The Mennonite Brethren church began in the midst of significant change among Mennonites in what was then South Russia.
It was in 1860 that some members in the Gnadenfeld Mennonite congregation in the Molotschna settlement petitioned their leaders to meet separately for communion. These members did not want to celebrate communion with those who had not experienced personal Pietist renewal and conversion. When the leadership refused to grant their wish, these members met separately, celebrated their own communion and founded the Mennonite Brethren (MB) church.
The reason for forming the MB church was the desire by those renewed through the influence of both Lutheran and Baptist Pietism to form a church that would include only like-minded people. In contrast, the other Mennonite churches accepted the new Pietist influences as well as the historic Mennonite practices and pieties. The MB’s separatist stance and its active proselytizing among Mennonite churches created tensions with those churches.
After a while, some MBs became unhappy with the gulf that had developed between their church and the Mennonite church, and they spearheaded the formation of the Allianz Mennonite Church. This church tried to be a bridge between the two, allowing for more diverse religious pieties.
The Mennonite migration to North America in the 1870s had far-reaching significance. Many of the other Mennonite immigrants who came from various churches in Russia joined the General Conference. The tensions that had existed between the Mennonite Brethren and the other Mennonite churches in Russia were now transferred to the relationship between the MB and the General Conference churches.
In the U.S., with evangelism as its primary focus, and because of easy access in the German language, the MB church continued to target other Mennonite churches. This created tensions. When the MB conference, centred in Kansas, sent “missioners” to the Winkler area of southern Manitoba in the 1880s, who formed the first MB church in Canada, this set up further tensions with Mennonite churches in the area.
Immigrant groups separate again
The immigration of 20,000 Mennonites to Canada in the 1920s, about a third of which were Mennonite Brethren, initially promised to change the dynamic between the MB and other Mennonite churches.
The immigration itself required cooperation between Mennonite groups in both Canada and Russia. In Russia, the emigration movement was led by B. B. Janz and C.F. Klassen, two MBs. In Canada, it was led by David Toews, chair of the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization and moderator of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, now part of MC Canada.
Upon immigration, members of the Mennonite and MB groups worshipped together in many locations. For a short while it looked like the trauma and difficulties of immigration would result in healing the divide within the Mennonite community.
Then, however, institutional and denominational loyalties rose to the fore. Each of the joint worship centres separated, and in each community two denominational churches formed.
Cooperation on MCC, CO service
There were, however, also areas of cooperation.
During World War II, the Mennonite Brethren, Conference of Mennonites in Canada, and the Swiss Mennonite conferences in Ontario together proposed to the federal government alternative service as their form of conscientious objector service.
Subsequently, MBs were involved in the founding of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada in the 1960s, and in the establishment of Columbia Bible College in B.C. in the early 1970s. This spirit of cooperation continued in the formation of Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg in the 1990s.
The change of worship language from German to English in the 1950s and 1960s allowed MBs to accept many of the emphases of the Canadian evangelical movement. MB Pietism was transformed into Evangelicalism. For some MBs, the influence of Evangelicalism meant stronger ties to evangelical groups, and a decrease in the emphasis on peace, service and other historic Mennonite emphases.
Other MBs were influenced by the renewal impulses of the “Anabaptist Vision,” associated with the name of Harold S. Bender. Many within this orientation became strong promoters of peace and justice issues and supported interMennonite organizations like MCC.
MBs also played significant roles in founding and supporting various interMennonite service organizations like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and the Canadian branch of Mennonite Economic Development Associates.
The present situation
From the early years, the two sides have moved to a relationship where, even though they are somewhat different, they can accept and learn from each other.
—John J. Friesen is professor emeritus of Canadian Mennonite University. This article is adapted from Canadian Mennonite.