Observing Advent (Literally): Notes from a Watchful Mennonite

This time of year, I always envy my Catholic brothers and sisters a little bit.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Mennonite heritage. I really do. I warmly and enthusiastically embrace the teachings of my forebears. I feel both affection and reverence for the culture I inherited. I honour my courageous predecessors, who made many great sacrifices — often their lives — for what they believed in. I am so grateful for my faith.

But like all denominations, we have a few areas where we lack.

One notable area: we don’t know how to celebrate.

As many of you know, I grew up in the Old Colony Mennonite Church. Mennonites celebrate everything the EXACT SAME WAY. For births, deaths, marriages, and all holidays, you do the following:

  • Stay home from work/school
  • Gather at the church building (where no decoration of any sort is ever allowed)
  • Sit down in pews, sing some mournful-sounding hymns from the Gesangbuch without instrumental accompaniment, and silently listen to a meditation
  • If it’s a REALLY special occasion, like a wedding or a funeral, you go downstairs after the service to eat some bread and butter and drink some coffee. If the family celebrating/grieving is fancy, there might be jam, soup, Kool-Aid, or even a cake.

In my experience, Mennonites will ALWAYS also get together with the extended family at some point and eat a lot of food. In order to accommodate gatherings with all sides of the family, Mennonites have one or two additional holidays tacked onto the end of each major holiday (Christmas and Easter), just for getting together. Families are always enormous (a gathering of more than 40 men, women and children in one building is not at all unusual), so these are very noisy, crowded affairs.

One cool thing about Old Colony Mennonites is that they (we?) do observe many of the lesser-known holidays of the Christian year, like Three Kings’ Day (a.k.a Epiphany), Pentecost, and Ascension Day. But only in the way described above, which is, to me, less cool.

Most Canadian and American Mennonites, as they become more acculturated, quickly drop these additional holidays, though, until they’re left with only two holy days a year, like the rest of Americanized Christianity: Christmas and Easter.

Two extra days a year on which to go to church and get together with family.


* * *

To my understanding, most contemporary Evangelical churches aren’t all that much better at celebrating holy days. Switch out the mournful hymns for some upbeat worship music featuring electric guitar; switch out the bread-and-butter for canned-cream-soup-based casseroles and sweets.

I happen to live in the covergence between these two subcultures — Mennonite and Evangelical.

When you combine the two, you end up with only two holidays a year. And you’re left with virtually no traditions to live by. No liturgy, no rituals, no special services. (And definitely no dancing.)

I feel an emptiness in my life as a result.

For that reason, I would LOVE to experience a return to the Christian year.

Enter Advent.

For a few years now, I have felt a growing longing to observe the Liturgical Year. I would love to mark the passing of time with feast days, celebrations, special prayers, and other rituals to bring the spiritual back into my everyday life.

I’m particularly interested in observing the season of Advent.

But I’ve never gotten around to it.

I have two major obstacles facing me to observing the Liturgical Year:

(a) I have no community in which to celebrate. It’s hard to celebrate in isolation. The Church Year was meant to be observed in community.

(b) I’m completely new to it, not having grown up with it; and I find the whole thing quite overwhelming. It represents a whole new way of thinking about the passing of time.

I wanted to observe Advent this year. But I just felt so overwhelmed by the whole thing.

We didn’t have a lot of materials needed to make things like a cool Advent calendar, and I didn’t do enough research on things like an Advent wreath. Lydia’s too young to understand or appreciate any holiday festivities, and Ben has absolutely no interest. He has even less experience with traditions, and has read nothing on the subject. He hardly knows what I’m talking about when I try to bring up celebrating Advent. It just isn’t something that’s ever entered his consciousness.

My family had almost no Christmas traditions, beyond decorating a tree and exchanging gifts. I had very little to draw from in my own history.

After doing some research, asking around, and scrolling through some favourite blogs, though, I did sit down one evening and try to come up with a list of holiday-related activities to do this December.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Watch the town’s Santa Claus parade
  • string popcorn garland to decorate the house with
  • watch The Nativity Story
  • watch cheesy claymation Christmas specials (can you believe I have NEVER watched a single one of these films?)
  • bake bread and deliver it personally to all my neighbours, whom I have never met
  • Keep an empty manger under the Christmas tree. Then put a baby Jesus in it on Christmas Eve, so that he’s there for the kid(s) to find on Christmas morning — the best gift of all!
  • On December first, plant some grass or wheat. Nurture it throughout the Advent season. Then, on Christmas Eve, cut the grass it and lay it out in the manger for the baby Jesus to sleep on (who will appear Christmas morning).

I was kind of disappointed with my list when all was said and done.

First off, most of the items I came up with aren’t particularly spiritual. And the whole manger/grass/baby Jesus thing has yet to happen . . . I didn’t get around to building a manger, finding grass seed, or finding a place/container to plant the grass into.

I was very interested in doing a Jesse Tree, but failed to muster the energy needed to put it together and put it into practice since Lydia’s still too young to understand.

I still intend to bake bread for the neighbours . . . I’m starting to believe it’s SO IMPORTANT to know your neighbours. I’ve never known any of my neighbours, so it’s going to be a stretch for me, but I want to make it happen.

But for the most part, I have a feeling that this will be the year that I will be observing Advent in the most literal sense: I’ll be watching.

I’m paying attention to how other families do it.

My excellent friend Molly from Molly Makes Do is hosting a Blog Hop this Advent season, where bloggers are invited to share their holiday practices. You can bet I’m all over that, reading and absorbing and taking notes.

Most of the contributors are Catholic, naturally. I think that’s fantastic. I am excited to learn from them, to be inspired by them. They have some wonderful things to teach us Mennonites and evangelicals about celebrating holy days.

I may try to incorporate some of their ideas this year, but most will probably go onto a list for next year.

So that’s my Advent this year. What about you? What are you planning? Do you observe the Liturgical Year? Do you wish you did things differently?


Mennonites and Me: Some Final Reflections

This is the final post in my series, What is a Mennonite? which began here. I discussed the history of the first Mennonites, followed by the history of the Old Colony Mennonites. I then explored some of the different groups of Mennonites. Finally, I want to wrap up the history of the Old Colony Mennonites and my place within the group, and offer some final reflections on my relationship to the Mennonites.

Old Colony MennonitesI left off in my history of the Old Colony Mennonites with my parents’ generation:  starting in the 1960’s, drought and economic hardships in Mexico made it difficult for many Mennonite families to flourish. As a result, many were forced to make seasonal migrations to Southern Ontario (and elsewhere) to work in agriculture. Both my and my husband’s parents spent their early years negotiating lives between Mexico and Ontario (and for my mom, Texas and Manitoba as well). Finally, they put down roots here in Leamington, Ontario, to raise their kids. Their journey towards acculturation had begun.

[I feel like I need to clarify: both sets of parents (i.e. mine and Ben’s) are fully bilingual, speaking Low German and English, though none of our parents are excellent writers in any language as a result of inconsistent education. Ben’s mom only learned to speak English in her adulthood. My mom is an avid reader of fiction.]

Though many Old Colony Mennonites continue to circumvent the school system, believing that public education corrupts, Ben and I, along with all of our siblings, went through public school here in Ontario. There are lots and lots of other Mennonites just like us.

I grew up attending Old Colony church services on Sundays, though, where everyone wore dark colors and sang in unison from the Gesangbuch and the men sat on one side while the women sat on the other. I went through Sunday school starting at five years old and managed not to learn a lick of German after six full years, even though it was the only language spoken there.

baby with calfI started working on the field with my family as a child, picking beans, tomatoes and peppers during the summer and apples one fall when the teachers went on strike. Seventy-five percent of our earnings went towards paying family bills, which I was told (and believed) was a pretty good deal for us – my parents had grown up giving ninety percent to their families.

I was taught that as a girl, wearing pants and cutting my hair were sinful, though we did both anyway.

But otherwise, I grew up like a pretty normal Canadian kid.

* * *

I have such a complicated relationship with the Old Colony Mennonites.

(You can probably relate to a lot of this if you’re a fully-acculturated Canadian or American with any kind of distinct socio-religio-ethnic background. For example, I have a feeling there are plenty of North American Jews, Muslims and Mormons out there with similar feelings and experiences).

I still identify myself as a Mennonite, even though I don’t exhibit any of the characteristics of my ancestors: I’m a university-educated, (somewhat) fashion-conscious, artistic, feminist blogger. Blogger! You can hardly stray any further from the traditional Mennonite way of life. I can’t speak Low German, I don’t cover my head or “submit” to my husband, and I can’t recite the Fibel or the Kerchism – the two central texts of the Old Colony Mennonite faith. In fact, I don’t really hold onto most of the core Mennonite values any more. The Evangelical Mennonite church I attend doesn’t have anything especially Mennonite about it. Most Old Colony Mennonites would say that I am no longer one of them.

I’m enough of an outsider to be able to refer to the Old Colony Mennonites as “them” rather than “us,” but I’m enough of an insider to feel defensive when others criticize them. (Only I’m allowed to point to their shortcomings).

But I can’t deny the influence my cultural background has had on me.

There are the little things. Like the fact that I don’t wear jewelry, after a lifetime of being taught that jewelry is a “sin.” Or the fact that I consider a family of four or five children to be “medium-sized.” Or the fact that I’m still unreasonably uncomfortable in “worldly” settings like bars, theatres, and public pools, even though I’ve been to plenty in my adulthood. Or the fact that I will never, ever work on the Sabbath.

Like a good Mennonite, I’m also guarded and suspicious of outsiders, I have a hard time making non-Mennonite friends, and I’m distrustful of technological advancements.

I’m equally frustrated with and proud of my people.

The Old Colony Church has hurt me and my family in many ways. I am well-acquainted with their shortcomings. I am frustrated by many aspects of their value system and way of life – namely, their systematic subjugation of women, their general lack of warmth, their lack of intellectualism, and the absence of art and beauty in their daily lives, to name a few.

At the same time, I’m proud of their perseverance through poverty and persecution, and the courage it must have taken to seek out wildly unfamiliar locales to settle in order to protect their precious way of life.

I’m deeply impressed with the Mennonites’ longstanding commitment to nonconformity — their refusal to bow down to cultural pressures to dress a certain way or accumulate wealth. I’m in awe of their fierce loyalty to their understanding of the Scriptures.

Moreover, whenever I hear about the atrocities that white people have committed throughout history and across the globe, I’m glad I can say, “Thank God my people weren’t a part of that.” My ancestors truly are one of the very few European groups not guilty of massive bloodshed. I am so proud of our long history of nonviolence and voluntary suffering.

I’m also grateful for the industriousness and self-sufficiency that were passed onto me. I’m delighted with the skills I inherited: as a born-and-raised Mennonite, I knew how to pluck, gut, and dress a chicken carcass by the time I was an adolescent. I was making strawberry jam and preparing stews by the age of ten. I grew up in a culture that knows how to raise a dozen kids on a single, tiny income. My husband, likewise, can build anything from a shed to a kitchen cabinet without any formal training.

children calfI’m so grateful for my upbringing. I’m glad that I started working on the field when I was eleven, and that I was required to surrender most of my income to my family until I hit university. It taught me to be extra-frugal, and it taught me the importance of every member contributing to the family ecosystem.

I wouldn’t trade my heritage for anything.

* * *

As I’ve researched and meditated on my ancestors’ history, I can’t help feeling a little guilty. They worked so hard to preserve their way of life so they could pass it on to their children. They made so many sacrifices to protect one of their greatest values: the freedom to educate their own children. They laboured to protect their descendants from the corrupting forces of the world, especially as manifested in the world’s education programs, which taught conformity, competition, and nationalism. And here I am now, a product of the public school system.

They worked so hard to protect me from the kind of person I’ve become.

* * *

chihuahua mexicoI sympathize with what the Mennonites were trying to do by isolating themselves. I often long for the same thing and have a similar impulse: to run far away from the dehumanizing effects of consumer culture. I agree wholeheartedly with their desire to remain set apart, and share their suspicion of modernization with its inevitable links to consumerism and materialism.

But at the same time, I realize that you can’t ever be fully out of this world. God put us on this world, amidst other people, for a reason. We are called to be a peculiar people, but we still need to engage the rest of the world. We can’t run away forever.

* * *

So that’s where I currently stand in relation to the Mennonites. I am one of them, but not quite. I am fond of them, though they’ve made my life difficult at times. They are a hard-working, obstinate, fascinating group of people.

I can’t stand them. I love them.


Photo Credits:

#1: My husband’s parents (the cuddling couple — awwww), his aunt (in the matching dress), and one of their friends. 1979.

#2: My little sister with the family calf. Leamington, Ontario, 1988.

#3: My aunt and uncle on their wedding day. 1972. (Yes, that is her wedding dress).

#4: Me and my younger sister with the family calf, Leamington, 1988.

#5: Mexican landscape, Chihuahua Mexico (where the Old Colony Mennonites settled in the 1920’s). Taken by my parents, 1980’s.

An Overview of (a few) Mennonite Groups

Note: this post is part of a series entitled What is a Mennonite? It began with me exploring my place in the Mennonite culture, and went on to look at the history of the Mennonites.

You guys: I was totally going to create an outline of all of the major groups of Mennonites in North America. I thought I had a rough idea of all the general divisions and distribution of Mennonites out there. But the more I researched, the more different groups I came across, each with its own distinct characteristics and history.

I didn’t even know there had already been Mennonites in North America for several decades (including the Amish) before my ancestors from Russia showed up. I didn’t know there were so many subgroups of Amish, either, or that there were so many Mennonites in Ethiopia and the Congo. Who knew?

I realized that I can’t possibly do a full overview of the Mennonites without getting really academic and boring.

But I can begin by telling you what most Mennonites have in common:

All of the various Mennonite groups have their origins in Europe — particularly Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands — and were the Anabaptist followers of Menno Simons.  So most Mennonites have some kind of German/Swiss/Dutch background. Some moved to North America directly from Germany and Switzerland in the early 18th-century, while others arrived later from Russia and Poland. More Russian Mennonites migrated a few decades later. In other words, Mennonites arrived in North America in waves, at different times and from different places, bringing with them their own distinct dialects, cultures, and religious traditions. They have many similarities, though.

Before that, in 1527, the Swiss-South German and the Dutch-North German movements found they had many things in common, and decided to write up a statement of faith known as the Schletheim Confession. It focused on the following things:

1. Voluntary, adult baptism

2. Excommunication for unrepentant church members

3. Communion shared by all believers

4. Separation from the world

5. Rejection of violence, choosing to suffer rather than cause others to suffer

6. Forbidding the swearing of oaths*

Today, most Mennonite groups continue to adhere to these pillars of their faith to varying degrees. For example, some remain physically separated from the world in isolated communities, while others practice less extreme forms of nonconformity.

Why So Many Kinds of Mennonites?

I’ve been pondering the reasons there are so many subgroups of Mennonites, and I’ve come to the following theory:

Because Mennonites have traditionally lived separately from the world (see #4, above), generally in small, isolated communities all over the globe, they have always had to deal with the question of acculturation: how much should they allow the surrounding culture to influence and shape them? The reason there are so many subgroups of Mennonites is largely because different members have come to different conclusions on this matter. Divisions always seem to center around how important it is to preserve the old way of life and to remain distinct from the surrounding culture.

There are always some Mennonites who feel it is essential to preserve their traditional ways, while others are more accepting of certain cultural changes (including modernization). Then there are always Mennonites within the group who think they have already come too far, and feel the need to go back to their more conservative ways. And because Mennonites tend to adhere to notions of collective salvation, where the salvation of the group depends on the obedience of every member, they have constantly had to reorganize and form new groups wherein every member agrees about how to live life together.

So here are just a few of the major subgroups of the more conservative Mennonites.


The Amish are a subgroup of the Mennonite faith. The founder was Jakob Ammann, a Swiss Mennonite leader, who felt Mennonites were drifting from Menno Simons’ original teachings. He felt the faith community had become too lax with church discipline practices, particularly that of excommunication. In 1693 his followers withdrew from the larger Mennonite community and started their own church.

Amish Mennonites began migrating from Switzerland and southwestern Germany to Pennsylvania in the early eighteenth century. They remain mostly concentrated in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, though they have also spread to neighbouring states and even into Ontario.

Within the Amish, there are two major subgroups – those who identify themselves and Amish Mennonites, and those who identify themselves as Old Order Amish. Within these subgroups are many different orders, and within these orders are many different communities, all varying slightly in their faith practices (including dress, transportation, and use of technologies). For this reason, no summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be totally sufficient, because there are few generalities that are true for all Amish, though they remain recognizable by their simple dress and rejection of modern technologies to varying degrees.

Old Colony/Reinland Mennonites (i.e. Kathleen’s people)

The Old Colony is a subgroup of the most conservative Mennonites who emigrated from Russia to Manitoba in 1874, and later from Manitoba to Mexico in 1922 (I wrote extensively about them here). Unlike Old Order Mennonites (below), the Old Colony Mennonites are made up of those Mennonites who were always the most conservative. They have also always tended to be less educated and the least acculturated.

They are recognizable by their distinct type of dress and their continued use of the Low German language in their homes.

Conservative Mennonites

I just learned that there is an official conference of churches known as the Conservative Mennonites (to which the Old Colony does not belong). They are made up of conservative minorities scattered throughout Mennonite communities across North America who joined together between 1958 and 1960. They felt the mainstream Mennonites were drifting from their original traditions and launched an independent conference.

Old Older Mennonites

This is another subgroup made up of conservative minorities across North America – like the Conservative Mennonites above – who felt Mennonites were straying from the original path. They joined together as one brotherhood between 1872-1901, though there is no formal organization. They, too, tend to be recognizable by their distinctive dress (which is different still from that of the Amish and the Old Colony Mennonites).

Evangelical Mennonites

Where I live in southern Ontario, there are huge – and growing – numbers of Evangelical Mennonites, which is an oxy-moron if I ever heard one. (Evangelicals and Mennonites have historically approached the gospel in dramatically different ways). These Mennonites generally come from an Old Colony or Russian Mennonite background, but have been intensely influenced by Evangelical faith and culture. They are basically indistinguishable from other Evangelical Christian groups, dressing and speaking and living just like other church-going Canadians, except for the lingering vestiges of Mennonite self-loathing and a tendency not to pursue higher education (though this is changing in recent years, too).

(I also have to note that I currently attend an Evangelical Mennonite church.)

* * *

Apart from these more recognizable groups, there is a huge range of different kinds of Mennonites all across North America. They tend to be recognizable by their commitment to non-violence and passion for social justice, but are different from each other in almost every other way.

Before I leave the subject of Mennonites, I feel the need to highlight the Mennonite Central Committee, mostly because this organization makes me so dang proud to be a Mennonite. (Oops . . . there’s that pride again). I had never even heard of MCC until I reached high school, but now, my husband and I are passionate supporters.

MCC a worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches committed to alleviating human suffering. They place an emphasis on disaster relief, sustainable community development, justice, and peacebuilding. According to their mission statement, their purpose is to “share God’s love and compassion for all in the name of Christ by responding to basic human needs and working for peace and justice.” MCC does so much awesome stuff, carrying out the longstanding Mennonite commitments to nonviolence, community, and peacemaking. Some of the more conservative Mennonite groups don’t support MCC because of their openness to people of other religions, but that just makes me love them more.

So I hope that was helpful!

Do you have any remaining questions about Mennonites? I’d be happy to answer them as best as I can!

* * *

P.S. I haven’t forgotten (though you probably have) that I promised to talk a little more about the Old Colony Mennonites and where I fit in to all of it. It’s just such a huge proejct, I haven’t completed it yet. A post is in the works!


 *The information about the Schletheim Confession comes from Victor D. Kliewer’s The Mennonites in Essex and Kent Counties, Ontario. The Essex-Kent Mennonite Historical Association, 1997.
Photo credits: The first (black-and-white) photo comes from my mom’s photo album, circa 1976.
The Amish buggy photo is courtesy of Cindy47452.
The Old Colony Mennonite couple is my husband’s aunt and uncle — Mexico, 1970’s.

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.

Mennonite History, Part One: From Reformation Europe to Russia

(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.

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.


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