In the latter part of the 19th century theological tension arose in the Protestant evangelical churches in North America. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution created strong reactions.
Many Protestant leaders in “mainline denominations,” in their belief in historical progress, thought evolution was one of God’s ways of working. With an emphasis on truth and reason, they maintained the kingdom of God could be achieved on earth. They emphasized Jesus’ humanity more than his divinity and began to reframe the conversion experience from an instantaneous emotional experience to a gradual quickening of one’s moral life.
Perhaps even more divisive within the churches was the beginning use of historical-critical methods in studying the Bible. This approach led many to challenge the historical reality of some events recorded in scripture. Large segments of the Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodist denominations incorporated this new thinking by the first decades of the 20th century. Opponents called this path liberalism or modernism.
The opposition to the modernist direction in Protestant circles came to be known as fundamentalism after the publication in 1909 of a series of booklets called The Fundamentals that endorsed shared Christian beliefs on things like the nature of Jesus and the historical reliability of the Bible.
In the years prior to and after World War I, late 19th-century holiness theology and early 20th-century fundamentalism, but not modernism, influenced the two most culturally comfortable Ontario Mennonite groups: the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. The influence of Moody Bible Institute and Toronto Bible College on these groups through the training of men and women who became leaders has already been noted.
The more separated Mennonite groups, however, remained outside the doctrinal debates that began to consume these two more assimilated groups. The Amish Mennonites did begin to invite Mennonite preachers with a fundamentalist theology into their pulpits, and a few Amish Mennonite young people began to attend the Ontario Mennonite Bible School in Kitchener, which had a fundamentalist orientation.
Amish Mennonites who moved into Kitchener for employment began to join churches like First Mennonite Church. Even so, in this time period most Amish Mennonites remained focused on the local church community and the extended network of family relationships. As for the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and the Reformed Mennonites, they had explicitly rejected assimilation, and this included theological assimilation with either modernists or fundamentalists.The fundamentalism that took shape in North American Protestantism before and during the first part of World War I was attractive to Mennonites on another score—it was not especially patriotic, particularly among fundamentalists with a strong dispensational position. Dispensationalists believed World War I signaled the rapidly approaching return of Christ, and they were generally anti-political in their views. William Jennings Bryan, a strong fundamentalist generally appreciated by Mennonites for his anti-evolutionary stance, resigned from Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet as secretary of state over war policy. Even the Moody Bible Institute magazine published a defense of nonresistance in 1917, though it stated it disagreed with the position.
Fundamentalist patriotism increased markedly in 1918, but Mennonites remained attracted to the “two kingdom” implication of dispensational theology, with its heavenly and earthly kingdoms and its emphasis on not being unequally yoked with the world.
The holiness (and later fundamentalist) influences took the Ontario Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Conference of Ontario in quite different directions. The former group markedly decreased its emphasis on separation from the world, while the latter group enforced a new emphasis on separation through implementation of uniform dress codes.
This melding of visible separation with fundamentalist theology was a unique Mennonite hybrid response to the lure of fundamentalism.
Next week we’ll look at how this hybrid found the Mennonite Conference of Ontario focused on seemingly (in today’s world) narrow issues of how women dressed.
You can learn more about these themes in In Search of Promised Lands.