Henry H. Janzen, Unexpected Church Leader

H. H. Janzen altered the course of the Mennonite Brethren church in Ontario in the 1930s, and went on to become a much-loved Bible teacher and leader within the denomination. This was unexpected for a man whose teenage years in Russia had been consumed with rebelling against his Mennonite faith.

Heinrich (Henry) H. Janzen was born in 1901 in the Molotschna Colony in South Russia (Ukraine). His father was the teacher in the local one-room school. Along with most of the others in their village of Münsterberg, Henry’s family participated in the Kirchliche Mennonite Church, the least pietistic of the Mennonite groups in Russia. The smaller Mennonite Brethren group were both more pietistic and more evangelical.

While a teenager Henry attended the Ohrloff Zentralschule (high school) where he rejected the faith of his family. When he was drafted into the Red Army in 1921, he was heavily influenced by communist teachings on religion, and  considered himself to be an agnostic or atheist since he could not see God at work in the disasters that had happened to the Mennonites during and after the Russian Revolution.

His wife, Tina, whom Henry married in 1923, was a devout Christian however, and did not waver in her convictions. After the death of their first child in 1924, Henry reconsidered his views and later that year was converted at a Mennonite Brethren evangelistic meeting, and was baptized into the Kirchliche church. (In Ontario people from the group became known as United Mennonites.)  Henry and Tina, with their second child, came to Canada in 1925 and settled in Kitchener where they participated with a Mennonite Brethren group.

In 1926 Henry was re-baptized by immersion in the Grand River, and became an enthusiastic lay leader in the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren church, soon teaching Sunday school. His communication skills were soon recognized, and he also began to preach on occasion at the invitation of the congregation’s ministers. He was himself ordained as a Mennonite Brethren minister in 1929.

Henry H. Janzen in 1952

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

As the leading minister of the largest Mennonite Brethren congregation in Ontario, he initiated formation of the Ontario Mennonite Brethren Conference in 1932, and served as its moderator from 1932-1946. He did much to shape the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference in those years. This included encouraging regulations that allowed only persons who had been baptized by immersion to be members, in conformity with the position of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The Ontario MBs had previously been flexible on this issue. This change did cause some members to withdraw.

Henry H. Janzen also wielded influence far beyond the Mennonite Brethren community. He was also sought as a Bible teacher in Russian-language churches and Bible schools, and in the early 1930s he had a great impact in nudging many Old Order Mennonites to a “born-again”conversion experience that is described elsewhere.  He also served at Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba for 10 years, eight of them as president. Later in life he taught in a variety of settings in Europe.

To learn more about the Ontario Mennonite Brethren and Henry H. Janzen read In Search of Promised Lands.

5 thoughts on “Henry H. Janzen, Unexpected Church Leader

  1. Nice summary, Sam. I did a bit of work of my own on HH Janzen’s life. It was published in Harold Jantz’s Leaders Who Shaped Us: Canadian Mennonite Brethren 1910-2010 (Winnipeg: Kindred Productions, 2010), pp. 147-157. And interesting churchman who would be called a workaholic today. And obsessed with the imminence of the end of the world. Who could blame him, though, considering the century he lived through.


    • Vic, your work was one of my sources, as well as the the publication completed by the family after his death. Interestingly, it seemed like his widow was the source for his anti-religious youth, not his own autobiographical writing.


      • Yes. Maybe he preferred to forget it, but she couldn’t? When she married him it probably created all kinds of stress for her, especially with her parents.


  2. Thanks Sam for the article on a person who in our “foolish years” in Kitchener was revered as “Ha Ha” Janzen. In telling the story of her beginning years after their escape from Russia my mother spoke with some nostalgia about the start of the MB church in Kitchener as an “allianz Gemeinde” and reluctantly admitted that H. H. Janzen “converted” the group into an MB church. As in any retelling of history one wonders “What If?” in this case might the working together of the kirchliche/United Mennno Waterloo and the Allianz/MB churches (Janzen & Janzen) meant for the young people of both communities who hardly knew each other.


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