Isaac R. Horst — Old Order Mennonite Historian

Isaac R. Horst was a struggling Old Order Mennonite farmer who discovered his true vocation after he retired. He became an interpreter of Old Order Mennonite life and thought to the “English” through his writings and public presentations. He also assisted in translating many obscure letters, diaries and documents from hand-written Gothic German to English, greatly assisted by his knowledge of Mennonite religious language.

He came numerous times to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario during my years there, both to sell his books and to do research on his many projects.

He had a folksy, somewhat undisciplined writing style that communicated well. He was a popular speaker to Elderhostel groups.

The article reproduded below from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) was written within the past month. Click on the link to see the article, along with a bibliography of his writings.


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Isaac Horst’s first book, 1979

Isaac Reist Horst: Old Order Mennonite farmer, teacher, translator and author, was born 28 May 1918 in Woolwich Township, Waterloo County, Ontario, Canada to John B. Horst (10 April 1875-November 1960) and Anna “Nancy” Reist (5 July 1878-17 February 1942). Isaac was the sixth son, and youngest child in a family of eight children. On 26 October 1943 he married Selina M. Bauman (22 July 1920-9 December 2014); they had nine daughters and four sons. One son died in infancy. Isaac R. Horst died 18 November 2008; he and Selina were buried in the Cedarview Mennonite cemetery near Mount Forest, Ontario.

Isaac Horst grew up on a farm, and attended the public school system in his Mennonite community until the age of 14. He enjoyed reading from early in his school years. He was not physically strong, and was unable to perform some of the heavier manual labor on the family farm. After his 1943 marriage to Selina, Isaac took up market gardening on a small property purchased from his grandfather, though with limited success. For the following 25 years Isaac alternated between jobs at Snyder Flour Milling in St. Jacobs, Ontario, further attempts at farming, odd jobs off the farm, and two years of teaching at the Balsam Grove school within the Old Order Mennonite parochial school system that began in the 1960s.

In the mid 1960s Isaac and Selina Horst, with several other families, purchased farms in the Mount Forest, Ontario area, though for various reasons they did not move there until 1968. This was the first successful effort among the Ontario Old Order Mennonites to establish a daughter community geographically separate from the Waterloo County community. By 2002 there were 180 Old Order families in the Mount Forest settlement.

After retirement from farming, Isaac worked 10 years wrecking buildings for salvage; a business that was more remunerative than any of his earlier vocations. He also pursued his love of reading by taking correspondence courses in English literature.

Isaac then began a new vocation in translating texts from German to English, and in writing about Ontario Old Order Mennonite life and history. All of his early works were self-published, some of them issued as mimeographed sheets in three-hole binders.

His first substantial work was Up the Conestogo, self-published in 1979. It was a 450-page story of Old Order Mennonites in Ontario, combining family history and creative non-fiction enactments of events based on diaries, news accounts and oral history. It is illustrated with maps and pictures, many of them by Horst himself. It is not “history,” but rather is a variety of accounts of Old Order families and places.

Horst’s most useful historical text was Close Ups of the Great Awakening (1985), a detailed historical account of divisions within the Ontario Mennonite community in the 19th century, based on letters, diaries and official documents of the era. Especially useful are lengthy quotes from translations of German-language sources otherwise virtually unavailable, and Horst’s interpretation from an Old Order perspective of the impact of 19th century Pietism and revivalism on the Ontario Mennonite community.

Over the years Isaac Horst became comfortable speaking to outsiders wanting to learn more about Old Order Mennonites. He often spoke to Mennonite Studies classes at the University of Waterloo, and to Elderhostel groups. He wrote a column, “Old Order Voice,” in the Mennonite Reporter from 1989-1997 as well as a number of articles for Mennogespräch, the historical bulletin of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario.

Perhaps Isaac R. Horst’s most lasting contribution was through his translations from German to English of handwritten letters and documents, many of them in the gothic script. His familiarity with Mennonite religious terminology, and his encyclopedic knowledge of Mennonite family relationships in Ontario gave him insights that translators external to the community would not have had. His translations included 1600 letters from the Jacob Mensch collection–letters written to a conservative Mennonite leader in Pennsylvania in the 19th century. He also translated 300 or more hymns for Wilmer Swope, and worked on various “Pennsylvania Dutch” dictionary projects. His translation work combined the need for a small source of income with a love for delving deeply into his Mennonite heritage.

Isaac Horst had a self-effacing wit, an engaging extroverted personality, and a desire to better understand the people and world around him. For a time he may have been the best-known, and most read, Old Order Mennonite in North America.

— Sam Steiner

3 thoughts on “Isaac R. Horst — Old Order Mennonite Historian

  1. In researching the Old Order Mennonites for Wilfred Laurier classes in the 1970’s I enjoyed numerous visit with Isaac. He proved to be a gracious host, engaging conversationalist and a delightful person all round. He showed respect for my religious convictions and also was clearly happy in his own tradition. His vast knowledge of the subjects we discussed was enormously helpful to me in my research. I have most of his books in my library. How I wish I could go once more and spend a few hours with him. Rest in peace Isaac and walk with God. Gordon Rumford

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  2. As a grandson, I fondly remember his “self-effacing wit, an engaging extroverted personality”. Thanks, I will share this with my children.

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