Noah Bearinger–Old Order Mennonite Maverick

One of the most interesting Old Order Mennonites of the 20th century was Noah Martin Bearinger, a businessman in Elmira, Ontario whose religious affiliations took him from the Old Order Mennonite Church to the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Church to the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and back to the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Church.

As a young Old Order Mennonite man in his early 20s, Bearinger attended business college, extremely unusual for a Mennonite of that branch, especially for the grandson of Bishop Abraham Martin, the founder of the Old Order Mennonites in Ontario.

Bearinger was also tuned into national politics. In 1917 he wrote to his Member of Parliament suggesting that Mennonites should give a gift to the government for war relief,  in gratitude for the government’s recognition of Mennonite nonresistance.

When the inter-Mennonite Non-Resistant Relief Organization (NRRO) was formally organized in early 1918, Noah was there as an interested observer. In World War II, Noah represented his group on the NRRO, the Conference of Historic Peace Churches, and was secretary of the Committee on Military Problems that interacted directly with Canadian military officials on the conscientious objector claims of individual Ontario Mennonites from all the Mennonite groups.

A prickly and sensitive personality, Noah Bearinger had his critics, and eventually he resigned from all his positions during World War II.

Barb Draper tells the fascinating story of Noah Bearinger in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.


Noah Bearinger. Family photo

Noah M. Bearinger: a strong supporter of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization (NRRO), and a key leader of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches (CHPC) during World War II, was born 19 July 1891 near Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, the fifth son of Noah H. Bearinger (4 December 1858-5 February 1914) and Anna Martin Bearinger (27 February 1858-28 March 1933). On 26 December 1917, he married Annie Weber (10 October 1895-31 July 1955), the daughter of Enoch M. Weber (1869-1944) and Lydia (Gingrich) Weber (1874-1969). They had two children, Irene, married to Oscar Martin and Edwin (Eddie) Bearinger. Noah was a widower for 15 years after his wife died; he died 11 May 1970.

Noah Bearinger was the grandson of Abraham Martin, the first bishop of the Old Order Mennonite Church in the Waterloo area. Noah was baptized in that church in 1912 at the age of 21. He attended business college for six months in 1913 and then began working in a planing mill in Elmira. This was a very unusual step for someone in the Old Order Mennonite Church where almost everyone lived on a farm and higher education was regarded with suspicion. Noah’s connection to the Old Order church was not an easy one, but he played an important role in connecting the Old Order Mennonites with what other Mennonites in Ontario were doing in the areas of relief and conscientious objection.

Living in the town of Elmira, Noah Bearinger must have been aware of the rising hostility toward Mennonites who refused to fight in World War I and whose everyday language was a dialect of German. On 23 May 1917 he wrote a letter to his Member of Parliament, William Weichel, suggesting that Mennonites might make “a memorial gift for war relief” as a gesture of goodwill.

Bearinger was present at the organizational meeting for the Non-Resistant Relief Organization held 17 January 1918, but there were others who were official representatives of the Old Order Mennonites. He was a strong supporter of the work of the NRRO but did not serve in an official capacity in the early years.

By the 1920s, Bearinger owned a lumber business and built a house beside it on Duke Street in Elmira. When he bought a car in 1926 he was no longer a member in good standing in the Old Order church. For some years he attended Elmira Mennonite Church, but sometime in the 1930s he joined the Old Order Mennonites of the Markham area who allowed cars. The Bearinger family was part of the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference after it organized in 1939.

Bearinger served as treasurer of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization from 1939 to 1944. He also played an important role during the war years as secretary of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches and as secretary of the Committee on Military Problems. In this role he corresponded with various church conferences, keeping them informed of recommendations of how young men should apply for conscientious status. As secretary of the Committee on Military Problems he also had the responsibility of deciding which young men could receive agricultural postponements rather than serving in alternative service camps. He received significant criticism for some of his decisions and in June, 1943 he resigned fairly suddenly both as secretary of the Committee on Military Problems and from the Conference of Historic Peace Churches.

Noah Bearinger passionately believed in the need to be a witness for peace during times of war and that conscientious objectors should be active rather than be regarded as freeloaders who just avoid military service. He was deeply hurt by church members who criticized his work and his relationship with his church was never properly restored.

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  1. Pingback: Montreal River Alternative Service Work Camp | In Search of Promised Lands

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