Mennonite and First Nations Relations at the Grand River

The First Nations people Mennonites encountered in the early 19th century in the Grand River Valley were primarily the Ojibwa, for whom the area was traditional territory. The stories of positive relationships between the Ojibwa and Mennonites have traditionally been told only from the Mennonite side, with little notice taken or questions asked about why the aboriginal people disappeared from the community in the later 19th century.

Peter Jones, from his History of the Ojebway People

Peter Jones, from his History of the Ojebway Indiana

The story of Jacob Bechtel being led in 1799 to the Grand River by an Ojibwa scout is doubtless correct. Samuel S. Moyer wrote that his mother, Barbara Shantz Moyer, as a child “would run out in the bush and play with Indian children, and how the Indians would be all around them and bring venison (deer meat) for a loaf of bread, etc. When the nights got cold many of the Indians would come in and lie on the floor with their feet toward the fireplace and sleep until morning. . .” Lorna L. Bergey reported that her grandparents, Norman and Susannah Cassel Shantz, lived on a farm in Wilmot that was annually visited as late as 1900 by aboriginals wanting to harvest ginseng. After the birth of Norman and Susannah’s eldest daughter several abor­iginal women gave the family a handwoven doll cradle made from black ash wood. Elizabeth Betzner Sherk recalled the fall council meetings of Mohawk braves across the Grand River from her home early in the nineteenth century. Generally, the Ojibwa seemed to trust the Mennonites to be honest dealers, as indicated in a story told by Peter Jones, an Ojibwa chief who had converted to Christianity and become a Methodist minister. In his History of the Ojebway Indians Jones told of a chief who accepted a lesser price for a piece of land from a Mennonite who had never cheated the aboriginals, as opposed to a “Yankee stranger.”

Ezra Eby, in his Biographical History of Waterloo Township, described in positive terms how “Indian Sam” Eby, an 1804 immigrant from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania “spent much of his time among the Indians and taught them many good things, in fact he was their law-giver, minister, interpreter and peacemaker.” The memory of aboriginal writers was much less positive. Eby had established a still soon after he arrived, and traded alcohol to the aboriginals in exchange for furs. Thomas McGee wrote in 1829: “I used to live here de Waterloo—All time get drunk—I go some times on dis road in the night, some times midnight—go up de river to Still house, after de whiskey. You know up to Sam Aby’s Still-house. Me was very poor, me hungry, me naked….”

Alcohol addiction among the aboriginal population became a significant concern after white settlers, including Mennonites, introduced alcoholic beverages to them. By January 1808, twenty-seven petitioners, probably mostly Mennonite, asked the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada to prevent the trading of alcoholic beverages with aboriginals, both because their drunkenness left the children hungry, and because it gener­ated behavior that frightened the white settlers. They recalled an October 1804 incident in which Abraham Stauffer was shot by an Ojibwa man they believed was drunk. John Erb, Abraham Weber, and Stauffer had been investigating a mill site below Block 2 when the man ordered them away from the site, and in the confusion shot Stauffer in the arm.

In the early years of the Mennonite settlement at the Grand River,  E. Reginald Good, who has written extensively on this issue, says the Mennonites and aboriginals appeared to mutually benefit from their contact. In the long term, however, their economic interests conflicted, and the Mennonites and other European settlers contributed to the colonization of the Ojibwa people. Increasing Mennonite economic development deprived the aboriginals of access to their traditional lands and the resources required for an independent existence. “Finally, Mennonites participated in forcing the Mississaugas out of their community and out of their history.”

To learn more about Mennonite relations with First Nations read In Search of Promised Lands.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the “leave a comment” button above.

William G. Davis helps the Old Order Mennonites and Amish to prosper

The 1960s brought dramatic changes to public elementary education in Ontario. In February 1964 Minister of Education William G. Davis (later Premier), in the words of one historian, “turned to the century-old problem of the rural elementary schools.” Although a lot of amalgamation had already taken place to unite the old one- or two-room schools into larger centralized schools, 1500 rural school boards still operated in 1964. These included areas with large populations of Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish. These groups were comfortable with the traditional one-room school and willingly sat on the local boards that ran these schools. They could maintain a level of control that ensured that the school’s culture remained largely in harmony with the church’s teachings. However, the government thought the education in these schools did not compare to that available in larger schools because of inadequate buildings and limited teaching tools. Some teachers also felt limited in their personal freedom by being under the microscope of the local community. Thus the  legislation made geographic townships the basis for the school areas and mandated centralized schools.

The Old Order Mennonites were quick to raise questions about the legislation. Already in April 1964 Old Order minister Ervin Shantz wrote to Minister Davis, asking if the small schools could remain open and whether fourteen-year-old children were required by law to stay in school until age sixteen and thus have to attend high school. In June Davis replied saying the small schools could remain open if the new township school board agreed. He also confirmed that “a child will still be excused from attendance at school if he has attained the age of fourteen years and his parent or guardian requires his services on the farm operated by the parent or guardian.”

Old Order Mennonite school, 1968

Students approaching an Old Order Mennonite school in 1968. Courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

By September 1966 nine parochial schools in Waterloo and Wellington Counties were serving Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites (including the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference), Orthodox Mennonites, and Beachy Amish. The David Martin Mennonites did not participate in these schools. By 2001–02 there were 61 such schools in Waterloo, Wellington and Perth counties.

The provincial rules changed in 1968 by requiring students to attend school until age sixteen. The Old Orders continued to leave school at age fourteen with the Ministry of Education’s permission. For ages fourteen and fifteen the children were regarded as apprentices on their home or neighboring farm. They could not earn wages during this period, but that requirement was not a hardship in the Old Order culture.

The creation of these private elementary schools, with teachers from within the Old Order communities, have increased the retention rates of the young people in Old Order communities. This only makes sense since children were more completely nurtured within the Old Order culture with fewer distractions than they would have encountered in the public system.

So it can genuinely be said that Bill Davis and the Ontario Ministry of Education played a vital role in the ongoing health and growth of the Old Order Mennonite and Old Order Amish communities in Ontario.

To learn more about Ontario’s Old Order Mennonites and education read In Search of Promised Lands.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the “leave a comment” button above.

Why is the Book called a “Religious” History?

Sam Steiner

At the St. Catharines United Mennonite Church book launch, March 8, 2015. Photo courtesy Randy Klaassen.

At the time of this blog I’ve experienced three “book launch” events at which I’ve made public presentations on Ontario Mennonite history, most often “surprises” I  encountered during the research and writing of In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

I thought it would be good for this blog to note some of the questions that have been raised at these events (and elsewhere), and respond to them in this space.

One question I’ve heard several times is: “why do you call it a ‘religious’ history”?

Book jacket for the book

“A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario”

It’s a good question, and the answer, unfortunately, is not obvious. I was trying to signal that the approach of In Search of Promised Lands differs in significant ways from most religious/cultural histories written today. I am not a trained academic with advanced degrees in the study of history. I am an archivist who spent years among the individual trees of the Ontario Mennonite institutional, congregational and conference forest, gathering and preserving the leaves that told particular stories. I do not approach the history of Mennonites in Ontario as a social historian or as a theological or intellectual historian, though issues of boundaries between church and culture and the influence of theological movements on Mennonites inform my historical observations.

So my use of “religious” was meant to suggest that In Search of Promised Lands does not follow a social or intellectual history perspective. In addition, my many years of working within denominational structures and in the formation of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, caused me to be particularly fascinated by the workings of church structures (and their leaders) and the external theological influences that caused Ontario Mennonites to make vastly differing decisions about the cultural and theological directions of their church.

For these reasons my subtitle describes this work as a “religious history” of Ontario Mennonites.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the “leave a comment” button above.

When some Old Order Mennonites almost became Mennonite Brethren

Old Order Mennonites have an understanding of personal salvation that differs from the evangelical Protestant community. They live in the trust that they will be saved, but shy away from confident statements about the assurance of their salvation. They do not emphasize a crisis conversion experience, and believe that their daily lives should be the evidence of their Christian faith.

This has made them, and other Mennonite groups with similar views, the target of evangelical Mennonite and non-Mennonite groups alike. In the 1920s Old Order Mennonite leaders would have acknowledged the need for a new birth, but its leaders would not have been familiar with the modernist-fundamentalist controversies that divided Protestantism and some Mennonite groups in those years.

Some Old Orders attended evangelistic meetings sponsored by evangelical groups, and were attracted to the clear doctrines of fundamentalism. A significant fundamentalist influence came from the Christian Brethren (Plymouth Brethren), who preached to audiences in Linwood and Elmira in the 1920s and early 1930s, including numerous Old Order Mennonites. The Brethren emphasized the assurance of salvation for those who had truly been born again.

Henry H. Janzen in 1952

Henry H. Janezn in 1952. Courtesy Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Winnipeg)

In October 1931 a Sunday school started in Hawkesville, with the support of the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church and others. The Hawkesville Gospel Mission, technically an independent mission with mostly Mennonite Sunday school teachers, was led by Israel Martin, who had left the Old Order to join the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1928. Soon he organized Sunday evening services that attracted members of the Old Order and others. Guest speakers included Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and non-Mennonite preachers, including Henry H. Janzen of the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church and Frank Guthrie of the Plymouth Brethren. Frank Guthrie was a lay leader in the Plymouth Brethren assembly in Guelph and had been preaching among the Old Order as early as 1923. Janzen and Guthrie had a cordial relationship, and became the most popular speakers at the Hawkesville Gospel Mission.

By 1934 a number of regular participants at the Hawkesville Mission became interested in receiving baptism by immersion. On September 9, 1934, over one thousand persons observed an immersion baptism in the Conestogo River near Wallenstein; Henry H. Janzen performed the baptisms. Many of those baptized were already baptized members of the Old Order Mennonite Church, so this act was a repudiation of their Old Order membership. The initiation of a weekly communion service, following the Plymouth Brethren pattern, also rejected traditional Mennonite practice.

Despite the mass baptism, it remained unclear which denomination the new group would join. One faction favored formation of a Plymouth Brethren assembly. Those led by Israel Martin favored membership in the new Ontario Mennonite Brethren Conference, led by their mentor, Henry Janzen. It took a while to decide, and the group finally mixed the polities of the Plymouth Brethren and Mennonite Brethren; it practiced weekly communion (a Plymouth Brethren practice), but also retained Mennonite practices of feetwashing and formal appointment of a pastor. It also rejected combatant service in the military, a Mennonite Brethren position. It retained the prayer veil for women who came from an Old Order background, but did not require it of those from other backgrounds.

Finally by the end of 1935 the Plymouth Brethren position had become dominant within the Hawkesville group, and Henry Janzen was no longer routinely invited to preach, though he still spoke several times to the group in 1936. Janzen’s last invitation to speak at the Wallenstein Bible Chapel, as the established congregation became known, was for a Sunday evening, not many years before his death in 1975.

I have wondered how the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches would have changed if these former Old Order Mennonites had made a different decision in the 1930s.

To learn more about Ontario’s Old Order Mennonites read In Search of Promised Lands.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the “leave a comment” button above.

Two MennoMedia Releases on In Search of Promised Lands

Book jacket for the book

Book jacket for the book

This week my publisher, MennoMedia, issued two releases related to my book.

  1. A press release on In Search of Promised Lands at
  2. My guest blog  providing more context on my approach to writing the book. Partly extracted from the book’s preface, it begins:

As I waded into a six-year project on writing the history of Mennonites in Ontario, I had to think carefully of how I stood in relation to the subject matter. I knew that no historical writing is objective. Each interpreter of past events is shaped by personal heritage, training, and beliefs, not to mention the resources available when making that interpretation. I decided I should be as transparent as possible in describing my perspective and my place in this history of Ontario Mennonites.

You can read the rest at:

The usual blog will appear on Monday

Has the Peak of Mennonite Institutions Passed?

Bethesda Home, with addition

The original Bethesda Home in Vineland, with an addition. One of the early Mennonite Brethren institutions in Ontario. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies.

In the mid-20th century there was an explosion of institutions created by assimilated Mennonites in Ontario and elsewhere—retirement homes, secondary schools, post-secondary schools, homes for persons with special needs, camps for young people, financial institutions, and Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. These institutions allowed Mennonites to conduct many of their life’s activities within the canopy of the larger church.

But by 2015, this denominational institutional activity seems to have changed—at least for assimilated denominational and district conferences. There are multiple reasons for this:

  1. The close government regulation of seniors’ and special care homes has pulled these institutions further from the congregations and conferences that founded them. Although existing “Mennonite” homes may upgrade and expand, it is hard to foresee new church-related homes being created. Government regulations mean seniors can no longer assume they can easily get a space in the nursing home of their choice. And homes cannot turn away potential non-Mennonite residents.
  2. The demand for greater size in order to achieve economies of scale has changed Mennonite financial institutions. The Niagara Credit Union, once led by Mennonites in the Niagara Peninsula, has disappeared into a series of mergers. The Mennonite Savings and Credit Union has loosened its requirements for membership to encourage increased growth, and appears to be considering a name change in order to maintain its viability in a highly competitive market. This need for size is true for any institution highly regulated by government.
  3. Denominations and area conferences are having financial problems. Revenues from congregations for denominational and area conference ministries continue to trend downward. The ability to dream expensive new dreams for denominational brick-and-mortar initiatives is not possible as present church programs have to rationalize program and staff.
  4. The primary allegiance for average church members has shifted further from the denomination and area conference and increasingly to the local congregation and the separate institutions that provide services to the individual. The denomination is seen as distant and increasingly less relevant. The church member will give money directly to an educational institution or senior’s facility that serves his or her child or parent.

Mennonite secondary schools have needed to attract more and more non-Mennonite students and international students in order to survive. Eden Christian College in the Niagara Peninsula was forced to shift into the public educational system.

Interestingly, the more conservative groups, like the Old Colony Mennonites or the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario still create educational institutions that include the secondary school level education, but I wonder how long the government will grant continued flexibility to secondary schools that cannot provide educational resources similar to the public system.

Conrad Grebel University College

Conrad Grebel University College in 2009. Courtesy Conrad Grebel University College

We also see the challenge for Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo. Conrad Grebel has always in an unusual position because most of its operating income has come through tuition, government grants and residence fees. The Mennonite constituency has paid for the buildings with modest additional sums to help with operating expenses for things like the chaplain or the Mennonite Archives of Ontario. The percentage of Conrad Grebel’s income from its “owning” conference is less than 3% of its operating budget.

Conrad Grebel, and almost all the other Mennonite institutions, now solicit funding directly from their users, Mennonite and non-Mennonite alike, and have much less accountability to the conference structures that brought them into being.

Are these changes simply a reflection of what is happening in the larger Canadian society? Do these trends reflect changes in the way assimilated Mennonites relate to society today that differs from the mid-20th century? Is this an opportunity for the church to relate to Canadian society differently today? Or do these changes symbolize a more ominous trend?

Mennonite Central Committee, a different kind of Mennonite institution, will be the subject of a later blog.

To learn more about Ontario Mennonite institutions read In Search of Promised Lands.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the “leave a comment” button below.

Jacob H. Janzen rebukes Canada’s War Department

One of the most fascinating accounts of an encounter between Mennonites and the Canadian government happened during World War II.

Canadian Mennonites were having a hard time agreeing on what form of alternative service they wished to offer the government so that their young men would not have to fight in the military. Many Mennonites in western Canada had experienced alternative service in Russia during World War I, and were quite willing to put on uniforms and serve in the medical corps or in another non-combatant way. Other Mennonites, particularly most of those in Ontario, did not want to accept any service that would be under the direct administration of the military. The government knew of this division within the Mennonite community, and tried to exploit it in order to pressure all Mennonites to accept non-combatant service in the military.

Leo R. LaFlèche.

Major General Leo R. LaFlèche. Image courtesy Library of Parliament.

The Mennonites sent numerous inter-Mennonite delegations to Ottawa to try to negotiate a satisfactory resolution. There were several meetings in October and November, 1940 with Deputy Minister Thomas C. Davis and Major-General Leo R. LaFlèche of the Department of National War Services.

Jacob H. Janzen

Jacob H. Janzen at the time of his immigration to Canada in 1925. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Following a November 5 meeting, Jacob H. Janzen, a United Mennonite leader from Waterloo, Ontario, learned that B. B. Janz, a Mennonite Brethren leader from Alberta, had arranged that Mennonite Brethren young men would serve in the medical corps, and would be willing to receive their training in military camps.

This greatly upset the Ontario Mennonite leaders, and another round of meetings were held with Davis and LaFlèche in late November. This meeting was even more fractious than the earlier meetings. Janz repeated his openness to noncombatant military service, the other delegates continued their solidarity against alternative service under military control, and the deputy ministers continued their efforts to exploit the divisions within the Mennonite community.

1951 delegation to Ottawa to see the Prime Minister

A later 1951 delegation to Ottawa to see the Prime Minister. E. J. Swalm is front row, left and B. B. Janz is center of the front row. Courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Almost 37 years later, Ernest J. Swalm, an Ontario Brethren in Christ leader, clearly recalled the meeting, which was dominated by Major-General LaFlèche. Finally LaFlèche asked, “What would you do if we shoot you?” Swalm replied that he didn’t know, he couldn’t speak for all the groups, but he thought he could safely say “many of us would die, and I’m one of them.” LaFlèche replied, “Oh my God, I hope it won’t happen; it’s awful, I hope it doesn’t come to that. I’ve seen this when we’ve had to shoot men who have been court-martialed.” Jacob H. Janzen then interjected, “We hope it won’t happen too. But listen Major-General, I want to tell you something. You can’t scare us like that. I’ve looked down too many rifle barrels in my time to be scared that way. This thing’s in our blood for 400 years. You can’t take it away from us like you’d crack a piece of kindling over your knee. I was before a firing squad twice. We believe in this; this is deep in our blood!” Swalm later reflected, “J. H. Janzen had done more good in a few minutes than I had done all forenoon.”

Eventually accommodation was made to allow both alternative service outside the military, as well as non-combatant service within the military.

For more information on Jacob H. Janzen, E. J. Swalm, or Benjamin B. Janz see the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO)

To learn more about the War of 1812 and the Mennonites read In Search of Promised Lands.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the “leave a comment” button below.

The War of 1812 finds the Mennonites

After 1793 Quakers, Mennonites and Tunkers (Brethren in Christ) in Upper Canada could avoid militia service if they were willing to pay an annual fine. This was similar to arrangements that existed in the United States.

Waor 1812 Plaque at The First Mennonite Church (Vineland)

Jonathan Seiling, who has done extensive research on the War of 1812,  with a plaque commemorating the Ontario Mennonite response to the War of 1812. Located at The First Mennonite Church (Vineland). Courtesy Jonathan Seiling.

Within 20 years of this understanding, Upper Canadian Mennonites faced their first challenge in relation to war.  That was a ongoing conflict between the United States and Great Britain that resulted in the War of 1812. Prior to the war, concern about the impending conflict led Upper Canadian Mennonites to take several steps.  In 1810 they petitioned the government to recognize their unbaptized sons under the age of 21 as also exempt from militia service. This petition was accepted. In 1811 they reprinted an English translation of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This was done to better inform their government and their neighbors of their long heritage as a peace church.

For Mennonites in the Waterloo and Markham areas the war, when it came, was not terribly onerous. They paid their fines to avoid militia service, and they allowed their horses and wagons to used by the military to transport goods, sometimes with their sons as drivers. Although there were some scary incidents, these Mennonites prospered as they received top dollar for the products their farms produced. The scariest incident took place in the fall of 1813 when a large number of young men from the Grand River settlement were pressed into service to assist Major General Procter in his retreat from Detroit in September. The British forces were overtaken and scattered by a larger American force in the Battle of the Thames (near present-day Chatham). In the chaos of retreat the Mennonite young men were ordered to flee as they could. They mostly abandoned their horses and wagons, but were successful in personal escape, except for Adam Shupe (1793–1878), who was briefly captured before being released by General William Henry Harrison. Twenty Mennonite and Tunker farmers made claims for the losses of wagons, horses, and other materials experienced in that retreat

Niagara River in 1810

The Niagara Riv er in 1810 . Mennonites lived along the river between the Chippewa River (left hand side of map) and Black Creek (creek immediately to the right of “Proposed Road” text). Courtesy Brock University Map Library.

The story was more serious on the Niagara Peninsula, where a significant number of Mennonites were caught between the two sides. Christian Zavitz, the owner of the mill at Port Colborne saw his cargo boat seized for military purposes within weeks of the war’s beginning. Later in 1812 he was forced to house and feed about a hundred men of the Norfolk Militia in his house and outbuildings. At the end of 1814 his property was looted by American raiders, though one of the raiders was fatally wounded by Canadian militia men guarding his mill.

Suffering similar losses were nine Mennonite families who lived right on the Niagara River between Niagara Falls and Fort Erie. Their properties were overrun by soldiers from both sides during the war, and their buildings and food were frequently requisitioned for both American and British militia use. One such family was that of Ulrich and Magdalena Miller Strickler. Ulrich built a stone house and generally prospered as a farmer on his 210 acres. However, at different times during the war his home was occupied by both American and British forces. In 1815 he made claims for losses of produce and goods taken by the American troops in the summer of 1814 and those taken by the British troops later that same year after the Americans had retreated. The list of losses caused by the British included “Rent for 4 weeks for the House” which was used for a commissary and “Rent for the Barn” used for barracks. The request for rent for the two buildings was listed at 110 York pounds. Magdalena’s brother, John,  submitted claims for twenty gallons of whiskey taken by the British in November 1812; horses, grain, and a rifle taken by the Americans in 1813 and 1814; five buildings damaged by the Americans in 1814; and a large quantity of food supplied to the British army.

A few Mennonite young men did serve in the militia because they were over the age of 21 and had not yet joined the church. One such was Henry W. Wanner, who at age 24 was unbaptized at the time of the war, and thus was not exempted from militia duty. He was reported to have served in one of the skirmishes with American troops in the Niagara area, but either refused to fire a shot or shot into the air in order to avoid injuring anyone. He then became ill with “camp fever” (typhus) and was allowed to return home.

To learn more about the War of 1812 and the Mennonites read In Search of Promised Lands.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the button above.

Who Were the Mennonite Brethren in Christ?

For almost 70 years , the Mennonite Brethren in Christ was one of the most vibrant Mennonite bodies in Ontario. Indeed, in 1901, it was the largest Mennonite group in Ontario. Who were these folks, and why did they change their name after World War II?

In one sense you could have called them German Methodist Mennonites. When the Mennonite Brethren in Christ emerged in the 1870s and early 1880s, they patterned themselves very much on the theology and structure of the Evangelical Association. Who was the Evangelical Association? They were a German-speaking, Methodist-style renewal movement that was aggressively evangelistic in outlook, and held clear views on social issues like temperance, use of tobacco and avoidance of secret societies. Today in Canada the Evangelical Association is part of the United Church of Canada, and in the U.S. it is part of the United Methodist Church.

Solomon Eby

Solomon Eby. Courtesy Missionary Church Historical Trust.

There were two founding leaders of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ movement. Daniel Brenneman was a fiery leader in Elkhart County, Indiana. He was influenced by, and found common cause, with a middle-aged Ontario leader named Solomon Eby. Eby pastored a small Mennonite church on Lake Huron in Port Elgin. Eby had been selected in 1858 for ministry by lot, but he did not really feel called to church leadership. He tried to withdraw from his position, but was influenced to continue. Finally in 1869 Eby and most members of his congregation were “converted” at an Evangelical Association camp meeting to a faith that brought them assurance of their salvation.

Ontario City Mission Workers Society, early 1900s.

Ontario City Mission Workers Society, early 1900s. Courtesy Missionary Church Historical Trust.

Eby (and Brenneman) began preaching a Methodist-style path to salvation, while retaining bedrock  Mennonite values like non-participation in war, non-swearing of oaths, and emphasis on a simple lifestyle. They attracted many followers, both within and outside the Mennonite community.  The Mennonite Brethren in Christ were the first Ontario Mennonites to begin a mission outreach in Toronto (1897) and the first to support an Ontario Mennonite in overseas mission work (William Shantz to China in 1895). They established a City Mission Workers Society of “ministering sisters” who founded and provided leadership in many urban mission settings. Janet Douglas was the first of these ministering sisters. And the Mennonite Brethren in Christ were deeply involved in the formation of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization in 1918.

But gradually the influence of outside theological forces began to change the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Their holiness theology receded in favor of a more fundamentalist theology that cared less about the formerly bedrock Mennonite doctrines. In World War II a significant number of their young men served in the military, and following the war the denomination came to believe the “Mennonite” name hindered their outreach and no longer sustained their theology.  And so they changed their name to the United Missionary Church. Today, after a couple of mergers, in Canada they are known as the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada. In the United States the group is known simply as the Missionary Church.

See the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) for more information on Solomon Eby, Daniel Brenneman, and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ.

To learn more about the influence of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ on other Ontario Mennonite bodies read In Search of Promised Lands.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the button above.

Mennonite Refugees after World War II

After World War II Ontario Mennonites helped displaced European Mennonites to immigrate to Canada or South America. These new arrivals helped to preserve traditional marks of Mennonite separation, such as use of the German language, but they also brought with them difficult issues concerning missing spouses, unwed mothers, victims of rape, and people who had been forced into active military service or into difficult ethical decisions under wartime conditions.

Agatha Schmidt's "Exodus USSR - 1943"

Agatha Loewen Schmidt with her painting, “Exodus USSR – 1943.” Photo courtesy Milton Good Library, Conrad Grebel University College.

Agatha Loewen was a native of the village of Gnadenfeld in the Mennonite settlement of Molotschna in the Soviet Union. Her father, a minister, had died of typhus in the early 1930s, leaving his wife and three surviving daughters. Agatha had joined the Young Communists as a teenager in order to receive more advanced education. As a young woman she became a village schoolteacher. When the village was occupied by the German army in 1941, she explored the possibility of becoming an interpreter. When it became clear the German officers were looking for interpreters who would also serve as mistresses, she decided to stay in her teaching position.

Agatha married a young Mennonite soldier in September 1943, but since his unit immediately began to retreat toward Germany they had very little time together. Agatha joined the “Great Trek” of German-speaking residents who retreated with the German army in fall 1943. Agatha and Aaron last saw each other in July 1944 when he was on leave. After a last letter dated August 26, 1944, from the western front, she never heard from him again. After the war, Agatha eventually found her way to Canada as one of many Mennonite refugees seeking a safer land.

Initially she worked at a canning factory on the Niagara Peninsula, and later she worked for a dentist. A widower ten years her senior asked Agatha to marry him. She consented, but the minister at the St. Catharines United Mennonite Church refused to marry them because the fate of Agatha’s first husband was not certain. The church decided they could be married if she was able to have her first husband declared dead. They were finally able to marry in 1951. Agatha went on to become an active lay leader in her congregation. She wrote and published several historical works, and she became a painter, documenting some of her experiences in the Soviet Union and on the Great Trek.

Agatha’s story was one of many. The post-World War II immigrants had a profound impact on the Mennonite congregations begun by the 1920s immigrants. Over the next five years, of the total of 8500 Mennonite refugees who arrived in Canada nearly 1300 stayed in Ontario. This increased Ontario’s “Russian Mennonite” population by at least 25 percent.

The circumstances of the post-war immigrant refugees created tension within Mennonite churches for decades. Families had been splintered and the fate of many husbands who disappeared into exile or military service left many poverty-stricken families headed by women with small children. There were also unmarried mothers who had suffered rape in the course of their wartime experiences. Congregations sometimes required these women to confess “their behavior” before they could become members. In 1947 both the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren Church determined that remarriage could not be allowed as long it was uncertain whether the first spouse was dead. In 1949 this was modified by the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, which said those persons who chose to remarry could not become members, but would not be refused communion if they chose to partake. This policy was later changed.

Of course not all experiences were difficult. The new immigrants significantly broadened the culture and diversity of “Russian Mennonite” congregations in Ontario. They helped the persistence of the German language, and brought an entrepreneurial energy that only survivors of difficult circumstances can express.

Learn more about the post-World War II experience in In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the button above.