Bethany College (Hepburn, Saskatchewan, Canada)

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Bethany College, Hepburn, Saskatchewan
Source: College website

Bethany College (formerly Bethany Bible School / Institute) is located in the town of Hepburn, Saskatchewan, and was founded in 1927.  It was one of a number of Bible schools begun shortly after the arrival of Mennonite immigrants from Russia in the 1920s after the Russian Revolution. The proximity of the German–English Academy in Rosthern, the early Bible classes initiated by J. F. Harms, and occasional visits from H. W. Lohrenz, the founding principal of Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, combined to stimulate interest among the Mennonite Brethren (MB) in the northern part of Saskatchewan for their own "Bible-centered school" that could help preserve the use of the German language, teach the Bible to their young people and prepare more leaders for their churches.

At the time, the vast majority of Mennonite Brethren in the Rosthern district were descendants of the Kanadier immigrants who had arrived in Saskatchewan after having first lived in Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska. As early as 1912, a fund was started by local congregations for the purpose of organizing a school for higher education. Between 1912 and 1925, starting in Brotherfield, the Mennonite Brethren churches of the district experimented with itinerant Bible classes in various churches.  Although this Wanderschule was helpful, the desire for a more established Bible school continued to be expressed. Finally in 1926, influenced by the fifteen years of experience on the part of Herbert Bible School in the south, the Mennonite Brethren in the Rosthern District invited George Harms, who had studied at the Bible Institute of Los Angeles and was a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, to teach three months of evening classes in Hepburn. More than thirty young people attended. Convinced that this was proof of the need for a local Bible school, three ministers, Jacob Lepp of Dalmeny, H. A. Willems of Brotherfield and John Harder of Borden, canvassed the area for support.

Although a consensus had not been reached concerning the location of a Bible school within the district, the sudden availability in 1927 of the public school building in Hepburn prompted local leaders to take action. Hepburn’s advantages included its central location within the Rosthern District as well as the proximity of the largest Mennonite Brethren church in the region. In 1927, Bethany Bible Institute came into being under the direction of a local Bible school association with Dietrich P. Esau as teacher and principal.

The stated objectives of the school were clearly outlined. The school calendar of 1937 stated the purpose as follows:

To give our . . . youth foundational Bible instruction in the German and English languages . . ., to wrench our youth away from frivolous pursuits and the contemporary “Zeitgeist” . . ., to nurture the German language as a special possession handed down from our fathers . . ., to raise believing youth for the battle of the faith . . . [and] to take into account the needs of the congregations in the methodical training of Sunday school teachers and sundry (church) workers.

Early leaders claimed that the school stood “on an interdenominational base” and that it taught “the oneness of the church of Christ.” The characterization of the school as an institution providing interdenominational, non-sectarian religious education” continued until the late 1940s, when a more intentional Mennonite Brethren identity gradually emerged.  Although the school’s “inter-denominational” objectives did attract a few Mennonites from other denominations, the majority of students were Mennonite Brethren, and the ethos of the school was always strongly shaped by its Mennonite Brethren teachers and local supporters.

Esau, together with Johann A. (Vaeterchen [Daddy]) Toews, who arrived in 1928, designed the school’s curriculum. What began initially as a two-year curriculum was expanded to three years in 1932, to four years in 1934, and then to five years in 1941 – a move that coincided with a name change to Bethany Bible School and Bible College. The fifth year was eventually dropped in 1945. Unlike many of the other Mennonite Brethren Bible schools where a three-year program was adopted as the standard, Bethany Bible Institute maintained a four-year program during most of its early history – although for a time during the 1940s a three-year diploma was in place with the option to proceed to an additional two-year college program (the three-year diploma program could be reduced to two years for high school graduates).

In 1955 a four-year program with more diversified specializations was re-established. Although a thorough study of the Bible was at the center of each program innovation, Bethany Bible Institute joined the Evangelical Teacher Training Association in 1935, which prescribed the inclusion of practical courses in Christian education, particularly Sunday school work. During the first decade, students as young as fourteen were on occasion admitted. However, a minimum age was soon set at sixteen with little consideration for previous education – the majority of students came with a grade eight education. The curriculum of the first two years was therefore designed to help young people acquire more Bible knowledge and relate it to life. The third and fourth years offered more advanced courses to older students who showed promise for Christian service, either in the church or in missions.

By the early 1930s, student numbers at Bethany Bible Institute eclipsed those of Herbert Bible School, reflecting the larger critical mass of Mennonite Brethren in the Rosthern District. Although enrollments fluctuated from year to year, by the end of the 1930s student numbers exceeded one hundred, necessitating a series of building projects to expand and improve campus facilities. Considerable financial help for such projects came from the congregations in the area. Oddly, student numbers plummeted rather drastically immediately following the end of the Depression and only gradually increased during the late 1940s and 1950s. By 1960, enthusiasm in the school ran high as student numbers were once again exceeding 100. This steady increase in students during the 1950s coincided with the numerous closures and amalgamations of other Mennonite Brethren Bible schools.  In 1957 the Herbert Bible School was forced to close and in 1958 it was amalgamated with Bethany Bible Institute.   It therefore became the sole Mennonite Brethren Bible school in Saskatchewan and the Mennonite Brethren Bible school with the largest enrollment in western Canada.  At least five other Bible schools had been established by the denomination in Saskatchewan – some in relatively close proximity to Hepburn.  With the closure of the Coaldale Bible School in 1965, the Alberta Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches joined the Saskatchewan MB Conference in the sponsorship of the school in 1968.This provided Bethany with a wider support base and enabled further expansion of the facilities in the 1970s.

J. B. Toews, 1940
Source: R. D. Thiessen

In 1977 the school decided to seek accreditation with the American Association of Bible Colleges. This attempt was abandoned in 1986 after extensive self-studies and evaluations. A mission statement was accepted which stated the purpose of the school as one which would "equip men and women with a sound knowledge of the Scriptures and to encourage them to demonstrate their love for God through a life of obedience and service." The school obtained its own charter and was given authority by an Act of the Saskatchewan Legislature to grant degrees. A two-year diploma in Biblical Studies was offered as well as a Bachelor of Christian Studies degree.

Bethany’s enrolment increased to a high of close to 200 students from 1980-82. But a decline in enrollment followed to a low of 105 students in 1987.

In 1996 the Saskatchewan Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference decided to join and become the third sponsoring conference. In the same year Bethany again decided to pursue the accreditation process which was successfully completed in 1999. A new four-year program was also initiated, as well as a one-year program focusing on experiencing God.

The most influential persons in shaping the ethos of a school were faculty members – by the end of the 1950s, more than thirty people had worked as full-time teachers at Bethany Bible Institute. Although faculty members were poorly paid and often called upon to make considerable sacrifices for the sake of the institution, they were highly regarded as spiritual leaders and often occupied prominent positions of leadership within the denomination.

The way in which the school’s governing association was structured meant that the principal became the chairperson of the Board of Directors, and faculty were automatically included as directors giving them considerable influence in the operation and direction of the school. Other directors consisted of elected representatives from churches active in the association (one representative per one hundred members). It was not until after the amalgamation with Herbert Bible School that this governance structure was redesigned, an event that coincided with a general move towards professionalized models of ministry within the denomination at large. Other changes included the inauguration of salary scales and a group insurance plan for faculty. The integration of the governance of the school with the denominational infrastructure led the school to become more intentional about its role within the denomination.

Jacob H. Epp, 1963

J. B. Toews replaced Esau as the second principal of the school in 1934, in part because he was fully bilingual. Educated in Russia and Tabor College, Toews redesigned the courses in Bible and theology upon the advice of Abraham H. Unruh.  Both George W. Peters, who succeeded Toews as principal in 1937, and Gerhard D. Huebert, who succeeded Peters in 1942, had their early training at Herbert Bible School – Peters also studied at Winkler Bible Institute and completed a semester at Prairie Bible Institute.  Both Peters and Huebert brought a keen interest in missions and premillennialism to Bethany Bible Institute.  The person who holds the record for the longest tenure as principal of Bethany Bible Institute was Jacob H. Epp, whose stay lasted twenty-eight years (nineteen years as principal). He spent five years as a child in China where his parents served with the China Mennonite Mission Society. As a young man he studied first at Prairie Bible Institute, until G. W. Peters convinced him to come to Bethany Bible Institute. After plans to return to China were foiled by the depression and by World War II, Epp returned as a teacher. He helped expand the facilities and continued to encourage the emphasis on missions.

Despite the numerous commonalities with other Mennonite Brethren schools, Bethany Bible Institute was unique among Mennonite Brethren Bible schools in at least three respects. First, it was the first school to experiment with a move towards offering a “college” program. Although ultimately unsuccessful in sustaining such a degree program in theology, it was a harbinger of things to come among the Mennonite Brethren. This interest in higher education within the denominational constituency came to fruition more fully in 1944 with the founding of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg.

Second, the school developed a reputation for the aggressive promotion of missions. The actual application of this emphasis took several forms. Early on, George W. Peters, who had accompanied William Bestvater on his itinerant preaching tours while a student at Herbert Bible School, used a similar pattern of inviting student music groups to accompany him during the summer. In 1933 the Bethany Prayer League was organized. Its members helped inculcate a strong missionary spirit within the school. Two years later, the Bethany Prayer League Children’s Mission was formed as an outreach extension of Bethany Bible Institute (the name was changed in 1937 to the Western Children’s Mission and eventually became known as the Mennonite Brethren Mission of Saskatchewan). Although the personnel for the Western Children’s Mission overlapped directly with Bethany Bible Institute, the new Mission did have its own charter that characterized it as “interdenominational, international, evangelical and evangelistic.” The Western Children’s Mission, led by the previously-mentioned Jake H. Epp, recruited and sent dozens of young people into rural communities across northern Saskatchewan to conduct Vacation Bible Schools for children. One estimate suggests that during the 1930s upwards of 75% of Bethany Bible Institute students spent from two to six weeks in Vacation Bible school work each summer. The organization served, according to Menno Lepp, as the “cradle of Bethany’s foreign missionary thrust.”  The work of Western Children’s Mission and Bethany Bible Institute was augmented in 1951 with a radio ministry initiated by faculty. The short program called “Gospel Echoes” was broadcast from several radio stations in central and northern Saskatchewan.

Closely connected to the vigorous emphasis on missions was the third unique feature of Bethany Bible Institute, namely the comparatively early transition from German to English. At the outset, the language of instruction was predominately German, but it quickly became a mixture of German and English as pressure for a more bilingual curriculum mounted from students. By the end of the school’s first decade, the transition to English language instruction was virtually complete. However, in response to concerns expressed within the larger denominational constituency about the move towards English, the faculty continued throughout the 1930s to reassure people that “great weight” was being placed on the German language at the school, and that students were displaying an “intense interest” in learning the language. This has led scholars such as Gerald Ediger to note the “growing gulf between perceptions and aspirations of Canadian MB Conference leaders and the linguistic realities among their youth,” and to observe that the Saskatchewan Mennonite Brethren Bible schools – Herbert Bible School and Bethany Bible Institute in particular – were on the leading edge of accommodation to the English language.

At the end of the 1950s, Bethany Bible Institute faced a new dilemma. As the number of Mennonite Brethren within urban centers increased during the 1950s, and as more young people began to attend university, suggestions were made that the school relocate to the nearby city of Saskatoon (by the end of the 1950s the Mennonite Brethren congregation in Saskatoon had become the largest congregation in the province). The proposal to relocate to Saskatoon was ultimately rejected in the late 1950s, setting the stage for new capital projects on the Hepburn campus that signaled the school’s ongoing commitment to the training and discipling of young people.


Guenther, Bruce. "The Historical Roots of Bethany College." Mennonite Historian 28 (September 2002):1- 2, 4; Adapted and revised by Abe Dueck, 2009.

See also:

"Bethany 1927–1957." The Ray. Hepburn, SK: Bethany Bible Institute, 1957: 6–7.

Epp, Margaret. Proclaim Jubilee.  Hepburn, SK: Bethany Bible School, 1977.

Geddert, George. "To God be all the Glory: 1927–1987. Historical Summary of Events, Buildings, Changes During Bethany’s First 60 Years." [Program of Bethany’s 60th Anniversary Service, 10 April 1987]: 5.

Guenther, Bruce. "Training for Service: The Bible School Movement in Western Canada, 1909-1960." Ph.D. Dissertation, McGill University, Montreal, 2001.

Thiessen, Rosemary, et. al., editorial team, Celebrating God’s Faithfulness: 75. Hepburn, SK: Bethany Bible Institute, 2002.

Toews, J. B. JB: The Autobiography of a Twentieth-Century Mennonite Pilgrim. Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1995: 88–89, 96–99.

Additional Information

Address: 703 2nd Street, Hepburn, Saskatchewan S0K 1Z0

Phone: 306-947-2175

Website: Bethany College

Principals (Presidents) of Bethany College

Principals (Presidents) Years of Service
Dietrich P. Esau 1927-1934
John B. Toews 1934-1937
George W. Peters 1937-1942
Gerhard D. Huebert 1942-1945
Jacob H. Epp 1945-1964
Cornelius Braun 1964-1967
Abram H. Wieler 1967-1968
Cornelius Braun 1968-1976
Elmer Andres 1976-1977
Cornelius Braun 1977-1979
Isaac "Ike" Bergen 1979-1986
Cliff Jantzen 1985-1991
James Nikkel 1991-1995
Doug Berg 1995-1999
Rick Schellenberg 1999-2009
Howard "Howie" Wall 2010-present

Original 1956 Mennonite Encyclopedia Article

Bethany Bible School, located in the town of Hepburn, in northern Saskatchewan, was founded in 1927. For a number of years the school offered a two-year elementary course, increasing it in 1934 to an intensive four-year course. In 1935 it became an active member of the Evangelical Teacher Training Association. A two-year college course was offered 1939-1945. Since then it has again offered the regular intensive four-year course in Bible, Christian education, and missions.

At first the school was owned and operated by the Bethany Bible School Association, consisting of members who paid the required fees and who pledged its support, but later the association consisted of Mennonite Brethren churches which appointed their representatives on the school board, which guided and directed all the affairs of the school. In 1949 there were 16 board members representing 9 churches.

In 1948 all property was turned over to the Mennonite Brethren Church of Saskatchewan. It consisted of the main school building with four classrooms, an office, a library, and an auditorium; a girls' dormitory with offices, laundry, kitchen and dining-room facilities; a men's dormitory with residence for one teacher and family; two other teacherages; and a campus of approximately six and one-half acres.

The school had an average attendance of 50-60 students in the late 1940s. Most of these came from Mennonite Brethren churches of Saskatchewan, but annually the school had a number of students of other churches, as well as from other provinces.

At least one third of the graduates were active in full-time Christian work and were serving as missionaries in India, Africa, South America, and North America, and as pastors and Bible school teachers.

The school presidents during the years have been D. P. Esau, 1929-1934; J. B. Toews, 1934-1937; G. W. Peters, 1937-1942; G. D. Huebert, 1942-1945; J. H. Epp, 1945-    . -- J. H. Epp


Map:Bethany College (Hepburn, Saskatchewan)

Author(s) Bruce Guenther
Abe J. Dueck
Date Published 2009

Cite This Article

MLA style

Guenther, Bruce and Abe J. Dueck. "Bethany College (Hepburn, Saskatchewan, Canada)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 2009. Web. 21 Apr 2024.,_Saskatchewan,_Canada)&oldid=178008.

APA style

Guenther, Bruce and Abe J. Dueck. (2009). Bethany College (Hepburn, Saskatchewan, Canada). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 April 2024, from,_Saskatchewan,_Canada)&oldid=178008.

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