Mennonites are an ethno-religious people who derive their name from Menno Simons (1496–1561), a former Roman Catholic priest and early Anabaptist leader. At present there are close to one million baptized Mennonites throughout the world. If one were to count unbaptized children and young people as well, as sociologists generally do, this number might be doubled or tripled.
In Canada there are some 200,000 Mennonites, of whom 114,400 are baptized members. They reside primarily in Ontario and in all the western provinces. (See Table 1.) The two largest groups in Canada are the Conference of Mennonites, generally referred to as the General Conference Mennonites (GCs), with 29,000 baptized members, and the Mennonite Brethren (MBs), with some 26,000 baptized members. These two groups comprise about 55 percent of Canada’s Mennonite population. Other groups are the Old Order Mennonites and Amish in Ontario, the Evangelical Mennonite Church (Kleine Gemeinde), the Old Colony Mennonites and Sommerfelder Church, the Chortitzer Mennonite Church, and the Bergthaler Churches in Alberta and Saskatchewan and several others. (See Table 2.) The membership among the smaller groups varies from about 1,000 to 7,000. (See also AMISH; GERMANS; HUTTERITES.)
Table 1. Mennonite population in Canada
Province 1981 1991 Newfoundland - 30 Prince Edward Island - 20 Nova Scotia 220 560 New Brunswick 180 240 Quebec 1,075 1,655 Ontario 46,485 52,645 Manitoba 63,490 66,000 Saskatchewan 26,265 25,240 Alberta 20,545 22,330 British Columbia 30,895 39,055 Yukon Territory - 110 Northwest Territories - 85 Total 189,370 207,970
Source: 1981 and 1991 Canadian censuses Note: Total includes all groups of Mennonites, including non-baptized persons. Hutterites are not included (21,495 in 1991).
In theological terms, these groups are quite similar, but in terms of ethnicity or the way they live, there are considerable differences among them. The General Conference Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren are the most liberal and acculturated among Canadian Mennonites, whereas the Old Order Mennonites, the Old Order Amish, and others are more conservative with regard to dress codes, methods of farming, and “separation from the world.”
Table 2. Mennonite groups in Canada, 1982
Name of group Members Congregations Old Order Amish 725 14 Old Order Mennonites 1,387 10 Waterloo-Markham Conference 935 7 Beachy Amish Church 314 5 Conservative Mennonite Fellowship 95 2 Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario 325 8 Fellowship Churches 520 14 Midwest Fellowship 263 4 Other Conservative Groups 376 10 Northern Light Gospel Missions 287 21 Reformed Mennonites 162 2 Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec 5,292 42 Western Ontario Mennonite Conference 3,111 16 Northwest Mennonite Conference 1,000 17 Chortitzer Mennonite Conference 2,300 11 Sommerfelder Church of Manitoba 4,000 14 Other Sommerfelder Groups 1,675 5 Bergthaler Churches in Saskatchewan 1,002 6 Reinlaender Mennonite Church 800 6 Old Colony Mennonite Church 4,500 18 Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference 2,658 23 Evangelical Mennonite Conference 5,000 45 Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Conference 1,935 17 Church of God in Christ, Mennonite 2,500 30 Conference of Mennonites in Canada 28,152 147 Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches 23,248 157 Total 91,646 638
Source: The Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5: 123
Mennonites are both an ethnic group and a religious denomination. There is, however, still ambiguity and controversy among Mennonites about this issue, with some insisting that they are simply a religious group, while others arguing that they form a distinct ethnic group. Increasingly historians and sociologists treat Mennonites as an ethno-religious group, and the Canadian federal and provincial governments regard them as people distinct from others living in this country.
The Mennonites originated in sixteenth-century Europe, mostly in Germanic countries such as Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands. Their spiritual forebears were a radical Reformation group known as Anabaptists (rebaptizers). Like the reformers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, the Anabaptists left the Roman Catholic Church, seeking to re-establish the Christian faith and life as they believed it to have been in apostolic times. They soon dissented from the mainline reformers as well, believing that Zwingli and Luther did not go far enough in their reformation work. Early in 1525 a group of young radicals, including Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, and George Blaurock, left their leader Zwingli, and in defiance of orders from the city council of Zurich baptized each other, thus founding the Anabaptist movement. Similar Anabaptist groups sprang up in Austria, southern Germany, along the Rhine River, and in the Netherlands.
The Anabaptists were neither Catholic nor Protestant, although they borrowed doctrines and practices from both traditions. From Catholicism they inherited the emphasis on community and “good works,” and from Protestantism they derived the belief in God’s grace through faith and the conviction that each believer is his or her own priest before God. The doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” contributed to the individualism of Anabaptists regarding personal salvation and responsibility towards members of their community.
The Anabaptists composed their earliest Confession of Faith in 1527 in Schleitheim, Switzerland. Drafted by Michael Sattler, a former monk, the Confession included the following articles: baptism upon confession of faith in Christ; the ban or excommunication applied to those members who deviate from faith and Christian living; the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance of Christ’s suffering and death; separation from the “world,” that is, from all sinful things; a shepherd’s or pastor’s responsibilities towards his flock; non-resistance or pacifism in the face of violence; and abjuring from the swearing of oaths. This Confession became the basis for all subsequent Mennonite confessions of faith.
The early Anabaptists evoked suspicion and anger among Catholics and Protestants alike, and European society at large believed that the Anabaptists were both religious heretics and politically dangerous radicals. Their rejection of infant baptism seemed to question the validity of society’s Christian faith. Their emphasis on non-violence and pacifism threatened to undermine the military. And their withdrawal from what they considered worldly practices and institutions, including government and politics, effectively separated church and state, something unheard of at the time.
Consequently, Anabaptists were severely persecuted by both Catholic and Protestant society. By the end of the sixteenth century some 2,000 Anabaptists had been martyred and many more imprisoned and exiled. It was at the height of these persecutions, in 1536, that a Dutch Catholic priest, Menno Simons, joined the Anabaptist movement and became one of its important leaders. With his writings and pastoral work Menno taught and organized the scattered groups and appealed to governments and individual rulers not to persecute his followers. They were eventually called Mennonites, a name most of them preferred, since Anabaptism was associated with violent groups like the Muensterites. In contrast, the “Mennonites” were considered more peaceful, even though they were thought by their enemies to be heretics.
By the end of the sixteenth century two streams of Mennonites had developed. These included the Swiss/ South German Mennonites who spoke Upper-German dialects, and the Dutch/Prussian Mennonites who spoke Low-German dialects. In response to the persecution and expulsion to isolated regions in Europe that they experienced, the Mennonites developed distinct group characteristics with their own tradition, religion, culture, and language. The Low German language (Plautdietsch) spoken by the Mennonites who later emigrated to the Russian Empire is a distinctly “Mennonite” language not spoken by any other group. The groups that later settled in Pennsylvania spoke a distinctly Pennsylvania-dietsch language, popularly but incorrectly known as Pennsylvania Dutch. Thus, while Mennonites have never had a country of their own, and like the Jews have been wanderers for many centuries, they have become a distinct people recognized as such by the societies among which they came to live.
Migration has always been an integral part of Mennonite history. Driven from their original homelands in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, Mennonites went wherever they were offered a place of refuge and a means of existence. Rulers such as the electors of the Palatinate and the kings of Poland opened their territories to the Mennonites, whose farming and other skills, such as building dykes and draining swamps, were welcome in lands that needed to be developed.
It was usually the more conservative groups, those less willing to assimilate or compromise their religious principles, who migrated. Thus the conservative Frisian and Flemish Mennonites from the Netherlands moved progressively to north-central Germany, Prussia, and Poland, while the more liberal Waterlanders around Amsterdam became part of Dutch society. Similarly, conservative Mennonites and Amish in Switzerland and southern Germany emigrated to North America because they were not willing to give up their distinctive beliefs, culture, and practices in a hostile social and political environment. In fact, the two groups were not really that different from each other: the “conservatives” merely placed more emphasis on the preservation of distinctive lifestyles, whereas the “liberals” were more willing to accept change because they believed that basic Christian principles could be applied in various social and cultural contexts.
During the Napoleonic era, in which French secular principles reached many parts of the European continent, the Mennonites were especially threatened with regard to their traditional principle of non-resistance. When the left bank of the Rhine fell to France in 1801, the Mennonites like other minority groups gained full civil rights. They lost, however, their exemption from military service. As a result, many young Mennonite men were forced against their will into Napoleon’s army.
Mennonites in Prussia were also affected by Napoleon’s campaigns, but in a reverse way. Like their fellow citizens, Mennonite young men had developed an intense patriotism for their German homeland and some even volunteered to fight against the hated French and their emperor, Napoleon. For instance, one member of a west Prussian congregation fought against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, although when he returned to his Mennonite community he was excommunicated for having volunteered to serve in the military.
Even after the defeat of Napoleon, many European states maintained the policy of universal military conscription. Hence, it seemed for Mennonites that the only way out was to pay money for substitute soldiers. While this may have been an awkward compromise of their pacifism, the Mennonites preferred it to serving in the military. For a time, Mennonite communities collected money to help draftees avoid service. But that approach proved unpopular with families who had no sons eligible for service. In some cases, Mennonite communities had to pay large sums of money to the government in return for military exemption, as was the case of financial support for a military academy in West Prussia. Nevertheless, for some time the rich and the liberal-minded found it easy to pay for substitutes, while the poor and more conservative Mennonites had to emigrate. Between 1830 and 1860 there was a continuous movement of both poor and conscientious Mennonites from all the settlements in south Germany, the Palatinate, Bavaria, and Hesse to North America. Towards the end of the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, however, it became increasingly difficult for Mennonites to maintain their position of non-resistance. Analogously, it was the conservative and less well-to-do individuals and groups who left Prussia for the Russian Empire, where they were guaranteed military exemption at least temporarily.
Religious and cultural considerations were not the only reasons for migration. A desire for land, peace, and security were also powerful motivating factors. Whether they decided to leave Prussia for the southern steppes of the Russian Empire around 1800 or to migrate to southern Ontario or the Canadian prairies in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the availability of land and prospects of a better life were among the most important motivating factors. In particular on the steppes of Ukraine, in what was then the southern part of the Russian Empire, the Mennonites were able to establish successful agricultural communities that, at least until the 1870s, determined their own educational and religious affairs and enjoyed a degree of self-government.
Table 3. Mennonite immigration to Canada, 1786–1950
Time period Origin Destination Number Culture 1786–1825 Pennsylvania Ontario c. 2,000 SSG 1825–1874 Alsace Ontario c. 750 SSG Bavaria Pennsylvania 1874–1880 Russia Manitoba c. 7,500 DPR 1890–1920 U.S.A. Prussia Manitoba Saskatchewan c. 2,250 DPR Russia Alberta British Columbia 1923–1929 Soviet Union Ontario Manitoba c. 22,000 DPR Saskatchewan Alberta British Columbia 1947–1950 Soviet Union Ontario Manitoba c. 7,000 DPR Saskatchewan Alberta British Columbia
Sources: F.H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada 1920–1940 (1982); The Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5. Key: SSG: Swiss/South German; DPR: Dutch/Prussian/Russian. Note: The figures include baptized and non-baptized members.
The thriving “Mennonite Commonwealth” in the Russian Empire, which by the outbreak of World War I numbered nearly 100,000 people, was about to come to an abrupt end. In the course of Russia’s civil war (1919– 21), thousands of Mennonite farms and homesteads were destroyed and many inhabitants killed. The revolutionary Bolsheviks took control of Russia and in late 1922 created the Soviet Union. Under the new Communist regime, traditional Mennonite life was undermined by forced collectivization of the land, discrimination against religious activity, and arrests and deportation to camps in Siberia of all those who protested in any way. By the 1930s, only women and children were left in many Mennonite villages, with the women working on collective state farms. Then, during World War II, as the German army rapidly advanced into Soviet territory during 1941, Mennonite families were forced to evacuate and resettle eastward beyond the Ural Mountains and in Central Asia. Those who managed to remain in their villages tried to reach the West when the German armies retreated in 1943. After the war, about 20,000 were sent back to the Soviet Union and resettled in several Central Asia Soviet republics, although some 12,000 were able to emigrate to Canada and South America.
For Mennonites, the symbolism and myths of migration remain a deeply embedded part of their psyche. Images of wandering, homelessness, and searching for land are frequently used in their church services and literature. Being a religious people, they like to compare themselves to the children of Israel, who wandered in the desert for forty years until they found their promised land. In contrast to the Jews, however, Mennonites never acquired a country of their own.
Mennonites came to Canada in four large waves (see Table 3). The first influx entered from the United States, primarily Pennsylvania, where Mennonite communities had been established as early as 1683. The impetus was the American Revolution. Because of their pacifism and their loyalty to the British Crown, Mennonites in Pennsylvania were often accused by the revolutionary party of being lukewarm towards the American cause. In some instances they were imprisoned, their property confiscated, and their lives endangered by patriotic mobs. Mennonites found Upper Canada, at that time a British colony, most attractive, especially when anarchy following the revolution reinforced their feelings of insecurity under the Continental Congress. Economic considerations doubtless added weight to the Mennonites’ decision to migrate. Most historians agree that those from the dense settlements of Pennsylvania went to Upper Canada because land there was inexpensive and fertile and also because, before railways and hard roads were built, it was easier to follow the river valleys north than to cross the mountains into western Pennsylvania and Ohio.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, three main Mennonite settlements had been founded in Upper Canada. The first was established in 1786 about thirty- two kilometres west of Niagara. A much larger settlement was formed along the Grand River in what today is Waterloo County. According to some historians, because of unscrupulous land speculators and confusing and constantly changing government policies, the first settlers experienced considerable financial hardship. Co-religionists in Pennsylvania collected some $20,000 to assist the pioneers along the Grand River. Once the financial problems were overcome, other settlers arrived and purchased land in the neighbouring township of Woolwich. As Mennonites from the United States continued to come to Waterloo County, a village developed that was to become the centre for businesses and the surrounding farms. Called Ebytown after Benjamin Eby, a prominent Mennonite minister, it was renamed Berlin in 1827; during World War I it became Kitchener.
A third settlement was started in 1803, when Henry Wideman, a minister from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, led a group of his people to the neighbourhood of Markham, some thirty-two kilometres north of York (Toronto). Among the most common names in these three original settlements were Bauman, Bechtel, Bergey, Brenneman, Brubaker, Cressman, Eby, Erb, Gingerich, Hagey, Hunsberger, Kolb, Kropf, Martin, Moser, Moyer, Musselman, Nafziger, Roth, Shenk, Stauffer, Snyder, Shantz, and Witmer – names that are still well represented in southern Ontario. Between 1786 and 1825 some two thousand Pennsylvania Mennonites migrated to Upper Canada. The first meeting-house was built on Benjamin Eby’s farm in 1813. Known as Eby church until the early twentieth century, this meetinghouse served as a place of worship and a school for many years. Much respected and loved in the community, Eby himself acted as pastor and was author of reading material for his flock.
The second wave of Mennonite immigrants to Canada came from the Russian Empire in the second half of the nineteenth century. The reasons for leaving were again religious and economic. When Prussian Mennonites had migrated to Russia towards the end of the eighteenth and at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Catherine II had offered them generous privileges: freedom of religion, sixty-six hectares of land for each family, compact settlement areas north of the Black Sea in the newly opened province of New Russia (present-day Ukraine), their own schools, the use of German, and exemption from military service “forever.” Because Ukraine was then part of the Russian Empire, they came to be known as Russian Mennonites.
In the 1870s, during Russia’s social, political, economic, and military reforms, minority groups were to be integrated more fully into the country’s society and culture. Some of the important privileges that Mennonites had enjoyed, including the right to conduct their own schools, the use of German, and especially exemption from serving in the army, were threatened. Many Mennonites began to worry about their future in Russia. After initial contacts with Canadian and American authorities, a delegation was sent to North America in 1873 to investigate the possibilities of settlement. A year later some 18,000 Russian Mennonites decided to emigrate. About 8,000, mostly of the Bergthal and Old Colony (Chortitza) groups and including the entire Kleine Gemeinde (today the Evangelical Mennonites), settled in southern Manitoba. The others, including all the Hutterites, chose the American central plains.
Those who came to Manitoba were especially attracted by Canadian guarantees of exemption from military service, generous grants of land in compact settlements, and the freedom to conduct schools in the German language. The fact that Canada was under the British Crown also appealed to them. Many Russian Mennonites suspected republicanism, believing that it was safer to live in countries governed by monarchs. In Manitoba, two so-called reserves were established exclusively for Mennonites, the East Reserve with the village of Steinbach as its hub and the West Reserve with Altona, Winkler and Gretna as important centres. Russian-Mennonite names such as Derksen, Friesen, Janzen, Klassen, Loewen, Martens, Pauls, Penner, Reimer, and Siemens are well known in Winnipeg and southern Manitoba as well as in the other western provinces.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Mennonites from Manitoba and a sizable number from Ontario, the United States, and Prussia moved to farming areas in Saskatchewan, establishing settlements between Saskatoon and Prince Albert. Some also migrated to Alberta and British Columbia. Since those who had arrived in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the 1870s were the first in the prairie provinces, they became known as Kanadier (Canadians), whereas those who came in the 1920s and after World War II were called Russländer (Russians).
A third wave of immigrants arrived in Canada in the 1920s when Mennonite institutional life in Russia was destroyed in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Beginning in 1923 and continuing throughout the decade, some 24,000 Mennonites were able to leave the Soviet Union for Canada. Most of these immigrants settled in western Canada along recently completed railway lines. Organizations such as the Canadian Board of Colonization and the Canadian Pacific Railway, together with the Canadian government, made this immigration possible. Most of the newcomers consisted of families, although some lacked male members who had been deported to Siberia. The majority came on credit, owing money to the railway. Pioneering life on the Canadian prairies was difficult, specially for those who had been professionals in Russia and now had to adapt to farming. When, through the combined efforts of Mennonite organizations, the transportation debts (Reiseschuld) were repaid, the immigrants faced a brighter future.
As Canada entered the Depression, provinces were less willing to accept new immigrants. The Soviet authorities also closed the door to would-be emigrants, with the result that in 1929 some 10,000 panic-stricken Mennonites travelled to Moscow in the hope of obtaining exit visas. Through the efforts of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the German government, about half were allowed to leave. Only 1,000 came to Canada; the others had to settle in Brazil and Paraguay. Those who were not granted visas were sent back to where they had come from or exiled to the eastern regions of the Soviet Union.
A fourth wave of Mennonite immigrants entered Canada after World War II. These were people who had left the Soviet Union when the German armies retreated in 1943 and had settled temporarily in German-occupied Poland and in Germany. After the war, the MCC sought to re-establish these people, mostly women and children, in North America. Of the 12,000 Russian Mennonites who wished to emigrate to Canada, only half were allowed to do so. The others, because of financial and medical reasons, were obliged to settle in Paraguay. In time, many Paraguayan Mennonites eventually came to Canada also.
There were significant differences between the various immigrant groups. Those who arrived in the nineteenth century from the United States and the Russian Mennonites of the second wave were predominantly farmers and chose virgin agricultural areas in southern Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. They were generally religiously conservative, spoke German dialects, and sought to maintain their traditional ways in more or less isolated settlements.
In contrast, most of the immigrants of the 1920s were more liberal, more formally educated, and more willing to adapt, to a degree, to Canadian culture. Many had been teachers and in other professions in the Russian Empire, but they chose farming as an occupation and before long established thriving agricultural communities in southern Alberta and the Fraser valley of British Columbia. Although willing to adapt to Canadian ways, these immigrants remained loyal to their religious tradition and sought to maintain the German language, which they often identified with their religion. They were sympathetic to Germany’s culture and political developments and fiercely opposed to communism.
The Mennonites who came to Canada after World War II settled mostly in towns and cities where Mennonite communities existed. The majority of these refugees from Soviet communism had lost male family members through exile or war, so that for the women and children the beginnings in Canada were most difficult. The women worked for fellow Mennonites on farms or in non-Mennonite households as maids or cleaners, while the children attended school and later entered non-farming occupations and the professions.
There has also been an out-migration of Canadian Mennonites. Between 1922 and 1927 some 7,000 from Manitoba and Saskatchewan moved to Mexico, establishing colonies in the Chihuahua and Durango states. These groups represented the most conservative Mennonites who had come to Canada in the 1870s. By the early twentieth century they were disappointed at Canadian conditions. Such changes as the introduction of municipal government, the use of English in their schools, the compulsory flying of the Union Jack at schools, the required registration of all males during World War I, and possible military conscription all were seen as increasing secularism and as threatening to their religious and cultural identity. Feeling misunderstood, they left Canada for Mexico, causing division among families and friends. In recent years, because of economic hardships, there has been a significant back-migration to Canada. (See also MEXICANS.)Another conservative group from Manitoba, including Old Colony, Sommerfelder, Chortitzer, and Bergthaler Mennonites, who opted for Paraguay, left Canada in 1926. Initially, some 1,778 individuals established the Menno colony in the Gran Chaco, thus launching another pioneering experiment. They succeeded in developing a prosperous existence under difficult conditions. Another 2,000 Kanadier Mennonites left Manitoba for Paraguay in 1948. About 720 of these had returned to Canada by 1951.
When the Russian Mennonites came to Canada in the 1870s, especially to the prairies, the question of whose land they were to occupy was of little concern to them. As far as they were aware, the territory belonged to the Canadian government. They probably did not even know that native tribes and Metis lived in Manitoba and that with the coming of European settlers they would be displaced. However, a Mennonite businessman from Berlin, Ontario, Jacob Y. Shantz, was familiar with the native people in the west. He had travelled among them, had lodged with them, and had found them “very obliging and hospitable.” It was Shantz who advised the Canadian government with regard to Mennonite settlement in Manitoba.
When in June 1873 twelve Mennonite delegates from Russia, led by William Hespeler, a Canadian government official, arrived at Winnipeg, there were fewer than 15,000 people living in the entire province. Of this number only 2,000 were Europeans; the rest were natives and Metis. The Red River Rebellion under Louis Riel had occurred just a few years earlier. The native people understandably viewed the Canadian government’s policy of settling the west and the arrival of European farmers with suspicion. In viewing the south Manitoban countryside, the delegates soon realized that the land they were about to occupy belonged to the indigenous peoples. As the Russian Mennonite delegates travelled through the province, a potentially explosive confrontation took place between a Metis named McKay and the Mennonite group, but was averted by Hespeler. Other native people, however, treated the delegates well, inviting them into their homes and serving them meals. Some even prayed and sang hymns with the Mennonites. When in 1874 Mennonites began to settle in Manitoba, the native people advised them as to climatic and soil conditions and helped them to adjust to their new homeland.
The Anabaptist-Mennonite movement had begun within urban centres in Reformation Europe. Its early leaders were university trained, and some of them were former monks and priests. Cities such as Zurich, Bern, Strasbourg, Emden, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam included sizable Anabaptist congregations. However, because of persecution the movement was driven underground and to rural areas. In the decade after the Peasants’ War of 1525, many country folk found the Anabaptist message of love, equality, and justice for all attractive. As peasants swelled the ranks of the movement and the early leaders were exiled or martyred, simpler, often uneducated individuals who valued rural life came to dominate. Thus, early in their history, Mennonites preferred the country to the city and farming to other occupations, although there were craftsmen from the beginning of the movement. Menno Simons went so far as to advocate working on the land as the preferred activity for making a living. For Mennonites, farming became a God-pleasing occupation and way of life.
Farming was especially close to the heart of the Pennsylvania Mennonites who came to Upper Canada, as it was to Russian Mennonites who immigrated to Manitoba in the 1870s. These people arrived in Canada imbued with a deep love of the soil and equipped with the skills, developed through generations of experience in agriculture, to manage it. Their way of life required the union of people, soil, and agriculture, which they recognized as the foundation of civilization. More than just a means of making a living, agriculture was for them life itself.
As Mennonites moved east to Poland, Prussia, and Russia and west to North America, their skill and hard work brought them prosperity, especially in nineteenth-century Russia, where grain and cattle formed the basis of their wealth. By the 1860s a class of landless Mennonites had also developed, however; the poor among them had little influence and no power within Russian-Mennonite social structures. The tensions between the two classes made emigration to North America in the 1870s all the more desirable for the landless and for poor members of colonies in the southern Russian Empire.
Immigrants without means were assisted by the corporate body of settlers. This aid provided the cost of transportation and of farming on the allotted land. Similarly, Mennonites who came to Upper Canada in the eighteenth century had assisted each other materially. Mutual aid in various forms has continued, especially among the Old Order Mennonites and Amish in Ontario, where the traditional barn raising, at which the entire community participates, has become symbolic of rural solidarity. Mennonite credit unions, which dot the areas in which these people reside, grew out of this early communal activity.
While the Swiss and south German Mennonites were especially given to agricultural activity, Dutch/Prussian/Russian Mennonites traditionally also held other occupations and professions. In the Netherlands, the north German states, and the Russian Empire they entered all types of business, the trades, manufacturing, and professions such as medicine, teaching, and the law. Under the leadership of Johann Cornies in nineteenth-century Russia, for example, Mennonites developed the manufacture of farming implements, which they sold with good profit in major centres. Russian Mennonites who came to Canada in the 1920s and after World War II were among the first to become urbanized and to enter non-agricultural occupations and professions.
The income of Canadian Mennonites has been closely tied to their urbanization in the last half century. Since the 1960s there has been a considerable shift from rural to urban living. In 1972 only 16 percent of Mennonites earned their living in the professions, including teaching, medicine, and the social services. By 1989 more than one-fourth (28 percent) were in professional occupations, the highest category. For both males and females, farming declined from 11 percent in 1972 to 7 percent in 1989. Urbanization and professionalism seem to have advanced more rapidly among Canadian Mennonites than among their co-religionists in the United States.
The shift to cities began with the arrival of Russian Mennonites in the 1920s. Young women were among the first to enter the urban world, especially in Winnipeg and Vancouver. While their parents and brothers worked the family farms, women in their late teens and early twenties were employed as domestics by doctors, lawyers, business people, and politicians. In choosing work in urban centres, financial considerations outweighed religious or cultural concerns. Although they were fearful of the “English” and the non-Mennonite world in the cities, families were willing to risk their daughters’ exposure to urban culture for the sake of much-needed cash to supplement the farm income. That the majority of women retained their Mennonite identity and remained loyal to their traditional faith was largely due to the strong community ties and the “girls’ homes” established in the cities. After a period of urban employment, the women returned to their rural communities, married, and worked on the farms. There are no statistics for the women who served as domestics in the cities, but from all accounts the numbers were substantial. These women became for Mennonites the bridge between the farm and the city, hastening the shift from rural life to urban professionalism.
By the 1980s Canadian Mennonites, except for the Old Order and the Amish, were well on the way to urbanization. Only 23 percent still lived on farms and made their living by cultivating the land. Mennonites now worked as professionals and in various businesses, and they were engaged as sales clerks, crafts people, machine operators, and service workers. Their average income was at least as high, if not slightly higher, than that of their non-Mennonite neighbours. The change was most evident among the Mennonite Brethren and the General Conference Mennonites. By the 1980s they were the most urbanized, the most educated, and the most strongly represented in the professions and in business, and they had the highest average income among Canadian Mennonites. They were the first not to view the city as a threat to their identity.
It has been demonstrated that in 1989 the Mennonite Brethren had the highest median income. About one-fourth (26 percent) of these households earned more than $50,000 (4 percent earned more than $100,000), and only 5 percent had an income under $10,000. On the other hand, only 16 percent of General Conference Mennonite households earned over $50,000 (2 percent over $100,000), and 7 percent had an income of less than $10,000. These figures represent Mennonites in both the United States and Canada, and the differences between the two countries are slight.
There is evidence to suggest that this upward economic mobility among Canadian Mennonites affected their business ethics as well. The beginning of Anabaptism coincided with the breakup of feudalism and the rise of capitalism. Anabaptists stressed mutual aid and believed that private property was a sacred trust for the benefit of fellow members of the faith. Some, such as the Hutterites, lived communally, sharing all things. As time went on, most Mennonites lost this emphasis, becoming individualistic, bourgeois, and wealthy. They believed that anyone able to work for a living must do so.
Menno Simons urged his followers to assist the needy, clothe the destitute, and feed the hungry, but he did not permit people to beg for a living. Mennonites today still frown upon begging and they still respond generously to the needs of their people and of society at large, but they are not in the vanguard of economic reforms, a universal guaranteed income, and equity in economic matters. According to recent studies, Mennonites, influenced by the pro-business, individualistic culture around them, disapproved of state attempts to distribute income to the “undeserving poor.” In 1972, 30 percent of North American Mennonites agreed, 46 percent disagreed, and 25 percent were not certain that for the most part, people are poor because they lack discipline and do not make the effort needed to rise above poverty. Most Mennonites believe that hard work contributes to prosperity and that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing.
Historians have shown that, as Canadian Mennonites left the farms and entered the business world, they lost many of their distinctive traits and became increasingly like others around them. Moreover, their greater involvement in entrepreneurial ventures, whether as workers, managers, or owners, has greatly facilitated and in many cases forced accommodation and assimilation into North American society. Some scholars have found that, except for brief periods of time and in a few localities, Mennonite practices regarding property have not coincided with the principle of fairness. Mennonites have practised charity and given aid to the needy, but they have been reluctant to advocate altering their own and society’s institutional structures to achieve economic justice for all. With notable exceptions, Canadian Mennonites support capitalism and oppose socialism and certainly Marxist communism, they are suspicious of labour unions, and they are politically conservative. In the end, however, rightist or leftist economic ideologies have little meaning for them, since they believe that as Christians they are accountable above all to God for the material goods they have earned, that they ought to manage them well and not squander them, and that they must be generous in helping the needy throughout the world.
To help the poor, Mennonites have established two organizations, which arose in response to certain political and economic circumstances. The Mennonite Central Committee was formed by North American Mennonites in 1920 in response to the economic needs of co-religionists in Russia. Today the MCC is well known throughout the world as an agency that assists both Mennonites and non-Mennonites wherever disasters, famine, and political oppression strike. Next to missions, the MCC’s annual budget is the largest of any Mennonite endeavour. It is the only worldwide agency that all Mennonites throughout Canada and the world support. It has been particularly successful for several reasons. Traditionally, Mennonites have been practical in responding to physical and material needs among their own and other people. Moreover, their sense of stewardship, that is, the belief that their possessions belong to God and that they are mere managers, makes them generous contributors wherever there is need. Also, the MCC uses volunteers to administer funds and goods in needy areas directly. Agents, governments, and government officials, who might be tempted to divert funds to themselves, are thus bypassed. All these factors lend credibility to MCC programs.
MCC Canada was founded in 1963, with offices in provinces from Ontario to British Columbia. Headquartered in Winnipeg, it deals with peace and social concerns, economic development among Canada’s native peoples, and conflict resolution as an alternative to the secular justice system. Since 1980, MCC Canada also has undertaken programs to address the needs of women, disabled persons, the unemployed, and the mentally ill. In 1976 it created the Mennonite Food Bank as a means of channelling surplus grain from Mennonite farmers into overseas use. Other Canadian churches were invited to participate in this venture. The following year the Canadian Foodgrains Bank was formed, with MCC Canada taking a leading place in the seven-member church organization. Since 1969 MCC Canada has received matching grants from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and by 1990 nearly half of its $17 million budget came from the Canadian government.
The second philanthropic organization is the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), founded in 1952 in response to requests from Mennonites in Paraguay for assistance from North American entrepreneurs. MEDA’s main objective was to assist people to help themselves by entering into partner agreements with local individuals for economically viable business ventures. Because of its initial successes, the program was expanded to projects in African, South Asian, and Central American countries. The international section of MEDA, with headquarters in Winnipeg, carries forward the economic objectives in less-developed nations where Mennonite missions have operated. It especially supports small business ventures and cooperatives. Examples are a cocoa-producing cooperative in Haiti and a woodworking plant in Jamaica.
Mennonite identity, religion, and social structure are closely linked. The subtitles of the three volumes of Frank H. Epp’s and T.D. Regehr’s Mennonites in Canada indicate their changing religious identity: “a separate people,” “a people’s struggle for survival,” and “a people’s transformation.” When Mennonites came to Canada, they were definitely a separate people. As they became part of Canadian life, they struggled to survive ethnically, culturally, and religiously. Today a majority of Mennonites are a transformed people. They have adapted or are in the process of adapting to Canadian urban society, yet at the same time they are seeking to preserve their religious faith and values and, as much as possible, their ethnicity and culture.
Ironically, the evangelical-fundamentalist tradition in Canada has been a greater threat to Mennonite identity than the social and economic forces of assimilation. Although the more conservative Mennonites in Ontario have been able to maintain both their culture and their religion, those in western Canada, especially the Mennonite Brethren and to a large extent the General Conference Mennonites, have not only assimilated more readily to society but have also adapted considerably to the beliefs and practices of other evangelical groups. Many Mennonites have left their own congregations and joined Baptist, Pentecostal, or Alliance churches. Increasingly, churches have dropped the Mennonite label and called themselves “community” or “fellowship” churches and in many the name “Mennonite” is seldom used.
In recent decades, Mennonites have tended to downplay the religious differences between themselves and other evangelical churches, stressing the doctrinal and ethical elements that they have in common. The majority of Canadian Mennonites still believe in adult baptism, non-resistance, the non-swearing of oaths, and community. However, these articles of Mennonite faith are not emphasized when they seek to cooperate with other evangelicals. For the sake of harmony and in the name of evangelism and outreach, some Mennonites are willing to give up their traditional name and distinctions. Some community leaders argue that Mennonites have been able to contribute their beliefs and values to the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada; others believe that cooperation with this large evangelical body threatens Mennonite identity and indicates an increasing discomfort among Mennonites with their own heritage. The more liberal Mennonites of western Canada are most active in evangelism, missions, and “church planting,” seeking to add to their numbers members from the non-Mennonite population. They are moderately successful in attracting those not affiliated with other churches, and membership has grown by approximately 3 to 4 percent annually. The conservative groups, on the other hand, have a higher rate of growth – up to 50 and 60 percent within the last fifteen years – but this increase is largely the result of their large families and their ability to retain their young people. According to some studies, the most conservative Mennonites are among the fastest-growing populations in the world.
Educated Mennonites in recent decades have been preoccupied with questions of identity, perhaps a sign that they are on the verge of losing their distinctiveness. For about four hundred years, there was little concern about identity. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, several books have appeared that deal with the issue. These books clearly show that Canadian and American Mennonites are in the process of redefining who they are and what their distinctive contribution to modern society might be. Mennonites have always considered their religious faith a central feature of their origin, identity, and way of life. Thus, although today’s Mennonites may not be certain that their ethnicity or the Mennonite label is essential to their identity, a great number still believe that their Christian faith must be preserved at all cost. In surveys conducted in 1972 and 1989, 80 to 90 percent of Mennonites believed in the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, miracles, the physical resurrection of Christ, and life after death. They also registered a high rate of belief, although with a greater spread, regarding the following concepts: that infant baptism is not necessary, that Christians should not take part in war, that believers should be reluctant to enter governmental office, and that church discipline is necessary for the faithful. Indications are that Mennonites increasingly view these beliefs as applying to all Christians and not just to themselves, no doubt another sign of their assimilation.
Before coming to Canada and during their early years in this country, Mennonites functioned as a distinct people, almost like a state within the larger country. This was especially true in nineteenth-century Russia, and, in Paraguay and Mexico, Mennonites still administer their social and religious affairs. Mennonites’ existence in Russia until the revolution of 1917 has been called a “Mennonite commonwealth” within the Russian Empire. Mennonite colonies, while answerable to the department of the interior, controlled their own religious, social, economic, and political matters. Education, fire insurance, social programs, road building and maintenance, agriculture and industry, and enforcement of law and order were all in their hands. The administrators and mayors of colonies and villages, all baptized Mennonites and landowners, were elected officials responsible to their respective communities. The Russian government, it might be added, distinguished clearly between the Mennonites and other German colonists, treating them as distinct ethnic groups.
Religious groups in Russia, especially the Mennonite Brethren in 1860, began to question this correspondence of ethnicity and religion. They argued that faith should be independent of ethnicity, just as the Anabaptists had sought to separate church and state; the two were inherently different, they insisted, and functioned according to different principles. In Canada, where social and political conditions varied from those in imperial Russia and Mennonites were less isolated from the rest of society, they ceased to administer their own economic and social affairs, but at the same time they sought to retain their cultural and religious independence from the state.
Mennonite identity is increasingly threatened by the forces of urbanization and assimilation. Yet, even as Mennonites move from the farm to the city, they are not only surviving as a people but also retaining their religious faith and cultural values. Although more and more they reside in such centres as Kitchener-Waterloo, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver, they continue to stress the values they have inherited from their rural existence: community, separateness, piety, distinct religious beliefs, and to a certain extent language. One scholar speaks of a “sacred canopy” that protects and maintains Mennonites as a people in the modern world. This canopy is upheld by certain ethno-religious pillars important to Mennonite identity. Among them are the faith and moral values that Mennonites inherited from their Anabaptist past. These are similar to the beliefs of Catholics and Protestants, yet distinct. Adult (believer’s) baptism, non-resistance or pacifism, an emphasis on close community, and rejection of the civil oath set Mennonites apart in the past, and they continue to make them different from other Christian groups today. Though some Mennonites no longer practise these values, they still respect them as ideals of their tradition.
The church remains the most powerful institution for Canadian Mennonites. In the past, baptism was the gate to full participation. It was a prerequisite for marriage, full membership, and office holding in Mennonite institutions. Although today baptism is no longer required in order to function fully in a Mennonite community, it is still the rite of passage for congregational membership and involvement in the local church and at provincial and national conferences. The church also exerts great influence on the lifestyle and opinions of members. In the past it stressed moral purity and adherence to the community’s standards of behaviour. Moral lapses, whether of a sexual, economic, or religious nature, were punished by church discipline, including excommunication, or the “ban.” Today the rules are no longer applied as strictly, except among the more conservative groups, such as the Old Order Mennonites and Amish. Nevertheless, such practices as premarital, extramarital, and homosexual sex, military service, and, among the Mennonite Brethren, smoking are still frowned upon by a majority of Mennonites.
Until fairly recently, the influence and power of the male elders (bishops), ministers, and deacons were considerable. Elders administered the religious ordinances (baptism and communion), married couples, and provided leadership in congregational and communal matters. The lay ministers and deacons taught the faith, preached, and looked after the spiritual and physical needs of their members. These leaders were usually farmers (later teachers) and were elected by the congregation. The ministerial “office” was unknown among Mennonites, and ministers and elders served without pay. This traditional leadership pattern is rapidly changing. Today’s pastors, especially in the cities, are university educated and theologically trained. In the 1930s and 1940s the Mennonite Bible institutes provided “church workers,” as they were called. Today many pastors are graduates from Mennonite colleges and seminaries, and some receive their theological training in non-Mennonite institutions. The paid pastors and the unsalaried lay ministers are usually ordained by their congregations. Professionals in the congregation, such as teachers, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen, often act as church moderators, Sunday school superintendents, and chairs of committees.
Church business meetings and convention gatherings at which theological, congregational, and practical matters were discussed were traditionally called “brotherhood meetings,” a term that expresses their male-dominated past. The Mennonite Brethren Church, the second largest Mennonite group in Canada, is increasingly challenged by its women to exchange the “brethren” in its name for a more inclusive term. The role of women among Mennonites has been slowly evolving, although not fast enough for some women. Mennonites have always regarded women as being equal with men so far as their “position in Christ” is concerned, but, with regard to their function in the church and the community, they have been as conservative as the rest of society.
Among the sixteenth-century Anabaptists there was greater equality between men and women than among later Mennonites. Anabaptist women were active in their communities, they suffered persecution and martyrdom just as the men did, and some of them were teachers and ministers in their congregations. When the movement became more settled and institutionalized, the women reverted to their traditional roles of subservience and domestic functions. For a long time, women have taught Sunday school and gone as missionaries to foreign fields, but they were not allowed to preach or lead a worship service or a business meeting. Ordination of women was out of the question.
The role of women in the church, including ordination, is still an important topic for discussion at congregational gatherings and conferences. In the early 1950s, even among the more liberal Mennonite congregations, women could not vote or speak in church and at conferences. The more conservative groups still exclude their women from taking part in church functions, but the more liberal ones, including the General Conference Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren, are becoming receptive to the contribution that women can make to the church. In a 1972 study, only 17 percent of Mennonites agreed that women should be ordained, whereas seventeen years later, in 1989, 44 percent supported the idea. As of the 1990s, very few Mennonite congregations ordained women. During the meeting of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Winnipeg in 1993, the faith and life board recommended that local congregations “allow for diversity of conviction and practice in the appointment of women to pastoral leadership.” The recommendation was defeated by 61 percent of the delegates. Its defeat caused women to unite for the purpose of educating their constituencies and exerting greater pressure for equality. Mennonite women often point to the example of their Anabaptist forebears. In anticipation of greater openness to women’s contribution to the community and the church and in the hope of someday ministering in Mennonite churches as ordained pastors, women have been entering Bible colleges and theological seminaries in increasing numbers.
Since Mennonite institutional structures are congregational in nature and there is no ecclesiastical or national head, change and development occur more or less democratically, beginning at the grass-roots level. Congregations are organized into provincial and national “conferences” with elected moderators and boards to administer their various activities, but each congregation is autonomous and free to make its own communal decisions. The local church “calls” its pastor, deals with local issues, implements its own educational and evangelistic programs, and decides on whether and to what extent changes in policy and practice are to be adopted. In addition to provincial and national conferences, there is also a North American conference and a Mennonite World Conference, which at least symbolically unites Mennonites worldwide.
Among Anabaptists and early Mennonites, marriage was for life, except in the case of adultery, and the family bond was sacred. Children were a gift from God, they were expected to be numerous, often as many as ten or more, and family planning and birth control were unknown. As late as the 1930s, there were apparently no marriage breakups among North American Mennonites. The husband was the “head” of his wife and family, and the wife symbolized her subjection to her husband by wearing a head covering, as some conservative women still do. However, with urbanization and changing values, Mennonites have tended to follow the social trends in Canada. For example, in earlier decades, Mennonite birth rates were 40 to 50 percent higher than the national average, but they have rapidly declined; Mennonite couples generally have fewer than three children.
There has been a slight shift away from patriarchy toward more equalitarian marriages and, beginning after World War II, a greater acceptance of divorce and divorced and remarried persons within the congregations. Compared to the national pattern, however, Mennonites still have a low rate of marriage breakdown, and despite urbanization they seem to have preserved most of the positive family values. In 1972, 77 percent believed that “a lifelong commitment” should never be broken except by death. Seventeen years later this figure had decreased to 72 percent.
Marriage outside the faith was frowned upon in the past. As late as the 1940s in Canada, a Mennonite marrying an “outsider” automatically excluded herself or himself from the church. Today Mennonites increasingly marry outside their group (some 39 percent), with the Mennonite partner often remaining a member within his or her congregation. More often than not, the nonMennonite partner joins the church as well. The extended family has always been important among Mennonites. When they still lived in rural communities, the grandparents were supported and cared for by their children and grandchildren. Today it is not uncommon for the elderly and infirm members to move to homes for senior citizens, which have been established in most major community centres.
Physical and sexual abuse was not generally reported or talked about in the past, but recent studies have shown that Canadian Mennonites are not immune to these problems. Historically, there has been wife beating and harsh physical punishment of children in school. In Russia, members who broke community regulations were at times physically punished by fellow Mennonites. This behaviour is somewhat surprising given that Mennonites seek to be a people of peace and non-violence. In recent times there have been reports of the sexual abuse of children and some cases of incest. There are no statistics for these phenomena, and it is not known how the rate among Mennonites compares to that of the wider society.
Banning or shunning as a form of church discipline was especially disruptive of families, particularly among the conservative Mennonites in the first half of the twentieth century. A man shunned for some moral or spiritual misdemeanour was often ostracized by his community and injured or destroyed economically and socially. In serious cases, marital avoidance, which forbade the marriage partner to eat or have sexual intercourse with the banned person, was applied. Except among the more conservative groups, avoidance is seldom practised today. Pastoral counselling of wayward members has generally replaced the harsh church discipline of the past.
Since Mennonites do not baptize infants, the relationship of young people to the church is somewhat ambiguous. The unbaptized are not included in the membership lists, yet they are expected to attend church services and participate in the church’s programs. Young people are usually baptized in their teens or early twenties. The expectations of the church and their parents, peer pressure, and a personal decision to join the church are factors leading to baptism and church membership. Knowledge of the catechism or the Bible precedes baptism in most Mennonite communities, although the Mennonite Brethren require a definite and conscious “conversion” before the ordinance can take place.
Some studies indicate that the conservative groups, such as the Old Order Mennonites and Amish, have a much better retention rate among young people than the more liberal groups in urban centres. Among the Mennonite Brethren and General Conference Mennonites, increasingly many young people either do not join the church or drift away after joining. There are no statistics for this loss, but observation indicates that young people leave their religious communities either during their university years or at the beginning of their professional life. Since Mennonites are a communal people, even “lost members” are considered part of the family, and concern is expressed for young people who leave the community.
Mennonites originated in German-speaking countries; hence the German language has been an important defining characteristic. Wherever they migrated, Mennonites continued to speak a form of German (Pennsylvania, Low, High), although during the last hundred years most in Canada have switched to English. The shift to English, especially among the Russian Mennonites, took place between the 1940s and 1970s. This linguistic transition was especially painful because the older generation perceived it as a loss of their identity as a people. Not only were these Mennonites culturally related to European Germans, but they had also worshipped for almost four hundred years in Germanic languages in Poland, Russia, the United States, and now Canada.
The Mennonites who came to Canada from the Soviet Union in the 1920s initially remained close to their German cultural roots. They also sympathized with Germany’s political developments in the 1920s and 1930s. There were several reasons for their pronounced Germanness. In the former Russian Empire, they had studied German history, culture, and literature, and in the 1920s the German government had assisted these people to leave the Soviet Union for the West. Since Mennonites had experienced the destruction of their religious and cultural life under communism, they felt a deep antipathy towards the Soviet system. Thus they regarded Germany and things German as the cultural and political forces that opposed Soviet communism. In the 1930s, Canadian-Mennonite newspapers even expressed support for Hitler, although there were also voices that opposed these sentiments, arguing that Nazi ideology was incompatible with the Mennonite religion.
The transition from German to English coincided with Mennonite assimilation, the desire of the young to function in the language of the new country, and the belief on the part of young leaders that they must reach out to non-Mennonites with the gospel. By 1970 the main church services and the provincial and national conferences were conducted in English. German is still used, however, among the Old Order Mennonites and Amish in Ontario, as well as by the older congregations in the prairie provinces and British Columbia. The Swiss Mennonites in Ontario and the Kanadier Mennonites in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, although they also clung to the German language, remained more detached from German culture and politics. Since they had come to Canada before the emergence of communism and National Socialism, and thus had not experienced these ideologies directly, German was merely a means of expressing their tradition. One can still hear Ontario Mennonites speaking their Pennsylvania German dialect at markets in the Kitchener-Waterloo area and Manitoba Mennonites using their Plautdietsch (Low German) on the bus and in stores in Winnipeg.
Since the 1980s Mennonite communities that use languages other than English or German have developed. Some western Canadian cities have Chinese- or Spanish-speaking Mennonite churches, and in Quebec there are French-speaking congregations and a Bible institute and a French-language church paper. The Mennonitische Rundschau (Winnipeg, 1880) and Der Bote (Winnipeg, 1924) continue to serve those who prefer German, whereas the English-language Canadian Mennonite (Waterloo, 1997; successor of Mennonite Reporter, 1971–97) and Mennonite Brethren Herald (Winnipeg, 1962), appeal to professionals and the young.
Given the German background of Canadian Mennonites, it is not surprising that their early literature was all in that language. Creative writing began in Russia prior to 1917 and eventually came into full bloom in Canada between the 1920s and 1950s. Jacob H. Janzen, a Russian-Mennonite teacher and minister, was one of the first and most productive authors. His Low German playlets, a collection of short stories, and a volume of poems written in High German are well known. Although not polished literature, these pieces established the literary tradition of Canadian Mennonite writing. His humour and his use of the Low German dialect made for the acceptance of his ideas, especially those concerning education and culture, among Russian and Canadian Mennonites.
One of the most significant writers was Arnold Dyck of Steinbach and Winnipeg, who wrote fiction and plays in Low and High German. Verloren in der Steppe (Lost in the Steppe), written during World War II, depicts Russian Mennonite village life. Dyck will probably be remembered best for his Low German writings, particularly his two-volume Koop enn Bua opp Reise (Koop and Bua Travelling), in which he pokes fun at simple southern Manitoba farmers who on their travels are introduced to the wider world. He also edited a journal and assisted fellow writers to have their work published. He was especially concerned about what he perceived to be the rapid decline of Mennonite culture and language. The characters in his Low German stories express the thought that once Mennonites will no longer “make hay,” that is, farm, and no longer speak Low German, they will cease to be Mennonites. He believed that time was not far off. He especially viewed the disappearance of the “German book,” as he called German Mennonite writing and culture, with grave misgivings. For Dyck, Mennonitism was not so much religious faith as tradition, ethnicity, culture, and language.
In addition to the other novelists Peter J. Klassen and Gerhard Toews, there were also poets of significance. Gerhard J. Friesen (Fritz Senn) wrote many poems in both High and Low German, and Gerhard Loewen published his collection Feldblumen (Field Flowers) first in Russia and later in an expanded edition in Canada. Senn and Loewen were undoubtedly the best Mennonite poets writing in German in Canada. Senn’s poems of the 1930s, Hinterm Pflug (Behind the Plow), deal with the tragic history of Russian Mennonites. He describes the suffering that befell his people in Russia, and he criticizes the growing materialism of Canadian Mennonites. Loewen’s verses are in the tradition of German romantic nature poetry. Senn returned to Germany, where he died, but Loewen remained in Canada and sought to build cultural bridges between the Old and the New Worlds. Much of this early literature is characterized by a longing for a lost homeland. It is backward looking, describing Mennonite existence in pre-Revolution Russia and mourning the loss of the Russian “commonwealth.” There is a feeling, expressed or implied, that once the first generation of immigrants is gone and their German culture forgotten, Mennonites will exist as a people in name only.
With the publication of the novel Peace Shall Destroy Many in 1962, Rudy Wiebe established himself as a writer appealing to a reading public beyond his fellow Mennonites. The work portrays a community in Saskatchewan in conflict with the outside world, and the author was severely criticized by other Mennonites for allegedly describing his people in too negative terms. He even lost his position as editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald because of this novel. Others followed, not all of them dealing with Mennonite themes. However, as critics have pointed out, Wiebe writes out of a deep Mennonite moral sense, critiquing the materialism of both Mennonite and Canadian society. Although his novels have earned their author prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, and critical acclaim, some Mennonites remain critical of his work. His My Lovely Enemy (1983), which portrays a lapsed Mennonite professor and deals with sexual issues, evoked harsh censure from the moderator of the Mennonite Brethren in Canada.
Other Mennonite writers have achieved literary success. Barbara Smucker of Waterloo, Ontario, has become known as a children’s author with such books as Henry’s Red Sea (1955) and Underground to Canada (1977), and her novels have been translated into several languages. Armin Wiebe of Winnipeg has written a humorous novel, Salvation of Yasch Siemens (1984), dealing in a convoluted Low German syntax with Mennonite experiences and foibles in southern Manitoba. Younger poets are especially making their mark in Canadian literature. Patrick Friesen, originally from Steinbach, Manitoba, has published several collections of poems, as has David Waltner-Toews of Guelph, Ontario. Other poets of note include Di Brandt and Sarah Klassen from Winnipeg and Audrey Poetker-Thiessen, of New Bothwell, Manitoba.
Most of these poets deal with Mennonite history and questions of identity. They express a love-hate relationship with their people. The vision that they share is perhaps best summed up in the words of Poetker-Thiessen: “I am in love not with what my people are but with what they want to be.” The criticism that these young poets make is not always appreciated by Mennonite people. Especially if the poets have distanced themselves from the Mennonite church and faith, as some of them have, their work may not be taken seriously by other Mennonites. Those members of the community who read poetry are sometimes shocked by the feminist themes in the poems of Brandt and Poetker-Thiessen. Some are offended by the parody of Mennonite fundamentalist practices in the work of their young writers and by what they perceive to be blasphemy of cherished religious beliefs.
Music making and choral singing have reached high artistic levels among Canadian Mennonites. Music was not always so important. Conrad Grebel, an early Anabaptist leader, believed there should be neither music nor singing in the worship service. Musical instruments, especially the organ, were not allowed among European Mennonites until well into the eighteenth century. However, the Anabaptists composed and sang hymns in prison and often went to their execution singing. Today, singing and musical instruments are taken for granted in most Mennonite churches, schools, and homes. Congregational and choral singing led by trained leaders is an integral part of the worship service. Popular tunes and instrumental music, including guitars, trumpets, and drums, have also become part of services in the more liberal congregations. This change has not occurred without opposition and controversy. From time to time Canadian Mennonite papers carry articles and letters to the editor about the singing of hymns, but the younger generation is apparently winning the battle. In many churches, clapping and foot stamping have also become part of music making.
Mennonite choirs sing at music festivals and other celebratory occasions. A recent development has been the organization of special choirs in urban centres. In 1955 Abner Martin became the first director of the Menno Singers in Ontario; he was succeeded in 1987 by Leonard Enns. Among the Ontario Mennonites a high point was reached with the performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in celebration of the Mennonite bicentennial in 1986. This composition was especially suited to express Mennonite pacifism. In Winnipeg the popular radio program Hymn Sing greatly benefited from the work of Victor Martens, later professor of voice at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. George Wiebe of the Canadian Mennonite Bible College and Bill Baerg and John Martens of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College became nationally known as music teachers and conductors. Vocalists Ben Heppner, Ingrid Suderman, Edith Wiens, and Theodore Baerg have appeared regularly on Canadian and international stages. The Mennonite Brethren Bible College and the Canadian Mennonite Bible College joined for the first time in 1966 to perform J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, thus beginning an annual custom of the two choirs singing together. The Church Music Seminar in Winnipeg has also become a tradition.
One person who more than anyone else promoted music and singing among Canadian Mennonites was Benjamin Horch, who worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and taught and conducted in Mennonite schools and congregations. He believed that the old traditional hymns (Kernlieder) best expressed the Mennonite faith. At the same time, he was open to musical innovation; for example, he encouraged Victor Davies to compose the Mennonite Piano Concerto based on hymn tunes.
Mennonite folk music developed primarily from borrowed tunes. In the sixteenth century the poetic and musical styles of the Volkslied (folk song) were used for many martyr ballads in the Ausbund, the earliest Anabaptist collection of songs. In contrast with the art music of the established church, this music of the common people was accessible to all. It symbolized the Anabaptist emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. In adapting popular tunes for their own use, Mennonites rejected Marienlieder (songs to Mary) and Heldenlieder (war-hero songs), but readily accepted German songs about nature and homeland.
Contemporary folk hymns were introduced to Canadian Mennonites by such groups as the Faith and Life Singers on the radio station CFAM in Altona, Manitoba. The continuing influence of the folk-music movement of the 1960s is evident in such songbooks as Sing and Rejoice! (1979) and Sing Alleluja (1985). In the wake of renewed ethnic consciousness and assisted by Canada’s policy of multiculturalism, several Low German singing groups were formed in southern Manitoba. De Heischratje en de Willa Honig (Locusts and Wild Honey) and De Jereeschte Tweeback (Roasted Buns) have delighted both Mennonite and non-Mennonite audiences with their humour and critique of Mennonite foibles. Swiss and German Mennonite traditions have also been enriched by the introduction of Spanish, French, Afro-American, Chinese, and native Canadian musical idioms.
Traditionally, Mennonites have been reluctant to engage in the visual arts, believing that the representation of objects, human beings, and the deity was against the commandment “You shall not make ... a graven image” (Exodus 20:4). They have also rejected art because, being a practical people, they believe that all human activity should serve a “useful” function, and in their view, works of the imagination are “untrue” and express sinful individualism, secularism, and pride. In the seventeenth century, Enoch Seemann, a Mennonite artist in Danzig (Gdansk), was forbidden to paint portraits though he was permitted to depict landscapes. When he failed to heed the elders’ counsel, he was placed under the ban.
Conservative groups still reject photography, movies and the theatre, and television. In the 1950s even some of the more liberal Mennonite congregations in Canada excommunicated members who purchased a television set. Nevertheless, artists in Canada have created what might be called a Mennonite school of painting. Among those whose work has been exhibited at public galleries and museums are Woldemar Neufeld of Waterloo, who later moved to the United States, Wanda Koop of Winnipeg, painter and sculptor J.P. Klassen, who came to Canada in 1923 and later taught art at Bluffton College in Ohio, Mary Klassen of Saskatchewan, and Gathie Falk of Vancouver. Etryl Snyder of Waterloo specializes in painting scenes of Old Order Mennonite and Amish life, which are popular with tourists to the area.
In the practical arts, the Swiss Mennonites in particular have been outstanding. Those who settled in Ontario have been skilled at furniture making and the stitching of decorative quilts. At the annual Mennonite Central Committee sales in New Hamburg, furniture, quilts, and other crafts bring in substantial sums of money for relief work throughout the world. This combination of community, art, profit, and aid has been so successful that Mennonite centres in western Canada have initiated similar annual sales. Quilt making among Mennonites began in Europe, but it was in North America that the craft flourished. It grew out of the sewing circle, where Mennonite women could express their creativity in a generally male-dominated community. Since the quilts are now viewed as works of art, they have moved from the bed to the wall as hangings, a trend that developed in the 1970s.
Aesthetically pleasing crafts have a long tradition among Mennonites. Scherenschnitt, the art of cutting intricate designs with scissors in folded paper, is well known in Ontario. Carving and sculpture were frowned upon because of the fear of making “images,” but doll-like nativity figures have been crafted in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. Hella Broun’s dolls appeared on Canadian postage stamps in 1982. Wood carvings of animals and other everyday subjects, sometimes painted, are made in St Jacobs, Ontario, and Gretna, Manitoba. The most significant Mennonite achievement in folk painting is Fraktur, the art of beautiful penmanship and illuminated drawings on paper. Teachers often used Fraktur to decorate house blessings, mottoes, and good wishes, to inscribe the title-pages of books, and to reward students for good work. Closely related to Fraktur was the popular craft of furniture decorating.
The annual hog slaughtering in Europe and in early settlements in Canada was a festive event. Neighbours came together to help prepare meat, bacon, sausages, and other meat for the winter season. Eating, drinking alcoholic beverages, and fun, such as pinning a pig’s tail on some unsuspecting participant, were part of these occasions. Mennonites borrowed aspects of their folk culture from the societies in which they resided over the centuries. Such was especially the case with food. For example, the much-loved Pennsylvania Mennonite pies came from the United States and the tasty borscht and paska (Easter bread) were adopted by Mennonites in Russia. The famous Mennonite zwieback (double-decker bun) may date as far back as sixteenth-century Holland. Mennonite dishes, such as shoo-fly pie, porzelky (New Year’s doughnuts), rollkoake (fritters), vareniky (dough pouches filled with cottage cheese or potatoes), meat pirogi, and plume moos (fruit soup), are popular at restaurants in Mennonite areas.
Folk medicine has been practised by Canadian Mennonites, especially among the Amish and other conservative groups. Many remedies are available for such ailments as rheumatism and arthritis, as are brews and bitters for constipation and itch. Mennonite communities usually had a midwife and a bone-setter to attend to those medical needs that tea could not cure. For whatever reason, Mennonites generally seemed to enjoy good health and longevity.
Education has been important from the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. Early leaders such as Grebel, Hubmaier, Denck, and Menno Simons were university trained and well versed in the Bible and theology. Although none of them wrote as much as the mainstream Reformation leaders, they appreciated learning and used it to promote their Christian faith. Even after the first leaders had died and the movement had passed to the common people, education for the young remained a high priority among Mennonites. The ability to read the Bible and other devotional literature was an important incentive to teach the young. Some Anabaptists, particularly the early Hutterites, became leaders in elementary education, and even non-Anabaptist noblemen sent their children to Anabaptist schools. As Mennonites migrated to isolated regions in Europe and North America, they built schools and teacher-training institutes. In Pennsylvania, Christopher Dock, an eighteenth-century Mennonite teacher, wrote the first American pedagogical treatise, and Johann Cornies, a nineteenth-century educator in southern Russia, developed model elementary and secondary schools. Mennonites brought this educational background with them to Canada.
There were, however, those among the conservative groups in Ontario and Manitoba who believed in as little education as possible. They feared that secondary education especially was dangerous to their faith and way of life. Thus, the Old Order Mennonites and Amish proscribed all secondary education, and the Old Colony Mennonites left Canada for Central and South America because they lost control of their children’s schooling. This negative attitude among conservative groups found expression in a saying that dates back to medieval Europe: “Je jeleada, je vetjeda” (“The more educated, the more perverted”). Their fears were well placed, since secular education often does lead to the questioning of tradition, values, and beliefs. Thus, to maintain their way of life, the conservative Mennonites found it necessary to reject higher education altogether.
The more liberal groups have been open to education at all levels, building their own schools and using them to strengthen and promote their faith and values. As Mennonites became more urbanized after World War II, education was an increasingly important part of their “sacred canopy.” They established private elementary and high schools, Bible institutes and colleges, and programs of study in universities. Close to fifty Bible schools were founded to prepare church workers, conference leaders, and lay ministers and to implant a knowledge of the Bible and the “principles of faith” in future professionals. Such schools existed in Kitchener in Ontario, Winkler and Steinbach in Manitoba, Hepburn, Herbert, and Swift Current in Saskatchewan, Coaldale in Alberta, and Clearbrook in British Columbia. They became especially popular among Mennonites in the 1940s and early 1950s. Today only a few are left; they include the ones in Winkler, Steinbach, Hepburn, and Swift Current.
Private high schools, attended by a large proportion of Mennonite youth, have been established in Ontario and in all the western provinces. Fear of assimilation and secularization was the principal motive behind these educational ventures. Like other evangelical groups, Mennonites were concerned that the theory of evolution and the secular humanism taught in the public system posed a threat to their children’s religious faith. They also hoped that young people who attended the private schools would marry within their group and thus more easily retain their values and tradition. Teachers in these schools are generally well qualified, and the academic and ethical standards are high. The schools also attract non-Mennonite students, who are required to pay higher tuition fees.
The private high schools receive some financial support from provincial governments, although tuition fees and church support are also necessary to maintain them. It is thus the more affluent parents who can afford to send their children to these schools. Churches and individual donors, however, contribute towards scholarships and other financial assistance for deserving students who otherwise could not afford to attend. Some Mennonites do not send their children to such schools on principle, believing that they are elitist and do not prepare students “for the real world.” Generally, however, the schools enjoy a fine reputation among Mennonites and non-Mennonites alike.
Bible colleges were designed to give Mennonite students a biblical and liberal arts education. Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg began in 1944, and Canadian Mennonite Bible College, in the same city, opened its doors three years later. These colleges combined theology and university-level courses, including history, psychology, music, and languages, in their programs. In time, they became affiliated with the universities in Winnipeg. Because of financial difficulties and a lack of support from the Mennonite Brethren conference, Mennonite Brethren Bible College was closed in 1992. It was replaced by Concord College, which was supported financially by four provincial conferences.
Other successful colleges are Conrad Grebel, which is affiliated with the University of Waterloo, Steinbach Bible College in Manitoba, and Columbia Bible College in Clearbrook. At the University of Winnipeg, two programs were established to bring Mennonite studies into the general university curriculum. The chair in Mennonite studies, endowed through private sources and the federal secretary of state for multiculturalism, came into existence in 1978. Menno Simons College, with courses in conflict resolution and development, was established in the late 1980s. The David Friesen Family Foundation of Winnipeg made considerable contributions to both enterprises. Although all colleges struggle to maintain viable programs, Canadian Mennonites believe that the financial sacrifice is worthwhile. Not only do these institutions equip young people to function in the urban environment, but they also strengthen Mennonite identity and promote an Anabaptist vision amid assimilation and social change.
Schools and other institutions are only one, however important, part of Mennonite education. The local congregations carry on extensive programs for young and old alike. By far the most developed is the Sunday school for all ages. Because it was originally an institution of “English” churches, Mennonites at first failed to see its value for themselves. Gradually, however, the Sunday school was accepted, though some conservative groups still view it with suspicion as “modern” and unnecessary. Most progressive churches, on the other hand, have embraced the Sunday school as an effective means of imparting the fundamentals of their faith and Mennonite distinctiveness.
Other educational endeavours are the daily vacation Bible school, aimed at teaching Mennonite and non-Mennonite children the Bible and Christian faith during the summer months, and various young peoples’ programs throughout the year. Weekly Bible studies for adult members have been popular for many decades, although more recently their appeal has declined. Classes in preparation for baptism, taught by the pastor or other qualified individual, are conducted regularly. All these church programs are led by male and female teachers who have received their training at a Bible school or college.
Studies have shown that Mennonites have a good knowledge of the Bible and evangelical Christian doctrine. Both Bible schools and high schools have stressed Christian education and the need for evangelism. This emphasis in Mennonite schools has been successful. The schools have been less effective in instilling the Anabaptist concerns regarding community, peace, and practical discipleship, although in recent years more attention has been given to the spiritual heritage of Mennonites. Because in the past they neglected to teach Anabaptist history and principles, many Mennonites think of themselves as evangelicals first and Anabaptists second.
According to their earliest Confession (1527), Anabaptists were to obey governments but not participate in politics. Since government and the “sword” were outside God’s kingdom and Jesus himself had refused to become an earthly ruler, believers were to have nothing to do with matters of state. Some leaders argued that Christians could enter the political process provided that they conducted themselves justly and did not use violence in enforcing the law. Menno Simons, while rejecting the use of the sword, agreed that rulers could be Christian and govern justly. This early ambivalence with regard to political activism was reflected among the various Mennonite groups. The traditional position might be described as apolitical. Since governments had to deal with issues of war and peace and Mennonites refused to serve in the military, political involvement appeared contradictory. Until fairly recently, some groups even refused to cast ballots at election time. This attitude has been changing in the last several decades, more so among Canadian than among American Mennonites.
Although Mennonites traditionally sought to be apolitical, they were nevertheless often shrewd negotiators and lobbyists regarding their own interests. The Russian Mennonites, for example, arranged advantageous terms for themselves under the tsars, and in 1873 they worked out similar terms with the Canadian government. Throughout their history, Mennonites have been particularly skilful at dealing with rulers and governments. Persecution and discrimination taught them to be on guard against unscrupulous officials and to be wise in matters of government.
Mennonites in Canada began to enter political life, both provincially and federally, in the 1950s. Representing virtually all parties in western Canada, they can now be found running for office and as political activists. At the national level, according to political scientist John H. Redekop, Mennonite candidates numbered sixteen in the 1974 election and eleven in 1980. In subsequent federal elections a dozen or so ran for office, and some eight were elected to Parliament. Jake Epp, a former member of the Mennonite Brethren in Steinbach, was first elected in 1972 and was the only Mennonite ever to be appointed to the federal cabinet. He served his party and constituency with distinction until he resigned in 1993.
That Mennonite parliamentarians walk a thin line between their party policies and their traditional principles became most evident during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Epp and John Reimer, both members of the governing Progressive Conservative Party, supported Canada’s decision to go to war against Iraq. Canadian Mennonite newspapers reflected in detail the dilemma Mennonites faced with regard to the war. According to a survey, some 70 percent of articles and letters to the editor opposed the war and Canada’s involvement in it, while 30 percent supported the government’s position.
Mennonite involvement in public affairs has taken other forms. Several lawyers have gained judicial experience, and some have been appointed queen’s counsel. In Manitoba, John Enns served as Crown prosecutor for the provincial government. MCC Canada established an office in Ottawa in 1975 to monitor political developments and lobby officials with regard to issues of war and peace and Mennonite interests generally. Ironically, William Janzen, whose uncle was excommunicated by a Mennonite congregation for voting at an election, served as director of this office.
Traditionally, Canadian Mennonites favoured the Liberal Party because of its more open and generous immigration policies, from which they, especially those from Russia in the early twentieth century, benefited. In the second half of the century, however, Mennonites have switched to the Progressive Conservatives in increasing numbers, both provincially and federally. As they became affluent and part of middle-class Canadian society, they have tended to support the party of the status quo. In Saskatchewan the New Democratic Party (NDP) has received strong support from rank-and-file Mennonites. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon for Mennonite intellectuals who actively support the NDP to be considered “radical socialists” by co-religionists. Socialism has a negative connotation for many Mennonites, since for them it equals communism, a political ideology that destroyed their way of life in Russia. In the 1993 federal election, a majority of Mennonites in Alberta and British Columbia voted for Reform Party candidates.
The reasons for involvement in politics are mixed. Some Mennonites serve their parties for philosophical and ideological reasons. The majority, however, enter politics because they believe that they can serve their constituencies and society best through the political process. In the past, Mennonites dealt with governments at arm’s length to further self-serving causes such as immigration, settlement, conscription, and education. Today some 32 percent of the more progressive Mennonites believe that members of the community should become involved more directly.
Conservative Mennonites such as the Old Order Amish and Old Order and Old Colony Mennonites are more reluctant to enter the political process. They still adhere to the Anabaptist belief in the separation of church and state, which for them means political noninvolvement. The kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world are still sharply separate. For the more progressive Mennonites, however, the distinction between the two kingdoms has become blurred. As they move up the socio-economic scale, they are increasingly becoming part of the establishment.
With regard to their former homelands, Mennonites differ from many other ethnic groups. Since they could never claim the countries they came from as their own, they were seldom emotionally attached to them or involved with developments there. Also, because Mennonites have sought to be apolitical, developments in those countries have remained of marginal interest. Such was especially characteristic of Mennonites who came to Canada in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the United States and Germany and those who emigrated from the Russian Empire in the 1870s. However, Russia and the former Soviet Union have always remained in the consciousness of the Mennonites who came to Canada after the two world wars. The exile, imprisonment, and suffering they experienced under communism became a collective nightmare for Mennonites throughout the world, who prayed for their people, sent relief packages, and hoped for the demise of Soviet communism. When the Soviet Union came to an end, Mennonites considered it a “miracle” and an answer to their prayers. They began to visit their relatives and helped them to leave for Germany. In the 1990s Canadian Mennonites have been in the forefront of contacts with Russia, Ukraine, and the Central Asian republics, seeking to assist Mennonites there to develop their religious institutions, cultural traditions, and a market economy.
Given their history of persecution, discrimination, and exile at the hand of governments, Mennonites might be expected to forget or at least minimize their differences and live in harmony as a people. Such has not been the case. From their sixteenth-century beginnings there have been groups among them who for religious, ethical, cultural, or linguistic reasons found it difficult to coexist. The more conservative groups separated from the more liberal ones, establishing independent congregations and communities. The conservative groups were usually the first to migrate, seeking to escape not only their “worldly” society but also their own more liberal and modern brethren.
Theologically, Mennonites differed little from each other as far as their doctrines were concerned. Ethical differences, however, or the way that their Christian faith was to be expressed in the real world caused them to divide and subdivide throughout their history. Already in the sixteenth century there were severe tensions and conflicts with regard to church discipline and mixed marriages. The “hard banners” in Menno Simons’s time disciplined deviant behaviour in the church harshly, whereas the “light banners” were more compassionate towards weak and failing members. These differences often led to permanent splits between the groups.
Later in their history, clothes, lifestyles, and material possessions often divided Mennonites into maintainers and progressives. Among conservative groups, changing styles of clothing and high fashion were of “this world” and therefore to be avoided. On the other hand, the more progressive groups in urban centres often despised the peasants, arguing that the Christian faith had little to do with such externals as hair styles, beards, the colour of clothes, the length of dresses, and the width of hat brims. These differences still exist among Canadian Mennonites: conservative groups dress, live, and farm as they did in previous centuries while the liberal ones have discarded the “old ways.” Culturally and socially, these groups have little in common, each viewing the others with suspicion and sometimes disdain.
There are some twenty religious groups among Canadian Mennonites, ranging from the conservative Amish to the most urbanized Mennonite Brethren. The differences that separate them may appear trivial to non-Mennonites. The General Conference Mennonites, for example, practise baptism by pouring or sprinkling, whereas the Mennonite Brethren immerse. The Old Order Mennonites of Ontario reject modern conveniences and technology; the liberal groups, on the other hand, live in urban centres and worship in ultra-modern church buildings. Conservative Mennonites stress basic education and emphasize humility and simple living as part of their Christian life, whereas the assimilated groups cannot be distinguished outwardly from the rest of society.
Even among the more liberal Russian Mennonites, cultural differences tended to divide them. To this day the so-called Kanadier (“Canadians”) and Russländer (“Russians”) point to their separate traditions, though other Canadians do not perceive any appreciable differences between them. The differences have been more apparent in times of crisis. During World War II, for example, Mennonites in Canada debated the question of how involved they could become as conscientious objectors, a status the Canadian government had guaranteed them. The more conservative Kanadier insisted on alternative service in Canada, whereas the Russländer allowed their men to serve as medical orderlies at the front.
There seems to be little doubt that the practice of their religion divides Mennonites in Canada, as it has always done in their long history. This tendency to separate over religious or ethical matters has been labelled an “Anabaptist sickness.” The only organizations that unite all Mennonites worldwide are the Mennonite World Conference and the Mennonite Central Committee. The MWC meets every six years to worship, celebrate, and express solidarity. Some Mennonites are critical of aspects of the MWC and the MCC, especially of the MCC’s “political involvement,” but all Mennonite groups support most functions of these organizations. In all other matters the various groups go their own way. Since the differences among them are historically and culturally based, there is little hope that Canadian Mennonites will soon unite into one body.
In various other endeavours there is little cooperation. Mennonite groups have their own schools and educational programs. With the exception of one or two private high schools and the Bible college in Clearbrook, which are operated jointly by the General Conference and the Mennonite Brethren, each group has its own institutions. Foreign missions are also conducted separately, sometimes causing confusion in the mission field, as, for example, when Mennonite Brethren baptize converts by immersion and members of General Conference by sprinkling or pouring. Nevertheless, there are signs that Canadian Mennonites are beginning to cooperate in several ways, such as college programs and joint seminars and symposia. Rising costs will no doubt result in greater cooperation among institutions and programs. Attempts have also been made to amalgamate some Mennonite conferences, although such efforts will require time and patience. Mennonites all seem to agree on charity and on money matters, the one symbolizing their traditional compassion for the needy and the other their collective security in an otherwise insecure world.
Because of their historic persecution and isolation, Mennonites have tended to separate themselves from their non-Mennonite neighbours and live within their own communities. But as they have become more integrated in Canadian society, they have begun to interact more fully with fellow Canadians, especially those with whom they share former homelands. Good relations have developed between Canadian Mennonites, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews. In business ventures, academic pursuits, and various community programs, there is cooperation and respect for each group’s distinctiveness. Mennonites also seek to assist Canada’s native peoples through the economic and advocacy programs of the Mennonite Central Committee.
Canadian Mennonites engage in extensive mission work among native peoples in other countries. While the MCC addresses economic and social needs throughout the world, mission boards seek to fulfil Christ’s “great commission” to proclaim the Christian message of love and peace to all peoples. Together with other North American Mennonites, Canadian missionaries have established churches in Asia, Africa, and Central America with a total baptized membership of 407,500. India alone has a membership of 112,906, almost as many as there are baptized Mennonites in Canada.
Canadian Mennonites in rural and urban areas have been fairly successful in maintaining their group identity. They think of themselves as Mennonites, and society around them sees them as such, both ethnically and religiously. Sociologists have shown that Mennonites have been able to maintain their identity largely because they have transplanted rural community values and practices to the urban environment. These values and practices surround them from the cradle to grave, forming a protective shield between themselves and their urban way of life.
Mennonite survival as a community in Canadian urban centres has been ensured in a number of ways. In some cities, Mennonites have established areas where they live closely together. In Winnipeg, for example, North Kildonan is known as a Mennonite suburb. Other cities, including St Catharines, Kitchener-Waterloo, Saskatoon, and Vancouver, have similar pockets. Mennonites also maintain their faith and culture through their institutions: churches, schools, business establishments, German and English publications, and musical and theatre groups. Winnipeg, which boasts the largest concentration of Mennonites in the world (some 25,000), has two Mennonite high schools, two Bible colleges, about forty-five churches, a hospital, numerous businesses and industries, credit unions, some five papers, and programs at the University of Winnipeg. Many Mennonites listen to religious programs and community news on CFAM, a Mennonite radio station in southern Manitoba.
There is no doubt that their Germanic languages and culture have helped Canadian Mennonites to maintain their traditions. Had it not been for the successive waves of German-speaking immigrants to Canada, assimilation would have progressed more rapidly. Further, although Mennonites increasingly marry non-Mennonites, most still prefer partners from within their own group. They also tend to socialize among themselves. Travel agencies plan trips to destinations with large Mennonite concentrations, and there are communities in Canada’s cottage regions and in Florida, California, and elsewhere.
Canada’s multicultural policy, begun under the Trudeau government in 1971, has contributed significantly to the maintenance of group identity. Mennonites have taken full advantage of their ethnic status. They have received government grants for cultural, artistic, and educational endeavours and, together with other groups, they have lobbied government departments to promote their ethnocultural interests. Individuals who have joined the Mennonites by choice or through marriage are often more committed to the faith and community than those who were born into Mennonite families. These newcomers add to and strengthen group identity. They demonstrate that it is not necessarily tied to German culture and language and that there will be Mennonites long after they have forgotten how to speak German or prepare traditional dishes.
Mennonites began as a group defined by a particular religious faith, but they developed into a distinct people. As the forces of assimilation continue, it is likely that they will lose many of their ethnocultural traits and revert to the status of a religious denomination. The new non-Germanic congregations in Canada and the mission churches abroad certainly point in that direction. These “new” Mennonites are sometimes referred to as nonethnic Mennonites, since they are members by faith only. At present, many Canadians feel that they are Mennonite because of their birth, regardless of whether they accept the faith. Others, however, believe that accidents of birth do not preclude an individual’s decision to become or to remain a Mennonite. As the thirty contributors to Why I Am a Mennonite (1988) indicate, to be or to become a Mennonite is more a matter of choice than of birth.
In spite of assimilation and urbanization, Mennonites, especially the more educated professionals, are becoming increasingly aware of their Anabaptist heritage. It has been argued that those who are strongly conscious of this heritage are best able to withstand the negative forces of urbanization, and that those who emphasize religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism are more easily assimilated into evangelical society. An Anabaptist orientation, it is said, best synthesizes a transcendental relationship to God and an immanent relationship with one’s fellow human beings.
Until the mid-twentieth century there was little talk among Canadian Mennonites about Anabaptism. In the 1940s, however, Harold S. Bender of Goshen, Indiana, proclaimed his “Anabaptist vision,” urging Mennonites to return to the religious principles of their spiritual forebears. Anabaptism was identified by an insistence on following Jesus as the essence of Christianity, on the church as a community, and on an ethic of love and nonresistance. In the face of liberalism, modernism, and evangelical-fundamentalist inroads, an Anabaptist emphasis seemed the answer for Mennonite survival in modern society. Although the evangelical-fundamentalist forces continue to encroach on Mennonite community and church life, the teaching of Anabaptist principles in schools and churches suggests that Mennonite faith and life will survive into the twenty-first century.
Mennonites committed to an Anabaptist faith will continue to stress community, and they will witness to love, peace, justice, and the following of Jesus in practical life. These emphases, however, will be seen as religious values rather than as part of their ethnocultural tradition. In a sense, they always have been, but in the past such values were often intertwined with Mennonite ethnicity. But religion, rather than ethnicity, has been what held Mennonites together as a people. When they were persecuted and they moved from country to country, it was their faith that helped them to survive and that defined them. As Canadian Mennonites become more urbanized and “modern,” it is again their religion and their religious institutions that will enable them to maintain their identity, though the issue of religion and ethnicity is an area of considerable debate. Mennonite survival as a community ultimately depends on how committed individual members are to their religious faith and values. Despite urbanization and integration into Canadian society, Mennonites in Canada have been moderately successful in maintaining their faith, their values, and their identity as a people.
There is a great wealth of published materials on the history, faith, and life of Mennonites. Good accounts of Mennonite history can be found in Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, rev. ed. (Waterloo, Ont., 1993), and C. Henry Smith, Smith’s Story of the Mennonites, 5th ed. (Newton, Kans. 1981). An indispensable reference work is The Mennonite Encyclopedia, 5 vols. (Scottdale, Penn., 1981), and Dieter Götz Lichdi, ed., Mennonite World Handbook (Carol Stream, Ill., 1990), is invaluable for current facts and figures. The three-volume history, Mennonites in Canada (Toronto, 1974– 96), by Frank H. Epp (vols. 1, 2) and T.D. Regehr (vol. 3) is absolutely essential. The history of the Mennonite faith is covered in a concise and popular study by Walter Klassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic Nor Protestant (Waterloo, Ont., 1973), which is complemented with Calvin Redekop’s study of the lived faith, Mennonite Society (Baltimore, Md., 1989). An accessible history for young people is Harry Loewen and Steven Nolt, Through Fire and Water: An Overview of Mennonite History (Scotttdale, Pa., 1996).
Two works that focus on Mennonite integration into North American society are J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations (Kitchener, Ont., 1975), and J. Howard Kauffman and Leo Driedger, The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization (Waterloo, 1991). Mennonite studies over the last decade have been preoccupied with questions of identity, but only three such works will be suggested here: John H. Redekop, A People Apart: Ethnicity and the Mennonite Brethren (Winnipeg, 1987); Leo Driedger, Mennonite Identity in Conflict (Lewiston, N.Y., 1988); and Harry Loewen, ed., Why I Am a Mennonite: Essays on Mennonite Identity (Kitchener, Ont., 1988). Canadian-Mennonite citizenship is explored in Adolf Ens, Subjects or Citizens? The Mennonite Experience in Canada, 1870– 1925 (Ottawa, 1994). Mennonite communal life is the subject of two excellent studies: J. Winfield Fretz, The Waterloo Mennonites: A Community in Paradox (Waterloo, 1989), and Royden K. Loewen, Family, Church, and Market: A Mennonite Community in the Old and New Worlds, 1850–1930 (Toronto, 1993). Two of a large number of books on Mennonite culture and food can be recommended: Norma von Jost, Mennonite Foods and Folkways from Russia, 2 vols. (Intercourse, Penn., 1990–91), and Edna (Ramseyer) Kaufman, ed., Melting Pot of Mennonite Cookery (North Newton, Kans., 1975).
There are two Canadian scholarly journals that deal with Canadian-Mennonite issues: the Conrad Grebel Review, established in 1983, is published by Conrad Grebel College, Waterloo, and the Journal of Mennonite Studies, also established in 1983, is published by the chair in Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg. The Mennonites are well served in terms of archival repositories. The archives of Conrad Grebel College specialize in Anabaptist-Mennonite sources and in conflict-resolution materials. The Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg houses valuable collections of documents on Russian-Mennonite history and life, and the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, also in Winnipeg, specializes in Mennonite Brethren materials.