Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe-Russia-Canada, 1525 to 1980

Article excerpt

James Urry. Mennonites, Politics, and Peoplehood: Europe--Russia--Canada, 1525 to 1980. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006. xv + 400 pp. $27.95 paper.

James Urry's new book is historical social anthropology at its best. It is both comprehensive and narrowly focused, spanning the centuries from the founding of the Mennonite church in the 16th century to the maturation of a segment of the worldwide community in the 1980s, while concentrating nearly exclusively on the process and character of that church's politicization in the practical and theoretical realms. Matters of faith and doctrine are only peripherally treated when they involve the overriding concerns of politics both internal and external. Urry traces the intricate relationship between a pacifist ethno-religious community, increasingly aware of a unique peoplehood, to the various forms of governing authority appropriate to the various epochs. But this historical evolution of church-state relations is covered for one important segment of the worldwide community only--namely, those who migrated from Holland to Poland-Prussia in the late 16th century and then those from the Danzig region who emigrated to Catherine the Great's "New Russia" on the lower Dnepr in the late 18th century. Then he moves along with several waves of immigrants from Russia to Canada, mainly Manitoba and finally Winnipeg, the city with the largest Mennonite population in the world.

Setting up a dramatic structure which leads off in the introduction with a discussion of the apolitical "quiet in the land," Urry ends up with a politically involved "loud in the land" in the conclusion. Each chapter, in chronological order, in turn takes up the central issues of an epoch and develops in detail how the problems emerged and how they were dealt with by both sides, the pacifist group and the powers that be.

The first chapter addresses the initial two and a half centuries, starting in 1525. During that time, confessions and magistrates dominated the discourse, including the famous apolitical Schleitheim Articles, positing a sharp division between the corrupt outside world of power and the defenseless flock of the faithful. Gradually, Mennonites followed other groups and composed self-defining confessions of faith, which for the most part rejected service as magistrates, but usually emphasized obedience to rules and decrees issued by magistrates, as long as they did not deviate from the Word of God.

With some obvious overlapping in time parameters, the next chapter deals with the mandates issued by nearly all rulers against the Mennonite deviants and traces the slow progress toward acceptance, with full rights enshrined in so-called Privilegia around 1800. The third chapter, spanning the years from 1750 to 1874, is labeled "Revolutions and Constitutions" and focuses still on Western Europe. Mennonites were partially involved in nearly all the political currents and crosscurrents of this tumultuous time, characterized by numerous revolutions and several constitutional liberal attempts at reform and unification, especially in central Europe. To the surprise of many, two Mennonite representatives were elected to the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848, although they seemed to be moved more by nationalism than pacifism and made no attempt to argue for exception from military service or avoidance of legal oaths.

Moving on to the second section of the book, we arrive in Russia, familiar terrain for those who have read Professor Urry's earlier book on the sweeping transformation of the Mennonite commonwealth, None But Saints. In the first chapter of this new section, he develops the amazing progress of power and privilege under the benevolent czars up to the Revolution of 1905. There is no one in the field today who can match Urry's potent and penetrating analysis, displayed in this and the following two chapters, more narrowly focused on the period between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, entitled "Constitutionalism and Solidarity," and the devastating period of the civil war and the agonizing 1920s, somewhat mildly labeled "Autonomy and Ideology. …