Manitoba History: Review: Royden K. Loewen, Family, Church and Market: A Mennonite Community in the Old and New Worlds, 1850-1930
by Lyle Dick
From the time of Baron von Haxthausen in the late 1840s, visitors to Mennonite agricultural settlements in Russia and North America have remarked on the prosperous appearance of their farm communities. Varying explanations have been offered as to the reasons for their agricultural success. Royden Loewen’s study of two Mennonite settlements on the North American plains endeavours to explain some of the historical reasons for the ascendancy of this comparatively small, apparently cohesive cultural group in Europe and North America.
The book charts the progress of Kleine Gemeinde (“Little Community” or “Little Congregation”) Mennonites from their 19th century settlements in southern Russia to reconstituted settlements in the East Reserve in Manitoba and the Cub Creek settlement in Nebraska. Among the aspects examined are agricultural practices, patterns of kinship, marriage, women’s labour, the transplantation of these patterns, and adaptations to life in North America. In addition to a detailed account of farm life, Loewen also provides a comparative treatment of rural and urban settlement within Manitoba’s East Block. He also treats the religious history of Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites in Europe and in urban and rural contexts in North America. The concluding section of the book develops an argument that traditional Mennonite values were inevitably undermined by the larger society, precipitating the migration of many men and women from rural to urban life.
Loewen’s central thesis is that persisting rural Mennonites in North America, however conservative in their religion and social organization, were nevertheless highly adaptive to changing economic, social, and ideological contexts. It was their economic pragmatism, reinforced by the “solidaristic nature” of the community, and “assured by resilient social boundaries” (p. 159), which enabled them to survive as a traditional social group in the face of strong assimilating pressures from the outside society.
The importance of economic adaptiveness to the persisting Mennonite settlers is well founded and documented. Loewen argues that, as a group, second-generation producers were able to persist on the farm because they were willing, like their parents, to embrace adaptive agricultural strategies (p. 197). These included a willingness to diversify their crops or to emphasize dairy production in response to changing market demand (pp. 199-203). Like other settlement groups, Mennonites also expanded their farm holdings and embraced new technologies to adapt to modernizing agriculture (pp. 119-22 and passim).
While the theme of adaptability enables an understanding of the persistence of the overall group, what it does not fully explain is why individual Mennonites continued to farm, while others dropped out. By 1900, as Loewen shows, many Nebraska Mennonite settlers were landless (p. 143); this process later occurred in Manitoba, albeit at a slower rate (p. 165). They had either been relegated to waged labour on the farm, or forced to seek work in town.
Did these settlers lose their lands because they were slow to adopt new methods, or because they were less hard-working or morally virtuous than other settlers? While Loewen is ambiguous on this issue, the information he provides suggests the importance of other factors in settlement, including the good fortune of pre-1900 settlers to arrive in a period when land was cheap, while subsequent arrivals often confronted much higher land costs.
Economic behaviour is only one of the areas in which Mennonites adapted to changing conditions. Loewen also suggests that changes in settlement patterns and religious ideologies were likewise integral to the survival of the Mennonites as a cultural group (pp. 170-91).
The discussion of changing settlement patterns offers an interesting revision of previous studies. Scholars such as John Warkentin had interpreted the Mennonites’ early abandonment of the street villages and open field system of land tenure as indicative of a new preoccupation with profit-oriented agriculture. While acknowledging that many migrating farmers who departed were seeking more land, Loewen states that their motivation was not increased profits but rather a desire to preserve the community by securing an adequate land base for their sons (pp. 144-45).
Perhaps the most surprising re-interpretation of Mennonite historiography is that the religious upheavals and schisms at the turn of the century were indicative of adaptations within the religious sphere. Loewen argues that the communitarian religious values of Russian Mennonites needed to be reoriented to an emphasis on personal piety in line with the more individualistic character of North American farming. New revivalist variants of the church represented such an attempt to reconcile traditional religious and social values with the competitive ethos of the New World (pp. 170-91).
A problem for Mennonites, however, was that the “solidaristic nature” of the community could apparently only be maintained through a periodic shunning or ostracizing of members transgressing the boundaries of what was deemed to be morally or socially acceptable. Indeed, Loewen documents the recurrent banishment of perceived offenders from Mennonite communities throughout the settlement period (pp. 253-54 and passim).
A difficulty in evaluating the adaptability of social groups in terms of religious or ideological change is that actions considered to represent adaptation from the perspective of the group might appear otherwise to persons outside the group’s boundaries. To non-Mennonites or secularized Mennonites, the zealous casting out of non-conformists might suggest a particularly brittle ideological structure. To traditionalists, on the other hand, the uncompromising commitment to religious and social conformity within their own ranks will undoubtedly be viewed as a strength.
The theme of “adaptation,” then, while potentially useful as a heuristic category, is also a problematical one. “Adaptation” is rather narrowly and selectively applied to only those pragmatic strategies enabling persistence within rural, conservative Mennonite contexts. Mennonites pursuing different goals were obliged to move to the towns or cities, joining the ranks of others forced off the land by agricultural modernization. These Mennonites might seem to have adapted successfully to the secularized values of the larger culture. From a traditional rural Mennonite perspective, however, they appear not as adapting but rather as corrupted by the “gain-oriented” values of the dominant Anglo-Canadian culture in the West (p. 144 and passim).
The discussion of lapsed Mennonites is further developed in Chapter 11 on “Town Ladies and Farm Women.” Loewen suggests that, by moving to the town, Mennonite farm women adopted class pretensions and condescension toward the life they had left behind. He draws a sharp distinction between the “important degrees of power and status” (p. 236) enjoyed by women in the farm economy, and the “female subservience and expectations of a new ‘lady-like’ etiquette” of Mennonite women who had migrated to the town (p. 234). Preoccupied with status, conspicuous consumption, and conformity to Anglo-Canadian womanhood, these “town ladies” do not actively adapt but rather passively “emulate the lives of middle-class Anglo-Canadians or Americans” (p. 236). Similarly, other town residents, including “well-to-do” Mennonite merchants, “saw greater opportunity and more glamour in the marketplace than in the farmyard” (p. 216). In the absence of direct testimonies from these newly-urbanized Mennonites or their descendants, it is difficult to confirm whether they would have agreed with the author’s characterization of their motivations in moving to the city. Here, a more thorough utilization of oral history might usefully have supplemented the heavy emphasis on documentary sources.
Despite the effort to treat the role of women substantively, the book appears to take seriously only those women who continued to operate in traditional domestic contexts. Left undiscussed is the issue of patriarchy, and whether women, either rural or urban, might have felt in any sense constrained by the traditional family structure. The author does not seem sympathetic to the possibility that some Mennonites, whether women or men, might legitimately have been seeking new opportunities or identities in the towns.
The hero of the narrative, then, is the “majority of Kleine Gemeinde descendants who guarded the “essence of life” in agrarian households and communal-oriented farming districts” (p. 196). They are contrasted with the Mennonites in town “for whom a sense of peoplehood and separation from the wider society was essentially ‘symbolic’, no longer a way of life rooted in a family farm and a sectarian community” (p. 196). Presumably, too, the process of migration was selective, removing those persons who could not function in a fundamentalist context, leaving behind the women and men who conformed to the moral strictures of the traditionalist community.
How the overall thesis of the book is received will depend on whether readers concur with the author’s definition and use of the term “community.” He has chosen to use this term to signify a homogeneous collectivity of true believers, trying to maintain group cohesiveness in the face of assimilating and secularizingeven corruptinginfluences of the surrounding society.
Perhaps the basic opposition between an organic Mennonite “community” and a corrupting outside “Other” can be sustained only by overlooking important differences within the Mennonite group itself. The economic anthropologist Jeffrey Longhofer has argued that the Mennonite communities in Russia, prior to emigration, were characterized by deep divisions between landowners and landless.  He and other writers have suggested that over the centuries Mennonite ideological structures, especially their concepts of property, have expressed an ambivalent combination of individualism and communalism. This helps explain the remarkable flexibility of their economic strategies, allowing a communally-oriented system of common fields when it was needed to attract farm labour, and emphasizing exclusive private property rights when the advent of commercial farming made it advantageous for landowners to dispense with the commons. As the anthropologist Robert Netting has observed, common field agriculture and related communal institutions “are less accurately viewed as relics of a romanticized village community than as historically specific ways of managing land and labour.”  Loewen, on the other hand, appears to prefer the pastoral image of early 19th century Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites as devout community-oriented farmers as a more appropriate characterization than the picture of competitive entrepreneurialism which was increasingly in evidence in both Russian and North American Mennonite settlements after 1850.
A question remains: why has the history of this ostensibly cohesive community been so marked by recurrent divisions and either out-migration or casting-out of so many of its members? Royden Loewen has provided a well-argued explanation that the primary influence on the history of North American Mennonite communities has been external, that is, the socio-economic organization of the larger society, combined with the pragmatism of the persisting Mennonite agriculturalists adapting to this larger context. An understanding of the history of the other Mennonites who departed these settlements will similarly require a detailed study of the internal differences contributing to the recurrent ruptures in the social fabric. Such a study might further illuminate the paradoxes of co-existing strengths and fragilities, land ownership and landlessness, persistence and abandonment, and acceptance and ostracism, which apparently have characterized the larger story of Mennonite “communities” in both Europe and North America.
1. Jeffrey Longhofer, “Specifying the Commons: Mennonites, Intensive Agriculture, and Landlessness in Nineteenth-Century Russia,” Ethnohistory 40:3 (Summer 1993), pp. 385-409. Given the internal complexities of their societies, including variables of family, class, religion, village, district, and colony, and interrelationships with external factors, Longhofer suggests that Mennonites do not lend themselves to homogeneous characterization (p, 391). He argues that the historically ambivalent Mennonite land use system, incorporating an uneasy and shifting set of relationships between individual and common rights, “was a fragile system that worked best in conjunction with commercial pastoralism” (p. 392).
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