Fundamentalism and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario

Last week this blog reflected on the origins of fundamentalism. This blog looks more directly at the impact of fundamentalism on the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in the early 20th century.

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T. T. Shields. Photo from Wikipedia

The modernist-fundamentalist conflicts appeared in most Protestant denominations after World War I, though the temperature of the debate was lower in Canada than it was in the United States, especially within the Presbyterian Church. The formation of the United Church of Canada in 1925, which brought most of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches together, preoccupied the attention of those groups in Canada.

The primary Canadian conflict took place within the Baptist community, when popular preacher Thomas T. Shields of the large Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto attacked McMaster University, then a Baptist school, for it theology. Several divisions among Baptists followed.

Most of the modernist-fundamentalist battles within the Mennonite Church took place in the United States, and involved a number of purges of leaders thought to be tinged with modernism, partly because of where they had done graduate theological study (typically Union Theological Seminary in New York or the University of Chicago). However, the resignation of John E. Hartzler as president of Goshen College in 1918 and his subsequent departure from the binational Mennonite Church as part of this purge, reverberated in Ontario. Hartzler was a good friend of Bishop S. F. Coffman in Vineland, and when Hartzler lost his Goshen position Coffman invited him to itinerate in Ontario until he settled on something else.

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J.B. Smith. GAMEO photo

Helping to define the new theological terrain in Ontario were the eighteen “Christian Fundamentals” approved by the binational Mennonite Church’s General Conference in 1921. These tenets had originated in the Virginia Mennonite Conference and were drafted primarily by Jacob B. Smith, originally from Ontario, and then president of the new Eastern Mennonite School at Harrisonburg, Virginia.

One of the features of Mennonite fundamentalism, which accepted the virgin birth, scriptural inerrancy, and other tenets of fundamentalism, was the addition of an emphasis on separation from the world, especially in dress. This included the prayer veil for women, wearing bonnets instead of hats (women), modest dress, lack of jewelry, along with non-participation in war, non-swearing of oaths, etc. This emphasis on separation added a layer of meaning not common to other fundamentalists.

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S. F. Coffman

Ontario Bishop S. F. Coffman was the editor who prepared the final text for the 1921 Mennonite Church delegates. Coffman agreed with the fundamentals in spirit but had been unsure whether an additional formal confession was required alongside the traditional Dordrecht Confession of 1632. He would not have been comfortable with the confrontational style of J. B. Smith or George R. Brunk, who actively tried to cleanse the Mennonite Church of leaders not in sympathy with their view.

Eventually the larger theological storm in the Mennonite Church took its toll in Ontario as well. The Mennonite mission workers in Toronto were very uncomfortable with dress regulations that were part of the symbols of “separation” that accompanied the Mennonite take on fundamentalist theology.

Congregations, too, were affected in various ways, as illustrated by the experiences of Wanner Mennonite Church in Hespeler (now part of Cambridge) and First Mennonite Church in Kitchener. Each found a different path through the conflict; the former survived intact, the second was split in two.

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Bonnets and prayer veils recommended for women in first half of 20th century. GAMEO photo

Wanner was much smaller than First Mennonite (in 1924 Wanner had 47 members to First Mennonite’s 293), and was located on the edge of the Mennonite community. Minister Absalom B. Snyder was a plain man himself who wore the bow tie and clerical coat with tails that he had worn before the uniform plain coat was heavily promoted. He was not comfortable refusing communion to persons over clothing issues, and bishop Jonas Snider, the Waterloo County bishop who usually served Wanner’s communion, would not have resisted Snyder’s milder approach. Snyder’s wife was one of only two women in the congregation to wear a cape dress (the other woman still wore her earrings along with the cape!). Many years later older members could only remember one time that communion was refused to women who did not wear the bonnet—when bishop Manasseh Hallman from the Wilmot District announced before serving that women who wore hats could not receive communion. Some young men also stayed back from communion in sympathetic protest on that occasion.

The First Mennonite approach was to challenge the conference. At the April 1921 semiannual conference of Waterloo County ministers and deacons, delegates approved a resolution that insisted the bonnet be worn in public at all times and directed that communion be withheld from women who continued to wear hats in public. Bonnets reflected appropriate separation from the world, fashionable hats did not.

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Urias K. Weber. GAMEO photo

The conference said the resolution should be read before communion was served at churches. For reasons that later became contentious, Local bishops E. S. Hallman and Jonas Snider did not offer communion at First Mennonite Church that spring. In the fall First Mennonite minister Urias K. Weber had the resolution read as requested, but followed the reading by stating his opposition to it. In the fall Manasseh Hallman did serve communion at First Mennonite, though only a small percentage of the congregation took part.

Before the conference’s annual meeting in June 1922, 139 members of First Mennonite Church petitioned in protest of the bonnet resolution passed by the Ministers Meeting. Although an effort was made to table the First Mennonite petition, the delegates decided to appoint an investigating committee.

The committee’s three-page report to a special session of the conference in December 1922 reviewed twelve charges by the petitioners. It responded to each charge, then noted seven general findings and made four recommendations, none of which related directly to the bonnet worn by women. Rather, it was more generally critical of attempts “for the removal of conference regulations regarding the matter of dress,” a disregard for the baptismal vow, unfavorable parental influence, unharmonious spiritual oversight by leaders, and confusion about authority.

No legitimacy was given to a complaint about the inherent contradiction of the unenforced plain coat for men or the history of uneven discipline in the previous thirty years. The recommendations were vague, except for the one calling for greater clarity in defining bishop districts, and calling for a “solemn pledge of loyalty to the Church and her standards.” The special conference approved the findings and recommendations, and S. F. Coffman duly reported these to the Kitchener congregation in February 1923.

In Coffman’s report to the conference executive committee of the February congregational meeting, he noted there was significant resistance to the investigating committee’s report. When Coffman had asked the congregation for an expression of “loyalty to the principles of the Church and confidence in the work of the Church,” it naturally led to a “considerable discussion” on whether this implied acceptance of the conference resolutions. When Coffman asked the congregation to give its “expression of confidence” by standing, “a considerable number did not rise, especially among the young sisters, it being evident that the discussions were confusing to the minds of some, who, otherwise would have given loyal assent to the work of the Church and conference.”

The conflict was not resolved, and eventually led to a division and the formation of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, whose back property line virtually touched that of First Mennonite Church.

There were later divisions, including a division that saw the formation of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, a topic mentioned in an earlier blog.

For more discussion on fundamentalism and Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

The Lure of Fundamentalism

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Charles Darwin and his son in 1841. Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

In the latter part of the 19th century theological tension arose in the Protestant evangelical churches in North America. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution created strong reactions.

Many Protestant leaders in “mainline denominations,” in their belief in historical progress, thought evolution was one of God’s ways of working. With an emphasis on truth and reason, they maintained the kingdom of God could be achieved on earth. They emphasized Jesus’ humanity more than his divinity and began to reframe the conversion experience from an instantaneous emotional experience to a gradual quickening of one’s moral life.

Perhaps even more divisive within the churches was the beginning use of historical-critical methods in studying the Bible. This approach led many to challenge the historical reality of some events recorded in scripture. Large segments of the Presbyterian, Anglican, and Methodist denominations incorporated this new thinking by the first decades of the 20th century. Opponents called this path liberalism or modernism.

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James Orr, one of the authors of The Fundamentals. Photo by George Eyre-Todd (1862-1937) via Wikimedia Commons

The opposition to the modernist direction in Protestant circles came to be known as fundamentalism after the publication in 1909 of a series of booklets called The Fundamentals that endorsed shared Christian beliefs on things like the nature of Jesus and the historical reliability of the Bible.

In the years prior to and after World War I, late 19th-century holiness theology and early 20th-century fundamentalism, but not modernism, influenced the two most culturally comfortable Ontario Mennonite groups: the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. The influence of Moody Bible Institute and Toronto Bible College on these groups through the training of men and women who became leaders has already been noted.

The more separated Mennonite groups, however, remained outside the doctrinal debates that began to consume these two more assimilated groups. The Amish Mennonites did begin to invite Mennonite preachers with a fundamentalist theology into their pulpits, and a few Amish Mennonite young people began to attend the Ontario Mennonite Bible School in Kitchener, which had a fundamentalist orientation.

Amish Mennonites who moved into Kitchener for employment began to join churches like First Mennonite Church. Even so, in this time period most Amish Mennonites remained focused on the local church community and the extended network of family relationships. As for the Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and the Reformed Mennonites, they had explicitly rejected assimilation, and this included theological assimilation with either modernists or fundamentalists.

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William Jennings Bryan. Photo by James E. Purdy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The fundamentalism that took shape in North American Protestantism before and during the first part of World War I was attractive to Mennonites on another score—it was not especially patriotic, particularly among fundamentalists with a strong dispensational position. Dispensationalists believed World War I signaled the rapidly approaching return of Christ, and they were generally anti-political in their views. William Jennings Bryan, a strong fundamentalist generally appreciated by Mennonites for his anti-evolutionary stance, resigned from Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet as secretary of state over war policy. Even the Moody Bible Institute magazine published a defense of nonresistance in 1917, though it stated it disagreed with the position.

Fundamentalist patriotism increased markedly in 1918, but Mennonites remained attracted to the “two kingdom” implication of dispensational theology, with its heavenly and earthly kingdoms and its emphasis on not being unequally yoked with the world.

The holiness (and later fundamentalist) influences took the Ontario Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Conference of Ontario in quite different directions. The former group markedly decreased its emphasis on separation from the world, while the latter group enforced a new emphasis on separation through implementation of uniform dress codes.

This melding of visible separation with fundamentalist theology was a unique Mennonite hybrid response to the lure of fundamentalism.

Next week we’ll look at how this hybrid found the Mennonite Conference of Ontario focused on seemingly (in today’s world) narrow issues of how women dressed.

You can learn more about these themes in In Search of Promised Lands.

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada–a Synopsis of its History

This past weekend (April 28-29, 2017), Mennonite Church Eastern Canada held its 30th annual meeting. It seemed appropriate to reflect on the history of this assimilated Mennonite regional body affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada. I reflected earlier on how this conference differed from its counterparts in the United States.

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The moderators and secretaries signing the merger documents, 1987. Seated (L-R): Robert Snyder (lawyer); Roy Scheerer (WOMC secretary), Ed Epp (UMC secretary), David Kroeker (MCOQ secretary); Standing (L-R): Gerald Good (WOMC moderator), John Cornies (UMC moderator), Lester Kehl, MCOQ moderator). Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 1992-1-42.

In 1988 three assimilated conferences (Western Ontario Mennonite Conference (WOMC), United Mennonite Churches in Ontario (UMC), and Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MCOQ)) merged to form the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (later Mennonite Church Eastern Canada). At one level this was a logical progression, as the three largest assimilated Mennonite groups in Ontario overlapped geographically and each had lost its distinctive symbols of separation from the larger Canadian society. The boundaries between the Ontario Amish Mennonites and the Mennonites who originated in Pennsylvania had always been porous, even in the 19th century, as they shared many religious and cultural values, cooperated in petitioning government on matters of joint concern, and frequently intermarried. The Mennonites who immigrated in the 1920s had been hosted by these earlier groups for varying periods of time when they arrived in Canada, but their variant historical and cultural experience led them to soon establish their own churches and social communities.

World War II had brought a measure of cooperation among all the Ontario Mennonite groups through the Non-Resistant Relief Organization and the Conference of Historic Peace Churches. Certainly this experience served as a bridge to the cooperation that followed. Four other factors brought these three assimilated groups together. One was the increasing urbanization that sprinkled Mennonites into urban settings that were often disconnected from their traditional communities. Mennonite communities in Kitchener-Waterloo and St. Catharines were still compact enough for members to locate their particular group there. But Mennonites living in Toronto, Hamilton, London, or other urban areas had to commute long distances to find faith compatriots.

The second factor was the emergence of Conrad Grebel University College. The decision of the Mennonite Brethren and the Brethren in Christ to opt out of this project in 1962 left the three conferences that would eventually merge working together on a highly visible and symbolic cooperative project.

The third and most important factor was the renewed emphasis on urban missions. The Valleyview Mennonite congregation in London, Ontario, emerged from cooperation between the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario. By 1963 the mission boards of these two conferences had worked out a “policy on cooperative church extension” that also included the United Mennonites. It emphasized mutual respect and acceptance in cases where practice or doctrinal details differed. In 1965 they established an inter-Mennonite mission committee that in 1967 became the Mennonite Mission and Service Board, which had already sponsored a joint service project in Sudbury.

A fourth factor was Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener. This congregation had emerged out of the 1924 division at First Mennonite Church. It joined the U.S.-based Eastern District of the binational General Conference Mennonite Church in 1946. By the late 1960s it seemed more appropriate to nurture Mennonite connections closer to home. It became an early dual-conference congregation by joining both the United Mennonites and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1969. Perhaps as much as anything, this initiative stirred discussion on the possible union of some of the Mennonite conferences.

By 1974 an Inter-Mennonite Executive Council (IEC) formed, composed of the three conference moderators and secretaries, the Conrad Grebel College board chair, the chair of the (by then named) Inter-Mennonite Mission and Service Board, and chairs of the joint education committees. Although this group never had independent authority, it attempted to become a clearinghouse for inter-Mennonite activity, sometimes including the Mennonite Brethren.

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Newton Gingrich (standing right), talks with Jesse B. Martin, at the time that Gingrich became moderator of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1961. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 1984-1-229

The individual working hardest for this cooperation was Newton Gingrich, who was moderator of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario from 1961 to 1970 even while he pastored a congregation in the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference beginning in 1966. Despite limited education (he left school at age 13, but eventually completed junior college-level studies at Eastern Mennonite College), he had enormous organizational skills. He chaired the Inter-Mennonite Mission and Service Board beginning in 1970, which put him on the Inter-Mennonite Executive Council. At the time of his sudden death in 1979 he was the strongest advocate for formally merging the three conferences, and he chaired a committee exploring that possibility. His death slowed the merger process since most other conference leaders were more cautious and preferred what came to be called “organic growth” in cooperation.

The path to merger was not smooth. The Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Conference of Ontario began to share staff positions (conference minister and office staff) and began to hold their annual meetings at the same time and place. This distanced them from the United Mennonite Conference, which had less shared history and was seen by the other two conferences as more independent in its polity and more aggressive in asserting its positions.

This ambivalent state continued until the United Mennonite Conference’s moderator, Ed Janzen, prepared a study paper called “Blowing of the Wind,” which suggested that new urban congregations be permitted to join the joint (unincorporated) Inter-Mennonite Conference (Ontario), which formed in 1974, without having to join one of the three existing conferences. The paper caused a stir among the conference leadership with its suggestion of a fourth super conference, but its recommendations were ultimately dropped.

This seeming retreat from merger outraged the church planting leaders of the three conferences, who felt they were left with unwieldy structures that forced new Mennonites to make unnecessary choices between three similar conferences. In 1984 the three conference executives agreed to take another look, and at a meeting on December 19, 1984, they agreed to move toward an integrated conference that would be launched in 1987.

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The first Executive Secretary and first Conference Minister for MCEC were Peter H. Janzen (left) and Herb Schultz (right). Sam Steiner photo.

Delegates from all three conferences overwhelmingly approved an integration proposal in March 1986. A formal structure was approved in fall 1987, and the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada (MCEC) came into formal existence in February 1988. Congregations were given a six-year period of associate membership in the North American denominations in which they were not already a member, whether the Mennonite Church, the General Conference Mennonite Church, or the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. It was understood they would become full members of the denominations after the associate period. Thus MCEC became the first “dual-conference” regional conference, as discussions began on merging and realigning the denominations, which would take place a little over a decade later.

There were glitches and tensions in the early years of the merger as historical polity differences generated concerns and reactions. The former smaller Western Ontario Mennonite Conference sometimes felt its voice was lost in the larger conference and that its family ethos had been taken away. United Mennonites sometimes believed their congregational autonomy emphasis was threatened by a top-down administrative structure. Also, individual leaders from the United Mennonite background sometimes articulated their views in confrontational language, which was not the style of communication among most of those of Mennonite Church background. A large $6.3 million fund drive for building expansions at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate and Conrad Grebel University College, and for the missions program, fell well short of its goal. But despite these limitations, pastors began serving in congregations without regard to the denominational “lineage” of the pastor or of the congregation. This cultivated a sense of comfort in the new structure.

As Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (as it became known in October 2001) exists in 2017, it has maintained relative health, albeit with a reduced number of program staff and tightening budgetary concerns. Some new congregations emerged, especially in urban settings and non-English contexts. Some church plants provided alternatives to traditional congregational styles, usually without the Mennonite name.

To learn more about Ontario’s 30-plus Mennonite denominations, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Moses H. Roth–Mild-mannered Dissenter

Moses H. Roth was one of the founders of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario. This group resulted from a division in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1959 when a small group of ordained leaders believed the conference had become too lax in enforcing visible symbols of separation from the world. This included “innovations” like church weddings with flowers and veils, the wearing of wedding rings, women cutting their hair, and the wearing of less modest clothing.

Moses Roth was a more outgoing personality than his friend, Curtis Cressman, and had a more pastoral approach in personal relationships. He was founder of the congregation that became one of the largest conservative Mennonite congregations in Ontario–Countryside Mennonite Fellowship.

An interesting fact from the article reproduced below is that Moses Roth witnessed the last hanging in Stratford in 1954.

This article in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online by Howard Bean was written in 2013, and can be seen there complete with bibliography.


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Barbara & Moses Roth, early 1960s. Family photo

Moses H. Roth: bishop and farmer; born 1 February 1898 in Oxford County, Ontario, Canada to Rudolph “Rudy” Roth (10 December 1868-1 March 1943) and Lavina (Hostetler) Roth (7 August 1873-24 April 1927). He was the fourth child in a family of four boys and two girls. On 7 February 1923 he married Barbara Martin (3 April 1901-1 May 1991). They had one daughter, Gladys. Moses died on 24 December 1978, in New Hamburg, Ontario.

Moses farmed near New Hamburg, and was reasonably prosperous. It is said that Milo Shantz, prominent Waterloo County entrepreneur, got his first loan from his uncle, Moses.

Prior to his ordination, Moses Roth served regularly as Sunday school superintendent at Biehn Mennonite Church (now Nith Valley) near New Hamburg. In 1931 he was ordained minister to assist Ozias Cressman, at Geiger Mennonite Church (now Wilmot Mennonite Church). He was ordained bishop in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in 1937 serving primarily at Geiger Mennonite Church but also in such places as Poole, Ontario (1949-1959) and Clarence Center, New York.

Moses believed strongly in missions. He planted the seed for the beginning of the London Rescue Mission and Nairn Mennonite Church through his teaching at a winter Bible school in Wellesley, Ontario. He was a long-time summer Bible school superintendent at the Baden mission. He gave supervision to such mission outposts as Markstay and Minden.

In the mid to late 1950s Moses became increasingly alarmed by what he saw as apostasy in the Ontario conference with the acceptance of the wedding ring, sisters in the church cutting their hair, and a weakening of dress restrictions. In 1959, Moses, along with Curtis Cressman (bishop), preachers Elmer Grove and Moses Baer, and deacons Andrew Axt and Clarence Huber withdrew from Ontario Conference and organized the New Hamburg Conservative Mennonite Church. This was the beginning of what became the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario and Midwest Mennonite Fellowship, together having approximately 2000 members (2013).

By the end of 1960, Moses began a second congregation in Heidelburg, the location of which changed in 1983 to Hawkesville and was renamed Countryside Mennonite Fellowship. Moses served as bishop at Heidelburg until 1968 when he withdrew his oversight due to difficulties in the congregation. Prior to his death in 1978, he made peace with the congregation and preached for them again at least once. From 1968 to 1978, Moses pastored a small independent Mennonite congregation at Crosshill for a year or so, and then a second congregation at Ethel.

In his ministry, Moses Roth earned a reputation for having the gift of healing as he prayed for the sick and anointed them with oil.

Moses was present on 16 February 1954 at the last hanging at the Stratford jail. Moses visited Reuben Norman, who was convicted of murder, in prison and led him to repentance.

Ontario Mennonites and Toronto Bible College

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Toronto Bible College when located on College Street in 1920. Toronto Public Library photo.

The Toronto Bible Training School was founded in 1894, modeled on Dwight L. Moody’s Bible school in Chicago that was started in 1889. This school, after Moody’s death, was known as Moody Bible Institute. The first North American Bible school was the Missionary Training Institute established in New York City in 1882 by A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination.

Assimilated Ontario Mennonites began attending each of these schools early in their existence, as more Mennonites engaged the “great awakening” of the evangelical movement and began to aggressively introduce evangelical theology to local Mennonite congregations.

Toronto Bible College (TBS), as the Bible Training School became known in 1912, had a profound impact on Ontario Mennonites, beginning already in the 1890s. It was a non-denominational school that promoted the following vision:

The great design of the School is the training of consecrated men and women as Sunday School Workers, as pastor’s Assistants, and as City, Home, and Foreign Missionaries. It is intended for those who believe they have been called of God to Christian service, and who, from age or other reasons, cannot pursue a full collegiate and theological course of study. Special provision is also made for Sunday School Teachers and others who desire a better knowledge of God’s Word.

Toronto Bible College did not require a high school diploma of its students, making it even more attractive to Mennonites, since most Mennonites did not attend high school in the early 20th century. The then principal of Toronto Bible College, William Stewart, encouraged the new Mennonite Brethren in Christ mission in Toronto in 1897, saying, “We need your testimony in Toronto.”

This may have encouraged Mennonite mission workers to explore the new school. In any event, some Mennonite Brethren in Christ members began to attend TBS as early as 1899. One of these was Ada Moyer, of the Vineland area. She worked as a “ministering sister” in Toronto in 1897 and helped start the Grace Chapel in Toronto in 1899.

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M. Elizabeth Brown, TBS grad and Toronto Mennonite Mission worker, 1920. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Mennonite Conference of Ontario laypersons probably began attending Toronto Bible College in 1908. John S. Musselman of Pennsylvania, who had come to work at the conference’s new Toronto Mennonite Mission, was a student at the college beginning that fall.

In 1909–10 Mennonites made up over 10 percent of the daytime student body. The new students included Bernice Devitt and M. Elizabeth Brown, who were also working at the Toronto mission. Both Devitt and Brown received their diplomas in 1911. Mennonites (including both Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Mennonite Conference of Ontario) hovered around 10 percent of the full-time student body until 1919–20.

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Vera Hallman (standing) and Selena Gamber, TBS graduates and missionaries to Argentina, 1920s. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

In the postwar environment, Toronto Bible College enrollment surged, though the number of Mennonites remained constant. Nonetheless, Mennonites still made an impact in the 1920s. Vera Hallman’s departure for Argentina was pictured in TBC’s publication, Recorder, in 1923, and Edna Bowman Weber’s graduation address on “Redeeming Love” was published in the Recorder in 1925.

A fascinating sidelight is the role that Mennonites played in Toronto Bible College’s early music program. No music courses were offered until 1911, when John I. Byler, superintendent of the Toronto Mennonite Mission, began to offer an optional course in “Vocal Music” (probably a sight-reading course). By 1913–14 he was offering two courses: “Music Sight-Reading” and “Conduct of the Gospel Song.” When Byler left the mission, the music courses were then offered by S. M. Kanagy (beginning in fall 1914), who later became superintendent of the Toronto Mennonite Mission. Kanagy continued in this role until he left to teach at Hesston College in 1920. Toronto Bible College’s music program then passed into non-Mennonite hands.

Today, after several mergers, the Toronto Bible School is known as Tyndale University College and Seminary, and is no longer located in downtown Toronto, but is at 3377 Bayview Avenue in Toronto.

The Mennonite Conference of Ontario started its own Bible school in 1907. The Ontario Mennonite Bible School (OMBS) too was modeled on the Moody Bible Institute and Toronto Bible College model, since its founder and principal was S. F. Coffman, who had studied several years at Moody Bible Institute.

OMBS became quite popular in Ontario Mennonite circles, and did much to introduce fundamentalist theology to Ontario Mennonites, since all the faculty members were strongly inclined to that theology. Of course it also taught Mennonite distinctives, like uniform dress, nonresistance, and non-swearing of oaths, which helped to preserve those values in the church.

The Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now known as the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) did not start their own Bible college until 1940. This meant most of its theological training prior to World War II came from outside the denomination, and contributed to the loss of Mennonite “values”  in that denomination.

To learn more about Mennonites and Bible schools, read In Search of Promised Lands.

A brief history of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School

In my volunteer work at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario I’ve been working with the Ontario Mennonite Bible School collection. This week I’m sharing a historical sketch I’ve prepared in connection with that work.

The Ontario Mennonite Bible School (OMBS) began in 1907 with a four week class held in the Berlin Mennonite Church (now First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario). The school was known as the Bible Study Class until the 1920s. “Bible school” became more common by 1930, and a new constitution in 1933 formalized the name as Ontario Mennonite Bible School, sometimes referred to as the Kitchener Bible School. In 1951 a more advanced “Institute” was added, leading to the name Ontario Mennonite Bible School & Institute. The school closed in 1969.

Ontario Mennonite Bible School’s roots were in the Bible conference movement that influenced the Mennonite Church (MC) in the 1890s and early part of the 20th century. It was part of a general movement within the Mennonite Church (MC) to place more emphasis on correct doctrine, partly as a result of younger dynamic Mennonite leaders who studied at places like Toronto Bible College or Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

The Bible conferences focused on doctrinal teaching based on detailed scriptural exegesis. These three- or four-day conferences for lay people had the positive benefit of extending biblical knowledge among the laity, but also provided a forum for introducing theological influences from other bodies, since the teachers in these conferences were reading literature produced outside the Mennonite community. Thus these conferences introduced fundamentalism to the Mennonite Church.

The first Bible Conference within the Mennonite Church of Canada (the name of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario until 1909) took place in 1899 and addressed a wide range of topics, including: Non-resistance, Holy Spirit, Special Talk on Dress, Swearing of Oaths, Going to Law, Church Government, Prayer-Head Covering, and Home Missions.

In 1906 the Mennonite Church of Canada decided to establish a “course of Bible study” to be held immediately after a scheduled Bible conference at the Berlin Mennonite Church in January 1907. Samuel F. Coffman, who had studied at Moody Bible Institute, and Lewis J. Burkholder were the instructors for the first four-week course held from January 14 through February 8, 1907. They each taught two courses. A total of 65 students attended either the daytime or evening classes. The evening classes repeated two of the daytime classes.

No Bible study class was held in 1908 because S. F. Coffman was under discipline within the conference for at least part of a year. Several years earlier Coffman had baptized two young women even though they had not committed themselves to wear a uniform bonnet in public, and they had continued to wear hats in public.

Despite this blip, in January 1909 the Bible study class was again held, although it was cut short by a week because of a smallpox outbreak in the Berlin area. Coffman taught classes on “Methods of Study” and “Church History.” Burkholder taught “Doctrines of Salvation” and “Studies in Matthew.” Later that year the Mennonite Conference of Ontario established a three-person board to oversee the Bible class now scheduled to be held annually. Absalom B. Snyder, minister of the Wanner congregation served as chair; Isaiah Wismer, minister of the Strasburg (Pioneer Park) congregation was secretary, and Urias K. Weber , minister at the Berlin Mennonite Church, served as treasurer. Board members were elected for three year terms. Over time the board expanded to nine members.

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Ella & S. F. Coffman, ca. 1920. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

From 1910 to 1918 S. F. Coffman was the only teacher of the Bible class, except for 1916 when John D. Brunk of Indiana taught a music course.  In 1912 a six-year rotation of courses was established, and in 1913 the course was expanded to six weeks in length. That same year Bible class students built a model of the Old Testament tabernacle, a teaching tool that was used for many years. Meals and lodging arrangements for students were also established during this time. For unknown reasons, classes for most of this decade were not held at the Berlin Church, but rather were held in various rented quarters in the town of Berlin. Finally in 1920, the school returned permanently to First Mennonite Church (renamed in 1917 when the city of Berlin changed its name to Kitchener).

In 1919 Oscar Burkholder (Breslau Mennonite Church) assisted Coffman in teaching. In 1921 he became the second regular faculty member, working along with Coffman, who continued as the principal of the school until 1947. Burkholder had attended Toronto Bible College, which also nudged him in a fundamentalist direction. He served as OMBS’s second principal, from 1948-54.

Clayton F. Derstine (First Mennonite Church) served on the faculty from 1929-1949. He was a widely known  evangelist, author and editor in the binational Mennonite Church. Derstine had come in 1925 to First Mennonite Church after the congregational division that had seen the formation of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church. Derstine was a flamboyant preacher who sometimes came into conflict with conservative co-workers because over the years he became more relaxed over issues of church discipline related to dress regulations.

OMBS faculty 1939

OMBS faculty in 1939. L-R: Jesse B. Martin, Clayton F. Derstine, Samuel F. Coffman, Oscar Burkholder. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Jesse B. Martin was the fourth OMBS pillar; he taught from 1932 to 1966 and served as principal from 1957-66. Although Martin had grown up in an Old Order Mennonite home, he attended Hesston College and briefly studied at Goshen College. He was deeply involved in peace issues in the Mennonite Church, and carried a prominent role in representing Ontario Mennonites to the Canadian government during World War II.

Coffman, Burkholder, Derstine and Martin were the “big four” at Ontario Mennonite Bible School during its years of greatest influence. Other longer term faculty included Merle Shantz (1939-1952), Roy Koch (1947-57; principal for 1955-57), Osiah Horst (1953-1964), and Newton Gingrich (1958-69; principal, 1966-69).

In the late 1920s the term was expanded to eight, then ten weeks in length. In 1930 the schedule and curriculum were altered to follow a three-year cycle with twelve week terms.

OMBS faculty and students, 1932

Ontario Mennonite Bible School faculty and students, 1932. Photo by Ernest Denton. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo 

The peak of enrollment occurred during the late 1920s and 1930s, ranging between 107 and 244 students in attendance.  This was partially in response to an addition built at First Mennonite Church specifically to accommodate the Bible school. By the 1950s the enrollment in Ontario Mennonite Bible School dropped below 100, and in the 1960s below 50. Most assimilated Mennonite young people were now graduating from high school and many were considering university education, so the Bible school model lost much of its Ontario constituency. A higher percentage of students were attending from outside Ontario (most often Alberta and Pennsylvania), reducing the incentive for the Mennonite Conference of Ontario to continue support, even as it was undertaking financial support for Conrad Grebel College, a new Mennonite post-secondary venture in Ontario.

First Mennonite Church before 1950

First Mennonite Church (Kitchener) prior to 1950. Photo by Ernest Denton. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

In the fall of 1951 the Mennonite Conference of Ontario began an Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute for more advanced Bible study over two 10-week semesters. The faculty and administration was shared between OMBS and OMBI, but the target audience was persons who would become congregational leaders, including pastors. It included courses on homiletics and pastoral theology, and Christian education courses aimed more at female students. Newer faculty members in the 1950s and 1960s had more education, including college and seminary degrees. Eventually the Institute offered up to one year of credit accepted at some Mennonite colleges in the United States. Enrollment ranged from the 40s to the 50s during the life of the Institute, though in later years Ontario students were a small minority of the student body.

Both OMBS and OMBI closed in 1969 because of declining enrollment. During its six decades of operation OMBS was one of the oldest, and likely the most influential, Bible school in the Mennonite Church (MC). At least that was the assessment of Clarence Fretz in a 1942 Mennonite Quarterly Review article. Certainly Ontario Mennonite Bible College & Institute provided an educational opportunity for many young adults in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in an era when a low percentage attended high school.

Fully assimilated Mennonite denominations no longer have Bible schools, but more conservative Mennonite denominations like the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship still use this model to help train their young people.

To learn more about Mennonite Bible schools, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Most of this information comes from Newton Gingrich’s Mission Completed: History of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute, published ca. 1971 from funds remaining in the OMBS & I financial reserves.

Ordination of Women in Ontario

Ministering sisters, 1900

Ontario ministering sisters ca. 1900. Photo courtesy Missionary Church Historical Trust.

In an earlier post, we noted that the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) had women pastoral leaders already in the 1880s. They were called ministering sisters, and often led congregations in small cities like Owen Sound or St. Thomas, or mission congregations in places like Toronto. Although these women participated in annual conference meetings with other pastors, they were never ordained for ministry. Ordination of Mennonite women for ministry did not come to Ontario until the last quarter of the 20th century. There were anomalous exceptions in the case of some overseas missionaries, like Leona Cressman of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, but in most cases the ordination for mission service did not have the same status in North America.

The objection to women in congregational leadership focused on biblical passages that appeared to circumscribe the role of women in the church, such as 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2. Some commentators, like Mennonite Brethren leader, Henry H. Janzen, also suggested that women were more susceptible to emotion in teaching and that “sexual appeal” was an additional negative factor. In contrast, other biblical interpreters based acceptance of women in ministry on passages like Galatians 3:28 (“There is … neither male nor female …”) and numerous references to the apostle Paul’s female coworkers in Romans 1.

The first woman in Ontario to serve as a co-pastor was Doris Yantzi Weber, who served with her husband, Rod, at the Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford. At that time Avon was part of the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference, a regional conference of the Mennonite Church. Weber had grown up in the Ontario Amish Mennonite community west of Kitchener. When she was about ten her parents took her to a neighboring non-Mennonite church for a musical event. The musicians were introduced by a female pastor. Doris asked her mother the next day if she would ever be able to be a pastor. Although her mother honestly answered, “No,” Doris’s inner call to ministry never died. She attended Ontario Mennonite Bible School, where she met her husband. After bearing six children, she returned to school to obtain her BA and MDiv degrees. In June 1974 Rod and Doris began to serve the church at Avon. Although they functioned together as a team, Rod Weber was licensed for ministry in July 1974, and Doris was not. However, in February 1979 they were both “commissioned” to pastoral ministry, and this was later understood to be equivalent to ordination.

The commissioning language reflected a brief period in binational Mennonite Church history when the “recovery of the Anabaptist Vision” movement stimulated by Harold S. Bender emphasized the “priesthood of all believers.” This sixteenth-century Anabaptist precept caused some Mennonite academics and congregational leaders to reject the hierarchy they perceived in the rite of ordination, which invested leaders with a special office. Some young male pastors sought commissioning instead of ordination, believing this fostered a flatter power structure, and it was not assumed to be lifelong in the way Mennonites had previously understood ordination. John Howard Yoder, the prominent Mennonite theologian, was one academic who argued against the practice of ordination, saying it detracted from the vision of universal ministry and had little biblical foundation. Since a few women were just entering congregational leadership, this change in language from ordination to commissioning led some women to believe commissioning was a lower status that diminished their authority in the congregation. Thus while young male pastors reacted against traditional ordination language, emerging female pastors preferred ordination to undergird their authority in an unfamiliar role. Ironically, within a decade or so, most of the Ontario Mennonite male pastors in congregational leadership also abandoned commissioning language for traditional ordination.

Doreen Neufeld

Doreen Neufeld preparing communion soon after her ordination in 1980. Photo by Hugo Neufeld.

Doreen and Hugo Neufeld moved to Hamilton in July 1971 to direct the Welcome Inn Community Centre. Hugo, a social worker, had grown up in the Niagara United Mennonite Church in Virgil, where his father, Cornelius K. Neufeld, was an early leader. Doreen (née Dueck) grew up in British Columbia and was an elementary school teacher by training. The Neufelds worked cooperatively in their leadership of the Welcome Inn Community Centre activities and its large voluntary service program. Gradually, when their work included more church-like events, including worship services, the Hamilton Mennonite Church was no longer able to accommodate all the activity. Hugo and Doreen were both ordained as ministers on October 19, 1980, at the request of the Hamilton Mennonite Church, with Peter H. Janzen officiating. Janzen was the moderator of the Conference of United Mennonite Churches in Ontario, a regional conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church. As with the case of Rod and Doris Weber, the fact that Doreen’s ordination was for a co-pastorate with her husband likely reduced concerns about the appropriateness of women in leadership.

Martha Smith Good

Martha Smith Good in 1982. Photo courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Martha Smith joined the pastoral team at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener in November 1977 and was commissioned in January 1978. In March 1979 she married Gerald Good, a widower with four children who was pastor at the Hillcrest Mennonite Church in New Hamburg. After her wedding Martha worked half time, and she left Stirling Avenue in September 1979. In summer 1981 she became the pastor of the new Guelph Mennonite Church. The congregation requested ordination for Smith Good, but the leadership of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MCOQ), also part of the Mennonite Church, hesitated. There were several reasons for this hesitation. First, the Guelph congregation’s affiliation also with the Ontario United Mennonite Conference necessitated conversation between the two conferences because of their different procedures for recognizing pastoral leaders. Second, MCOQ remained uncertain whether it wanted to promote commissioning as a replacement for ordination. The conference’s ambivalence and delay in response to the ordination request caused Martha Smith Good much pain, but she was ordained in April 1982 and went on to serve in a number of locations in Ontario and the United States. She was the first ordained woman to serve as the sole pastor of a Mennonite congregation in Ontario.

Eventually these three conferences, composed of highly assimilated Mennonites, merged in 1988 to form Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC), a regional conference of Mennonite Church Canada. Other Ontario Mennonite groups resisted ordaining women into the 21st century.

To learn more about ordination of pastors among Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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