Elam S. Martin: Father of the Orthodox Mennonite Church

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Elam Snyder Martin (1907-1987), Orthodox Mennonite bishop for 30 years, is considered the "Father" of the Orthodox Mennonite Church in Ontario, Canada. From deep Mennonite roots on both sides of his family, Elam Martin grew up to embrace and indeed define the growing expression of Mennonite orthodoxy in southwestern Ontario.

Family History

Elam S. Martin, born April 30, 1907 in Waterloo County, in the Canadian province of Ontario, was the son of John W. Martin and Leah Snyder Martin, both of pioneer Mennonite families. John was the son of David B. Martin and Catherina Weber, the latter a descendant of Joseph Bechtel, first Mennonite minister ordained in Waterloo County in 1804. David B. Martin (1838-1920), a minister in the Old Order Mennonite Church in Ontario, and John's brother, David W. Martin, a deacon in the same church, in 1917 founded what is today known as the Independent Old Order Mennonite Church. John followed them into the new church, bringing his 10 year old son Elam with him.

On August 9, 1925, Elam was baptized by his uncle David W., who had recently become Bishop of the church. Eventually, the man who brought him into the church was the one Elam was to have his greatest differences with. Before that, however, Elam was married to Susy Bauman by his uncle, and his uncle also ordained him into the ministry on October 23, 1934, when Elam was only 27 years old. Elam served as a Mennonite minister then bishop until his death in 1987, when he was 80 years old.

Birth of the Orthodox Mennonite Church

After serving as a minister for 20 years, Elam Martin 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, as he was called, felt there was too much growing controversy, and excommunicated his nephew on March 11, 1956. Later that year, Deacon Samuel Horst (ordained in 1941) was also put in the ban. Several others followed him out of their church. The parting members had various contact with other traditional Mennonites from the United States, a story which is told elsewhere (see Bibliography below).

The new "separated" group eventually organized 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. From the beginning, these 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 in their parent church, and felt a need to remain as "plain" as their ancestors had been. And so the new group blended orthodox Mennonite theology with orthodox Mennonite practice.

By 1962, these 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)".

The Division of 1974

For several years the new Orthodox Mennonite Church lived and worshiped in peace. In the years previous to 1974, however, the church had contact and visits with the Noah Hoover Mennonites and a traditional group from Tennessee, discussing potential union. One result of these discussions led to the convincing of the men in the church to begin wearing beards. While this was an option, there was peace. However, when beard wearing came to be viewed as a biblical neccessity for all men, disagreements in the church arose. By late February of 1974, differences among the members of the church became divisive to the point of splitting the church almost down the middle.

Taking the side of those who supported the wearing of the beard, Bishop Elam put the entire group on the other side of the division in the ban. Deacon Samuel Horst joined him, along with ministers Edward Martin, Noah Brubacher, and Henry Bowman. One minister, Anson Hoover, however, who was ordained in the church in 1965, chose eventually to take the side of the other group. Today they are labeled by some historians as "Anson Hoover Mennonites ", or the "Hoover Group", and then "Amos Sherk Mennonites". In fact, although Bishop Elam's group left Waterloo County and relocated to Huron County beginning in 1979, the original "Orthodox Mennonite Church of Wellesley Township", created in 1962, legally continued to exist (see Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites).

Final Years

After Minister Noah Brubacher died in 1977, on May 9, 1978 Bishop Elam ordained his cousin John Sherk into the ministry. Unfortunately, however, due to disagreements among the members, no communion was held in the Fall of 1978, nor again the entire year of 1979. By Spring of 1980, some had separated themselves from the church. In spite of this sad occurance, John Sherk, in October of that year, was ordained as the second bishop of the Huron Orthodox Mennonites, as Bishop Elam's health was beginning to turn.

Before his death in December of 1987, Bishop Elam was to see one last happy event. In April, 1987, the ban was lifted on Wellesley Orthodox Ministers Jesse Bauman, Menno Brubacher, and their former Bishop Amos Sherk, whose desire was to reunite with Bishop Elam's church.Their ministry was also accepted, although Amos Sherk became a minister instead of a bishop. On April 26, 1987, the church celebrated a special communion service of reunion.


December 10, 1987, was a sad day for Orthodox Mennonites, as the funeral of Elam Snyder Martin was held by his loyal supporters. Bishop Elam lived to be 80 years, 7 months, and 7 days old.

Although Bishop Elam never lived to see the full reunion of the fateful division of 1974, a greater underlying legacy of this courageous and steadfast Mennonite leader persists. Bishop Elam Martin, always true to what he saw as the preservation of the "old ways", organized the orthodox Mennonite movement in Ontario into a visible and growing entity. And in spite of his many challenges, because of his persistence, today there exists a people called "Orthodox Mennonites". In 2017, 60 years after an important gathering of former members of a sad division among close family members, a happy and prosperous international movement exists. The "Father" of the church he led for so many years will always be of particular importance in the ongoing Anabaptist story. The question may never need be asked: Without Elam S. Martin would there even exist someone called an "Orthodox Mennonite" today?

See Also

Orthodox Mennonite Church, Huron County
Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites
Independent Old Order Mennonite Church
David B. Martin: Pioneer of Mennonite Orthodoxy
S. S. G. Edwards


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

Peter Hoover: "Orthodox Mennonite Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. July 2010. Web. 11 Jan 2017. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Orthodox_Mennonite_Church&oldid=115142.

Charlotte Martin: "My Relatives: Ultra Conservative Mennonites", Ontario Mennonite History, Volume XVI, Number 1, May, 1998.

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.