Manitoba History: Review: Ted Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970: A People Transformed
by Frieda Esau Klippenstein
In this book, Ted Regehr takes on a very difficult task—to write a history of Canadian Mennonite life from 1939 to 1970. It is the third in a series originally commissioned in the mid-1960s by the Canadian Mennonite Historical Society, which formed around this project. The author succeeds historian Frank H. Epp, who in 1974 completed the first volume of Mennonites In Canada subtitled: “The History of a Separate People” covering the period 1786 to 1920. Epp’s second volume, appearing in 1982, covered the period 1920 to 1940 and was subtitled: “A People’s Struggle For Survival.” Though it only takes us to 1970, Ted Regehr’s volume, “Mennonites in Canada: A People Transformed” is intended to conclude the series. The overarching story is how Mennonites as a whole have come through a difficult struggle in Canada, first guarding their identity through separation from the outside world, but finally successfully integrating into mainstream society without losing those qualities that make them “Mennonite.”
For Epp and Regehr to identify these broad themes and draw nation-wide conclusions is so difficult because Canadian Mennonites, the subject of the enquiry, are highly fragmented, including such diverse peoples as the Holdeman, the Hutterites, the Old Order Amish, the many Kanadianer and Russlaender denominations of the 1870s and 1920s-50s migrations, and the Swiss Mennonites of the late eighteenth century migration from Pennsylvania to Ontario. So vastly differing are their characteristics, backgrounds, and histories that it is bewildering to those, outside and inside, that the term “Mennonite” could apply to them all. In any case, excusing himself from discussing the Hutterites and the Old Orders, Regehr bravely builds his broad conceptual framework after meticulous study of the many other groups involved.
Regehr’s central thesis is that between 1940 and 1970 Mennonites in Canada underwent tremendous change—so much, in fact, that he calls it a transformation. The majority of Mennonite groups made the transition from German to the English language in their churches and schools; they changed from a rural to a largely urban people, from a farming lifestyle to one based largely in business and the professions. In effect, Mennonites in Canada made the move from the fringes to the mainstream; from separation to involvement in the central institutions of Canadian life. However, Regehr maintains, this transformation is not to be understood as assimilation, but rather as an accommodation whereby the central distinctives of Mennonitism remain, finding new meanings and new relevancies.
And how do we know that these central distinctives survived? If Mennonites have not simply assimilated into the mainstream of Canadian life, what still defines their group boundaries: specific dress? cultural traits? theology / religious beliefs? genetic links? shared experience? church membership? Regehr brings it down to certain “Anabaptist” traits, traits that marked the breakaway group during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Europe. Specifically, these are radical discipleship, belief in authority of scripture, a rejection of violence and adoption of nonresistance, and a call for separation of church and state. These traits he sees exemplified in Mennonites from the broad range of sectarian divisions, despite the dramatic, rapid changes they underwent during this period. It is well to ask, however, whether the groups themselves define their Mennonitism in this way. Mennonite group boundaries have been drawn as often and effectively with differences in kinship, head coverings, music styles, or modes of transportation than differences in values or ideology. Clearly Mennonite identity is not a fixed set of attributes which one acquires at birth. As one observer, Gerhard Ens, has pointed out, identity has multiple and contradictory aspects which are constantly changing. Identity is not realization of an essence, but the story of ongoing political contestation. The survival of a “Mennonite identity” is not necessarily evidence of continuity. Rather, over two centuries of Mennonite life in Canada, identity has been reinvented and reimagined in a myriad of new ways, in order to cope with and negotiate discontinuity. 
In the appended bibliographic essay Ted makes his disclaimer—“I have no doubt that some of my younger colleagues, and certainly some graduate students, will find my methods, sources, and interpretations too conventional” (p. 541). I think this was a important recognition that historical accounts are timepieces. This one differs substantially from those of the previous generation, and implements many approaches and techniques that are beginning to characterize the upcoming generation of academics. For instance, Regehr applies a critical eye to events and trends in Mennonite life, departing sharply from the aggrandizing, “inspirational” style of many previous historians and from the prohibition against putting anything shameful or unflattering about the “brotherhood” in writing. A recurring theme in this book is authoritarianism and power. With some distaste Regehr exposes the world of spiritual coercion tactics in American evangelicalism, imperialism and colonialism in missions, power relations in church committee work, family compacts in national church committees, and intrigue in education institutions.
Regehr also brings new sources and methodologies to this history. Though he strongly favours written over oral sources, he attempts to include the stories and many voices of “ordinary” people, a departure from the often purely institutional, “great men” approaches. He is not committed to boiling events down to one authoritative storyline, but instead attempts to fairly present opposing viewpoints and allow complexities and debates to stand. He has included aspects of women’s experience in his history. On this he benefited from the inclusion of women on the book’s reading committee, and from the growing scholarship available in the very recent years. There are some strong passages on Mennonite rural social organization, on the voluntary service efforts of women during the second world war, the domestic service work which so many of the young women took up in the cities, the horrific experiences of refugee women in Europe after the war, and the women’s transition to residence in city suburbs. Attention is given to women mostly in the form of noting various contributions. For instance credit is given to the thousands of women who worked as domestic servants in the cities in the 1940s and ‘50s. Specific female artists, musicians and missionaries are named, and church women’s groups are noted for their contributions in relief work. More attention, however, could have been given to charting the broad changes and developments for Mennonite women over these decades.
Regehr is strongest on the topics of war-time service, economic developments, Mennonite churches and schools as institutions, the entry into the professions, and the articulation of official stands on issues such as militarism and evangelicalism. Creating images of the past in official histories such as this can be proscriptive as well as descriptive. Besides functioning as a description of who Mennonites were in the 1940s to ‘70s the book may well spark re-evaluation of who they want to be. It is an honest, thoughtful inquiry that will surely provoke discussion and inform future studies.
1. See Gerhard Ens, “Preparing for the World: the Modernist Romance Approach in Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970,” in Journal of Mennonite Studies, vol. 15, 1997, pp. 132-3.
Page revised: 26 September 2012Back to top of page