Earliest Ontario Mennonites joined their neighbors’ congregations

The small group of Pennsylvania Mennonites who settled near Thirty Mile Creek (between modern-day Grimsby and Beamsville)  did not have a spiritual leader when they arrived in 1786. It is not possible to tell from existing records if they ever sought guidance from their home communities on establishing a congregation.

Conestoga Wagon Trek historical marker

This historical marker about the Conestoga Wagon, located on the Niagara Parkway near the intersection with Netherby Road, commemorates the earliest arrival of Pennsylvania Mennonites in Ontario.

Historian Frank Epp has suggested the 1786 immigrants were “fringe” Mennonites since none of them remained Mennonite. Epp’s assumption seems to be based solely on the fact that they did not become part of the Mennonite congregation that finally organized at The Twenty (Vineland) in 1801; they had begun to fellowship with other denominations in the 15 years before a permanent Mennonite congregation was available.

Tradition has suggested that Staats and Susannah Overholt worshiped with a small so-called Baptist fellowship at Clinton by the mid-1790s, though the earliest record is their charter membership in the Beamsville Baptist congregation that formally organized in 1807, twenty years after their arrival in Upper Canada. It is also possible the Overholts were part of a Tunker (Brethren in Christ) congregation for a time, along with their Kulp neighbors, before joining the Baptists.

Staats Overholt’s family did not join the new Mennonite congregation when it formed in 1801 under the leadership of later Mennonite immigrants, but it is probable they worshiped with the Mennonites or Tunkers occasionally, especially during the years before the Baptist fellowship was functional.

Indeed, the Staats Overholt family had an uneasy relationship with the Baptist fellowship after it was formally organized. Already by early 1808 Staats, his oldest son, Isaac, and their wives declared a “disfellowship” with the Baptist church because “they could not walk with us because we bore arms.” They then returned to the Baptist fellowship for periods of time, though a Jacob Overhault is listed as “Menonist” in the 1818 Lincoln [County] Militia Return.

Overholt’s neighbors, Jacob and Tilman Kulp, might have been Tunkers before they immigrated to Canada, but it is more likely they were Mennonites influenced by the Tunker settlement at Pelham that began in the late 1780s. The only confirmation of their being Tunker is the 1818 militia return, some 30 years after their arrival in Canada.

Affiliation with the Tunkers by some of the Clinton Mennonites need not have included traveling to Pelham Township for worship services, since the Tunkers did not have meetinghouses until much later—in the 1870s. It is more likely that Tunker Bishop John Winger or Minister Christian Stickley traveled occasionally to Clinton Township to the home of the Kulps or others who wished to participate in such a worship service. This could have been as infrequently as several times a year to perhaps monthly.

Early services would likely have included lengthy sermons, singing, and testimonies. The meetings in private homes would have continued the intimate nature of worship that reflected the group’s Mennonite and Pietist roots. The early Tunkers had no hymnbooks of their own, and may have continued to use hymnbooks inherited from their Mennonite roots. Indeed, John Winger’s family records are said to have been kept in an Ausbund, the hymnbook used by Mennonites in North America until they began to create their own in 1803.

In an earlier post, I discussed whether these early Mennonite immigrants were Loyalists.

To learn more about Mennonites in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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