Henry H. Janzen, Unexpected Church Leader

H. H. Janzen altered the course of the Mennonite Brethren church in Ontario in the 1930s, and went on to become a much-loved Bible teacher and leader within the denomination. This was unexpected for a man whose teenage years in Russia had been consumed with rebelling against his Mennonite faith.

Heinrich (Henry) H. Janzen was born in 1901 in the Molotschna Colony in South Russia (Ukraine). His father was the teacher in the local one-room school. Along with most of the others in their village of Münsterberg, Henry’s family participated in the Kirchliche Mennonite Church, the least pietistic of the Mennonite groups in Russia. The smaller Mennonite Brethren group were both more pietistic and more evangelical.

While a teenager Henry attended the Ohrloff Zentralschule (high school) where he rejected the faith of his family. When he was drafted into the Red Army in 1921, he was heavily influenced by communist teachings on religion, and  considered himself to be an agnostic or atheist since he could not see God at work in the disasters that had happened to the Mennonites during and after the Russian Revolution.

His wife, Tina, whom Henry married in 1923, was a devout Christian however, and did not waver in her convictions. After the death of their first child in 1924, Henry reconsidered his views and later that year was converted at a Mennonite Brethren evangelistic meeting, and was baptized into the Kirchliche church. (In Ontario people from the group became known as United Mennonites.)  Henry and Tina, with their second child, came to Canada in 1925 and settled in Kitchener where they participated with a Mennonite Brethren group.

In 1926 Henry was re-baptized by immersion in the Grand River, and became an enthusiastic lay leader in the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren church, soon teaching Sunday school. His communication skills were soon recognized, and he also began to preach on occasion at the invitation of the congregation’s ministers. He was himself ordained as a Mennonite Brethren minister in 1929.

Henry H. Janzen in 1952

Henry H. Janezn in 1952. Courtesy Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Winnipeg)

As the leading minister of the largest Mennonite Brethren congregation in Ontario, he initiated formation of the Ontario Mennonite Brethren Conference in 1932, and served as its moderator from 1932-1946. He did much to shape the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference in those years. This included encouraging regulations that allowed only persons who had been baptized by immersion to be members, in conformity with the position of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The Ontario MBs had previously been flexible on this issue. This change did cause some members to withdraw.

Henry H. Janzen also wielded influence far beyond the Mennonite Brethren community. He was also sought as a Bible teacher in Russian-language churches and Bible schools, and in the early 1930s he had a great impact in nudging many Old Order Mennonites to a “born-again”conversion experience that is described elsewhere.  He also served at Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba for 10 years, eight of them as president. Later in life he taught in a variety of settings in Europe.

To learn more about the Ontario Mennonite Brethren and Henry H. Janzen read In Search of Promised Lands.

When some Old Order Mennonites almost became Mennonite Brethren

Old Order Mennonites have an understanding of personal salvation that differs from the evangelical Protestant community. They live in the trust that they will be saved, but shy away from confident statements about the assurance of their salvation. They do not emphasize a crisis conversion experience, and believe that their daily lives should be the evidence of their Christian faith.

This has made them, and other Mennonite groups with similar views, the target of evangelical Mennonite and non-Mennonite groups alike. In the 1920s Old Order Mennonite leaders would have acknowledged the need for a new birth, but its leaders would not have been familiar with the modernist-fundamentalist controversies that divided Protestantism and some Mennonite groups in those years.

Some Old Orders attended evangelistic meetings sponsored by evangelical groups, and were attracted to the clear doctrines of fundamentalism. A significant fundamentalist influence came from the Christian Brethren (Plymouth Brethren), who preached to audiences in Linwood and Elmira in the 1920s and early 1930s, including numerous Old Order Mennonites. The Brethren emphasized the assurance of salvation for those who had truly been born again.

Henry H. Janzen in 1952

Henry H. Janezn in 1952. Courtesy Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Winnipeg)

In October 1931 a Sunday school started in Hawkesville, with the support of the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church and others. The Hawkesville Gospel Mission, technically an independent mission with mostly Mennonite Sunday school teachers, was led by Israel Martin, who had left the Old Order to join the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1928. Soon he organized Sunday evening services that attracted members of the Old Order and others. Guest speakers included Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and non-Mennonite preachers, including Henry H. Janzen of the Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church and Frank Guthrie of the Plymouth Brethren. Frank Guthrie was a lay leader in the Plymouth Brethren assembly in Guelph and had been preaching among the Old Order as early as 1923. Janzen and Guthrie had a cordial relationship, and became the most popular speakers at the Hawkesville Gospel Mission.

By 1934 a number of regular participants at the Hawkesville Mission became interested in receiving baptism by immersion. On September 9, 1934, over one thousand persons observed an immersion baptism in the Conestogo River near Wallenstein; Henry H. Janzen performed the baptisms. Many of those baptized were already baptized members of the Old Order Mennonite Church, so this act was a repudiation of their Old Order membership. The initiation of a weekly communion service, following the Plymouth Brethren pattern, also rejected traditional Mennonite practice.

Despite the mass baptism, it remained unclear which denomination the new group would join. One faction favored formation of a Plymouth Brethren assembly. Those led by Israel Martin favored membership in the new Ontario Mennonite Brethren Conference, led by their mentor, Henry Janzen. It took a while to decide, and the group finally mixed the polities of the Plymouth Brethren and Mennonite Brethren; it practiced weekly communion (a Plymouth Brethren practice), but also retained Mennonite practices of feetwashing and formal appointment of a pastor. It also rejected combatant service in the military, a Mennonite Brethren position. It retained the prayer veil for women who came from an Old Order background, but did not require it of those from other backgrounds.

Finally by the end of 1935 the Plymouth Brethren position had become dominant within the Hawkesville group, and Henry Janzen was no longer routinely invited to preach, though he still spoke several times to the group in 1936. Janzen’s last invitation to speak at the Wallenstein Bible Chapel, as the established congregation became known, was for a Sunday evening, not many years before his death in 1975.

I have wondered how the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches would have changed if these former Old Order Mennonites had made a different decision in the 1930s.

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

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