History as Relationship 2: Reflections on “A People of Diversity” Conference

 In mid-November I traveled with two other colleagues from la société histoire Mennonite du Québec to the University of Winnipeg to participate in “A People of Diversity,” a conference hosted by Royden Loewen, Chair of Mennonite Studies.   This exploration of the diverse history of Mennonites in Canada since 1970 provided the occasion to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada and to explore the potential for a future fourth volume of Mennonites in Canada.  

My first exposure to the history of Mennonites in Canada was in 1971. Raised in the Brethren in Christ denomination, I had come to Conrad Grebel College at University of Waterloo for studies. The encouragement of Frank H. Epp to take his newly designed course on the History of Mennonites in Canada would shape my future, as I began to explore my own roots in that context. Little did I know how much my own future career as a historian would be informed and supported by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada formed three years earlier.

 In 1967, Canada had celebrated its centennial. Multiculturalism had become a significant cultural force in the way Canadians saw themselves. Having caught the vision of multiculturalism, Frank Epp and a Manitoba Mennonite publisher Ted Friesen saw the potential of writing the Mennonite story into the Canadian one. With the support of Mennonite Central Committee Canada, Frank H. Epp would pen two large volumes. They detailed Mennonite history in Canada from  the earliest coming of Swiss Mennonites from Pennsylvania in the wake of the American Revolution to what would become Ontario, through immigrations from Russia in the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries to Ontario and the western provinces.1 These volumes detailed the varieties and distinctives of faith expression and practice as they evolved in the Canadian context until 1940. Epp enlisted the help of his wife Helen and daughters Marlene and Esther, along with a young archivist Ted Regehr. Under the MHSC, Marlene Epp became the impetus for seeing much of her father’s unfinished work emerge in an on-line encyclopedia (GAMEO).2 Ted Regehr would author a third volume which covered the years 1939 to 1970.3 Under the auspices of the MHSC, later Marlene Epp would author Mennonite Women in Canada4 and Esther Epp-Tiessen would write Mennonite Central Committee Canada: A History, in celebration of that organization’s first fifty years.5

The story of the MHSC is much more than that of a single family, however. Over its fifty years, it has become a community of historians. While the MHSC was supporting the writing and dissemination of history books, it also had come to embrace provincial societies based in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. In 2007 a Quebec society brought the number of provincial societies to six. A Divergent Voices of Mennonites in Canada committee also brought conferences on a range of topics including indigenous-Mennonite relations, family and sexuality, Mennonites and mental health, Mennonites and money, Mennonites and agriculture, and a range of other issues. Over the decades of the society’s existence, annual meetings have brought representatives from the provincial organizations, as well as institutions including various departments of Mennonite Studies, Mennonite archives and even Mennonite museums together to share and vision the future of Mennonite history in Canada.

  The fiftieth-anniversary celebration was like a family reunion bringing Mennonite history in Canada from the 1970s into the new millennium. Our three Quebec historians brought aspects of the history of the revival of the seventies and eighties that emerged in the wake of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution to take its place alongside more mainstream Mennonite history.6 The Quebec revival took its place alongside thirty other presentations that included colonialism and its impact on Canada’s indigenous peoples, political activism, anabaptist approaches to agriculture, changes in education, challenges ranging from those experienced by old order and conservative groups in education and farm technology, and more progressive Mennonites including questions around sexual diversity, and the integration of new immigrants to Canada. 

My particular interest emerged from a small green binder that had been donated to our Quebec archive. Carefully documenting the history of a women’s group that emerged in the context of the revival, detailed minutes of brainstorming and planning meetings, along with other documents chronicled the activities of Le Comité des femmes inter-églises.  

 This committee of inter-church women played a significant role in the Frères Mennonites (Mennonite Brethren)’s early years in Quebec as each year between April 1978, when women from l’Eglise chrétienne de St-Jérôme, put on an annual women’s day and April 1998, not one spring went by without a Journée des femmes inter-églises. Their work and the story of Mennonite mission in Quebec, forthcoming, deserves a significant place in Mennonites in Canada, Volume 4.7;

As we look towards our second half century as a growing community of Canadian Mennonite historians, the society plans to meet in Quebec for its 2020 annual meeting. The warm and collegial conference highlighting “A People of Diversity: Mennonites in Canada since 1970” and projections for the future are significant witness to the community of Mennonite historians that will continue its work of fifty years, to research, write and disseminate the history of Mennonites in Canada.

  1. Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: the History of a Separate People (University of Toronto Press, 1974) and Mennonites in Canada, 1920-1940: a People’s Struggle for Survival (University of Toronto Press, 1982).
  2.  https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Global_Anabaptist_Mennonite_Encyclopedia_Online
  3.   Ted Regehr, Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970: A People Transformed (University of Toronto, 1996)
  4.   Mennonite Women in Canada: A History (University of Manitoba Press, 2008).
  5.   Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: a History (University of Manitoba Press, 2013).
  6. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/quiet-revolution
  7.   Richard Lougheed, Menno au Québec: A History of French Mission by Four Anabaptist Groups, 1956-2018, forthcoming from Pandora Press.

History as Relationship

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.”1 Sofia Samatar’s challenge in her plenary talk at the Crossing the Line conference echoes the words of Gerda Lerner, the American Jewish historian credited as the founder of women’s studies. In Lerner’s words, even though “women have been denied the power to define, to share in creating the mental constructs that explain and order the world, history shows that women have always, as have men, been agents and actors in history.”2 The challenge in doing women’s history is not just accessing the stories; it is also in navigating the relationship between historian and actor. I have found Palmer Parker’s concept of “knowing” to be helpful in thinking about my relationship with those I study: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”3

My interest in the history of Brethren in Christ women emerged as I was completing my undergraduate degree forty years ago. Although my historical journey would take me to a variety of avenues of exploration in church history, mostly Canadian, much of it exploring women’s actions and agency, Crossing the Line brought me back to my Brethren in Christ roots. The panel Devin Manzullo-Thomas organized gave me the opportunity to fulfill my youthful desire to come into deeper relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson, whose diaries and unusual accomplishments for a nineteenth-century woman had long inspired me.

Over the years I have read and re-read Frances Davidson’s missionary travelogue, her journals, and Morris Sider’s biography.4 Crossing the Line opened the way for a deeper knowing, as I explored Frances’s longing for higher education, and the dramatic call that led her to leave college teaching for pioneer missionary work. Sitting with her early diaries deepened my knowing from the distant image of a brilliant, bold, courageous woman, to one who was passionately spiritual, with a deep mysticism that opened her heart to transformation; my relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson grew as I pondered her journals where she expressed her experience of God’s call.5

I am grateful to her great-nephew Earl Brechbill for saving Frances’s journals penned in little brown notebooks from extinction by protective family members.6 I am grateful to Morris Sider for taking the risk of publishing them in Brethren in Christ History & Life. Knowledge about this woman had long validated my own deep desire to study. Crossing the Line provided an opportunity to go further into relationship, to follow my own inner push to write about her, something deeper than history.  Her story is part of my story.  We need women’s stories, but it can take years of gestation as we come into relationship with the past. “Why does a historian study the dead past?” Parker Palmer asks: “To reveal how much of it lives in us today.”7 The push to come into closer relationship with this aspect of my history after years of contemplation, feels like a personal gift from Crossing the Line.


  1. “In Search of Women’s History: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/tag/crossing-the-line/page/1/ 
  2. Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 207. 
  3. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54. 
  4.  South and South Central Africa: A Record of Fifteen Years’ Missionary Labors among Primitive Peoples (Elgin, ILL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915); “The Journals of Frances Davidson,” Part 1: The Early Years (1861 – 1895), Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1985): 103-23; Part II: The Call to Africa (1895-1898) Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1985), 181-204; Part III: The First Years in Africa (1898-1904) Brethren in Christ History and Life (April 1986), 23-64; Part IV: The Founding and Early Years of Macha Mission (1904-1908) Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1986), 125-49; Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931), Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1986), 284-309; see also Hannah Frances Davidson Diaries Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. http://messiaharchives.pastperfectonline.com/archive/D7FCD1A1-ABA4-4088-94C8-059638202176 ; E. Morris Sider, “Hannah Frances Davidson,” Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-214. 
  5. “Conflict, Confession, and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission,” Brethren in Christ History & Life XL, no. 3 (December 2017), 335-52. 
  6. Interview with Earl and Ellen Brechbill by the author and Phyllis Marr Harrison, 18 July 2000, Mechanicsburg, PA. 
  7.  Courage to Teach, 54.