “When some Old Order Mennonites almost became Mennonite Brethren

  1. Pingback: Henry H. Janzen, Unexpected Church Leader | In Search of Promised Lands

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