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.

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The Theme of Promised Lands

When I began researching and writing early chapters of this history, it did not take long for the metaphor of “promised lands” to feel “right” for my major theme.

Mennonites have moved from place to place to find a better life–for safety, religious liberty or economic opportunity–throughout the almost 500 years of their history. Whether it was receding into the Swiss mountains in the 16th century, migrating to Pennsylvania in the late 17th/early 18th century, moving to Russia and Canada in the late 18th/early 19th century, or to North America and Latin America in the 20th century, Mennonites have sought more promising lands for centuries. The promised lands theme has been even more underscored in recent decades by the new language and cultural groups that have joined the Mennonite community in Ontario, coming as refugees from wars and civil conflict in many parts of the world.

Martin Boehm

Martin Boehm, an 18th century Pennsylvania Mennonite bishop whose search for assurance of salvation led him to leave the Mennonites and help found the United Brethren in Christ.

Mennonites have also engaged in theological migrations, in search of greater fulfillment through new or different spiritual experiences, often to attain an “assurance of salvation,” to know that they were saved from sin and would go to heaven when they die. The pursuit of this assurance, and the means to achieve it, have divided Mennonite families, congregations, and conferences, and led many Mennonites to seek this assurance outside the Mennonite community.

This theological search brought Mennonites into contact with non-Mennonite cultures and religious perspectives. This engagement, which began in Europe, and continued steadily in North America, speaks against the common description by many authors of Mennonites as “a separate people” who resisted participation in the larger society. Indeed “the history of a separate people” was the subtitle of Frank H. Epp’s Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920. I came to see this as an over-simplified image.

A minority of Mennonites critically assessed the surrounding cultural practices and unfamiliar religious perspectives and determined the health of the Mennonite community was better preserved by maintaining boundaries that separated Mennonites from the larger culture. These boundaries were maintained through retention of a minority language (German, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries), strict enforcement of discipline for deviations in religious and social practice, and use of visible symbols like special dress standards. The most visible of these groups are the Old Order Mennonites and the Old Order Amish.

A larger number of Mennonites tried to integrate into their Mennonite understandings some positive features that they observed in the new culture or religious worldviews they encountered. These groups came to see boundaries of separation as hindrances to Christian faithfulness; they began to assimilate into the surrounding culture, often incorporating theological understandings from neighboring renewal movements into their own expressions of faith. While retaining their Mennonite self-understanding, these Mennonites would over time become almost fully assimilated into Canadian society—no longer maintaining boundaries of language, educational pursuits, and vocational choices, retaining no visible symbols of separation in dress or the use of technology.

Some members of this majority felt the pace of assimilation was too great. Though they accepted the promised land of evangelical, or even fundamentalist, theology, they tried to retain some symbols of separation, especially in dress and the forms of media technology accepted. This became the “conservative Mennonite” movement in the mid-20th century.

Still others of the more assimilated Mennonites found their religious identification was closer to the larger evangelical Protestant world, and that distinctive Mennonite beliefs like non-participation in war were not essential to achieving the promised land of assured salvation. They left the “Mennonite” behind.

In Search of Promised Lands tries to fairly describe these many and varied searches of Ontario Mennonites, from the first immigrants who crossed the Niagara River to those congregations formed by refugees from war in the late 20th century.