Moses H. Roth–Mild-mannered Dissenter

Moses H. Roth was one of the founders of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario. This group resulted from a division in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1959 when a small group of ordained leaders believed the conference had become too lax in enforcing visible symbols of separation from the world. This included “innovations” like church weddings with flowers and veils, the wearing of wedding rings, women cutting their hair, and the wearing of less modest clothing.

Moses Roth was a more outgoing personality than his friend, Curtis Cressman, and had a more pastoral approach in personal relationships. He was founder of the congregation that became one of the largest conservative Mennonite congregations in Ontario–Countryside Mennonite Fellowship.

An interesting fact from the article reproduced below is that Moses Roth witnessed the last hanging in Stratford in 1954.

This article in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online by Howard Bean was written in 2013, and can be seen there complete with bibliography.


Barbara & Moses Roth, early 1960s. Family photo

Moses H. Roth: bishop and farmer; born 1 February 1898 in Oxford County, Ontario, Canada to Rudolph “Rudy” Roth (10 December 1868-1 March 1943) and Lavina (Hostetler) Roth (7 August 1873-24 April 1927). He was the fourth child in a family of four boys and two girls. On 7 February 1923 he married Barbara Martin (3 April 1901-1 May 1991). They had one daughter, Gladys. Moses died on 24 December 1978, in New Hamburg, Ontario.

Moses farmed near New Hamburg, and was reasonably prosperous. It is said that Milo Shantz, prominent Waterloo County entrepreneur, got his first loan from his uncle, Moses.

Prior to his ordination, Moses Roth served regularly as Sunday school superintendent at Biehn Mennonite Church (now Nith Valley) near New Hamburg. In 1931 he was ordained minister to assist Ozias Cressman, at Geiger Mennonite Church (now Wilmot Mennonite Church). He was ordained bishop in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1937 serving primarily at Geiger Mennonite Church but also in such places as Poole, Ontario (1949-1959) and Clarence Center, New York.

Moses believed strongly in missions. He planted the seed for the beginning of the London Rescue Mission and Nairn Mennonite Church through his teaching at a winter Bible school in Wellesley, Ontario. He was a long-time summer Bible school superintendent at the Baden mission. He gave supervision to such mission outposts as Markstay and Minden.

In the mid to late 1950s Moses became increasingly alarmed by what he saw as apostasy in the Ontario conference with the acceptance of the wedding ring, sisters in the church cutting their hair, and a weakening of dress restrictions. In 1959, Moses, along with Curtis Cressman (bishop), preachers Elmer Grove and Moses Baer, and deacons Andrew Axt and Clarence Huber withdrew from Ontario Conference and organized the New Hamburg Conservative Mennonite Church. This was the beginning of what became the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario and Midwest Mennonite Fellowship, together having approximately 2000 members (2013).

By the end of 1960, Moses began a second congregation in Heidelburg, the location of which changed in 1983 to Hawkesville and was renamed Countryside Mennonite Fellowship. Moses served as bishop at Heidelburg until 1968 when he withdrew his oversight due to difficulties in the congregation. Prior to his death in 1978, he made peace with the congregation and preached for them again at least once. From 1968 to 1978, Moses pastored a small independent Mennonite congregation at Crosshill for a year or so, and then a second congregation at Ethel.

In his ministry, Moses Roth earned a reputation for having the gift of healing as he prayed for the sick and anointed them with oil.

Moses was present on 16 February 1954 at the last hanging at the Stratford jail. Moses visited Reuben Norman, who was convicted of murder, in prison and led him to repentance.

Origins of the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship in Ontario

Two weeks ago this blog discussed the origins of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario (CMCO). This week we’ll examine a division from that group in the 1970s that became part of the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship.

The Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario was initially formed by ordained leaders from partially assimilated Mennonite groups like the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. These leaders wanted to maintain symbols of separation like plain clothing and the prayer veil for women, but they had accepted the use of the radio in the home (and had participated in church-sponsored radio programs) and allowed the use of musical instruments and record players in the home.

However, other early CMCO members came from the more separatist Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference or Beachy Amish congregations. These incoming members welcomed explicit teaching on personal salvation, aggressive mission outreach, and Sunday schools for their children, which had not been available in their previous church affiliations. But they had not owned musical instruments, record players, or radios, and were inclined to believe these devices reflected too much accommodation to society.

In the mid-1970s this internal tension within CMCO increased through pressure from similar conservative churches in Pennsylvania. Those congregations were accustomed to a high degree of visible separation from the world. They wanted CMCO to enforce uniformity in lifestyle by banning radios and insisting on cape dresses for women and plain coats for men (which had been encouraged, but not demanded, by some CMCO leaders).

Since issues like musical instruments and radios had not been part of the division in 1960 within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, some Ontario CMCO ministers resisted. They saw the pressure from the Pennsylvania congregations as a return to the hierarchical leadership style they believed had forced them out of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. These leaders preferred regulations for clothing and daily life symbols of separation to be determined within the local congregation.

Leighton and Florence Martin, 1992

Leighton and Florence Martin, 1992. Courtesy of Steve Martin.

Three of these more congregationally-minded ordained leaders withdrew from CMCO in 1976: Moses Baer, who had been one of its founders, Earl Koch, and Leighton Martin. Koch, a public high school math teacher, had been ordained in the New Hamburg Conservative Mennonite Church in 1968. Martin, an apple farmer, had grown up in the Markham-Waterloo conference and been ordained in the Heidelberg CMCO congregation in 1968.

Congregational votes in the Heidelberg and Zion (Brussels) congregations, where Baer and Martin provided leadership, overwhelmingly supported their pastoral leaders and endorsed withdrawal from CMCO. The New Hamburg congregation divided, and in fall 1976 Koch began Grace Mennonite Fellowship in a former United Church between New Hamburg and Tavistock.

Heidelberg Conservative Mennonite Church

Former Heidelberg Conservative Mennonite Church. Later the congregation built the Countryside Mennonite Fellowship near Hawkesville Sam Steiner photo.

These three congregations that left CMCO in 1976 remained independent only briefly. They had deliberately used “fellowship” language to indicate an emphasis on congregational autonomy, but they still desired a linkage to a wider body of Mennonite congregations.

Leaders from these congregations, as well as the Bethel Conservative Mennonite Church in Millbank, met with some other conservative North American Mennonite leaders at Fairview, Michigan, in October 1976. As relationships developed, conversation turned to creation of a new winter Bible school.

Grace Mennonite Church

Grace Mennonite Church near New Hamburg. GAMEO photo.

The new Bible school, known as Maranatha Bible School, began in Lansing, Minnesota, in 1977, and became the institution around which a new conference could coalesce. Leighton Martin served as board chair of the new school for a number of years. The Heidelberg and Grace congregations became charter members of the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship when it formed in September 1977.

The Heidelberg congregation began its own parochial school in 1977, initially renting the former Hawkesville Public School. Later the Countryside Fellowship (as it was called when a new building was erected near Hawkesville)  launched a school in conjunction with its church. By 1982 the school had over one hundred students, with classes through grade ten. In 2007 the school expanded to twelve grades.

Barb Draper, a keen observer of Mennonite groups in Waterloo Region, describes the difference between the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario and the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship as one of degree, not substance. The Midwest Fellowship is slightly less strict in dress codes and practices of daily life, and it allows more input from lay members in decision making. Members of the Midwest Fellowship may have radios, but not televisions. They may have computers, but the dangers of Internet abuse have been strongly underscored. The cape dress has not been as strictly enforced, and some baptized women have worn a black veiling instead of a white one. It has also allowed, even encouraged, more youth activities.

For persons wanting to explore the nuances between the various conservative groups, I commend Barb Draper’s book, The Mennonites of St. Jacobs and Elmira: Understanding the Variety, published in 2010 by Pandora Press (Kitchener). 

To learn more about the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Dissension and the origins of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario

In an earlier post I discussed the theological diversity that Mennonite Church Eastern Canada has been able to embrace in its 25 plus year history. This story does not yet, of course, have a final outcome. And there has been enough dissent and division in it predecessor conferences to fill (part) of a book.

Today I reflect on the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and a division in 1960 that resulted in the formation of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario. Today that body consists of 14 congregations with a membership of 846. One of these congregations is located in India, and another in Manitoba.

In each era of their history, Mennonite groups have struggled with what nonconformity to the world means and which social trends and technological innovations in the surrounding culture Mennonites should accept. In the nineteenth century this included questions about participation in temperance and agricultural improvement societies.

By the early 20th century more assimilated Mennonites wondered about the purchase of life insurance or whether one should participate in the political process by voting. The 1940s to 1960s introduced more nonconformity issues as governments began to regulate business activities and to introduce new universal social programs, including family allowances, universal health care programs and the Canadian Pension Plan. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario accepted these, after some initial hesitation about the family allowance program.

Other social changes in Canadian society also influenced assimilated Mennonites. Issues of divorce and remarriage, especially in urban mission congregations, began to cause tension as divorced persons expressed interest in joining the Mennonites. Another issue was birth control, which became more readily available prior to World War II. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario took a stand against birth control, but its teaching against this faded as more and more Mennonite families engaged in family planning despite the teaching.

Finally, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario had passed through a half-century of a particular emphasis on separation from the world, especially as symbolized by dress. After World War II there was increasing pressure, especially among more urban Mennonites, to reduce the amount of visible nonconformity in clothing and hair styles.

Biehn Summer Bible School teachers, 1947

Dress codes reflected in this 1947 photo of the Biehn Mennonite Church Summer Bible School teachers and pastors. Moses Baer (left) and Curtis Cressman (right) wear the plain coat, with women in cape dresses. In Search of Promised Lands photo.

Most symbols of this nonconformity fell to the women. More than in earlier generations, uniform dress codes had become increasingly uncomfortable for them as they pursued higher levels of education in business schools, nursing programs, and colleges, and as they worked in non-Mennonite businesses and industries prior to marriage.

John and Lois Snyder, 1951

John Snyder and Lois Buckwalter wedding, 1951. In Search of Promised Lands collection.

Some of the focus was on hair styles for women, especially those who cut their hair. Jewelry and  changing wedding practices became larger issues. As more weddings were held in churches rather than in homes, the ceremonies included greater pageantry. Changes included long white wedding gowns, flowers carried by the bride, special music, and wedding rings. Wedding rings were especially troublesome since they involved jewelry that would be worn continuously after the wedding.

The desire to wear wedding rings increased during World War II as more young wives were left at home alone or followed their husbands to alternative service work camps and found a ring to be a useful symbol of marital status. As Mennonite women began to have hospital births, some got wedding rings after being embarrassed by nurses who thought they were unwed mothers.

Many older leaders in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario had accepted the Mennonite fundamentalist teaching articulated in the early part of the twentieth century by Daniel Kauffman and John Horsch. They felt compelled to reinforce both correct doctrine and visible nonconformity. But in the 1950s younger pastors  in the conference had begun to attend Mennonite seminaries. Especially those pastors who studied at Goshen Biblical Seminary in Indiana shifted the theological path they wished to follow, and visible nonconformity was no longer a priority.

Already in 1948, Moses Baer, a minister at the Blenheim Mennonite Church, resigned from the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. He detailed his concerns in a handwritten seven-page letter to the conference’s executive committee and called for more uniform practice and discipline on a number of nonconformity issues. His concerns included mutual aid organizations that functioned like insurance companies, intermarriage with persons of other denominations, being “unequally yoked” with others in secular organizations like farm co-ops and the Holstein-Friesian Association, acceptance of family allowances from the government, emergence of summer camps, immodest dress, vocational education for women, and floral displays at weddings.

Barbara and Moses Roth

Barbara and Moses Roth. In Search of Promised Lands collection

Despite the concerns of Moses Baer, and conservative bishops Moses Roth and Curtis Cressman, change accelerated in the 1950s. Cape dresses disappeared, cut hair appeared more frequently, and very few laymen wore the plain coat. Membership in farm associations became more common, and televisions began to supplement the radios already present in most homes. The younger seminary-educated ministers saw the Mennonite distinctives in dress as a cultural lag rather than a sign of faithfulness.

By the mid-1950s it was clear that the Mennonite Conference of Ontario’s Constitution and Discipline no longer reflected the view of a majority of conference leaders. The conference established a committee to revise the document. The new Faith and Practice, approved in June 1957, discussed “principles” of nonconformity rather than listing specific requirements. Curtis Cressman, a member of the revision committee, issued a minority report that called for explicit language against divorce and remarriage, and for specific dress regulations that would “assist the membership in determining right standards.” He wanted clear references to uncut hair, wedding rings, and life insurance, but the conference delegates did not agree.

In August 1959 six ordained leaders wrote a lengthy letter to the Mennonite Conference of Ontario executive committee outlining their concerns, which included being “unequally yoked” with the world in business and societies, members holding local political office, immodest attire and use of jewelry, cutting the hair of women, baptism of persons who did not demonstrate the new birth, open communion that accepted persons not members of the church, optional feetwashing, replacement of the prayer veil by a hat at some church meetings, rare use of the holy kiss, and lack of teaching on anointing with oil. The letter closed by saying, “We, the undersigned, can no longer continue with the conference and be true to our baptismal and ordination vows and until conference has retraced its steps we request our conference letters. We would be glad to meet with the Conference Executive very soon to arrange the termination of our present responsibility under conference to our various congregations.”

After several meetings the six leaders signed a second letter stating they wished “to terminate our responsibility to the Conference and request the Conference at its annual meeting to give consideration to granting us our Conference letters.” Five days later the executive committee informed the dissenting pastors that  committees were being formed to look after ministry in their congregations.

The Mennonite Conference of Ontario announced a formal division at its annual meeting in June 1960. Those that left searched for like-minded churches with which to fellowship. They considered a variety of options, including the Virginia Conference of the Mennonite Church  and the Conservative Mennonite Conference (both located in the U.S.). Finally in September 1960 they formed the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, loosely affiliated with the Fellowship movement in the United States (later known as Nationwide Fellowship Churches), which was composed of independent congregations that had withdrawn from various district conferences of the binational Mennonite Church.

Heidelberg Conservative Mennonite Church

Former Heidelberg Conservative Mennonite Church. Sam Steiner photo.

The new group purchased its first building in June 1960 in Heidelberg—taking over an old Evangelical church building that was being used for storage by the neighboring garage. This location preceded the dedication of a new building in New Hamburg by half a year.

Moses Roth assumed leadership of the Heidelberg group; Curtis Cressman led the New Hamburg congregation.  The Conservative Mennonite Church movement continued to spread through divisions in other Mennonite Conference of Ontario congregations.

Growth also came through persons from the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite conference (a division from the Old Order Mennonites in the 1930s) who wanted Sunday school for their children, mission programs, and a more evangelically expressed theology.

The Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario suffered its own divisions in the 1970s, but it has continued as a voice echoing the faith and theology of an earlier era in the Mennonite Church.

To learn more about the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands.