Fundamentalism and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario

Last week this blog reflected on the origins of fundamentalism. This blog looks more directly at the impact of fundamentalism on the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in the early 20th century.

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T. T. Shields. Photo from Wikipedia

The modernist-fundamentalist conflicts appeared in most Protestant denominations after World War I, though the temperature of the debate was lower in Canada than it was in the United States, especially within the Presbyterian Church. The formation of the United Church of Canada in 1925, which brought most of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches together, preoccupied the attention of those groups in Canada.

The primary Canadian conflict took place within the Baptist community, when popular preacher Thomas T. Shields of the large Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto attacked McMaster University, then a Baptist school, for it theology. Several divisions among Baptists followed.

Most of the modernist-fundamentalist battles within the Mennonite Church took place in the United States, and involved a number of purges of leaders thought to be tinged with modernism, partly because of where they had done graduate theological study (typically Union Theological Seminary in New York or the University of Chicago). However, the resignation of John E. Hartzler as president of Goshen College in 1918 and his subsequent departure from the binational Mennonite Church as part of this purge, reverberated in Ontario. Hartzler was a good friend of Bishop S. F. Coffman in Vineland, and when Hartzler lost his Goshen position Coffman invited him to itinerate in Ontario until he settled on something else.

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J.B. Smith. GAMEO photo

Helping to define the new theological terrain in Ontario were the eighteen “Christian Fundamentals” approved by the binational Mennonite Church’s General Conference in 1921. These tenets had originated in the Virginia Mennonite Conference and were drafted primarily by Jacob B. Smith, originally from Ontario, and then president of the new Eastern Mennonite School at Harrisonburg, Virginia.

One of the features of Mennonite fundamentalism, which accepted the virgin birth, scriptural inerrancy, and other tenets of fundamentalism, was the addition of an emphasis on separation from the world, especially in dress. This included the prayer veil for women, wearing bonnets instead of hats (women), modest dress, lack of jewelry, along with non-participation in war, non-swearing of oaths, etc. This emphasis on separation added a layer of meaning not common to other fundamentalists.

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S. F. Coffman

Ontario Bishop S. F. Coffman was the editor who prepared the final text for the 1921 Mennonite Church delegates. Coffman agreed with the fundamentals in spirit but had been unsure whether an additional formal confession was required alongside the traditional Dordrecht Confession of 1632. He would not have been comfortable with the confrontational style of J. B. Smith or George R. Brunk, who actively tried to cleanse the Mennonite Church of leaders not in sympathy with their view.

Eventually the larger theological storm in the Mennonite Church took its toll in Ontario as well. The Mennonite mission workers in Toronto were very uncomfortable with dress regulations that were part of the symbols of “separation” that accompanied the Mennonite take on fundamentalist theology.

Congregations, too, were affected in various ways, as illustrated by the experiences of Wanner Mennonite Church in Hespeler (now part of Cambridge) and First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Each found a different path through the conflict; the former survived intact, the second was split in two.

Bonnets and prayer veils

Bonnets and prayer veils recommended for women in first half of 20th century. GAMEO photo

Wanner was much smaller than First Mennonite (in 1924 Wanner had 47 members to First Mennonite’s 293), and was located on the edge of the Mennonite community. Minister Absalom B. Snyder was a plain man himself who wore the bow tie and clerical coat with tails that he had worn before the uniform plain coat was heavily promoted. He was not comfortable refusing communion to persons over clothing issues, and bishop Jonas Snider, the Waterloo County bishop who usually served Wanner’s communion, would not have resisted Snyder’s milder approach. Snyder’s wife was one of only two women in the congregation to wear a cape dress (the other woman still wore her earrings along with the cape!). Many years later older members could only remember one time that communion was refused to women who did not wear the bonnet—when bishop Manasseh Hallman from the Wilmot District announced before serving that women who wore hats could not receive communion. Some young men also stayed back from communion in sympathetic protest on that occasion.

The First Mennonite approach was to challenge the conference. At the April 1921 semiannual conference of Waterloo County ministers and deacons, delegates approved a resolution that insisted the bonnet be worn in public at all times and directed that communion be withheld from women who continued to wear hats in public. Bonnets reflected appropriate separation from the world, fashionable hats did not.

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Urias K. Weber. GAMEO photo

The conference said the resolution should be read before communion was served at churches. For reasons that later became contentious, Local bishops E. S. Hallman and Jonas Snider did not offer communion at First Mennonite Church that spring. In the fall First Mennonite minister Urias K. Weber had the resolution read as requested, but followed the reading by stating his opposition to it. In the fall Manasseh Hallman did serve communion at First Mennonite, though only a small percentage of the congregation took part.

Before the conference’s annual meeting in June 1922, 139 members of First Mennonite Church petitioned in protest of the bonnet resolution passed by the Ministers Meeting. Although an effort was made to table the First Mennonite petition, the delegates decided to appoint an investigating committee.

The committee’s three-page report to a special session of the conference in December 1922 reviewed twelve charges by the petitioners. It responded to each charge, then noted seven general findings and made four recommendations, none of which related directly to the bonnet worn by women. Rather, it was more generally critical of attempts “for the removal of conference regulations regarding the matter of dress,” a disregard for the baptismal vow, unfavorable parental influence, unharmonious spiritual oversight by leaders, and confusion about authority.

No legitimacy was given to a complaint about the inherent contradiction of the unenforced plain coat for men or the history of uneven discipline in the previous thirty years. The recommendations were vague, except for the one calling for greater clarity in defining bishop districts, and calling for a “solemn pledge of loyalty to the Church and her standards.” The special conference approved the findings and recommendations, and S. F. Coffman duly reported these to the Kitchener congregation in February 1923.

In Coffman’s report to the conference executive committee of the February congregational meeting, he noted there was significant resistance to the investigating committee’s report. When Coffman had asked the congregation for an expression of “loyalty to the principles of the Church and confidence in the work of the Church,” it naturally led to a “considerable discussion” on whether this implied acceptance of the conference resolutions. When Coffman asked the congregation to give its “expression of confidence” by standing, “a considerable number did not rise, especially among the young sisters, it being evident that the discussions were confusing to the minds of some, who, otherwise would have given loyal assent to the work of the Church and conference.”

The conflict was not resolved, and eventually led to a division and the formation of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, whose back property line virtually touched that of First Mennonite Church.

There were later divisions, including a division that saw the formation of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, a topic mentioned in an earlier blog.

For more discussion on fundamentalism and Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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