As we enter the summer camping season, it appeared appropriate to think how Ontario Mennonites became involved in the church camping movement.
The larger church camping movement in North America worked to expand ministry and relationships among young people beyond the Sunday school programs in the local church. The International Sunday School Association established the first permanent church camp at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in 1912. Earlier variants were the summer holiness family camps established in the nineteenth century by groups like the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. The first Mennonite initiatives in camping-like programs occurred among the Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonites in the United States. These early “retreats” and “institutes” were held on Mennonite college campuses.
The first permanent Mennonite camp in North America was Camp Men-O-Lan near Quakertown, Pennsylvania, established in 1941. In the 1930s the Mennonite Brethren in Manitoba who operated Winkler Bible School rented the Canadian Sunday School Mission campgrounds at Gimli. In 1939 ten Mennonite Brethren men purchased the property that eventually became Camp Arnes. In the mid- to late-1940s Mennonite camps were also established in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The first Mennonite camp in Ontario was at Chesley Lake. The site had been a fishing camp in the 1930s. It operated from 1934–45 as a summer resort and Bible camp led by Allan J. Schultz, an independent Baptist minister of Lutheran background. As an aside he was the grandfather of the current president of Conrad Grebel University College, Susan Schultz Huxman. In 1945 Allan Schultz thought he could no longer operate the camp, and the landowner decided to sell the property. Schultz then bought the primary camping property himself to prevent its sale to a secular organization as a “drink-dance-dine joint,” and he tried to resell it to a church denomination. Several groups, including the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, considered the opportunity but declined. Finally in 1947 an association of Mennonites led by Jacob C. Hallman, a businessman from First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, purchased the camp. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario ran children’s camps at Chesley Lake from 1949–56, and other Ontario Mennonite groups rented the facility for their own early camping activities. These included the Mennonite Brethren, the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, and the United Mennonites. However, Chesley Lake never became a family Bible camp as was originally envisioned, and the camp was never formally “Mennonite” in ownership, since the association was not limited to Mennonites. The Chesley Lake association focused rather on the development of privately owned cottages. This led some Mennonites to criticize private recreational cottages as inappropriate Christian stewardship. In their view Christians should not be conformed to the world, and recreational cottages were too conforming. The association model of ownership was necessary since a significant minority within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario thought this kind of recreational activity was not appropriate.
In the 1950s permanent camps for children and families began to the established by all the larger, more assimilated Mennonite groups in Ontario. These included Fraser Lake (Mennonite Conference of Ontario) and Silver Lake (United Mennonites). In the 1960s Hidden Acres (Western Ontario Mennonite Conference) emerged, followed in the 1970s by Camp Crossroads (Mennonite Brethren).
To learn more about Mennonite camps, read In Search of Promised Lands.
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