Ontario is not the Promised Land

Last week this blog discussed some Ontario Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites that have moved to Prince Edward Island. This pursuit of cheaper land and better economic opportunity continues a long-standing pattern that began already in the 19th century.

Southern Ontario held less promise for many Mennonites by the 1870s after several generations of Mennonite settlement. The price of good agricultural land was becoming prohibitive for families needing to provide farms for many sons. The worldwide Long Depression that began in 1873 drove down agricultural prices, and many countries adopted protectionist import policies that limited trade. The agricultural economic malaise continued into the 1890s and encouraged struggling Ontario farmers to explore new opportunities. Many Canadians, not just Mennonites, sought new opportunities in the larger United States market because of low agricultural prices and the trade protectionism practiced by North American and European countries. Canadian historian Donald Creighton says the out-migration to the United States “began to reach the most alarming proportions.” In 1887 the Toronto Mail wrote that there was scarcely a farmhouse in the older Canadian provinces “where there is not an empty chair for the boy in the States.”

Mennonite agriculturalists began to move to Michigan and elsewhere in search of cheaper land. Mennonites from Waterloo County had already settled near Brutus in the 1870s, at the northern end of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. As the newcomers came, this group subsequently divided in 1886 into an Old Order group and a group affiliated with John Funk of Elkhart, Indiana; Old Order bishop Abraham Martin traveled there in the 1890s to perform baptisms. Peter Ropp, originally from the Ontario Amish community, joined a Mennonite congregation in Pigeon and became a leading Mennonite minister there. This settlement, located near Saginaw Bay, began about 1890, and included persons from both the Amish Mennonite and Mennonite Church of Canada communities.

The Pigeon church was first organized in 1894 under Daniel Wismer of Berlin, Ontario. The congregation remained part of the Mennonite Church of Canada for about 22 years before transferring to the Indiana-Michigan Conference.


Amos Bauman. GAMEO photo

Other Ontario Amish and Mennonites seeking better economic alternatives moved to Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Colorado, Virginia, Oregon, and New York, though many of these eventually returned to Ontario or moved on yet again to other locations. One example was Amos Bauman, an Ontario Mennonite, who was ordained as a minister in the Stauffer Mennonite Church in Iowa. In 1903 Bauman moved to what is now Alberta, where he became the first bishop in the new Alberta Mennonite Conference there. After the Mennonite Church of Canada silenced him for his controversial views on sanctification, he affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Thus this leader from Waterloo County, Ontario, traveled theologically from the Mennonite Church of Canada to the conservative Stauffer Mennonite Church, back to the Alberta Mennonite Conference, and finally to the Mennonite Brethren in Christ.


For the Ontario Amish, beginning in the late 1870s there were small emigrations to Nebraska, Minnesota, Colorado, Virginia, and Michigan. Other than Michigan, most of these communities failed over time, with settlers returning to Ontario or continuing on to other locations in the United States.

In about 1874, Erb, Jantzi, Ulrich and other Amish families from Waterloo County moved near Milford, Seward County, Nebraska. They joined other Amish from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois at a time when governments both in Canada and the United States were offering land in Manitoba, Kansas and Nebraska to settlers at low prices. This was at the same time such offers were being made to Mennonites from Russia.

In 1883/84 Gerber, Boshart, Schweitzer, and Kennel families moved to O’Neill, Holt County, Nebraska where a small Amish Mennonite community existed until the 1940s.


Magdalena Brenneman Gerber. Photo from Minnesota Meanderings

Another such settlement was in Nobles County, Minnesota. Bishop Joseph Gerber and his wife, Magdalena, went there from Ontario in March 1893 and ordained another minister and deacon before the end of the year. By 1894 the settlement included 12 families. Interestingly, even though Bishop Gerber had favored building a meetinghouse for Amish worship in Ontario, none was ever built in the Nobles County community. Consequently they were able to remain in fellowship with both house Amish and church Amish.

At least 35 Amish families lived in Nobles County by the time the settlement came to an end in 1910, due not to the failure of crops, which were generally good, but because of internal dissension. Already by 1903 some families (and ministers) began to leave. Bishop Gerber and half the community left for Oscoda County, Michigan, in 1908, where they founded an Old Order Amish settlement. Minister Valentine Gerber and deacon Joseph Gerber, the two remaining ordained men, returned to Ontario in 1910. Joseph Gerber joined the East Zorra congregation, and Valentine Gerber affiliated with the Blake (Huron County) congregation, but was a member of the Nafziger (Beachy Amish) congregation when he died.

What will happen to the Amish and Mennonite migrations to Prince Edward Island, remains to be seen. But their venture in search of cheaper land has antecedents going back more than 140 years.

I’m indebted to Bruce Jantzi, ed. Minnesota Meanderings: the Amish Mennonite Settlement in Nobles County, Minnesota 1891-1910 for some of this information.

To read more Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

Orland Gingerich — Amish Mennonite Bishop

Orland Gingerich was a soft-spoken man who carried progressive ideas forward with a humble persistence. Although a farmer and cheese-maker (Kochäse or cook cheese) by vocation, Orland accepted his church’s call to leadership and became a minister and bishop. For Orland, leadership meant advanced education, something not readily welcomed by many in the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference (later Western Ontario Mennonite Conference).

The article by Virginia Hostetler  in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) that is replicated below outlines his impact on the Ontario Amish Mennonite community.

Perhaps less recognized is his contribution to Amish Mennonite history in Ontario. He wrote the first book-length history on Ontario Amish, and participated in some foundational oral history projects.

The full article, with bibliography, can be seen at http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Gingerich,_Orland_S._(1920-2002).


Agnes and Orland Gingerich. Family photo

Orland Steinman Gingerich: Ontario minister and bishop, active in Mennonite historical research and interpretation, and in leadership in other Mennonite organizations; born on 12 November 1920 in Wilmot Township, Waterloo County, Ontario, the oldest child of four born to John Z. Gingerich (24 January 1887-9 December 1962) and Annie (Steinmann) Gingerich (7 January 1893–4 July 1973). Orland married Agnes Irene Roth (1924- ) on 3 July 1948; they had 10 children. Orland died 23 January 2002 in Kitchener, Ontario.

In 1950 Orland graduated from Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with a Bachelor of Arts in the Bible. He also studied at Goshen Biblical Seminary and later at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. Orland became the first theologically trained pastor in the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference (later called Western Ontario Mennonite Conference). He was ordained in 1951 and served as a minister at his home congregation, Steinmann Mennonite Church, from 1951 to 1972. In 1954 he was selected by lot for the office of bishop, the last bishop in the conference to be selected by this method.

In the early years of his ministry, Amish pastors and bishops did not receive a salary from their congregations, so Orland earned a living through farming and cheese making. He served as a pastor at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church (1973-1974), Bloomingdale Mennonite Church (1974-1984), Wilmot Mennonite Church (1986), East Zorra Mennonite Church (1987-1988, 1994-1996,)Preston Mennonite Church (1988-1989), and Rainham Mennonite Church (1989-1991). Church administrative matters also interested Orland. In 1963, when the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference was re-structured and was renamed the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference, Orland became the ministerial superintendent (conference minister) for the conference. He also served on the conference’s mission board for 12 years.

Although the Amish tradition in which he grew up did not encourage education beyond elementary school, Orland was a strong proponent of learning. During the 1950s and 1960s he taught in the Winter Bible Schools of the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference and in the Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Institute. He was a founding board member of Conrad Grebel College, the Mennonite church college associated with the University of Waterloo. He served on that board from 1961 to 1979.

Orland had a deep love of history and used his skills to promote knowledge of Mennonite history in particular. On 8 May 1965, at the first meeting of the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, he gave a presentation on the reasons to form a historical society. He went on to become a charter member of the Society, serving as the first vice-president of the board (1965-1977) and as president (1977 to 1980). Over the years, he conducted research, wrote and spoke on many historical topics of southwestern Ontario. For a period of time Orland held the title of “Conference Historian” for the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference. He also served on the committee which planned the events for the sesquicentennial commemoration of the arrival of the Amish to Canada, celebrated in 1973.

Orland was the author of The Amish of Canada (Conrad Press, 1972), the first major source on the Canadian Amish Mennonites. His writings appear in five-volume The Mennonite Encyclopedia, in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), and in the publications of Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario. His profile of Christian Nafziger, who played a key role in the Amish settlement in Canada, appeared in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.


. . . .

Known for his soft-spoken and humble manner, Orland Gingerich has been described as a “risk taker,” a “church statesman,” and a “servant- leader” who had deep respect for others and who helped lead the church through times of much change.

Ross T. Bender-Amish Mennonite Educator

Ross T. Bender was an Amish Mennonite farm boy from Tavistock, Ontario who went on to become dean at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana and president of Mennonite World Conference.

He felt a inner call to pastoral ministry as a young person, but this was frowned upon by a church that still believed calls to ministry should only come through use of the lot.

Ross Bender came to have a profound impact on the theological training of a generation of Mennonite Church pastors, both in the United States and Canada.

This article was written for GAMEO in 2011. The full article, with bibliography, can be seen at http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Bender,_Ross_Thomas_(1929-2011).


Ruth and Ross Bender. Herald Press photo courtesy of Mennonite Church USA Archives (Goshen)

Ross Thomas Bender: educator, pastor and seminary dean, was born 25 June 1929 to Christian K. Bender (2 August 1888-20 December 1960) and Katie S. Bender (5 July 1891-8 June 1950) on a farm near Tavistock, Ontario. He was the youngest child in a family of four sons and one daughter. On 22 December 1950 he married Ruth Eileen Steinmann (8 July 1931-13 December 1997); they had two sons and three daughters. Ross Bender died 21 April 2011 in Goshen, Indiana.

Ross grew up in the Cassel Amish Mennonite Church, a branch of the East Zorra Amish Mennonite Church that was established in a former Evangelical Church. He was baptized at Cassel on 10 October 1943 by Bishop Daniel Iutzi. His father, Christian, a leader in the congregation’s Sunday school, valued education and took two years of high school through continuation school at a time when this was very rare among Amish Mennonites, and continued to read widely throughout his life. Ross’s oldest brother, Walter, almost completed high school as an adult, and encouraged his family to give Ross the same opportunity. Ross, who was not inclined towards farming, completed high school and took summer school classes to qualify for elementary school teaching. Over a six year period he taught in three elementary schools in Oxford County, Ontario and took course towards his BA at Toronto Teacher’s College (formerly Toronto Normal School) and the University of Western Ontario. He completed his BA at Goshen College in 1954. Ross had a good singing voice, and was part of a Bender Quartet during these years.

With the encouragement of leaders like Nelson Litwiller, Ross and Ruth Bender decided to pursue seminary studies at Goshen Biblical Seminary, with the vision of mission work in South America. This did not develop, and so in early 1955 Ross accepted a position at Rockway Mennonite School in Kitchener, Ontario to serve as Dean of Students with part-time teaching and student recruitment responsibilities. The position attracted the Benders as Ross hoped to serve on the pastoral team at the Tavistock Mennonite Church which was seeking additional pastoral leadership, and where they had attended after their marriage. Bender completed his requirements for a BD degree in December 1955 and for the MRE degree in March 1956. Bender and a older farmer were nominated at Tavistock for ordination in 1956. When the supervising bishops ruled the other candidate not suitable there was dissension within the congregation and the ordination process was terminated. One issue was the uneasiness of some persons in the congregation about seminary-trained pastors. Unexpectedly the Principal at Rockway resigned in mid-April 1956 and the school’s board asked Ross to take the position of Principal. He accepted and served in that role until 1960. In 1958 Bender was invited to join the Goshen Biblical Seminary faculty after some pastoral experience and additional academic studies. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario requested that he be ordained by his home conference to facilitate his leadership role at Rockway School. The Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference executive agreed to this unusual procedure in early 1958, and he was ordained at the Steinmann Mennonite Church by Bishop Ephraim Gingerich on 28 May 1958 for “ministry-at-large.” The Erb Street Mennonite Church invited him to serve as an Assistant Pastor, which involved occasional preaching and working with the youth; he served in this role until 1960.

With the promise of a seminary position, Ross Bender went to Yale University for graduate studies in 1960. He completed an MA and PhD at Yale in 1962; his dissertation was on “The role of the contemporary family in Christian nurture: a theological perspective.” He began to teach at Goshen Biblical Seminary in 1962. In 1964 Goshen Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Biblical Seminary, already in a cooperative relationship known as Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, each named him as Dean. In this role he led the “Dean’s Seminar” from 1967-1969. This study project developed a model for theological education in the Free Church tradition, and redesigned seminary training for Mennonite pastors. The fruits of this work shaped the seminaries’ teaching program for a generation. His work at combining the curricula of the two seminaries was key to encouraging the move of the Goshen seminary to the Elkhart campus, as well as the increasingly close relationship of the seminaries. Bender served as Dean of the seminaries until 1979. He also served as Professor of Christian Education until his retirement in 1996, and as director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies beginning in 1991. In 1996 he was named Dean Emeritus of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.

Ross T. Bender also undertook major assignments for his denomination. From 1961-1971 he served on the Mennonite Commission for Christian Education, serving as its chair beginning in 1963. After the Mennonite Church restructured in 1971, during a two year leave he served (1972-1974) as the first executive secretary for the new Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries. He was moderator of the Mennonite Church from 1981-1983, and served on its executive board from 1979-1985. He also served as President of Mennonite World Conference from 1984-1990. Through this latter association he participated in a wide variety of ecumenical relationships, including a trip to Russia for the millennium of Christianity in 1988, and co-chairing theological conversations between Mennonite World Conference and the Baptist World Alliance from 1989-1992. During a six year leave from the seminary he also served as pastor of the Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in Colorado (1984-1989).

In all the positions that Ross T. Bender held he was valued for his sensitive leadership and creative thinking. He was also known for his gentle sense of humor, often used in a self-deprecating way. During the last two decades of his life, Ross was less able to participate in church and seminary activities because of the effects of Parkinson’s disease. His interest in the seminary and the church did not waver to the end. Ross and Ruth Bender are buried at the Violett Cemetery in Goshen, Indiana.

— Sam Steiner