Mennonites and Me: An Introduction

mennonite children mexico

A Mennonite is exactly like a Catholic . . . with half the dancing and twice the guilt.

– Matt Falk, comedian

Mennonites are the only group of people without blood on their hands.

– Gregory Boyd, (non-Mennonite) pastor

I spent the early years of my life trying to hide the fact that I was Mennonite. “Mennonite,” in my home town, was synonymous with “poor,” “smelly,” “uncool,” and “uneducated.”

The other Mennonite kids who came and went in my little rural school didn’t speak English well. The girls had long, long hair done up in tight braids and they wore weird dresses. The boys wore ill-fitting homemade pants that didn’t reach their shoes. None of them smelled very nice, and none of them stayed for very long. They were always on the move, migrating back and forth between Leamington, my home town, and the Mennonite colonies in Mexico.

As I got older, I began to equate my heritage with ignorance. Conservative Mennonites are suspicious of government-funded education, and many can’t read or write. I found this embarrassing as I excelled in public school and wanted no association with these uneducated, simple folks.

I also associated my culture with mindless conformity: the conservative Mennonites in my town all dressed alike and insisted on speaking their native Low German, refusing to learn the larger culture’s language.

It was also associated, in my mind, with oppression. Mennonite culture is, historically, exceedingly patriarchal, with a strong emphasis on female submission.

Naturally, with all of these associations, I wanted to separate myself from my heritage as much as possible.

It wasn’t until I entered university that I started to feel differently about my cultural background. Folks were fascinated when they heard that I was Mennonite. They were captivated by my stories of working on the field as a child, or how my mother was publicly chastised for bearing me out of wedlock. They wanted to know all about my childhood. Did we have electricity growing up? Did we celebrate the same holidays as other Christians? What did I eat growing up? What did I wear?

And what exactly was a Mennonite, anyway?

Most of my schoolmates had seen the women around town with their headscarves, surrounded by herds of children in matching floral dresses and homemade pants. But no one had ever had the chance to talk to a Mennonite, or to see the inside of an Old Colony church. What exactly did Mennonites believe in? And what exactly was our connection to the Amish?

The difficulty I had in answering that question – What is a Mennonite? – forced me to acknowledge what a complex cultural history I have.

old colony mennoniteIn more recent years, I’ve come to discover that the Mennonite faith and culture are very complicated. There are conservative Mennonites and there are liberal Mennonites. There are cultural Mennonites who grew up milking cows and making wareneki, and others who have converted in adulthood to embrace the tenets of the Mennonite faith. In some regions the term “Mennonite” means “poor, illiterate farmer;” in others, it means “radical pacifist.”

And more recently, as I’ve learned more and more about my heritage, I’ve begun to come home to my roots. Not to the dresses or the language or the patriarchy, but the actual roots of my faith. I’ve fallen in love with some of the most beautiful parts of my heritage and have come to embrace them fully. One might even say I’ve grown to be proud of my cultural inheritance, except that humility is an essential Mennonite virtue. (So I’ll just say I’m pleased.)

Since the term “Mennonite” is so nebulous and so alien to most readers, I thought I’d take a few posts to explain what this diverse culture is all about.

First, I want to briefly go over Mennonite history, starting with the first Anabaptists, to help explain why Mennonites are so diverse and so far-ranging. (If you’re an Old Colony Mennonite, chances are you don’t know this history yourself, since your parents and grandparents probably can’t read and don’t know themselves).

Then I want to focus on the Old Colony Mennonites – a very distinct subgroup — who are my ancestors.

Finally, I want to look at Mennonites today, and my relationship to this diverse group of people. I want to highlight the aspects of the faith that I most enthusiastically embrace – namely, our historical commitment to non-violence, peacemaking, and simple living.

Please join me as I explore the history of Mennonites!

The History of the Mennonites, Part One: From Reformation Europe to Russia

The History of the Mennonites, Part Two: The Old Colony

An Overview of (a few) Mennonite Groups

(Corrected) Note on images: the first photo is of my mother’s cousins. It was taken in Mexico in the 1970’s, but the dress is still identical today in many communities.

The second is of my paternal grandmother, taken in Manitoba in the 80’s.

PLEASE DO NOT USE MY PICTURES WITHOUT PERMISSION.

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Comments

  1. I am really excited for this series! I am very curious about the Mennonites, yet know nothing about the culture/religion whatsoever. So interested to learn more.
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  2. PepperReed says:

    Oh!! This will be interesting! I’ll hope you’ll answer all the questions I’ve been too polite to ask. :^)

    As a ‘convinced’ Quaker, it think seeing the overlap among the traditional Peace Churches is very interesting. Much of what you are embracing about your Faith and culture are what attracted me to my Quaker faith.

    I also have a ‘Mennonite’ colleague (and have known others); he is a practicing Methodist, as he married a Catholic (against his parents wishes) and they had to find some middle ground. He’s a nice man, but sometimes I see some of his behaviors (guilt) and think ‘you can take the boy out of the Mennonites but you can’t take the Mennonite out of the boy!’ I’m looking forward to your posts.

    • PepperReed:please ask any questions you may have, and I’ll do my best to answer them! Although I will admit up front that my knowledge is mostly limited to the Old Colony Mennonites.

  3. Ooo, I love history! This should be interesting! I live in Indiana now which has a large population of Amish, but in Missouri where I grew up there are lots of Mennonites. I was always so confused by them though, because they dress like Amish, and kind of live like them, but they drive and carry iPhones. There was a family of Mennonites at Chipotle once all getting free burritos with a Facebook promo on their phones. It was quite an interesting site!

  4. Another reader here who knows nothing about Mennonites except for long hair and skirts. I’m looking forward to this series to learn more about the heritage and your own experience!
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  5. I’ve always wanted to learn more about Mennonites. My first exposure to Mennonites was while studying at Seattle Pacific University (a Methodist university, oddly enough), where a number of my sociology professors were Mennonites. They were (are) fascinating, highly educated folks who were passionate about social justice and Jesus. Cool. Then, I’ve had a number of friends who have served with the Mennonite Central Committee. Also cool. And then I started following your blog. Also cool. So to me, Mennonite equals cool. But I’m excited to gain a more informed perspective.

  6. Wow, the first picture could totally be from a compo in Mexico today! Some Mennonites are not smelly though, I remember visiting homes of relatives in Mexico that smelled of soap, but yes, some are and it is too bad. SOmeone told me once that the old colony Mennonites didn’t wash all week, but the whole household bathes (separately) on Saturday night to prepare for Sunday. The same people also thought that deodorant was sinful and vanity, so they refrained. It is hard to imagine that in Europe waaay back when, the smell of the natural body was supposed to be a turn on. Was this in France? Also, I think not!

    • Haha, Eva! I probably should have clarified that a big reason many of my Mennonite classmates didn’t smell the best was because they were so poor. Many Mennonites going back and forth between Leamington and Mexico were doing so to survive. They would often have 10 kids in a two-bedroom house. . . . It’s hard to keep everyone smelling like roses when you’re trying to keep them alive in such cramped and poor living conditions. The once-a-week bathing and disdain for deodorant can be contributing factors too, of course. But you’re right — most Mennonite families are actually incredibly clean. I usually associate them with the smell of laundry detergent.

  7. Josh Mehler says:

    Kathleen:
    I’m really looking forward to this series as well. As a former (but eternal) Leamingtonian, Mennonites were everywhere (my neighbours, my classmates), but there was/is certainly a distinct cultural (and, of course, economic) separation between Mennonites and the rest of the community. Plus the language divide frequently prevented any substantial cross-cultural dialogue to amend this. I really am looking forward to learning more…

    Best,
    J

  8. I’ve been reading up on Mennonites a little in the last 2 days in anticipation. I can’t wait for this series!

  9. What cute pictures!

    I had never thought about the aspect of language in Mennonite culture, as I assumed the Mennonites I saw in Pennsylvania only spoke English. It’s really interesting how the Low German language is still preserved and an important part of the culture. Growing up, I attended a Greek Orthodox Church every Easter (we went to the Protestant church the rest of the year), where the Greek language—a language I did not speak—was the one used for sermons. The language barrier created not just a spiritual learning barrier but also had negative emotional effects on my feelings toward not fitting into the culture. I had to rely on the art of the church, the beautiful mosaics and icons that spoke no literal language, to impart wisdom to me since I could not understand the words of the priest.
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  10. I am Old Colony Mennonite and I’m very excited about reading your blog which I just came across.

  11. i love that you wrote this! i confess, after hearing you were a mennonite i may or may not have done a wikipedia search to learn more about what a mennonite actually was :) but you explain it so much better, obviously! i was pretty confused.
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  12. Hi, I stumbled across your site while researching the Mennonite faith. I had a mennonite babysitter when I was 6 – 8 and a group of her ladies in the church would lay me on the diningroom table and rub oil on my legs and arms and sing, chant and rub my legs and arms.

    I’ve come to realize that this practice is known as the laying of the hands. I was a sickly kid so I guess they were praying for my health. Do you know more about this practice and how it is done.

    Thanks, S

    • Hi, Sharon! I’m afraid I’m not familiar with this practice, though it sounds really nice. I’m guessing this group of Mennonites was from a different subgroup than mine. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful!

  13. Amy Quiring says:

    I love this! I did a random search for my last name (Quiring) and came upon the blog. :) It’s so fun to find someone else who actually knows about the Mennonite history! I didn’t grow up in the Mennonite church (although we stayed at my grandparents’ for enough weekends that we almost made the Sunday School roll list) and my family is Russian Mennonite that settled in the US, so a different branch than yours, but still related. :) Mennonite history fascinates me, I love learning more about my ancestors and their beliefs, it makes me make more sense to myself (if that’s not the most convoluted sentence ever!).

  14. Olivia Driedger says:

    Hi! Thanks for sharing – I was born and raised in the Tillsonburg/Langton area, and this blog could have been picked out of my brain! I had the same experiences of going away after high school and from there answering curious folks’ questions on how my background is different from Amish, and whether it’s a religion or a culture. Looking forward to reading more :)

  15. Hi Kathleen; thank you for doing this research. I felt very much the same growing up as a Mennonite kid not proud of my culture. However, I’ve grown to accept it and am only now at age 40 starting to research my heritage. My mother is 77 and still wears the traditional dress and head scarf. Her first language is low-German and we were all raised speaking German at home but went to public school in South Western Ontario. I’m 11 of 13 children and most of my siblings were born in Mexico before the family migrated to Ontario. We grew up on a farm where we had animals and gardens to tend to. The picture you posted of your grandmother looks so much like my mother milking the cow many years ago. Again, thanks for the research and i look forward to reading more!

  16. This is so interesting…. I am South African, settled in the Tennessee Valley, and we have a Mennonite community about 40 minutes from us. We have been buying some vegetables from them, and my husband has become friendly with the one man, and we were invited to their home this past week. It was so inspirational to see their lifestyle up close! We were so honored that they opened their home to us. We live on about 11 acres of land, have a garden, chickens, goats, pigs and calves. I don’t have dishwasher and line dry our laundry. Every summer I can veggies and jellies, but after seeing their root cellar, and fields, we are newly inspired to become self sufficient. AND, the best of all, we mostly understand each other when they speak German and we speak Afrikaans! I think not being American, we are not quite so spoiled with all the modern conveniences, and relate to the culture of simpler living.

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