Who are the Mennonites of Saskatchewan?
The Mennonites of Saskatchewan are a group of Christian denominations. The 2001 Canadian Census, the most recent one, reported that 19,570 people in Saskatchewan declared that they were Mennonite. This would make Mennonites the sixth most populous Christian denomination in the province of Saskatchewan. The Census requires self reporting by all adults and children but organized Mennonite denominations count as members only baptised adults and not children, thus their reports on membership are considerably lower than nineteen and half thousand Mennonites given by the Census.
Today Mennonites in Saskatchewan trace their ancestry back to places as diverse and widely separated as Manitoba, Ontario, United States, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Belgium, Netherlands, Vietnam, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Paraguay, Mexico and Columbia. They have never been a united or even cohesive religious denomination and there are at least a dozen different Mennonite denominations in Saskatchewan. Some of these denominations work together in organizations like the Mennonite Central Committee or the Mennonite World Conference but with others there is little or no contact.
In the early history of Saskatchewan Mennonite settlement, Mennonites were mostly rural people settling in small villages or individual farms on lands reserved for them by the federal government or on large tracts secured from land settlement companies. Many of the earliest settlers adopted a rigidly traditional and separatist lifestyle and spoke the German Language. Some of these were so-called Old Colony Mennonites. Others were much less separatist and integrated into local farm communities and developed in addition to farming a wide variety of profession, trades and local businesses. Today elements of these two traditions are still found in the different Mennonite denominations.
Mennonites have some well defined characteristics and Christian beliefs. These include self-reliance, strong community identity, a set of long established traditions, and Christian principles of peace, good works and evangelism.
A number of people consider that they are Mennonite because they were born into a Mennonite family and follow many of the ethnic and cultural trappings of Mennonites even though they are not members of a Mennonite church. However, all Mennonite denominations assert that a person many be born into a Mennonite family but they are not formally a Mennonite unless they choose to take adult believer's baptism and join a church congregation. Because there are few Mennonite congregations in some communities Mennonites have joined other denominations and served faithfully in other churches while still being Mennonite.
Most Mennonites do not consider themselves either Catholic or Protestant but in the Anabaptist tradition. In the early sixteenth century Christian Reformation of Europe many different groups emerged. Some who sought to recreate the early Church and to free their church from political and secular control called themselves "Brethren." Their membership was egalitarian and voluntary. However, since they rejected both their own infant baptism and infant baptism by their members and only practiced adult believer's baptism their enemies called them re-baptizers or by the Latin term "Anabaptists." This later term, meant as an insult, became their accepted name. A good summary of the basic Anabaptist and Mennonite beliefs and information on the worldwide Mennonite denomination can be found at the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) at Gameo.org or at "Third way Cafe" web site at: ThirdWay.com/menno/
Very soon after the Anabaptist's enthusiastic foundation severe persecution set in with both Catholics and Protestants imprisoning and killing thousands of Brethren. Mennonites responded by fleeing from places of persecution and by trying to isolate their congregations usually in rural areas. The spreading out of Mennonites because of persecution has been complex. Over the centuries this fleeing from persecution and discrimination has taken Mennonites from Switzerland, Germany and the European Low Lands to Poland, to the United States, to Russia and then to Canada and Latin America.
Menno Simons (1496 - 1561), though not the founder of the Anabaptism, soon became their outstanding leader, pastor and theologian. He maintained their original peaceful Biblical concepts at a time when persecution was ravaging them and revolutionary leaders were deceiving many. In respect for his leadership his Anabaptist followers were given the name Mennonite and in time other Anabaptists who also subscribed to a similar interpretation and practice of scripture took the name Mennonite.
The Anabaptists were very evangelical and spread their message of the reinvigorated Christian Church through most of Europe. Persecution suspended most evangelical proclamation and this evangelism was only rekindled in the later part of the nineteenth century. Many, but not all, Saskatchewan Mennonite denominations have had missionary programs for most of the twentieth century. This work has led to the establishment of large strong Mennonite congregations in Africa, Asia and Latin America where they didn't exist in the past. Unfortunately many of the countries of these continents have experienced sever turmoil and some of these Mennonites responded in the traditional manner of fleeing from persecution and have come to refuge in Saskatchewan. These immigrating Mennonite Christians have both invigorated some Saskatchewan Mennonite denominations and enriched the province.
vgw/5 April 2009