A Brief History of the “David Martin Mennonites”

The historical path of the “David Martin Mennonites,” now legally known as the Independent Old Order Mennonites, contains numerous twists and turns. Today they are a separatist Old Order group that does not associate with any other Mennonite group, and one that still declines some technology accepted by other Old Order groups, while accepting some technologies declined by other Old Order groups.

Some David Martin Mennonite roots stem from personality clashes in the early 20th century, but others emerged from disagreement over the nature of the discipline to be used against members who transgress the church’s rules or “Ordnung.”

A controversy arose within the Old Order community in the St. Jacobs area during the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908 some Mennonite farmers  in Waterloo County petitioned Woolwich Township authorities for a three-mile drainage ditch to help with water runoff. Sixty-five farmers were assessed for the cost of building the ditch. Many of them had no drainage problems on their own property and resented the assessment.

Although this was not  a church matter, hard feelings arose within the Old Order Mennonite community and with some non-Mennonites in the area. This damaged the spiritual unity of the Old Order community and spread to other parts of the Waterloo Old Order community as people took sides in the dispute. The incident generated so much internal conflict that the Conestoga Old Order Mennonite congregation was unable to hold communion, a symbol of church unity, for seven years.

In 1909 the ditch dispute extended to the Peel Township congregation west of Wallenstein, when conservative minister David B. Martin canceled a deacon ordination because of the disunity within the congregation. David B. Martin’s son, David W. Martin, was finally ordained as deacon for the congregation in 1913. David W. was a strict disciplinarian, unlike the more flexible Old Order  bishop, Ezra L. Martin.

David W. Martin did not favor allowing members to use the bicycle, though bishop Ezra Martin was inclined to allow carpenters to use them to travel to work. These differing views on discipline or church rules created too much stress for the community. In May 1917 the two David Martins withdrew from the Old Order Mennonites since they believed bicycle users should be banned. They began to worship separately. Initially, they used the Old Order Mennonites’ Peel meetinghouse until they were denied access, and then they met in homes.

David Martin Meetinghouse

David Martin Mennonite meetinghouse near Wallenstein, 2015. This is not the original building Photo by Sam Steiner

Meantime longtime Old Order minister Daniel M. Brubacher was put under the ban in 1909 because he had defended his son, who was charged with inappropriate behavior with a hired domestic girl. They were both involved in a legal battle that emerged from that case. Brubacher began to independently hold services in his own home for his family and a few others. He became part of the new David Martin Mennonites in 1917 and was ordained their bishop in 1918, and held their first communion service, thus formally organizing them as a separate group. The David Martin Mennonites built their first meetinghouse in 1919 near Wallenstein.

For many years they remained a very small group, and suffered their own divisions. Daniel Brubacher left the group in 1920, and the subsequent bishop was also silenced before 1925. David W. Martin was then ordained bishop and served in that role until 1959, when the group still had no more than 100 members.

They excommunicated a number of leaders in the 1950s because of differences over use of church discipline and their interpretation of Matthew 18. There were also differences in leadership style and emphases on separation from the culture. The ongoing controversies led bishop David W. Martin in December 1956 to instruct his congregation to no longer discuss religious matters with people outside their church community. The David Martin Mennonites have since that time remained aloof from all other Mennonite groups and participate in no cooperative Mennonite activities.

The David Martin Mennonites went through dramatic changes in the last decades of the twentieth century. They had begun as a group that was stricter in rejecting innovations and shunning or excommunicating those who strayed. The community’s boundaries remained sharply defined with a consistent discipline.

Even to the present, they will not listen to a non-David Martin minister preach, and do not attend weddings or funerals outside the David Martin community, even for a close relative. Unlike other Old Order groups they willingly participated in the Ontario provincial health system and accepted family allowance and Old Age Security payments. They also attended public schools, but would leave school immediately after the fourteenth birthday. They retained use of tobacco and alcohol to a greater extent than the main body of Old Order Mennonites.

By 2000 the David Martin Mennonites still resisted member-owned tractors, but they permitted various sizes of skid-loaders with rubber tires, making for an odd sight along some country roads with a high David Martin population, as one would see what looked like oversize lawn tractors being used for transportation between farms.

David Martin Mennonites working the fields

David Martin Mennonites working the fields. Photo by Mark Burr.

Horses still worked in the fields, and buggies did not have rubber on their wheels. But by the end of the twentieth century, members often hired neighbors to do some of the field work, such as baling hay, though they still used horses to harvest corn silage.

More strikingly, the David Martin Mennonites accepted certain forms of technology that coincided with their increased entrepreneurial activity in small industry. By 1979 the David Martins accepted the telephone, years before the main body of Old Orders, and eventually they would also embrace cell phones.

Most bewildering to outsiders, however, is their refusal to connect to the provincially owned hydroelectric grid, while making full use of large diesel-powered electrical generators on the home property for business and farm purposes. Along with this generated electrical power came fax machines and computers for sophisticated electronically controlled manufacturing enterprises located on the farms. Computers were not used in the family home, but the manufacturing businesses used the Internet to manage supply purchasing and might even boast a website created by an outside Web designer.

After 2010 the David Martin Mennonites undertook steps to legally establish their name as Independent Old Order Mennonites, though the term “David Martin Mennonites” is still extensively used by outsiders. By this time the groups had over 1000 members.

To learn more about Ontario’s Old Order Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

William G. Davis helps the Old Order Mennonites and Amish to prosper

The 1960s brought dramatic changes to public elementary education in Ontario. In February 1964 Minister of Education William G. Davis (later Premier), in the words of one historian, “turned to the century-old problem of the rural elementary schools.” Although a lot of amalgamation had already taken place to unite the old one- or two-room schools into larger centralized schools, 1500 rural school boards still operated in 1964. These included areas with large populations of Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish. These groups were comfortable with the traditional one-room school and willingly sat on the local boards that ran these schools. They could maintain a level of control that ensured that the school’s culture remained largely in harmony with the church’s teachings. However, the government thought the education in these schools did not compare to that available in larger schools because of inadequate buildings and limited teaching tools. Some teachers also felt limited in their personal freedom by being under the microscope of the local community. Thus the  legislation made geographic townships the basis for the school areas and mandated centralized schools.

The Old Order Mennonites were quick to raise questions about the legislation. Already in April 1964 Old Order minister Ervin Shantz wrote to Minister Davis, asking if the small schools could remain open and whether fourteen-year-old children were required by law to stay in school until age sixteen and thus have to attend high school. In June Davis replied saying the small schools could remain open if the new township school board agreed. He also confirmed that “a child will still be excused from attendance at school if he has attained the age of fourteen years and his parent or guardian requires his services on the farm operated by the parent or guardian.”

Old Order Mennonite school, 1968

Students approaching an Old Order Mennonite school in 1968. Courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

By September 1966 nine parochial schools in Waterloo and Wellington Counties were serving Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites (including the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference), Orthodox Mennonites, and Beachy Amish. The David Martin Mennonites did not participate in these schools. By 2001–02 there were 61 such schools in Waterloo, Wellington and Perth counties.

The provincial rules changed in 1968 by requiring students to attend school until age sixteen. The Old Orders continued to leave school at age fourteen with the Ministry of Education’s permission. For ages fourteen and fifteen the children were regarded as apprentices on their home or neighboring farm. They could not earn wages during this period, but that requirement was not a hardship in the Old Order culture.

The creation of these private elementary schools, with teachers from within the Old Order communities, have increased the retention rates of the young people in Old Order communities. This only makes sense since children were more completely nurtured within the Old Order culture with fewer distractions than they would have encountered in the public system.

So it can genuinely be said that Bill Davis and the Ontario Ministry of Education played a vital role in the ongoing health and growth of the Old Order Mennonite and Old Order Amish communities in Ontario.

To learn more about Ontario’s Old Order Mennonites and education read In Search of Promised Lands.

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