One of the interesting, but largely unknown, Mennonite groups in Ontario is the Reformed Mennonite Church. It emerged from one of the earliest divisions within the Mennonites in North America–in 1812 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Prior to that, persons unhappy with the Mennonite Church left for other denominations, especially German-speaking Pietist groups like the United Brethren in Christ. We’ll look a bit at the beginning of this group.
Around 1810 John Herr, who lived in Lancaster County, experienced a series of personal crises. During the construction of his new barn, one man was killed and another seriously injured. Herr himself barely escaped serious injury. He had a vision of his deathbed in which he had no consolation because of his greater love for “man” than for God. He then knew “it is Jesus alone and His blood that is able to satisfy and make me perfect in him…. Then methought I heard Christ say, “Who are my friends but them who do the will of my father.” Finally Herr felt the peace and safety of the “bosom of Christ.”
John Herr and a small group met separately from other Mennonites for worship. In 1812 the group formally organized and elected Herr to be the minister. A member of the group baptized him and he assumed the leadership of the group. Herr was a charismatic and influential speaker, and his reform movement was more dynamic and more engaged with the larger society than were most of his Mennonite contemporaries. This was especially true of Reformed Mennonite ordained leaders like Daniel Musser, a physician. The Reformed Mennonites became more urban than other Mennonite groups of the era, and attracted more educated members in their early decades than did the Lancaster Conference Mennonites. They also quickly adopted the English language. John Herr, who as a young man was a friend of future U.S. President James Buchanan, wrote poetry in English, and encouraged the translation of the Martyrs Mirror into English in 1837.
In an autobiographical essay, John Herr criticized the many conflicts within the Lancaster Mennonite community, which he believed only claimed to be nonresistant. He said the Mennonite Church failed to abide by the 1617 Mennonite confession, published in the Martyrs Mirror, which included clear articles on church discipline and non-participation in government. In contrast to the other more ecumenical Pietist groups, the Reformed Mennonites saw themselves as a faithful remnant of an earlier, purer church that had been shepherded by Menno Simons. Thus the Reformed Mennonites resisted fellowship with other renewal or Mennonite groups from an early date. They still do not participate in organizations like Mennonite Central Committee, and they are not permitted to listen to sermons or prayers by persons not from their group. They believe they are the only church with a complete understanding of Christian truth.
The Reformed Mennonites attracted a significant number of Mennonites in Ontario beginning in the 1830s when John Herr visited Canada for the first of a number of visits. He was later followed by visits to Canada by his son-in-law, Dr. Daniel Musser. Interestingly, John Herr died in Ontario in 1850 while visiting churches here. He was eventually buried back in Pennsylvania.
The Reformed Mennonites attracted many persons from Mennonite and Amish groups in the mid-19th century, perhaps reaching a population of 1,000 by 1870. By 2010 there were only eight Reformed Mennonite congregations left in North America with a total membership of 300. The two largest remaining congregations are in Ontario — at Stevensville and near the hamlet of Amulree.
To learn more about the Reformed Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.