Who Were the Mennonite Brethren in Christ?

For almost 70 years , the Mennonite Brethren in Christ was one of the most vibrant Mennonite bodies in Ontario. Indeed, in 1901, it was the largest Mennonite group in Ontario. Who were these folks, and why did they change their name after World War II?

In one sense you could have called them German Methodist Mennonites. When the Mennonite Brethren in Christ emerged in the 1870s and early 1880s, they patterned themselves very much on the theology and structure of the Evangelical Association. Who was the Evangelical Association? They were a German-speaking, Methodist-style renewal movement that was aggressively evangelistic in outlook, and held clear views on social issues like temperance, use of tobacco and avoidance of secret societies. Today in Canada the Evangelical Association is part of the United Church of Canada, and in the U.S. it is part of the United Methodist Church.

Solomon Eby

Solomon Eby. Courtesy Missionary Church Historical Trust.

There were two founding leaders of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ movement. Daniel Brenneman was a fiery leader in Elkhart County, Indiana. He was influenced by, and found common cause, with a middle-aged Ontario leader named Solomon Eby. Eby pastored a small Mennonite church on Lake Huron in Port Elgin. Eby had been selected in 1858 for ministry by lot, but he did not really feel called to church leadership. He tried to withdraw from his position, but was influenced to continue. Finally in 1869 Eby and most members of his congregation were “converted” at an Evangelical Association camp meeting to a faith that brought them assurance of their salvation.

Ontario City Mission Workers Society, early 1900s.

Ontario City Mission Workers Society, early 1900s. Courtesy Missionary Church Historical Trust.

Eby (and Brenneman) began preaching a Methodist-style path to salvation, while retaining bedrock  Mennonite values like non-participation in war, non-swearing of oaths, and emphasis on a simple lifestyle. They attracted many followers, both within and outside the Mennonite community.  The Mennonite Brethren in Christ were the first Ontario Mennonites to begin a mission outreach in Toronto (1897) and the first to support an Ontario Mennonite in overseas mission work (William Shantz to China in 1895). They established a City Mission Workers Society of “ministering sisters” who founded and provided leadership in many urban mission settings. Janet Douglas was the first of these ministering sisters. And the Mennonite Brethren in Christ were deeply involved in the formation of the Non-Resistant Relief Organization in 1918.

But gradually the influence of outside theological forces began to change the Mennonite Brethren in Christ. Their holiness theology receded in favor of a more fundamentalist theology that cared less about the formerly bedrock Mennonite doctrines. In World War II a significant number of their young men served in the military, and following the war the denomination came to believe the “Mennonite” name hindered their outreach and no longer sustained their theology.  And so they changed their name to the United Missionary Church. Today, after a couple of mergers, in Canada they are known as the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada. In the United States the group is known simply as the Missionary Church.

See the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) for more information on Solomon Eby, Daniel Brenneman, and the Mennonite Brethren in Christ.

To learn more about the influence of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ on other Ontario Mennonite bodies read In Search of Promised Lands.

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