Surprising finds: Mennonites in Mexico and archives of movement

Kat Hill

The National Archives in Kew, London seems an unlikely place to find records for Mennonite history; Mennonites have never been a major presence in the UK and the London Mennonite Centre closed in 2010.1 But documents are funny things and end up in odd places. On a visit to check out some material related to early modern migrations, I typed in ‘Mennonite’ to find a series of documents held by the Foreign Office and the Dominions Office, relating to Mennonites in Mexico and Europe in the twentieth century.

FIgure 1: The National Archives, London, Image from https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/project-alpha-building-an-archive-for-everyone/

One cache of documents deals with British discussions about European Mennonites who were part of the complex negotiations over displaced persons and refugees after the Second World War.2 Others discuss emigration plans after World War Two.3 One very rich collection, and the focus of this piece, relates to the back and forth conversations in the 1930s between Mennonite communities in Mexico, the British Consulate, and Mexican and Canadian authorities.4 Some items are official reports of government representatives, others handwritten scrawls by individual Mennonites. The documents reveal a story about changing definitions of identity, shifting borders and nations, and movement in the interwar period, and how Mennonites tackled these challenges. Focusing in on these allow us to examine the way in which citizenship changed as the British Empire disintegrated and as states and nations redefined themselves. And it also reminds us of the complex archival remnants which are the legacy of movement and migration.

FIgure 2: One of the folders with documents related to Mennonites in Mexico, THe ational Archives. Image Kat Hill.

Moving to Mexico

Around 8000 Mennonites left Manitoba and Saskatchewan to head to northern Mexico in the early 1920s. Demands placed on Canadian communities by a series of governmental acts, including the use of the English language in schools and compulsory attendance at recognized educational establishments, drove some Mennonites to seek out a location where they could avoid these restrictions.5 After investigating possibilities in several south American countries, they were able secure privileges from Álvaro Obregon, president of Mexico.

But in the 1930s, dissatisfaction set in. The threat of similar restrictions on schooling and Mennonite ways of life from the Mexican authorities, as well as increasing violence and conflict with indigenous Mexican communities, prompted restlessness and thoughts of migration. Some talked of a return to Canada, but in a letter to British Consul-General Joseph Pyke, P.H. Peters also mooted the possibility of transplanting communities to Australia.6 As they considered the possibility of return, Mennonites asked for British passports: Canada was an independent British Dominion. In the end, a mass return to Canada never happened, but the stack of papers housed in south west London give glimpses into the decisions, negotiations, and the lives of theses communities in myriad ways.7

New Languages of citizenship and movement

As some Mennonites in Mexico sought to return to Canada, they navigated a political landscape of shifting nations, empires and states which deployed novel and emergent vocabularies about citizenship and migration in the interwar world. Many nations hardened their borders and tightened up controls after World War One, at the same time as economic transformation and political upheaval caused mass movement of people, with rising numbers of refugees and migrants.8 Vocabularies reflected this reality. Writing to Gerhard D. Klassen in April 1936, the Acting British Consul-General J.D. Murray listed the evidence needed for British nationality, talked about naturalization, and underscored the importance of authorized documentation.9 In October of the same year, the Canadian Department of External Affairs made it very clear that a medical officer and immigration official had to assess any returning migrants to stop the entry of ‘undesirable’ individuals.10

Figure 3: Extract from Laurent Beaudry’s letter to the British Consul-General, 29 October 1936.

Living in a country recently torn apart by revolution and coming from an independent Dominion of the British Empire, Mennonites in Durango and Chihuahua encountered the structures and institutions of the British, Canadian and Mexican authorities. They also looked back to their lives under Tsarist rule before they had emigrated west at the end of the nineteenth century. The documents lay bare the reality of living lives across borders and regimes. Jacob Klassen, who wanted a British passport, was born in Lekopol, Russia in November 1876, and naturalized in Canada in 1908, with papers to prove this. He counted as a British subject, and his wife and child, born in Saskatchewan in 1923, could also be included in this definition as long as records of the marriage and birth could be verified. Being a British subject mattered when dealing with the authorities, but it remains unclear how important this categorization was for the Klassen family’s own sense of belonging.11 The demands of citizenship and the language of nationalism also hint at some of the tensions in new classifications which did not always sit easily with Mennonite conceptions of community. Being a national subject was at odds with many of the ways in which Mennonites perceived themselves as separate communities who resisted the demands of nations and states. Yet these games of belonging mattered in official discussions. Writing to Pyke, Cornelius D. Fehr signed off as ‘Your very friend and British subject’ and gave his passport number, appealing to Pyke’s emotional and national loyalties.12

Documenting identity

Klassen and Fehr’s cases underscore the reality that movement between regimes and authorities required the right papers. Different regimes had different ways of indexing identities, whilst Mennonites themselves kept their own records. The archives reveal the way in which the requirements of documentation by nations and states intertwined and often clashed with the record-keeping practices of Mennonites communities. Mennonites requesting the right of return to Canada and negotiating for British passports had to prove the dates and locations of births and marriages. John P. Wall, Mennonite representative for the Durango church, wrote to Pyke in April detailing responses to Pyke’s questions about the documentation kept by the Mennonites. Their original records had stayed with the church in Canada, but they did have copies.13 Even if Mennonites could prove the details of births or marriages from their own church records, registered with the Mennonite elders, these may not have been verified by the various local authorities and would not be considered proof in their own right. The question of children who had been born in Mexico and to a couple whose marriage may not have been recognized by the relevant authorities was particularly fraught. Pyke wrote to W.C. Rempel of the Blumenort church to say that for children to be considered legitimate, he needed an endorsement from the Mexican authorities that any marriages were legally contracted and officially recognized as such by the Mexican authorities. The official date had to predate the birth date of any children.14

As Fehr’s signoff in his letter to Pyke indicates, definitions of identity inscribed on papers and forms were complex and confused. A Mexican identity card for Margarethe Dyck reflected the entanglements and compromises across cultures, citing her nationality as Canadian but her religion as Mennonite; the identity card itself was of course written in Spanish for the Mexican authorities.15 What these differences meant for lived experience and subjectivities is harder to uncover, although Fehr’s letter hints at the way in which ideas about belonging changed and could even be used by Mennonites. As they have always done, confessional belief, birthplace, language, and culture all shaped notions of belonging, but these practices and expressions were also applied in new ways as they intertwined with the demands of national sovereignty.

Migrant lives, culture and violence

Finally, the documents reveal something of the migrant lives of Mennonite communities, both in the contents of their letters and the materiality of the documents themselves. The very fact these records have ended up in London in The National Archives, with other documents residing in Mexican and Canadian archives and others undoubtedly in family collections, bears witness to the types of archives which resulted from migration. Each document, too, in its physicality tell us story. We can contrast the neatly typed missives of the authorities and official, sometimes adorned with offhand marginalia, with the poorly expressed hand scribbled note of an individual Mennonite.16 Archivalities always tell their own stories.

Figure 4: Extract from Gerhard D. Klassen’s note to the British Consul-General, 21 April 1936.
Figure 5: Marginal Note by Canadian Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs

There are of course silences in the records and stories not told. This is a record of men and their negotiations – the women and children who are talked about so often in the documents do not feature as individuals. A marginal note on a letter from the Canadian Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs reveals the dismissive attitudes: on the subject of wives and unmarried children joining family heads established Canada, exempt from certain immigration conditions, he merely writes ‘Presumably does not arise!’17 And there is the deafening silence of what local Mexican communities made of the presence of Mennonites in their landscape, who also battled for land and rights, or who entered into violent altercations with the neighbors who remained very distant despite their physical proximity. But this remarkable set of documents, in their detail and their silences, their contents and their materiality, give us a window onto questions of land, movement, violence and identity which continue to be asked in the present day.18


[1] Harriet Sherwood, ‘UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle’, The Guardian, 16 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/16/uk-mennonites-end-sunday-services-after-numbers-dwindle, accessed 16 April 2020.

[2] The National Archives (TNA), FO 1050/1565; FO 1043/2579; FO 945/480.Packet_Emails_2010

[3] See for example TNA, FO 371/126537.

[4] TNA DO 35/679/7; DO 35/814/8; FO 723/720; FO 723/721.

[5] Luann Good Gingrich, Out of Place: Social Exclusion and Mennonite Migrants in Canada (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 2016),15; Royden Loewen, Village Among Nations: Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 19162006 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 40–79.

[6] TNA, FO 723/271, 2 June 1935, P.H. Peters to British Consul-General Joseph Pyke.

[7] Other places also featured as suggested destinations. For more details on the discussions over a possible return and the situation in the 1930s see Loewen, Village Among Nations, 120 –165

[8] See for example Daniela L. Cagliotti, ‘Subjects, Citizens, and Aliens in a Time of Upheaval: Naturalization and Denaturalization in Europe during the First World War’, The Journal of Modern History 89 (2017), 495–530; John Torpey, ‘Coming and Going: On the State Monopolization of the Legitimate ‘Means of Movement’, Sociological Theory 16.3 (1998), 239–259; Claudena M. Skran, Refugees in Inter-War Europe: The Emergence of a Regime (Oxford: OUP, 1995).

[9] TNA, FO 723/271 28 April 1936, J.D. Murray Acting British Consul-General to Gerhard D. Klassen.

[10] TNA, FO 723/271 29 October 1936, Laurent Beaudry Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 1.

[11] TNA, FO 723/271 16 September 1936, Laurent Beaudry Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 1.

[12] TNA, FO 723/271 2 April 1936, Cornelius D. Fehr to Pyke to Joseph Pyke British Consul-General, fo. 2.

[13] TNA, FO 723/271, 6 April 1935, John P. Wall to Joseph Pyke British Consul-General.

[14] National Archives, FO 723/271, 28 March 1936, Joseph Pyke British Consul-General Pyke to W.C. Rempel.

[15] Janzen, Liminal Sovereignty, 20.

[16] TNA, FO 723/271, 21 April 1936, Gerhard. D. Klassen to J.D. Murray Acting British Consul-General.

[17] TNA, FO 723/271, 18 February 1936, Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 2.

[18] See for example Rebecca Janzen’s recent piece, ‘Mexican Mennonites combat fears of violence with a new Christmas tradition’, The Conversation, 11 December 2019, https://theconversation.com/mexican-mennonites-combat-fears-of-violence-with-a-new-christmas-tradition-127982, accessed 19 April 2020.

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