A brief history of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School

In my volunteer work at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario I’ve been working with the Ontario Mennonite Bible School collection. This week I’m sharing a historical sketch I’ve prepared in connection with that work.

The Ontario Mennonite Bible School (OMBS) began in 1907 with a four week class held in the Berlin Mennonite Church (now First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario). The school was known as the Bible Study Class until the 1920s. “Bible school” became more common by 1930, and a new constitution in 1933 formalized the name as Ontario Mennonite Bible School, sometimes referred to as the Kitchener Bible School. In 1951 a more advanced “Institute” was added, leading to the name Ontario Mennonite Bible School & Institute. The school closed in 1969.

Ontario Mennonite Bible School’s roots were in the Bible conference movement that influenced the Mennonite Church (MC) in the 1890s and early part of the 20th century. It was part of a general movement within the Mennonite Church (MC) to place more emphasis on correct doctrine, partly as a result of younger dynamic Mennonite leaders who studied at places like Toronto Bible College or Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

The Bible conferences focused on doctrinal teaching based on detailed scriptural exegesis. These three- or four-day conferences for lay people had the positive benefit of extending biblical knowledge among the laity, but also provided a forum for introducing theological influences from other bodies, since the teachers in these conferences were reading literature produced outside the Mennonite community. Thus these conferences introduced fundamentalism to the Mennonite Church.

The first Bible Conference within the Mennonite Church of Canada (the name of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario until 1909) took place in 1899 and addressed a wide range of topics, including: Non-resistance, Holy Spirit, Special Talk on Dress, Swearing of Oaths, Going to Law, Church Government, Prayer-Head Covering, and Home Missions.

In 1906 the Mennonite Church of Canada decided to establish a “course of Bible study” to be held immediately after a scheduled Bible conference at the Berlin Mennonite Church in January 1907. Samuel F. Coffman, who had studied at Moody Bible Institute, and Lewis J. Burkholder were the instructors for the first four-week course held from January 14 through February 8, 1907. They each taught two courses. A total of 65 students attended either the daytime or evening classes. The evening classes repeated two of the daytime classes.

No Bible study class was held in 1908 because S. F. Coffman was under discipline within the conference for at least part of a year. Several years earlier Coffman had baptized two young women even though they had not committed themselves to wear a uniform bonnet in public, and they had continued to wear hats in public.

Despite this blip, in January 1909 the Bible study class was again held, although it was cut short by a week because of a smallpox outbreak in the Berlin area. Coffman taught classes on “Methods of Study” and “Church History.” Burkholder taught “Doctrines of Salvation” and “Studies in Matthew.” Later that year the Mennonite Conference of Ontario established a three-person board to oversee the Bible class now scheduled to be held annually. Absalom B. Snyder, minister of the Wanner congregation served as chair; Isaiah Wismer, minister of the Strasburg (Pioneer Park) congregation was secretary, and Urias K. Weber , minister at the Berlin Mennonite Church, served as treasurer. Board members were elected for three year terms. Over time the board expanded to nine members.

Ella & S. F. Coffman

Ella & S. F. Coffman, ca. 1920. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

From 1910 to 1918 S. F. Coffman was the only teacher of the Bible class, except for 1916 when John D. Brunk of Indiana taught a music course.  In 1912 a six-year rotation of courses was established, and in 1913 the course was expanded to six weeks in length. That same year Bible class students built a model of the Old Testament tabernacle, a teaching tool that was used for many years. Meals and lodging arrangements for students were also established during this time. For unknown reasons, classes for most of this decade were not held at the Berlin Church, but rather were held in various rented quarters in the town of Berlin. Finally in 1920, the school returned permanently to First Mennonite Church (renamed in 1917 when the city of Berlin changed its name to Kitchener).

In 1919 Oscar Burkholder (Breslau Mennonite Church) assisted Coffman in teaching. In 1921 he became the second regular faculty member, working along with Coffman, who continued as the principal of the school until 1947. Burkholder had attended Toronto Bible College, which also nudged him in a fundamentalist direction. He served as OMBS’s second principal, from 1948-54.

Clayton F. Derstine (First Mennonite Church) served on the faculty from 1929-1949. He was a widely known  evangelist, author and editor in the binational Mennonite Church. Derstine had come in 1925 to First Mennonite Church after the congregational division that had seen the formation of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church. Derstine was a flamboyant preacher who sometimes came into conflict with conservative co-workers because over the years he became more relaxed over issues of church discipline related to dress regulations.

OMBS faculty 1939

OMBS faculty in 1939. L-R: Jesse B. Martin, Clayton F. Derstine, Samuel F. Coffman, Oscar Burkholder. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Jesse B. Martin was the fourth OMBS pillar; he taught from 1932 to 1966 and served as principal from 1957-66. Although Martin had grown up in an Old Order Mennonite home, he attended Hesston College and briefly studied at Goshen College. He was deeply involved in peace issues in the Mennonite Church, and carried a prominent role in representing Ontario Mennonites to the Canadian government during World War II.

Coffman, Burkholder, Derstine and Martin were the “big four” at Ontario Mennonite Bible School during its years of greatest influence. Other longer term faculty included Merle Shantz (1939-1952), Roy Koch (1947-57; principal for 1955-57), Osiah Horst (1953-1964), and Newton Gingrich (1958-69; principal, 1966-69).

In the late 1920s the term was expanded to eight, then ten weeks in length. In 1930 the schedule and curriculum were altered to follow a three-year cycle with twelve week terms.

OMBS faculty and students, 1932

Ontario Mennonite Bible School faculty and students, 1932. Photo by Ernest Denton. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 

The peak of enrollment occurred during the late 1920s and 1930s, ranging between 107 and 244 students in attendance.  This was partially in response to an addition built at First Mennonite Church specifically to accommodate the Bible school. By the 1950s the enrollment in Ontario Mennonite Bible School dropped below 100, and in the 1960s below 50. Most assimilated Mennonite young people were now graduating from high school and many were considering university education, so the Bible school model lost much of its Ontario constituency. A higher percentage of students were attending from outside Ontario (most often Alberta and Pennsylvania), reducing the incentive for the Mennonite Conference of Ontario to continue support, even as it was undertaking financial support for Conrad Grebel College, a new Mennonite post-secondary venture in Ontario.

First Mennonite Church before 1950

First Mennonite Church (Kitchener) prior to 1950. Photo by Ernest Denton. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

In the fall of 1951 the Mennonite Conference of Ontario began an Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute for more advanced Bible study over two 10-week semesters. The faculty and administration was shared between OMBS and OMBI, but the target audience was persons who would become congregational leaders, including pastors. It included courses on homiletics and pastoral theology, and Christian education courses aimed more at female students. Newer faculty members in the 1950s and 1960s had more education, including college and seminary degrees. Eventually the Institute offered up to one year of credit accepted at some Mennonite colleges in the United States. Enrollment ranged from the 40s to the 50s during the life of the Institute, though in later years Ontario students were a small minority of the student body.

Both OMBS and OMBI closed in 1969 because of declining enrollment. During its six decades of operation OMBS was one of the oldest, and likely the most influential, Bible school in the Mennonite Church (MC). At least that was the assessment of Clarence Fretz in a 1942 Mennonite Quarterly Review article. Certainly Ontario Mennonite Bible College & Institute provided an educational opportunity for many young adults in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in an era when a low percentage attended high school.

Fully assimilated Mennonite denominations no longer have Bible schools, but more conservative Mennonite denominations like the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship still use this model to help train their young people.

To learn more about Mennonite Bible schools, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Most of this information comes from Newton Gingrich’s Mission Completed: History of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute, published ca. 1971 from funds remaining in the OMBS & I financial reserves.

4 thoughts on “A brief history of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School

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