What is a Mennonite?

   As a child, I asked my mother what a Mennonite was. She told me it was anyone who was a member of a Mennonite church. In 2008, when the MHV Board of Directors was interviewing me for my current role, I was asked about my view of what a Mennonite is. As I recall, I quoted my mother. They hired me anyway. In fact, I don’t think anyone challenged my response.

   Every now and then I try to engage people in a conversation about what a Mennonite is. Predictably I get various answers. Some people identify themselves as cultural Mennonites. In southern Manitoba, that would likely mean that they grew up in a home where Low-German was spoken and that they enjoyed Faspa as their Sunday afternoon meal and frequently ate foods like Vereniki with Schmauntfatt, Rhubarb Plautz or Plueme Moos. Chances are they also attended a Mennonite Church at some point, and may or may not do so any more.

   These people are identifying with a culture that evolved when a group of Mennonites left Europe in the mid-sixteenth century and fled to Prussia, which today is Poland. After about 200 years in Prussia, this group of Mennonites migrated to Ukraine, an area which then was part of Russia. Then in the nineteenth century, they started migrating to North America, arriving in Canada first in 1874.

   Marty, my wife of 43 years, is also a Mennonite. She grew up in a “Mennonite” home in Bluffton, Ohio, (a “Mennonite” community) and was baptized in a Mennonite church. However, she does not speak Low-German and had rarely heard it until I met her. She grew up eating popcorn for Sunday supper and had never eaten Vereniki with Schmauntfatt, Rhubarb Plautz or Plueme Moos. Marty’s ancestors are from the Swiss Mennonite group. Her people came to North America from Alsace Lorraine, a part of France which was at times German territory. This group has its own cultural uniqueness.

   Some of the European Mennonites who came to North America in the nineteenth century have retained some very conservative lifestyle practices, such as using horses and mules rather than tractors to work their fields, living without the benefit of electricity, or traveling by horse and buggy rather that by a motorized vehicle. We respectfully refer to these as Old Order Mennonites. Their culture is certainly unique in our present times.

   There are currently more Mennonites in Africa and India than there are in Canada. Many of these people have begun to identify as Mennonites more recently and have not developed a unique culture. I’m pretty sure very few of them speak Low-German - or Pennsylvania Dutch, for that matter. And I doubt that many of them ever eat the ethnic foods that we enjoy and serve in our Livery Barn Restaurant.

   When I attend meetings of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, which includes Mennonites from B.C. to Quebec, we don’t talk about the cultural things we have in common. Because when we consider Mennonites from around the world, we realize we don’t have a common culture. Various Mennonite groups have developed unique cultural elements, but these are not all the same.

   What we as Mennonites do have in common is a faith system. A faith system that espouses a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, God’s son, and encourages individuals to make personal choices to model their lives on Jesus’s example, affirmed through baptism. A faith system that practices a community hermeneutic where communities of faith together seek to interpret and understand scripture. A faith system that values peace, sometimes leading to active participation in peacemaking and to conscientious objection to participation in war. A faith system that encourages its proponents to support and care for the unfortunate and the downtrodden. To be sure, Mennonites are not the only people who value and do these things. But these are the things that all Mennonites have in common.

   My intent is certainly not to belittle what we call “Mennonite Culture.” After all, the purpose of our museum is largely to preserve the Russian Mennonite culture. It’s interesting, it’s fun, and there’s no question that it’s important to preserve it. But let’s also remember that we Russian Mennonites are only a relatively small group of Mennonites globally and that the faith aspects all Mennonites have in common are also part of our story and worth preserving.

Calendar of Events

March 30 - Closed for Good Friday

April 19 – 7:00 PM, Auxiliary Film Night: Seven Points on Earth

April 26 – 7:00 PM, Volunteer Orientation

May 1 - Opening day for the Livery Barn Restaurant and the Outdoor Village

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About the Author

Barry is the Executive Director of the Mennonite Heritage Village. While he does not consider himself to be a historian, he places a high value on the preservation and interpretation of the Mennonite and pioneer stories that help people of all ages understand and appreciate their heritage. Learn more about the MHV.

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