A Brief Guide to Mennonites and Amish – especially Old Order – in Ontario

St Jacobs Mennonite photo

Photo credit: The Mennonite Story, St. Jacobs, Ontario (https://stjacobs.com/Culture-Heritage-The-Mennonite-Story.htm)

For nearly 48 years, my wife and I have lived in what was historically known as the Paisley Block of Guelph (now Guelph/Eramosa) Township with its Scottish roots. But less than one kilometer away lies Waterloo Region (formerly Waterloo County) with its equally strong German-speaking origins. Those pioneers included a large number of Mennonites.
The many Mennonite farmers and other agricultural folk in Waterloo with whom I’m connected are all fully modern. But less than 12 minutes from home are Old Order Mennonites. And not much further away live Old Order Amish and members of several other Anabaptist groups.
I’ve realized that after nearly 50 years of living so close, that I know remarkably little about any of them.
So a ‘Covid project’ for me has been to learn more about my neighbours. This column represents my attempt to condense several hundred pages of reading and many conversations into a 20-30 minute summary. It’s written for outsiders like me who would like to know more about the Ontario Mennonites and Amish – who they are and from whence they came – but don’t have time for hours of research. At the end of the column, I’ll provide web links to sites where more detailed information can be found.
An introductory caution: This subject is not simple. There are over 30 different groups of Mennonites and Amish in Ontario and they vary quite substantially, from thoroughly modern to very conservative. The route by which those differences arose is equally complex.
In this column, I am going to focus more on conservative groups, but their story cannot be told without including the others. Despite my best efforts to stick to basics, the column is still more than 8000 words long. To improve readability I’ve divided it into sections, and some readers may wish to skip just to the second last one – Mennonite and Amish Communities in Ontario Today. However, I’d encourage you to read the full story.
A special thank you to Mr. Samuel Steiner, Kitchener, Ontario, who is my source for the majority of the information provided below. More on that later.
Sections
1. Mennonite and Amish Origins
2. Mennonites and Amish Immigration to Canada
3. Challenges for Mennonites and Amish caused by Pacifism and Pietism
4. Major Splits among both Mennonites and Amish
5. Russian Mennonites, David Martin Mennonites and World War I
6. Clothing Attire Becomes Distinct
7. More Russian Mennonite Immigration in 1920s, Formation of Markham-Waterloo Mennonites
8. World War II, Russian Mennonite Immigration after World War II , Plymouth Brethren and Orthodox Mennonites
9. Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico, Recent Amish Immigration into Ontario from the United States
10. Creation of Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, One-Room Schools, Public Service
11. Mennonite and Amish Communities in Ontario Today
12. Final Comments, Acknowledgements References, Further Information

Mennonite and Amish Origins

First some quick beginnings. The Anabaptist/Mennonite movement was started in Zurich Switzerland in about 1525 by a Reformist Christian minister, Conrad Grebel, who promoted a belief system based in part on simplicity, adult baptism (i.e., ‘anabaptism’) and pacifism. The name Mennonite originates from Menno Simons, a former Dutch Roman Catholic priest, who in about 1536 was attracted to the Anabaptist movement. Simon’s initiative in Holland spread eastward into Prussia and Poland and gradually German became the dominant language of these ‘Dutch’ Mennonites.
Grebel’s teachings and the Mennonite name found favour among German-speaking, Reformation-minded groups in Switzerland – and spread northward into the adjacent Rhine-valley regions of Palatinate-Germany and Alsace (then German speaking too). These people were known as Swiss Brethren (later Swiss Mennonites in North America).
Both groups were persecuted viciously at the beginning, burnings at the stake included; more than a thousand were put to death in Holland for their beliefs prior to 1600 – but the movement grew and, eventually, Mennonites became more widely accepted by public authorities.
In 1693 a group of Mennonites in Alsace, led by Jakob Amman, upset by what they thought to be a relaxation of Mennonite commitments, formed what became known as Amish. Both Mennonites and Amish adhered to principles outlined in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, written in 1632 – a document that is still basic to the belief system of most conservative Mennonites and Amish.
Persecution in Switzerland and adjacent Germany led many Swiss Mennonites to immigrate to Pennsylvania which William Penn had acquired from the English Crown in 1683. He established it as home for Quakers and those of similar beliefs. Some Mennonites of Dutch origin came to Pennsylvania, but most were from southern Germany and France (though commonly called Swiss Mennonites). The first Amish from Alsace arrived in Pennsylvania in 1714.
Their pacifist belief has triggered difficulties for Mennonites and Amish throughout their entire history. This is why many came to Pennsylvania from Europe in the late 17th century – and also a major reason why many left Pennsylvania a century later. The problem this time involved the refusal of Mennonites/Amish to fight, first, for the British during the Seven Years’ War in the late 1750s (the war when England expelled France from most of North America) and then about two decades later for American Patriots during the US War of Independence. Mennonites/Amish paid special taxes, and provided services and supplies other than soldiers for the respective armies, but that was scarcely enough counter the animosity they faced.
After Pennsylvania introduced the Test Act in 1777 (withdrawal of voting rights, among the measures imposed on pacifist groups), many Mennonites and Amish moved to other states and some Mennonites came to Canada. The attractiveness of cheaper farmland was another reason for emigration.

Mennonite Story St Jacobs

The Mennonite Story. A multi-media interpretive centre in St Jacobs, Ontario. mennonitestory@gmail.com, 519-664-3518

Mennonites and Amish Immigration to Canada

The first recorded entry of Mennonites into what is now Ontario was in 1786, to establish a base near ‘The Thirty,’ 30 miles up the Lake Ontario shoreline west of the Niagara River. Settlement spread elsewhere along the Lake Ontario shoreline and also along Lake Erie near the present city of Port Colborne. The most concentrated settlement was near the present town of Vineland. Moyer Mennonite Church (now The First Mennonite Church) in Vineland was established in about 1800 as the first Mennonite church in Canada.
After the American Revolution, in 1784 Joseph Brant of the Six Nations was granted land for six miles on both sides of the Grand River from Lake Erie to the river’s source. He later sold several blocks of this land to non-natives, including three blocks in what’s now the Region of Waterloo.
Block 2 (to become Waterloo Township) was sold by Brant to Richard Beasley in 1796 and he, in turn, sold a few lots to Mennonite immigrants from Pennsylvania. However, there were complications with these sales that were not resolved until 1805. Steady immigration of Mennonites and others of German-speaking origins occurred into Block 2 after 1805, and continued north into Block 3 (mostly the present Township of Woolwich).
(When Waterloo Regional structure was created in 1973, Waterloo Township disappeared and its territory was distributed among the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge and the Township of Woolwich. The present cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and the Preston and Hespeler portions of Cambridge all started as villages in the original Waterloo Township.)
Mennonite settlement also occurred in Markham Township, north of Toronto, beginning about 1800. Just as in the Vineland area and Waterloo, several of those early Mennonite family names are still prominent in York Region today.
The first Amish arrival in Waterloo was Christian Nafziger who came from Germany seeking a new home for his Amish kin then being persecuted in Bavaria.
The name Waterloo did not come until years later; Waterloo Township and, later, Waterloo County, were named following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 when British forces defeated France’s Napoleon. Before ‘Waterloo’ this area was commonly known as the German Tract.
The first Amish settlers arrived in 1823 and settled in the newly opened Wilmot Township (previously known as the Crown Reserve for the County of Lincoln) to the west of Block 2, and in adjacent parts of what became East Zorra Township in Oxford County. Settlement in this remote area was made easier by opening of the Huron Road, from Guelph to Preston to Goderich, in 1828.
There were actually earlier Amish settlements near Long Point, Ontario and in Vaughn Township north of Toronto, but they died out when the residents returned to the United States after the War of 1812-14.

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At least 10,000 people attend the annual Amish School Auction Sale, each July, near Milverton Ontario (raises money for Amish parochial schools)
Challenges for Mennonites and Amish caused by Pacifism and Pietism

The pacifist stance of Mennonites and Amish caused them many problems in Upper Canada in years during and after the War of 1812-14 – especially so for settlements near the Niagara River. Special taxes paid by pacifists and the provision of services (i.e., wagons and horses) for military purposes helped to soothe government and public attitudes somewhat, though not that well.
The nineteenth century was an era of turmoil, change and expansion for both Mennonites and Amish in Ontario. The latter half of the century, in particular, was marked by widespread enthusiasm for pietism, a religious philosophy that focused on personal salvation and forgiveness of sins. This philosophy was in conflict with a basic Mennonite/Amish emphasis on the fundamental importance of communities and living a wholesome life in cooperation with others. There were many splits and creations of new groups. These groups included New Mennonites, Reformed Mennonites, Reforming Mennonites (the two were different), the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, United Brethren in Christ (also different), Evangelical Association and Tunkers (the latter also known as River Brethren or Brethren in Christ, and now known in Canada as the Be in Christ Church of Canada). All were German speaking (at least initially). Add to this Lutherans, German Reformed, and Methodists (the latter not German but a powerful champion of pietism) and the result was continual changes in memberships and shifting fortunes for the various groups. Some flourished for decades before disappearing. Others prospered and continued, though often under new names. More on that below.
In addition to the basic philosophical difference described above, other issues of contention included the use of English during worship services, the introduction of Sunday schools and evening prayer meetings (the objections by traditionalists included event leadership by non-ordained people), and the extent to which members of one Mennonite group could associate with members of another.

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Horses and buggies await owners at the Amish School Auction Sale

Major Splits Among both Mennonites and Amish

A major spit occurred in 1889 within the Mennonite Church of Canada when a more conservative faction based in Woolwich Township broke away to form what are now known as Old Order Mennonites. The split was over details of worship and basic beliefs. It was not about farming practices because every farmer was an ‘old order’ farmer at that time. Differences in farming practices were to come later.
A similar division occurred at about the same time among the Amish, though in a less-dramatic manner. Initially Amish communities celebrated Sunday worship in family homes. However, as congregations grew, some saw the need to create meetinghouses, with one being built near Tavistock in 1883 and others soon after at St. Agatha and near Baden. The latter, known as the Steinmann meetinghouse, continues to flourish as Steinmann Mennonite Church. These Amish people became known as Church Amish – and later as Amish Mennonites – and still later as Mennonites.
Amish Mennonite meetinghouses and congregations were also established near the village of Wellesley and in the village of Poole in Mornington Township, Perth County.
(Wellesley Township was slow to be settled compared to other townships in Waterloo because it was initially designated as ‘Clergy Reserve,’ in the original Canada Company title of 1827 to lands between the German Tract and Lake Huron. Wellesley Township opened officially for settlement in about 1847. However, there were lots of squatters before then).
Other Amish congregations were not comfortable with use of meetinghouses and certain other aspects of the new worship services and opted to continue to hold services in their own homes. These folk were called House Amish and, later, Old Order Amish, and established congregations near Milverton and Millbank in Mornington Township, now part of Perth East Township, Perth County.
Division was not finished for the Amish Mennonites. A sector in the new church congregations in Wellesley and Mornington Townships objected to what they saw as excessive liberalization (apparently two notable issues were the adoption of Sunday school and singing in part harmony – soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and established new congregations and new meetinghouses nearby. Breakaway congregations near Wellesley and Poole affiliated with a US group of Amish called Beachy Amish and the one at Poole is still identified as such today. ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ German continued to be the language spoken at all Amish services until at least the 1930s. It still is for Old Order Amish.

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Peel Old Order Mennonite Meetinghouse, near Wallenstein Ontario (Old Order Mennonite Meetinghouses have no identification signs in front).
Russian Mennonites, David Martin Mennonites and World War I

Another major 19th century event was the first arrival of ‘Russian Mennonites’ in Canada in about 1870. These were the original Dutch and then Prussian (northeastern Germany) Mennonites who had immigrated in the late 1700s to South Russia (now Ukraine) – mainly because of an invitation by Russian ruler, Catherine the Great. But by the 1870s, the Russian welcome was over and Mennonites were facing the same oppression they’d known before for their pacifist beliefs. Mennonite congregations in Ontario helped facilitate the immigration from the Ukraine to Canada and many of the arrivals came to Ontario first. However, they mostly all moved later to southern Manitoba where the countryside was similar to the Steppes they were familiar with in the Ukraine. Interestingly, one challenge they had in Ontario was a difference between the Low German the arrivals spoke, and the ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ (aka, ‘Dietsch’) version of German spoken by Mennonites and Amish in Ontario.
Another significant split occurred, this time among Old-Order Mennonites in 1917, with the separation of a group in the Wallenstein-St. Jacobs area to form a more conservative entity later known officially as the Independent Old Order Mennonite Church, but more commonly as David Martin Mennonites. According to Mennonite historian, Samuel Steiner, one cause for the split was the digging of a three-mile municipal farm drain west of St. Jacobs. Under Ontario’s Drainage Act the construction had to be financed by tax contributions from all farmers considered to benefit from its creation. Some of the Old-Order farmers were supportive, some were not, and the resulting ill-will added to differences of opinion on other issues as well. One other such issue was the use of bicycles that the breakaway group considered a luxury. Of interest, there were two ‘David Martins,’ the father who was a local bishop and his even more conservative son who was a deacon. Eventually the son set the tone for this new religious group. More about the David Martin Mennonites below.
War has always been a difficult time for pacifist religious groups and that was no difference for Mennonites and Amish in Canada. World War I was especially difficult – more so because Mennonites and Amish were not a cohesive group and each tried to communicate with government individually over matters of military services and offsetting financial contributions including taxes. Confusing and different interpretations of government rules added to the turmoil as did the dilemma for young Mennonite and Amish men in deciding whether to register and then seek exemption for farm service, or whether to refuse to register, as conscientious objectors. Add to this strong anti-German sentiments in the community (the city of Berlin Ontario became Kitchener during WW I) and the fact that German was the first language for many Mennonites and almost all Amish.
The practice of adult baptism meant that young men were not officially members of the church until their early twenties, and this hampered their ability to claim exemption as formal members of a pacifist Christian church. Finally, some Mennonite groups, notably the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, were not so strongly pacifist and didn’t aggressively discourage enlistment. Mennonite and Amish groups in Ontario ultimately formed the Non-Resistant Relief Organization in early 1918 to coordinate communications with government and relief donations. It was created too late to be of much significance during World War I, but served of some value in World War II, two decades later.
As an interesting aside, Canadian women were granted the right to vote during World War I, but Mennonite and other pacifist-group men lost it at the same time. Fortunately, only one of these decisions was later reversed.

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New (2020) Old Order Mennonite Meetinghouse, north of Elmira Ontario

Clothing Attire Becomes Distinct

The initial years of the 20th century were also significant for Mennonite and Amish clothing styles as well. Distinctive clothing attire had not been of major importance in decades before, but became so more as the various groups sought to emphasize the importance of plainness and absence of individual pretense. Also important was a desire for public distinctiveness at the group level. Mennonite and Amish women covering their heads during worship was a long standing practice; uniformity of the prayer veils and bonnets became specified at a time that the larger Canadian female population was dropping bonnets and moving to hats. Other practices such as the non-use of wedding rings, prohibitions on the cutting of women’s hair and, later, the wearing of ‘cape dresses’ now so routinely associated with Mennonite women, began rather informally and optionally sometime in the late 1800s and in decades to follow.
The cape dress has a double layer of fabric over the bodice.  It was adopted as the wearing of full aprons declined.  The Old Order Amish and some Old Order Mennonites still wear aprons and thus no capes.
The dress code for men, notably plain coats, was generally not enforced as rigidly as for women, except for worship and other related congregational events (funerals, weddings, etc.). However, the use of braces versus belts on pants became standard for several groups as was the use of hook-and-eyes (versus buttons) on jackets, and beards on Old Order Amish men. The matter of voluntary or mandatory compliance with these dress codes was the basis for some congregational splits.

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Elmira North Parochial School (for Old Order and Markham-Waterloo Mennonite children)

More Russian Mennonite Immigration in 1920s, Formation of Markham-Waterloo Mennonites

The defeat of German forces in Europe in 1918 and the Russian Revolution that followed immediately caused huge difficulties for Mennonites remaining in Russia/Ukraine. This led to major immigration into Canada – supported by the existing Mennonite groups in Ontario and Western Canada. The Mennonite Central Committee was formed in the US in 1920 (Canadian office came later) and received strong support from most Canadian and US Mennonite groups to help feed the Mennonites in Russia and support the immigration. Though most of the Canadian immigrants went to Western Canada as they had done in the 1870s, this time many also settled in Ontario – especially in Essex County, the Port Rowan area, near Vineland and Beamsville, and in/near Waterloo County. A Vineland Mennonite, Peter Wall, bought several hundred acres of land from Depression-stressed grain and livestock farmers near Virgil ON in 1934, and made it available to fifty Russian Mennonite families. Resulting farms were too small to support more traditional crop/livestock farming so they turned to horticultural production, and helped transform this area into what is now one of Canada’s prime fruit-growing areas.
The Great Depression forced many Mennonite farmers, especially in Western Canada, off the land and into towns and cities, leaving the Mennonite community more urbanized than it had been before.
The Russian Mennonites came with their own churches and two of these, the United Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren, established congregations in Ontario and the West, with services in Low German. These congregations were generally more liberal than many existing “Swiss” Mennonite communities in Ontario at the time, reflecting the more liberal culture they brought with them from the Ukraine. They were more like the mainstream Mennonite Church of Ontario and unlike Old Order groups.
Another group arose in 1939 with the creation of the Markham-Waterloo Mennonites. It was the outcome of a decision by Old Order Mennonites near Markham a few years earlier to allow the use of telephones and black cars (initially with obligate black bumpers). ‘Markhamer Mennonites’ or ‘black car Mennonites,’ as they are sometimes called, are very similar today in religious philosophy, and in the use of technologies for farming and living, to Old Order Mennonites – except for the cars and size of agricultural equipment.
The two commonly share rural parochial schools (more on the schools later) and have shared churches as well. For years when you drove past a large Mennonite church on Church Street in Elmira Ontario on Sunday morning, you would see a large number of horses and buggies hitched outside the building one week and black cars the next (services only every second Sunday being common for many conservative Mennonite and Amish groups). This ended in 2020 when the Old Order Mennonites built their own, new church north of town.
The Markhamer Mennonite community gradually disappeared from the Markham area in the 1960s and 1970s as members switched memberships to more modern churches. Markham-Waterloo Mennonite congregations are now found mostly in Waterloo Region and Wellington and Perth Counties.

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Ladies watching quilts being sold. Ladies in back row are Amish and unmarried (plain dresses, aprons, black bonnets). Three rows ahead is a married Amish lady (white bonnet, no pattern in dress). Ladies with patterned dresses are Mennonite. Note the two young Amish girls in distance in the upper right (aprons are full length).

World War II, Russian Mennonite Immigration after World War II, Plymouth Brethren and Orthodox Mennonites

World War II caused the same turmoil as did WW I among Mennonites, Amish and other pacifist groups – difficulties accentuated by weak coordination among the various pacifist groups, a generally non-sympathetic public and national government especially for German-speaking people, inconsistent court and governmental decisions, and confusion about the membership status of unbaptized young men. Many young Mennonites and Amish attended work camps, an alternative to military service, in Northern Ontario and, later, British Columbia.
The end of World War II was especially difficult for the 100,000 Mennonites still living in Russia/Ukraine, 90% of whom were soon driven out by Stalin. The majority of them were banished to unpleasant fates in Eastern Russia/Siberia but about a third escaped to Germany. Their fate in Germany was still difficult with Soviet leader Stalin wanting them sent home (and hence likely to Siberia) and the Allies often treating them as Nazi sympathizers and not welcoming them as immigrants. About 8500 eventually ended up in Canada, thanks strongly to efforts of the Mennonite Central Committee. About 1500 came to Ontario and the rest to Western Canada. Canadian Mennonite congregations had difficulties dealing with previously, largely unknown issues like unwed mothers who had been raped by enemy soldiers, and husbands missing after forced service in Soviet or German armies. Denial of membership or communion sometimes occurred. This is a complex and difficult saga but I’ll provide no more here. For those interested, check the references at the column’s end.
Wellesley Township has been the centre of several divisions among Mennonites. One major incident occurred around 1934 when a group known as Plymouth Brethren (started a few years earlier in Ireland and England) staged an extended, major revival campaign at Hawkesville. This caused many former Mennonites to leave their traditional churches and join the new gospel mission. About one thousand people observed a baptism by immersion one day in the nearby Conestogo River. The Hawkesville Bible Chapel existed until 1967 or 1968 when its members joined a split-off group from the Elmira Mennonite Church to form the larger Wallenstein Bible Chapel about 5 km further north.
Also unusual was the creation of the officially named Orthodox Mennonite Church of Wellesley Township. It was created in 1956 by Elam S. Martin, initially a David Martin minister who left that group after being excommunicated twice. He took many David Martin members with him and starting his own church. The new group was commonly known as Elam S. Martin Mennonites. Eighteen years later a split occurred within this group, with one of the issues being obligate beards for men. The pro-beard group led by Elam S. Martin left Wellesley and establishing a new Orthodox Mennonite community near Gorrie Ontario in Huron County. It is probably now the most conservative of the Mennonite groups in Ontario. The remaining group split again soon afterward, with many members rejoining the David Martins and the rest remaining as Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites.
Their meetinghouse near Hawkesville burned in August 2019; a local newspaper article at the time said it had not been used regularly for 30 years. The cemetery still exists though I don’t know whether it has been used for recent burials. A nearby small school, initially created by Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites in about 1965, was closed in 2018 and now serves as a supply depot for Old Order Mennonite schools across Ontario. It doesn’t appear that the Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites still exist as a functioning church, but some organizational structure may still survive.
As an interesting aside: Old Order Mennonites and Amish use their mother’s maiden name as their second name. For example, ‘Terry M. Daynard’ would mean my mother’s last name began with ‘M’ (perhaps ‘Martin’). But those born as Orthodox Mennonites, commonly have the initials ‘EM’ as their second name – EM coming from ‘Elam Martin.’ I’m told you can see this on rural mail boxes though I have yet to spot one myself.

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Aggressive bidding for farm equipment at an Amish School Auction Sale near Milverton Ontario

Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico, Recent Amish Immigration into Ontario from the United States

The post-World War II era saw the arrival of two other groups of Mennonites and Amish into Ontario and Western Canada. One are sometimes called Low German Mennonites – with many of them being members of a religious branch called Old Colony Mennonites – who once lived in Manitoba following an earlier immigration from Russia/Ukraine, but then left Canada for northern Mexico and other Latin American locations in the 1920s. Their relocation to Mexico was prompted in part by a Manitoba Government decision that all schools had to operate now in English, not German.
But conditions after World War II in Mexico caused many of them to return to Canada beginning in the early 1950s. Most returned to Western Canada but about 3000 came to Ontario with the biggest settlement being around Tillsonburg and later Aylmer. There were also new settlements in Wellesley Township and in Perth, Wellington, Kent and Essex Counties. Some formed their own Old Colony churches and others joining existing Mennonite and non-Mennonite-though-German-based congregations.
Low German Mennonites from Mexico continue to immigrate into Ontario/Canada from Mexico including many now coming into townships in/near Waterloo Region where they are often employed by other Mennonites, particularly David Martin Mennonites. Language is an obstacle with the arrivals speaking Spanish and Low German and the operating languages in the Waterloo area being Pennsylvania Dutch (Deitsch) and English.
The years 1953 to 1970 also saw the establishment of 10 new Amish communities across Southern Ontario all of them immigrants from the US. This wave of immigration was triggered by continuing military conscription in the US (though not in Canada), the Vietnam War, and the introduction of some social insurance programs that Old Order groups in the US opposed. Of course, when Canada introduced similar programs during the 1960s and 1970s – like use of Social Insurance Numbers and the Canada Pension Plan – and the US draft ended – the incentive to come to Canada disappeared and the immigration stopped. New Old Order Amish settlements arose near Aylmer, Norwich, Lakeside (St. Marys), Tavistock, Gorrie, Wallacetown, Mount Elgin, Belleville, Teeswater and Lucknow. Not all of these survived but most are still there today. This represented a huge expansion from the earlier Old Order Amish base that was mostly in Mornington and the western edge of Wellesley Township.
Old Order Amish, unlike most of the other Mennonite and Amish groups, have no formal structure connecting different congregations. This means limited communication among the different groups in Ontario and, as a result, beliefs and accepted living practices differ significantly. The connections are often stronger with US Amish communities from where they originated. They are also strong where daughter congregations have been created in Canada, triggered by both population growth (large families) and the limited availability of additional farmland in existing areas.

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Current building for Maple View Mennonite Church. Congregation established before 1900 by Amish Mennonites, near Wellesley Ontario

Creation of Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, One-Room Schools, Public Service

The post-World War II years saw a continuation of divisions among Mennonite and Amish Mennonite congregations and the creation of new ones, often located not far away. There were differences of opinion on issues such as dress code, the cutting (or not) of women’s hair, wearing of wedding rings and jewelry, presence or absence of beards, use or not of alcohol, tobacco, televisions (generally banned) and radios (often permitted), families sitting together at church (versus men and women separated), use of musical instruments in churches, the ability to vote in public elections, acceptance of government benefits, and personality conflicts. There were breakaways to form new congregations that were either more conservativism or more liberal. Some new multi-congregational alliances or ‘conferences’ were created but many congregations remained independent.
In 1963, more liberal Amish Mennonite churches renamed their conference, the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference, eliminating the word, Amish. However, conservative ‘Beachy’ Amish Mennonites retained it, and there were breakaways from Beachy to form other conservative groups.
A larger split occurred in 1960 when a number of Ontario congregations, led by six ordained men in Wilmot Township, left the mainstream Mennonite Church of Ontario to form the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario. It established several new congregations quite quickly in Waterloo and in Huron County (Zurich and Brussels).
The decision to close all one-room elementary schools in Ontario in 1965 led to major disruption. Prior to then, Old Order children had attended small (generally one-room) public schools along with all other rural Ontario children. But Old Order leaders, Amish and Mennonite, rejected new centralized larger schools for several reasons including bus-riding, exposure to ‘dangerous’ new influences (eg., evolution) and technologies (television), physical education classes and more. As a result, the Government of Ontario agreed to let these groups establish their own one-room schools, with local school boards just as had existed before. This was a very traumatic period for Old Order groups as it meant a need for an across-congregational organization beyond what most had known before, plus the financing of schools and training of teachers. (Almost none of the Old Order trustees or early teachers had ever advanced in school beyond age 14, the age that Ontarians who were farm children were permitted to quit school, and the age at which almost every Old Order Mennonite and Amish child did.)
In Midwestern Ontario, a Waterloo-Wellington-Perth Parochial School district association was created with 61 schools – 36 owned/operated by Old Order Mennonites, 11 by Old Order Amish, eight by Markham-Waterloo Mennonites and six by Orthodox Mennonites. The school buildings were generally built new as the former township school boards opposed the creation of the new parochial schools and refused to sell them the former one-room schools, even though they were no longer needed. (Most were sold for conversion to homes.)
The number of Old Order schools has increased substantially since 1965. It’s my understanding that cooperation is minimal between Old Order Amish and the conservative Mennonite groups (Old Order, Markham-Waterloo and Orthodox, who do operate joint schools). Intriguingly, David Martin Mennonite children, though also Old Order in many ways, go to regular public schools.
Schooling is in English even though children often speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home. There have been some intriguing initiatives. For many years the Waterloo Region District School Board owned and operated the small Three-Bridges public school near St. Jacobs, for Mennonite children of all types (Old Order to modern), but it was closed a few years ago because of declining attendance. However, it has recently been purchased by Old Colony Mennonites and is now used to educate their children. I don’t know the current language(s) of instruction but it could be Spanish and/or Low German.
There is so much more that could be written as background information on who the Mennonites and Amish are, and how they got to who they are today. Mennonites – including those originating from the ‘church’ Amish Mennonites – are known for well-known their charity and kindness to others, both locally and internationally. The Mennonite Central Committee, now with Canadian headquarters in Winnipeg but with a strong Ontario presence, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2020. The New Hamburg Mennonite Relief Sale has raised substantial funds from the auction sale of quilts for more than 50 years. Deserving of special praise is the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), founded in 1952 and supported by both Old-Order and modern Mennonites. As but one example of its activities, MDS had support teams on the ground immediately afterwards to help clean up the debris left by the tornado at Goderich, Ontario in August 2011. The Waterloo-based charity, MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) has near-70-year history of service to developing countries. There are many other related programs.
Mennonites/Amish in Ontario are generally rural with roots in farming but with congregations in cities as well (examples, Greater Toronto Area, St. Catharines, London, Hamilton, and Ottawa, along with a strong urban presence in Waterloo Region). There is also a major urban presence in Western Canada. Mennonites have a long history of mission work in inner Toronto.
Mennonites established a residential and teaching college, Conrad Grebel University College, soon after the founding of the University of Waterloo in 1957. Among other functions, Conrad Grebel does a great job in documenting Mennonite and Amish history. Conrad Grebel-based materials on the web are the source of much of what’s written in this column.

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Cedar Grove Amish Mennonite Church, about 1 km from Maple View Mennonite Church. Cedar Grove began as a breakaway congregation by more conservative families from Maple View

Mennonite and Amish Communities in Ontario Today

The remainder of this article involves a listing and brief description of the various Mennonite and Amish groups and congregations as they exist across Ontario in 2020 – or as close to 2020 as I can find relevant information. The web map posted here prepared by Samuel Steiner of Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo (retired), shows the location of more than 260 Mennonite (including Amish Mennonite) churches (or ‘meetinghouses,’ the term some prefer) and about 40 Old Order Amish ‘districts.’ Old Order Amish do not have churches/meetinghouses and refer to their various congregations as districts.
In a detailed history of Mennonites and Amish, entitled, In Search of Promised Lands, Samuel Steiner identifies 33 different Mennonite/Amish groups in Ontario and divides them into four general categories. The four are Old-Order (OO), Separatist Mennonites (SM), Evangelical Mennonites (EM) and Assimilated Mennonites (AM). OO are mostly ‘horse and buggy’ Mennonites and Amish, although many use some farming, business and home technologies that would be labelled by most people as modern, and Markham-Waterloo Mennonites drive black cars. SM includes groups who accept some evangelistic philosophy and government programs but also stick with many practices that make them visible, like prayer veils and plain dress. EM means groups that are more evangelical and with limited or no compliance with old-order practices. AM means groups that use the same living and farming practices as the rest of modern society.
I’ve listed most of the 33 groups in this table, the contents of which came from Steiner’s book.

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The Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) is the result of a 1988 merger of three groups with distinctly different origins: the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (mainly Pennsylvania/Swiss Mennonite origins), the United Mennonite Church of Ontario (Russian/Ukrainian Mennonites), and the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference (Amish Mennonites). MCEC is a member of Mennonite Church Canada.
Mention should also be made of the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship, an affiliation created in 1977 from previously unaffiliated and relatively conservative congregations from Ontario to Iowa. About 50% of its current membership is in Canada (10 churches in Ontario and one in Alberta). This is a separate entity from the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario.
The diversity of groups is large, indeed far more than I expected when I started this project. I’ll focus below on the Old Order groups that are the most unique and also very diverse.
In general, most Old Order groups use horses and buggies for personal transport, with the women wearing bonnets and distinctive dresses, and the men wearing braces instead of belts for trouser suspension. But there are also notable differences and the rules on what’s allowed for the various groups change over time. My information may not all be current.
The process for change generally involves a combination of special congregational meetings and decisions (unilateral or based on consensus) by bishops and ministers.
Old-Order Mennonites and Markham-Waterloo Mennonites now use tractors for farming, telephones – including cell phones (at least in practice, though not clear if this is approved by the church) but not ‘smart phones’ – and various types of electrical equipment and appliances powered by line electricity. They don’t own computers but can hire computer services done by others. There are some restrictions on tractor usage, e.g., not over a certain speed or size (100 horsepower, I’m told), and not used to pull loaded wagons on municipal roads to transport farm produce (eg., hay) from one farm to another. At one time, they could not use tractors with cabs but I’m told this changed when the purchase of new farm-scale cab-less tractors proved too difficult. I believe they are obliged to remove windows from the cabs. Old Order Mennonites can use covered buggies with rubber-tired wheels (including pneumatic), unlike some other old order groups.
The population of Old Order Mennonites, following an initial 1967 expansion to farmland around Mount Forest, has ballooned since 1990 with new congregations/churches at Chesley, Teeswater, Kinloss, Dunnville, Lindsay, Matheson and Massey Ontario.
Thanks to an overall organizational structure for Ontario, the Old Order Mennonite Church, practices are similar at all places.
Old-Order and Markham-Waterloo Mennonites cooperate a great deal, sharing schools, and meetingplaces for church services. (The latter was more common in the past; I’m told that this now occurs only at a meetingplace near Floradale, Ontario.)
Orthodox Mennonites are more restrictive – no phones, line electricity, rubber-tired buggies or farm tractors, as I understand it.
David Martin Mennonites are a combination of very conservative and very modern. They don’t own or use farm tractors and don’t use electricity provided by roadside electrical lines. They do use telephones including cell phones and, I understand, some modern home appliances. They don’t allow televisions but do use computers, including Internet, for business purposes. Their rules for buggies are apparently about the same as for Old Order Mennonites though David Martin buggies and wagons are often larger.
Most Mennonites and Amish are very entrepreneurial. You can tell that from the many end-of-farm-lane-signs advertizing many items for sale including maple syrup, garden produce, prepared foods, furniture, quilts and other home-made/home-grown products. One suspects that this represents a substantial portion of family cash income because the farms are generally not large. Sunday sales, of course, are forbidden.
David Martin Mennonites often go beyond this by adding on-farm manufacturing capabilities such as complex metal machining and injection molding for plastics. To do so, they use sophisticated computer software, complex electrical tools and other electronic equipment as long as it does not use line electricity. Farms often have very large electric generators powered by diesel fuel that produce 120/240 volt electricity – and up to 600 volt, three-phase electricity when needed for manufacturing purposes.
Although David Martins can’t own tractors, they are allowed to own ‘skid-steers’ which are used to load and unload semi-trailer trucks bringing raw materials in and finished products out.
It’s fascinating to drive past David Martin farms in parts of Wellesley Township with no sign of public electrical service at the municipal road, with farm fields worked by horses and personal transportation provided by horses and buggies (bicycle usage is banned), but also with substantial on-farm shop buildings equipped for industrial production.
Although David Martin Mennonites cannot own/operate farm tractors themselves, they can hire other farmers to do this. I’m told that providing such service represents a significant source of income for a few farmer neighbours of David Martins in Grey County.
David Martin Mennonites are known as shrewd business people and hard bargainers. They are also very private, not inclined for social interaction or discussion with other Mennonite and Amish groups except on matters of business. David Martins are forbidden from talking to outsiders about their religion or attending religious events not led by their own clergy.
Unlike the other Old Order groups, David Martin Mennonites apply for and accept government support when available for funding farming programs.
Old Order Amish are somewhat more complex in that there is no coordinating structure across Ontario and each congregation/district operates independently. Distinct difference exist among the six core groups (and their daughter districts) that arrived in Ontario at different times and from different places in Europe or the US. I am indebted to Barb Draper, Fred Lichti and the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario (June 2017 newsletter, referenced below) for the following guide to 45 Old Order Amish districts in Ontario.

Old Order Amish groups in Ontario

Although all Old Order Amish are horse and buggy people, the rules vary among groups. One source states the Swartzentruber Amish near Owen Sound and Iron Bridge ON are likely the most conservative (no indoor plumbing, flower gardens, gas lanterns or orange-triangle slow-moving-vehicle signs on buggies) – while another district near Lakeside/St. Marys is the most liberal – not that any of the rest of us might notice the differences.
For the oldest and largest group located near Milverton and Millbank (commonly called Milverton Amish), covered buggies with rubber tires and bicycles are not allowed (though bicycle-like scooters are) and telephones are permitted but only if located in separate, small telephone houses located away from the house. Ownership of cars and tractors is not allowed although Milverton Amish can hire cars for transport if driven by others. The same applies for some types of tractor farm work done by others.
A few years ago, my wife and I attended a tour of Mornington Township Amish farms organized by a Perth County historical group, visiting one farm where the family owned a loader bucket for a front-end tractor loader. It was used for moving/loading barnyard manure. The farmer could not own the tractor itself but could hire his non-Amish neighbour with a tractor to use his loader bucket for cleaning out his barn. We also visited an Amish farmer with a large shop where he installed new fiberglass buggy wheels with steel rims – also adding buggy springs and turn-signal indicator lights powered by a 12-volt battery. The Amish proprietor told us he sometimes had difficulties in selling the new buggies and buggy upgrades. “These people are a bit slow to accept new technologies,” was his lament. I kidded him at the time about an option for adding GPS but realized that horse-driven vehicles already have a form of auto-steer.
Access to public electrical service is forbidden but not the use of diesel-engine-powered generators. I’m informed by electricians who provide installation services in that area that diesel engines and generators power Amish shop equipment using systems of pulleys, shafts and belts and 12-Volt electrical services. The use of 120/240-Volt systems is forbidden. Batteries coupled to inverters provide electricity when diesel engines are not running. One Amish workshop near Milverton has solar cells on his shop roof to produce electricity, coupled with batteries for electricity storage.
The powering of milk coolers has been a perpetual challenge for Old Order Amish farms for many decades. I’m told of one farm where the compressor motor on the bulk-tank milk cooler is belt-driven by a small diesel engine and the tank agitator by a 12V electric motor.
I’ve recently learned that the combination of diesel engines powering large oil-hydraulic pumps, plus long hydraulic lines and the use of hydraulic motors to run various pieces of barn and shop equipment, has become popular among Old Order Amish near Milverton/Millbank. Apparently, this system has been long-used by some Amish communities in the United States.
Old Order Amish men wear beards, though not mustaches – similar for Orthodox Mennonites – but David Martins and Old Order Mennonites are generally beardless. The style of ladies’ bonnets and dress material for cape dresses is distinct for each group – patterned fabric allowed for Old Order Mennonites, plain only for Old Order Amish, and brown only for Orthodox Mennonites. The colour of the bonnet also depends on whether the lady is married.
Alcohol and tobacco use are banned by some groups but not others. David Martins are known to celebrate weddings with wine and cigars, and some men are regular smokers.
I’ve not touched yet on the subject of shunning as it is not detailed much in the materials I’ve read – with except for reporting of the banning/ex-communicating of ministers (and even bishops, occasionally) when they got out of line in years past. ‘Silencing’ was also used which meant that ministers weren’t allowed to speak during church services until they corrected their messages.
I gather that shunning is not used as rigidly today as in times past and also that David Martin Mennonites may still be among the most traditional in use of this practice. Members can be banned, apparently, if they attend a service led by anyone except a David Martin minister. Members are forbidden to talk to others about their religious beliefs.
Some background is also merited on the picking of clergy. In traditional Swiss Mennonite and Amish congregations (though generally not Russian Mennonite) ministers are chosen by lot. Each of the eligible men (but not women) in the congregation is given a hymn book at a special service with one of the books containing a slip of paper informing the holder that he is the chosen one. That person is then expected to lead future services of worship and provide an exemplary model of proper living – all without any training or financial compensation. I’ve read that newly chosen ministers and their families have sometimes had to cease usage of some modern conveniences in their homes and on farms to ensure that they are fully in compliance with church rules. (The rules are often not that clearly defined.)
In some conservative groups, there is usually a nomination process where the “voice of the congregation is sought”.  Individuals who are nominated are then interviewed and have the option to withdraw (perhaps by saying they do not hear God’s call at this time) but it is rare.
The bishop, who normally oversees several congregations, might also be chosen by lot from among ministers, or by ministerial collective decision, depending on the group. Churches also usually have deacons to deal with matters like building maintenance, finances and related issues. Deacons also deal with alms and supporting widows/sick/elderly.
With more modern groups, ministers are now paid positions and are selected by standard nomination and interview procedures, the same as other protestant churches. The Mennonite Church Eastern Canada eliminated the title of bishop more than 60 years ago, with those functions now being done by others in the church administration.
The selection of ministers and bishops by lot still applies for most, if not all, Old Order groups.

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An entrepreneurial Old Order Mennonite Farm near St. Clements, Ontario. Livestock production, floral greenhouses, furniture manufacture in building to right

Final Comments, Acknowledgments, References and Further Information

As stated at the beginning, my overview has been far from exhaustive. It’s intended for those wanting to read more than a newspaper article, but not the several hours needed to digest material much more complete. My article is provided for people like me with little prior knowledge of Mennonites and Amish in Ontario.
I express deep appreciation to several people whose help was essential to this project – Samuel Steiner of Kitchener for providing most of the historical material which I’ve condensed into the article; Gerry Horst, Woolwich Township and manager of the Mennonite Story, St. Jacobs for all of his insight and guidance, and for answering my dozens of questions; Christine Kuepfer, Millbank, who did the same for my many questions about Amish – and to them plus Richard Reesor and Andrew Reesor-McDowell of York Region, and Margaret and Bob Hunsberger of the City of Waterloo and Woolwich Township for carefully reviewing drafts of this article. Notwithstanding their input, all remaining errors or oversights in the article are solely my responsibility.
Although a vast diversity exists among Mennonite/Amish groups in style of living and employment/farming practices, they have several distinct features in common. Two, of course, are the practices of adult baptism and pacifism in a Christian context. To this, I would add modesty and the aversion of Mennonites and Amish to the drawing of personal attention to themselves. The term, ‘a bragging Mennonite’ would be a definite oxymoron. Highly significant, in my view, is their strong commitment to the wellbeing of their communities – both local and global. Their commitments to charitable endeavours including the Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, and Mennonite Economic Development Associates are prime examples of this ethic.
I am lucky to have them as neighbours.
Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo, and others with related expertise, there is a good amount of published material available, in both print and on-line. Here are some good ones, in my opinion:
In Search of Promised Lands, by Samuel J. Steiner, 2015. Herald Press, Kitchener. This 594-page historical review (plus nearly 300 pages of additional notes and bibliography) extends from the year 1536 until about 2014 and is very complete. It has a primary focus on Ontario but also has lots of information on Mennonites and Amish in Europe, the United States and Western Canada. It’s available on line from Amazon Kindle. Mr. Steiner is a retired librarian and archivist at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.
This highly useful Google web map, produced by Samuel Steiner, shows all Mennonite and Amish churches and districts in Ontario.
The Plain People, A glimpse at life among the Old Order Mennonites of Ontario, by John Peters, 2003. Pandora Press, Kitchener – a short, highly readable, overview primarily about Old Order Mennonites.
The Mennonite Story. A multi-media interpretive centre in St Jacobs, Ontario. mennonitestory@gmail.com, 519-664-3518.
Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia on Line (www.gameo.org). This service, originated in part by Conrad Grebel University College, is a great source of information.
Ontario Mennonite History. The newsletter for the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario (http://www.mhso.org/content/ontario-mennonite-history-periodical) Newsletters is published every six months (variable schedule in the past) with many articles on Mennonite and Amish history. Some favourite articles (for me) are:
• Old Order Amish, a diverse group. By Barb Draper, June 2017
• Old Order daughter communities not sustainable before 1960s. By Barb Draper, June 2016
• The Leamington Mennonite story. By Walt Koop, October 2015
• The role of shoebox historians (Markham Mennonites). By George Reesor. June 2014
• The changing culture of Old Colony Mennonites. By Kerry Fast. October 2012
• My relatives: ultra conservative Mennonites. (David Martin Mennonites). By Charlotte Martin. May 1998.