Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches
The Beginning and Early History of the Conference (1910-1924)
The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren (MB) Churches had its beginnings in 1910 as the Northern District Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Until then, the entire Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church in the United States and Canada functioned as one general conference. In 1946, the Northern District Conference became the Canadian Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America and eventually came to be called the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.
The conference convened for its first annual session at Herbert, Saskatchewan, 27-28 June 1910. At this meeting the thirteen MB churches in Saskatchewan, with a total membership of nearly 1,000, were represented by 64 delegates. The conference organized with David Dyck as chairperson, Benjamin Janz, assistant chairperson, and John F. Harms, secretary. The two MB churches in Manitoba, Winkler Mennonite Brethren and Winnipeg, were intially members of the Central District Conference but joined the Northern District Conference in 1913. Since the Saskatchewan churches constituted two groups, northern and southern, the conference was often subdivided into three circuits (Kreise), the northern Saskatchewan circuit known as the Rosthern Kreis, the southern Saskatchewan circuit as Herbert Kreis, and the Manitoba Kreis. In 1914 the total membership of the conference was 1,317.
Home mission work was the most important activity of the conference in its early years. At its first session, the conference elected a home mission committee composed of three members: David Harms, chairperson, Jacob W. Thiessen, secretary, and Heinrich Aaron Thiessen, treasurer. These three continued in this committee many years and rendered valuable service to the conference. The home mission work consisted of conducting evangelistic services in the churches, caring for the small groups in new settlements, doing extension work in new localities, and distributing Bibles and Christian literature.
Some conference workers were engaged as evangelists for a significant length of time. These included C. N. Hiebert, J. H. Ewert, H. A. Neufeld, Jacob Wiens, John J. Kroeker, Heinrich S. Voth, H. P. Janz, C. J. Kliewer, Henry S. Rempel, Henry H. Nikkel, and Jacob F. Redekop. The conference also took a keen interest in the Russian settlements of Saskatchewan and two MB congregations were established there, one at Eagle Creek and the other at Petrofka. Hermann Fast especially rendered valuable service here.
Among the leaders of the early years were Elder David Dyck, Elder Benjamin Janz, Heinrich A. Neufeld, John F. Harms, Jacob Lepp, David K. Klassen, Johann Warkentin, John P. Wiebe, Heinrich S. Voth, and S. L. Hodel. Most of these were very active in the conference sessions, in holding Bible conferences in the churches, and in furthering the various conference projects.
The conference early began a city mission in Winnipeg, which ultimately led to the organization of a local church. William J. Bestvater was the first city missionary, followed by E. H. Nikkel and after that by C. N. Hiebert, who served for many years. Anna J. Thiessen entered this work almost at its beginning and offered her services for many years.
The conference established the Herbert Bible School in Herbert, Saskatchewan in 1913 and the Home for the Aged in Winkler, Manitoba. Courses intended for the training of choir directors and choir singers were also arranged by the conference.
Expansion of the Conference and Its Activities (1924-1936)
These twelve years marked a period of rapid growth and expansion in the conference. The effectiveness of home mission activities partly accounted for this rapid growth, but the main contributing factor was the immigration of many Mennonites from Russia (Rußländer) between 1923 and 1930. A fairly large percentage of these immigrants had been members of MB churches in Russia and wherever they settled, they either joined MB churches or formed new churches and affiliated themselves with the conference. At the beginning of 1924 the conference consisted of 22 congregations with a membership of 1,771. At the close of 1936 there were 63 churches and groups with a total membership of 5,562. These churches were spread across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and there were small beginnings of congregations in British Columbia.
The addition of many new members and the rapid growth of the churches raised some new and difficult problems. Most of the newly arrived members were without economic means, so the churches assisted with clothing, food, and living quarters, provided work, and helped them to procure farm land and homes. It required some time for the early Canadian members and the newly arrived Mennonites to become fully amalgamated into one functioning conference. Nonetheless, the conference profited culturally and spiritually through the arrival of Mennonites from Russia. A number of effective and experienced leaders, ministers, educators, and other workers became an asset to the conference. These included Herman A. Neufeld, William Dyck, Jacob W. Reimer, John G. Wiens, Abraham H. Unruh, Gerhard Unruh, Franz F. Isaak, Cornelius F. Klassen, Cornelius A. DeFehr, D. D. Duerksen, and H. Goossen, all of whom served in Manitoba; Isaac Regehr, H. A. Regier, Jacob G. Thiessen in Saskatchewan; Benjamin B. Janz, Johann A. Toews, Aron A. Toews in Alberta; J. A. Harder, Cornelius C. Peters, Abraham Nachtigal, J. P. Braun, Franz C. Thiessen in British Columbia.
The conference continued and expanded its home mission work with vigor. The many new and small settlements made this work very necessary. The city mission in Winnipeg continued and since many of the new immigrants settled in this city, three large MB churches developed. The Mary-Martha Home for Mennonite working girls in the city was established in 1927 under the supervision of Anna J. Thiessen and afforded a spiritual home for hundreds of girls lacking parental care. City missions, which also included homes for working girls, were begun in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and in Vancouver, BC. Mr. and Mrs. H. S. Rempel served as missionaries of the former home for many years and built up a church congregation.
The congregations realized the need and importance of Bible instruction for its young people and encouraged the establishing of Bible schools. The one at Herbert continued, and other schools were established in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, Winkler, Manitoba, and in Coaldale and Gem, Alberta. Although these schools were not directly supervised or financed by the conference, the conference continued to encourage them, received reports of their work, and from them received many gifted young workers.
The Growth of the Conference and Its Activities (1936-1949)
This period marked a time of further growth and increase in conference activities. During this time the conference expanded westward and eastward. While the churches in Alberta continued to increase for some time, a great rush to the Fraser Valley took place and in a short time large congregations grew up there. By 1949 nearly one third of the conference membership was found in British Columbia. The main reason for this westward emigration was the continuous failure of crops in the prairie belt of Saskatchewan. The effect on the churches of this area was a marked decline of membership and in some cases the discontinuation of churches.
The MB churches in Ontario, which grew out of the emigration of 1923-30 from Russia, had organized as a separate MB conference, but in 1944 joined the Canadian Conference as well as the General MB Conference of North America. With this addition the Canadian Conference increased in numbers and received several strong leaders, among who were Henry H. Janzen and Isaac Tiessen.
The conference reorganized its home mission effort, delegating this work to the five provincial conferences, which reported on their work at the annual conference. The spiritual welfare of the church was under the supervision of the Committee of Reference and Counsel (Fürsorge-Komitee). In 1916 the conference framed and adopted a constitution and was incorporated as a religious body in Canada, after which it regulated its procedures and conducted its work through the several elected boards and committees.
There was a steady advance in educational effort. Nine Bible schools and five church high schools were in operation in 1949 and many young people were availing themselves of educational opportunities. In 1944 the conference established the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg (later Concord College and now part of Canadian Mennonite University) for training ministers, evangelists, Bible teachers, and other workers. Abraham H. Unruh, Henry H. Janzen, and John B. Toews had a leading place in establishing the school and served as faculty. In 1947 the conference accepted full responsibility for the operation of the Bethesda Mental Hospital at Vineland, Ontario, of which Heinrich Wiebe was superintendent.
After World War II the conference took an increasingly active role in relief work, principally through the Mennonite Central Committee. The conference aided displaced Mennonites who came from Europe to Canada, some of whom joined MB churches. Some emigrant families from Brazil and Paraguay also joined MB churches.
Consolidation and Continued Growth of the Conference (1950-1996)
Sometime in late 1947 or early 1948, Mennonite Brethren in Canada had begun to outnumber their United States parent church, and this shift signaled important changes within Canadian MB churches between 1955 and 1985. The migrations of Mennonites from Europe and South America aided the growth of the church. Beginning in the early 1950s a movement from the farm to the city began. In 1950 the three largest congregations in the conference were all rural. By 1986, in every province except Alberta the biggest congregations were in urban settings, and in several places Mennonite Brethren could claim to be one of the major evangelical church communities (Abbotsford, Vancouver, Winnipeg, St. Catharines, and Saskatoon). In 1986, there were 16 congregations in Winnipeg alone. Between 1955 and 1995 Canadian membership more than doubled (12,514 to 30,573), as did the number of congregations (78 to 204).
As the Canadian MB church grew, a number of changes followed. The head office of Missions and Services was moved from Hillsboro, Kansas, to Winnipeg. A decision to support one seminary, in Fresno, California, for both the United States and Canada was finalized in 1975. Most of the teachers at the seminary in 1986 were former Canadians.
Canadian Mennonite Brethren have been characterized by a strong sense of their identity, aided by biennial national conventions. Nationally, they have supported Concord College (formerly Mennonite Brethren Bible College) in Winnipeg, publications (Mennonite Brethren Herald, Mennonitische Rundschau, Le Lien, and the Chinese Herald) and the Board of Evangelism church planting work in Quebec. The latter began in 1961 and churches in Quebec became a provincial conference in 1984. Christian education programs and the Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns' leadership in doctrinal and ethical issues have also been supported. Total giving for 1995 totaled $5.9 million. Among evangelicals in Canada, Mennonite Brethren were well known, providing leadership and funds to many causes. Frank C. Peters, Victor Adrian, and John H. Redekop, along with David E. Redekop and Jacob M. Klassen, have given national leadership far beyond the Mennonite Brethren Church.
Between 1955 and 1985 the Mennonite Brethren became culturally a Canadian church. In 1986, 24 of the 180 congregations still used some German, a third of these for services and the rest for Sunday school classes. (In 1940 all Canadian MB congregations used German for worship.) In 1990 Mennonite Brethren congregations were worshiping in at least nine languages, including French, German, and Hindi. Understanding of church growth gradually changed from outreach through vacation Bible schools and mission Sunday schools to church planting and church extension in the early 1980s. Growth has come increasingly through local church outreach.
In 1995, each of the provinces from Quebec westward had strong provincial conferences. Three high schools were supported by conferences in Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia, and three Bible institutes in Quebec, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The British Columbia conference supported Columbia Bible College, and Concord College (formerly Mennonite Brethren Bible College and now a part of Canadian Mennonite University) in Winnipeg was supported by the three Prairie and the Ontario provincial conferences. All provincial conferences had mission programs, with especially strong efforts in British Columbia and Manitoba. The Manitoba conference carried on a strong radio and television ministry, one of the largest denomination supported broadcasting programs in Canada. By 1995, nearly half of all Canadian Mennonite Brethren as well as the two largest churches, Willingdon in Burnaby and Northview in Abbotsford, were located in British Columbia.
Canadian Mennonite Brethren in the mid-1980s were increasingly viewing themselves as evangelical rather than Mennonite, and indicating it by using such names as "community church" or simply dropping the "Mennonite Brethren" name. Church polity was becoming more presbyterial. Support for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and other inter-Mennonite causes continued to come from a large part of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren community. Of the 486 MB workers serving in various ministries in 1984, 112 were with Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions and Services, 71 were with MCC, and 303 were with non-Mennonite Brethren mission boards.
Yet a strong common vision bound most of the churches together and life as a fellowship of churches continued to be important. Holding common positions on social and ethical issues was considered important. Leadership had the respect of the churches. A strong sense of mission was evident. Cooperation was cultivated both with the wider Mennonite fellowship as well as with the evangelical fellowship.
The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Yearbook, published annually, contains minutes and statistics.
Lohrenz, J.H. The Mennonite Brethren Church. Hillsboro, Kan.: Board of Foreign Missions of The Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, 1950.
Toews, John A. History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, ed. A.J. Klassen. Fresno, Calif.: Mennonite Brethren Board of Literature and Publication, 1975, index.
Address: 1310 Taylor Ave., Winnipeg, MB R3M 3Z6
Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive
1. The treasurer position, later changed to chief financial officer, was originally an elected position but later became a staff position not elected at a conference convention. The treasurer listed with each conference executive is the individual who held the position at the time of the convention.
2. The conference minister position, later changed to executive director, is not a position elected at a conference convention. The conference minister listed with each conference executive is the individual who held the position at the time of the convention.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 505-506; vol. 5, pp. 124-125. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
To cite this page:
MLA style: Lohrenz, J. H. and Harold Janz. "Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. November 2012. Web. 23 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C363ME.html.
APA style: Lohrenz, J. H. and Harold Janz. (November 2012). Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C363ME.html.