The Diversity of Mennonites in Ontario

In my presentations on May 5 and 8 to the “Annual Networking Conference for Service Providers to Low German Speaking Families” in Leamington and Aylmer, Ontario. I talked about the diversity of Mennonites in Ontario. I said there were over 30 different Mennonite groups in Ontario, and tried to explain it in 25 minutes.

David Martin Mennonites working the fields

David Martin Mennonites working the fields. Photo by Mark Burr

Since the audience was half or more non-Mennonite, I first gave a little historical background, and talked about four Mennonite characteristics upon which almost all Mennonites in Ontario agree: 1) Adult baptism; 2) Rejection of participating in war; 3) Refusing to swear oaths; and 4) A call to live a Christian life consistent with the teachings of Jesus that sometimes means a simpler lifestyle. The last characteristic has led some groups to embrace visible symbols of separation from the world in dress, technology, education and vocation.

I then said that most Ontario Mennonites descend from one of six migrations to Canada, though there have been new voices added to the Mennonite mix over the years, from intermarriage,  from conversion, and most recently from incorporation of refugee groups into the Mennonite community. These migrations explained some of the Mennonite diversity; division on theological issues within the individual migrations has also contributed to the diversity.

The six migrations I reviewed were:

  1. Pennsylvania Mennonites from 1786 to the 1830s, primarily in search of cheaper land, and encompassing some 2,000 people over the years.
  2. Amish Mennonites from Europe (with a few from Pennsylvania) beginning in the 1820s, in order to escape the economic problems of post-Napoleonic Europe and to find cheaper land. These folks numbered less than 1,000.
  3. Mennonites from Russia in the 1870s who feared the loss of their privileges of self-government, freedom from military service, and control of the education of their youth. Seven thousand of these Mennonites came to Manitoba, with the assistance of the Ontario Mennonites, who provided loans, guaranteed a government loan, and housed over winter those who arrived in the fall. Some of these Mennonites left for Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s when the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments tried to force acculturation through the public school system. Some of these folks returned as part of migration 6 below.
  4. Twenty thousand Mennonites from the Soviet Union came to Canada in the 1920s in
    Refugees walking up Erb Street.

    Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union approaching Erb Street Mennonite Church, July, 1924. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

    the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the beginning of communist domination. Fifteen percent of these folks settled in Ontario, and brought different customs, different foods, different names, and a very different history to the Ontario Mennonite world. They had little to do with the descendants of migrations 1 & 2 until World War II.

  5. The fifth immigration included Mennonites from the Soviet Union who had been displaced by the World War II, and had retreated with the German army when it left the Soviet Union.  There were only 12,000 out of 100,000 Mennonites remaining in the Soviet Union who were able to leave for Canada or to South America. About 1300 of these people came to Ontario between 1947 and 1952.
  6. The sixth migration was that of Low German Mennonites from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, beginning in the 1950s. The largest group among them were the Old Colony Mennonites. These \were the descendants of the Mennonites who moved from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s. This was the largest Mennonite migration to Ontario that has ever occurred. Canada became an attractive alternative to economic difficulties in Latin America, because many Low German Mennonites still had Canadian citizenship, or were able to reclaim citizenship because their parents or grandparents were Canadian citizens.By the mid-1990s the Low German Mennonite population in Ontario was between 25,000 and 30,000. By 2011, Mennonite Central Committee Ontario was using a number of “over 40,000.”  There has been no Mennonite immigration to Ontario quite like it. In 2012 Low German Mennonites made up at least 25 percent of the Mennonite population in Ontario.

I then talked about the theological variants among the Mennonites that I used in my book, In Search of Promised Lands: 1) Assimilated; 2) Separatist Conservatives; 3) Evangelical Conservatives; and 4) Old Order Amish and Mennonites. That’s a complex discussion I’m not sure worked very well in the presentation, or would work in a short blog.

If I do this kind of presentation again, I would likely add a seventh migration: the non-English economic and refugee migrant groups that have joined the assimilated Mennonite world since the late 1970s. Probably 15-20 languages are used in assimilated Ontario Mennonite churches on Sunday mornings.

To learn more, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) and Diversity

Last week I spoke at the Mennonite Historical Society annual dinner in Elkhart, Indiana. I was asked to make observations for Mennonite Church USA from Ontario Mennonite history.

Confession of Faith

Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective — 1995

Mennonite Church USA has been going through difficult times in recent years, as a number of congregations have withdrawn from the denomination and/or area conferences because they believe MC USA has not properly enforced the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective approved in 1995, especially the article on marriage that says “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”

Vernon Leis

Vernon Leis, MCEC Moderator, speaking at the first annual meeting in 1988
Sam Steiner photo

In my presentation to the historical society I noted that Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC), since it was formed in 1988, has had no congregation withdraw. I suggested  three  reasons for why MCEC has had a different experience from MC USA.  I characterized them as first, historical diversity; second, unified leadership; and thirdly—resulting from the first two—a greater openness to theological diversity.

The historical diversity comes from the three Mennonite historical streams that shaped Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. The first stream included the Mennonites who came from Pennsylvania in the late 18th and early 19th century. In the 20th century this group became very fundamentalist in theology, and developed a top-down conference structure that gave great authority to male ordained leaders, especially long-serving bishops. This changed in the 1950s and 1960s when younger, seminary-trained leaders emerged who rejected fundamentalism and embraced biblical criticism and the contributions that social sciences make to human understanding.

The second stream was the Amish who immigrated to Canada from Europe in the 1820s and following decades. They remained more rural, and retained decision-making authority within the congregation to a much greater extent. It was not until the 1920s that the Amish organized the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference, and even then they established minimal programming like Sunday school conferences and winter Bible school. By the 1950s some young leaders began to pursue higher education in theology, especially at Eastern Mennonite College.  It was only in 1959 that the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference formally joined the Mennonite Church denominational structures.

The third stream included the 1920s Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union who first arrived in Ontario in mid-1924. In Ontario they called themselves United Mennonites, and soon affiliated with the General Conference Mennonite Church. Initially they had one bishop for the entire Ontario United Mennonite “congregation” that had meeting places in Waterloo, Vineland, Leamington and Northern Ontario, but gradually they divided into geographically based congregations that became very large and very congregational in their polity. This congregationally centric polity meant an Ontario United Mennonite Conference was not formed until 1944. As with the Ontario Amish Mennonites, there was limited conference programming for many years.

Conrad Grebel College building site

Site of the future Conrad Grebel College, 1963
Mennonite Archives of Ontario

These conferences began to cooperate on projects in the 1960s, including formation of Conrad Grebel College, urban mission projects, and inter-Mennonite student chaplaincy at universities. After one false start in 1981, these conferences merged in 1988 to form the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, now known as Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

Despite the historical diversity, there was convergence of approach in the three conferences considering merger because leaders were unified on key theological issues. This was evident when understandings changed in the 1970’s and early 1980’s on accepting persons who had been divorced and remarried, including ordained leaders. It was evident in allowing women to accept pastoral leadership positions in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Four years after MCEC was formed, the conference hired a female executive secretary, Mary Burkholder.

The matter of homosexuality has been a tougher issue, but it has been handled similarly. MCEC leadership has remained unified, though individual leaders have held varying personal positions. Although a few congregations have taken public stances as welcoming to LGBTQ members, and many more have been informally welcoming, MCEC leadership has consistently refused to discipline any congregation for variance on this issue, preferring an approach of continuing dialogue.  MCEC hosted a “Season of Discernment” process from 2001-2004 that resulted in a document entitled “Pointing a Direction on Homosexuality” that was approved by the delegate body. The document said that congregations would not be excluded for being at variance with the confession of faith on the matter of sexuality. It did uphold a guideline that stated pastors credentialed by MCEC would not perform same-sex marriages or bless same-sex unions. In the early 2000s MCEC refused to credential a homosexual man for ministry as a chaplain, and a bit later declined to ordain the associate pastor of the Toronto United Mennonite Church who came out as a lesbian in a dating relationship. MCEC has not said what the consequences would be if a pastor did perform a same-sex marriage. At least one congregation—my own—has a policy that explicitly endorses same sex marriage, though none has yet taken place. It is my understanding that same-sex marriage services and blessings have been performed by a few MCEC pastors, though not in an MCEC congregational setting.

This leads to my final brief point on MCEC’s greater openness to theological diversity than in parts of MC USA.  I believe this comes back to the greater congregational authority MCEC embraced in its development and maturation. There are MCEC congregations that do not welcome LGBTQ persons. There are MCEC congregations that will not accept a woman in pastoral leadership. There are MCEC congregations with a strong Pentecostal flavor that would be rejected by most other MCEC congregations. There are “seeker” churches led by evangelically-minded pastors, and there are “peace and justice” churches. One congregation offers a liturgically-focused style of worship, while others give full voice to worship bands, and still others use only denominational hymnbooks.

I make no claims that MCEC has solved the issue of managing diversity. In 1999 MCEC’s membership was 13,500. In 2015 MCEC’s membership is 13,350. MCEC is facing all the issues common to mainline Protestant denominations in North America.  Many churches are starving for children and young adults. A large bequest has allowed MCEC to test a variety of ways to help traditional Mennonite congregations re-learn how to interface with their communities, as well as testing new forms of church in our post-modern world.  MCEC has worked hard to provide some Mennonite theological training for pastors who have embraced Anabaptism from other theological streams. MCEC also offers basic Anabaptist teaching to immigrant pastors in non-English congregations, but without a heavy hand. MCEC congregations worship in 13 languages, which in itself produces a certain measure of diversity.

To learn more about Mennonite Church Eastern Canada read In Search of Promised Lands.

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