Dissension and the origins of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario

In an earlier post I discussed the theological diversity that Mennonite Church Eastern Canada has been able to embrace in its 25 plus year history. This story does not yet, of course, have a final outcome. And there has been enough dissent and division in it predecessor conferences to fill (part) of a book.

Today I reflect on the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and a division in 1960 that resulted in the formation of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario. Today that body consists of 14 congregations with a membership of 846. One of these congregations is located in India, and another in Manitoba.

In each era of their history, Mennonite groups have struggled with what nonconformity to the world means and which social trends and technological innovations in the surrounding culture Mennonites should accept. In the nineteenth century this included questions about participation in temperance and agricultural improvement societies.

By the early 20th century more assimilated Mennonites wondered about the purchase of life insurance or whether one should participate in the political process by voting. The 1940s to 1960s introduced more nonconformity issues as governments began to regulate business activities and to introduce new universal social programs, including family allowances, universal health care programs and the Canadian Pension Plan. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario accepted these, after some initial hesitation about the family allowance program.

Other social changes in Canadian society also influenced assimilated Mennonites. Issues of divorce and remarriage, especially in urban mission congregations, began to cause tension as divorced persons expressed interest in joining the Mennonites. Another issue was birth control, which became more readily available prior to World War II. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario took a stand against birth control, but its teaching against this faded as more and more Mennonite families engaged in family planning despite the teaching.

Finally, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario had passed through a half-century of a particular emphasis on separation from the world, especially as symbolized by dress. After World War II there was increasing pressure, especially among more urban Mennonites, to reduce the amount of visible nonconformity in clothing and hair styles.

Biehn Summer Bible School teachers, 1947

Dress codes reflected in this 1947 photo of the Biehn Mennonite Church Summer Bible School teachers and pastors. Moses Baer (left) and Curtis Cressman (right) wear the plain coat, with women in cape dresses. In Search of Promised Lands photo.

Most symbols of this nonconformity fell to the women. More than in earlier generations, uniform dress codes had become increasingly uncomfortable for them as they pursued higher levels of education in business schools, nursing programs, and colleges, and as they worked in non-Mennonite businesses and industries prior to marriage.

John and Lois Snyder, 1951

John Snyder and Lois Buckwalter wedding, 1951. In Search of Promised Lands collection.

Some of the focus was on hair styles for women, especially those who cut their hair. Jewelry and  changing wedding practices became larger issues. As more weddings were held in churches rather than in homes, the ceremonies included greater pageantry. Changes included long white wedding gowns, flowers carried by the bride, special music, and wedding rings. Wedding rings were especially troublesome since they involved jewelry that would be worn continuously after the wedding.

The desire to wear wedding rings increased during World War II as more young wives were left at home alone or followed their husbands to alternative service work camps and found a ring to be a useful symbol of marital status. As Mennonite women began to have hospital births, some got wedding rings after being embarrassed by nurses who thought they were unwed mothers.

Many older leaders in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario had accepted the Mennonite fundamentalist teaching articulated in the early part of the twentieth century by Daniel Kauffman and John Horsch. They felt compelled to reinforce both correct doctrine and visible nonconformity. But in the 1950s younger pastors  in the conference had begun to attend Mennonite seminaries. Especially those pastors who studied at Goshen Biblical Seminary in Indiana shifted the theological path they wished to follow, and visible nonconformity was no longer a priority.

Already in 1948, Moses Baer, a minister at the Blenheim Mennonite Church, resigned from the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. He detailed his concerns in a handwritten seven-page letter to the conference’s executive committee and called for more uniform practice and discipline on a number of nonconformity issues. His concerns included mutual aid organizations that functioned like insurance companies, intermarriage with persons of other denominations, being “unequally yoked” with others in secular organizations like farm co-ops and the Holstein-Friesian Association, acceptance of family allowances from the government, emergence of summer camps, immodest dress, vocational education for women, and floral displays at weddings.

Barbara and Moses Roth

Barbara and Moses Roth. In Search of Promised Lands collection

Despite the concerns of Moses Baer, and conservative bishops Moses Roth and Curtis Cressman, change accelerated in the 1950s. Cape dresses disappeared, cut hair appeared more frequently, and very few laymen wore the plain coat. Membership in farm associations became more common, and televisions began to supplement the radios already present in most homes. The younger seminary-educated ministers saw the Mennonite distinctives in dress as a cultural lag rather than a sign of faithfulness.

By the mid-1950s it was clear that the Mennonite Conference of Ontario’s Constitution and Discipline no longer reflected the view of a majority of conference leaders. The conference established a committee to revise the document. The new Faith and Practice, approved in June 1957, discussed “principles” of nonconformity rather than listing specific requirements. Curtis Cressman, a member of the revision committee, issued a minority report that called for explicit language against divorce and remarriage, and for specific dress regulations that would “assist the membership in determining right standards.” He wanted clear references to uncut hair, wedding rings, and life insurance, but the conference delegates did not agree.

In August 1959 six ordained leaders wrote a lengthy letter to the Mennonite Conference of Ontario executive committee outlining their concerns, which included being “unequally yoked” with the world in business and societies, members holding local political office, immodest attire and use of jewelry, cutting the hair of women, baptism of persons who did not demonstrate the new birth, open communion that accepted persons not members of the church, optional feetwashing, replacement of the prayer veil by a hat at some church meetings, rare use of the holy kiss, and lack of teaching on anointing with oil. The letter closed by saying, “We, the undersigned, can no longer continue with the conference and be true to our baptismal and ordination vows and until conference has retraced its steps we request our conference letters. We would be glad to meet with the Conference Executive very soon to arrange the termination of our present responsibility under conference to our various congregations.”

After several meetings the six leaders signed a second letter stating they wished “to terminate our responsibility to the Conference and request the Conference at its annual meeting to give consideration to granting us our Conference letters.” Five days later the executive committee informed the dissenting pastors that  committees were being formed to look after ministry in their congregations.

The Mennonite Conference of Ontario announced a formal division at its annual meeting in June 1960. Those that left searched for like-minded churches with which to fellowship. They considered a variety of options, including the Virginia Conference of the Mennonite Church  and the Conservative Mennonite Conference (both located in the U.S.). Finally in September 1960 they formed the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, loosely affiliated with the Fellowship movement in the United States (later known as Nationwide Fellowship Churches), which was composed of independent congregations that had withdrawn from various district conferences of the binational Mennonite Church.

Heidelberg Conservative Mennonite Church

Former Heidelberg Conservative Mennonite Church. Sam Steiner photo.

The new group purchased its first building in June 1960 in Heidelberg—taking over an old Evangelical church building that was being used for storage by the neighboring garage. This location preceded the dedication of a new building in New Hamburg by half a year.

Moses Roth assumed leadership of the Heidelberg group; Curtis Cressman led the New Hamburg congregation.  The Conservative Mennonite Church movement continued to spread through divisions in other Mennonite Conference of Ontario congregations.

Growth also came through persons from the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite conference (a division from the Old Order Mennonites in the 1930s) who wanted Sunday school for their children, mission programs, and a more evangelically expressed theology.

The Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario suffered its own divisions in the 1970s, but it has continued as a voice echoing the faith and theology of an earlier era in the Mennonite Church.

To learn more about the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands.

6 thoughts on “Dissension and the origins of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario

  1. Pingback: Fundamentalism and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario | In Search of Promised Lands

  2. Pingback: SCHISMS and DIVISIONS and SEPARATIONS in the Mennonite Church – Elmira Mennonite and St Jacobs Mennonite and Mennonite Church History and My Martin Mennonite Heritage

  3. Pingback: Origins of the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship in Ontario | In Search of Promised Lands

  4. I followed your articles for months and finally bought the book but could not figure out how to leave a comment. I wanted you to know how much I appreciate that you systemized all this information. My mother, and others in my native Old Order Mennonite community, told me the stories and I thought I should write them down but I did not have the broad context to tie them together. Thank you, Sam, for undertaking this massive work.


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