John Wolf Miller, a Principled Maverick

One of my colleagues at Conrad Grebel University College for many years was John W. Miller. (People are bemused by that middle name–his mother was a Wolf, and giving a child as a middle name the mother’s maiden name was typical in Pennsylvania German Mennonite families of that era.)

I would have first met John at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois which he founded in the 1950s. My brother, Albert, had been one of the Goshen Biblical Seminary students who was influenced by John to explore living in Christian community. Albert and his wife, Carol, have been part of that community for over 50 years.

John came to Conrad Grebel in 1969; I arrived five years later. I remember John as a  quiet person who did not spend a lot of time in the faculty-staff lounge. He was more likely to remain at his desk with the office door open, several offices down from the lounge, intensely focused on whatever project engaged him at the time. His hearing loss may have helped maintain his remarkable focus. If you did engage him in conversation, he was very congenial, with a pleasant sense of humor.

I took a couple of courses from John, I don’t remember if for credit or as an auditor. His course on the Parables of Jesus was very enlightening, providing perspectives on the New Testament I had not previously considered.

I also recall the many years John cared for his wife, Louise, as she struggled with Parkinson’s disease. One heard stories of how they regularly played tennis together, with John hitting the ball in such a way that she didn’t have to move far to hit a return.

In later years John became isolated from other faculty in some of the positions he took on internal Conrad Grebel controversies. I particularly remember one college council meeting, after John’s retirement, in which he came to sternly lecture the council on a personnel issue in which he disagreed with the decisions made.

John Miller marched to his own drum on many issues during his life. He was unafraid to stand alone on a point of principle. He was one of those very interesting characters that J. Winfield Fretz brought to Conrad Grebel College to teach in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Below is a new article on John W. Miller that I have written for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. To see the bibliography and listing of books written by John Miller, go to the GAMEO website.


John & Louise Miller, 1992

John Wolf Miller: professor, author, and founder of Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois, USA was born 22 December 1926 in LancasterPennsylvania, USA to Orie O. Miller (7 July 1892-10 January 1977) and Elta Wolf Miller (20 May 1893-14 February 1958). John was the third son and fourth child in a family of one daughter and four sons. On 18 September 1949 he married Louise Frances Heatwole (25 November 1928-12 February 2015); they had three children—Christopher, Jeanette and Karen. John W. Miller died 2 December 2017 at the home of Lowell and Jeanette Ewert. John and Louise Miller were buried in the Blenheim Mennonite Cemetery near New Dundee, Ontario.

John grew up in an unusual Mennonite family in Akron, Pennsylvania, since his father, Orie, was both part of the Miller Hess Shoe Company, founded by his wife’s family, and a founder of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), also based in Akron. The Orie Miller family was wealthy, though Orie was gone from the family for extended periods of time because of his business and MCC responsibilities. At the age of six, John suffered complications from scarlet fever that left him deaf in one ear.

John Miller attended Eastern Mennonite School in HarrisonburgVirginia for his secondary school education, graduating in 1945. It was here that he came to know Louise Heatwole, though they did not begin to date until both attended Goshen College in Indiana. John spent his first years of college at Eastern Mennonite College, but graduated from Goshen College in 1948 with a BA in Bible. Louise graduated a year later.

Both John and Louise Miller intended to study medicine after graduation, and eventually to serve in overseas mission. However, Harold Bender asked John to train in Old Testament studies in preparation for teaching at the evolving Goshen Biblical Seminary. After an intense meeting in summer 1948, John agreed.

Since he had taken science courses as an undergraduate, Miller also wanted to strengthen his background in literature. Consequently, his graduate studies led to degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary (BD, 1951), New York University (MA in Literature, 1951), and the University of Basel (ThD, 1955). His doctoral dissertation explored the influence of the prophet, Jeremiah, on the prophet, Ezekiel. It was published as Das Verhältnis Jeremias und Hesekiels sprachlich und theologisch Untersucht: Mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Prosareden Jeremias. During his studies in Europe, John was an active participant in the Concern movement.

John W. Miller returned to teach at Goshen Biblical Seminary from 1954 to 1957. During these years John and Louise were influenced by renewal movements like the Iona Community in Scotland, and especially the Woodcrest Community of the Society of Brothers. A “Fellowship House” at Goshen College explored the implications of living in a disciplined Christian community. John’s active participation in this movement led to conflict with Paul Mininger and Harold Bender, the president and dean of the college.

The possibility of linking a new community with a voluntary service program in Chicago became an option pursued by John and Louise Miller, with the assistance of John’s father. This was enabled when Paul Mininger asked Miller to take a three-year leave from teaching “to deepen [his] experience of the Mennonite Church.” This ended in John and Louise Miller’s move to 727 Reba Place in south Evanston, near the northern border of Chicago, and the formation of what became Reba Place Fellowship, a communitarian Christian fellowship. Although Miller assumed he would return to Goshen Biblical Seminary after three years, he was replaced at the seminary before his leave had ended.

For most of his years at Reba Place Fellowship, Miller worked as a counselor and administrator at the Chicago State Hospital, a facility for the mentally ill. He became influenced by the insights of Freudian psychology during this time; this had a profound impact on his later theological thinking. He also did some teaching at the North Park and Garrett Theological Seminaries.

In 1969 John W. Miller was invited to teach at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario in the area of Biblical studies. He retired from the college in 1992. During his years at Conrad Grebel, he was actively engaged in lay leadership training in the college’s adult studies program. He also served as the first chair of the Religious Studies department at the University of Waterloo, beginning in 1976.

At Conrad Grebel, John Miller became a prolific writer, including a regular column in the Mennonite Reporter during the 1970s. His academic writing especially focused on New Testament themes of the parables and the historicity of Jesus Christ. His writing on the latter topic became controversial, and some critics believed his theological positions were not adequately orthodox.

Miller also placed strong emphasis on the fatherhood of God, and extended that emphasis to leadership questions within the church and family. This also created dissonance with emerging feminist theologians and within the Kitchener-Waterloo house churches in which he was an active leader, and in which he was ordained as a pastoral leader by the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada in 1992.

After his retirement from Conrad Grebel, John Miller developed lay Bible study courses for a program called the Blenheim Bible Study Program, so named because of its connection to the Blenheim Retreat Centre near New Dundee, Ontario that was administered by the Blenheim Ecumenical House Church(formerly part of the K-W House Church) in which John and Louise Miller were members.

John W. Miller was a capable administrator and a passionate and tenacious scholar who did not avoid taking minority positions on matters of theology or college administration. He was able to communicate effectively both with lay people and fellow academics. Illness in his later years prevented his ability to speak, though he continued work on writing projects until days before his death.

Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Rodney J. Sawatsky

Rodney J. Sawatsky was the fourth president of Conrad Grebel College (1989-1994). There have been earlier blogs on J. Winfield Fretz, Frank H. Epp and Ralph A. Lebold.

Rod Sawatsky and I both began to work at Conrad Grebel College in 1974 when he came from Canadian Mennonite Bible College to Ontario to teach and serve as academic dean, while I began half-time in the Mennonite Archives at Conrad Grebel.


Rod Sawatsky speaking at an Inter-Mennonite Conference (Ontario) retreat in 1985. In the background are Bernhard Stobbe and Herb Schultz. Photo by Sam Steiner.

We shared a deep interest in Mennonite history and Mennonite church politics. He was very supportive of my increasing involvement in denominational activities, especially the integration of three Mennonite regional conferences in Ontario in 1988 into what is now known as Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

Rod was known for his booming voice, the way he leaned back while thinking out loud, and for the extremely gracious hosting he, together with his wife, Lorna, frequently did in their home.

Rod was an innovative academic dean, and the years that he and Ralph Lebold were the leadership team at Conrad Grebel stand out in my own memory. Projects like a graduate degree in theology, and the launch of the Conrad Grebel Review as an inter-disciplinary Mennonite academic journal were important to Rod.

He became president of Conrad Grebel at a time that became very difficult for the College. Financial challenges included an ambitious capital fund drive that fell well short of its goal, meaning only a part of the planned expansion could be built. Changes in government funding to post-secondary education ultimately saw the number of Conrad Grebel’s faculty members shrink by a third. Not surprisingly the financial challenges also created tensions within the faculty that resulted in conflicts that received publicity well beyond the college.

Perhaps providentially, Rod received an invitation to become president of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania in 1994. His experience as president there was an extremely positive one, and ended because of his early death from brain cancer in 2004.

My memories of Rod’s years at Conrad Grebel are overwhelmingly positive, particularly as I remember many informal conversations in the staff lounge about the state of the Mennonite church in Ontario, in Canada and in North America.

Below is the article in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online about Rod Sawatsky by Margaret Loewen Reimer. For a bibliography of his writings, go to the article.


Rod and Lorna Sawatsky, 2002. Family photo

Rodney James “Rod” Sawatsky: church historian and college administrator, b. 5 December 1943 in Altona, Manitoba, the second child of Jacob and Catherine (Loewen) Sawatsky, who both predeceased him. He was baptized into the Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church (Conference of Mennonites in Canada) in 1961. He was married to Lorna Ewert, daughter of Agnes (Regier) and Elmer Ewert, in 1964 at the North Star Mennonite Church in Drake, Saskatchewan. Rod and Lorna had three daughters: Tanya, Lisa and Katherine.

Rod graduated from Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and from Bethel CollegeNorth Newton, Kansas, before pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota (MA in History, 1969) and Princeton University (MA, 1972 and PhD in Religion, 1977). He and Lorna, a musician and teacher, taught at the Menno Bible Institute in Didsbury, Alberta, for a year (1965-1966), before Rod was hired to teach history at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC). He taught at CMBC from 1967-1970 and 1973-1974. Rod and Lorna were active members of Charleswood Mennonite Church during this time.

In 1974 Rod Sawatsky was appointed Academic Dean at Conrad Grebel College, the Mennonite college at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, under the presidency of Frank H. Epp. He also taught courses in Mennonite history and new religions. Probably his most popular course was “Sects and Cults,” which looked at new religious movements such as the Unification Church (Moonies). Sawatsky was also interested in issues of religious liberty and testified several times in court on behalf of minority groups. Sawatsky presented the Benjamin Eby Lecture at Conrad Grebel College in 1982 on the topic, “Commitment and Critique: A Dialectical Imperative,” outlining the role of Christian education in a pluralist community. In 1990 he helped organize a conference of church-related colleges in Canada entitled “Educating for the Kingdom?”

Besides his commitment to education, Rod had a keen interest in the history and development of the Mennonite church. In the early 1980s he wrote a widely-circulated article entitled “Autonomy and Accountability: Church Polity within the Conference of Mennonites in Canada.” In 1985 he presented the Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College on “Authority and Identity: The Dynamics of the General Conference Mennonite Church” (published by Bethel College in 1987).

In 1989 Rod became president of Conrad Grebel College, a position he held for five years. Under Sawatsky’s leadership, the college added new programs and hired several outstanding scholars. Lorna taught early childhood music.  They were members of Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario.

In 1994 Rod was appointed president of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, a liberal arts college with roots in the Brethren in Christ Church. In his 10 years there he led the college to a new mission and identity that emphasized excellence, diversity, international study and a spirit of service and engagement in society. His leadership resulted in an increase in enrolment and a considerable expansion of campus facilities and programs. Lorna, as “first lady” of the college, was active in campus life, planning and hosting events and supporting school activities. During this time, Rod was active in several educational organizations, including the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Christian College Consortium, and the Council of Independent Colleges.

Rod’s life was driven by his passion for education within a Christian college environment. Christian scholarship is a holy calling, he argued in one of his last publications, “The Virtue of Scholarly Hope,” a prologue in the book Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (Oxford University Press, 2004). An optimist and visionary, he was always eager to pursue new possibilities. Deeply committed to the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith, Sawatsky was also committed to engagement in the wider church and culture, ever alert to new developments and ideas in the church and in society.

Rod Sawatsky died of brain cancer on 27 November 2004 at the age of 60. He was buried at the historic Detweiler Meetinghouse cemetery near Kitchener, Ontario.

Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Ralph A. Lebold

Conrad Grebel University College’s third president was Ralph A. Lebold, who died recently on October 31, 2017.

I first met Ralph Lebold in 1973/74 during a year that Sue and I lived in London when I attended law school and quickly learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Ralph was nearing the end of his time as the pastor at Valleyview Mennonite Church, and had accepted the new role of Conference Minister that would begin in summer 1974.

I recall Ralph’s wit from one conversation that year between Sue and Ralph after one of his sermons. Sue had been very impressed by the content, and told Ralph he had preached “an incredible sermon.” He immediately responded, “Oh, I had hoped it would be credible!” I don’t remember the sermon, but I do remember Ralph’s comment.

A biography for Ralph Lebold in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online has not yet been written. What follows are some of the things that might be included in such an article.

At his funeral I heard someone describe Ralph Lebold as an entrepreneur within the church–not about making a lot of money, but in helping to innovate new programs and approaches to ministry that had an influence on the Mennonite Church throughout North America. These included the founding the Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp (1962), the provision of Supervised Pastoral Experience in a congregational setting for seminary students (1969), early encouragement for women to serve in pastoral leadership (1976), and founding Shalom Counselling Services (1982).


Ralph Lebold, 1953. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Ralph was born in the town of New Hamburg in 1934, but the family moved to a farm near Wellesley in 1945. He left school after grade 8, which was customary for Amish Mennonites at the time, and happily worked on the farm for several years. By the late 1940s he began to attend Wellesley Winter Bible School, where he met his future wife, Eileen Erb. About 1951 he switched to attending the Ontario Mennonite Bible School in Kitchener, and graduated from OMBS in 1953.

Ralph continued in the pre-university course at Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute in 1953/54, and enrolled at Eastern Mennonite College in 1954, where he received his BA in 1958.

Ralph and Eileen married in 1955, and they would have three children — Connie, Marvin and Cindy.

The family moved to Goshen, Indiana in 1959 where Ralph studied at Goshen Biblical Seminary, and from which he graduated with a BD degree in 1961. He began pastoring the King Street Mennonite Church in London, Ontario that fall. In 1963 the congregation moved to a new location in northeast London, and became known as Valleyview Mennonite Church.

In 1966-1968 the Lebold family took a one-year leave and moved to Chester, Pennsylvania where Ralph studied at Crozer Theological Seminary for an MTh in Pastoral Care and Counselling (1968). Ralph provided some pastoral services to Valleyview during the second year of the program.

The Lebolds then returned to London and Valleyview where in 1969 Ralph launched a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program in association with the Associated (now Anabaptist) Biblical Seminary. That first fall three seminary students spent a year at Valleyview working both in the congregation and at the London Psychiatric Hospital where Ralph was a Teaching Chaplain, while also serving half-time at Valleyview.

In 1974 Ralph Lebold became the first Conference Minister for the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference. (Orland Gingerich had served in a similar, reduced role of this type in the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference beginning in 1966, and the position of a full time paid conference minister had begun in some Mennonite Church regional conferences in the U.S. in the late 1960s.)  Of course this led to jokes about a Mennonite “pope.”

It was during the conference minister years that Ralph encouraged women to pursue pastoral leadership. In 1976 he suggested that Doris Weber be commissioned for pastoral service alongside her ordained husband, Rod. By 1978 this status was changed to ordination. Other women in leadership soon followed.

In 1978 Ralph Lebold began work in the new DMin program at the Toronto School of Theology; he received his degree in 1980 with a research project on “The evaluation of the pastoral leader in the context of the congregation.” This led to a later book, Learning and growing in ministry : a handbook for congregational leaders published by the Mennonite Publishing House in 1986.


Conrad Grebel College’s first three presidents: L-R, J. Winfield Fretz, Frank H. Epp and Ralph A. Lebold. 1979 photo from the Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Ralph served in the conference minister role until 1980, and likely would have continued longer except for a call asking him to consider becoming president at Conrad Grebel College in 1979. He was familiar with some of the issues at the College, having been called to help work at an internal conflict in 1977, and had been involved in the School of Adult Studies based at the college for several years. He accepted the position, and served from 1979 to 1989.

Ralph Lebold’s ten years as president at Conrad Grebel College were good years for the College. Ralph worked well with his Academic Dean, Rod Sawatsky, who succeeded him as president. In 1988 the college received a new charter, permitting it to grant a range of degrees in Religious Studies, leading to the beginning of the MTS program at the College. The Peace and Conflict Studies program also deepened and expanded. In my own memory of my time at Conrad Grebel, these were the “golden years” at the College, with everyone pulling the same direction, and relationships with the Mennonite constituency flourishing.

In 1989, Ralph took on a joint assignment with the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and the new Mennonite Conference (now Church) of Eastern Canada (MCEC) in Pastoral Leadership Training, the part of his vocation that gave him the most energy. He continued in this work until retirement in 1997.


Ralph Lebold counsels me about retirement at my December 2008 retirement dinner. I seem startled by the possibilities!

In 1991 Ralph was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, a disease with a prognosis of up to three or four years. Although his health went through cycles, new treatments extended his life 26 years. During most of those years he was able to make strong contributions to the local conference, to Waterloo North Mennonite Church, where he was a charter member, and as a mentor to many younger leaders in the church.

Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Frank H. Epp

Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario just inaugurated its eighth president, Marcus Shantz, and mourned the death of its third president, Ralph A. Lebold. For the next couple of weeks I want to reflect on the lives of the Grebel presidents who have died.

I earlier did a blog on Grebel’s first president (1963-1973), J. Winfield Fretz, so I will not repeat that one.

Grebel’s second president (1973-1979) was Frank H. Epp, a native of southern Manitoba. He started teaching at Conrad Grebel in 1971, moving with his family from Ottawa where he had pastored the Ottawa Mennonite Church and begun research on what became volume 1 of the Mennonites in Canada series. When he came to Waterloo, he also began the revival of the bi-weekly inter-Mennonite Mennonite Reporter newspaper, and served as its editor for two years.

I had determined to finish my BA at the University of Waterloo about the time that Frank Epp had come to Waterloo. I had recalled Frank from my Goshen College student days when he came and lectured publicly about the Vietnam War. He had made a strong impression on me, and so I signed up for many of his Mennonite history/Canadian minorities courses at Conrad Grebel.


Conrad Grebel College in 1974, after the Academic Building was added. GAMEO photo

Frank Epp was an intense, driven man for causes in which he believed. He wrote and spoke with passion and clarity about the Middle East, Vietnam, U.S.-Canadian relations and other things. He also wanted a larger role for Conrad Grebel College academically, and added the Peace and Conflict Studies program and expanded the Music department. He brought influential young faculty members, like Rod Sawatsky, Conrad Brunk and Len Enns on board, and stabilized music administration with Wilbur Maust. To house this growing program, he built an “academic building” completed in 1974.

Frank Epp’s passion for detail led him to micromanage and to tightly control finances, and sometimes led him into conflict. The final years of his presidency included some troubling times within the College community, and his post-presidential years at Grebel found him often isolated from other faculty on internal issues.

Despite this, Frank Epp was one of the two ro three most influential teachers in my life, helping to shape my worldview at a time I was finding my way back to the Mennonite Church. And I am forever grateful that Frank hired me as the archivist for the Mennonite Archives of Ontario in September 1974.

Below is the text of the article on Frank Epp in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online by Adolf Ens. For the bibliography of his published books, go to the GAMEO article.

Frank H. Epp

Frank H. Epp. GAMEO photo

Frank H. Epp: churchman, journalist, educator, and author; born 25 May 1929 in Lena, Manitoba, the third of 13 children of Heinrich M. Epp (1904-1958) and Anna (Enns) Epp (1902-1958). On 27 June 1953 Frank married Helen Dick of Leamington, Ontario and they had three daughters (a son died at birth). Frank died on 22 January 1986 in Kitchener, Ontario.

Educated in theology, mass communication, and history, Epp began his professional career as a public school teacher and was professor of history at Conrad Grebel College at the time of his death. He was president of Conrad Grebel College, 1973-1979. Under his leadership the college expanded to include a new academic building as well as programs in music and peace and conflict studies. An ordained minister, he was a part-time pastor in four Mennonite congregations in Canada and the United States.

His extensive public writing career began in 1951 as editor of the Jugendseite, the youth section of Der Bote, which served General Conference Mennonite youth in Canada. As founding editor of The Canadian Mennonite (1953-1967) and Mennonite Reporter (1971-1973) he exercised a broad and sometimes controversial influence among Mennonites in Canada at a time when many of them were in a language transition from German to English.

From 1957-1963 he was director and regular speaker for the Conference of Mennonites in Manitoba‘s “Abundant Life” radio program. During most of this time he also served the Board of Christian Service of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada in various capacities. He was a board member of Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCCC) from its inception in 1963 until his death and was chairman of the international MCC Peace Section, 1979-1986. From 1972-1978 he was on the presidium of Mennonite World Conference.

Beyond the Mennonite churches, Epp served on four committees of the Canadian Council of Churches (1967-1973) and was appointed to two advisory bodies by the federal government (Immigration, 1968-1977, and Multiculturalism, 1980-1985). For two years (1970-1971) he served as Executive Director of the World Federalists of Canada, and after 1980 was active in the United Nations Association of Canada. In the 1979 and 1980 federal parliamentary elections he was a candidate for the Liberal Party in the Waterloo (Ontario) constituency.

Epp’s research travels, related to peace education and writing projects, included numerous trips to the Middle East (6), Southeast Asia (3), and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (3). Epp’s twelve books include three on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East and three on Mennonites in Canada. These included Mennonites in Canada, volumes I and II; he was working on volume III at the time of his death. His other books deal with educational institutions and with peace and refugee concerns.


Mennonite-Muslim Dialogue – a Review of Events

Assimilated Mennonite conversations with other faith groups increased considerably in the 1960s. These Mennonites began to send observers to events sponsored by the World Council of Churches and similar ecumenical organizations in 1961. A series of Believers Church conferences that included Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, and others began in the 1960s and accelerated during the 1970s and later.

After Vatican II (1962–65), conversations began between Mennonites and the Catholic Church. Mennonite graduate students began to study at Catholic institutions like Notre Dame University in Indiana and St. Michaels College in Toronto.

Intentional dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics began in the late 1990s; perhaps the best-known forum was Bridgefolk, “a movement of sacramentally-minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics,” established for shared conversation and worship at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and other locations. These meetings often included Ontario Mennonite participants.

In more years there have specific academic conversations with Lutherans.

Mennonite academics also began to hold dialogues with non-Christian faith groups. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) had worked in relief efforts in Muslim-majority countries for years. In the early 1990s MCC carried out relief work in Iran after devastating earthquakes in that country. MCC then began to initiate student exchanges with Iran.

The Shia (Shi’ah) seminary in Qom, Iran, the world’s largest, has about 50,000 students. The Imam Khomeini Institute, which is attached to the Qom seminary, offers graduate-level training in the humanities to a small number of people who are already imams, or Islamic clerics. The Institute also sought wider dialogue, particularly with Christian theologians.

Under a formal agreement, Mennonite Central Committee sent Christian scholars to Qom for two-year terms. The Khomeini Institute particularly stressed that it wanted scholars who were very strong in their Christian faith because their purpose was to explain Christianity to Iranian students. In exchange, the Imam Khomeini Institute sponsored two Iranian students to come to Canada and to earn doctorates at the Toronto School of Theology.


A. James Reimer. GAMEO photo

These exchanges led to a series of academic conversations between Mennonite and Shia Muslim academics beginning in 2002, initially at the Toronto School of Theology, with the deep involvement of Conrad Grebel College theologian, A. James Reimer. Quite remarkably this first dialogue took place when the events of 2001’s 9/11 attacks remained fresh in North American minds.

The first conference addressed “The Challenge of Modernity”; the second, held in 2006 in Qom, focused on “Revelation and Authority.” The papers for the first two conferences were published in the Fall 2003 and Winter 2006 issues of the Conrad Grebel Review.

The third dialogue in May 2007 took place at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, and attracted considerable media coverage. Macleans magazine raised an alarm in an article that portrayed naive Mennonites meeting with thugs, and protesters threatened to overwhelm the event.

Although all of the Muslim scholars attending the 2007 conference had doctorates from schools in North America or Britain, opponents tried to get Canadian authorities to deny them visas. According to Macleans, opponents contended that the Khomeini  Institute “[was] a training ground for the Islamic regime’s most repressive elements.”

Representatives of MCC and Conrad Grebel invited the protesters to a meeting on the evening of May 23 to express their concerns. Arli Klassen, then executive director of MCC (Ontario) recalled, “They felt that if we knew about the human rights abuses in Iran then we would automatically cancel the conference. They were shocked to discover that we do know about the abuses, and we were intending to carry on with having the dialogue.”


Riot Police at Mennonite-Muslim Dialogue. Photo by Jen Konkle, Conrad Grebel University College

Riot police from Toronto were brought in and attendees remember police stationed on the roof of the college’s academic building. The initial public meeting was canceled in the face of protesters shouting down the speakers. (See Canadian Mennonite coverage and an article by Jim Coggins in for more detailed commentary on the event.)

Ultimately police action was not required, and the formal conversations continued the following day as scheduled. The event at Conrad Grebel took place eight months after Mennonite Central Committee had facilitated another controversial meeting at the United Nations in New York between North American church leaders and then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The essays from the third dialogue were published in 2010 as On Spirituality: Essays from the Third Shii Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue.

Despite the 2007 controversy, further dialogues took place: the fourth in Qom, Iran, in 2009 and the fifth in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2011 without incident. The papers from these conferences were published as Peace and Justice: Essays from the Fourth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue  and On Being Human: Essays From The Fifth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian DialogueThe sixth dialogue took place in Qom, Iran in 2014. The seventh dialogue is scheduled for Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2017.

Inter-faith consultations are a preoccupation of highly assimilated Mennonites only. Other Mennonite groups regard them as having no value and possibly dangerous in compromising Mennonite understandings of faith.

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

20th Anniversary of Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO)

GAMEO's front page, 2016

GAMEO’s front page, 2016

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO).

Mennonite Encyclopedia celebration

Celebration of the Mennonite Encyclopedia, 4th Volume, August 11, 1959: Left to right: Cornelius Krahn, Harold S. Bender, Melvin Gingerich.
Source: H.S. Bender Photographs. HM4-083. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.

GAMEO (pronounced găm-e-o) descends from two earlier projects. The first is well-known–the five-volume Mennonite Encyclopedia that was published from 1955 to 1959, with a supplementary fifth volume in 1990. It began as the brainchild of Prof. C. Henry Smith, who suggested in 1945 that an inter-Mennonite group of American Mennonite scholars translate and expand the earlier volumes of the Mennonitisches Lexikon published by European Mennonites. Even though Smith died in 1948, Harold Bender and Cornelius Krahn brought the vision to fruition. Cornelius J. Dyck and Dennis Martin brought the supplemental volume to completion in 1990.

The second project related to the three-volume Mennonites in Canada history series sponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada (MHSC) from 1968 to 1996.

Marlene Epp

Marlene Epp in 2015. Courtesy Conrad Grebel University College.

In the mid-1980s, Marlene Epp, presently a Professor of History at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, was a research associate for her father, Frank H. Epp. He was then preparing to write a third volume in the series. Both Frank and Marlene were based at Conrad Grebel.

Frank Epp died in early 1986 while awaiting a heart transplant. This suspended the writing project until Ted D. Regehr of the University of Saskatchewan was identified as the author for the third volume. Marlene Epp continued as research associate for the project, and spent much of her time developing databases of information on Canadian Mennonites — on congregations, institutions, conferences, businesses, periodicals and biographies. By far the largest of these databases was the one on congregations. It included basic information on 1200 Canadian Mennonite congregations, some of which no longer existed.

In 1987 the MHSC created a database committee to consider how best to utilize this wealth of material. The committee members were archivists at three Mennonite historical centers in Canada (Bert Friesen, chair; Sam Steiner, Lawrence Klippenstein, Ken Reddig) plus Ted Regehr, the vol. 3 author and Marlene Epp. Already in early 1988 Marlene Epp mentioned the possibility of a Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia.

Since the World Wide Web was not yet available, discussion within the committee focused primarily on how to make this electronic data available at the various Mennonite historical research centers in Canada.

Finally in 1995 the MHSC authorized a committee to study the feasibility of loading the database onto the Web. In 1996, with the assistance of the University of Waterloo Library, Sam Steiner, then the librarian-archivist at Conrad Grebel College,  loaded a prototype Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia utilizing the congregational database onto an MHSC website hosted by the university library. At the end of 1996 it contained 550 brief congregational articles.

In March 1998, MHSC obtained permission from Herald Press (Scottdale, Pennsylvania) and the Institute of Mennonite Studies (Elkhart, Indiana) to digitize the print Mennonite Encyclopedia. The project also received a significant Canadian government grant that year to facilitate the work. In the initial year Sam Steiner selected Canadian-related articles from the print encyclopedia for copying and adding to the website. Because of his technical work on the website, Steiner became identified as the managing editor.

Finally, in 2004 it occurred to the encyclopedia’s editorial board (still composed of representatives from various Canadian Mennonite archives) that this could become a larger project that was worldwide in scope.

In 2005 the name changed to Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Volunteers from Mennonite archives throughout North America began to scan and proofread sections of the print Encyclopedia. They forwarded the articles to Waterloo for loading onto the site, hosted after 1998 on Conrad Grebel College’s own server. By the end of 2005 there were 2,700 articles on GAMEO. In 2008 web hosting moved from the College to Peaceworks Computer Consulting (now Peaceworks Technology Solutions), a firm that has provided software support to GAMEO from the late 1990s.

GAMEO Management Board

GAMEO Management Board, 2011. L-R: Abe Dueck, Bert Friesen, Richard Thiessen, John Thiesen, John Roth, John A. Lapp, Sam Steiner. GAMEO photo

In 2005 two partners — the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission and the Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee — joined the project. Mennonite Central Committee joined the partnership in early 2006, Mennonite World Conference joined in January 2007 and the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism (Goshen, Indiana) in October 2011.

In 2012 GAMEO shifted its financial relationship from the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada to Mennonite World Conference. A management board composed of representatives of all the partners gives oversight to GAMEO. Bert Friesen remained chair of the management board in 2015. Richard Thiessen of Abbotsford, British Columbia became managing editor in 2012. In 2015 there were over 15,900 articles in GAMEO.

GAMEO was invaluable in the research for In Search of Promised Lands. Visit GAMEO if you have not already done so.

Conrad Grebel University College

At the time of World War II, Ontario Mennonites were at somewhat different places in their approach to post-secondary education. Those who had immigrated from the Soviet Union (the Mennonite Brethren and United Mennonites) were part of larger Canadian denominational discussions that sought Canadian-based “higher Bible School[s]” that would provide university-level education. Previously, Canadian Mennonites of this background who desired post-secondary education in a denominational setting attended Mennonite colleges in Kansas—Bethel College in North Newton and Tabor College in Hillsboro. Since existing Mennonite Bible schools in Canada were taught only at the high school level, something new was required. Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) and Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC) began in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1944 and 1947, respectively. These were the first Mennonite post-secondary schools in Canada.

However, Mennonites of Pennsylvania German and Amish Mennonite background who desired post-secondary education in a Mennonite context routinely went to Mennonite colleges in the United States into the 1960s–primarily Goshen College in Indiana and Eastern Mennonite College in Virginia, or were satisfied with non-Mennonite schools like Waterloo College (later Waterloo Lutheran University) or the Ontario Agricultural College (Guelph).

Norman High

Norman High. GAMEO photo

The University of Waterloo, soon after its founding in July 1957, invited a number of Christian denominations to establish affiliated residential schools. This proposed affiliation prompted Ontario Mennonite leaders to assess whether the number of Mennonite students attending secular universities in Ontario or Mennonite colleges in the United States warranted a local Mennonite-affiliated college. The specific vision for Conrad Grebel College emerged in 1959 from conversations within the Kitchener-Waterloo Inter-Mennonite Ministers’ Fellowship. A committee composed of Harvey Taves, Henry H. Epp, and Ross Bender prepared a report on “Mennonites and Higher Education at University of Waterloo”; this report shaped the emerging vision.

That vision anticipated a residential college with a minimal teaching program except for religious knowledge courses or specific courses contracted with the university. Norman High, soon to be the first Dean of Arts of the University of Waterloo, chaired the college’s first provisional board. Members came from five denominations: Mennonite Conference of Ontario, Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference, United Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren in Christ—plus the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church. In mid-1962 the Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ withdrew from the process at the time when serious fund-raising for the project began. One concern for these groups may have been their status as the smallest denominational groups within the proposed partnership. The Mennonite Brethren withdrawal, however, was heavily influenced by Frank C. Peters, who had served as pastor of the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church from 1949–54 and was now teaching at Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg (where he was also the first academic dean). Peters negotiated an affiliation agreement between MBBC and Waterloo Lutheran University (later Wilfrid Laurier University [WLU]) in 1961. He believed this arrangement would be jeopardized by the Conrad Grebel College project, and persuaded Ontario Mennonite Brethren accordingly.

Conrad Grebel College Board, 1964

Conrad Grebel College Board of Governors, 1964. L-R: J. Winfield Fretz, Earle Snyder, David Bergey, Mahlon Leis, Arthur Harder, Jacob Fransen, Orland Gingerich, Harvey Taves, Milton R. Good, Henry H. Epp, Roy G. Snyder, Douglas Millar, John Snyder, Norman High, John Sawatsky, Ken Bender. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Conrad Grebel College received its provincial charter in 1961 and named its first board of governors. J. Winfield Fretz, a sociology professor at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, became the first president in July 1963, and the residence building for 106 students opened in fall 1964. The only other faculty member in 1964 was Walter Klaassen in religious studies; Helen Martens joined the faculty to teach music in 1965. By 1970 the faculty had expanded to six members.

This jointly owned project profoundly shaped the three conferences (and one congregation) that remained in the partnership. These partners eventually all became part of the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, the result of merging their groups.

To learn more about Conrad Grebel University College read In Search of Promised Lands.

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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.

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A New History of Mennonites in Ontario

Book jacket for the book

Book jacket for In Search of Promised Lands

It was 1935 when Lewis J. Burkholder wrote his classic A Brief History of Mennonites in Ontario. In 1974 Frank H. Epp wrote the first volume (of an eventual three volumes) of Mennonites in Canada, this one covering 1786-1920. Much of this volume was devoted to the Ontario Mennonite history.

Both books, now out of print, are valuable additions to the library of anyone interested in Ontario Mennonites. Burkholder organized by geography, congregations and major Anabaptist groups. His work was sponsored by the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, so it primarily focused on that group. His work is especially valuable for the comprehensive lists of ordained leaders among the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Old Order Mennonites until 1935.

Frank Epp brought an historian’s analytic skills to his work. In his first volume the theme was The History of a Separate People. It was a landmark survey history that has been used in classrooms to the present day.

A lot has happened in the Ontario Mennonite world since these works were published. Think of the immigration of Low German Mennonites that exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, or the continuing health and growth of the Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities in Ontario. It was time for a new survey.

I began working as the Archivist in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario at Conrad Grebel College in 1974, and continued in that position until retirement at the end of 2008. The papers and pictures of Mennonite history passed through my hands throughout those years. My colleague at the College, Arnold Snyder, strongly encouraged me to write a new history of Mennonites in Ontario based on all the information I gathered. The Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario agreed to sponsor the project, and lent significant research support, as did the College for two sabbaticals of research.

The result, In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario, will be released by Herald Press (Kitchener, ON & Harrisonburg, Va.) on March 9, 2015. It is an 877-page volume that looks at the migrations and theological diversity of Ontario Mennonites, and their extensive interaction with other Christian streams in Ontario.

In this blog I will reflect on the themes that shaped my writing, surprises I encountered along the way, and interesting actors in the Mennonite story that I met. Other subjects will surely come to mind.

In Search of Promised Lands is available at a pre-publication price from MennoMedia’s website at $62.99 U.S. Canadians can call 1-800-631-6535 and ask for the Canadian pre-publication price of $69.29.