Founder of the Ontario Old Order Mennonites


Martin Mennonite Meetinghouse (1993) in Waterloo, Ontario, where Abraham Martin was bishop. Photo by Sam Steiner

Many issues helped to create the group called Old Order Mennonites in Ontario. The same issues had affected other parts of the Mennonite Church in North America, especially in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Indeed by the time the Old Order Mennonites identified as such in 1889  in Ontario, there had already been a division in Indiana, and one would soon follow in Pennsylvania.


Abraham W. Martin, the Mennonite bishop in the northern part of Waterloo County, could be identified as the spiritual leader of the Old Order Mennonites in Ontario. His leadership in resisting certain kinds of change, and his refusal to baptize converts who had experienced their change of life in emotional evening meetings, drew the line that separated the groups.

The article in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) can be seen with bibliography at,_Abraham_W._(1834-1902)

Abraham Weber Martin: bishop and farmer; b. 27 April 1834 near St. Jacobs in Waterloo County, Ontario to John and Anna (Weber) Martin. He was the second son and third child in a family of three sons and nine daughters. On 17 March 1857 he married Elizabeth Bauman (1838-1902). Soon after their marriage they took possession of the farm on which Abraham was born and they lived there the rest of their lives. Abraham and Anna had three sons and seven daughters. Abraham died 8 February 1902. Elizabeth died 30 April of the same year.

Little is known of Abraham Martin’s education, although it was certainly limited to the primary schools of the day. He was said to be of “medium height, well proportioned and rather fleshy,” with a “pleasing countenance” and an easy and dignified bearing.

On 1 September 1861 Joseph Hagey ordained Abraham Martin as the minister for the congregations in the Woolwich Township area north of the village of Waterloo. On 17 September 1867 Hagey ordained Martin as the bishop for these congregations—one of three bishops in the Waterloo County Mennonite community.

Abraham Martin can be considered the father of the Old Order Mennonite movement in Ontario. He corresponded frequently with leaders of the earlier conservative movement in the United States, and he took traditional positions on most of the contentious issues. In the 1870s he called a meeting of ministers and deacons at his home to discuss disputed issues within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. The conservatives indicated that they would drop their objections to protracted evening meetings and English-language preaching only if Sunday schools were not continued in the conference. Their objections to Sunday schools included the following: 1) Sunday schools promoted associations with other churches that were not nonresistant; 2) teaching was often done from books or materials other than the Bible, and 3) Sunday schools usurped the parental role of teaching their children. This effort at reconciliation ceased, and conservative opposition on all these issues continued. Evening meetings and English preaching also encouraged relationships beyond the Mennonite community, and the emerging Old Order group ultimately rejected these innovations as well.

In 1885 preachers Noah Stauffer and Solomon Gehmen held evening meetings in Woolwich Township, the geographic area in which Abraham Martin was bishop. Thirty persons requested baptism because of their experience in the meetings, but Martin refused to give them instruction or to baptize them because of the nature of these meetings. Bishop Elias Weber later baptized the group, but this quickly led to a more formal schism in 1889 when the two factions within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario held separate annual meetings with their ordained leaders.

Despite his conservative theology, Martin was not as rigid as other conservative leaders. In 1885 he decried the “inflexible” discipline of the Stauffer Mennonites in Pennsylvania.

As bishop of the largest group of Old Order Mennonites in Ontario, Abraham Martin had enormous influence on the first years of the group’s development. He was not a flamboyant, charismatic leader, but he represented the theological views of a high percentage of those in congregations for which he was responsible.

— Sam Steiner

Ascension Day Divides Ontario Mennonites

The Old Order Mennonites in Ontario emerged over a 15 year period, from the 1870s until the final division within Mennonite Church of Canada (as it was called in the 19th century) took place in 1889.

Difficulties steadily increased between those who were cautious about accepting influences from revivalist groups like the Evangelical Association and United Brethren, and those who thought these influences were both healthy and necessary. The sore points included Sunday schools for children, revival meetings, evening prayer meetings filled with testimonies by both men and women, and increasing use of English in the non-Sunday morning meetings.

Sunday schools were a concern because the teachers were not ordained church leaders, and included women, unbaptized adherents in the congregation, or even members of other denominations. In the early years, the lesson helps were published by non-Mennonite organizations. The prayer meetings also provided women a higher profile than was customary. And increased usage of English language dramatically lowered linguistic protective barriers against the surrounding culture. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the revivalist influences were greatest in areas with a less dense Mennonite population—the southern parts of Waterloo County, and the Markham and Niagara Peninsula areas.

The leader in Waterloo County of the more cautious Mennonites was Bishop Abraham Martin (1834-1902). At one time in the 1870s he had offered to accept evening prayer meetings if the other side would give up Sunday school. This didn’t happen.

To accommodate its more cautious members, in 1888 the ordained leaders in Waterloo County tried to tighten the regulations on who could teach in Sunday school (only Mennonite church members in good standing), but the rupture was by then too deep.

Calendar of Appointments

Calendar of Appointments for 1889

Annual meeting schedule

Schedule for Annual Meeting for fourth Friday in May.

The final catalyst for the division is laughable when viewed today. Because Waterloo County had the largest number of churches, ministers from that district prepared the printed Calendar of Appointments that outlined where services were held each Sunday, as well as the dates for communion services and the annual and semi-annual meetings of ordained leaders. By tradition, the annual meeting of ordained leaders was held the last Friday in May.

In 1889 there was a complication however. Ascension Day fell on Thursday, May 30. Congregations held services that day, and the annual conference was scheduled for Markham on May 31. The calendar editors thought this close timing could be difficult for ministers who needed to preach on Thursday and still travel to Markham for Friday morning. So they set the annual meeting for May 24, the fourth Friday in May.

Old Order Calendar

Old Order Mennonite calendar for 1891

This created the pretext for the two sides to divide, with the ability to blame the “other side” for the division. On May 24 three bishops, 16 ministers and a number of deacons met in Markham for the Calender’s scheduled annual meeting. One week later, on May 31, three other bishops (Abraham Martin, Christian Reesor, and Christian Gayman), and most of the ministers from Markham, Cayuga, Rainham, and Woolwich Township met at the same place for their annual meeting. Old Order bishop Christian Shaum from Indiana met with them, which reinforces the notion that a division was virtually already planned when the scheduling anomaly became apparent.

As might be expected, each group considered the other to have departed the conference. Two years later, the less assimilated group published its own calendar using the term, Alt-Mennoniten Gemeinde in Ontario (Old Mennonite Church in Ontario) as its official name, although “Old Order Mennonite” soon came into more common usage.

Learn more about this division in In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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