Ex-Hamiltonian heads fundamentalist church

Note: This church is independent and not affiliated with the Church of God congregations.


Toronto Star/July 17, 2001

Hamilton -- The fundamentalist Church of God in Alymer - at the centre of the debate on spanking children - was started with the help of a former Hamilton resident who is now its minister.

Rev. Henry Hildebrandt lived in Hamilton for about four years in the mid to late eighties and attended the German Church of God. Hildebrandt is said to have left the Hamilton church because he was dismayed with its leniency.

Hildebrandt's church in Aylmer hit the front pages when seven children in his congregation were forcibly removed from their family homes. The Children's Aid Society was responding to claims the children were being spanked with straps and other objects.

Since the seizure last week, Hildebrandt says 74 children and 24 mothers from the church have fled the country fearing the CAS will visit them next. The case, fuelled by television images of children being dragged from their home, has renewed a heated debate about parents disciplining their children. Local and provincial politicians have received hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and faxes.

Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle, Liberal community and social services critic, said most of the dozen or so people who have contacted his office were upset the children were removed. But he cautions that the public doesn't know all the facts in the case, and adds "if you're going to err, you need to err on the side of the protection of children." Efforts to reach Hildebrandt yesterday were unsuccessful. Calls by the Spectator were not returned.

Rev. Harvey Elke, a minister of the German Church of God, says Hildebrandt was born into a German-speaking Mennonite community in Mexico and came to Canada in the mid 1980s. Hildebrandt was a member of his congregation in Mexico, says Elke. "I knew him well and helped him to organize the necessary papers to bring him and his family to Canada.'' Elke returned to Canada in 1983 to work as minister in the German Church of God in Hamilton, a position he held until 1989. Hildebrandt and his family arrived shortly after Elke's return. The Hildebrandts remained residents of Hamilton and attended Elke's church until at least 1989 when they left the church and moved to Aylmer.

In Aylmer, Hildebrandt met Daniel Layne, a minister from the U.S. Layne says he ordained Hildebrandt as a minister in Layne's Church of God. The two formed the Aylmer congregation of the church which has branches in Mexico, Germany, Africa and Russia. World-wide membership is between 1,000 and 3,000.

"You can tell who they (Hildebrandt's breakaway church) are by their uniforms,'' says Abe Harms. "They are an exclusive group. They keep to themselves and are not a part of the ministerial community.'' Harms is the director of the Aylmer office of the Mennonite Central Committee, an umbrella organization of over a dozen Mennonite groups across Canada. He says that although many of the members of the Church of God in Aylmer have a Mennonite background, Layne's church does not.

Layne heads up his Church of God from Rancho Cucamonga, California. Layne first become a minister in Oklahoma, but after only a few years there he left to form his own church in 1988. The German Church of God and Layne's have no affiliation.

"We were really sad about this split,'' says Rev. Harry Semenjuk, spokesperson for German Church of God from headquarters in Edmonton. "Families have been split apart. (Hildebrandt) is not a bad guy, at one point we were close. But they are so firm in their beliefs, they won't talk to us at all.''

Layne denies suggestions that his church is authoritarian, cultish or ruled by him alone, claims made by Semenjuk, Elke, and a former minister of Layne's church. Semenjuk says the strict rules that govern Layne's church worry him. "They don't send their kids to school. They don't agree with the use of medicine or doctors. They don't allow the use of (musical) instruments in the service and their dress code is very strict.''

Layne points out that children are home-schooled and their dress code reflects a simple lifestyle. David Kauenhowen was a minister in Layne's church in Manitoba from 1991 to 2000. He says he was excommunicated by Layne because he refused to adhere to the strict guidelines of the church. Kauenhowen says those rules extended into all aspects of the congregation's lives.

Layne "controls the church, he says who you can marry, and where you can live.'' says Kauenhowen. "You are either behind him or you will be kicked out one way or another. He considers himself in charge of every person in the church.'' Layne vehemently denies these allegations and says his church is governed by a committee of ministers who meet once a year to talk about the direction of the church.

"Everyone has an equal say. We help to advise and council but we do not dictate peoples lives,'' said Layne by phone from California. Layne says people who want to get married are encouraged to seek the council of the church but he does not dictate marriages. Layne also says that he encourages members of the congregation who wish to move to other cities, to relocate close one of their churches, but he denies that he decides where people can live.

"Our concept is a lifestyle,'' he says. "A total commitment that effects every aspect of our lives. To understand us, you have to understand we are a community - and we don't believe that is cultish.''

The original Church of God was started by Daniel Warner in the 1880s in Indiana. Semenjuk says their mission was to unite the world under one church. To spread this message they travelled to Europe, Russia and Africa. The German Church of God in Canada is made up mostly of German immigrants, who were converted by English church missionaries long ago.

Across North America there are literally hundreds of churches using the name Church of God. While many of these are affiliated with each other, Layne's church is not affiliated with any other church.

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