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Mennonites

Mennonites are members of a small Protestant religious-cultural group which traces its origins to European Anabaptists of the early 16th century. The Anabaptists emphasized a radical theology of Christian discipleship, which demanded that true followers of Jesus apply all that he taught his disciples to all aspects of life. That meant, among other things, that they rejected participation in any secular, civil, military or official church affairs which they believed did not conform with that high standard of discipleship. They also insisted that all governments were ordained by God and should be obeyed and respected in all matters not inconsistent with the higher standards set by Jesus. Their antinomian theology, particularly their rejection of military service in time of war and of established religious authority, resulted in severe persecution by both secular and established church authorities. Many found refuge on scattered and remote agricultural lands, where a hard-working, abstemious, peaceable and, in most matters, law-abiding lifestyle earned Mennonites religious concessions and privileges.

Saskatchewan was an agricultural frontier to which Mennonites first came in the early 1890s. Most of those early Mennonite migrants, however, came in search of land rather than to escape religious persecution. In the 1870s the federal government had set aside two large tracts of land as Mennonite reserves. New limited-time reserves, to accommodate Manitoba Mennonites seeking additional land, were established in Saskatchewan—two in the early 1890s at Hague-Osler and near Swift Current, and a third in the Quill Lakes district in 1905. In the Hague-Osler and Swift Current reserves, the settlers established villages, communities and churches similar to those in Russia and the Manitoba reserves. Those early Mennonite migrants were joined in Saskatchewan by others coming directly from Russia, Prussia, Ontario, and the United States. Most of the later arrivals, including those in the Quill Lakes reserve, settled on traditional western homesteads or purchased railway lands; but they tried, in spite of different settlement patterns, to retain salient aspects of their religious and cultural heritage. Many more Mennonites arrived in the 1920s, following the disruptions of war and revolution in Russia, and after World War II.

Flourishing communities were established in which Mennonites enjoyed a substantial measure of local administrative and educational control. But they came under very considerable pressure during World War I because of their failure to integrate quickly into Canadian society. That resulted in the passage of legislation by the provincial governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan requiring the organization of assimilationist English-language schools in all immigrant districts, and compulsory attendance at these schools by all school-age children. Those who refused to send their children to approved schools were subject to heavy fines and possible imprisonment. That led, in the early 1920s, to a migration of approximately 7,000 Manitoba and Saskatchewan Mennonites to Mexico and Paraguay. The arrival of Mennonite migrants from the Soviet Union, however, more than offset the out-migration. The Mennonites who stayed, and those arriving in the 1920s, sought to influence the education of their children through elected local school boards, and by training future Mennonite teachers in denominational high schools at Rosthern, Saskatchewan, and Gretna, Manitoba.

Most Saskatchewan Mennonites lived in rural areas where they engaged in farming and farm-related ventures before World War II. Many of their young men, however, were conscripted for alternative wartime service during World War II. That experience, increased mechanization, and attractive educational, economic and cultural opportunities drew a rapidly increasing number to towns and cities. Wartime alternative service and post-war voluntary service in relief and rehabilitation work further enlarged Mennonite awareness of worldwide needs and of Christian opportunities to address those needs. Generously funded Mennonite relief agencies —most notably the Mennonite Central Committee, which was first established in North America to assist distressed Mennonites in the Soviet Union, and the more recently organized Mennonite Economic Development Agency—initiated worldwide relief, aid and peace-making programs.

The basic unit of Mennonite institutional life is the congregation. In the early days leadership was provided by lay ministers and elders who were sometimes called bishops. More recently most congregations are served by salaried pastors and governed by democratically elected lay leaders. Beyond the congregation there are a number of provincial and national conferences. The various conferences reflect in part the date at which various groups arrived in Canada, and in part doctrinal differences and personality clashes. Today Saskatchewan Mennonites can be found in all walks of life. Their rural communities, like most others in Saskatchewan, have suffered considerable decline, and the largest churches are now in the cities, most notably in Saskatoon. Their membership, as reported in the decennial Canadian census returns, peaked in 1941, but declined slightly in the next five decades and more dramatically in the last ten years.

Theodore Regehr

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