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.


Earliest Ontario Mennonites joined their neighbors’ congregations

The small group of Pennsylvania Mennonites who settled near Thirty Mile Creek (between modern-day Grimsby and Beamsville)  did not have a spiritual leader when they arrived in 1786. It is not possible to tell from existing records if they ever sought guidance from their home communities on establishing a congregation.

Conestoga Wagon Trek historical marker

This historical marker about the Conestoga Wagon, located on the Niagara Parkway near the intersection with Netherby Road, commemorates the earliest arrival of Pennsylvania Mennonites in Ontario.

Historian Frank Epp has suggested the 1786 immigrants were “fringe” Mennonites since none of them remained Mennonite. Epp’s assumption seems to be based solely on the fact that they did not become part of the Mennonite congregation that finally organized at The Twenty (Vineland) in 1801; they had begun to fellowship with other denominations in the 15 years before a permanent Mennonite congregation was available.

Tradition has suggested that Staats and Susannah Overholt worshiped with a small so-called Baptist fellowship at Clinton by the mid-1790s, though the earliest record is their charter membership in the Beamsville Baptist congregation that formally organized in 1807, twenty years after their arrival in Upper Canada. It is also possible the Overholts were part of a Tunker (Brethren in Christ) congregation for a time, along with their Kulp neighbors, before joining the Baptists.

Staats Overholt’s family did not join the new Mennonite congregation when it formed in 1801 under the leadership of later Mennonite immigrants, but it is probable they worshiped with the Mennonites or Tunkers occasionally, especially during the years before the Baptist fellowship was functional.

Indeed, the Staats Overholt family had an uneasy relationship with the Baptist fellowship after it was formally organized. Already by early 1808 Staats, his oldest son, Isaac, and their wives declared a “disfellowship” with the Baptist church because “they could not walk with us because we bore arms.” They then returned to the Baptist fellowship for periods of time, though a Jacob Overhault is listed as “Menonist” in the 1818 Lincoln [County] Militia Return.

Overholt’s neighbors, Jacob and Tilman Kulp, might have been Tunkers before they immigrated to Canada, but it is more likely they were Mennonites influenced by the Tunker settlement at Pelham that began in the late 1780s. The only confirmation of their being Tunker is the 1818 militia return, some 30 years after their arrival in Canada.

Affiliation with the Tunkers by some of the Clinton Mennonites need not have included traveling to Pelham Township for worship services, since the Tunkers did not have meetinghouses until much later—in the 1870s. It is more likely that Tunker Bishop John Winger or Minister Christian Stickley traveled occasionally to Clinton Township to the home of the Kulps or others who wished to participate in such a worship service. This could have been as infrequently as several times a year to perhaps monthly.

Early services would likely have included lengthy sermons, singing, and testimonies. The meetings in private homes would have continued the intimate nature of worship that reflected the group’s Mennonite and Pietist roots. The early Tunkers had no hymnbooks of their own, and may have continued to use hymnbooks inherited from their Mennonite roots. Indeed, John Winger’s family records are said to have been kept in an Ausbund, the hymnbook used by Mennonites in North America until they began to create their own in 1803.

In an earlier post, I discussed whether these early Mennonite immigrants were Loyalists.

To learn more about Mennonites in Ontario, 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.

Ontario Mennonites in Canada’s Parliament

Canadian Mennonites participated in local politics long before Canada became a country in 1867. This involvement included service on the earliest school boards in Waterloo County, continued as members and reeves of township councils, and continues to the present as members of town and city councils and even as mayors of municipalities. John Erb, the founder of Preston (now part of Cambridge, Ontario), served as a justice of the peace in the early 1800s. Another early example was Jacob Y. Shantz, who served briefly as the mayor of Berlin (now Kitchener) in the 1880s at the same time his son was on the town council.

These roles were seen, at least by more assimilated Mennonites, to be compatible with the nonresistant peace position of Mennonite theology. More conservative groups would hesitate at more senior positions in municipal politics because legal action to defend town or city activity might be required. Traditionally Mennonites have tried to avoid courts of law when possible. Such political participation was impossible for groups that emphasized substantial separation from the world.

Seeking political office at even higher levels, such as provincial or national parliaments was another step again. Only the most assimilated Mennonites have pursued these positions, and only beginning in the mid-20th century, at least in Ontario. Previously, persons of Mennonite extraction who wished to pursue a political life, left the Mennonite Church before seeking office.

Isaac E. Bowman

Isaac E. Bowman. Wikimedia Commons.

Some historians point to Isaac E. Bowman, son of Mennonite parents, who served in the Legislature of Canada beginning in 1864, and served as a Liberal Member of Parliament in the  late 1860s and early 1870s, and again in the 1880s and 1890s. However his parents converted to the Evangelical Association in the 1840s, and I. E. Bowman was never himself a Mennonite.

Dilman K. Erb.

Dilman K. Erb. Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, Dilman K. Erb, a Liberal MP for Perth South from 1896-1904, although born to Mennonite parents, was identified as a Methodist in the 1891 census. He was listed as Mennonite in 1881 when he still lived at home, but became a Methodist after marriage.

Ironically, during World War I, Mennonites lost the right to vote because they were conscientious objectors. Previously they had frequently voted in provincial and national elections, and supported political parties, even though they did not themselves seek high public office. Following World War I, even though they regained the vote, Mennonites became much more hesitant to vote, much less to seek prominent political roles, based on fears for the implications for their peace position.

The coming of the Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union in the 1920s changed this hesitation. These Mennonites had not shunned political office in Russia (Mennonites had been elected to the Russian Duma), and carried much less hesitation about seeking political office in Canada. After World War II, when they were sufficiently anglicized, Mennonites from this culture began to seek positions in Canada’s Parliament.

Ontario Members of Parliament in the 1970s and 1980s who were members of Mennonite congregations were William Andres (Liberal, 1974-1979, Lincoln riding), Jake Froese (Conservative, 1979-1980, Niagara Falls riding), John Reimer (Conservative, 1979-1980, 1984-1993, Kitchener riding). Andres was United Mennonite, Froese and Reimer were Mennonite Brethren.

Frank H. Epp

Frank H. Epp. GAMEO photo

A Liberal candidate in the 1979 and 1980 elections for the Waterloo riding was Frank H. Epp, an ordained Mennonite minister and former president of Conrad Grebel College. He lost, but enjoyed strong support from the Mennonite community. He was a member of Rockway Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation.

Paul Steckle

Paul Steckle. Liberal Party of Canada

Paul Steckle, a member of the Zurich (Ontario) Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation, was a Liberal Member of Parliament for Huron-Bruce from late 1993-2008. He was known for taking positions sometimes at odds with his party, and at times it was thought he would cross the floor to the Conservative Party because of his conservative views on social issues.

There were about 14 Members of Parliament with some Mennonite or Brethren in Christ connections in the last Harper government (2011-2015). All 14 were members of the Conservative Party, and almost all were from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Seven of them attended Anabaptist congregations, most of them Mennonite Brethren. The only one from Ontario was Harold Albrecht. He is a former Brethren in Christ pastor who resigned from his pastorate to run for political office. He was first elected in 2006 in the Kitchener-Conestoga riding, and in 2015 successfully won re-election.

Jane Philpott

Dr. Jane Philpott. Wikimedia Commons.

A newly-elected Mennonite Member of Parliament from Ontario in 2015 is Jane Philpott, a Liberal in the Markham-Stouffville riding. She is a physician and a member of Community Mennonite Church in Stouffville, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation.

Over the recent history of Canada’s Parliament, Mennonites are grossly over-represented as a percentage of the House of Commons, since Mennonites in Canada are much less than one percent of the population. Does this over-representation speak to the high, and positive, profile of Mennonites in their communities? Probably not, since denominational backgrounds are not much discussed in Canadian elections.

It does speak to the comfort of assimilated Mennonite MPs in speaking to issues in harmony with their party’s position on matters like Canada’s military activity, or social conscience matters like abortion, legalization of marijuana, or assisted suicide. In some cases their views may be at variance with significant portions of the Mennonite community.

Maybe it simply confirms that assimilated Mennonites have “made it” in larger Canadian society.

I am indebted to J. Winfield Fretz’s Waterloo Mennonites for some of my information.

To learn more of the history of Ontario Mennonites and politics, read In Search of Promised Lands.

The Theme of Promised Lands

When I began researching and writing early chapters of this history, it did not take long for the metaphor of “promised lands” to feel “right” for my major theme.

Mennonites have moved from place to place to find a better life–for safety, religious liberty or economic opportunity–throughout the almost 500 years of their history. Whether it was receding into the Swiss mountains in the 16th century, migrating to Pennsylvania in the late 17th/early 18th century, moving to Russia and Canada in the late 18th/early 19th century, or to North America and Latin America in the 20th century, Mennonites have sought more promising lands for centuries. The promised lands theme has been even more underscored in recent decades by the new language and cultural groups that have joined the Mennonite community in Ontario, coming as refugees from wars and civil conflict in many parts of the world.

Martin Boehm

Martin Boehm, an 18th century Pennsylvania Mennonite bishop whose search for assurance of salvation led him to leave the Mennonites and help found the United Brethren in Christ.

Mennonites have also engaged in theological migrations, in search of greater fulfillment through new or different spiritual experiences, often to attain an “assurance of salvation,” to know that they were saved from sin and would go to heaven when they die. The pursuit of this assurance, and the means to achieve it, have divided Mennonite families, congregations, and conferences, and led many Mennonites to seek this assurance outside the Mennonite community.

This theological search brought Mennonites into contact with non-Mennonite cultures and religious perspectives. This engagement, which began in Europe, and continued steadily in North America, speaks against the common description by many authors of Mennonites as “a separate people” who resisted participation in the larger society. Indeed “the history of a separate people” was the subtitle of Frank H. Epp’s Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920. I came to see this as an over-simplified image.

A minority of Mennonites critically assessed the surrounding cultural practices and unfamiliar religious perspectives and determined the health of the Mennonite community was better preserved by maintaining boundaries that separated Mennonites from the larger culture. These boundaries were maintained through retention of a minority language (German, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries), strict enforcement of discipline for deviations in religious and social practice, and use of visible symbols like special dress standards. The most visible of these groups are the Old Order Mennonites and the Old Order Amish.

A larger number of Mennonites tried to integrate into their Mennonite understandings some positive features that they observed in the new culture or religious worldviews they encountered. These groups came to see boundaries of separation as hindrances to Christian faithfulness; they began to assimilate into the surrounding culture, often incorporating theological understandings from neighboring renewal movements into their own expressions of faith. While retaining their Mennonite self-understanding, these Mennonites would over time become almost fully assimilated into Canadian society—no longer maintaining boundaries of language, educational pursuits, and vocational choices, retaining no visible symbols of separation in dress or the use of technology.

Some members of this majority felt the pace of assimilation was too great. Though they accepted the promised land of evangelical, or even fundamentalist, theology, they tried to retain some symbols of separation, especially in dress and the forms of media technology accepted. This became the “conservative Mennonite” movement in the mid-20th century.

Still others of the more assimilated Mennonites found their religious identification was closer to the larger evangelical Protestant world, and that distinctive Mennonite beliefs like non-participation in war were not essential to achieving the promised land of assured salvation. They left the “Mennonite” behind.

In Search of Promised Lands tries to fairly describe these many and varied searches of Ontario Mennonites, from the first immigrants who crossed the Niagara River to those congregations formed by refugees from war in the late 20th century.

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.