To the ends of the earth: an introduction to the conservative Low German Mennonites in the Americas

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Author: Royden Loewen
Date: July 2008
From: Mennonite Quarterly Review(Vol. 82, Issue 3)
Publisher: Mennonite Historical Society
Document Type: Essay
Length: 9,705 words
Lexile Measure: 1460L

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During the 1920s some 8000 conservative Dutch-Russian Mennonites moved from Canada to northern Mexico and the Chaco region of Paraguay. Today they have grown into a set of communities totaling about 180,000 persons and have spread into other regions of Paraguay and Mexico, and throughout the Americas, including Bolivia, Belize, and Argentina. Meanwhile, many others have migrated north to Canada and to the southern U.S. Their story is that of an "old order" people, that is, plain people, seeking to conserve Anabaptist principles by embracing visible symbols of separation from the wider world. Unlike the Amish and Old Order Mennonites in the United States and Ontario, these conservative Mennonites sought to maintain their traditions by migrating to increasingly isolated geographic sites, "to the ends of the earth." They intentionally became a 'transnational' people. Their theology venerated lives as suffering pilgrims and their stated intention was to maintain the religious culture of their ancestors. Despite this desire, their history shows that they have been required to make numerous adjustments, the most noticeable one being still more migrations in search of economic and cultural survival.

THE FACES OF THE LOW GERMAN DUTCH-RUSSIAN MENNONITES

They are a people whom many see "as social antiques who have withdrawn from the modern world." (1) They "ride by lantern light, ride in buggies and shun high school." (2) Their "threads of social life [make] a single fabric that stretches from cradle to grave." (3) The women are respected for "their strong work ethic, emphasis on 'family values,' and respect for land," (4) and "within the family they are independent and assertive." (5) "Contrary to most traditional theories of assimilation ... [they] have not been absorbed into mainstream ... society," (6) and with a time-tested "repertoire of actions and attitudes" they have been able to "preserve themselves." (7) Sometimes the "stern rules of the church and the hard daily toil ... is too much," (8) but for hem tradition is not a "senseless burden to be cast off, but ... a reliable guide in a volatile world." (9) They practice a "kind of farming that has been proven to preserve communities." (10) They are an "old order" people "on the backroad to heaven." (11)

Most of these quotations, of course, pertain to the Amish in the United States and are taken from the work of recognized scholars of the Amish--Hostetler, Kraybill, Bowman, Kasdorf, Nolt, Jellison, Reschly and others. But these quotations also describe a missing piece of the "old order" puzzle: the conservative Dutch-Russian Mennonites who first settled in Canada in the 1870s and who continue to speak a Flemish-West Prussian Low German dialect. (12) Today about 130,000 of these black-kerchiefed homemakers and conservatively attired farmers and craftsmen (often wearing black overalls and cowboy hats)--plain people par excellence--are spread across the Americas. They can be found in various points between La Crete, Alberta, just 100 miles from Canada's Northwest Territories, to Guatrache, Argentina, 300 miles southwest of Buenos Aires--a span of 7,233 miles. They live between Northfield,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A218190813