Our second monthly article leading us toward our fiftieth anniversary celebrations is written by Harold J. Dyck, a member of the Board of Directors of Mennonite Heritage Village. Harold has taught at the public school and college levels since 1970. His teaching has spanned a broad range of Biblical and theological areas. Harold was educated in Saskatchewan, Manitoba (BA), California (M.Div) and Illinois (MA). He retired to Winnipeg in 2008 and has been engaged in personal family history research. Following is Harold’s brief narrative on Who Are the Mennonites.
“Manitobans are generally aware that, although Mennonites have a big enough footprint in Winnipeg to run a university and for their churches to require almost a full column in the Yellow Pages, their presence is especially concentrated in the areas around Altona, Winkler and Steinbach. Why that is so may not be quite as well known. As new generations rise and with word getting around that Mennonite Heritage Village is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014, we are still asked, ‘Who are the Mennonites?’
“Mennonite settlers first arrived in Manitoba in the summer of 1874. By 1880, almost 7,000 had arrived. They came from south Russia, and are still known as ‘Russian Mennonites,’ but they spoke a Low German dialect still commonly used today. It was not their first migration in search of a place where they could safely practice their faith.
“Emerging out of the 16th Century Reformation, Mennonites were part of the ‘Anabaptist’ (rebaptizing) movement. They were not markedly different in creed, or ‘belief’, from the other reform groups, but they were almost alone in their insistence that the Church must be a voluntary community of believers, whose faith, including love of their enemies, must be concretely practiced, and whose membership was not to be determined by citizenship, but through freely chosen adult baptism.
“Unfortunately, Europe was not ready for separation of church and state. Anabaptists in Dutch areas, led by the reformed priest Menno Simons, along with Swiss and South German fellow believers, endured relentless persecution. They were often obliged to meet in secret, and eventually, many, now known as Mennonites, fled to safer havens.
“The Mennonites who came to Manitoba represent the Dutch stream that found refuge in the Vistula Delta of Poland. Here they drained the marshes (they were Dutch, after all) and prospered, until the rise of Prussian nationalism and militarism prompted large numbers to resettle in a succession of colonies in south Russia, beginning in the late 1780’s. Mennonite expression of faithfulness as a community took form increasingly in village life, sharing of resources, use of the German language, elected but strong leadership and maintenance of the colonies in relative isolation from their neighbors.
"When Russia took steps to conscript Mennonites for military service and further assimilate them, Mennonites were ready for Canadian recruitment that promised freedom from military service and permission to live in villages and run their own schools in eight townships reserved for them east of the Red River. In 1874, they came, mostly from Bergthal Colony and the Kleine Gemeinde, or ‘Small Church’ from Borosenko. They settled in villages, usually with broad main streets, building the joined house/barns familiar to them from Russia (and featured in Mennonite Heritage Village today). The villages included common lands, such as pasture, and a village school.
“In 1875 another Mennonite reserve of 17 townships opened west of the Red River. Many new Mennonite settlers from Chortitza, the oldest colony in Russia, and its daughter colonies settled around and south of Winkler. Often known as Old Colony, they became the Reinlaender Church. Many Bergthalers from the East Reserve also relocated to the West Reserve, establishing villages closer to Altona.
“The Mennonite experience in Canada has undergone many changes. Increase in population led to new settlements in Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and, more recently, Ontario. The 1920’s saw a large exodus to Mexico over new public school requirements and, almost simultaneously, a wave of new Mennonite immigrants fleeing communist Russia. Groups like the Mennonite Brethren, whose original emigration was to the United States, are prominent in Canada today. There are also many returnees from Mexico and Paraguay.
“Most visibly, the villages disintegrated and many disappeared as villagers established businesses or moved to their homesteads. Some, like Steinbach, have become urban centres. Only a few in the West Reserve, like Reinland, preserve a semblance of what the original villages looked like. Mennonites today can be found in most walks of life in farms, towns and cities.
“Religiously, Mennonites have undoubtedly been influenced, some more than others, by North American Christianity and more personal expressions of faith. Yet the multiplication of Mennonite denominations has not erased the heritage and values brought to this country by the original Kleine Gemeinde, Bergthaler and Old Colony Mennonites. Joining in disaster recovery, MCC relief and matters of social concern are still marks of Mennonite life today.”