Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Mennonite

Still looking for an entry level church

We still appreciated the people at the Lowe Farm church, but decided we needed to go shopping for another church. We wouldn’t have been able to put it into words, but we were looking for an entry level church, one that wouldn’t cost us too much in the way of commitment. Nevertheless, we had been disappointed when the Lowe Farm church didn’t even require believer’s baptism.

The first church we tried was a church of a different Mennonite denomination in the town of Carman. As the service began, the minister asked everyone to stand up, shake hands and introduce themselves to the persons on either side, in front and behind. It seemed genuinely warm and friendly. The warm glow of those introductions lasted right up until the final amen was said and all the people around us headed straight for the doors. We were the last ones out, exchanged a few words with the pastor and left. In the car going home we decided we wouldn’t need to visit that church again.

Next we decided to try the other Mennonite church in town. The first thing we noticed was the large number of earnest young people. The story of what was happening emerged as we continued to attend. A young man who had grown up here had lived a decidedly non-Christian life and left looking for adventure. He heard a street preacher in Vancouver and came under conviction. As he surrendered his life to the Saviour all the things he had done back home came flooding into his mind. He associated with a Jesus People group for awhile, until they encouraged him to return home and clean up the mess he had left behind.

He had come home and looked up the people he had wronged, confessing what he had done and paying for damage he had done where needed. His example, the freedom that was evident in his life, brought other young people under conviction.

One young lady told of feeling she needed to go to a store where she had shoplifted a number of items and confess what she had done. She resisted at first, because she had no idea how she could pay for what she had stolen. But she had gone, asked to see the store manager and told him the whole story. His face gave no hint of what he might be thinking. When she was done, he asked “Do you think your youth group could come and share their testimonies at our church? Our young people need to hear this.”

And so the movement had spread. The church was now sponsoring coffee house meeting every Wednesday eveing in town, where young people would gather to sing and share testimonies.

Pastor Harvey* was fully supportive, always ready to listen and counsel. We too found him warm and supportive. He told us he used the Living Bible as he thought it was worded in a way that young people could more readily understand. So I bought myself another Bible.

Chris had several dreams during this time, nightmares really. The dreams brought vivid scenes of the end of the world and the return of the Lord, accompanied by a feeling of dread that she was not ready. She went to visit Pastor Harvey* and he assured her that she need not worry, she was doing what God wanted her to do.

In the fall it was announced that retired bishop Daniel* would be conducting Bible studies through the winter on the subject of the end times and the return of Christ. We attended those Bible studies and took it all in as the elderly bishop took verses and parts of verses from here and there and wove them into a story of the rapture of the church, the coming on Antichrist, seven years of great tribulation, the battle of Armageddon and the establishment of the kingdom of Christ when He would reign for a thousand years from Jerusalem.

All appeared to be going well, in our visits with Pastor Harvey* it seemed that baptism would not be far off. Then there was a surprise meeting at church where the elders of the church informed us that this youth movement was getting out of hand, it seemed too much like Pentecostalism. So they had decided to dismiss Pastor Harvey* and give the pastoral responsibility back to bishop Daniel* until a new pastor could be found.

*Names marked by an asterisk are real people, but these are not their real names.


A new course in life

If you’ve followed me this far you have no doubt gathered that I wasn’t a romantic kind of guy. I had strong emotional feelings, but I woud have been horribly embarrassed if anyone got a glimpse of them. Circumstances told to me that now I needed to do something to let my bride-to-be know how I felt about her.

So I sat down and wrote my very first love letter. I quoted some lines from a song by the Bee Gees that was popular at the time: “It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away,” and tried to put my feelings into words. I don’t remember writing any more letters, mostly we talked. That meant collect phone calls from Chris to me. I didn’t call her, since her uncle would have answered the phone and that wasn’t what I wanted.

As for the suspicions that some farmers may have harboured, it seemed best to me to just carry on without saying anything more. I had done nothing wrong and I had been careful not to accuse the former manager of wrongdoing. That proved to be the right course of action, as everything went well from then on.

It took several months for it to dawn on me that something had changed in my life. I was no longer turned off by Christian radio broadcasts, there were a couple that I began to listen to regularly. I bought some Christian books. I read more about Mennonite history.

I had always considered the “born again” thing to be a sham. The people I had known who claimed to be born again were no more honest than anyone else. They boasted of a elationship with God, but their attitude of superiority towards other people was not attractive. Now my life had taken a turn, and it had happened at the time I prayed for forgiveness. Was that change what Jesus meant by being born again? I concluded it was.

At that time grain elevators often shut down for the first two weeks of August. The managers would take their vacation and return refreshed to start receiving deliveries for the new crop that would be harvested after mid-August. Chris and I set Saturday, August 1, 1970 for our wedding date and began planning.

Where were we going to get married? What minister would we ask? Neither of us had any church affiliation, I was a lapsed Anglican. Chris’s family was one that said, “If anyone asks, say we belong to the United Church,” but they never actually attended that or any other church.

It happened that Reverend Ken Vickers was now the minister at Saint Barnabas Anglican church in Moose Jaw where my parents attended. Mom asked him and he said he would be happy to do the honours. I was happy to see him again.  We had a counselling session or two with him to help us grasp the importance of the step we were about to take.

Chris has an older brother and four younger sisters, they all lived with their parents. Chris had been with her aunt and uncle ever since a health scare in early childhood caused by neglect. By this time I had met her brother and two of her sisters, but not her parents. Since Chris was only 17, her real father was going to have to give his permission for her to marry. Chris approached him with some trepidation, but he signed.

I asked Joe Zagozeski to be my best man and Chris asked her friend Sandy Carson to be bridesmaid. We were all set, all we needed to do now was get to the church on time.

Mennonites are not Protestants

I applaud the sincerity and courage of Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg 500 years ago. I am appalled by the savagery of his address to the armies fighting the peasants’ revolt, when he called on them to “slash, stab, kill as many as you can,” and promised them a sure entrance to heaven if they died in the battle. He found a way to use Scripture to show that this killing would be an act of mercy, as he did later when he called for the extermination of Anabaptists and Jews.

I’m afraid that Martin Luther took a wrong turn when he decided to rely on the secular power to establish his reformation of the church. He was able to effect a reformation of some of the more egregious practices that were characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but even Luther did not believe his reformation had produced people who were more Christian.

Anabaptists and Mennonites have always held to the concept that only Christian people should be members of the Christian church. That is, people who have been born again and whose life bears evidence of an inner transformation. We have never taught that salvation can be earned by works, as the Roman Catholics did in Luther’s day. But neither do we believe that a person whose life is devoid of all evidence of regeneration can be a Christian, as Luther seemed to say with his emphasis on Sola Fides.

When a person is born again a new life begins. Works are the life signs. If there are no works, the faith is dead, or nonexistent. A born again Christian is never fully aware of how much his life has changed. He is simply thankful for the peace God has given and tries to maintain his connection with God. His works are not done to obtain the approval of others, nor is his assurance dependent on what other people think. There are simply the effects of an inner transformation.

The Protestant reformers believed that the survival of their reformed churches was worth killing for; Anabaptists believed that the survival of their peace with God was worth dying for.


Half a century ago a drunken young man announced to a couple of friends that one day he would be a Mennonite and wear a beard. His friends dismissed this as babbling inspired by the booze he had consumed. The young man himself was bewildered. The few Mennonites he had met, from his mother’s side of the family, had not inspired any longing to be like them. He had never seen a Mennonite who wore a beard, didn’t know if he wanted to be a Christian, or even if there was such a thing as a real Christian.

Over the next twelve years he quit drinking, quit smoking cigars, became a Christian, got married and started a family, in that order. Then he and his wife joined a Mennonite church, one that is of the persuasion that if hair grows on a man’s face it doesn’t make sense to try to remove all trace of that hair each morning.

That drunken declaration was prophetic, springing from a longing within that took the young man years to understand. It is now apparent that the longing came from God, and that over the years He continued to prompt and nudge that young man in ways that would allow that longing to become a living faith.

This book is the story of all that led up to that unexpected statement and all that happened after to make it become reality, despite the bumbling confusion of the young man, who was me. I am an old man now, and look back in wonder at that journey.

I hope that my story will encourage others to trust that there is light for the pathway and unexpected moments of joy in the journey, even when one is stubborn and doubtful of the way.

[With this post I am beginning a memoir of my spiritual journey, which I hope to publish before I get too old for stuff like this. The working title, for now at least, is One Day I Will be a Mennonite and Wear a Beard. I encourage readers to offer critiques and comments. Tell me what works and what doesn’t. Does my writing style put you to sleep? Do I offer too much information, or not enough? Your thoughts are welcome.]

Looking for real Mennonites

All I learned about Mennonites while I was growing up was that my mother had been one and had left because the German language was more important than the faith and that my grandma, a dear sweet old lady, was one and wanted me to learn German so I could be a Christian.

Perhaps there was one more thing. My mother, though no longer member of a Mennonite church, seemed to have carried some of the faith in her baggage when she left. There was something about her that was more peaceful and attractive than the argumentative faith of my father.

In my mid twenties I decided I wanted to know more about Mennonites. This was half a century ago, long before you could go to your computer and ask google to find the information you wanted. Encyclopedias offered a little information, but I wasn’t sure they were getting it right. So I bought a book, probably more than one, I forget.

As I read Mennonite history I discovered a group of people who truly believed in God, who loved God, knew they were loved by God, and believed God wanted them to love everyone else. For some reason the state churches believed such a faith was subversive and persecuted the Mennonites. The Mennonites treasured their faith more than their homes, material possessions, even their lives. They were burnt at the stake and kept telling the bystanders about the love of God as long as they had breath.

I read about a time when soldiers seized a stock of books written by Menno Simons and were about to burn them in the town square. Several daring men began grabbing books from the pile and passing them to the bystanders, who immediately fled. It all happened so quickly that the few soldiers present were unable to prevent it and were left with almost nothing to burn.

There had been a power in that faith that I longed for. I knew there were many kinds of Mennonites in our province and hoped that somewhere I could find that old faith sill living.

I got up early one Sunday morning, dressed in my best clothes and drove into a nearby city to attend a Mennonite service. I was impressed by the simplicity of the non-liturgical service, don’t remember anything about the sermon, but hoped to learn more about this church. However, it appeared that I was an invisible person. One or two people nodded to me as we left that service, but none appeared interested in the stranger in their midst. I tried again several weeks later, with the same result.

I still thought that the faith I had read about must surely exist somewhere, but I gave up looking until after I was married. We experienced more disappointments and came to realize that most churches that called themselves Mennonite had no idea what the name meant. But we still kept looking.

Catechism Classes

About the only thing my parents had in common was a feeling that the church in which they had been raised had let them down.

My father was a descendant of New England Puritans, with some French and Scottish blood thrown in.  He was born in Iowa, grew up in Minnesota and arrived in Saskatchewan in 1908 at the age of 17.  The family was Wesleyan Methodist, but a series of mergers brought most Methodists into one fold and then in the 1920’s they became part of the new United Church of Canada.  My dad told of a service he had attended in Edmonton in the early years of the United Church.  As the preacher spoke, it became evident that he didn’t believe the creation account, the virgin birth of Jesus, or much of anything else in the Bible.  Dad walked out of that church into the street and wept.  After that he tried to avoid ever setting foot in a United Church again.

My mother was of pure Low German descent.  Her grandparents came to Canada in the great migration of the 1870’s.  There is a story in our family that her grandfather learned to read and write English and discovered that the bishop of the Old Colony Mennonite Church was using money that belonged to the congregation for his own benefit.  Great-grandfather was thereupon excommunicated and joined the Sommerfelder Mennonite Church.  I’m sure there would be a different story from the other side, but this is the story that I have been told.

Mom was born in Manitoba and grew up in Saskatchewan, the sixth in a family of 14 children.  She was the last one in the family to learn High German, which was the only language used in the Sommerfelder Church worship services.  Mom often spoke of how she felt that the church had abandoned her younger siblings.

In her later teens she joined a group of other young people in a catechism class.  They were supposed to learn the catechism by heart.  After the catechism classes were finished, they were to answer the questions of the catechism before the congregation.  I believe this took place over several Sundays.  Mom was the only one of the group to memorize the whole catechism.  As they always sat in the same order, the others calculated which questions they would be asked and memorized only those answers.  One of Mom’s cousins sat beside her.  The morning they were to begin answering the questions before the congregation this cousin told Mom, “I don’t have my answer memorized, so when the bishop asks my question, just speak up and answer it for me and no one will know the difference.”  Mom agreed to this subterfuge.  All went well until the bishop came to the person after Mom.  The anticipated sequence was now broken and he had not memorized the answer to the question he was asked.  Somehow it all worked out and they were all baptized.

My parents were married in the Alliance Church in Moose Jaw, but did not affiliate with any denomination.  I remember that we once attended a service in a rural school house.  I suspect my father was not pleased as we never went again.  One time we attended an Ernest Manning crusade in Regina.  When I was nine, my father arranged for me to be baptized in a private ceremony in a Lutheran church.

That same year, we moved to a farm on the outskirts of Craik.  There were three churches in this town, United, Catholic and Anglican.  My father decided that we needed to start attending church and the Anglican Church was the only good choice available.

A catechism class was planned for the following winter and my father decided I should join.  There were four other boys my age in the class and we spent a number of months studying, not memorizing, the Anglican catechism.  I still remember the definition of a sacrament: “An outward and visible form of an inward and spiritual grace,” and think that is the best definition that I have heard.  The confirmation service, where the bishop would be present to lay his hands on our heads and pray for us, making us full members of the church, came in the spring of 1953.

We five boys had a meeting with the bishop before the service began.  The Right Reverend Michael Coleman, Bishop of Qu’Appelle, was a kindly, white-haired gentleman.  He spoke to us of how the service would be conducted.  Then he told us: “When I was your age, I had the idea that after the bishop laid his hands on me and prayed for me, I would not be able to sin anymore.  When we got home after church, I went out behind the barn to see if I could still say the words that I had used before.  They came just as easily as they ever had!  When I lay my hands on your head today and pray for you, that will change nothing inside of you.  To overcome sin you will need something that I cannot do for you.  You will need a change of heart.”

This happened 57 years ago and I may not have the words exactly as he said them, but this was the essence of his message to us.  The fact that I remember that message so clearly must indicate the impact those words had on me, even though the fruit did not appear until many years later.

A living faith



*These were among a series of quotations posted yesterday on Operation Noh’s Ark. To see all the quotations click on the link at right under Blogroll. I first translated these two into French and posted them on my French blog – Témoin anabaptiste

Attitude correction

For more than 200 years, the government of Canada has graciously extended the privilege of exemption from military service to members of religious denominations which objected to participation in warfare for reasons of faith and conscience. At first, the law required conscientious objectors between the ages of sixteen and sixty to register annually and pay a special tax. These provisions were dropped in the 1850’s.

When the Parliament of Canada passed a conscription act in July of 1917, there was some confusion at first as to how this exemption should work. The Mennonite churches advised their members that when a young brother received notification that he was being called up for military service, he should report to the place assigned and submit to what was required of him Meanwhile, a committee of ministers would present a claim for his exemption.

Before long a system was worked out whereby a member would be given a certificate stating that he was a member in good standing of a specific congregation. The certificate would be signed by a minister of the congregation and this certificate was recognized by military officials as sufficient evidence to grant an exemption.

Before this system was put in place, one young Mennonite lad in Ontario received his call, but his mother would not let him report to the military as the church had asked. She probably thought she was protecting him, but it backfired. The army picked him up and carried him off to training camp. Minister Thomas Reesor was asked to intervene on his behalf.

Thomas Reesor and the young man were granted a hearing with the commanding officer. The officer questioned the lad closely, then turned to Thomas Reesor. “I am going to grant this exemption,” he said. “But I think you are wrong in your attitudes. You are living under the protection of the best government on the face of the earth and you are doing nothing to show your gratitude or appreciation.”

Those words rang in the ears of Thomas Reesor all the way home. He shared them with other ministers and leaders in the Mennonite churches of Ontario. In November, 1917 a committee was formed to help relieve some of the suffering of the war and to express in a practical way their gratitude for the privileges granted to them. The Non-Resistant Relief Organisation set a target of raising $100 for every young man granted exemption from military service.

Thomas Reesor was made treasurer of this organisation. In the early stages, one congregation sent a cheque for $130. He returned it, with a letter saying that if this was all their privileges meant to them they might as well keep the money. Not long after, he received a cheque for $3,500 from the same congregation. $75,000 was raised by the end of the war. This was a very impressive sum 100 years ago.

The money was dispersed to the Merchant Seaman’s Relief Organisation for the relief of widows and children of men lost on torpedoed vessels, the Soldiers’ Aid Commission of Ontario for help to wounded and disabled returning soldiers and to relief agencies working in the war ravaged countries of Europe.

I believe Mennonites have always endeavoured to be good neighbours, but it took the reproof of a military officer to launch us into organized relief efforts in Canada. In the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, young men and women are encouraged to volunteer for a term of service in one of the many programs operated by the church: children’s homes, guest homes for families with a loved one in the hospital, units that repair or rebuild homes after a disaster, or Christian Public Service units in a number of cities where young people volunteer in hospitals, rehab centres, nursing homes, etc.

Worship then and now

Then was sixty years ago when I was a teenager and member of the Anglican Church of Canada. Services would begin with this exhortation:

Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.

The service would continue with words of like eloquence, interspersed with a reading from the Old Testament, another from the New Testament, the reciting of some poetic passages of Scripture, either in unison or as a responsive reading. There would be a few hymns mixed in plus a sermon. All followed the familiar pattern of the Book of Common Prayer, which was little changed since it was formulated by Thomas Cranmer 400 years earlier.

It didn’t take long until you had the services memorized and didn’t need to follow in the book any longer. This was the great danger: the words were beautiful, meaningful and true, but one could recite them with nary a thought as to what one was saying. I have no doubt that many Anglicans were born-again people, but many, probably the majority, just droned along with their mind somewhere else altogether.

I remain very thankful for all the Scriptures read and recited in the Anglican services. I suppose this began in the day when most attendees were unable to read and this was the only exposure they had to the Word of God.  It was still good for those who were readers.

Now, in the Mennonite church to which I belong today, the services might seem a little tohu-bohu (the Hebrew words translated without form and void in Genesis 1:2). There is a certain order to the services, but they are informal and unstructured compared the church of my youth. Still, just as in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God is present.

Most congregations have more than one minister. None of them are professionals, they do not derive their income from the church but earn their living much as other members of the congregation. The hymns we sing are not chosen in advance but are chosen in a seemingly random manner by members of the congregation as the service progresses.  Lay brethren are often invited to volunteer to present some thoughts and a prayer to open the service. It may take some time for one to get up from his seat to do so. The sermons are extemporaneous, not written out beforehand. Sometimes there are no ministers present and the whole service is conducted by lay brethren. 

It works. We are fed, encouraged, reproved, inspired. We trust that everything, the hymns that are chosen, the words that are spoken, is prompted by the Holy Spirit.

This type of service goes back to long before Archbishop Cranmer. The apostle Paul wrote:

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. . . Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

Pietists, Quietists & Anabaptists

I have been reading some of the writings of François Fénelon and find some moving passages. I plan to post some excerpts in coming days.

Fénelon was a Quietist, that is a Roman Catholic who believed that salvation had to come through a personal relationship with God, rather than through the forms of liturgical worship. So far, so good. Yet, there is a niggling little thought that troubles me – Fénélon appears to have had a genuine faith, but was that faith passed on to following generations? He remained a Roman Catholic all his life. The same question applies to those who were Pietists within the Lutheran Church.

The Anabaptists took a different approach. They believed that Scripture and Spirit called them to remain outside the established state churches and maintain a pure church. This often led to persecution and they accepted that as a necessary consequence of their commitment to God.  Menno Simons wrote:

“Reader, understand what I mean. We do not dispute whether or not there are some of God’s elect in the before-mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the  just and gracious judgment of God, hoping that he has many thousands unknown to us, as they were to holy Elijah. But our dispute is in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinance and life it is with which Christ has commanded us to gather unto Him an abiding church, and how to keep it in His ways.”

It is my conviction that Menno’s faith has more fully endured and been passed on to subsequent generations than has the faith of Fénelon.

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