Peter Shirk–Old Order Mennonite Local Politician

Peter Shirk, a draft dodger from the U.S. Civil War, came to Canada in 1862 and became a successful business person, owning two significant flour mills that shipped widely, especially into the Maritimes.

Although aggressive in business, Peter was traditional in his theology, and was concerned about the changes he saw happening the Mennonite Church. In letters preserved that he wrote to a friend in Pennsylvania, Shirk expressed concerns about worldly worship services, preachers taking too much pride their sermons, the conduct of singing schools in church buildings, erecting church buildings in the style of Protestant churches, and overemphasis on abstinence from use of alcohol and tobacco. He would have seen the temperance movement as an outside influence on Mennonites coming from groups like the Methodists.

Surprisingly, however, he served on the local high school board for 26 years, even though his children did not attend high school. He was also treasurer of Waterloo Township for two decades. These were very unusual positions for an Old Order Mennonite to hold.

The article and bibliography about Peter Shirk can be seen in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.


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Peter Shirk, 1912. Source: Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Peter Shirk: Old Order Mennonite businessman and local politician, was born 11 November 1839 near Churchtown, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA to Christian Shirk (9 August 1796-19 May 1870) and Elizabeth Hoffman Shirk (25 November 1807-3 August 1862). Peter was the youngest child in a family of three girls and three boys. On 5 June 1866 he married Magdalena Martin (2 March 1845-7 November 1895); they had 13 children. After Magdalena’s death, he married a widow, Judith Weber Krempien (4 July 1855-9 April 1942); they had one daughter in addition to the five children from her first marriage. Peter Shirk died 1 October 1919 in Bridgeport, Ontario, Canada; he and Magdalena are buried at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener.

Peter grew up on the family farm in Lancaster County, and apprenticed as a miller. In 1862 while the Civil War was raging, Peter and a sister, Barbara, moved to Waterloo County, Ontario, making Peter a draft dodger from the war. He worked a brief time for his uncle, Jacob Hoffman, who had a furniture factory and sawmill in Berlin (now Kitchener). Because of his experience in milling, Peter soon took a position at the Union Mills in Waterloo where he worked until 1866.

Peter Shirk had an entreprenuerial spirit and soon began operating his own mills. In 1866 he purchased the mill at Blair, Ontario, thoughhe sold it in 1869. In 1870, in partnership with Samuel S. Snider, he purchased the Lancaster Mills in Bridgeport. A sawmill and cooperage also operated near the mill. After Samuel Snider retired in 1887, Shirk continued as the sole proprietor. He then purchased the Baden Mills from James Livingstone in 1887. Shirk operated both mills until his death, after which they continued operation within the extended family until sold to the Waterloo County Co-operative in 1949. The Baden Mill was lost in a fire in 1942, and the Lancaster Mill burned in 1970. In its last years, the Lancaster Mill was operated as a feed mill for local farmers.

Although Peter held conservative theological views, he was an innovator in business practices. He had telegraph service installed at the Lancaster Mill at an early date, followed by installation of the first telephone in the town of Bridgeport.

In 1878 Peter Shirk was elected to the Berlin High School Board, and served on the board for 26 years, though none of his children attended high school. For 20 years (1892-1912) Peter Shirk also served as treasurer for the Township of Waterloo. His son, George, followed him in that position.

It appears that Peter and Magdalena Shirk were members until the 1890s at what became First Mennonite Church. However, three of their daughters were baptized in 1896 by Magdalena’s brother, Abraham Martin, the founder of the Old Order Mennonites in Waterloo County. Peter strongly believed that Mennonites should remain separate from world. This was reflected in a series of letters he wrote between 1893 and 1908 to Jacob Mensch, a conservative leader in Pennsylvania. Shirk expressed concerns in those letters about worldly worship services, preachers taking too much pride their sermons, the conduct of singing schools in church buildings, erecting church buildings in the style of Protestant churches, and overemphasis on abstinence from use of alcohol and tobacco.

Interestingly, Peter Shirk’s funeral was held at First Mennonite Church, led by two ministers from the more assimilated Mennonite Conference of Ontario and one Old Order Mennonite minister. Shirk’s ambivalent relationship to the modern world impacted the Old Order Mennonite community from the beginning, as the Ontario Old Order Mennonites always allowed telephones in places of business because of Peter Shirk’s telephone in the Lancaster Mill in Bridgeport.

— Sam Steiner

 

Ontario Mennonites in Canada’s Parliament

Canadian Mennonites participated in local politics long before Canada became a country in 1867. This involvement included service on the earliest school boards in Waterloo County, continued as members and reeves of township councils, and continues to the present as members of town and city councils and even as mayors of municipalities. John Erb, the founder of Preston (now part of Cambridge, Ontario), served as a justice of the peace in the early 1800s. Another early example was Jacob Y. Shantz, who served briefly as the mayor of Berlin (now Kitchener) in the 1880s at the same time his son was on the town council.

These roles were seen, at least by more assimilated Mennonites, to be compatible with the nonresistant peace position of Mennonite theology. More conservative groups would hesitate at more senior positions in municipal politics because legal action to defend town or city activity might be required. Traditionally Mennonites have tried to avoid courts of law when possible. Such political participation was impossible for groups that emphasized substantial separation from the world.

Seeking political office at even higher levels, such as provincial or national parliaments was another step again. Only the most assimilated Mennonites have pursued these positions, and only beginning in the mid-20th century, at least in Ontario. Previously, persons of Mennonite extraction who wished to pursue a political life, left the Mennonite Church before seeking office.

Isaac E. Bowman

Isaac E. Bowman. Wikimedia Commons.

Some historians point to Isaac E. Bowman, son of Mennonite parents, who served in the Legislature of Canada beginning in 1864, and served as a Liberal Member of Parliament in the  late 1860s and early 1870s, and again in the 1880s and 1890s. However his parents converted to the Evangelical Association in the 1840s, and I. E. Bowman was never himself a Mennonite.

Dilman K. Erb.

Dilman K. Erb. Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, Dilman K. Erb, a Liberal MP for Perth South from 1896-1904, although born to Mennonite parents, was identified as a Methodist in the 1891 census. He was listed as Mennonite in 1881 when he still lived at home, but became a Methodist after marriage.

Ironically, during World War I, Mennonites lost the right to vote because they were conscientious objectors. Previously they had frequently voted in provincial and national elections, and supported political parties, even though they did not themselves seek high public office. Following World War I, even though they regained the vote, Mennonites became much more hesitant to vote, much less to seek prominent political roles, based on fears for the implications for their peace position.

The coming of the Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union in the 1920s changed this hesitation. These Mennonites had not shunned political office in Russia (Mennonites had been elected to the Russian Duma), and carried much less hesitation about seeking political office in Canada. After World War II, when they were sufficiently anglicized, Mennonites from this culture began to seek positions in Canada’s Parliament.

Ontario Members of Parliament in the 1970s and 1980s who were members of Mennonite congregations were William Andres (Liberal, 1974-1979, Lincoln riding), Jake Froese (Conservative, 1979-1980, Niagara Falls riding), John Reimer (Conservative, 1979-1980, 1984-1993, Kitchener riding). Andres was United Mennonite, Froese and Reimer were Mennonite Brethren.

Frank H. Epp

Frank H. Epp. GAMEO photo

A Liberal candidate in the 1979 and 1980 elections for the Waterloo riding was Frank H. Epp, an ordained Mennonite minister and former president of Conrad Grebel College. He lost, but enjoyed strong support from the Mennonite community. He was a member of Rockway Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation.

Paul Steckle

Paul Steckle. Liberal Party of Canada

Paul Steckle, a member of the Zurich (Ontario) Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation, was a Liberal Member of Parliament for Huron-Bruce from late 1993-2008. He was known for taking positions sometimes at odds with his party, and at times it was thought he would cross the floor to the Conservative Party because of his conservative views on social issues.

There were about 14 Members of Parliament with some Mennonite or Brethren in Christ connections in the last Harper government (2011-2015). All 14 were members of the Conservative Party, and almost all were from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Seven of them attended Anabaptist congregations, most of them Mennonite Brethren. The only one from Ontario was Harold Albrecht. He is a former Brethren in Christ pastor who resigned from his pastorate to run for political office. He was first elected in 2006 in the Kitchener-Conestoga riding, and in 2015 successfully won re-election.

Jane Philpott

Dr. Jane Philpott. Wikimedia Commons.

A newly-elected Mennonite Member of Parliament from Ontario in 2015 is Jane Philpott, a Liberal in the Markham-Stouffville riding. She is a physician and a member of Community Mennonite Church in Stouffville, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation.

Over the recent history of Canada’s Parliament, Mennonites are grossly over-represented as a percentage of the House of Commons, since Mennonites in Canada are much less than one percent of the population. Does this over-representation speak to the high, and positive, profile of Mennonites in their communities? Probably not, since denominational backgrounds are not much discussed in Canadian elections.

It does speak to the comfort of assimilated Mennonite MPs in speaking to issues in harmony with their party’s position on matters like Canada’s military activity, or social conscience matters like abortion, legalization of marijuana, or assisted suicide. In some cases their views may be at variance with significant portions of the Mennonite community.

Maybe it simply confirms that assimilated Mennonites have “made it” in larger Canadian society.

I am indebted to J. Winfield Fretz’s Waterloo Mennonites for some of my information.

To learn more of the history of Ontario Mennonites and politics, read In Search of Promised Lands.