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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Ascension Day Divides Ontario Mennonites

The Old Order Mennonites in Ontario emerged over a 15 year period, from the 1870s until the final division within Mennonite Church of Canada (as it was called in the 19th century) took place in 1889.

Difficulties steadily increased between those who were cautious about accepting influences from revivalist groups like the Evangelical Association and United Brethren, and those who thought these influences were both healthy and necessary. The sore points included Sunday schools for children, revival meetings, evening prayer meetings filled with testimonies by both men and women, and increasing use of English in the non-Sunday morning meetings.

Sunday schools were a concern because the teachers were not ordained church leaders, and included women, unbaptized adherents in the congregation, or even members of other denominations. In the early years, the lesson helps were published by non-Mennonite organizations. The prayer meetings also provided women a higher profile than was customary. And increased usage of English language dramatically lowered linguistic protective barriers against the surrounding culture. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the revivalist influences were greatest in areas with a less dense Mennonite population—the southern parts of Waterloo County, and the Markham and Niagara Peninsula areas.

The leader in Waterloo County of the more cautious Mennonites was Bishop Abraham Martin (1834-1902). At one time in the 1870s he had offered to accept evening prayer meetings if the other side would give up Sunday school. This didn’t happen.

To accommodate its more cautious members, in 1888 the ordained leaders in Waterloo County tried to tighten the regulations on who could teach in Sunday school (only Mennonite church members in good standing), but the rupture was by then too deep.

Calendar of Appointments

Calendar of Appointments for 1889

Annual meeting schedule

Schedule for Annual Meeting for fourth Friday in May.

The final catalyst for the division is laughable when viewed today. Because Waterloo County had the largest number of churches, ministers from that district prepared the printed Calendar of Appointments that outlined where services were held each Sunday, as well as the dates for communion services and the annual and semi-annual meetings of ordained leaders. By tradition, the annual meeting of ordained leaders was held the last Friday in May.

In 1889 there was a complication however. Ascension Day fell on Thursday, May 30. Congregations held services that day, and the annual conference was scheduled for Markham on May 31. The calendar editors thought this close timing could be difficult for ministers who needed to preach on Thursday and still travel to Markham for Friday morning. So they set the annual meeting for May 24, the fourth Friday in May.

Old Order Calendar

Old Order Mennonite calendar for 1891

This created the pretext for the two sides to divide, with the ability to blame the “other side” for the division. On May 24 three bishops, 16 ministers and a number of deacons met in Markham for the Calender’s scheduled annual meeting. One week later, on May 31, three other bishops (Abraham Martin, Christian Reesor, and Christian Gayman), and most of the ministers from Markham, Cayuga, Rainham, and Woolwich Township met at the same place for their annual meeting. Old Order bishop Christian Shaum from Indiana met with them, which reinforces the notion that a division was virtually already planned when the scheduling anomaly became apparent.

As might be expected, each group considered the other to have departed the conference. Two years later, the less assimilated group published its own calendar using the term, Alt-Mennoniten Gemeinde in Ontario (Old Mennonite Church in Ontario) as its official name, although “Old Order Mennonite” soon came into more common usage.

Learn more about this division in In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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