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Spring 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 1 · pp. 21–32 

“Monuments to God’s Faithfulness”: Mennonite Brethren Bible Schools in Western Canada, 1913-1960

Bruce L. Guenther

Since the establishment of the first Bible school in Canada in 1885, Evangelical Protestants have initiated a myriad of approximately two hundred and forty such institutions throughout the country. 1 By training church workers, pastors, and missionaries who have gone to every corner of Canada and the world, by organizing innumerable Bible and mission conferences, and through the use of radio broadcasts and literature, these schools have influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Because of their contribution to the remarkable growth experienced by Evangelical Protestants in Canada, they are arguably among the most important Evangelical institutions of the twentieth century.

The Bible schools were intended to serve as agents of cultural retention by grounding successive generations in the Mennonite faith, language, and way of life.
They instead became crucibles in which particularly the children of immigrants redesigned the relationship between faith and culture.

Prior to 1960, a vastly disproportionate number of Bible schools were located in western Canada, more than seventy percent of the Bible schools started in Canada before that time. 2 Particularly significant for present purposes is the fact that more than forty out of just over one hundred Bible schools initiated in western Canada before 1960 were started by Mennonites. Moreover, the cumulative enrollment within Mennonite Bible schools during this period is no less impressive, making up more {22} than one third of the total student enrollment of all Bible schools in the region. And this does not take into account the fact that, particularly after World War II, a significant proportion of students attending transdenominational schools came from Mennonite churches. But noteworthy also is the observation that more than seventy-five percent of these Mennonite educational endeavors had ended by 1960, and that by the early 1950s the role of the Mennonites as leaders in the movement had been eclipsed by the combined effort of several transdenominational schools.


The Mennonites who played the central role within, and indeed made the greatest single contribution to the development of, the Bible school movement were the Mennonite Brethren (MB). They were among the first to start Bible schools in western Canada and were by far the most aggressive in that they organized more schools than any other denomination. Their cumulative student enrollment significantly outnumbered that of any other denomination and exceeded that of all other Mennonites combined. 3 Limitations of space do not permit a detailed survey of MB Bible schools. The remainder of this article will therefore offer only a general historical assessment of the impact they had on the denomination in Canada during the first half of the twentieth century.

Following the inauguration of their first school in Herbert, Saskatchewan, in 1913, the MBs started an additional twenty-two schools in western Canada. All began as either an educational extension of a congregation or a consortium of congregations, or through the efforts of a group of like-minded individuals who formed a society to organize and promote a Bible school in their region. At the outset, the schools served predominately rural constituencies, creating a kind of invisible link binding congregations together in a common cause. Advances in communication and transportation during the 1940s and the growing economic burden created by what were, in many cases, redundant institutions only a few miles apart, precipitated a trend towards consolidation and amalgamation. Many of the smaller, more congregationally-based schools closed, and the survivors, particularly those located in close proximity to premier MB congregations in regions with a large critical mass of MBs, served ever-larger geographical areas. While economic realities played their part, the trend was precipitated also by a desire to create educational institutions of higher learning that could attract those students who might otherwise consider attending universities.

By 1960, only four MB Bible schools (one in each province) remained in western Canada. These included Winkler Bible Institute {23} (WBI), which began in 1925 in Winkler, Manitoba; Bethany Bible Institute (BBI), which started in 1927 in Hepburn, Saskatchewan; Alberta Mennonite Brethren Bible Institute, which was started in 1929 in Coaldale, Alberta; and Mennonite Brethren Bible Institute, which began in 1936 in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Of these, BBI and WBI had the largest cumulative enrollments of all the Mennonite Bible schools, and both supplied teachers and curricular resources to other MB schools.


A central concern shared by all Mennonites was the religious education of their children. In Canada, the Bible schools quickly became one facet of a larger educational strategy for the spiritual formation of young people and their integration into the denomination. Whereas the German Saturday schools and Sunday schools were designed for children, Bible schools were intended for adolescents and adults.

MB Bible schools initially admitted students immediately after the completion of elementary school. By doing so, they filled an important educational void before the development of province-wide high school systems. They were particularly significant in rural regions, where the vast majority of Mennonites lived, and before a widespread sense emerged among MB young people that a high school education was essential. Tuition fees were kept low to make Bible school affordable. For many young people, Bible school filled a gap during the cold winter months between the harvest and seeding seasons, and the intermediate space between the completion of elementary school and marriage or the beginning of more definite vocational pursuits.

The flexible, winter terms not only made it possible for Mennonite young people (both men and women) to obtain some further schooling, but it also allowed teachers to find other means during the summer to support themselves, thereby reducing the financial demands on students and on the constituency. As Mennonites became more interested in high school education during the 1940s, the educational level of incoming students at Bible school increased: by the mid-1950s approximately one half had completed high school, and by 1960, estimates in some schools were up to seventy-five percent.

During the early decades, the survival of a school often depended on the dedication of a few teachers and supporters. The energy, tenacity, and enterprising spirit of these individuals are impressive. Not the least of their difficulties was the limited financial remuneration received for their efforts. Most were paid only for the duration of a teaching term, usually with a combination of food, housing, and (sometimes) a small {24} amount of cash. Teachers, along with their spouses and families, often made enormous sacrifices for the sake of a school and its students.

The teachers (almost exclusively men) brought varied educational backgrounds—there were no minimum academic qualifications. They embodied the convergence of assorted European and North American Evangelical influences which met within the MB Bible schools. Aside from several who were educated in Europe (Russia and Germany), the vast majority of teachers received their theological education at one or more MB or transdenominational Bible schools in North America. The diversity of influences was mixed further by the fact that many Bible school teachers taught in several schools.

Long-term teachers, particularly those in schools with four-year programs, usually tried to further their own training. By the end of the 1940s, many had completed an undergraduate degree at either a nearby university, Tabor College in Kansas, or Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) in Winnipeg. A few went on to do graduate work, often in various American seminaries. Because of their reputation among students, and their availability during certain parts of the year, many Bible school teachers wielded considerable influence within the denomination.


MB Bible schools tried to achieve a mixture of three objectives. First and foremost, as succinctly summarized by Ted Regehr, was the desire to

impart basic biblical knowledge and understanding, to enrich and guide individuals who would become parents, farmers, housewives, and supportive church members. Second, they prepared or trained future preachers, church leaders, choristers, choir conductors, Sunday school teachers, missionaries, and other church workers. Finally, they helped preserve a distinct Mennonite identity and witness during a time of rapid change. 4

All three objectives were important, but there were differences in the relative emphasis given to these responsibilities in various schools, and differences in the degree of success in achieving these objectives.

Central to the curriculum of all MB Bible schools was the Bible. The task of the Bible school was “to lead men and women into the Holy Scriptures and to assist them in making God’s Word effective in their lives.” 5 Studying the Scriptures systematically and thoroughly (even if not critically) was seen as a necessary inoculant against humanism, {25} modernism, and atheism. Although programs varied from school to school, generally between twenty-five to fifty percent of the curriculum was made up of Bible courses. A second significant emphasis within Bible school curricula was Christian education with course offerings prescribed in the diploma program outlined by the Evangelical Teacher Training Association (ETTA). 6

Although the pride of place within any Bible school program was always given to the Bible, several other emphases were present. The importance of personal conversion and the sense of responsibility for the lost world stirred a passionate interest in missions. This was sometimes heightened by the urgency inherent within dispensational premillennialism. Notable also was an intense interest in using Bible schools for preserving particular cultural attributes, most notably use of the German language. The dual curricular partnership between Christian education and German was ubiquitous in all MB educational institutions in the first half of the twentieth century.

Textbooks came from a variety of sources. The mostly German texts used during the 1920s and 1930s generally came from Europe. As English came to be the language of instruction, textbooks written by various American Evangelicals became more widely used. Discussions about a uniform curriculum began in the late 1930s and, although plans for implementing a standard curriculum did not materialize until the late 1950s, course offerings gradually became more similar due to faculty mobility and a common educational experience, especially after the inauguration of MBBC.


The MB Bible schools, particularly those which survived and received official recognition (and financial support) as conference schools, served as significant centers of influence within the denomination. Their most immediate impact was experienced within the congregational life of churches as young people returned home from Bible school as a veritable army of trained lay workers for involvement in Sunday schools, youth work, and music and church leadership. For almost two decades, beginning in 1930, the annual enrollment in MB Bible schools equaled approximately seven to eight percent of the entire membership within MB churches in western Canada; during the 1940s, the total annual enrollment in MB schools in western Canada ranged between 540 and 610. Over time, the Bible schools created a common religious experience, a higher level of biblical literacy, and an enthusiasm and {26} predisposition for participation in the life of the church. This was an ongoing source of vitality and energy for local congregations and helped shape the ethos of the entire denomination.

The Bible schools also left a distinct mark on the pastoral ministry of MB churches. For almost a century, leaders and pastors in MB churches had been selected from the ranks of the “brethren” after giving evidence of interest, good character, and ability. The Bible schools’ practical courses and ministry work assignments provided an ideal environment for identifying prospective candidates for ministry. By the beginning of the 1930s, many of the new candidates for ministry within congregations had received prior training in a Bible school. The 1950s witnessed the beginning of a shift within the denomination away from the use of multiple laypastors within a congregation towards a more professionally trained and paid pastorate. Congregations (especially urban ones) increasingly expected younger (English-speaking) pastors to have completed some level of theological education. For many this included Bible school. Although it was not an initial purpose of MB Bible schools to precipitate a move towards a more professionalized ministry, they contributed, albeit unwittingly, towards the process. 7

Virtually all MB missionaries had roots within the Bible school movement. Interest in missions was promoted by visiting missionary speakers, missionary conferences, prayer bands, and involvement in summer Vacation Bible School ministry programs. Many prospective missionaries gained their first experience in evangelism and even cross-cultural ministry during their time at Bible school. The missionary impulse transcended both loyalty to conference structures and the maintenance of the linguistic and cultural status quo. BBI and WBI in particular served as centers from which new outreach initiatives emerged (e.g., Western Children’s Mission and the Africa Mission Society) that were more flexible (independent) and responsive to the missionary mandate than the slow-moving (German-speaking) conference structures.


The Bible schools were intended to serve as agents of cultural retention by grounding successive generations in the Mennonite faith, language, and way of life. 8 They instead became crucibles in which particularly the children of immigrants redesigned the relationship between faith and culture. Central to understanding this dynamic is the issue of language because of its direct connections to broader discussions emerging within the denomination. These concerned strategies for youth and Christian education, the understanding of mission and outreach, and the {27} prospect of assimilation within Canadian society. The Bible schools were among the first MB institutions in Canada to make the transition from German to English and thereby became catalysts for similar changes within church life.

Although retention of the German language was a matter of concern among Kanadier MBs in North America at the beginning of the twentieth century, a gradual transition towards the use of English was already underway. This process was interrupted in Canada by the influx of Russlaender during the 1920s whose leaders stressed the retention of the Muttersprache as the language of church and faith. 9 Until the late 1930s, German was the primary language of instruction in all Mennonite Bible schools. In very few schools was English used as a language of instruction from the beginning (see, e.g., BBI).

But the primacy of German as a language of instruction began to change during the 1930s, and by the 1940s English had replaced German as the primary language of instruction in many (though not all) schools. The pace of transition varied somewhat depending partly on the availability of bilingual teachers, on the pressure exerted by students, and the views of church leaders within a region.

The issue of language transition in MB Bible schools was intricately linked to the matter of missions and outreach. The desire on the part of enthusiastic, mission-minded students to obtain training in order to minister in non-German, non-Mennonite settings mitigated against a rigid insistence on the preservation of the German language. The pressure for English-language instruction from students occasionally became intense. For example, in 1935, an entire class confronted the teachers at BBI with an ultimatum threatening “to go elsewhere for their training” if there were not more English-language courses. 10 By helping to facilitate both the linguistic transition towards English and a broader view of mission, the Bible schools undermined the cultural and religious separatism of the MB denomination and accelerated their integration within Canadian society.


Despite their significant role within the denomination, not everyone was uncritical about the impact of the Bible schools. One common cluster of complaints centered around the low academic standards, exacerbated outside the classroom by inadequate library resources and inside the classroom by poorly-educated teachers, by simplistic, dogmatic answers to complex theological questions, and by a general environment which, if not openly anti-intellectual, prioritized personal piety and {28} proper deportment above critical thinking. Without minimizing the legitimacy of such complaints, the Bible schools nevertheless did prepare more than a few individuals for advanced study when few other educational options were available.

A second cluster of complaints bemoaned the Evangelical theological influences within the Bible schools which minimized the systematic study of MB historical and theological distinctives. The early and ongoing influence of Pietism among the MBs created a natural compatibility with the priorities of Evangelical Protestants in North America. Although separated from other Evangelical groups by linguistic and cultural differences at the outset, it did not take long before this affinity resulted in contact and an appreciative borrowing of resources. From this point onwards, the MBs readily identified themselves as part of the larger Evangelical Protestant community. However, internal conflict emerged concerning an appropriate response and relationship to transdenominational Evangelical organizations and institutions.

The Bible schools solidified MB connections with North American Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in a variety of ways. A number of the early teachers took their training at Fundamentalist institutions like Moody Bible Institute, Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training Institute, and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Involvement with ETTA brought not only a prescribed curriculum in the area of Christian education but also a more familial affiliation with other Evangelical schools and educators. As the need for English-language textbooks, library resources, and Sunday school materials grew, Bible school teachers looked again towards the Evangelical schools in the U.S. with which they were familiar. The use of textbooks written and published by American Evangelicals was extensive throughout the MB Bible schools. The Bible schools functioned as conduits for Evangelical influences which quickly permeated the denomination.

The ongoing MB openness to influences from non-Mennonite sources, particularly transdenominational Evangelicalism, contributed substantially towards what J. B. Toews called “an awakening effect” among young people and “the surge of missionary vision and commitment from 1930-1960.” 11 But it also left the MBs with an ongoing “legacy of ambivalence with regard to their identity as a faith community and their place within the larger Mennonite world.” 12 The MB’s natural compatibility with Evangelical Protestantism, together with the significant degree of contact, borrowing of resources, and involvement, laid the foundation for a remarkably close association with the larger Evangelical community in Canada during the second half of the century. 13 The {29} MBs contributed more than any other Mennonite group in Canada towards the formation of what John Stackhouse describes as “a mutually supportive network of interlocking institutions, organizations, and individuals” which has characterized Evangelical Protestantism in Canada since 1960. 14


Despite the influential role played by the Bible schools during the 1930s and 1940s, by the end of the 1950s many MBs were openly wondering if the Bible schools had become obsolete. There was good reason to ponder the question of survival: not only had the total number of students enrolling each year declined appreciably (from 610 in 1950 to 428 in 1960), but the proportion of young people in comparison to total MB membership opting for Bible school had also dropped to less than half of what is was in 1940. Whether this loss of interest on the part of young people (and their parents) was precipitated by the corrosive impact of secularism and materialism as some claimed is difficult to determine.

However, two factors within the denomination during the 1940s contributed directly to the decline in the popularity of Bible schools. They include an explosion of interest in private high schools and the inauguration in 1944 of “eine hoehere Bibelschule” (a higher Bible school) in Winnipeg. In the space of only three years (1944-1947), Mennonites started nine private high schools—five of these were MB initiatives—bringing the total number of private Mennonite high schools in Canada to thirteen. High school enrollments skyrocketed, and by the early 1950s the total number of students enrolled in MB high schools more than doubled the total Bible school enrollment. This signaled a dramatic shift among Mennonites towards educational options that would facilitate greater access to vocational and economic opportunities. Many considered the courses in religious education offered at the high schools to be an adequate alternative to Bible school.

The inauguration of MBBC also had a profound impact on the Bible schools. Within three years, enrollment in the new college surpassed that of WBI, and it became the largest MB theological school in Canada, a status it continued to enjoy throughout the 1950s. By 1960, the enrollment at MBBC equaled almost fifty percent of the total enrollment in the four MB Bible schools still in existence. The college did achieve its objective of preparing teachers for MB Bible schools, which in turn helped to promote a more uniform denominational ethos and curriculum within the Bible schools. It was less successful as an alternative for MB young people to public universities. By 1965 the number of MB young {30} people attending universities was almost double that of the enrollment in MB Bible schools and more than three times the enrollment of MBBC. 15

Although few institutional remains can be found today of this educational legacy—both BBI in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, and Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, British Columbia, the only two MB schools in western Canada with roots in the Bible school movement, have become accredited colleges—the memory of these institutions remain as “monuments to God’s faithfulness.” 16

This article is condensed from a more extensive and detailed chapter within a dissertation manuscript entitled, “Training for Service: The Bible School Movement in Western Canada, 1909-1960.”


  1. Bible schools typically offered a Bible-centered, intensely practical, lay-oriented program of postsecondary theological training. As educational institutions, they operated in a zone between the upper years of secondary education and the undergraduate years of postsecondary education. They need to be differentiated from Bible colleges, which are accredited, confer degrees, and whose curricula include significantly more liberal arts or general education courses alongside course offerings in religious studies.
  2. The role of the Bible school as an integral part of the development of post-secondary education in western Canada has yet to be acknowledged by historians of higher education. For example, a comparison of enrollment statistics between the fledgling universities and the Bible schools in the region reveals that for every three and a half university students enrolled in 1940, at least one person was enrolled in a Bible school. By 1950, this proportionate comparison was still only five to one.
  3. The denomination with the second-largest number of Bible schools was the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. They started sixteen schools in western Canada prior to 1960.
  4. Ted Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970 (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 233.
  5. George Pries, “Purpose and Aim, 1928,” in A Place Called Peniel: Winkler Bible Institute, 1925-1975 (Altona, MB: D. W. Friesen and Sons, 1975), 26.
  6. ETTA was organized in 1930 by representatives from five leading {31} Bible schools in Canada and the U.S. Their objective was to promote a standardized curricular program for training Sunday school teachers. With the help of Abram Kroeker, WBI led the way for other MB schools by joining in 1932, only two years after the organization was started (it was the second school in Canada to be part of the association). The ETTA courses in MB Bible schools were eventually replaced by a program designed by the MB Christian Education Board of the Canadian MB Conference.
  7. A statistical study compiled in 1963 by A. J. Klassen highlighted the percentage of Bible school alumni involved in various areas of denominational life. The results are astounding: by 1963 he estimated that ninety percent of missionaries working abroad, eighty-six percent of missionaries working in North America, fifty-nine percent of MB ministers, sixty-seven percent of Sunday school workers, one hundred percent of the MB Committee on Evangelism, ninety percent of the Committee of Reference and Counsel, eighty-seven percent of the Board of Education, and eighty-eight percent of the Sunday School Committee had some Bible school training (The Bible School Story, 1913-1963: Fifty Years of Mennonite Brethren Bible Schools in Canada [Clearbrook: Canadian Board of Education, 1963], 15-16).
  8. John A. Toews reluctantly acknowledges, “at certain times and in certain institutions the desire for the preservation of cultural values may have overshadowed the primary objective of Christian education” (A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church: Pilgrims and Pioneers [Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1975], 254).
  9. See Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970, 313, for a list of seven reasons for this emphasis. See also Benjamin Redekop, “The German Identity of Mennonite Brethren Immigrants in Canada, 1930-1960” (M.A. Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1990); and Gerald C. Ediger, “Deutsch und Religion: Ethnicity, Religion and Canadian Mennonite Brethren, 1940-1970” (Th.D. diss., Toronto School of Theology, 1993).
  10. Margaret Epp, Proclaim Jubilee (n.p., n.d.), 44. This was no idle threat. During the 1920s and early 1930s the number of Mennonites attending non-Mennonite Bible schools in Canada was minimal, but from the late 1930s onwards, Mennonite (not all MBs) students consistently made up twenty-five to thirty-five percent of the student population at both Prairie Bible Institute and Briercrest Bible Institute. Once established, it was difficult to stop the flow of Mennonite {32} students into transdenominational Bible schools. Personal loyalties towards these institutions became entrenched and sometimes lasted for several generations: financial resources and personal energy were allocated away from local churches; satisfied alumni tended to recruit other students.
  11. J. B. Toews, A Pilgrimage of Faith: The Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia and North America, 1860-1990 (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 1993), 193.
  12. Harry Loewen, “Ambivalence in Mennonite Brethren Self-Understanding,” Direction 23 (Fall 1994): 15. See also Richard Kyle, “The Mennonite Brethren and American Evangelicalism: An Ambivalent Relationship,” Direction 20 (Spring 1991): 26-37.
  13. Examples of this association could be multiplied. For example, the MBs were formal members in the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada since its inception in 1964. It was the only Mennonite denomination involved at the time (see Bruce Guenther, “Living with the Virus: The Enigma of Evangelicalism among Mennonites in Canada,” in Aspects of the Canadian Evangelical Experience, ed. George Rawlyk [Montreal, PQ: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997], 223-40).
  14. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “The Emergence of a Fellowship: Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century,” Church History 60 (June 1991): 248.
  15. John Wall, “The Church and Its Students,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 7 October 1966, 6.
  16. Klassen, The Bible School Story, 1.
Bruce L. Guenther is Assistant Professor of Church History and Mennonite/Anabaptist Studies at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary campus in Langley, British Columbia. He is a member of Bakerview Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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