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.

Varied vernaculars and material memories: Mennonite bibles and their histories

Title page of a bible printed in Strasbourg in 1630

Kat Hill

Two editions of the Bible, one in Dutch and one in German, both printed in the early modern era. One came off presses in the Netherlands in the 1590s and is now housed in the British Library in London.1 The other was printed in Strasbourg in 1630, but resides in the Mennonite archives in Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, over 7000 kilometers away across the Atlantic.2 These thick volumes of vernacular scripture embody complicated confessional and material histories of Anabaptism and its legacies.

Title page of a bible printed in the Netherlands in the 1590s for Danzig
Mennonites, the Schottland bible

The Dutch bible, known as the Schottland bible, is a large, decorative volume filled with maps produced for Danzig Mennonites in the Vistula Delta sometime between 1595 and 1598. Mennonites were not allowed to print in Danzig itself, so these bibles were produced in the Netherlands in Haarlem, probably from the workshop of Gillis Rooman. From Haarlem, the bibles then crossed to Danzig via trade routes across the Baltic, and Quirin Vermeulen, a Mennonite Elder, distributed them from his home in Schottland, a suburb of Danzig outside its walls where Mennonites could settle which gave the bibles their name.3 The Strasbourg bible appeared from the presses of Lazarus Zetzner in 1630 in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, during which the city maintained a neutral stance and avoided devastation. Whilst it was a reprint of the Luther Bible, based on the last edition printed in Luther’s life in 1545, it had been checked and updated with commentaries provided by Daniel Cramer, a Lutheran pastor in Stettin.4

At the point of creation, then, these bibles existed in similar but also distinct Protestant worlds and represented the importance of vernacular scripture in the age of reformations.5 But there were different vernaculars and choices to be made in confessional communities. The Schottland bible represented the continued use of Dutch amongst Mennonites who had migrated to Polish Prussia. The Strasbourg bible was printed for a Lutheran vernacular audience, but it was bought by the Friesens, a Mennonite family, in Russia in 1797, who had moved from the Vistula Delta in the 1780s. These communities had spoken Dutch until the mid-eighteenth century but the seepage of German into communities meant it became the official language of worship and administration for Mennonites.6 The decision to purchase a German Bible was, therefore, not neutral but an indicator of the way in which these communities had changed, compared with the Dutch-language Schottland bible. Mennonites took German with them to Russia and later to America, where it became a linguistic reminder of their past.

Notes for sermons written on the inside cover of the Schottland bible

Both bibles had material lives too as objects which were used and read, and both bear the imprints of that use. At the front of the Schottland bible, are handwritten lists of suitable passages for sermons and a dedication. The Friesen bible was a repository for family and community memory. A folder in the Mennonite archives in Kansas contains a slip taken from the front of the Friesen Bible, a copy of the printed letter of invitation issued by the Tsarist regime in 1787 to Mennonites in Danzig when they moved from Polish Prussia to settle in Ukraine.7 It had been kept as a memento of this important moment in the family’s history. The single sheet has become separated from the bible where it was once kept, archived away from the volume, which is stored with the rare books. The slip and the bible had then had travelled all over the world from Poland, to Russia, to Paraguay, British Columbia, Minnesota, and then Kansas.8 The bibles, with their annotated pages and memorial pasted-in preface, embody the connections, memories and emotions that sustained Mennonite communities as they moved. Bibles often served this function as treasured possessions. Families might use bibles for example to paste in documents or record genealogies, taking the bible with them when they travelled. The Bachmann’s copy of the 1536 Froschauer bible, in the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Harleysville, Pennsylvania, contains the family record, sometimes composed in beautiful fracture.9

The Friesen family bible’s afterlife is much more dramatic than the volume now in the British Library, but in their own ways both bibles as material things record memory and connections across generations, revealing how Mennonite confessional identity was contained in objects as well as ideas. It is not enough to simply look at numbers of books printed or the textual content alone. These bibles were two of countless vernacular editions of the scriptures produced in the early modern era, but these volumes encapsulate the way in which books tell histories beyond the text they contain. They are individual artefacts, with their own distinct biographies and contexts, they are printed, handled, used, written on, and handed down.10 As material things, entangled with the stories of religious lives and communities, they illuminate the way in which vernacular bibles were more than vehicles for scripture and instruction but can allow us to explore histories of Mennonites and their lived experiences across chronologies and geographies.


  1. Den Bybel … uytten oirspronckelijcken Hebreuschen ende Grieckschen ghetrouwelick verduytschet, etc (Danzig: K. Vermeulen, 1598, actually printed in Haarlem). BL 3041.h.5.
  2. Biblia: Das ist Die gantze Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments. Verteuschet: Durch D. Martin Luther. (Strasbourg: Lazarus Zetzner), Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kansas, 220.531 B471LF.
  3. Peter J. Klassen, Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2009), 146–7; Edmund Kizik, ‘Relgious Freedom and the Limits of Social Assimilation: The History of the Mennonites in Danzg and the Vistula Delta until their Tragic End after World War II’, in Alistair Hamilton, Sjouke Voolstra and Piet Visser (eds), From Martyr to Muppy: A Historical Introduction to Cultural Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands: the Mennonites (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994), 54.
  4. Bülow, von, “Cramer, Daniel” in: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 4 (1876), S. 546-547 [Online-Version]; URL: https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/pnd119180049.html#adbcontent
  5. Andrew Pettegree, ‘Books, Pamphlets and Polemics’, in Pettegree, The Reformation World (London: Routledge), 116–32; Pettegree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 139
  6. Klassen, Mennonites, 159–60.
  7. Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kansas, Small Archives II-55, ‘Von Trapp Flyer to Danzig Mennonites’; James Urry, Mennonites, Politics and Peoplehood. Europe – Russia – Canada 1525-1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 123–4.
  8. Note written by Jacob T. Friesen to accompany the bible. Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kansas, 220.531 B471LF.
  9. https://www.reynolds-lake.ca/genealogy/documents/general/BachmanFroschauerBible.php Accessed 10 November 2019. Accessed 19 November 2019. On the Froschauer Bible see also Adolf Fluri, ‘Froschauer Bibles and Testaments’, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953.  https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Froschauer_Bibles_and_Testaments&oldid=122489. Accessed 20 November 2019.
  10. On used books see William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2008).