Lewis J. Burkholder–Mennonite historian

Today I am reproducing a reflection on the life of Lewis Josephus Burkholder, a Mennonite minister in Markham, Ontario, who wrote A Brief History of the Mennonites in Ontario in 1935. It was a remarkable work, containing biographical snippets about every Mennonite minister he could identify in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, the Old Order Mennonites, Reformed Mennonites and Amish Mennonites, as well as historical sketches of each congregation and each settlement. It revealed remarkable and deep original research, and remains a valuable resource today.

The reflection was written by Oscar Burkholder in 1950, shortly after Burkholder’s death in 1949. Burkholder was a prominent minister in Breslau, Ontario. The article was published in Mennonite Yearbook and Directory 41 (1950): 25-26.


L. J. Burkholder. GAMEO photo


L. J. Burkholder, as he was best known to his brethren in the Ontario Mennonite Con­ference, was born June 15, 1875, about two miles east of the village of Markham, in the County of York, some twenty miles northeast of the city of Toronto. He was born on the farm where he spent his entire life. He was the eldest son of his father’s second marriage. His father, Abraham G., was married the second time to Elizabeth Reesor thus bringing together two of the pioneer families of the district. There were eleven children in the two families. The first family was composed of six children as follows : Elizabeth, Mrs. David Steckley ; Elsie, Mrs. Enos Nighswander; Adeline, Mrs. Isaac Boadway; Maria, Mrs. David Brownsberger ; Barbara, Mrs. Ozias Snyder ; and Aaron. The second family, of which Lewis was the oldest, was as follows: Phares ; Ada, Mrs. Noah Weber ; Amos ; and Norman.


On May 11, 1904, he was married to Lucetta High, of Vineland, Ontario, who passed away June 4, 1923. To this union was born one daughter, Luella, Mrs. Alvin Reesor. In May, 1925, he was married to Emma Meyer, of Mark­ham, who passed away April 14, 1944. To this union was born one son, Paul. “L. J.” passed away at his home on September 28, 1949 at the age of 74 years, 3 months, 13 days. During the last ten years of his life, he was not able to preach. At the beginning of this period he suffered a slight stroke, which later developed into blindness and gradual bodily weakness. These ten years were in great contrast to his intense activity in preaching and making his living. But he remained true to his faith, and we have every reason to believe he left for his heavenly home in triumph.

Brother Burkholder was ordained to the Christian ministry for the Cedar Grove congre­gation, Cedar Grove, Ont., on January 12, 1896, by Bishop Elias Weber of Breslau, Ontario, five months before he reached his twenty-first birth­day. This was quite an historical event, for it was not customary in the Mennonite Church at this time to ordain men so young in years. But he had been converted under the ministry of J. S. Coffman about four years previous and was baptized on May 18, 1892, thus revealing the splendid type of evangelism that Brother Coff­man rendered in those beginning years of evan­gelism in the Mennonite Church. And it was this same conviction and service that marked Brother Burkholder’s entire ministry.

For “L. J.” was much used by the church both at home and in the United States. But it must be mentioned here that a servant of the Lord, in order to be so much used, must live a steady life of great activity and corresponding sacrifice, and that such a program is shared by the family as well. Such is the record of this godly man and his family through his years of service.

In a number of instances he was a pioneer. After his ordination he decided not to be a farmer, but purchased several acres of land from his father near .the place of his birth. Here he erected his home, and from here he carried out his entire ministry. In 1906 he was one of the strong supporters of the Bible school movement when the Ontario Mennonite Bible School was organized by the conference. He was one of the first teachers, with S. F. Coffman, in 1907. He was one of the first officers of the Nonresist­ant Relief Organization formed in 1917 and which has played such an important role in the relief work of the Mennonite Church in Ontario in the years since. He was one of the first ministers in the church to see the great good in the summer Bible school movement and gave it his hearty support. He was strongly missionary-minded and was among the brethren who organized the Rural Mission Board in Ontario and served as president and in various other capacities. It was while he was officially responsible for the outreach of this Board that he discovered the Ammon Mast family east of Clarence Center, New York, and began the revival of the Mennonite Church in this area.

Besides these beginnings he was a faithful and tireless supporter of the established work of the church. He served as moderator of the Ontario Conference longer than any other man before or since. He was assistant moderator of Mennonite General Conference for a term of two years. He was a faithful evangelist for a number of years and led many souls into the kingdom. He was a searcher for workers for the kingdom, and was the instrument in the Lord’s hand to lead the writer into the ministry. He was acting bishop for the York County district for a number of years, when the problems were delicate and difficult of solution. He preached 2,836 sermons, the last one on December 31, 1939, at Cedar Grove on the text, Psalm 90:12. He was then only 65 years of age but had been preaching 44 years.

It is appropriate to ask, How could one per­son get so much done under such limited cir­cumstances? For Brother Burkholder was truly a very versatile man. He was an excellent car­penter and cabinetmaker Besides he was a very good repairer of clocks and watches. Added to this he was a good gardener, and a splendid apiarist. Then, too, he was a weaver of no mean ability. He wove the first rug for the floor of the Cedar Grove Church. He often used his various skills as illustrations in his sermons. He was intensely interested in old things in many lines and made a very valuable collection in his life time.


Source: AbeBooks.com

Naturally, then, he was also historically minded, and served as conference historian for many years. His crowning work in this field is his book, Mennonites in Ontario, which repre­sents some of his most patient and painstaking work. He deserved a far greater reward for his effort than was given him.

Finally, Brother Burkholder is a shining example of “Little is much when God is in it.” He had very few educational advantages. There was no high school, let alone college, in his youth program. He attended one year at the Elkhart Institute where he made some life­long friends and received his initiation into the general program of the Mennonite Church, From there on it was, “prepare while you work and work while you prepare.” “The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich,” was his constant experience. He could truly say while he lived and served, and we say in his memory, “But by the grace of  God I am what I am … yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”

I am grateful for the privilege of writing this tribute to the life and work of my uncle, who has been a great inspiration to me to do my best under all kinds of circumstances.

— Oscar Burkholder

See also the article in GAMEO on L. J. Burkholder.

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.