Ontario Mennonites and Toronto Bible College

Toronto Bible College

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.

M. Elizabeth Brown

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.

Vera Hallman and Selena Gamber

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.

Eden Christian College: from Mennonite School to Alternative School

I mentioned Eden Christian College very briefly in an earlier post. Today I want to look more closely at its history.

In 1938 the still small Mennonite Brethren community around Virgil, Ontario began an evening Bible school. In 1944 the local society running the school expanded to include members from other Mennonite Brethren churches; it also purchased a nine-acre property called Locust Grove near Virgil.

First Eden students

First students in 1945. Henry Tiessen at right. Courtesy of Paul Tiessen

In the fall of 1945 the society decided to add a high school department to the program, and it invited Henry B. Tiessen, a public school teacher from Kitchener, to establish the program. Tiessen had come alone to Canada from Ukraine in 1926, and had attended teacher’s college in Stratford, Ontario, earning a first class teaching certificate that allowed him to teach up to grades nine and ten. He taught in various public schools for a number of years, and in 1945 was invited  to teach high school courses at the new Virgil school. Appropriately, the school began with grades nine and ten.

There were 36 students in attendance the first fall. Rapid growth the second year saw the addition of teachers Abram H. Redekop, Anne Wiebe, and David Boschman. Grade eleven was added in the second year and grade twelve in the third year. The school received provincial accreditation in late 1946. In 1948 twelve students formed the first graduating class. A number of the original faculty members, including Tiessen, resigned in 1950, just as the school began a period of enormous growth; enrollment grew from 87 students in 1950 to 183 in 1955.

Like most new faith ventures, the school struggled financially. The Virgil Society, with the encouragement of the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference, began a building project in November 1946 to create additional space. Money was short, and large debts were incurred. In 1948 the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches agreed to take over the school as well as financial responsibility. The debt was liquidated by the end of 1950.

In 1955 the high school became known as Eden Christian College. Additional facilities were built in the mid-1950s, including an auditorium and more classrooms. During all these years some students stayed in campus dormitories—usually between twenty and thirty per year.

Eden’s enrollment ranged from 140 to 190 in the 1960s, though there was a bulge to 280 in 1972. The peak of 329 students came in 1975. During these years many United Mennonite (General Conference Mennonite) teenagers from the Niagara Peninsula also attended Eden, even though there was a United Mennonite high school in Leamington. Close proximity and a generally compatible cultural ethos with the Mennonite Brethren proved more attractive than the expense of boarding their children at a distance. The sudden enrollment bulge in the early 1970s led to construction of a new gym alongside the old gym and auditorium.

Eden Christian College dominated discussions at the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in the 1970s and 1980s because its finances consumed at least two-thirds of the conference’s budget. Some conference leaders preferred greater spending on home missions and argued that Eden increasingly served primarily the Mennonite Brethren churches located on the Niagara Peninsula. About half the students at Eden were Mennonite Brethren.

In the mid-1980s the dorm facilities were closed, since few Mennonite students from outside the Niagara Peninsula still attended. The Mennonite Brethren considered switching to an association model similar to those in place for Rockway Mennonite School (Kitchener) and United Mennonite Educational Institute (Leamington), but this idea was not accepted. Finally the conference explored cooperation with the public Lincoln County Board of Education.

Rudy Bartel, 1996

Rudy Bartel, 1996. Courtesy Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Winnipeg)

This conversation was successful, and in September 1988 Eden Christian College became an “alternative school” under the public board on a trial basis. The response in the larger community to Eden’s changed status was immediate. Enrollment jumped from 170 in 1987 to 365 in 1991, partly because tuition costs were eliminated. Eden was administratively led through these dramatic changes by Rudy Bartel, who became principal in 1986. Bartel resigned the post in 1990 and retired as a teacher in 1994.

It soon became clear that government regulations sharply delineated what public taxes would pay for in an alternative school and what they would not. It also became clear that the original Eden campus near Virgil was not suitable for the rapidly expanding school. For a time the public board had no vacant properties to offer as an alternative, but in 1994, when student enrollment exceeded 440, the former Scottlea Senior Elementary School in St. Catharines became available, and Eden High School (the “Christian” was dropped by the public board in April 1992) moved to the site in 1995.

By this time about one-third of the student body was Mennonite. The conference sold the old property for $1.25 million in 1998. Even the Scottlea facility soon proved too small, so in 2000 Eden High School moved again to the Lakeport Secondary School, also in St. Catharines, where the public high school and the alternative high school shared facilities. Lakeport Secondary School was in decline and closed in summer 2011, and Eden took over the whole facility. By that time it had over 800 students.

Eden High School operated as a regular public school, but chapel and religion classes were held before and after regular school hours. An active Spiritual Life Center continued to receive some funding from the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference ($7500 in 2015).

Eden High School

Eden High School today. From their website. See also the Spiritual Life Center website

After 2000, with the much more limited financial obligation from the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference, Eden had less visibility in the larger Mennonite Brethren community, though Niagara Peninsula Mennonite Brethren were still involved in the spiritual life center and its programs. Not everyone was happy with the change. By 2015, with 850 students, the school seems to be more of an “alternative” school than a Christian school.

To learn more about Eden Christian College, read In Search of Promised Lands.

There are also blogs on United Mennonite Educational Institute (Leamington) and Rockway Mennonite Collegiate (Kitchener).