Mennonite teaching against the use of alcoholic beverages was a relatively modern innovation, adopted from the early 19th century temperance movement advocated by religious reform movements like the Methodists and the Baptists.
If one checks the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia article on “Alcohol,” one finds no support for the notion that early Anabaptists were total abstainers, though there was frequent teaching against drunkenness or loitering in taverns.
Distilling whiskey or brandy, and brewing beer were practical solutions for grain farmers who had limited means for transporting their goods to market. The liquid product was much more compact than a wagon load of sacks of grain, and it returned a good price.
In Europe, Mennonite distilleries existed by the end of the 16th century in the Danzig area (See “Alcohol among the Mennonites of Northeast Germany.”) By the 18th and early 19th centuries there were quite a number of distilleries and brewers of beer among the Mennonites of North America, some of whom became quite well known.
In Waterloo County, Ontario there were very early Mennonite distillers. Among them were “Indian” Sam Eby in the first decade of the 1800s and Andrew Groff in the 1820s. Sam Eby’s still became notorious. He built it not long after he immigrated in 1804, and traded alcohol with nearby First Nations people. Eventually the activity of Eby and others led to a petition from local residents in 1808 to limit the trade in alcohol. In addition to a still, Groff also had a mill, a store and a tavern.
A later distiller was prominent Mennonite entrepreneur Jacob C. Snider, the father of minister Elias Schneider, and grandfather of E.W.B. Snider, known for his role in introducing publicly-owned hydro electricity to Ontario. Snider bought the mills that were part of Abraham Erb’s estate in what became Waterloo, and added a distillery about 1835. Jacob Snider’s son, Elias, closed the distillery in Waterloo, though Jacob operated one on his farm for a time prior to his death in 1865.
Even Bishop Benjamin Eby purchased and sold alcohol until 1833, when he suddenly stopped. The temperance movement had begun to make inroads into the Mennonite community, and active distilling and brewing decreased, even if total abstinence was not the immediate result.
William Hespeler, who was prominent in assisting the Mennonite immigration to Manitoba from Russia in the 1870s, established a distillery in Waterloo in 1857 together with a partner. This distillery was later taken over by Joseph E. Seagram, whose family developed it into a worldwide enterprise.
In the second half of the 19th century, more Mennonite groups began to teach in favor of total abstinence, and some Mennonite preachers in the early 20th century encouraged Mennonites to vote for prohibition.
Mennonite usage of alcohol in the 21st century varies by group. The Old Order groups discourage drunkenness, but do not insist on abstinence. Conservative Mennonite groups tend to forbid alcohol use in any form. The most assimilated groups reject abuse of alcohol, but let usage up to the individual conscience. Some Mennonite entrepreneurs operate restaurants that serve alcohol, other “Mennonite” restaurants decline to serve alcohol.
To learn more about Ontario Mennonites and social issues, read In Search of Promised Lands.