The Evangelical Mennonite Conference comes to Ontario

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference has a long history reaching back to the early days of Mennonite life in Russia. In 1812 in the Molotschna Mennonite settlement, a division took place between Klaas Reimer, who had been a minister in Danzig, and a new church Ältester (bishop), Jacob Enns, who apparently was arbitrary and inconsistent in church discipline, came into conflict with local Mennonite civil authorities, and was thought to have a weak spiritual life.

Reimer believed the church did not discipline its members adequately and that moral standards in the Mennonite community were low. Reimer and a like-minded minister in the Chortitza colony began to hold separate services and refused to participate in communion services at the main Mennonite churches.

In 1815 Reimer was chosen by lot by his followers to be an Ältester, but he was not ordained until 1817. Reimer’s group, because it was so small, was known derisively as the Kleine Gemeinde (small church), as distinguished from the Grosze Gemeinde (large church).

The Kleine Gemeinde remained small, and faced many struggles because the local government officials and the Grosze Gemeinde worked jointly in discipline and punishment. The emergence of the Mennonite Brethren as a Pietist renewal group in the 1860s provided the Kleine Gemeinde with more legitimacy as the Russian Mennonite religious community became more pluralistic. Nonetheless, the Kleine Gemeinde went through its own significant conflict in the 1860s, and members of the Kleine Gemeinde helped to form another group that became the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren.

As was the case with the other Mennonite groups in Russia, when the government in the 1870s threatened to eliminate military exemption as part of its desire to Russianize the Mennonites and other foreign colonists, the Kleine Gemeinde became part of the Mennonite migration to North America. About two hundred families were part of the 1870s migration; over 80 percent of the Kleine Gemeinde families settled in Manitoba.

In 1948 recurring concerns about spiritual faithfulness in modern North American society led about one hundred families to immigrate to Mexico under Kleine Gemeinde Ältester Peter Reimer in search of less troubled theological lands. Some of their concerns included increasing use of wedding dresses, use of musical instruments in the churches, and use of tobacco.

The emigrants also wanted to maintain control of their children’s education, and, in the postwar era, they had concerns about the security of their exemption from military service in Canada. It was this group that joined the search for a Mennonite “promised land” in Mexico, though they were more culturally assimilated than the Old Colony and Sommerfeld groups that went to Mexico in the 1920s.

By the mid-1950s the Kleine Gemeinde in Mexico had separated from the Kleine Gemeinde remaining in Canada, who were turning to English and a more evangelical theology. Some of the Kleine Gemeinde in Mexico moved to Belize in subsequent years.

The Canadian Kleine Gemeinde changed its name to Evangelische Mennoniten Gemeinde in 1952 and to Evangelical Mennonite Conference (EMC) in 1959. The more evangelical theological self-understanding did not include an explicitly premillennial or fundamentalist stance. Like the EMMC, the EMC traveled the path from Separatist Conservative (SC) to Assimilated Mennonite (AM) during these years. In addition to the language change, they welcomed flexibility in baptismal mode and the use of musical instruments in church, and they established a separate mission board. More pastors became trained and salaried. Like the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, the EMC also joined the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

The Evangelical Mennonite Conference had some outreach to Low German Mennonites who lived in Mexico, though it was less intense than that of the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, which began outreach to the Old Colony immigrants to Ontario already in the 1960s. The EMC did not begin a mission work in southern Ontario until 1976, although there had been a mission in northwestern Ontario at Stratton in the late 1960s.

John-and-Lorna-Wall-2004

Lorna and John Wall, 2004. Photo from The Messenger

One couple who symbolized the target group for the EMC was John and Lorna Wall. Both grew up in Mexico; John was part of the Old Colony Mennonite Church and Lorna was Kleine Gemeinde. They were baptized and married in Mexico in the Kleine Gemeinde church. They moved to Canada in 1986, and then lived in Seminole, Texas, for two years before returning to Canada. John worked as a welder and attended the Aylmer Bible School in the evenings. They were active in the Mount Salem congregation near Aylmer, and they eventually studied at Steinbach Bible College before undertaking more formal church leadership.

Mount-Salem

Mount Salem EMC as portrayed in The Messenger, the denomination’s periodical, in 2015.

The Mount Salem church held its first service in September 1976. The EMC board of missions had heard “there’s a big field open and no workers,” which reflected an interesting lack of recognition for the work in the area by the EMMC and the fifteen-year presence of organized Old Colony churches. The congregation formally organized in 1977 and bought a former public school building late that same year.

The EMC next established mission efforts directed at Low German-speaking Mennonites in Virgil, Ontario (1988), and Leamington (1990). The Virgil effort soon withered, but after a slow start the Leamington congregation prospered, with assistance from the Mount Salem congregation. They began with German-language singing services and held services for over five years in the chapel at the United Mennonite Educational Institute. New congregations also began in Straffordville (1997), Tilbury (2000), and Tillsonburg (2000).

In 2017 the active EMC congregations in Ontario were The Church of Living Water (Tillsonburg), Grace Community Church (Aylmer), Leamington Evangelical Mennonite Church, Mount Salem Community Church, New Life Christian Fellowship (Coatsworth), the Straffordville Evangelical Mennonite Church, and the Evangelical Fellowship Church (Fort Frances).

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.

“Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 6

My comments on previous episodes of “Pure”are at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4 and Episode 5.

In this episode we finally learn the supposed reason for Mennonite drug lord Eli Voss’s rejection of the faith of his community. It was the death of his eight children and wife when he and they were on the way to church one Sunday and a drunk driver hit their wagon and horses killing all of them except for Voss. Because of this, Voss has seen God as a God of terror, not of love and grace. He clearly retains a strong emotional tie to his Mennonite community, but rejects all it believes. He intensely dislikes Pastor Noah Funk’s continuing faith in the goodness of God, and wishes to prove Funk wrong.

The final episode continued to integrate important Mennonite religious symbols into the conclusion of this crime story. One of the images was again gratuitous in my view and did little to advance the story. This was the martyr fire above which Noah Funk was chained.

martyr

From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 6

Eli Voss, in a speech to the watching crowd, explicitly refers to 16th century Anabaptist martyrs (forerunners of the Mennonites), and claims Noah Funk wishes to join them. Voss makes somewhat bizarre references to Gelassenheit, the Anabaptist doctrine of yieldedness and humility, and justifies killing Funk because Funk intended to destroy the drug ring and take away the technology and other economic benefits the drug trade has brought to the Low German Mennonite community. At the time of the martyr scene Voss believes that Funk’s family is already dead, as he has ordered his nephew, Gerry Epp, to kill them, perhaps to compensate for the death of his own family.

Back in southern Ontario, Anna Funk, fearing that her husband, Noah, is dead, implies to Joey Epp, Gerry Epp’s younger brother, that she will need a husband to help raise her family. She basically makes seductive overtures to him. Joey takes this to heart and kills Gerry Epp to prevent him from murdering the Funk family. Anna sees this intervention as the hand of God protecting them and refuses to run away with Joey.

Back in Mexico, a gunfight arises when the Mexican police arrive with the discredited DEA agent and  Bronco, the suspended and corrupt policeman from Ontario. To prevent Eli Voss from killing the young surviving witness to the murders that opened Episode 1, Noah Funk kills Eli Voss.

This then leads to the extended second religious symbol — that of a baptismal service, in which Noah and Anna Funk’s son, Isaac, is part of the baptismal class.

baptism

From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 6

For me this was a powerful scene, and reflected the struggle between good and evil that has run through this series. Noah, who has returned to Ontario (I guess the Mexican police don’t care that he killed someone) is ultimately unable to enter the meetinghouse to witness the baptism because of his sense of guilt, and Isaac is clearly ambivalent even as he accepts the baptism from Bishop Bergen who finally showed up in the last 10 minutes of the series.

As a crime drama the series worked reasonably well. The acting was at a high level, given the script with which they had to work. The writing and story line, in my view, was less successful, and relied on too many logical jumps in the plot to be convincing.

And the creators, in order to set this drama apart from other crime dramas, felt compelled to keep emphasizing that the characters were highly traditional Mennonites. This led to numerous gratuitous insertions of symbolic practices loosely based on traditional Mennonites, explicitly reflected in the titles of the episodes. These “symbols” were often an inaccurate mashup of the various Mennonite groups that has never been adequately addressed.

[Since first posting this blog, I’ve listened to the interview of Michael Amo, the creator and producer of “Pure” in a Writers Guild of Canada event. It can be heard at http://www.wgc.ca/files/WTTV046Pure_Amo.mp3. In the interview, at about the 9:00 minute mark, he defends the mashup of Old Colony and Old Order Mennonites as a way of not implicating any one group of drug dealing. He called it the “right thing to do ethically.” I’m not sure why this was ethical, since the inspiration for the series was a Fifth Estate program and  a Saturday Night magazine article on the Mennonite Mob in Mexico.]

If one subtracted the “Mennonite” angle, the high level of violence in “Pure”was quite clichéd. A tortured protagonist with the best of intentions ultimately triumphs over evil through “redemptive violence.” Clint Eastwood made a career out of this approach.

The difference, of course, is that the protagonists were pacifist Mennonites who reject violence, and don’t believe that killing a human being can ever be redemptive. The tension of the series arises from Noah Funk’s ongoing internal conflict on this issue, into which the rest of his family is pulled.

The sad, and most objectionable, part about this series is that the creators presented a distorted Mennonite theology, and pasted it on to a traditional Old Order Mennonite community that has no hint of this kind of crime or violence in its 125 year history. There are something over 10,000 people in Canada that might be described as Old Order Mennonite and use horses and buggies for transportation. This feels like extremely unwarranted exploitation.

This is not to claim that crime in unknown in traditional Mennonite communities — both Old Order Mennonite and Low German Mennonite have “marred images” in their histories. These have included child abuse and drug trafficking. But neither of these communities would ever condone what was portrayed in this series.

The creators of “Pure” did not reflect any understanding of how accountability or submission to the shared Ordnung (rules) in traditional Mennonite faith communities function. A minister like Noah Funk would not have made the decisions he did in isolation; he would have felt internally compelled to consult more widely with other leaders. And no Mennonite community has only one leader, as seemed the case for these “Edenthalers.” The individualism of modern society does not function in the same way in these communities.

Let us hope that season 1 of “Pure” is the final season.

To better understand the complexity and reality of Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

 

“Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 5

My comments on previous episodes of “Pure”are at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3,  Episode 4 and Episode 6.

Sometime in the last week, someone at the CBC as decided Pure’s “Edenthaler Colony” in Southern Ontario is an Old Order Mennonite group (thanks to Sherri Klassen for alerting me to this change). Previously CBC’s references had been generically “Mennonite,” though the story line, geography, and language have consistently been Low German Mennonite, if not specifically Old Colony Mennonite.

Perhaps this change was done to justify the horses and buggies and the appearances of the women. This new, narrower description makes even more of the depictions in “Pure” incorrect — the family names are not Old Order Mennonite, no Old Order church members in good standing use cars, the meetinghouse (church) is designed incorrectly, the women still look more Amish than Old Order Mennonite, the cemetery seen in the last episode had incorrect tombstones, the location of the colony (near Chatham) is some distance from Old Order Mennonites who are further east or north. The list of inaccuracies goes on.

communion

From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 5

Today’s episode was again mostly about plot, though there were some gratuitous religious references, including a “communion service” at the drug lab in Mexico, after Noah Funk “turned the other cheek” twice by being slapped by drug lord Eli Voss, before Funk agreed to serve communion to excommunicated Old Colony Mennonites. (The folks pictured in Mexico did look like Low German Mennonites.)

Communion is only served by bishops, and the “congregation” at the drug lab would have known the service had no legitimacy (as Funk did observe in the episode). The only point for including this in the story line seemed to be to display a bit of “Mennonite” content otherwise not needed for the plot.

There were many plot lines that didn’t make sense in this episode. Why did the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have suspended cop Bronco Novack travel to Texas and then order him not to do anything? Why did the crooked DEA agent (who was subsequently killed) think her kidnapping of a child who had nothing to do with the drug business think her actions would go undetected by law enforcement? Why was Tina (Noah Funk’s daughter) not able to escape from a cheap motel room with a window?

The show has generally upped the level of violence in the last couple of episodes.

Many of my Mennonite friends stopped watching “Pure” after the first episode. To me it will be a shame if “Pure” actually gets a second season. The show is now suggesting its drama is based on true events about a Mennonite group that will not defend itself in public and has nothing in its history to justify such a portrayal.

To better understand the complexity and reality of Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

 

 

 

 

 

“Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 4

My comments on previous episodes of “Pure”are at Episode 1, Episode 2 and Episode 3. I have also commented on Episode 5 and Episode 6.

Most of episode 4 relates to the crime drama and introduces little new about the life and culture of the Low German Mennonites. The plot continues with its plausibility shortcomings, and introduces an additional layer of corrupt police detectives. One plausibility concern is why Noah Funk is ordering Low German Mennonite caskets for the two bikers killed by other bikers. These are two Ausländer (non-Low German Mennonites) with their own families and community. How are these deaths to be kept secret?

episode-4

From Episode 4 of CBC’s “Pure”

The funeral scene for the two Low German Mennonite men who died in the plane transporting the drugs is the one new Low German Mennonite cultural scene. Of course the burials were illegal since no permits were received.

There was no church funeral service, but I suppose that is excused by the necessary secrecy for these particular burials. The theology expressed by Preacher Noah Funk in his brief remarks does not reflect theology of Old Order Mennonites or Amish or any traditional Low German Mennonite theology. His comments seemed to imply there was still hope for the men who had died; this would not be the case for traditional Mennonites. None of these groups would ask a  layperson to lead in prayer at the graveside. Closing the graveside service with the Doxology (“Praise God from Whom all blessings flow”) seems unusual. Some Mennonites use this hymn to close regular Sunday worship services, but it is not generally associated with funerals. And they sang it way too fast for a traditional Mennonite group.

The cemetery itself looks most like an Old Order Amish cemetery, but could pass for an Old Colony Mennonite cemetery which also feature simple markers.

The most objectionable part of this series continues to be the mashing of Low German Mennonite, Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite culture. No Low German Mennonites in Canada use horses and buggies and lack electricity in their homes.

To better understand the complexity and reality of Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

“Pure” — the CBC Drama – Episode 3

In the past weeks I have commented on Episode 1 and Episode 2. I also have comments on Episode 4Episode 5 and Episode 6.

For me episode 3 ranged between interesting character scenes (Noah’s son talking about baptism and the daughter and policeman’s son) interspersed with highly unlikely bits of  action.

The German hymn briefly shown in the book in which Noah Funk is keeping his records of the drug operation is authentic, and appears in many German-language Mennonite hymnals.

The age of baptism implied in the son’s conversation with Noah is reasonable. This statement by the son should mean that he will be part of a “class” of baptismal candidates that studies a catechism before they are baptized; we’ll see if that happens in a future episode. Apparently the Edenthaler bishop lives some distance away and needs to be contacted by mail. However usually baptisms take place at a standard time of the year; a special communication would not be necessary.

pure-3

From Episode 3 of “Pure”- CBC

The scene of 30 men and four horses pulling the crashed plane loaded with drugs and two bodies from the lake was ludicrous in the extreme. Apparently the Mennonites and their horses had more “horsepower” than a high-powered SUV. Bringing Mennonites from the “colony” who are not involved in the drug business into what “Pastor” Noah Funk knows is a crime scene makes no sense. Clearly this was done for visual “Mennonite” impact and was not realistic. Noah then casually lies to the group as if he knew nothing about the drugs on the plane. But if he knew nothing, why hadn’t the Mennonites simply called authorities to deal with an accident? It all makes no sense.

The pastor and his wife show increasingly limited moral agony over the crimes they know they are committing. They have no answer for the “straight” members of the community that chastise them for their involvement that has become widely known. Yet Noah still believes he’s being righteous. He makes no effort to utilize the police for whom he is now presumably a snitch. Perhaps it’s all supposed to reflect Mennonite naiveté.

The shooting scene at the end of the episode makes no sense. Why would the motorcycle gang leader move to murder Noah over price negotiations that haven’t even been discussed with the boss, Eli Voss, yet? I now that TV dramas have to move things along at a brisk pace, but they should make some sense. I guess we find out next week who killed the motorcycle gang leaders.

My previous comments about “Pure” mixing Amish and Old Order and Low German cultures remain.

Some of my reflections were quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press last Saturday.

If you want to learn the truth about Ontario Mennonite history, I invite you read my book, In Search of Promised Lands.

“Pure” — the CBC Drama – Episode 2

Last week I commented after the first episode of “Pure.”

I said it succeeded as a crime drama, though I had a number of issues with the presentation in terms of Mennonites.

cbc_pure_season_01_s01e02-v2-11603281

Source: CBC TV

This morning I watched episode 2. I’m much less certain about the quality of drama. Too many things don’t make sense — why would you make the Ontario drug “boss” someone as highly visible and slow moving as a farmer-preacher with no criminal experience? It boggles the mind.

The visual portrayal of the group is closer to Amish this week, though the women’s dresses do look somewhat “Old Colony.” The bonnets are definitely Amish. The Saturday night “sing” had an Amish feel.

Most Old Order Mennonites and even Old Order Amish use cell phones at time. They are not as ignorant about technology as Noah Funk was. Old Orders draw the line at smart phones, but have used cell phones for business for many years. Low German Mennonites also have no issues with cell phones.

Women do not say “amen” at the end of family prayer before a meal. That’s the role of the head of the family, who is male. Certainly if he is sitting there, the prayer does not end until he says so.

Noah Funk’s “sermon” was wrong on many levels. It must always be tied to scripture, even if trying to make the point about God living within us that he did.

The women working in the drug distribution shop (or whatever it was) is not possible. Married women don’t work away from home. They might operate a business from home, but that scene was strictly for looks.

The young peoples’ singing was nice, and seemed to follow the Amish pattern.

For now let’s change our assessment to an over-the-top crime drama, with limited relationship to any previous “true story.”

See also my comments after Episode 1,  Episode 3,  Episode 4,  Episode 5 and Episode 6.

“Pure” — the CBC Drama – Episode 1

A new crime drama by the Canadian Broadcasting Company entitled “Pure” features drug-trafficking Mennonites in Southern Ontario. Interviews with cast members have emphasized the inspiration for the story comes from actual events that have been widely reported. A “Fifth Estate” telecast about  the Low German “Mennonite Mob” can be see at http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/40-years-of-the-fifth-estate/mennonite-mob. In April 2004 Saturday Night Magazine had a feature story on the Mennonite Mob (https://web.archive.org/web/20151006210521/http://caj.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/mediamag/awards2005/(Andrew%20Mitrovica)%20Saturday%20Night%20Magazine.htm), and periodically news stories show up on the theme, for example the story from 2014 at: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/mennonites-linked-to-mexican-cartels-established-cocaine-smuggling-pipeline-near-alberta-border-police.

pure-hero-2That brings us back to “Pure.” At the time of writing I have seen the trailer for the show and the first episode.

As my friend, Armin Wiebe, wrote in a Facebook post, “It’s a tightly written, relentless crime drama.” On that level I think it succeeds very well. I’m not embarrassed by the writing or the acting.

Others will have to speak to the “Low German” accent of the actors; I suspect it’s somewhat off. One “Pure” actor in an interview on CBC spoke of listening to Mennonites at a farmers’ market in Nova Scotia. Now there aren’t that many Mennonites in Nova Scotia; he may have been listening either to Holdeman Mennonites (two congregations near Waterville and Tatamagouche) or some Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites near Truro that came from Belize.

As a historian I do have some problems with numerous aspects of the presentation. Reading comments on the “Pure” Facebook page, it’s clear that many people are confused about Mennonites and their history. This drama doesn’t help the confusion. For Mennonites, the show has many distracting elements because of the obvious “mistakes” in confusing various Mennonite cultural and historical streams. The producers of “Pure” try to avoid the issue by identifying the group as “Edenthaler,” a group that doesn’t exist, though they are identified as Low German Mennonites with connections to Mexico. However the producers then proceed to mix the cultures of Low German Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish in many visual aspects of the drama.

For me the horses and buggies are a complete distraction from the story line. No Low German Mennonites in Canada use horses and buggies. I guess it makes a certain kind of visual statement, but only the Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups still use this form of transportation, and their history has no relationship to Mexico except for the most recent decades when some Amish schoolteachers have provided some assistance to Old Colony Mennonite schools.

Some of my concerns about the show lessened when I saw how pointless the horses and buggies were to the plot. I felt it less likely than I first feared that the general public will confuse this story with the “real” Old Order Mennonites and Amish in Southern Ontario.

old-colony-mennonites-durango

Old Colony Mennonite women, Durango Colony, Mexico, 2013. Canadian Mennonite photo

By and large the physical appearance of the players is also confusing for anyone familiar with Mennonite culture. The men are clean shaven and sort of look like Old Order Mennonites, except that they’re wearing Amish-style straw hats. The women look much more Amish in their clothing and bonnets, with mostly solid color dresses. They look nothing like traditional Low German Mennonite women in their clothing or headgear.

I suspect this was done because Old Order Mennonites are more quickly identifiable as “Mennonite” in the wider Canadian culture than traditional Low German dress would be. Is that a good enough justification for deliberately “borrowing” Old Order Mennonite culture? I would say no.

There are more problems with the worship and polity of the Edenthalers. The senior clergyman in any traditional Mennonite group is the Bishop or Ältester. Among the Edenthalers it seems to be the “Preacher.” Interestingly, Noah Funk is chosen by lot, a practice not used by Low German Mennonites, but only by Mennonites of the Swiss-South German historical tradition. The way the lot process was run was also incorrect; only a Bishop ordains, and he would have been the person checking the books indicating which man had the slip of paper.

Additionally, although the Edenthaler appropriately located women on one side of the church and men on the other during worship services, they allowed women freedom to speak in the service. This would not happen in a traditional service, which is much more stylized and formal in how things are done than was indicated here.

Noah Funk’s ploy to introduce the child, Ezekiel, as a nephew, would not have worked in a traditional Mennonite community. People in close-knit Mennonite communities know relatives and family lines, and would have known of the existence of any such child.

I’m sorry the CBC didn’t adhere more closely to the research they must have done. Adulterating the Low German culture with Old Order Mennonite imagery doesn’t help the plot, and simply confuses the general public.

Through my experience with Gadfly: Sam Steiner dodges the Draft, I have some understanding of what dramas “based on a true story” can lead to — what was true and what was fiction? The CBC could have done a better job on that part of the production.

I’ll enjoy the rest of the series for the drama, but not for its informational value about Mennonites.

If you are interested in a more accurate historical account of Mennonites in Ontario, see In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

See also my comments after Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4,  Episode 5 and Episode 6.

The Explosive Growth of the Old Colony Mennonites

New Reinland Fellowship Mennonite Church

An early Old Colony church near Aylmer, Ontario.  When the Old Colony church split the New Reinland Fellowship kept the building.  It was torn down about 2009 and replaced with a new building. Photo by Abe Harms.

The largest Mennonite migration to Ontario has been that of the Old Colony, or more generally, the Low German Mennonites from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Although this has gone on for over 50 years, it has been hard to pin down numbers because of the elastic nature of this migration.

According to some sources the first Old Colony Mennonites to permanently settle in Ontario came to Tillsonburg in 1952. It was over a decade until a first church building was purchased near Aylmer for the Old Colony Mennonite congregation. Gradually the Low German settlement expanded, especially westward into Kent and Essex counties.

Some of these Low German Mennonites joined newly forming Old Colony churches, or other churches with a Low German background, like the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, the Sommerfelder, etc. But the largest percentage of those who came from the 1950s to the 1970s chose not to affiliate with any church. In 2004 one historian suggested that 60 per cent of Low German immigrants to Canada chose to have no religious affiliation. Despite this, the Old Colony Mennonite Church in Ontario is the second largest Mennonite denomination in Ontario, following only Mennonite Church Eastern Canada. This means they exceed the Old Order Mennonites, the Old Order Amish, and all the other more “visible” Mennonite groups in Ontario.

George Rempel

George Rempel of the Ontario Mennonite Immigrant Assistance Committee. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

Early on Mennonite Central Committee Ontario set up programs to assist the Low German newcomers with immigration and language issues, and to serve as a link between the newcomers and the public school systems and governmental social service agencies. George Rempel directed this program in Aylmer beginning in the late 1970s.

Sign for the current Old Colony Mennonite church near Aylmer. Photo by Sam Steiner

Sign for the current Old Colony Mennonite church near Aylmer. Photo by Sam Steiner

By the mid-1990s the Low German Mennonite population in Ontario was between 25,000 and 30,000. By 2011, Mennonite Central Committee was using a number of “over 40,000.”  Some years up to 250 families came to settle in Ontario from Mexico, Bolivia, Belize, Paraguay and elsewhere.  There has been no Mennonite immigration to Ontario quite like it. In 2012 Low German Mennonites made up at least 25% of the Mennonite population in Ontario.

To learn more about Ontario’s Old Colony and Low German Mennonites read In Search of Promised Lands.

If you would like to comment on this article, click on the “leave a comment” button above.