The Mennonite Brethren Church began in 1860 as the result of a schism within the Mennonite Church in the Molotschna Colony of southern Russia. The first Mennonite Brethren to arrive in North America—approximately 200 families who were part of the larger Mennonite migration during the 1870s—settled in the United States. Within a decade, they began commissioning itinerant evangelists to conduct meetings among Mennonites living in southern Manitoba. Through their persistence, a congregation was organized in 1888 near Winkler, which in turn was instrumental in starting several satellite congregations nearby, comprised largely of former Sommerfelder and Old Colony Mennonites. The Mennonite Brethren’s insistence on baptism by immersion hampered the growth of these congregations.
This nondescript beginning was augmented by a steady trickle of Mennonite Brethren immigrants from the United States during the 1890s and the early decades of the 20th century. Some settled in Manitoba, but most were attracted by free homesteads and cheaper land in Saskatchewan. They settled in two main areas that became known as Rosthern Kreis (District) in the north and Herbert Kreis in the south. The first Mennonite Brethren church to be organized in Saskatchewan was located in Laird in 1898; within two decades six more congregations had been started in the area. The first congregation in the southern district was organized in 1904 in Main Centre; seven more were initiated during the next decade. In 1914, the Mennonite Brethren churches in Canada organized themselves as the Northern District Conference, one of four Mennonite Brethren districts in North America. By 1923, almost twenty Mennonite Brethren congregations had been formed in western Canada, with a membership totaling approximately 1,800, of which 80% were located in Saskatchewan.
The 1920s inaugurated a time of rapid expansion for the young denomination as a wave of more than 20,000 German-speaking Mennonites (dubbed Russlaender), who were fleeing the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath, settled in western Canada. Between 4,000 and 5,000 were Mennonite Brethren; this influx dramatically changed the complexion and demographics of the denomination. By 1930, there were almost 4,000 Mennonite Brethren scattered across western Canada in over forty congregations (only 55% were in Saskatchewan, signaling a gradual shift in influence to places such as Winkler, Manitoba, Coaldale, Alberta, and Yarrow, BC). As Mennonite Brethren numbers in Canada increased, several provincial conferences were created and the Northern District Conference was reorganized as the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Canada in 1946.
The Mennonite Brethren have distinguished themselves by their aggressive involvement in Christian education. Despite difficult pioneering conditions, the Mennonite Brethren in Saskatchewan managed to start a Bible school in Herbert as early as 1913. Aided by the incoming Russlaender immigrants, this initiative was followed by more than twenty Bible schools (seven in Saskatchewan), five high schools, and a Bible college before the mid-1940s. The only one of these schools still in operation in Saskatchewan is Bethany College in Hepburn, which began in 1927.
The Mennonite Brethren’s emphasis on personal conversion prompted the sending of numerous foreign missionaries and, more recently, an aggressive church-planting campaign in Canada. The Mennonite Brethren share a natural compatibility with other evangelical Protestant groups, which has led to a significant degree of contact, borrowing of resources, and involvement with numerous evangelical organizations. Attendance in the 250 Mennonite Brethren congregations numbers approximately 45,000, making it the largest Mennonite denomination in Canada; less than 10% of this number come from the thirty Mennonite Brethren congregations now in operation in Saskatchewan.