Of Borders and Boundaries: Reflections on Mennonite Unity and Separation in the Modern World

By Urry, James | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Of Borders and Boundaries: Reflections on Mennonite Unity and Separation in the Modern World


Urry, James, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: The writing of national Mennonite histories, such as those recently completed in the United States and Canada, assumes a certain unity among Mennonites while also acknowledging the differences in the histories of the varied groups in North America before and after migration from Europe. The tendency towards maintaining distinctiveness while pursuing cooperation in many aspects of life, implicit in the Mennonite experience at the national and international level, is considered at the local level against the background of the contemporary situation in a community of Russian Mennonites in southeastern Manitoba. Situating Mennonites in the wider world of socio-economic transformations in Europe and North America since the nineteenth century, the essay highlights some of the social, religious and political causes and consequences of their internal self-categories, alliances, divisions and attempts at unity. Historians and other scholars do not just reflect these conditions, but are involved in their formation.

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Oft and on for the last decade I have been studying a community of Russian Mennonites centered on a rural service township in southeastern Manitoba. I cannot disguise from Mennonites the name of the township--it is Grunthal, the rather prosaic modern name pronounced "grunt-thal" for a once proud German Green Valley: Grunthal. (1) My interest in Grunthal is that its township and surrounding community, although founded by the pioneers of Russian Mennonite settlement to Manitoba in the 1870s, was largely rebuilt in the 1930s by a new wave of Mennonites who emigrated from the Soviet Union to Canada in the 1920s. (2) The new immigrants came to be known as Russlander, the older settlers as Kanadier, and at least on the prairies during the 1920s through to the 1940s these terms marked a major divide between people in areas where Mennonites of the old and new immigration interacted. (3) In usage, these terms today are archaic even though many of the social and religious fault lines between the descendants of the different immigrations remain.

During the 1920s a large number of the descendants of the first settlers to the area around Grunthal emigrated to Paraguay, and their vacated farms were taken over largely by the new Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union. The ways of life of the two peoples, although separated only by two generations from common roots in Russia, were surprisingly different, as were their views of culture and aspirations for the future. The rebuilding of the Grunthal community, however, was an achievement of not just the new Russlander immigrants. It also involved some of the original settlers who had not emigrated to Paraguay or who had returned, and descendants of other 1870s immigrants from other areas of Manitoba who entered the area during the Depression years of the 1930s. In the wider context it also involved non-Mennonites: Ukrainians, French Manitobans and the "English," a term which included more than just British Canadians.

On numerous occasions Mennonites from Grunthal have driven me to and from Winnipeg. On return trips that pass through the French Manitoban village of St. Pierre--Jolys, we turn east oft the main highway and as we drive towards Grunthal they point out in the distance the silo towers of the "first" Mennonite farm visible from the highway. Then, at a strategic point in the road, they announce proudly, "We are now entering Mennonite land." In a sense we are "home" before actually arriving at out specific destination. We have crossed an invisible boundary and entered Mennoland.

One day, this time driving with my wife, I asked her to stop close to where this statement is usually made. Beside the road is the "last" French farm homestead and in the past something had caught my eye as we sped past. Sure enough, almost lost against the trees, is a large, steel-framed crucifix depicting Christ crucified. Some French Manitoban obviously has marked where their world ends and another begins; on the road from St.

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