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Ontario's Mennonite Heritage

(Published in SPARETIME magazine, Vol. 6, Issues 8, 9, 10, 1986)

Mennonites in Pennsylvania     The Early Years in Upper Canada
Canadian Mennonites Fare Better than Russian Mennonites


Part I, Mennonites in Pennsylvania

By 1800, Mennonites were old hands at pioneering in the New World. Descendants of a radical wing of the Protestant Reformation, the pacifist followers of Menno Simons (1492-1559) endured two centuries of bitter persecution in Central Europe. During these two centuries, many Mennonites sought sanctuary in Prussia and southern Russia. Others, like the Swiss ancestors of the Kitchener-Waterloo Mennonites, were drawn westward to North America.

The promise of William Penn's "holy experiment" drew the Swiss Mennonites across the Atlantic. The aristocratic and wealthy Penn was a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends. Established in the 1640s, English Quakers formed yet another oppressed Protestant dissenting group. William Penn was determined that his Delaware River colony in the New World would be a place of righteous government. Harmony would prevail between natives and whites and civil liberties would be guaranteed to all the persecuted nonconformists of the Old World.

The first Mennonites to take up William Penn's invitation were one hundred Lower Rhinelanders who in 1683 founded Germantown (Philadelphia). During the years 1707-1756, more than 3000 Mennonites from Switzerland and the German Palatinate arrived to settle on Penn's vast domain.

Penn's Woods (Pennsylvania) proved a paradise for the Mennonite agriculturalists. An abundance of good land was to be had; and they were free to practice their religious rites: the baptism of mature voluntary believers only, and foot-washing as a symbol of humility and service. The Quakers, like themselves, were 'non-resistors', opposed to all fighting and swearing. Both Quakers and Mennonites were exempt from military service, and from taking the judicial oath. By 1776, at the start of the Revolutionary War, German-speaking settlers in Pennsylvania comprised one-third of a total population of 300,000. The close-knit, self-sufficient Mennonite communities formed only a part of the unique Pennsylvania Deutsch culture.

As conscientious objectors, Mennonites were not popular during the American Revolution. The Pennsylvania Assembly called for a new oath of allegiance, allowing no exemptions. The militia commandeered their horses, wagons, and farm produce. War taxes were demanded. Rather than submit to the oath, or to the payment of war taxes, most Mennonites paid fines or went to jail.

Religious freedoms were finally guaranteed by the new Republic, and the majority of Mennonites did accept the rule of the United States. Others, however, looked northward to lands still held by the British crown. Lord Simcoe, first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (Ontario) issued a direct invitation to the Pennsylvania Mennonites, Quakers, and Tunkers to buy land and settle in the new province. Simcoe promised the three pacifist groups exemption from military duties and from swearing judicial oaths.

German considerations were important to the Pennsylvania Mennonites. The British King George III was himself German-speaking, linked to the House of Hanover. Four districts in Upper Canada had been given German names. German troops had fought for Britain during the American Revolutionary War, and these troops, together with German loyalists, were already settled in Upper Canada. The Mennonites believed their own German culture would not be jeopardized in the new colony to the north.

Land was the crucial factor. The Pennsylvania Mennonites had greatly increased in numbers, and their way of life demanded plenty of cheap fertile land. They also wanted seclusion. Mennonites were separatists, theirs was a counterculture. Both land and isolation could be found in abundance in the backwoods of Upper Canada.

A plain "itchy heel" was also a factor in the Mennonite migration to Waterloo County. In 1800, when Joseph Sherk and Samuel Betzner bought their land near the banks of the Grand River, they had come 450 miles: the farthest inland trek undertaken by pioneers to that date. The Pennsylvania Mennonites were not only the first white settlers in the Grand River Valley, theirs was the first inland settlement of whites in the whole of Upper Canada.

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Part II, The Early Years in Upper Canada

Kitchener-Waterloo lies on land granted to the Six Nation Iroquois after Britain's defeat in the American Revolutionary War. To compensate for the loss of their homelands in New York state, the British gave the Iroquois first choice of lands in Canada. In 1784, Capt. Joseph Brant, leader of the Mohawks, chose the Grand River valley. A strip of land six miles deep, on each side of the river, from mouth to source, was to belong to the Six Nations Iroquois forever. Or so said the legal deed accompanying this gift of land.

According to the white man's story, no one knew how long the river was. And there was a surveying foul-up. The upshot: the northern limit of the Indian Tract was fixed at a point just above the present town of Fergus. The Iroquois were left with 1200 square miles of land, a territory too large for their own farming needs and too small for a commercial hunting grounds. In 1798, under Joseph Brant, the Six Nations sold six blocks of land to white land speculators. Kitchener-Waterloo lies in Block 2, an area comprising 94,012 acres some distance upstream from Brant's Ford. Block 2 was bought by a Col. Richard Beasley.

It is difficult not to despise Richard Beasley. An early specimen of Upper Canada's notorious 'family compact', Beasley grew rich mixing business and politics. Well-educated, well-connected, Beasley was elected at an early age to the province's first parliament, where he was meant to represent settlers in what is now the Hamilton-Wentworth area. Instead, through his shady land dealings, Beasley cheated both the Six Nation Iroquois and the German-speaking Pennsylvania Mennonites who bought land from him in 1800.

Sam Bricker was the first Mennonite to hear of Beasley's swindle. In 1803, the red-haired hot-tempered Sam walked from York (Toronto) to the head of Lake Ontario and confronted the Colonel. Beasley confessed: his lands in Block 2 of the Indian Tract were heavily mortgaged and he was only part owner. The twenty deeds he had issued to the Mennonites were worthless. But Beasley was prepared to offer a bargain to Sam Bricker. If the settlers could raise 20,000 pounds Beasley would pay off the mortgage and give the Mennonites clear title to an additional 60,000 acres.

Sam Bricker raised 20,000 pounds. The Pennsylvania Mennonites were skeptical at first. Migration fever had certainly seized them, but most brethren were looking to Virginia and Maryland, not to the northern forests of Upper Canada. Sam's cousin, John Eby of the Hammer Creek congregation in Lancaster Country, turned the tables in his favor. Old Christian Eby contributed 2500 pounds and The German Company was formed with 26 stockholders. Mennonite women sewed up 200 canvas bags and placed a hundred silver coins in each. The next spring, Sam Bricker and John and Jacob Erb conveyed the treasure up to Canada. On June 29, 1805, Col. Richard Beasley signed his name to a legal deed.

The Mennonite migration from Pennsylvania began in earnest in 1807. It lasted into the 1830s; by then the best land in Waterloo County was gone. Some Mennonites came on foot or on horseback. Most traveled in large horse-or oxen-driven Conestoga wagons, threading their way between the enormous trees of the forests and along trails hacked through dense bush. They tied cattle behind their Conestogas and drove both across the Allegheny mountains. At Niagara they caulked the seams of their wagons and used them as boats. It took a week to penetrate the Beverly swamp, an all but impassible bog which lay northwest of the tiny frontier hamlet of Dundas.

The names of the Kitchener-Waterloo pioneers are well known today: Eby and Erb, Bean and Bechtel, Betzner and Sherk. There are many others. Old Christian's son, Benjamin Eby, owned most of what is now the east ward of Kitchener. He was business agent for the Company and Bishop of the Mennonites from 1812 until his death in 1853. Unlike Richard Beasley, Ben Eby never betrayed the trust placed in him.

As a pioneer and unpaid Mennonite leader, Ben Eby was busy enough, but his main job was that of school teacher. For 25 years, winter months only, Ben taught reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic - mostly in German - in a meeting house built on his land. The First Mennonite Church of K-W stands on this site today. Ben sold some of his land to incoming tradespeople, the rest he divided among his family (11 children and 71 grandchildren).

Bishop Ben Eby was also a writer of Mennonite history, and he disclaimed notions current in his day about the 'peculiar' Plain People. According to Bishop Eby, the Anabaptist heresy - i.e. the baptizing of voluntary adult believers only, the objection to military service, the refusal to swear judicial oaths - all dated from long before the Protestant Reformation. Like-minded heresies, said Ben, had been present throughout the whole history of the Roman Church, and had been especially persistent in southern France.

The Ebys and most Mennonite families were of Celtic origin, claimed Bishop Eby. Their pagan ancestors had lived on the fertile plains of northern Italy; they had been led to the Anabaptist heresy by Christians from southern France, the Waldensians. They had been hounded out of their homes by the Roman Church in the 1400s, into the highlands of Switzerland. As followers of Menno Simons in the 16th and 17th centuries they had been persecuted up and down the Rhineland by Lutherans and Catholics alike. Then had come William Penn's invitation to settle in the New World.

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Part III, Canadian Mennonites Fare Better than Russian Mennonites

Had Britain not prevailed north of the 49th parallel, the enormous land mass of Canada might well have developed into separate nation states. Certainly the native peoples and the French Canadians wished to maintain their own languages, religions and cultures, their own governments. The Swiss-German Mennonites from Pennsylvania were yet another people who wished to develop separately in the vast lands so tenuously held by the British at the end of the American Revolutionary War.

The Pennsylvania Mennonites would have preferred large compact colonies such as those being created after 1786 in Russia by Mennonites of Dutch-German ancestry. In the Ukraine and Middle Volga regions, Mennonites were forming small 'commonwealths' within the larger world of Tsarist Russia. There they developed 500,000 acres of land with 95 villages; they built their own roads, established their own tax system, their own discipline, their own schools and welfare systems.

Such large compact settlements were denied the Pennsylvania Mennonites in Ontario. Lieut. Gov. Simcoe is reported to have rejected a 1795 Mennonite petition for six townships of land in Upper Canada. Simcoe was no William Penn. He was not inviting fellow pacifists and heretics to join a "holy experiment" in a brave new world. Simcoe was attempting to solve one of Britain's problems: a desperate lack of pioneer farmers. Aside from a fringe settlement along Lakes Ontario and Erie, and in the Niagara peninsula, the province was a vast, undeveloped wilderness. The Waterloo Mennonite community, started in 1800, was the first white settlement in the far interior; and it was only 30 miles from the tiny lakeside hamlet of Dundas.

Britain had no intention of fostering separatist states. All her actions were calculated to further her own interests, to strengthen her own hold. She began with land "purchases" from the native peoples. In 1791, came the notorious Crown and Clergy Reserves: The Anglican Church alone was to benefit from the sales and leasing of one-seventh of all lands in Upper and Lower Canada; another one-seventh was set aside to support the Executive Councils, to free them from the need to cater to the demands of the elected Assemblies.

Still, in 1800 it was by no means certain whether Britain would prevail north of 49�, let alone create a great landed aristocracy. Nearly 200,000 French Canadians hadn't the slightest wish for British rule. The republican USA was a persistent threat, and Indian uprisings a distinct possibility. Even the British Loyalists were not a homogeneous group of Anglican Tories, devoted to the crown. Britain would have to colonize her lands quickly, if she was to keep them. And this is where Simcoe's Mennonites came in.

The Pennsylvania Mennonites who came to Upper Canada were skilled in all facets of pioneer life in the New World. The men could do their own wood, brick, iron and leather work; they were expert farmers, specialists in animal care. The women were gardeners, cooks, needlewomen of note; they could spin, weave, prepare herbal remedies, set bones, deliver babies. Mennonites were peaceful, honest folk. They required no garrisons, no police detachments, no magistrates or lawyers.

The Waterloo pioneer colony was a theocracy: God was King and His laws were in the New Testament. If disputes arose, the brethren turned to Bishop Ben Eby and to the elders of the congregations. Self-disciplined, hardworking, committed to friendly and helpful relations towards non-Mennonite newcomers, such people made ideal settlers, despite their awkward pacifism.

The Pennsylvania Mennonites migrated initially to the Niagara and Markham areas, and to Waterloo and Woolwich townships. By 1841, some 5000 Mennonites could be found in 30 different townships in Upper Canada. They achieved their greatest compactness in Waterloo Township where in 1841 Mennonites barely exceeded 10% of the population. Elsewhere, tiny scattered islands of Mennonites were obliterated and the larger congregations have witnessed an ongoing tendency towards secularization. As intended, British policy has made it difficult for the pacifist Plain Folk of Ontario to maintain their separate identity.

Nonetheless, as self-serving as their policies have been, British and Canadian governments, by and large, have lived up to the promises made by Lieutenant Governor Simcoe to the Pennsylvania Mennonites. The Militia Act of 1793 exempted the Mennonites - and other pacifist groups - from military duties. In 1809, the Mennonites were granted the right to make a simple affirmation or declaration instead of taking an oath where such was required. These exemptions are still in effect today.

Certainly Canadian Mennonites fared better than the Russian Mennonites. The Tsar began to withdraw their "eternal" privileges in the early 1870s. In that decade 7000 Russian Mennonites accepted the Canadian government's invitation to settle in Manitoba. After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the civil war was fought, in part, on Mennonite land. This was the end of the Russian paradise. During the 1920s, 20,000 Mennonites escaped from Russia to Canada and settled on the prairies.

To Lieutenant Governor Simcoe, and to the government officials who came after him, Mennonites were a means to an end. They would aid in discouraging American incursions, peaceful or otherwise, into vast undeveloped territories. They would build a population base and domesticate the land, remove it finally and completely from the hands of the native peoples. The real goal, of course, was to construct a British-Canadian society.


Further Reading:

James Urry. Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe--Russia--Canada, 1525 to 1980. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006. 400 pp. Illus. maps, notes, bibliography, index. $27.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-88755-688-4.

Here is a review of Urry's book by Marlene Epp, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo:

Mennonites and Politics: From the Quiet to the Loud in the Land

The descriptive phrase, "the quiet in the land," has often been used to characterize the Mennonites, an ethno-religious Christian denomination with a membership of about 1.5 million worldwide and approximately 130,000 baptized members in Canada (Census figures are 190,000). The descriptor relates to Mennonites' perceived historic withdrawal from interaction with culture and politics outside their communities, to their agriculture-based economy, and also to their overall obedience to the structures from which they nevertheless withdrew. It was originally applied to the Anabaptists (the Mennonites' religious ancestors) when their movement went underground to escape severe persecution in mid-sixteenth century Europe.

In his 2006 book, _Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood_, James Urry discounts this characterization as applied to Mennonite political non-involvement, and indeed concludes by suggesting that Mennonites were, and are to varying degrees, in fact the "Loud in the Land." A Reader in Anthropology at New Zealand's Victoria University at Wellington, Urry has written extensively about the history of Mennonites in Russia and Canada; most notably, his study of Mennonite communities in Russia, _None But Saints_ (1989), was a landmark analysis of their first century of settlement there (1789-1889).

In this recent detailed and carefully researched study, Urry explores the numerous ways in which Mennonites have acted and thought "politically" throughout their history, depicting them as less separatist and nonconformist in their dealings with the state than they are commonly portrayed. Furthermore, he also emphasizes that they used political institutions and wielded political power internally, to create a cohesive and controlled Mennonite community, or "peoplehood" as he calls it.

The book ambitiously covers a long chronological period, from the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement in the early sixteenth century to the very recent past of 1980. Urry traces the activity of those Mennonites who migrated from Germany and the Netherlands to Prussia in the seventeenth century, to south Russia in the eighteenth century, and then in several waves to Canada beginning in the late nineteenth century. During their various sojourns in these diverse settings, Mennonites exhibited political astuteness as they resisted the normative civil behavior of citizenry in a given territory, negotiated with local and national governments for religious and cultural privileges, and as they gradually exercised direct political power by voting and running for political office.

Urry starts off his survey in part 1 by observing that, despite the sixteenth-century Anabaptists' "strict separation of church and state" they nevertheless "confronted and challenged" (p. 18) the power of both institutions in their religious beliefs that included a rejection of infant baptism, refusal to swear oaths, and unwillingness to wield the sword for the state. As the early religious movement developed, the growing adoption of confessional statements was an indication, Urry argues, of the creation of "a disciplined, conforming community backed by the use of force" (p. 32). He also demonstrates how urban, "bourgeois" Mennonites of northern Europe, especially those who were educated and engaged in trade, industry, and commerce, were "eager to enter polite society and play a role in civic affairs" (p. 75).

By the late seventeenth century, European Mennonites had learned the art of negotiating _privilegia_ with lesser nobles and also absolute rulers, that included such provisions as protection from prosecution, legitimization of their unique faith and practices, and special economic rights, in return for which the Mennonites, in varying degrees, offered obedience to the state. The pursuit of such _privilegia_ would see Mennonites through their migration and settlement in Russia and later Canada. Possessing unique rights and privileges as a distinct religious and cultural group within the Russian empire allowed Mennonites to create a semi self-governing "commonwealth" as it has been described, within which religious and political power were wielded sometimes in tandem with each other. Alongside the development of internal political acumen (and also internal conflict), in part 2 of the book Urry notes how nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mennonites in Russia, particularly the estate-owning and merchant class, increasingly held political office within municipal and district regions. The Russian Revolution, of course, changed Mennonites' relationship with the state dramatically and their former privileged status began to disintegrate; the response of a large number of Mennonites was to migrate, a process which itself demanded a political negotiation with the new Bolshevik regime.

In Canada (part 3 of the book) Mennonites were drawn into municipal politics early on since, at least in the early years of settlement in the late nineteenth century, they predominated in electoral districts in which they represented the majority population. The introduction of various pieces of public school legislation at the turn of the century caused friction among Mennonites and also with the government, as some Mennonites held close to the _privilegia_ that granted them the right to autonomy in parochial education. It became increasingly clear, especially during and after the First World War when Mennonites were briefly disenfranchised and prohibited from immigrating to Canada, that a relationship with the state based on a set of mutually agreed upon special privileges was a thing of the past. In Urry's words: "If Mennonites wanted their voices heard, they would have to participate in the democratic processes, obtain their demands through the ballot box, or submit to the will of the majority" (p. 183).

Even while Mennonites, especially the large immigrant group that arrived in the 1920s and more so after the Second World War, became more active in mainstream democratic politics, Urry also describes the discomforting political aberrations that occasionally surfaced. These included individuals who advocated the creation of a remotely located and self-governing "German" Mennonite state, or those who published "radical expressions of support for the Nazis" (p. 199) in Canadian Mennonite newspapers during the 1930s.

The latter two chapters of the book are devoted primarily to an interesting discussion and analysis of Mennonite involvement in party politics, mainly in the province of Manitoba. Urry traces the increasingly active voting patterns of rural and urban Mennonites, and also profiles the growing number of Mennonites who ran for political office, at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels up to 1980. At the end, Urry offers solid evidence to counter "Mennonite apolitical claims," proposing that, "even if the Quiet in the Land only whisper, their words possess major performative potential in political realms" (p. 256).

Readers interested in the Swiss-origin, Pennsylvania-German Mennonites concentrated mainly in Ontario, may wish that a parallel study would exist for this historic ethnic branch of Mennonitism. Although this group includes the horse-and-buggy Old Order Mennonites who continue to abstain from voting, and other more "separatist" streams of the religion, there is comparable evidence of Mennonite political activity in North America well before the Russian Mennonite examples offered by Urry. These include Swiss Mennonites holding public office in early Pennsylvania, when rules of governance reflected the pacifism of governor William Penn, and in nineteenth-century Ontario, where a Mennonite became the first reeve of the city of Waterloo when it was incorporated in 1857 (the same individual entered the Ontario legislature in 1867).

Because the category Mennonite encompasses a pluralism of subgroups--possibly fifty identifiable groups in Canada alone today--it is inevitable that a study such as Urry's cannot address the wide range of political responses that exist across the Mennonite continuum. This continuum might be described as a range between separatist non-involvement to involved engagement with the various political spheres that exist outside the Mennonite church and community. Since his interest is in those individuals and groups that were active politically, indeed those most likely to be so involved, Urry says little about those Mennonites, albeit a smaller percentage, that eschewed external political involvement and continue to do so. Readers should thus be mindful that Urry's thorough and well-written survey does not include all Mennonites. Also, because the Canadian focus is on Manitoba, there is much less attention given to politically active Mennonites in other parts of the country, especially Ontario, although Urry does pay some attention to the fascinating few cases of Mennonites associated with left-wing political parties and movements in Saskatchewan and also ideologically opposite movements in Alberta.

My own father, a leader in the Mennonite community and mentioned by Urry in the book, ran (unsuccessfully) for federal political office several times. Throughout this time, he repeatedly had to defend, for many Mennonites that is, his decision to enter the political arena. As a student at a Mennonite undergraduate college at the time, I recall the animated debates among my classmates on the question, "should a Mennonite be in politics?" While this is an interesting question to consider for the purpose of dialogue and debate, Urry has soundly demonstrated that the point is, perhaps, a moot one.


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