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.
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.
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.
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.