The Evangelical Mennonite Conference comes to Ontario

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference has a long history reaching back to the early days of Mennonite life in Russia. In 1812 in the Molotschna Mennonite settlement, a division took place between Klaas Reimer, who had been a minister in Danzig, and a new church Ältester (bishop), Jacob Enns, who apparently was arbitrary and inconsistent in church discipline, came into conflict with local Mennonite civil authorities, and was thought to have a weak spiritual life.

Reimer believed the church did not discipline its members adequately and that moral standards in the Mennonite community were low. Reimer and a like-minded minister in the Chortitza colony began to hold separate services and refused to participate in communion services at the main Mennonite churches.

In 1815 Reimer was chosen by lot by his followers to be an Ältester, but he was not ordained until 1817. Reimer’s group, because it was so small, was known derisively as the Kleine Gemeinde (small church), as distinguished from the Grosze Gemeinde (large church).

The Kleine Gemeinde remained small, and faced many struggles because the local government officials and the Grosze Gemeinde worked jointly in discipline and punishment. The emergence of the Mennonite Brethren as a Pietist renewal group in the 1860s provided the Kleine Gemeinde with more legitimacy as the Russian Mennonite religious community became more pluralistic. Nonetheless, the Kleine Gemeinde went through its own significant conflict in the 1860s, and members of the Kleine Gemeinde helped to form another group that became the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren.

As was the case with the other Mennonite groups in Russia, when the government in the 1870s threatened to eliminate military exemption as part of its desire to Russianize the Mennonites and other foreign colonists, the Kleine Gemeinde became part of the Mennonite migration to North America. About two hundred families were part of the 1870s migration; over 80 percent of the Kleine Gemeinde families settled in Manitoba.

In 1948 recurring concerns about spiritual faithfulness in modern North American society led about one hundred families to immigrate to Mexico under Kleine Gemeinde Ältester Peter Reimer in search of less troubled theological lands. Some of their concerns included increasing use of wedding dresses, use of musical instruments in the churches, and use of tobacco.

The emigrants also wanted to maintain control of their children’s education, and, in the postwar era, they had concerns about the security of their exemption from military service in Canada. It was this group that joined the search for a Mennonite “promised land” in Mexico, though they were more culturally assimilated than the Old Colony and Sommerfeld groups that went to Mexico in the 1920s.

By the mid-1950s the Kleine Gemeinde in Mexico had separated from the Kleine Gemeinde remaining in Canada, who were turning to English and a more evangelical theology. Some of the Kleine Gemeinde in Mexico moved to Belize in subsequent years.

The Canadian Kleine Gemeinde changed its name to Evangelische Mennoniten Gemeinde in 1952 and to Evangelical Mennonite Conference (EMC) in 1959. The more evangelical theological self-understanding did not include an explicitly premillennial or fundamentalist stance. Like the EMMC, the EMC traveled the path from Separatist Conservative (SC) to Assimilated Mennonite (AM) during these years. In addition to the language change, they welcomed flexibility in baptismal mode and the use of musical instruments in church, and they established a separate mission board. More pastors became trained and salaried. Like the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, the EMC also joined the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference had some outreach to Low German Mennonites who lived in Mexico, though it was less intense than that of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, which began outreach to the Old Colony immigrants to Ontario already in the 1960s. The EMC did not begin a mission work in southern Ontario until 1976, although there had been a mission in northwestern Ontario at Stratton in the late 1960s.

John-and-Lorna-Wall-2004

Lorna and John Wall, 2004. Photo from The Messenger

One couple who symbolized the target group for the EMC was John and Lorna Wall. Both grew up in Mexico; John was part of the Old Colony Mennonite Church and Lorna was Kleine Gemeinde. They were baptized and married in Mexico in the Kleine Gemeinde church. They moved to Canada in 1986, and then lived in Seminole, Texas, for two years before returning to Canada. John worked as a welder and attended the Aylmer Bible School in the evenings. They were active in the Mount Salem congregation near Aylmer, and they eventually studied at Steinbach Bible College before undertaking more formal church leadership.

Mount-Salem

Mount Salem EMC as portrayed in The Messenger, the denomination’s periodical, in 2015.

The Mount Salem church held its first service in September 1976. The EMC board of missions had heard “there’s a big field open and no workers,” which reflected an interesting lack of recognition for the work in the area by the EMMC and the fifteen-year presence of organized Old Colony churches. The congregation formally organized in 1977 and bought a former public school building late that same year.

The EMC next established mission efforts directed at Low German-speaking Mennonites in Virgil, Ontario (1988), and Leamington (1990). The Virgil effort soon withered, but after a slow start the Leamington congregation prospered, with assistance from the Mount Salem congregation. They began with German-language singing services and held services for over five years in the chapel at the United Mennonite Educational Institute. New congregations also began in Straffordville (1997), Tilbury (2000), and Tillsonburg (2000).

In 2017 the active EMC congregations in Ontario were The Church of Living Water (Tillsonburg), Grace Community Church (Aylmer), Leamington Evangelical Mennonite Church, Mount Salem Community Church, New Life Christian Fellowship (Coatsworth), the Straffordville Evangelical Mennonite Church, and the Evangelical Fellowship Church (Fort Frances).

One thought on “The Evangelical Mennonite Conference comes to Ontario

  1. Name change to E M Church in 1952 and Conference in 1959. For 1959, see back of The Constitution, Bill of Incorporation, The Senate of Canada, 1959). Terry Smith

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