SAMUEL J. STEINER. In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario. Harrisonburg, Virginia and Kitchener, Ontario: Herald Press, 2015. Pp. 877. US$70.
Faith is passed on through story—from generation to generation. In these fast-changing times the old adage has never been more true: How can we know where we are going unless we know where we came from? This story of the search of a variety of Anabaptist groups for promised lands where they could live out their faith provides an antidote to our often frantic pace in its detailed telling of the hope implicit in their stories. In 16 chapters, Steiner has brought together the search of Anabaptists from a diversity of ethnicities who chose Ontario, Canada, as a safe place to settle and to worship. Although the Brethren in Christ appear only briefly in places where their story is closely tied to the Mennonite story, we can gain significant context for understanding our own roots.
The biblical metaphor of promised land is one that has been shared by many faiths. Steiner shows how “Mennonites of all doctrines and heritages” have associated three aspects of the promised land with their faith journey: “geographic location,” images of hope in the afterlife, and “more secular human aspirations.” This book proposes that “the startling diversity of Mennonites” in contemporary Ontario can be explained, at least in part, through an exploration of their respective seeking of a promised land (24). Not only did a variety of Mennonites seek and find promised land in the peninsula known as Southern Ontario; their spiritual search at times divided them, thus creating even greater diversity.
The Tunkers (Brethren in Christ) were a significant presence among the minority of German-speaking Mennonites and Lutherans who emigrated from Pennsylvania to Upper Canada (Ontario) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While some Mennonites and Brethren in Christ looked west, others responded to Governor Simcoe’s invitation to settle in what was then known as Upper Canada. Promises of land and military exemption prompted a steady stream of Mennonites and Tunkers to settle among English-speaking immigrants, including Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers (77). The complexity of their stories unfolds, as others joined them over the ensuing centuries—in particular Mennonites who came from Russia in three waves between World Wars I and II. Then in the last half of the twentieth century, the mix became even more complex with immigrants from Asia, Africa, and South America joining the broader Ontario Anabaptist community.
The book probes questions around the divisions that nineteenth century promises of “religious renewal” has caused in communities and even in individual families and the diverse theologies that shaped the variety of Anabaptist experiences. Evangelicalism confronted faithful living, with the former embracing innovations in worship including musical instruments and Sunday schools, while the Old Order held to tradition. By the turn of the century, “New Frontiers” would include missions, both urban and outside Canada, and schools developed to train young folks for mission (157).
As one would expect, the Mennonite responses to war are central in the book: the War of 1812, World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War. The four middle chapters discuss at length the developments in nonresistance, conscientious objection, relief as response to war sufferers, and immigration, all significant to the Mennonite search for promised lands. For Brethren in Christ readers, it is noteworthy that Bishop E. J. Swalm is highlighted in his significant leadership role in the Conference of Historic Peace Churches and other Mennonite-Brethren in Christ relations. Brethren in Christ readers will also be interested in developments in the post-war years including the growth of a Mennonite Central Committee in Canada, where Swalm continued to play an ecumenical role.
The latter half of the book develops the post-war years, where immigrants continued to come to what they saw as promised land, while many long-settled Mennonites discerned what it meant to live in an increasingly wealthy and materialistic society. For some, to be evangelical meant rejecting their Mennonite identity in hope of better engaging with the world, while others worked hard at preserving that identity through schools, businesses, a credit union, and numerous other institutions. As Steiner shows, whichever route they chose, Ontario Mennonites had largely assimilated by 1970, continuing to repackage and reshape their sometimes diverse theologies and ethical responses to a modern world. Meanwhile, on their part, Old Order and Conservative Mennonites, while retaining their traditions, also grew and even flourished.
The Canadian Brethren in Christ are fortunate to have their story told in Morris Sider’s 1988 publication Two Hundred Years of Tradition and Change. Yet it is worth noting that the Meeting House, an Anabaptist mega-church of the Canadian Brethren in Christ, was only in its infancy when Sider’s book was published. Although Steiner’s history treats the Brethren in Christ only peripherally, for those interested in the larger story of Ontario Anabaptist circles in recent decades, it will be well worth reading Steiner’s detailed history as one way of putting that story in broader context.
Steiner’s history of Mennonites in Ontario is also relevant for those farther away, with its distillation of knowledge gained over a lifetime of archival and historical work, including many years as managing editor of the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (http://gameo.org). Although it is too early to get the depth of historical perspective, the later chapters provide a valuable and informative reference resource including stories of people, institutions and the varieties of Mennonite church life.
It is worth noting that as a young man Steiner himself sought a promised land where he could live safely without the pressures experienced by draft-age American men during the Vietnam War. His thoughtful development of the vision of so many varieties of Mennonites as they sought promised lands over centuries in some ways reflects his own story. Series editor Gerald Mast said it well: “in the story crafted here by Samuel Steiner, Mennonites of all types and backgrounds understood their presence in Ontario as part of the larger story of God’s people on the move from slavery to freedom, from despair to hope, from wilderness wandering to promised land settlement. Even when they could not agree on doctrine, they were bound by the shared hope of salvation, both in its earthly form of peaceable flourishing and in its heavenly form of life eternal” (15).
This hope implied in search for promised land is something we can hold onto in our increasingly fast-paced and fragmented world. Sitting with Steiner’s telling of that story provides a vehicle for doing so.
Author: Lucille Marr
Lucille Marr is chaplain and academic dean at The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and adjunct professor at McGill University School of Religious Studies. She has published a number of articles and books on Mennonite and other church history.