John Bear – 19th Century Mennonite Builder and Religious Innovator

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John Bear’s tombstone. Photo by Allan Dettweiler.

John Bear was an early settler in Waterloo County, Ontario, being born there in 1804. He was a farmer and a carpenter, and was a significant contractor as a young adult. Later, his sons, John and Benjamin, gained local historical fame for building the West Montrose Covered Bridge.

John was attracted by the new pietistic theology that came to Ontario in the 1830s, and ultimately embraced it fully, becoming an early leader in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ movement.

The GAMEO article on John Bear, recently slightly updated, can be seen with bibliography at http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Bear,_John_(1804-1894)


John Bear: minister and building contractor; born 15 May 1804 near Preston, Upper Canada to Martin Bear (1774-ca. 1845) and Catharine (Gingrich) Bear (ca. 1783-ca. 1849). He was the oldest child in a family of six sons and seven daughters. On 11 February 1827 he married Anna Pannabecker (23 April 1812-16 February 1875); they had 10 sons and three daughters. John died 24 December 1894. He is buried in the Wanner Mennonite Church cemetery.

By vocation John Bear became a carpenter and builder. One of his projects was the Union Mennonite/Tunker school and meetinghouse of 1829 that predated the Wanner building of 1837. This building was used as a school until 1848. He did much of his construction work between 1823-1835. He also farmed between Preston and Hespeler (both now part of the city of Cambridge).

John Bear was baptized as a member of the Mennonite Church in 1833; on 2 December 1838 he was ordained as a minister by Benjamin Eby particularly for service in the Wanner/Hagey area of the conference. He was widely read, but had only the basic primary education of the day. He was a second generation minister in the conference; his father had been one of the first persons ordained as a minister in the Waterloo region.

When Daniel Hoch challenged Mennonite traditions in the late 1840s, and called for prayer meetings and personal conversion experiences, Bear briefly joined Hoch’s movement, but confessed his divisive behavior and rejoined the conference in 1851. His theological leanings towards a pietistic faith remained, as indicated in a letter to European Mennonites in 1858 in which he lamented that too many Canadian Mennonites were “satisfied with baptism without a change of heart.”

When doctrinal conflicts again arose in the Ontario Conference beginning in 1869, John Bear was asked to lead an party of three ministers to investigate revival activities in Solomon Eby’s congregation at Port Elgin, Ontario. Bear’s group brought back a positive report in early 1870, but a division ultimately could not be averted. Bear then joined the new “Reforming Mennonites“; a group that ultimately became part of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ denomination (later known as the Evangelical Missionary Church). He served as a minister in that denomination until his death. He was ordained as an elder in that denomination on 4 March 1888 by Menno Bowman.

Bear’s departure from the Ontario Mennonite conference was very significant because of his longstanding leadership role in the conference. As leader of the investigation committee to Port Elgin he carried the respect of his fellow ministers, and his loss to the conference was keenly felt.

— Sam Steiner

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