In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.
Written over a six-year period, and with the benefit of 30 years of immersion in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Sam Steiner's comprehensive new book is a broad and sweeping--as well as meticulously detailed--walk through 230 years of history of the Mennonite presence in what is known today as the province of Ontario.
Steiner calls his book a "religious history," in that it focuses primarily on the "workings of church structures and the role of individual stories and events that have led church members to make different decisions about the cultural and theological direction of their church" (18). The title, In Search of Promised Lands, employs the biblical image of exodus and emigration as a metaphor for the search by Mennonites for both a physical (or geographical) home that afforded economic well-being and physical security (sometimes from persecution), and for different theological homes where they found spiritual and religious meaning. The search for promised lands took Mennonites in many different directions as they encountered new religious influences, worldviews, and cultures. Some groups embraced those new influences while others sought to preserve traditional and more separate ways.
Steiner had to make choices as to which groups would and would not be included in his book. He has chosen to include all those who currently name themselves as Mennonite or who have done so at times in the past. Therefore, he gives extensive coverage to the Amish, many of whom eventually became known as Mennonites in the twentieth century, as well as to the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, who dropped the name Mennonite in 1947 and moved outside the Mennonite fold. He includes only occasional references to the Brethren in Christ, who have never used the name Mennonite but who are active participants in Mennonite Central Committee and the Mennonite World Conference.
The book begins in Pennsylvania, the context from which the earliest Ontario Mennonites migrated. It describes their settlement between the 1780s and 1830s on the Canadian frontier in the Niagara, Waterloo, and Markham regions, and how the influence of evangelical renewal movements led to church division in those communities through the nineteenth century. The early twentieth century witnessed new ventures in missions and service, while World War I and its aftermath contributed to both increased unity and, at the same time, division, as groups made varying choices about, for example, women's head coverings (and other dress), the use of English, and the organization of Sunday schools. In the 1920s the arrival of thousands of refugees from the Soviet Union introduced new cultural threads into the existing Ontario tapestry. The challenges of World War II again pushed Mennonite groups to a greater measure of unity as they negotiated alternatives to military service.
The impulse to cooperate and collaborate found expression in the postwar decades in the creation of numerous inter-Mennonite institutions, including M.C.C. Ontario, Conrad Grebel College, credit unions, and relief sales. Denominational high schools, camps, and homes for the aged and the mentally ill also emerged. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have again been characterized by increasing diversity, as thousands of colony Mennonites from Mexico have made Ontario their home, as Mennonite-sponsored refugees from around the world have chosen to become Mennonites themselves, and as all groups find themselves occupying different places on an increasingly wide ethnic, cultural, and theological spectrum. Indeed, at the end of the book Steiner notes that by 2015, "the diversity within the Ontario Mennonite landscape had grown to the point that shared core values were difficult to identify" (581).
A central theme of Steiner's book is the varying choices that Ontario groups have made in their encounters with each other and with wider religious and social trends--choices that, he argues, represent their search for the sought-for promised lands. Some, like those within the Old Order "family," have emphasized faithfulness through nonconformity with "the world" while others have emphasized faithfulness through assimilation and deliberate engagement with "the world." Often, different visions of faithfulness have resulted in church divisions and splits--one reason for the fact that in 2012, over thirty-three different Mennonite groups existed in Ontario. Steiner identifies four broad categories to make sense of this diversity and division: Assimilated Mennonites; Separatist Conservatives; Evangelical Conservatives; and Old Orders. He notes that Assimilated Mennonites are declining in membership most rapidly.
Steiner's book is a major contribution to the scholarship of Mennonite history for several reasons. First, Steiner has done exceptionally comprehensive and careful research. The lengthy bibliography, the extensive footnotes, and the detailed descriptions of events, congregations, and characters are testimony to his meticulous work. Moreover, he has documented important new research on, for example, the significance of women in leadership in the early Mennonite Brethren in Christ church, Mennonite involvement in Indian residential schools in northwestern Ontario, and developments among Old Order and Low German Mennonites.
Another strength of the book is the generous and sympathetic way Steiner writes about all Mennonite groups, whether he considers them Assimilated Mennonites (the category with which he identifies), Separatist Conservatives, Evangelical Conservatives, or Old Orders. Indeed, he goes the second mile to give space and attention to developments within some of the more conservative communities over the past decades. In the preface he notes that he "worked hard to respectfully describe" all groups (18). He has been eminently successful.
One of the book's weaknesses is that, despite being called a "religious history," it does not delve deeply into theological issues and questions. We read, for example, that fundamentalism and evangelicalism influenced Ontario Mennonites in profound ways, but the book's descriptions and analyses of these "isms" are rather brief and rudimentary. We learn that the "assurance of salvation versus faithful living" is a significant tension within and between Mennonite groups but we do not gain an in-depth understanding of this tension. Steiner states at the outset that he is not a theologian; nevertheless a "religious history" might do more to explore these theological themes.
Another question for this reader is that Steiner does not really comment on the Mennonite propensity to divide and split--and his book covers many splits! What is it about the Mennonite tradition has led us to separate from one another over, at times, fairly inconsequential matters? He asserts that groups divided because they held different (and presumably incompatible) theological visions of their own promised lands. This difference of vision is no doubt a key factor, but surely other elements--personality conflicts, power dynamics, and undeveloped conflict resolution skills, for example--were also at work. We know that church conflict and division in our time is much more complicated than differences of theology; no doubt this was true in the past as well.
In Search of Promised Lands is a major contribution to Canadian Mennonite history. Large clear photos, helpful tables and maps, and a comprehensive glossary all add to the book's usefulness. The length of the book--600 pages of text and 200 pages of endnotes--may turn away the average reader, but for decades to come students and scholars of Mennonite history in Canada will consider Steiner's work indispensable.
ESTHER EPP-TIESSEN Mennonite Central Committee Canada
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|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2016|
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