Mennonite Environmental History

The term “Mennonite environmental history” yields only nine results when entered in a Google search. That is astounding, given the extent to which white Mennonites’ narratives of peoplehood are bound up with imagery of tilling and harvesting—as well as the degree to which Anabaptism and soil are linked in public imaginations. Recent New York Times articles featuring “Mennonite” in the title are exclusively devoted to issues of land, agriculture, and food: “Mennonite farmers prepare to leave Mexico,” “A Mennonite’s knack for fine goat cheese,” “Mennonite farmers struggle with water shortage,” and “Eat like a Mennonite.” While other reporting certainly focuses on topics from conscientious objection to sexual politics, surely no idea is more closely tied to popular North American perceptions of Anabaptism than the environment.image1-17

In this light, the latest issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies is an important and long overdue milestone. The first full volume of scholarship devoted to Mennonite environmental history, this special issue brings together papers presented at a conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba last year on “Mennonites, Land and the Environment.” The conference was hosed by the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies as well as Royden Loewen, Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, who in 2005 published the first academic article on Mennonites and environmental history. As Loewen explains in his editor’s foreword, the nucleus of the recent conference—as well as the resulting volume—formed around a multi-year research project, “Seven Points on Earth,” which the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada funded in order to enable study of the environmental history of Mennonite communities in Bolivia, Canada, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Russia, the United States, and Zimbabwe.

This essay aims to offer an interpretive and critical review of the articles collected in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment.” My intention is to illuminate what makes the volume’s contributions so interesting and refreshing to read, while also suggesting a number of possible future directions for the still fledgling field of Mennonite environmental history. To start with the obvious: this volume is a timely and much needed corrective to the surprising paucity of literature on Mennonites and the environment. In an era of rapid climate change, biodiversity loss, and growing resource scarcity, we should all be studying and acting on environmental issues. If ever there were a time for Anabaptist history, theology, and practice to join an urgent, planet-wide conversation, it is now.

The 2017 Journal of Mennonite Studies admirably addresses its topic from a global perspective. Arguably, Anabaptism has been a global movement from the beginning, shaped by the mobile, transnational forces of the Reformation and quickly exported to Eastern Europe, the far side of the Atlantic, and later to Asia, Africa, and Oceania. Since the twentieth century, the church’s demographic weight—like most Christian denominations—has shifted decidedly to the Global South, indicating that a historiography disproportionately focused on Europe and the Americas is now badly out of balance. Given the uneven degree to which Anabaptist historians have thus far told the story of the global church, the articles in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment,” offer varying degrees of nuance and innovation, depending on the geographic locations they cover. Taking the pieces more or less in chronological order, a few preliminary thoughts are as follows:

First, the section on the Netherlands provided fascinating insights into seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch Mennonite rural transformation and visual art. Although the role of Mennonites in the Dutch Golden Age is comparatively well studied, it remains only poorly integrated into larger histories of Anabaptism. Generally, this period is portrayed as exceptional, having relatively little bearing on the more “typical” conservative white agrarian Mennonite communities in Russia and the Americas that were only at their nascent stage during this era. Second, in the section on Mennonites in North America, I appreciated the authors’ attention to changes within and challenges to agrarian lifestyles. These pieces do important work to contextualize narratives of land use rather than treating them as immemorial.

If one looks beyond the pale of Mennonite studies, the section on Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union seems perhaps the most historiographically important part of this volume. The Black Sea region appears, on the evidence presented here, to be one place where Mennonite agriculture made a truly substantial impact, contributing both to the construction of the Russian state and also to narratives of East European modernity. The authors portray Mennonites as an unusually useful group to study with relation to agronomy across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, into the Soviet period and beyond. As revealed in the section on Bolivia, the hundreds of thousands of Low German-speaking Mennonites now living in Latin America are in many ways the most direct inheritors of this Russian tradition, so even the physical proximity of articles on these topics in one volume is revealing.

From a Mennonite studies standpoint, the sections on Indonesia and Zimbabwe cover the most important new ground. Anabaptist scholarship in North America generally and the Journal of Mennonite Studies in particular have tended—for both institutional and ideological reasons—to focus on white Mennonites with a general, sometimes latent, master narrative of migration from Europe, relative isolation and/or persecution, and perseverance through hard work, whether in the traditional patriarchal sense, or in an inverted way via the struggles of women and other underrepresented groups against the constraints of traditional authority. These articles challenge that master narrative in valuable ways: one essay on the environmental ethics of the nineteenth-century Javanese apostle Tunggul Wulung offers a non-European source of Anabaptist agency, as does another piece on pre-colonial environmental practices in southern Africa. To these might be added an earlier article on Mennonite-indigenous relations in Manitoba, which emphasizes the settler-colonial nature of white immigration, taking local Métis as an alternative narrative center of moral authority.

Where to go from here? “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” will not remain the only volume on Anabaptist environmental history for long, so it is worth considering the extent to which the 2017 issue of Journal of Mennonite Studies can and should stand as a touchstone at the birth of a field. First, I think some rather high-level theorizing might be in order for any future synthetic work on Mennonites and environment. Within North American Mennonite studies, Anabaptist history has been dominated by social and, more recently, cultural history. Those traditions remain dominant strands in this volume, with the tools of environmental history often present yet playing a secondary role. If one were to begin from an environmental history perspective, rather than simply adding in environmental analysis here and there, much of this volume would look different.

For example, there would have to be some serious assessment about whether and how Mennonites are important at all, were we to start with the premise of Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange, Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, or William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, to name a few classic examples. I suspect an honest treatment of Anabaptism in environmental history might ultimately depict Mennonites as marginal figures operating within much larger trends: the formation of modern industrial economies, the trans-oceanic movements of seeds and animals, and the ongoing global transformation of agrarian landscapes. Mennonite actors retain an inordinate degree of narrative agency in the volume at hand. Noting some minor exceptions, such as in Tsarist Russia, I am not convinced—environmentally speaking—that they are deserving.

My second suggestion would be to take seriously the lessons of transnational history—which Royden Loewen and others have persuasively argued is uniquely suited to understanding the environmental context of at least some Mennonite communities. By contrast, most of the articles in “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” exhibit a more narrow community-centric model of narration, with the global Mennonite church divided up more or less by nationality like an enormous pie. The volume’s essay-collection format may overdetermine methodological nationalism, although some laudable examples of transnational scholarship are present here.

One meta question raised by a volume like this is, of course: why put these predominantly nationally-organized stories side by side in the first place? The basic assumption seems to be that Mennonites, globally considered, are worth studying together, including in the context of agriculture. On one hand, the point is to show diversity. Loewen notes in his foreword that “The [journal] issue makes no case for an ‘Anabaptist’ approach to the land,” and indeed, some of the articles’ primary conclusions are simply that agriculture as practiced by Mennonites in, say, the present-day Netherlands does not conform to traditional narratives of Anabaptist history and identity as recounted in North American academies.

But such disruptions are only interesting to a point. It would be valuable to consider how connected any of these case studies really are. Given that Mennonite historians have disproportionately emphasized agriculture as a through-line in their narrations of some groups’ movements across the Atlantic world—with sovereigns and migration agents emphasizing Mennonites’ alleged agrarian qualities along the way—we might follow how environmental thought and practice has mediated movements across and also within borders.

Finally, if future scholars of Mennonite environmental history choose to retain this volume’s global emphasis while also taking transnationalism seriously, I will be eager to see how they treat the Global South. From a Eurocentric or North-dominant view, the story would presumably be one of transmission through institutions (Loewen mentions Mennonite World Conference in his foreword) or individuals (missionaries figure prominently in the Indonesia and Zimbabwe sections). Alternatively, the tale might be one of failure by locals to develop Western Mennonite agrarian traditions, much as some early histories of missions narrated the disinclination of locals to wear bonnets and cape dresses. Both of these options are self-evidently problematic, however, since they presuppose the normality of Western institutions and perspectives, in turn raising the question of whether and how Mennonites studies departments and forums like the Journal of Mennonite Studies can create multi-centered approaches to Anabaptist scholarship.

Taken as a whole, this volume does not yet meet the challenge. Its starting premise is that Mennonite history should be studied from an environmental perspective; many of the individual articles subsequently justify this belief through reference to an Anabaptist agrarian tradition identified as unique and significant primarily in Western contexts. Thus, the final result sends an implied message to readers that Mennonites of color outside the industrialized West either deviate from or fail to live up to a “standard” white-ethnic Anabaptist model.

My critique is meant not to dissuade but to encourage widespread use and thoughtful engagement with this special issue of the Journal of Mennonite Studies. The many authors who have contributed to the volume have enriched our historiographical horizons invaluably, while also adding extensively to our knowledge regarding communities on five continents. “Mennonites, Land and the Environment” will be of great significance to anyone studying Anabaptism and environmental history over the coming years. It will certainly be a testament to this volume if the ideas and methodologies offered here undergo sustained testing and rigorous transformation in future works. Many more of us, after all, should be thinking critically and innovatively about our local communities and our planetary home, given the real environmental challenges ahead.

Ben Goossen is a global historian of religion and science at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

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