Ontario Mennonites in the U.S. Context

Book jacket for the book

Book jacket for the book

I’ve now made two presentations in the United States in relation to In Search of Promised Lands. Most recently was in Harleysville, Pennsylvania at the Mennonite Heritage Center.

I discussed five surprises from my research that I thought might interest non-Canadian listeners. They were:

  1. There were a few Mennonite Loyalists who came to Canada from Pennsylvania in the late 18th century. I said I had changed my mind and now  agree that a few Mennonites who immigrated to Canada before 1790 had United Empire Loyalist sympathies.
  2. There were female Mennonite minsters in the 1880s. I mention this in almost any lecture about the book, since this was totally new to me. These were women evangelists and church planters from the Mennonite Brethren in Christ denomination.
  3. Mennonite World Conference became a mass event beginning with the 1962 assembly in Kitchener, Ontario. Twelve thousand people attended this assembly–10 times the previous record.
  4. The Low German Mennonites in Ontario have experienced rapid growth. These Mennonites, who are descendants of Russian Mennonite immigrants to Manitoba in the 1870s,  moved to Mexico in the 1920s and began to return to Canada in significant numbers in the 1950s. The Old Colony Mennonite Church is the second largest Mennonite group in Ontario, but is almost unknown in Pennsylvania.
  5. The Vietnam War greatly impacted Ontario Mennonites. Here I discussed the introduction of other cultures to the Ontario Mennonite community from refugees sponsored by Mennonite congregations beginning with the “boat people” refugees from Vietnam and Laos.

I ended by wondering if the crest of Mennonite institutions had passed, especially as assimilated Mennonites seem to be moving towards a post-denominational world. I wondered if the same phenomenon was taking place in Pennsylvania.

The attentive audience followed my presentation with many good questions. A few of them [with a short form of my response] included:

  1. Why did the Low German Mennonites in Mexico and elsewhere decide to come to Ontario? [Among other things, because seasonal work on tobacco, fruit and vegetable farms in Ontario allowed them to return to Mexico in the winter time.]
  2. How is Low German related to Pennsylvania German? [They are both German dialects that originate in different parts of modern day Germany. The Russian Mennonites took Low German with them to Russia from Northern Germany.]
  3. Did the Mennonites who escaped from the Soviet Union in the 1920s settle in Ontario? [Yes, they were one of a series of immigrations from Russia/Soviet Union. The 1870s immigrants went to western Canada, but the immigrants  following the Russian Revolution, as well as World War II refugees and immigrants during the 1960s and 1970s settled in all parts of Canada.]
  4. Has the Pennsylvania German dialect survived in Canada? [Yes, primarily among the Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish.]
  5. What was the relationship between Ontario Mennonite settlers and the aboriginal community? [The stories of the relationship depend on whether you are using Aboriginal or Settler resources; the Settlers thought things were good; the Aboriginal interpretation is more mixed.]
  6. How integrated are the Laotian and other such cultural groups into the Mennonite community? [Mennonite Church Eastern Canada is working on this, but in many cases interaction between new Mennonite cultural groups and traditional Mennonite cultural groups is limited.]
  7. What are you going to write next? [Not another project like this one. My blog and the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online will take more of my time.]

There were followup questions on some of these, and other questions I’ve failed to remember.  A number of the followups were about Low German Mennonites, who are unknown in Pennsylvania Mennonite communities. There was no comment in the question and answer period on the state of Mennonite institutions, but in multiple conversations after the event the view was expressed that Pennsylvania Mennonite institutions are facing the same issues as in Ontario.

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