Ontario, a province of Canada (pop. 12,541,410 in 2005). In 1791 the British colony of Quebec, which had been won from the French in 1759, was divided, and the vast area of wild bush country lying west of the Ottawa River became "Upper Canada." The following year some counties were laid out in each of the four districts. Settlement along the lakes and at the points of entry had already begun, and continued over the next fifty years until all available land in the southern part of the province had been occupied. The physical features and natural resources of the province appealed to immigrants. But the rolling land, heavily timbered and well watered by many streams and small rivers suitable for mill sites and as waterways for the settler's small boat or raft, lay for the most part unseen by the white man.
"In 1783 large numbers of United Empire Loyalists flocked to Canada from the United States. The earliest ones went to Nova Scotia. The principal centers around which these immigrants located, however, were in Upper Canada, at Kingston, York (Toronto), and along the Niagara River. It has been estimated that nearly 50,000 came to Canada between 1783-1786. The Loyalists who applied for land grants in Canada at this time were required to prove that they had been attached to the British cause and had suffered, as a consequence, the loss of property, and other abuses. The claim was accepted when supported by a single witness. The grants were made very generously. Governor Simcoe (6 November 1794) made even more generous offers to attract a class of desirable settlers. The immigrant should receive 200 acres of land and some other assistance. He must profess the Christian religion and he must have a good reputation in the country from which he came. In the first years of his regime Simcoe had advised the British Consul in Philadelphia that Quakers and like societies should be admitted from Pennsylvania, and would be accorded exemption from bearing arms as had been allowed hitherto by the British government. These inducements from Simcoe and the desire to be under the English king (as will be shown later) caused numerous Mennonite families from Pennsylvania to migrate to the fertile wilderness lands in the Home District and along the Grand River. Possibly the difficulty of securing cheap land in the thickly populated settlements in the older Mennonite communities of Eastern Pennsylvania also played a part in the movement" (Burkholder: 14).
The first Mennonites to settle permanently in what is now the province of Ontario came from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and in 1786 took up land on the "Twenty Mile Creek," so called because of its distance from the Niagara River. This colony was settled among the present towns of Jordan, Vineland, and Campden, and in about 1800 may have numbered about one hundred. It was without a minister until 1801 when, upon the advice of the ministers at Deep Run, Pennsylvania, to whom they had appealed for help, Valentine Kratz was chosen minister and John Fretz, deacon. The first meetinghouse was built on the farm of Jacob Moyer in 1810.
At about the same time Mennonites from Lancaster and York counties were settling farther south on the north shores of Lake Erie in what is now Welland County. This colony, also known as the "Black Creek" and Bertie settlement, seems to have been more numerous than that on the "Twenty." There were at least three regular places of worship used by the Mennonites here in these early days: in Bertie Township near Sherkston, near Stevensville known as the Black Creek Church, and on the Niagara River near Chippewa, known as the Miller Church (Riverside). There were also Quaker families in this region. In 1837 there were twenty-five Mennonite and two Tunker families in Willoughby Township, Welland County. However, through the years the picture has reversed and the Brethren in Christ have flourishing congregations here while the Mennonites have died out. Lack of capable church leadership in this community seems to have been the reason for its decline.
The largest settlement of Mennonites in the province was made in what is now Waterloo County, in the west central part of southern Ontario. Quoting Burkholder, "The first settlers, Joseph Schoerg and Samuel Betzner, left their homes in Franklin County, PA in the fall of 1799 and traveled as far as the Twenty where they wintered. In the next spring, 1800, they, with their families, followed the Indian trail as far as Brantford, and then went north, along the Grand River and settled on its banks in what is now Waterloo County. The location of their farms is now marked by the Waterloo Pioneers' Memorial Tower erected in 1926, four miles (6.5 km) south of Kitchener. These two families were the first white families to settle in what is now Waterloo County. During the early spring of the same year, 1800 (according to Ezra Eby), Samuel Betzner, Sr., and John and Christian Reichert came with their families from Lancaster County. David Gingerich of Lancaster County visited the new settlement in 1800 on a tour of investigation and in came with his family and effects. The same year seven Montgomery County families arrived— three Bechtels, a Kinsey, a Rosenberger, and a Biehn. With them were also several unmarried persons, one of whom was George Clemens. In 1802 a number of other families came from Montgomery, Cumberland, and other Pennsylvania counties. Later in the same year came another company among whom was Joseph Bechtel, who as an ordained man became the first Mennonite minister in the colony, and his family, and John and Samuel Bricker. The general location of these first families was on the east bank of the Grand River near what is now Preston (Cambridge). They organized the first congregation of Mennonites in this part of Ontario, the Hagey (now Preston) church. A little school was started in near Blair with a Rittenhouse as teacher. The settlement now consisted of at least 25 families with a number of children and young adults."
"These settlers had purchased their lands from Richard Beasley. These farms were part of Block No. 2 of the Six Nations Indians lands. Mr. Beasley was only joint owner, and payment for this land to the Indians, through trustees, was secured by power of mortgage. The titles issued by Beasley were defective because of existing mortgage. Early in 1803 this defect in the deeds was discovered and the movement to Waterloo immediately stopped. When Mr. Beasley found that his deception was known and that he could not continue to sell the land to the Mennonites, he agreed to sell 60,000 acres of land, practically the whole of the present Waterloo Township, for 10,000 pounds. The matter was taken up by certain Mennonites in Lancaster County and a company was formed and the necessary money was raised. This 60,000 acres was called the German Company Tract. It was divided among the shareholders, by lot, into 134 parcels of 448 acres each. The Company was formed at a meeting held in a home of 'Hannes' Eby, at Hammer Creek, near Lititz in Lancaster County. At this meeting it was urged that the harassed brethren in Canada be given assistance, not for the purpose of material gain, but as a brotherly act. This spirit of helpfulness, without prospect of personal gain, has ever been an outstanding trait in the life of the Mennonites. The Pennsylvania shareholders now became the possessors of lands in Canada. The first installment of $20,000 was carried from Lancaster in solid silver cash in the spring of 1804 and paid over to the proper persons on 23 May 1804. The balance was paid about a year later and clear title was given to the lands of the German Company."
"During the period of uncertainty relative to the land titles, the immigration to Waterloo was halted. Scarcely any families came during 1803 and 1804. It was during these two years that the Markham settlement north of Toronto began. The Beasley difficulty seems to have been the cause. This difficulty removed, the settlers came again in increasing numbers to Waterloo. Those in Pennsylvania, who had so recently come into possession of fertile lands in the Grand River basin, were desirous of locating upon their holdings. The Lancaster families now predominated among the immigrants. During the years 1805, 1806, and 1807, the Mennonite population more than doubled by immigration. Benjamin Eby, who became the leading figure in the young church in Canada, came from Lancaster in 1807. With him came a large number of Lancaster settlers. This stream of settlers continued with vigor until interrupted by the War of 1812-1815" (Burkholder: 34-36).
The Markham settlement was located in York County, north of present Toronto. Henry Wideman, a minister from Montgomery County, PA, settled near Markham in 1803. In the early years a meetinghouse was erected on his farm and a burying ground begun. Caspar Schoerg (Shirk), brother to the Joseph Schoerg who settled on the Grand River in 1800, came to Markham in 1804 from Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Reesors, Hubers, and Stouffers came from Lancaster County the same year. A few years later the Groffs and Barkeys followed. The townships of Vaughan, Pickering, Scarborough, and Whitechurch received some settlers, but the main group was in Markham Township.
"The church in this colony never was large. There were as many as eight regular places of worship, but a few have not been used for some time. Mennonite Brethren in Christ and Wisler divisions decimated the numbers in this county. Neither of the three sections of the church in this area has enjoyed a very marked prosperity following these schisms. Large numbers of the younger generation have gone into other churches. At the present time the three bodies are holding the young people of their families fairly well." (Burkholder: 41).
Other scattered Ontario settlements include Zurich in western Ontario near the shore of Lake Huron, which was established in the 1830s and has continued until the present with both Amish and Mennonite churches. Most of these families came from Waterloo County. In Haldimand County on the shore of Lake Erie, was the Rainham settlement founded by David Hoover of York County, Pennsylvania in 1792. Other Pennsylvania families arrived here, but the group never became large. In 1835-40 numerous families from Welland and Lincoln counties moved into the township of South Cayuga in Haldimand County, while others left for Ohio and Indiana.
Through the years that followed early pioneering, the small, struggling communities grew. The inherent qualities of thrift and industry enabled these Swiss-Germans to prosper and become well-established. Their quiet and simple way of life, coupled with a sense of stewardship of the land they cultivated, very often saved them from mistakes and errors made by their less cautious neighbors, for their own fathers and grandfathers had only lately hewn homes from the wilderness of Pennsylvania.
During the first half century of Mennonitism in Upper Canada (Ontario), agriculture was the predominant occupation. Some operated grist, flour, and saw mills in conjunction with their farms, and a few went into manufacturing enterprises, but they left their mark mainly in the province's agricultural picture. The large bank barn with its deep stone walls, and the neat, well-kept orchard with its variety of fruit trees are only two examples.
However, while good farming and business practices built up the brotherhood in a material way, spiritual zeal and aggressiveness seems to have been often lacking. It is true there were many leaders, Benjamin Eby, Jacob Groff, Jacob Moyer, and others, some whose names are not remembered, who were no doubt truly concerned for the well-being and purity of the church. The Methodist and Evangelical churches were very active and they were quick to see that young people with good Mennonite background were desirable members. So over the years there was a gradual, but telling, loss to the Mennonite church. There were also several schisms that divided and weakened the church body. In 1849 Daniel Hoch of Jordan, a minister, separated from the Conference and had sympathizers in each district. In 1855 the Ohio and Canada West Mennonite Conference was organized at the Carlisle School, Waterloo County. Hoch identified himself with John H. Oberholtzer of Pennsylvania. Hoch's plea for a new life and clean conduct was commended by spiritual people generally, but his method and personality were not acceptable. He worked with the General Conference of Mennonites until 1869, after this with the Mennonite Brethren in Christ group; in forming the General Conference of Mennonites branch in Canada, he made little progress and his membership dwindled. In 1875 another division took place. Four ministers, three deacons, and several hundred members withdrew and at a conference at Bloomingdale, ON formed the United Mennonites. Later, after union with the Pennsylvania (1879) and Ohio (1883) groups, the name "Mennonite Brethren in Christ" was adopted. Some who had harbored dissatisfaction with the parent church from the time of the Hoch schism united actively with the new group. They have been very active in evangelistic work and have grown numerically. In 1949 the name was changed to United Missionary Church. In Ontario (1955) they had 47 congregations and a membership of over 2,400.
Burkholder comments (197), "In the year 1874, when Solomon Eby and John Baer, ministers, and Wm. Hembling and Joseph Schneider, deacons, and many others began what later was known as the Mennonite Brethren in Christ movement, the most aggressive element in the Church was removed. This group desired protracted meetings, prayer meetings and other activities for which the church as a whole was not yet ready, although prayer meetings had been sanctioned by conference in 1847. This schism taught the Church that more active interest must be taken in the gathering of the young into the fold. Some of the methods of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ group, in a modified form, would have been acceptable to a large section of the Church, but there were others of a more conservative type who opposed any measure or method to which they had not been accustomed. This conservative group was strongest in Woolwich Township in Waterloo County, but had sympathizers in all the other districts also."
The situation came to a head in 1889 when three bishops and ten ministers and deacons withdrew. They are the "Old Order" Mennonites, sometimes called "Woolwichers" because of their location, sometimes called "Wisler" because of their similarity to the Wisler Mennonites in Indiana, although there never was an organic union or common conference. In 1955 they had 18 congregations and a membership of about 1,800. In 1955 a similar group split off in the Markham and South Cayuga districts.
In 1924 a division took place in the First Mennonite church, Kitchener. About 125 members and their minister, U. K. Weber, withdrew and built their own building on Stirling Avenue, objecting to some of the stricter regulations of the old group. In 1950 they were affiliated with the Eastern District of the General Conference Mennonite Church and had a membership of 475.
Around the turn of the century, a few families from Ontario began to migrate to Western Canada, settling in Southwestern Alberta. Elias W. Bricker left Waterloo County with his family in 1891. Others followed and the colonists became quite numerous. The Ontario Mennonite (MC) Conference appointed S. F. Coffman to spend the year 1901 among the Alberta brethren assisting them in congregational organization. When the congregations had increased sufficiently in number in 1903, a conference was organized known as the Alberta-Saskatchewan Conference (now Northwest Mennonite Conference), having a membership in 1955 of 778.
In Ontario there were also several other immigrant groups besides the Pennsylvania Mennonites, the European Amish, Amish Mennonites, and the Russian Mennonites. Christian Nafziger from Bavaria was the first Amishman to arrive. In 1822, after landing in New Orleans and making his way up through the States, he came to Waterloo and selected a tract of land that comprises the present township of Wilmot. He went to the Governor of Upper Canada who consented to sell 150 acres to each Amish family for a small price and give an additional 50 acres free in return for cutting the trees in the road allowance. Nafziger returned to Germany, coming back to Ontario in 1824, which was the actual beginning of the Amish settlements. Within a few years Amish families from Europe began locating in Wilmot Township. They came from both Bavaria and Alsace Lorraine. The colony grew and spread west into Perth County and south into Oxford County. Some who originally settled in Ontario later moved to the U.S.A., especially Iowa. However, there were in 1955 twelve strong congregations with a total membership of around 2,400. The official name was Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference.
In 1886 a division took place in this group. It was decided to build a meetinghouse for worship purposes. Some were not in agreement with this, desiring to continue worship in the homes. They withdrew and are called the "Old Order" Amish Mennonites. They had five congregations and a total membership of about 650.
Another group of Mennonites who are a part of Ontario's history are those who came from Russia in the migrations of 1873 and 1923. During the years from 1874-1880, 1,246 families arrived at Toronto en route to Manitoba. Burkholder reports (174), "The immigrants arrived in the summer months, but too late in the season to commence their farming operations in the new country. Because of this, the newcomers were usually distributed among the Ontario Mennonite homes. Large numbers were quartered in Waterloo, "The Twenty," and in Markham. In this way opportunity was afforded the newcomers to become partly acquainted with Canadian conditions. It also enabled them to add a little to their capital with which they were about to set up their homes in the western prairie. Contacts were made during this temporary residence in Ontario that were both pleasant and helpful on both sides and lasted for many years." However, these people all went on to Manitoba, none remaining in Ontario. Jacob Y. Shantz of Kitchener rendered great aid to the settlement in Manitoba. Ontario Mennonites raised a large loan for them and furnished the guarantee for a Canadian government loan ($400,000).
After the Bolshevist Revolution of 1917 many more Mennonites were desirous of emigrating. The first group who came to Canada in 1922 went directly to the West. The next year a larger group came and about 800 remained in Ontario, some for only a short time; others made their homes here, settling in the Niagara peninsula and in Essex County in the extreme southwestern corner of the province. Some also settled in Waterloo County and others established a colony in Northern Ontario and named it "Reesor" in appreciation of the help rendered them by Thomas Reesor, Markham, who, with S. F. Coffman of Vineland, met these immigrants in Quebec and assisted them greatly. After the Second World War (1948-52) many refugees who fled Russia with the retreating German armies were assisted by their relatives and friends in Ontario, and found new homes in the fair province. Most of them integrated into existing Russian Mennonite communities. The same was true of the smaller number who came from Paraguay 1950-57. The Ontario Russian Mennonites were in two groups in the mid-1950s: the Mennonite Brethren, with a total membership of 1,687 in six congregations, and the United Mennonite Church (Canadian District of General Conference) with ten congregations and 2,841 members (1957).
There were also several smaller groups of Mennonites in the province in the mid-1950s. The Reformed Mennonites had members at several points in Ontario. Their total membership was about 150 in four regular places of meeting. The Hutterian Brethren, whose history parallels that of the Mennonites, also had one "new" colony in the province located near Bright, with a membership of 50, composed largely of Hungarians.
Differences and divisions have lessened the effectiveness of the Mennonite testimony. However, each group has made progress and in the mid-1950s there seemed to be a greater unity of purpose and more willingness to co-operate with one another than in the past. The main body (Mennonite Conference, MC) increased numerically, in 1955 numbering 3,840, distributed among 34 congregations. The total membership of all branches of Mennonites in Ontario was 13,333.
The following institutions were operated by the Mennonites in Ontario in 1957: Schools—Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Institute at Kitchener (MC, founded in 1907), Rockway Mennonite School (MC, founded in 1945), Eden High School of Virgil (MB, founded in 1945), Mennonite Brethren Bible School at Kitchener (founded in 1939 as Virgil Bible School, moved to Kitchener in 1955), United Mennonite Educational Institute at Leamington (GCM, founded in 1946), Emmanuel Bible College at Kitchener (UMC-MBC, founded in 1940); Homes for the Aged—Fairview Mennonite Home at Preston (MC, 1943), United Mennonite Home for the Aged at Vineland (GCM, 1955); three rest homes for the aged operated by the Ontario Amish Mennonites: The Maples Rest Home at Tavistock (1952), Craigholm at Ailsa Craig (1953), Milverton Nursing Home at Milverton (1954); Ailsa Craig Boys Farm (1955) operated by the MCC; Mental Hospitals— Bethesda Mental Hospital at Vineland (MB, 1937).
Early Ontario Mennonite history has received literary treatment of good quality in two novels by Miss B. Mabel Dunham, the long-time librarian of the Kitchener Public Library: The Trail of the Conestoga (Toronto, 1924) and Toward Sodom (Toronto, 1927). -- PHBu
The first Mennonites in Canada (1786) emigrated to Ontario (then known as Upper Canada) from the United States after the American Revolution (1776). They came from Pennsylvania, home to Mennonite immigrants since 1683.
Beginning in 1824, Amish settlers from Europe came to Waterloo, Oxford, and Perth Counties. From 1953 to 1969 a wave of Amish migration from Ohio resulted in settlements at Aylmer, Chesley, and other parts of the province. As of 1990, the Amish publishing house, Pathway Publishers based in Aylmer, continued to publish three periodicals, print textbooks for Amish schools, and issue German and English books for Old Order Amish readers in and beyond Ontario. In 1988 Old Order Amish had about 725 members in 14 congregations; they sponsored 18 private elementary schools.
In 1988 there were 181 congregations of the various Mennonite and Brethren in Christ bodies in Ontario. The groups cooperate closely in Mennonite Central Committee, Ontario. Three bodies, Conference of United Mennonite Churches in Ontario (GCM), Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MC), and Western Ontario Mennonite Conference (MC), united in 1988 to form the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada. The group sponsors Rockway Mennonite Collegiate in Kitchener, United Mennonite Educational Institute in Leamington, and Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo as well as homes for seniors and handicapped, camps, and a wide variety of urban ministries.
Another major group is the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches with 4,019 members in 24 congregations in 1996. It operates Eden Christian College (now Eden High School, part of the public school system) and Camp Crossroads.
Old Order Mennonites in Ontario stem from an 1889 division in the Mennonite congregations in Waterloo County. The group's faith is based on the Dordrecht Confession of Faith(1632) and worship is held in plain white meetinghouses. Three additional divisions have occurred, resulting in slight variations in worship and discipline. In 1990 the group had 1,387 members in about 10 congregations; they sponsored 28 private elementary schools.
The Markham-Waterloo Conference, stemming from the Old Order Mennonites, had 935 members in seven congregations and was largely found in the Waterloo area in 1990. Some of these children attend Old Order schools. Modern influences such as radio and television are resisted but many things are left to individual discretion.
In Ontario, Conservative churches of Pennsylvania Swiss Mennonite origin include: the Conservative Mennonite Fellowship (founded 1956), 118 members in two congregations (1997); Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario (founded 1959), 361 members in 9 congregations (1997); and Mid-West Mennonite Fellowship whose eight churches in Ontario are part of a 34-congregation fellowship in North America. The Ontario congregations resulted from divisions in the Conservative Mennonite Church and the Old Order Amish.
The Northern Light Gospel Missions congregations, begun as a mission to Ojibway Indians in Northern Ontario, have largely joined the Christian Anishinabec Fellowship (9 congregations and 106 members in 1997). Northern Youth Programs, an independent outreach program to Indian youth, began in the mid-1970s. With headquarters in Dryden, the program included camping, a Bible Institute, a high school for girls, a high school for boys, and family life and native youth seminars. Reformed Mennonites have a congregation at New Hamburg and at Stevensville with a membership of 162 in 1988.
Southern Ontario is home to various other groups of Russian Mennonite origin, including a congregation of Sommerfelder Mennonite immigrants from Mexico. A major movement of Old Colony Mennonites to Canada from Mexico occurred in the 1970s and 1980s; Ontario was home to four congregations of 1,122 members in 1990, as well as the New Reinland Mennonite Church of Ontario, formed out of a division within the Old Colony Mennonites in 1984. Other churches represented in Ontario include the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, Evangelical Mennonite Conference, and Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. -- JMB
Burkholder, L. J. A Brief History of the Mennonites in Ontario. Toronto, ON: Mennonite Conference of Ontario, 1935.
Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. Yearbook (1996): 199.
Dunham, B. Mabel. "Beginnings in Ontario." Mennonite Life 5 (October 1950).
Eby, A. Die Ansiedlung und Begründung der Mennoniten Gemeinschaft in Ontario. Milford Square, PA, 1872.
Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: the history of a separate people. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974.
Epp, Marlene. Mennonites in Ontario: an Introduction. Rev. ed. Waterloo, ON: Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, 2002.
Handbook of Information 1989. Newton, KS: General Conference Mennonite Church, 1989: 10-11.
Jahrbuch der Ver. Menn.-Gemeinden in Ontario (1954 ff).
Luthy, David. Amish Settlements Across America. Aylmer, ON: Pathway Publishers, 1985: 10-11.
Maust, Miriam. Mennonites in Ontario. A Mennonite Bicentennial Portrait, 1786-1986. Ontario: Mennonite Bicentennial Commission, 1986: 176.
Mennonite Yearbook & Directory, 1988-89, ed. James E. Horsch. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1989: 14-16.
Mennonite Yearbook & Directory, 1997, ed. James E. Horsch. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1997: 42-45, 95-102.
Reimer, Margaret Loewen, ed., One Quilt, Many Pieces. Waterloo, ON: Mennonite Publishing Service, 1983.
Shelly, Andrew R. "Mennonites of Ontario Today." Mennonite Life 5 (October 1950).
Vereinigte Mennoniten Gemeinden in Ontario (1956).
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 61-65; v. 5, pp. 656-658. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Burkholder, Paul H. and John M. Bender. "Ontario (Canada)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/O5830ME.html.
APA style: Burkholder, Paul H. and John M. Bender. (1990). Ontario (Canada). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/O5830ME.html.