(Note: In my last post, I gave an introduction to the Mennonite culture and briefly touched upon my experience as an Old Colony Mennonite growing up in Leamington, Ontario. Here’s my introduction to Mennonite history.)
The story of the Mennonites begins in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation, in the German- and Dutch-speaking parts of Europe. At a time when people all over Europe were reacting against corruption in the Catholic Church, a group of reformers called Anabaptists started a movement.
The name “Anabaptist” (meaning “re-baptizer”) refers to the practice of baptizing adults: one of their main tenets was that a Christian ought to freely choose to be baptized and become a member of the body of Christ (as a fully-consenting adult), rather than be baptized as an infant. (The first people to practice this would already have been baptized as infants, though — hence the name; but they didn’t actually advocate more than one baptism. They considered the one they received at birth to be null and void). In addition to voluntary church membership, the early Anabaptists adhered to a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount which prohibited taking oaths, bearing arms, and participating in civil government. They also believed that the church and state should be separate entities, that church leaders should be elected from within their own ranks, and that Christians should be willing to suffer for their faith. They saw their primary loyalty as being to the church, not the state.
The Anabaptists suffered severe persecution from the beginning, from Catholics and Protestants alike. Voluntary church membership was seen as a threat by many government and church officials, who tried to stamp out the movement using torture and execution. Since Anabaptists refused to use violence to defend themselves, many were killed. By 1530, most of the founding leaders had been martyred. Despite this fact, the movement spread around western Europe.
Around this time, Menno Simons, a Catholic priest, heard of the Anabaptist movement and started to reconsider many Catholic teachings. When his Anabaptist brother Pieter was attacked and killed — refusing to violently defend himself — Menno Simons officially left the Catholic Church and became a leader within the Anabaptist movement in 1536. His followers called themselves Mennonites.
Because of their commitment to nonviolence, Mennonites have a long history of international migration. Fleeing for their lives has always been central to their survival. For this reason, Mennonites have no homeland: they go wherever they can live peacefully and without too much government interference. That’s why you can find Mennonites throughout Europe, Russia, Canada, the United States, Mexico, and South America.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you’re wondering where the Amish fit into all this, their story begins in 1693 with Jakob Ammann. He was a Swiss Mennonite leader who felt Mennonites were straying from the teachings of Menno Simons. Those who agreed with his more conservative views and stricter church discipline practices withdrew and became a distinct subgroup of Mennonites known as the Amish. I’ll come back to them in a later post.
The Amish, along with other Swiss-South German Mennonites, began emigrating to North America (especially Pennsylvania) in the early eighteenth century. The Dutch-North German Mennonites, however, mostly moved eastward into the areas of Prussia and Poland. The latter are the ones who concern me most, as they are my ancestors.*
In 1763, Catherine the Great issued an invitation to Europeans to come and settle various pieces of land within Russia. Mennonites from Prussia responded to this invitation and agreed to settle as long as they were exempted from military service and permitted to self-govern. Being excellent farmers, they soon converted the barren steppes into flourishing farmlands. (This is a pattern that the Mennonites have since repeated countless times in every conceivable type of landscape, from the Canadian plains to the Mexican deserts to the South American jungle).
In 1870, however, the Russian government announced that they could no longer extend special privileges to the Mennonites. Worried that they would lose their exemption from military service and their right to educate their children in their own schools, the Mennonites sent a delegation to explore North America as a possible place to relocate.
(Upon hearing that 40,000 of their best farmers were about to peace out, the Russian government hurried to offer an alternative to military service [forestry]; but by then most of the Mennonites were already prepared to leave. Some of the more liberal and poorer Mennonites who couldn’t afford to leave remained. Those who stayed are referred to as Russian Mennonites, though most don’t live there anymore).
So in 1873, the Mennonites began a mass exodus to North America. The more conservative groups (including my ancestors) emigrated to Manitoba (Canada), while the more liberal groups chose the United States. These two groups later evolved into two very distinct subgroups of Mennonites.
The more conservative Mennonites in Manitoba continued to live out their traditional way of life, separate from the rest of the world. They governed themselves, educated their own children, and refrained from participating in Canadian politics. And they farmed, of course. They continued to wear distinctive clothing, speak their own distinctive language, and marry within their own community.
As it always happens, however, with time the Manitoba Mennonites began to feel various pressures from the larger culture to give up their traditional way of life. The Manitoba government began to talk about mandatory public education for all of its citizens, as well as (surprise, surprise) mandatory military service. So once again, the Mennonites began to look for a new place to settle.
That’s where I’ll end for now. Next, I’ll go into greater detail about these Old Colony Mennonites, the fascinating people from whom I am descended.
*(This paragraph was added later)
Note: I have to admit that I got a lot of the details for this post from Wikipedia.