Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Institute (Kitchener, Ontario, Canada)

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The Ontario Mennonite Bible School (OMBS) began in 1907 with a four week class held in the Berlin Mennonite Church (now First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada). The school was known as the Bible Study Class until the 1920s. “Bible school” was more common by 1930, and a new constitution in 1933 formalized the name Ontario Mennonite Bible School, sometimes referred to as the Kitchener Bible School. In 1951 a more advanced “Institute” was added, leading to the name Ontario Mennonite Bible School & Institute. The school closed in 1969.

Ontario Mennonite Bible School’s roots are in the Bible Conference movement that came to the Mennonite Church (MC) in the 1890s. It was part of a general movement within the Mennonite Church to place more emphasis on correct doctrine, partly as a result of younger dynamic leaders who studied who studied at places like Toronto Bible College or Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

The Bible conferences focused on doctrinal teaching based on detailed scriptural exegesis. These three- or four-day conferences for lay people had the positive benefit of extending biblical knowledge among the laity, but also provided a forum for introducing theological influences from other bodies, since the teachers in these conferences were reading literature produced by theologians outside the Mennonite community. Thus the conferences helped to introduce fundamentalism to the Mennonite Church.

The first Bible Conference within the Mennonite Church of Canada (the name of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario until 1909) took place in 1899 and addressed a wide range of topics, including: Non-resistance, Holy Spirit, Special Talk on Dress, Swearing of Oaths, Going to Law, Church Government, Prayer-Head Covering, and Home Missions.

In 1906 the Mennonite Church of Canada decided to establish a “course of Bible study” to be held immediately after a Bible conference at the Berlin Church in January 1907. Samuel F. Coffman, who had studied at Moody Bible Institute, and Lewis J. Burkholder were the instructors for the first four-week course held from January 14 through February 8, 1907. They each taught two courses. A total of 65 students attended either the daytime or evening classes.

No Bible study class was held in 1908 because Coffman was under discipline within the conference for at least part of a year. Several years earlier Coffman had baptized two young women even though they had not committed themselves to wear a uniform bonnet in public, and they had continued to wear hats in public.

OMBS faculty in 1939. L-R: Jesse B. Martin, Clayton F. Derstine, Samuel F. Coffman, Oscar Burkholder.
Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Despite this blip, by January 1909 the Bible study class was again on track, although it was cut short by a week because of a smallpox outbreak in the Berlin area. Coffman taught classes on “Methods of Study” and “Church History.” Burkholder taught “Doctrines of Salvation” and “Studies in Matthew.” Later that year the Mennonite Conference of Ontario established a three-person board to oversee the Bible class. Absalom B. Snyder, minister of the Wanner congregation served as chair; Isaiah Wismer, minister of the Strasburg (Pioneer Park) congregation was secretary, and U. K. Weber , minister at the Berlin Mennonite Church, served as treasurer. Board members were elected for three year terms. Over time the board expanded to nine members.

From 1910 to 1918 S. F. Coffman was the only teacher of the Bible class, except for 1916 when J. D. Brunk taught a music course. In 1912 a six-year rotation of courses was established, and in 1913 the course was expanded to six weeks in length. That same year Bible class students built a model of the Old Testament tabernacle, a teaching tool that was used for many years. Meals and lodging arrangements for students were also established during this time. For unknown reasons, classes for most of this decade were not held at the Berlin Church, but rather were held in various rented quarters in town. Finally in 1920, the school returned permanently to First Mennonite Church (renamed in in 1917 when the city of Berlin changed its name to Kitchener).

In 1919 Oscar Burkholder (Breslau Mennonite Church) assisted Coffman, and in 1921 became the second faculty member, working along with Coffman, who continued to serve as the principal of the school until 1947. He served as the second principal, from 1948-1954. Clayton F. Derstine (First Mennonite Church) served on the faculty from 1929-1949. He was a widely known evangelist, author and editor in the binational Mennonite Church who had come in 1925 to First Mennonite Church after the division that had seen the formation of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church. Derstine was a flamboyant preacher who sometimes came into conflict with conservative co-workers because he became more relaxed over some issues of church discipline related to dress regulations.

Jesse B. Martin was the fourth pillar who taught at OMBS from 1932 to 1966. He served as principal from 1957-1966. Although he had grown up in an Old Order Mennonite home, he was able to attend Hesston College and briefly at Goshen College. He was deeply involved in peace issues in the Mennonite Church, and had a prominent role in representing Ontario Mennonites during World War II.

First Mennonite Church (Kitchener) prior to 1950 when used by Ontario Mennonite Bible School.
Photo by Ernest Denton. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Coffman, Burkholder, Derstine and Martin were the “big four” at Ontario Mennonite Bible School during its years of greatest influence. Other longer term faculty included Merle Shantz (1939-1952) and Roy Koch (1947-57; principal for 1955-57), Osiah Horst (1953-1964), and Newton Gingrich (1958-69; principal, 1966-69.

In the late 1920s the term was expanded to eight, then ten weeks in length. In 1930 the schedule was altered to follow a three-year curriculum rotation with twelve week terms.

The peak of enrolment occurred during the late 1920s and 1930s, ranging between 107 and 244 students in attendance. This was partially in response to an addition built by the Mennonite Conference of Ontario at First Mennonite Church specifically to accommodate the Bible school. By the 1950s the enrolment in Ontario Mennonite Bible School dropped below 100, and in the 1960s below 50. Most assimilated Mennonite young people were now graduating from high school and many were considering college, so the Bible school model lost much of its constituency. A higher percentage of students were attending from outside Ontario (most often Alberta and Pennsylvania), reducing the incentive for the Mennonite Conference of Ontario to continue support, even as it was undertaking financial support for Conrad Grebel College, a new Mennonite post-secondary venture in Ontario.

In the fall of 1951 an Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute for more advanced Bible study began with two 10-week semesters. The faculty and administration was shared between OMBS and OMBI, but the target audience was persons who would become congregational leaders, including pastors. It included courses on homiletics and pastoral theology, and Christian education courses aimed more at female students. Newer faculty members had more education, including college and seminary degrees. Eventually the Institute offered up to one year of credit accepted at some Mennonite colleges in the United States. Enrolment ranged from the 40s to the 50s during the life of the Institute, though in later years Ontario students were a small minority.

Both OMBS and OMBI closed in 1969 because of declining enrollment. During its six decades of operation OMBS was one of the oldest and most influential Bible schools in the Mennonite Church. Certainly OMBS provided an educational opportunity for many young adults in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario in an era when a low percentage attended high school.


Bender, Urie A. Four earthern vessels : biographical profiles of Oscar Burkholder, Samuel F. Coffman, Clayton F. Derstine, and Jesse B. Martin (Kitchener, Ont. : Herald Press, 1982).

Burkholder, L. J. A brief history of the Mennonites in Ontario : giving a description of conditions in early Ontario, the coming of the Mennonites into Canada, settlements, congregations, conferences, other activities and nearly 400 ordinations. [Ontario]: Mennonite Conference of Ontario, 1935): 165-166

Fretz, Clarence. “A history of winter Bible schools in the Mennonite Church.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 16, no. 2 (April 1942): 59-65.

Gingrich, Newton. Mission completed : history of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute (Kitchener, Ont.: Mennonite Conference of Ontario, 1971).

Ontario Mennonite Bible School & Institute fonds. Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Additional Information

Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Institute Principals

Principal Years
S. F. Coffman 1907-1947
Oscar Burkholder 1948-1955
Roy S. Koch 1955-1957
Jesse B. Martin 1957-1966
Newton L. Gingrich 1966-1969

Ontario Mennonite Bible School & Institute Faculty

Name Years of Service
Samuel F. Coffman 1907-1952
Lewis J. Burkholder 1907, 1909
Oscar Burkholder 1919, 1921-1955/56
Clayton F. Derstine 1929-1949
Jesse B. Martin 1932-1965/66
Merle Shantz 1939-1951/52
Roy S. Koch 1947-1956/57
John F. Garber 1950-1955/56
John Hess 1951/52-1955/56
Ruth Snider 1951/52
Urie Bender 1953/54
Howard Bauman 1954
Arnold Cressman 1954/55, 1956/57-1960/61
Delford Zehr 1956
Orland Gingerich 1956/57-1959/60, 1964/65-1966/67
Dorothy Swartzentruber 1957/58-1960/61
Newton Gingrich 1958/59-1968/69
Simeon Hurst 1960/61, 1865-1976, 1968/69
Vernon Leis 1961/62-1965/66
Dale Schumm 1961/62-1965/66
Herbert Schultz 1962/63-1968/69
David Groh 1963/64
Ken Bender 1964/65-1965/55
Albert Zehr 1965/66-1968/69
Daniel Zehr 1965/66-1966/67
Rufus Jutzi 1966/67-1968/69
Margaret Brubacher 1966/67-1967/68
Glenn Brubacher 1966/67-196768
Howard Schmitt 1966/67-1968/69
Milton Schwartzentruber 1967/68
Doug Snyder 1967/68-1968/69
David Newlands 1968/69

Original Article from Mennonite Encyclopedia

By Oscar Burkholder. Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 66. All rights reserved.

Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Institute (Mennonite Church), located in Kitchener, Ontario, was an outgrowth of the Bible conference movement. The first extended Bible study class was conducted in 1907 for one week by Samuel Frederick Coffman and Lewis Josephus Burkholder, with an attendance of 50-60. The Ontario Conference in 1909 appointed the Bible Study Board to have charge of these classes. The Bible Study Class (later called Bible School) met annually with the exception of one year, with sessions at first of one or two weeks and later of four weeks or more. In 1918 a course of study was arranged covering the entire Bible, and training in Sunday school and Christian work extending over a period of six years and requiring an annual session of six weeks. Attendance and interest in the work were increased by this more regular form of study In 1929 the course was rearranged to increase the class periods to twelve weeks and shorten the cycle of study to three years. Every year since that time a number of students have finished this course. In 1929 an annex was built to the Kitchener Mennonite Church for the Bible school. Previously the classes had been conducted in the church or in rented quarters in the city. The school is still conducted in the further remodeled First Mennonite Church of Kitchener.

Before 1951 an advanced course was offered to Bible school graduates and others which led the Bible School Board to recommend to Conference the launching of the Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute. It was the conviction of church leaders that there was a need for a Bible course shorter than the regular college Bible course, but more thorough than the Bible school could offer in three months, to meet the need of mature young people who could not attend college. The first session of the Institute was held in 1951-52 for five months, two months before Christmas and three months following.

The teachers who have served or are serving are S. F. Coffman, Oscar Burkholder, Clayton Freed Derstine, Jesse Bauman Martin, Merle Shantz, J. F. Garber, R. S. Koch, Mrs. Arlin Snyder, Osiah Horst, H. S. Bauman, Paul Martin, Arnold Cressman, and Newton Gingrich. Principals in succession were S. F. Coffman for 40 years (1907-1947)k, Oscar Burkholder for 7 years (1948-55, Roy S. Koch, 1955-57, and J. B. Martin 1957- . The Ontario Bible School and Institute was well known in Western Ontario and the border states. Its activities, such as tract distribution, singing, and church programs, have been well received for years. The highest enrollment was 226 (1939). The 1957 enrollment of the Ontario Mennonite Bible School (OMBS) was 68; that of the Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute (OMBI) 38, making a total of 106.

Author(s) Samuel J Steiner
Date Published January 2016

Cite This Article

MLA style

Steiner, Samuel J. "Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Institute (Kitchener, Ontario, Canada)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. January 2016. Web. 1 Aug 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ontario_Mennonite_Bible_School_and_Institute_(Kitchener,_Ontario,_Canada)&oldid=170101.

APA style

Steiner, Samuel J. (January 2016). Ontario Mennonite Bible School and Institute (Kitchener, Ontario, Canada). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 1 August 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ontario_Mennonite_Bible_School_and_Institute_(Kitchener,_Ontario,_Canada)&oldid=170101.

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