It can happen in Canada–Immigration by Mennonites prohibited

The current dismay over President Donald Trump’s decision to temporarily stop the entry of refugees into the United States reminded me that xenophobia (the fear of people who are “foreign” to us) in not limited to time and place. It has also affected Mennonites in Canada.

At the end of World War I, over 1,000 Mennonites and Hutterites from the United States began to immigrate to Canada, partially in response to the harsh treatment some of them experienced during the war, including imprisonment and the death of several Hutterites. Initially Canada welcomed them as good agricultural settlers, but this welcome changed almost overnight.

Charges were made that Hutterites and Mennonites from the United States were getting the best land, and that veterans of World War I were unable to get similar prime land. Popular media like the Ottawa Citizen claimed they were draft dodgers “on a wholesale scale.” The Calgary Eye-Opener said in alarm that 2 million Mennonites were headed to Canada, buying up blocks of land. (We are only approaching that number of Mennonites in the world today.)

Rumblings of discontent from conservative Mennonites in Manitoba contributed to the reaction against Mennonites. Some of these Mennonites were discussing the possibility of leaving Canada for another location because western provinces were trying to force their children into English-language public schools. Many of these Mennonites did leave for Mexico in the 1920s, and became of the ancestors of the Low German Mennonites who have returned to Canada, including Southern Ontario, beginning in the 1950s.

edwardsSoon even Members of Parliament called for restrictions on Mennonites as they prepared to amend the Immigration Act in 1919. John W. Edwards, a Conservative M.P. from the Frontenac riding in eastern Ontario referred to Mennonites and Hutterites as “cattle” during a debate on immigration on April 30, 1919.

The next day the government issued an Order-in-Council prohibiting Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors from entering Canada because they were:

…undesirable, owing to their peculiar customs, habits, modes of living, and methods of holding property, and because of their probable inability to become readily assimilated to assume the duties and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship within a reasonable time after entry.

This order-in-council affected not only immigrants. For a time it also made it difficult for American Mennonite ministers to visit Canada for revival meetings, or American Mennonites who wanted to come and work at places like the Toronto Mennonite Mission.


S. F. Coffman

In July 1921 Bishop S. F. Coffman from Vineland, Ontario, joined a Russian Mennonite group seeking to meet with the new Canadian Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen, whom Coffman had previously met. However, Meighen was out of town, as was deputy prime minister George Foster. They finally met with opposition leader Mackenzie King, who promised that if he formed the next government, the restriction on Mennonite immigration would be lifted. The following afternoon the delegation was finally able to meet George Foster, who pointed out the irony of some Mennonites seeking to leave Canada while others petitioned to immigrate.

In February 1922 S. F. Coffman wrote to the new prime minister, Mackenzie King, about lifting the ban against Mennonite immigration and allowing Mennonites from Russia to come to Canada. After further meetings between Coffman, western Canadian Mennonite leaders and the government,  the restriction on Mennonite, Hutterite and Doukobor immigration was finally lifted on June 6, 1922 and officially announced on June 22, 1922.

Mennonites in Canada felt a sense of urgency in getting this ban lifted because of the plight of Mennonites in Russia after World War I and the Russian Revolution. The large Mennonite immigration to Canada from Russia began already in 1923.

So we see that Canadians have not been free of fear of the “other” in their history. Even more grievous accounts from Canadian history could be given about African-Canadians, Chinese, Jews and Japanese. And most recently we have seen expressions of fear and violence against another minority faith group — the Muslims.

I am indebted to Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: the history of a separate people. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974 for some of this information.

The John W. Edwards quote comes from Official report of the debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, Second Session-Thirteenth Parliament, p. 1929.

For this and many other historical items of Mennonite interest, read my In Search of Promised Lands: a religious history of Mennonites in Ontario.

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.

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.

Ella & S. F. Coffman

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.

The Pre-History of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario – Part II

Last week in Part I we looked at two early examples of inter-Mennonite cooperation in Ontario — in the Russian Aid Committee that assisted Russian Mennonite immigrants to Manitoba in the 1870s, and the cooperation in communicating with the Canadian government about Mennonite pacifism in World War I.

This week we’ll look at a cooperative relief effort that began at the end of World War I, and later, the assistance provided to Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

Non-Resistant Relief Organization

NRRO Minutes

Minutes of the first meeting of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization, 1917. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

At the end of 1917, the Mennonites in Ontario thought they had achieved a breakthrough with the government, and that Ontario Mennonites had the same status as Manitoba Mennonites who came in the 1870s and were “excepted” from military service, meaning they had no military obligations at all.

Unfortunately their understanding was wrong,  but this view influenced S. F. Coffman of Vineland, Ontario and L. J. Burkholder, a Mennonite leader in Markham, Ontario to discuss the possibility that Mennonites as a group make a contribution to the relief of war sufferers.

Samuel and Jane Goudie.

Samuel and Jane Goudie. Missionary Church Historical Trust.

An exploratory meeting was held on November 17, 1917 and included participants from the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, the Old Order Mennonites and the Brethren in Christ.  Samuel Goudie, a Mennonite Brethren in Christ elder (similar to bishop) was elected chair.

The Non-Resistant Relief Organization (NRRO), as it became known, formally organized in 1918, and included all the groups from the November meeting plus the Amish Mennonites. It did not include the Old Order Amish or the Reformed Mennonites. This group chose S. F. Coffman as the primary contact with government officials, because of his experience in communicating with the government about Mennonites and non-resistant views.

In addition to raising over $75,000 for war relief, the NRRO advised their congregations about purchase of war bonds, and worked with sympathetic Members of Parliament to help with difficult cases of individual men who were detained in military camps. Ernest J. Swalm, later a Brethren in Christ bishop who became very well known in Mennonite Central Committee circles, spent a brief time in prison during the war.

The Non-Resistant Relief Organization almost disbanded in 1920, but then stayed in place until 1924 when the first Mennonites from the Soviet Union began to come to Ontario. It then went dormant until 1937 when the threat of war began again.

Mennonite Immigrants from the Soviet Union

Because of S. F. Coffman’s earlier work with the NRRO and his familiarity government officials, in 1921 he joined a small delegation of Mennonites from western Canada and the Soviet Union seeking to meet with the new Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen. They failed in that attempt, but did meet with the Liberal opposition leader, Mackenzie King.

King pledged, if he became Prime Minister, to remove a ban against Mennonite immigration that had come in after the end of the war.  Coffman and Samuel Goudie were part of another delegation in 1922 that finally saw the ban lifted in June 1922.

Immigration from the Soviet Union began in 1923, though these refugees all went to western Canada. The immigration to Ontario began in 1924.  The work of matching immigrants to host families in Ontario was done by a four person committee at the Erb Street Mennonite Church chaired by Ira Bauman.

Refugees walking up Erb Street.

Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union approaching Erb Street Mennonite Church, July, 1924. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

The number of immigrants who arrived in July 1924, shown walking up Erb Street here, was 40% larger than anticipated (850 persons instead of 600), which meant some families took extra immigrants, and additional families were solicited.

All Mennonite groups participated in hosting, from Old Order Mennonites to Amish Mennonites to Mennonite Brethren in Christ. The Bethany Mennonite Brethren in Christ church in Kitchener alone took about 100 persons.

Next week we’ll look at Mennonite immigrants after World War II, and the Canadian office of Mennonite Central Committee which began during that war.

To learn more about the pre-history of Mennonite Central Committee read In Search of Promised Lands.

Read Part I

Read Part III

The Pre-History of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario – Part I

Rick Cober Bauman

Rick Cober Bauman, MCC Ontario Executive Director, speaking at rally for Syrian refugees at Kitchener City Hall. MCC Ontario photo

The refugee crisis in Syria has highlighted the refugee work of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario (MCC Ontario) in the Mennonite and other communities in Ontario. Donations, including $10,000 from the City of Kitchener, are flowing in, and planning for the arrival of Syrian refugees is underway.

Mennonite Central Committee Ontario formally began in 1963, though MCC as a relief agency has existed in the United States since 1920. It has been the inter-Mennonite relief and service agency that has allowed almost all theological stripes of Mennonites to cooperate in helping to relieve suffering in the world.

The roots of MCC, however, go back much further than 1920. One could say inter-Mennonite cooperation began over 200 years ago in Upper Canada when Mennonites and Brethren in Christ leaders together petitioned the government for recognition of their pacifism prior to the War of 1812.

The Mennonites and the Amish Mennonites cooperated in the 1820s when the Amish began to settle in what became Wilmot Township of Waterloo Region. Mennonite leaders went with Christian Nafziger when he first approached the Upper Canadian authorities about the availability of land for potential Amish settlers. When they arrived many Amish families first lived with Mennonite families in Waterloo Township, while husbands and sons built the first pioneer buildings on their land.

But here I want to talk more about the “organized” cooperative efforts, where committees were established to work at projects that could not be carried out by one group alone. These cooperative ventures also included the full theological spectrum of Mennonites at the time the organization was required.

I will mention two of these organized efforts this week, and four others in the following two weeks.

Russian Aid Committee

The Russian Aid Committee was established in the 1870s to assist Mennonites from Russia who were immigrating to “reserves” established in Manitoba for them by the Canadian government. These Mennonites represented groups who feared the possible loss of privileges in Russia, both in the right to avoid military service and to control the education of their children.

Sarah and Jacob Y. Shantz

Sarah and Jacob Y. Shantz, ca. 1865. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Jacob Y. Shantz, shown here with his wife, Sarah, was the leader of this committee. He traveled numerous times to Manitoba to explore the situation, and later to Manitoba and further west to see how the settlements were faring. He was effectively the secretary-treasurer of the Russian Aid Committee that was established to find loans for immigrants who needed assistance, and to guarantee government loans that were extended to the immigrants.

Ironically, this committee functioned at the time when the Mennonite Conference of Ontario was experiencing a major division that resulted in the formation of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now called the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada).

Jacob Y. Shantz joined the new group in 1874 when the division occurred, but two months later he was working on a committee with Amish bishop John Gascho and conservative Mennonite businessman and newly ordained minister, Elias Schneider. Although they differed in their religious views, they were able to work together on a common cause. The committee managed loans of almost $100,000 from the government, along with another $33,000 in personal loans from Mennonites in Ontario to Mennonites in Manitoba.

World War I

Ella & S. F. Coffman

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

Samuel F. Coffman and his wife, Ella, came to Canada from Elkhart, Indiana where they both grew up. (See an earlier article of Ella here.) “S. F.” Coffman never became a Canadian citizen, though he lived in Vineland over 50 years. So it is interesting that during World War I he became the primary spokesman for Ontario Mennonites in addressing the Canadian government on the matter of exemption from military service for Mennonites.

When conscription came in 1917, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, the Amish Mennonites and the Old Order Mennonites sent a delegation to Ottawa to seek clarification on the position of the peace churches. After an relatively unsatisfactory meeting, the inter-Mennonite delegation appointed Coffman to carry on further correspondence with the governmental authorities. This he did, also providing assistance to the Old Order Amish, the Brethren in Christ and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ along the way.

This communication included direct correspondence with Prime Minister Borden, Deputy Minister Edmund Newcombe, local Members of Parliament and Justice Lyman Duff, who heard final appeals on Mennonite conscription cases. From his experience in World War I, Coffman remained surprisingly optimistic that nonresistance could be protected in Canada, even in time of war. And the somewhat unified Ontario Mennonite voice would soon lead to even greater inter-Mennonite cooperation on matters of relief, which will be discussed next week.

To learn more about Mennonite Central Committee and it earlier roots, read In Search of Promised Lands.

Read Part II

Read Part III

Ella Mann Coffman, Leader in the Background

Ella Mann, by the end of her life, was best known in Mennonite circles through her high profile husband, a leader in the Ontario and Canadian Mennonite community. But her ministry, like that of many pastors’ spouses in the first half of the 20th century, was essential for the flourishing of the church.

Ella Mann was born on New Years Day in 1873, the oldest child of a poor family in Elkhart, Indiana. She went to elementary school for four years, but then was sent out to work. Her lack of formal education probably contributed to her retiring personality that shunned  public roles.

She did attend the same Mennonite church in Elkhart as Samuel Frederick Coffman (everyone called him Fred), son of the well-known Mennonite evangelist, John S. Coffman. They became friends, and corresponded when their lives took them to different locations.

For a time Ella worked in Harvey County, Kansas, and later in Chicago where she served as a housekeeper in well-to-do homes, and did her part to help out the fledgling Mennonite mission located there. Meanwhile, her friend, Fred, graduated from high school, and attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, while also working at the mission.

Ella Mann and Samuel Coffman, 1901

Ella Mann and Fred Coffman on their wedding day, 1901. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Ella and Fred were married in 1901 when she was 28 years of age, and Fred was 29. He was already an ordained minister, and their marriage took place on his way back from a trip to Alberta where he helped to organize new Mennonite congregations in settlements composed of former Ontario Mennonites. One of his last acts before marriage was to give away his savings of $100 to the Evangelizing Committee that had sent him on earlier mission efforts. Ella was stunned by this decision, but accepted it.

“S. F.” Coffman (as he was known in church circles) became a prominent leader in the Mennonite world, which took him on many trips away from the small Vineland Mennonite community where he was the pastor and bishop. Ella managed the family home, their five children,  and her husband’s schedule, on limited financial resources.  Mennonite ministers were unpaid for their service, and were expected to partially support themselves.

While Fred fixed clocks, ran a small print shop, did editorial work for the Mennonite Publishing House and practiced phrenology, Ella ran a large truck patch from which they sold fruit and vegetables. and managed the family finances. She once bought a car in S.F.’s absence, because the family needed one, and it was available at a good price.

Ella and S. F. Coffman family, 1920

Ella and Fred Coffman with their five surviving children, 1920. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Ella’s organizational skills were essential for Fred’s hectic schedule. On one occasion he called home from the Hamilton Train Station to ask Ella where it was that he was travelling. On another occasion, when he was without her help, he arrived at a destination a week early.

She helped to organize the local women’s sewing circle, and taught children’s Sunday school, but she declined leadership beyond the congregation.

Unsurprisingly, her heavy responsibilities sometimes affected her health. Ella experienced serious health concerns on several occasions. She died of heart failure in 1935 as the age of 62, shortly after being involved in an auto accident. Her role was taken over by three daughters who never married and lived with their father.

For much of this information I’m indebted to Lorraine Roth, Willing Service: Stories of Ontario Mennonite Women (Waterloo, Ont. : Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, 1992) and Urie Bender, Four Earthen Vessels (Kitchener, Ont.: Herald Press, 1982).

To learn more about Ella Mann Coffman and Samuel F. Coffman read In Search of Promised Lands.