The Old Colony Mennonites move to Mexico in the 1920s

On May 5 and 8, I spoke to the “Annual Networking Conference for Service Providers on Low German Speaking Families” in Leamington and Aylmer, Ontario. I gave presentations on the diversity of Mennonites in Ontario. The experience led me to focus today’s blog on a piece of the Low German Mennonite story — the departure of these Low German Mennonites from Canada in the 1920s.

The Mennonites from Russia who immigrated to Manitoba in the 1870s successfully sought assured exemption from compulsory military service from the Canadian government. They also welcomed the Canadian government’s promise that Mennonites could maintain and control their own educational system “without any molestation or restriction whatever.”

The fact that education in Canada was under provincial, not federal, control unsurprisingly escaped the attention of the new immigrants. This oversight led to major problems for these Mennonites fifty years later.

During and after World War I the provincial governments in Manitoba, and later Saskatchewan, began to supervise more strictly their public educational systems, in which many Mennonites participated.

As long as Mennonite-background school inspectors like Henry H. Ewert in Manitoba did the supervision this worked well. But in the first quarter of the twentieth century provincial educational priorities changed. World War I prompted governments to emphasize patriotism and to anglicize the school curriculum. As a result, more conservative parts of the Mennonite community began private schools for their children.

92-14-3973

Old Colony Mennonite couple leaving for Bolivia, 1968. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo, 92-14-3973

A clear majority of the 1870s immigrants in Manitoba and Saskatchewan still preferred a separatist response to the surrounding culture. Conservative Mennonite groups, including the Reinländer (popularly called “Old Colony”), Chortitzer, and Sommerfelder, comprised 80 percent of the Manitoba and Saskatchewan Mennonite population in 1901.

During World War I both Manitoba and Saskatchewan eliminated the bilingual public schools that had helped Mennonites to retain their German language. In 1918, as some Mennonite communities were shifting to private schools, the provinces began to impose public schools on the Mennonite communities. They arbitrarily reopened public schools in Mennonite areas that had utilized only private schools for years, and they built new school buildings and hired teachers over the objections of the local community. The provinces also demanded that the private schools use provincially recognized teachers and textbooks, and that instruction be in English.

The boards of Mennonite private schools that did not meet these new standards could be prosecuted. The postwar anti-German sentiment also fueled these provincial initiatives. The Mennonites pursued legal appeals, but ultimately the Privy Council in England in 1920 refused to hear them.

As provincial enforcement of the stringent new laws increased, the more separated groups planned for emigration, even as their French and Ukrainian neighbors, and many of the more assimilated Mennonites, accommodated themselves to the new educational policies. The large Reinländer church explored Argentina, Mississippi, and even the province of Quebec as settlement options before ultimately focusing on Mexico. They signed a Privilegium (a document outlining any special privileges accorded the immigrants) with the Mexican authorities in early 1921 and began purchasing land in the state of Chihuahua. Emigration started in March 1922.

Front-Cover

Leaving Canada by Rosabel Fast, a Plett Foundation publication for use in Low German Mennonite schools.

By 1926 almost two-thirds of the Manitoba Reinländer, almost 6,000, had emigrated. Additionally, and for similar reasons, about 1,800 Chortitzer and Sommerfelder Mennonites went to Paraguay and formed Menno Colony.

Life was not easy in Mexico, and the Old Colony Mennonites’ determination to retain separation through language created tensions with the indigenous Mexican population. Political unrest and the unfamiliar climate, combined with different soils and crops, also impeded their settlement. Full Mexican citizenship did not appear to be an option even if desired.

Nonetheless, some Mennonites prospered in Mexico, while others remained on the economic margins. Internal unrest led some to migrate to other Latin American countries like Honduras and Bolivia while others wanted to return to Canada.

Further unrest resulted from the arrival of evangelical Mennonite missionaries by the 1940s. The missionaries sought to improve local educational, medical, and spiritual life. The latter goal especially offended Old Colony leaders, and they excommunicated an increasing number of persons who identified with evangelical Mennonite groups. As the population grew it became more difficult to purchase land, especially for those with limited financial means. By 1975 the Mennonite population in Mexico was estimated to be 40,000, about a third of whom did not own property.

Old Colony theology contained some similarities to that of Old Order groups among the North American Amish and Mennonites, in part because their theology did not include 19th- and 20th-century evangelical theology. David Schroeder, a Canadian Mennonite theologian who grew up in a conservative Sommerfelder family, described the Old Colony and Sommerfelder view of salvation as future oriented: “I trust I will be saved,” while the view of evangelical Mennonites was past tense: “I have been saved.”

The demand for assurance of salvation and a particular conversion experience led many evangelical Christians (including many Mennonites) to intensely criticize the salvation understanding of these pre-evangelical Mennonite groups. The Old Colony and Sommerfelder Mennonites, like their Old Order religious cousins, emphasized Christian “formation” rather than conversion or education. According to Schroeder, formation meant induction into the Old Colony world.

A high level of separation from the surrounding culture was required for this approach to work successfully. The conservative groups emphasized character formation through teaching the catechism and through the telling of stories of both exemplary behavior and human folly. The church defined the boundaries of the community of faith and determined the lifestyle of its members as well as their economic, educational, and social standards. According to Schroeder, the conservative groups usually maintained the use of Low German to separate them from the surrounding culture.

The story of the Old Colony has continued to the present, with many returning to Canada (including Ontario) in the second half of the 20th century.

To learn more about the Old Colony Mennonites and other Low German Mennonite groups, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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