David B. Martin: Pioneer of Mennonite Orthodoxy

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David Bauman Martin (1838-1920), ancestor of many Old Order Mennonites in Ontario, Canada, was also the progenitor of what we today refer to as Mennonite orthodoxy, a movement which had its formal genesis in the mid 20th century. Indeed there today exists two branches of the Orthodox Mennonite Church in Ontario, churches created by his descendants.

Of the descendants of David B. Martin today, three are recognized leaders of Mennonite orthodoxy. Indeed, the movement may not exist today at all if Martin and his family had not taken a stand a century ago in 1917.

Family History

David B. Martin, born September 2, 1838, in Waterloo County, Upper Canada (now Ontario), was the son of Mennonite pioneers Jacob G. Martin and Esther Bauman. Jacob, born March 22, 1811, was only 9 years old when he emigrated with his family to the British province of Upper Canada, from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Jacob's father David and his first cousin Peter Martin (who also came to Upper Canada) were descendants of their common grandfather David Martin, an immigrant to Pennsylvania, whose family originated in the Canton of Berne, Switzerland.

Living during a time of many changes among the Mennonites in Waterloo County (now the Regional Municipality of Waterloo), as Jacob Martin grew older he became increasingly concerned about what he considered to be a drift away from their traditional Anabaptist roots. Indeed, his concern led to the publishing of a now rare booklet entitled, "The Little Ship Sailing Against the Wind". This booklet set the tone for what was to unfold among the Mennonites in Ontario over the next several years.

In the latter half of the 1800s, a movement began to preserve Anabaptist traditions in the face of evangelical Protestant influence in the Mennonite church in North America. Opposing a "new order" of things, the "Old Order" Mennonite movement began in ernest in 1872 in Indiana. In Canada, the Old Order Mennonite Church in Ontario began in Waterloo County in 1889. Although Jacob G. Martin died that year, his son David B. Martin embraced the Mennonite traditionalists, becoming an ordained minister among them in 1890. He served the Elmira church for over 10 years, when in 1901 he became the first minister of the South Peel congregation in Wellington County.

History of Ontario Orthodoxy

As the early 20th century progressed, some, including Minister David B. Martin and his son, Deacon David W. Martin (1873-1959), began to question what they considered to be a lack of discipline among the Old Order Mennonites. They based their arguments on their Confession of Faith, especially Articles 16 & 17, regarding the ban and shunning of errant members, which they felt were not being followed. After raising this and other issues with the bishop at the time, they eventually felt that they had no choice but to separate from the main group. With this, David B. Martin and his son David W. led a group of about 50 members to form a new church, the David Martin Mennonites, today known as the Independent Old Order Mennonite Church, celebrating their first communion together on May 26, 1918.

Several members of the family of David B. Martin followed him into the new church, including his sons Solomon and John, his daughter Catherine, and their families. In specific, after the death of David B. on April 21, 1920, his equally conservative son David W., born October 27, 1873, became a minister at the beginning of 1921, then Bishop of the church in 1924. He was to serve in that position for many years, until his death on May 31, 1959.

Over the ensuing years, Bishop Dave, as he was called, faced several challenges, but none was to be as big as the upset within the church of the mid 1950s. Of several excommunications by the bishop, the most important for the future came to be the one of his nephew Elam S. Martin (ordained Minister in 1934), on March 11, 1956.

Elam Snyder Martin, son of John W. and Leah Snyder Martin, was born April 30, 1907. Following his parents into the new David Martin church in 1917, he grew to embrace and indeed define the growing expression of Mennonite orthodoxy in southwestern Ontario. After serving as a minister for 20 years, he began to question his uncle's somewhat more open interpretation of Matthew 18 in the New Testament, in that he felt that members were being given too much freedom to stretch the ordnung (communal church guidelines) before being disciplined. Bishop Dave felt there was too much growing controversy, and excommunicated his nephew. This however, caused an upset in the church, and several of the members left the church by 1957.

From the beginning, these "separated" members found themselves of a similar mind regarding their desire for a simpler, more traditional Old Order lifestyle. They were concerned about the usage of modern equipment like power tools among their parent church, and felt a need to remain as plain as their ancestors had been. And so the new group blended their orthodox Mennonite theology with orthodox Mennonite practice.

The new group, along with some others, eventually organized themselves under the leadership of Elam S. Martin. As their new Bishop "by circumstance", Elam held their first communion with about 60 members on April 6, 1958. Among that group were the families, descendents of David B. Martin, who formed the nucleus of what was to become the Orthodox Mennonite Church.

Key Descendants

By 1962, the Elam Martin Mennonites were sufficiently organized to build their first meetinghouse. Along with this, they chose as their legal name what became their historic group identity, the "Orthodox Mennonite Church (of Wellesley Township)". This historic moment in Mennonite history was not without its later challenges, and a 1974 division split the church down the middle, creating what are today two branches of the Orthodox Mennonites, the original Wellesley group, and the now much larger Orthodox Mennonite Church, Huron County.

Over the past 55 years' (as of 2017) existence of the Orthodox Mennonite churches, several descendants of David B. Martin have played a key role in the growth and stability of Mennonite orthodoxy. Indeed, almost 100% of Orthodox Mennonites with the family names of "Hoover" and "Sherk" are direct descendants of David B. Martin.

Three descendants in particular are today leaders among the Orthodox Mennonites:

David E. M. Martin (1965-): Leader of the Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites since 2009, appropriately named David Martin is the great-great grandson of David B. Martin. His father, Elam M. Martin (1932-2002), was the previous bishop of the church from 1993-2002. Elam. M. Martin was the grandson of Bishop David W. Martin (1873-1959), who as noted was the son of Minister David B. Martin. In addition, David E. M. Martin is the grandson, through his mother, of the "Father of the Orthodox Mennonites", Bishop Elam S. Martin, who was also a grandson of David B. Martin. A leader of Mennonite orthodoxy in the Waterloo Region of Ontario, in 2013, Minister David E. M. Martin wrote a 48 page confession and explanation of what he considered to be a true definition of the historic Anabaptist faith entitled, "A Confession and Explanation of the Primary Reason why I am in Unity with the Orthodox Mennonite Church and why I am not in Unity with the Other Churches".

Amos M. Sherk (1947-): Former Bishop (1976-1986) of the Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites, in April, 1987 Sherk became a Minister of the Huron Orthodox Mennonites. Through his grandmother Catherine W. Martin (1875-1953), Amos Sherk is a great-grandson of David B. Martin. A Mennonite historian, Sherk is responsible for a rare and comprehensive (unpublished) history of the Orthodox and David Martin Mennonites.

John M. Sherk (1939-): Ordained Bishop of the Huron Orthodox Mennonites in October, 1980, John Sherk is an elder brother of Amos M. Sherk, and also a great-grandson of David B. Martin. Bishop for over 35 years, he has the distinction of being the longest serving leader of the Orthodox Mennonites.

See Also

Independent Old Order Mennonite Church
Orthodox Mennonite Church, Huron County
Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites
Elam S. Martin: Father of the Orthodox Mennonite Church
S. S. G. Edwards


Peter Hoover: A Record of the Ancestors and Descendants of David B. Martin, 1838-1920, Wallenstein, Ontario (no date).

Royden Loewen: Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World, University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 2016.

Donald Martin: Old Order Mennonites of Ontario: Gelassenheit, Discipleship, Brotherhood, Pandora Press, Kitchener, Ontario, 2003.

Amos Sherk: Unpublished History of the David Martin and Orthodox Mennonites, (Primary Source), no date.