Mennonite History, Part Two: The Old Colony Mennonites

This is a continuation of my series, What is a Mennonite? which began here. In my last post I discussed the origins of the Mennonite faith and culture, starting with the Protestant Reformation and ending with a mass exodus of Mennonites from Russia to North America.

So, as I mentioned in my last post, in 1874, thousands of Mennonites from Russia emigrated to North America — the more liberal groups to the USA and the more conservative groups to Canada. My forebears were amongst the conservative group in Manitoba. These different settings dramatically influenced the ways these two groups evolved.

Most of the Mennonites who settled in the USA didn’t settle into villages, or if they did, the communities didn’t last long. So it wasn’t long before the Mennonites in the United States began to assimilate into the dominant American culture, in terms of dress, language, and lifestyle. Soon, many American Mennonites were involved in higher education, obtaining college degrees, and even enrolling in religious education at places like the Moody Bible Institute. Naturally, this profoundly influenced their religious lives. These Mennonites re-enter my story in a bit.

The Canadian or Reinlander Mennonites, by contrast, were bent on maintaining their traditional, communal way of life, believing it was essential to their Christian faith. In fact, the two major reasons they chose Manitoba were to be exempt from military service and to have control over their own schools. (The American states had not been willing to grant these privileges). By controlling their children’s education, the Canadian Mennonites could ensure their values and way of life were passed on to subsequent generations.

So the Canadian Mennonites continued to live as they had in Russia: in isolated villages where they educated their own children and governed themselves. They remained separate from the dominant culture, maintaining their distinctive dress, language, and farming practices. Any influence from the outside world was seen as a threat to their spiritual integrity. They actively spurned the seductions of the modern world as corrupting forces.

As John J. Friesen explains, “Salvation was perceived as a corporate reality by the villagers. . . . This commitment meant subjecting individual desires and wishes to the good of the whole group” (12). Salvation of the group depended on the obedience of every member. Individualism in dress, lifestyle, consumption, and land use was suppressed in order to maintain harmony in the community (Friesen, 12). Their main objectives with these lifestyle constraints were unity, equality, and a setting in which church members could admonish one another. Reinlander Mennonites rejected modernization primarily on the grounds that it could undermine community interdependence.

Many factors worked together to eat away at the fabric of the Mennonite communities, however. There were already tensions between the two main churches – Bergthaler and Reinlander (the second being more conservative) – when Mennonites from the United States sent missionaries to the Manitoba communities to convert them to their newly-acquired version of Christianity.

In contrast to the traditional, communal notions of salvation as understood by the Manitoba Mennonites, these Americanized Mennonites emphasized personal salvation. They called for a religious conversion of the soul, but allowed individuals to live out their civic and economic lives however they wanted, according to personal preferences, assuming these elements were largely irrelevant to one’s salvation. This stood in stark contrast to the old way of living out the faith communally.

The Manitoba Mennonites were confused by these mission attempts from their Mennonite brothers, since they had all been members of the same faith just a decade ago. As far as they could see, the Americanized Mennonites had fallen under the corrupting influence of the sinful, dominant culture. Moreover, these missionaries “were better educated, spoke a better English, and maybe even spoke a better High German, [which] gave them an advantage and put the Reinlander members and leaders on the defensive” (Friesen, 13). But the missionaries also won many converts, further accentuating conflict and divides within the churches.

As a result of these religious “attacks” from their Mennonite brothers, the Reinlander church became defensive, fearful of change, and even more suspicious of outsiders than ever before . . . attitudes which persist among Old Colony Mennonites today.

Things got worse for the Reinlander Mennonites in 1916 – two years after Canada declared war on Germany – when the Manitoba government started to push a mandatory public school system with English as the sole language of instruction, and where nationalism would be emphasized. When the Mennonites refused to comply, the government threatened them with fines and imprisonment.

That was the final straw. The Mennonites sent out a delegation to look for a new place to settle.

By 1922, the more conservative Reinlander Mennonites of Manitoba migrated to Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, in an isolated region near Chihuahua. This group of people was also known as the Old Colony.

They chose Mexico for two reasons: first, because the Mexican government was willing to allow continued private education; and second, because the location was extremely isolated and the surrounding culture was poor. This meant that the temptation to leave and assimilate would be much weaker.

Once again, as they had done in Russia, the Mennonites transformed the barren land into productive farmland.

However, the historic pattern of mass migration began to fall apart after a few decades in Mexico: economic hardships due to drought and land scarcity forced many Mexican Mennonites to undertake independent, seasonal migrations to work in Canadian agriculture. Many families made yearly trips to Southern Ontario to work (including my and my husband’s grandparents). Some ended up settling in Ontario for good.

The church leaders back in Mexico discouraged these independent migrations, and efforts were made to suppress these moves, but economic difficulties left many families no choice.

That’s where my family of origin enters into the story.

* * *

So that’s the basic history of the Old Colony Mennonites up until the most recent generation. Because this post is getting long long long, I’ll end there once again.

In my next post, I just want to briefly go over the story of the Old Colony Mennonites here in Ontario, and my place within that context. I also want to explore the other groups of Mennonites throughout North and South America and the differences between them.

(But not without a break in between, in case you folks are getting tired of history and ethnography. I’ll be interrupting with a post on another subject I hold dear: radical non-violence). Stay tuned!

* * *

Note: much of the information for this post came from the article “Reinlander Mennoniten Gemeinde” by John J. Friesen, in Old Colony Mennonites in Canada, 1875-2000. Edited by Delbert F Plett. Crossway, 2001.

Photos are from my parents’ photo albums.

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  1. somewhere in there there was also a revolution in Mexico, which i’m guessing affected things as well? maybe not. one question, is there ever a document/creed of what Mennonites believe? I know the baptists don’t have one, hence why there are like 20,000 different types (one for every church building almost), but do the Mennonites have something like a creed? or are their beliefs more dependent on tradition? it seems that most of the things that separate Mennonites from others are cultural things, not necessarily beliefs, maybe with the exception of the radical non-violence. I guess its not written down anywhere because no one could read or write?
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    • I believe the Mennonites arrived in Mexico just after the Mexican Revolution, so they just missed it.

      As for a creed, no, I’m not aware of any official one shared by all Mennonite churches. What separated Mennonites from other Christian groups was originally beliefs (non-violence, adult baptism, separation of church and state, etc), though (at least with old Colony Mennonites) it seems to have changed over time to have more of an emphasis on cultural things.

  2. Hi There, my background is Old Colony Mennonites. I enjoy your blog and other blogs from Mennonites that tell our story of “coming out”. I’ve started to blog about my embarrassment and appreciation for my Mennonite ancestors and feel your sentiment about “them” and not rely associating as fully Mennonite. One of my Great Grandfathers was one who moved from Manitoba to Mexico and then back to Saskatchewan where we live today. We had a Rheinland and Bergthaler community but have since been nearly obsolete. I recently learned why my father and a lot of kids from his generation quit public school at an early age. I always thought it was to work on the farm but apparently, the teacher would humiliate them in front of the class and were violent toward them because they couldn’t read or write well. This was similar teaching methods that Native Americans received on residential schools. So not only were they threatened with fines and jail, they were mistreated when they did try. During my childhood in the 1980’s and 90’s our church was quite liberal and I attended public school with no understanding of my heritage whatsoever and never learned Low German. In an attempt to show appreciation for my culture, we’ve moved from the city to the country in order to grow our own food and keep some livestock and live a life somewhat close to my ancestors (but with running water and amenities and vehicles and computers….and TV, and iPads:) I’m also an artist, so you can imagine how much I wanted to leave my Low German hometown as a teen. Anyway, good blog-thanks

  3. Thanks for finally talking about >Mennonite History,
    Part Two: The Old Colony Mennonites <Liked it!
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