The beginning of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in Western Canada owes much to the spiritual vision of one man. Peter Toews was the Elder of the largest part of the Kleine Gemeinde (Little Church) which had separated from the main body of the Mennonite church on the Molotschna Colony in Ukraine in the early 1800’s. Their aim was to return to the original pure faith and practice of the Mennonites. Unfortunately they had no understanding of the new birth so merely concentrated on the outward evidence of their desired purity.
Quarrels and divisions shook the Kleine Gemeinde and by the 1860’s there were four different groups. Elders Peter Toews and his brother-in-law Jacob Wiebe laboured to unite these groups, but only partially succeeded. Jacob Wiebe united with the group led by Elder Abram Friesen, but the largest number of members united with the group led by Peter Toews. A few years later Jacob Wiebe and his group, who lived in Crimea, separated from Abram Friesen’s group. They believed they had not been born again when first baptized and were all rebaptized by immersion. In the process they took a different name, calling themselves the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren.
All three groups emigrated to North America in the 1870’s; the Peter Toews group went to south-eastern Manitoba, the Abram Friesen group to the area of Janzen, Nebraska and the Jacob Wiebe group to Hillsboro, Kansas. Peter Toews had experienced the new birth many years earlier and became acutely aware that many, probably most, of the members of his group did not have peace with God. In his search for answers he came into contact with the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, led by Elder John Holdeman. In the summer of 1881 he was authorized by his church to travel to Kansas to investigate that church. Following are a few excerpts of the letter he wrote to his church at the conclusion of that trip.
The foremost question on my mind was concerning baptism, whether they would baptize a person the second time if it were found that he had been unconverted at the time of the first baptism. They answered to the affirmative; and they had had a case like that: whereupon a minister called a man, A. Wenger by name, to tell of his experience.
(This was Absalom Wenger, son of Peter and Susanna Wenger and the forefather of a large number of Wengers who are members of the church of God in Christ, Mennonite today. He had repented up to a point and seeing the peace and freedom of others who were baptized, he had hoped to gain this peace through baptism. He gave a false testimony of having a good conscience towards God and was baptized. Instead of the peace he had hoped for, Mr. Wenger had felt condemnation. He was afraid to reveal this for some months, but finally did confess to a group of ministers. After this he was able to repent fully and received peace with God. He felt very strongly that his first baptism had been invalid and thus was baptized the second time.)
I then told them that if Holdeman would come to us there possibly would be no end to the rebaptizing of members that had not experienced the new birth and the faith that bringeth about true repentance.
During this discussion my mind was somewhat relieved of my prejudice to rebaptism.
Again I thought if God, in that church, revealed such displeasure when only one person not having experienced conversion was baptized, what would become of our baptism? How many of us have also received baptism on false testimony?
So I must unite with the Church of God and labour toward the union of all God’s children. I can therefore no longer justify our baptism received outside God’s church, nor can I any longer administer oour baptism or the Lord’s Supper. I shall . . . trust in the Lord to lead us to be united with that church. How this will come about is as yet unknown to me, I shall leave it to the leading of God, if it be His will, till Holdeman and one of his helpers come to visit us.
I fear to continue building a structure that is not built according to the rules of the gospel and the God-given pattern, but, as it appears to me, is beside the pattern and teaching of God.
I fear to build members of torn and divided groups, which are not baptized into one body, the church of Christ – to build a kingdom to which only a few of us belong. We are not baptized into one body, but are torn and divided, some walking in self-chosen humility and worshipping of angels (of which we should not be beguiled, lest we lose our reward).
We all profess that we are all baptized into the body of Christ, even though many are walking in voluntary humility. Therefore it appears to me that we are beguiled and in danger of losing our reward, missing the mark and not reaching our goal.
I again certify, as you already know, that I can no longer continue in my office as Elder, and this for no other reason than the fear of God: lest I deal differently than His Word teaches us.
In the winter of 1881-1882 John Holdeman and Marc Seiler came to Manitoba and held evangelistic services in the various locations where these Kleine Gemeinde people had settled. These people had been earnestly trying to live a Christian life, but most were unconverted. Under the preaching of Holdeman and Seiler many were born again and 160 persons were baptized. Congregations were established in seven small villages.