The Diversity of Mennonites in Ontario

In my presentations on May 5 and 8 to the “Annual Networking Conference for Service Providers to Low German Speaking Families” in Leamington and Aylmer, Ontario. I talked about the diversity of Mennonites in Ontario. I said there were over 30 different Mennonite groups in Ontario, and tried to explain it in 25 minutes.

David Martin Mennonites working the fields

David Martin Mennonites working the fields. Photo by Mark Burr

Since the audience was half or more non-Mennonite, I first gave a little historical background, and talked about four Mennonite characteristics upon which almost all Mennonites in Ontario agree: 1) Adult baptism; 2) Rejection of participating in war; 3) Refusing to swear oaths; and 4) A call to live a Christian life consistent with the teachings of Jesus that sometimes means a simpler lifestyle. The last characteristic has led some groups to embrace visible symbols of separation from the world in dress, technology, education and vocation.

I then said that most Ontario Mennonites descend from one of six migrations to Canada, though there have been new voices added to the Mennonite mix over the years, from intermarriage,  from conversion, and most recently from incorporation of refugee groups into the Mennonite community. These migrations explained some of the Mennonite diversity; division on theological issues within the individual migrations has also contributed to the diversity.

The six migrations I reviewed were:

  1. Pennsylvania Mennonites from 1786 to the 1830s, primarily in search of cheaper land, and encompassing some 2,000 people over the years.
  2. Amish Mennonites from Europe (with a few from Pennsylvania) beginning in the 1820s, in order to escape the economic problems of post-Napoleonic Europe and to find cheaper land. These folks numbered less than 1,000.
  3. Mennonites from Russia in the 1870s who feared the loss of their privileges of self-government, freedom from military service, and control of the education of their youth. Seven thousand of these Mennonites came to Manitoba, with the assistance of the Ontario Mennonites, who provided loans, guaranteed a government loan, and housed over winter those who arrived in the fall. Some of these Mennonites left for Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s when the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments tried to force acculturation through the public school system. Some of these folks returned as part of migration 6 below.
  4. Twenty thousand Mennonites from the Soviet Union came to Canada in the 1920s in
    Refugees walking up Erb Street.

    Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union approaching Erb Street Mennonite Church, July, 1924. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

    the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the beginning of communist domination. Fifteen percent of these folks settled in Ontario, and brought different customs, different foods, different names, and a very different history to the Ontario Mennonite world. They had little to do with the descendants of migrations 1 & 2 until World War II.

  5. The fifth immigration included Mennonites from the Soviet Union who had been displaced by the World War II, and had retreated with the German army when it left the Soviet Union.  There were only 12,000 out of 100,000 Mennonites remaining in the Soviet Union who were able to leave for Canada or to South America. About 1300 of these people came to Ontario between 1947 and 1952.
  6. The sixth migration was that of Low German Mennonites from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, beginning in the 1950s. The largest group among them were the Old Colony Mennonites. These \were the descendants of the Mennonites who moved from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s. This was the largest Mennonite migration to Ontario that has ever occurred. Canada became an attractive alternative to economic difficulties in Latin America, because many Low German Mennonites still had Canadian citizenship, or were able to reclaim citizenship because their parents or grandparents were Canadian citizens.By the mid-1990s the Low German Mennonite population in Ontario was between 25,000 and 30,000. By 2011, Mennonite Central Committee Ontario was using a number of “over 40,000.”  There has been no Mennonite immigration to Ontario quite like it. In 2012 Low German Mennonites made up at least 25 percent of the Mennonite population in Ontario.

I then talked about the theological variants among the Mennonites that I used in my book, In Search of Promised Lands: 1) Assimilated; 2) Separatist Conservatives; 3) Evangelical Conservatives; and 4) Old Order Amish and Mennonites. That’s a complex discussion I’m not sure worked very well in the presentation, or would work in a short blog.

If I do this kind of presentation again, I would likely add a seventh migration: the non-English economic and refugee migrant groups that have joined the assimilated Mennonite world since the late 1970s. Probably 15-20 languages are used in assimilated Ontario Mennonite churches on Sunday mornings.

To learn more, read In Search of Promised Lands.

One thought on “The Diversity of Mennonites in Ontario

  1. Thanks, Sam. Great work as always. I hope you remain aware what an important service this is that you offer.

    Like

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