During the 16th century the Anabaptist movement spread through Europe under various leaders. In the northern German states and the Netherlands, Menno Simons became an influential leader. He was originally a Roman Catholic priest but had doubts about infant baptism. In 1536 he left his position with the Catholic church and soon became the leader of the Anabaptists in the area. People in this community became known as Mennists, and later Mennonites. Through prolific writing, preaching and tireless organizational work, Simons strengthened the people within the movement. As the peaceful "Mennists" continued to be persecuted they scattered throughout Europe and North America. The Swiss-South German Mennonites went mostly westward, settling in Alsace and the Palatinate, and by the end of the 17th century many had relocated to Pennsylvania. The Dutch-North Germans went mostly eastward, forming settlements in present-day Poland, and by the end of the 18th century in Russia. The Mennonites' relative isolation and self-sufficiency within closed communities, combined with their conviction that religion was a way of life, produced a unique socio-religious culture.
Mennonites first began arriving in Upper Canada around 1776. Mennonites originated in German-speaking countries, and therefore the German language has been one of their defining religious-cultural characteristics. Many of the Mennonites who came to Canada, especially during the early years of immigration, spoke Germanic dialects and were perceived as a minority group with both religious and ethnic characteristics.
Migration to Canada
The first migration to Canada brought about 2000 Swiss Mennonites from Pennsylvania to Upper Canada, during and after the American Revolution. They acquired land from private owners in the Niagara Peninsula and in York and Waterloo counties. This group was followed by Amish Mennonites (named after Bishop Jacob Ammon, a conservative leader of the late 17th century). From 1825 to the mid-1870s about 750 settled on crown land in Waterloo County and nearby.
In the 1870s the russification policies of the Russian government caused 18 000 Dutch Mennonites - one-third of the total in Russia - to leave for North America. The promise of land, cultural and educational autonomy, and guaranteed exemption from military services attracted about 7000 of them to southern Manitoba. The HOMESTEAD lands in the North-West Territories attracted Mennonites from Prussia, Russia, and the US between 1890 and the FIRST WORLD WAR. Many of the new immigrants moved to Manitoba and the Prairie provinces and others created Mennonite communities in Saskatchewan and established congregations in Ontario.
CONSCRIPTION in the US in 1917 brought more Mennonites to the Canadian Prairies. The largest immigration wave occurred in the 1920s, when 20 000 Mennonites escaped famine and the effects of the Bolshevik Revolution. Subsequently, during the SECOND WORLD WAR more than 12 000 Mennonite "displaced persons" migrated to Canada from the USSR and Germany and most settled in urban areas. Following the Second World War, the third major wave of approximately 8000 Mennonites migrated to Canada. In recent decades many Mennonites have immigrated from the US, Mexico and Paraguay.
In 1903, Mennonite congregations from Manitoba and Saskatchewan established the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. The term "conference" is similar to "synod" or "district" in other Protestant denominations. As more congregations joined, the conference name was changed to the General Conference of Mennonites in Canada (1932) which later became the Conference of Mennonites in Canada.
In 2000 the name changed again to the Mennonite Church Canada. It is the largest Mennonite group in Canada and has its headquarters in Winnipeg; it includes the Mennonite Eastern Canada, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia conferences. Congregations are organized into provincial and national conferences but each congregation is autonomous within the conference regarding its policies.
There are approximately 1.5 million members worldwide, however because Mennonites do not baptize infants, the youth within a congregation are not included in the formal membership counts. The basic unit of Mennonite institutional life is the congregation.
Many Mennonite conferences have reorganized to deal with new challenges such as evangelism and church planting, pastoral leadership, and outreach as well as social issues, Aboriginal ministries, peace concerns, ordination of women, inter-conference relations, periodicals and post-secondary education. Most congregational families are members of provincial, national and continental central committees.
Service and Outreach
Persecution during the sixteenth century made migration essential for the Dutch Mennonites who moved from Holland to Poland, Ukraine and North America. By 1920, the Mennonites living in the Ukrainian areas of Russia were threatened by the Russian communist revolution, prompting North American Mennonites in Canada and the US to send ambassadors and relief in the form of food and clothing. Mennonites increasingly withdrew to form exclusive Mennonite communities that became increasingly preoccupied with survival and retention of their Anabaptist and Mennonite identities.
During the two world wars Mennonites resettled in Paraguay, Canada, the US and many other countries. Mennonite services developed over the last 100 years, evolving from early humanitarian aid into the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). What began as a goal of rescuing Mennonites from Ukraine became an outreach opportunity through missionary work and service. Today, the MCC also provides emigration and immigration services, agricultural aid, mental health support, employment counselling, disaster relief, and other services and has become a worldwide social service agency in 60 countries serving not only Mennonites but individuals from all denominations.
In 1950, the Mennonite Service Organization was established in response to tornadoes in Oklahoma and flooding in Manitoba. The agency was renamed the Mennonite Disaster Service agency (MDS) and today, in addition to providing disaster response assistance, the agency's work includes community projects such as building low income housing. The Mennonite Central Committee provides disaster relief internationally and the MDS responds to emergencies in Canada and the US.
Urbanization, Education and Training
The 2001 census recorded 191 000 Mennonites in Canada. More than half of all Mennonites live in cities and the shift from traditional rural communities to urban living has mirrored the general population. In 2010, the largest concentration of urban Mennonites were located in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Saskatoon and Waterloo-Kitchener, each fed by large Mennonite rural communities. Winnipeg has one of the largest urban Mennonite populations in the world with more than 20 000 Mennonites and 45 Mennonite churches.
As a church that emphasized separation from the world and social nonconformity, Mennonites frequently resisted the influence of state-run public schools. Today, Canadian Mennonites operate elementary education, private high schools, colleges and one graduate theological centre. Students seeking training for pastoral ministry attend a Mennonite seminary in the United States or participate in one of several seminary consortia in Canada in which Mennonites partner with other Christian denominations.
The Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) comprises three colleges located in Winnipeg, which were amalgamated to form the university: Mennonite Brethren Bible College (est. 1944), the Canadian Mennonite Bible College (est. 1947), and the Menno Simons College (est. 1989) which operates on the University of Winnipeg campus. The CMU has had degree-granting status since 1998. Through the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the Conrad Grebel University College offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Mennonite faith and has established The Centre for the Study of Religion and Peace.
Foreign and domestic programs provide financial assistance, development, relief and peace projects, and a large variety of mission and ministry projects, both in Canada and around the world. (See PACIFISM; PEACE MOVEMENT.) Historically, publications focused on mostly rural culture and life; however by the twenty-first century the literature, such as Mennonites in the Global Village (2000) shifted to outreach and engagement. Canadian Mennonite periodicals include the German-language Die Mennonitische Rundschau (published 1880-2007), Der Bote (published 1924-2008), Die Mennonitische Post and the English-language Mennonite Brethren Herald and Canadian Mennonite. Two scholarly journals are also published: the Journal of Mennonite Studies and the Conrad Grebel Review.
Engagement and Innovation
Mennonites and their congregations differ in their attitudes toward innovation in religious and cultural life. Some believe that lives of discipleship, in communities separated from the world, are essential and attempts are always made to control change. Others insist that adaptation and involvement in the world are essential to the Christian mandate. Among both the Swiss and the Dutch are conservative groups that have successfully perpetuated traditional rural modes of life, unchanging clothing styles, their German language and liturgical forms. The Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites reject the use of modern technology such as electricity and motorized transportation and have also succeeded in continuing a traditional farming style.
Politics have represented a problem for Mennonites. On the one hand, Mennonites discouraged any involvement in an evil world in which force and violence were used even as instruments of the state. On the other hand, they encourage application of the ethics of Jesus: love, peace and justice in all areas of life, including the state. Today, most Mennonites vote and a number serve in elected office and as civil servants. In their rural past, Mennonites thought of themselves as "the quiet in the land," but James Urry (2006) suggests that they have become "the loud in the land."
Mennonites are no longer limited to their Swiss and Dutch traditions and ethnic backgrounds. There are many Canadian Mennonites of French, Chinese, Indian and Anglo-Saxon ancestry, and increasing percentages of Mennonite marriages are mixed. Mennonites in Canada are undergoing rapid change, but a strong emphasis on the family and the role of religion, specific programs to keep the young people involved (youth organizations, camps, choirs, service programs), special schools and a dynamic congregational life minimize the losses to the larger secular community.
Author LEO DRIEDGER, FRANK H. EPP
Frank Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920 (1974) and Mennonites in Canada, 1920-1940 (1982); Winfield Fretz, The Waterloo Mennonites: A Community in Paradox (1989); Howard Kauffman and Leo Driedger, The Mennonite Mosaic: Identity and Modernization (1991); T.D. Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970 (1996); Leo Driedger, Mennonites in the Global Village (2000); Adolf Ens, Becoming a National Church (2004); James Urry, Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood (2006); Conrad Kanagy, Road Signs for the Journey (2007); John J. Friesen, Building Communities: The Changing Face of Manitoba Mennonites (2007); Marlene Epp, Mennonite Women in Canada (2008); Leo Driedger, At the Forks: Mennonites in Winnipeg (2010).
Links to Other Sites
Mennonite Historical Society of Canada
The official website of the Mennonite Historicial Society of Canada. Features the Mennonite Encyclopedia of Canada.
Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches
The official website of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
Mennonite Heritage Village
The historic Mennonite Heritage Village invites visitors to explore Mennonite faith, culture, and traditions. Located in Steinbach, Manitoba.
The Mennonite Piano Concerto
A brief article about the Mennonite Piano Concerto, initially conceived by Benjamin Horch and composed by musician Victor Davies. From the website for the Mennonite Historical Society of British Columbia.
A brief biography and bibliography for Benjamin Horch. From the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.
My Mennonite Father
A review of the book "Renovating Heaven," Andreas Schroeder's "tragicomic autobiographical novel of a German Mennonite family adapting to life in British Columbia." From the "Tyee Books" website.
Competition seeks out new Canadian hymns
A CBC News story about a competition for the creation of new Canadian religious music.
Jacob Johann Siemens
This site profiles J.J. Siemens and his contributions to western Canadian agriculture and rural development. From the website for the Mennonite Heritage Centre.
A brief history of fraktur, a distinctive style of penmanship and illuminated writings. From the website Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online.
From One Prayer to Another
A multimedia website that examines how different religions coexist in Canada. From Radio Canada International.
A profile of the Mennonite community in Canada from the Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples.