The Ongoing March of Historical Writing

The task of historical writing never comes to an end. This is not only because new historical events keep taking place, but also because new research and writing sheds better light and new perspectives on events of the past.

This week I’d like to highlight a recent important article by Kerry Fast, a scholar who has done extensive work on the Low German Mennonites in Ontario. Her article on “A Brief History of the Migration of Mennonites to Ontario and the Formation of the Old Colony Church” appeared in the latest issue of Preservings, a historical journal published by the D. F. Plett Foundation in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Old Colony Church, Aylmer, Ontario

Old Colony Mennonite Church in Aylmer, Ontario. Photo by Sam Steiner.

Fast made use of oral history interviews available at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario that were also accessible to me. But she explored them at much greater depth than I was able to do for a survey history. From these interviews she created a narrative that I wish had been available to me for my writing.

This is by no means the only new piece of historical writing on Ontario Mennonites that I wish had been available to me. Among others, some of Royden Loewen’s writing on Low German Mennonites was published too late in my process. Roy is the Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. And there was an interesting genealogical publication about Pennsylvania Germans in York County, Ontario (Pioneer Footprints in York County: Pennsylvania German Families who arrived in York County in the early 1800s compiled by Ruth Burkholder) that would have shed greater light on early settlement there. I could name others.

These are not causes for mourning, but rather are good reminders that no historical monograph is definitive or final. I’m grateful for the new light of each of these publications.

Nonetheless, for setting the larger context of Ontario Mennonites, you will want to read In Search of Promised Lands!

A New History of Mennonites in Ontario

Book jacket for the book

Book jacket for In Search of Promised Lands

It was 1935 when Lewis J. Burkholder wrote his classic A Brief History of Mennonites in Ontario. In 1974 Frank H. Epp wrote the first volume (of an eventual three volumes) of Mennonites in Canada, this one covering 1786-1920. Much of this volume was devoted to the Ontario Mennonite history.

Both books, now out of print, are valuable additions to the library of anyone interested in Ontario Mennonites. Burkholder organized by geography, congregations and major Anabaptist groups. His work was sponsored by the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, so it primarily focused on that group. His work is especially valuable for the comprehensive lists of ordained leaders among the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Old Order Mennonites until 1935.

Frank Epp brought an historian’s analytic skills to his work. In his first volume the theme was The History of a Separate People. It was a landmark survey history that has been used in classrooms to the present day.

A lot has happened in the Ontario Mennonite world since these works were published. Think of the immigration of Low German Mennonites that exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, or the continuing health and growth of the Old Order Mennonite and Amish communities in Ontario. It was time for a new survey.

I began working as the Archivist in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario at Conrad Grebel College in 1974, and continued in that position until retirement at the end of 2008. The papers and pictures of Mennonite history passed through my hands throughout those years. My colleague at the College, Arnold Snyder, strongly encouraged me to write a new history of Mennonites in Ontario based on all the information I gathered. The Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario agreed to sponsor the project, and lent significant research support, as did the College for two sabbaticals of research.

The result, In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario, will be released by Herald Press (Kitchener, ON & Harrisonburg, Va.) on March 9, 2015. It is an 877-page volume that looks at the migrations and theological diversity of Ontario Mennonites, and their extensive interaction with other Christian streams in Ontario.

In this blog I will reflect on the themes that shaped my writing, surprises I encountered along the way, and interesting actors in the Mennonite story that I met. Other subjects will surely come to mind.

In Search of Promised Lands is available at a pre-publication price from MennoMedia’s website at $62.99 U.S. Canadians can call 1-800-631-6535 and ask for the Canadian pre-publication price of $69.29.