When I began researching and writing early chapters of this history, it did not take long for the metaphor of “promised lands” to feel “right” for my major theme.
Mennonites have moved from place to place to find a better life–for safety, religious liberty or economic opportunity–throughout the almost 500 years of their history. Whether it was receding into the Swiss mountains in the 16th century, migrating to Pennsylvania in the late 17th/early 18th century, moving to Russia and Canada in the late 18th/early 19th century, or to North America and Latin America in the 20th century, Mennonites have sought more promising lands for centuries. The promised lands theme has been even more underscored in recent decades by the new language and cultural groups that have joined the Mennonite community in Ontario, coming as refugees from wars and civil conflict in many parts of the world.
Mennonites have also engaged in theological migrations, in search of greater fulfillment through new or different spiritual experiences, often to attain an “assurance of salvation,” to know that they were saved from sin and would go to heaven when they die. The pursuit of this assurance, and the means to achieve it, have divided Mennonite families, congregations, and conferences, and led many Mennonites to seek this assurance outside the Mennonite community.
This theological search brought Mennonites into contact with non-Mennonite cultures and religious perspectives. This engagement, which began in Europe, and continued steadily in North America, speaks against the common description by many authors of Mennonites as “a separate people” who resisted participation in the larger society. Indeed “the history of a separate people” was the subtitle of Frank H. Epp’s Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920. I came to see this as an over-simplified image.
A minority of Mennonites critically assessed the surrounding cultural practices and unfamiliar religious perspectives and determined the health of the Mennonite community was better preserved by maintaining boundaries that separated Mennonites from the larger culture. These boundaries were maintained through retention of a minority language (German, from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries), strict enforcement of discipline for deviations in religious and social practice, and use of visible symbols like special dress standards. The most visible of these groups are the Old Order Mennonites and the Old Order Amish.
A larger number of Mennonites tried to integrate into their Mennonite understandings some positive features that they observed in the new culture or religious worldviews they encountered. These groups came to see boundaries of separation as hindrances to Christian faithfulness; they began to assimilate into the surrounding culture, often incorporating theological understandings from neighboring renewal movements into their own expressions of faith. While retaining their Mennonite self-understanding, these Mennonites would over time become almost fully assimilated into Canadian society—no longer maintaining boundaries of language, educational pursuits, and vocational choices, retaining no visible symbols of separation in dress or the use of technology.
Some members of this majority felt the pace of assimilation was too great. Though they accepted the promised land of evangelical, or even fundamentalist, theology, they tried to retain some symbols of separation, especially in dress and the forms of media technology accepted. This became the “conservative Mennonite” movement in the mid-20th century.
Still others of the more assimilated Mennonites found their religious identification was closer to the larger evangelical Protestant world, and that distinctive Mennonite beliefs like non-participation in war were not essential to achieving the promised land of assured salvation. They left the “Mennonite” behind.
In Search of Promised Lands tries to fairly describe these many and varied searches of Ontario Mennonites, from the first immigrants who crossed the Niagara River to those congregations formed by refugees from war in the late 20th century.