“Very Steady Steps Toward Education”: 50 Years of Education Reform in Chihuahua’s Southern Mennonite Colonies

Along with the introduction of electricity, vehicles, and running water during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, during tumultuous times of community and colony reorganization in Chihuahua’s southern Mennonite colonies near the city of Cuauhtémoc, in Mexico’s Tres Culturas Region, one of changes that most deeply impacted daily life for Mennonite residents was the wide-reaching education reform that completely changed the educational landscape in the colonies over the course of fifty years, providing a greater level of educational access and diversity of school experiences within the Campos Menonitas, which still continues to impact education in all but the most traditional communities to this day.

Until the late 1960s, schooling in the Tres Culturas Region of Chihuahua followed the traditional Darpe Schule model beginning with Fiebla (basic reading and writing) around age six and continuing with Katekjisem (catechism) and Jesankbuak (hymnal), and ending with Bibel (Bible) around age thirteen with basic arithmetic also integrated throughout. In this model, which is still used today in the most traditional communities, instruction is given by one male teacher in High German in a one-room schoolhouse and involves recitation, dictation, and Langeviese singing and has an end goal of preparing students for baptism and daily life within the traditional Darpe community. Billy Froese, who attended a traditional Darpe Schule in the 1980s, described his experiences to the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project,

The girls are on one side, the guys are one side. That can also be a punishment. You go sit with the girls. And I at one time thought that was a punishment! But the fule Benkj” is the “lazy bench.” And if you’re not doing your work, up there beside the teacher, there’s a bench. This hard bench. And you go sit up there. Of course, there were spankings, stuff like that. But they had these big windows. And you had to stand in the window, facing the street [if you got in trouble]. I just remember the teacher coming to my desk and putting the pen in my right hand. Or the chalk. Whatever it was then. We had those little Tofels too. Those little chalk boards. And the chalk. So, he would start me off writing, and then he would leave. And I would just put it back in my left hand….My experiences, my most memorable experiences in the school aren’t positive. They’re interesting, but not so positive. It was usually getting punished.

Education reform occurred first in the Manitoba Colony and then was implemented later in the Swift Current, Ojo de la Yegua, and Jagueyes colonies. In each colony and each Darp within individual colonies, reforms were propelled by external and internal factors and often came in waves. Reforms were implemented at different times and to different degrees depending on the community and educational infrastructure, pedagogy and curriculum remains in flux across the Mennonite colonies in the Tres Culturas Region.

One of the largest external factors impacting reform, was the establishment of the Álvaro Obregón school in the Quinta Lupita community, located near the outskirts of Cuauhtémoc at the edge of the Manitoba Colony by Mennonite missionaries from Canada’s General Conference in the late 1960’s. The founding of the Álvaro Obregón school was followed in subsequent years by mission churches and schools from other Mennonite conferences as well as other from other denominations, such as the German Church of God. These schools had multiple instructors and classrooms divided by age, a wider range of subjects including geography and history, and instruction in Spanish. These schools became known as Konferensa (Conference) schools because of their association either directly or indirectly with General Conference missionaries and churches and enrolled students not only from their congregations, but also students from more traditional backgrounds whose parents were interested in educational options that were different from the traditional Darpe Schule.

At times, Konferensa churches, particularly with the assistance of missionaries of Canada, would build relationships with a much more traditional community and launch a school within the community primarily designed to serve traditional students, but with a more modern pedagogy and academically diverse curriculum, which included Spanish, like in Konferensa schools. With the introduction of Spanish into the curriculum, Mestizo teachers began working in Mennonite schools for the first time as Spanish language instructors and gained access and proximity to traditional communities that was previously unheard of. One of these teachers, Diana Sandoval Arballo, who began teaching in 1998 at a school launched in the Ojo de la Yegua Colony by Iglesia Anabautista Ebenezer, a Spanish-speaking Mennonite church in Cuauhtémoc whose congregation is about evenly split between Mestizo-Mennonite converts, ethnic Low-German Mennonites and Mestizo and Mennonite couples and their bicultural children, shared her experiences in 2018 with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-cultural encounter in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project

The church at Campo 67, in a Mennonite community, was looking for a Mestiza teacher, but with Mennonite faith, to work in the community. So, they invited me to go to work for a year, and I accepted. And that was the first time I had direct contact with the more traditional Mennonite community….I lived in the Campo. There was a couple that were teachers, and another couple that were the pastors. So, I worked with these teachers and lived with the pastors. But I lived in the community from Monday to Friday, and for the weekend I returned to Cuauhtémoc, to my house…The first years it was difficult. For them it was difficult seeing and living with a Mestiza in the middle of the community. Maybe my way of dressing was also different, and that drew attention. There was also a bit of fear, because they had someone unknown and didn’t know who I was, what I was going to teach, what I was trying to do…. I came for one year and I stayed 20, but I think my biggest motivation has always been to serve and I think that I have a desire because God uses me to be able to serve. And I saw that this would be the way the God would use me. Teaching people the faith, mainly, that is my first goal, and the second is, well, the language. And I also believe that one of the things that has always impassioned me is that they can see that the Mestizo culture is different than the idea that they have always had in their head. That I think is one of the biggest motivations in my life. And also, I fell in love with the Mennonite culture. For me, it was never difficult being with them. I can’t say that there was anything I had to sacrifice, it was a pleasure.

Though external intervention from Conference churches and schools, which included the transformational role of teachers like Diana Sandoval Arballo, played a large part in implementing education reform in the Tres Culturas Region, it would not have been possible without internal proponents for school reform, like Peter Rempel Enns, whose lifelong advocacy for education reform in the Mennonite Campos was chronicled by the State of Chihuahua’s Mennonite Resource Office’s 2016 publication, Hombres y mujeres menonitas destacados: Caminos inspirantes (Outstanding Mennonite Men and Women: Inspirational Paths). These local advocates for school reform were concerned about what they perceived to be low educational standards, low levels of literacy among graduates, harsh punishments, and an incomplete curriculum. Often advocates for school reform, particularly those within more traditional communities faced strong backlash from community leadership and some were excommunicated for their stances; however, as more families chose Konferensa schools at the same time that tensions were high in traditional communities concerning increased business and social relationships between Mennonite and Mestizo communities, the use of vehicles with rubber tires, and the introduction of electricity, questions began to arise with traditional church leadership about the best path forward concerning education. Some remained steadfast in their Darpe Schule model, but many more began to make small, but significant changes to their education systems.

Faced with external and internal pressures for school reform, Kleingemeinde and Old Colony communities sought a solution that they felt would allow them to raise their academic standards while maintaining their distinctive values and cultural practices. Beginning in 1995, through the MCC and a variety of other Mennonite aid agencies, they built relationships with Amish communities and schools in the United States and began receiving Amish teachers, not just in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua, but across Mexico, to teach in Kleingemeinde and Old Colony schools, and to assist in the restructuring of administration, curriculum, and assessment. (This topic is addressed more in depth in Rebecca Janzen’s 2019 Anabaptist Historians blog post, “How Much to Change: Amish Teachers in Mexico.”)

Perhaps the most significant impact to education in the Tres Culturas Region in recent history, was when many private, Mennonite church schools began seeking accreditation from Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education (SEP). SEP accredited Mennonite schools have to meet specific national curriculum, assessment, achievement and enrollment standards, but are allowed to have religious instruction and maintain cultural practices. While the majority of SEP Mennonite schools only include Primaria (Grades 1-6) and Secundaria (Grades 7-9), which are the levels of compulsory education in Mexico and the most common level of education among Gen-Z Mennonites in the Campos, particularly among those from less traditional communities, a few SEP Mennonite schools offer Preparatoria (Grades 10-11/12), which was previously only available at non-Mennonite public and private schools in Cuauhtémoc.

More and more students from the Campos have been going to study at the universities in Cuauhtémoc and Chihuahua. Even some of the most traditional Darpe Schule in the region have been taking steps to examine educational practices and standards within their cultural context. Adults from traditional backgrounds are beginning to finish SEP accredited Primaria and Secundaria schooling through ICHEA (The Chihuahuan Institute for Adult Education), while other traditional adults, including Peter Rempel, the principal of a Kleingemeinde school in the Manitoba Colony, who shared his experiences with the Rebels, Exiles, and Bridge Builders: Cross-Cultural Encounters in the Campos Menonitas of Chihuahua Oral History Project, have taken advantage of a government program called Prepa Abierta to finish their high school equivalency online. From Darpe Schule to high schools that prep students for university and everything in between, the Campos Menonitas in the Tres Culturas Region have an educational diversity that is unique and 50 years in the making.

From her teacher housing, provided to her by the SEP school that serves traditional students in Campo 38 ½ where she currently works, Diana Sandoval Arballo looked out her window into the Darp and commented on the changes that she had seen during her 20 years as a Spanish instructor in Mennonite schools

Over the course of years, the parents became more interested in the education of their children. They saw it as more important, the fact that they could learn. And they are more motivated to make the school grow. I think it happens with the passing of the years. They have lost the fear towards education, that is different than what they got. And they have been motivated more so that their children can go further, even though they learn different things, they dream of being a doctor, not just working in agriculture. So, I think that the change in these years that I have been here have been very big and the steps have been very steady toward education.

“Conform to the rules and regulations herein set forth”

While processing a recent box of donations, I happened upon an Annual Catalog from the 1920-21 school year at Eastern Mennonite School. As I leafed through it, I found handwriting all throughout the margins. There is no name on the catalog, so it could have been a student eager to remember all the rules or a member of the faculty or staff taking notes so they knew how to guide their pupils. Either way, these notes provide a revealing look at the minutiae of life at EMS a century ago. 

EMS was in its fourth year in 1920-21 and the fledgling school was finding its wings. In January of 1920, students and faculty moved up the hill from the White House in Park Woods to the newly built Administration Building. As the only building on campus, it was the focus of campus life. Students studied and lived all together under one roof. Enrollment was 216, nearly triple the first year’s enrollment of 77.1

EMS Administration Building

The rules were numerous at EMS in 1920-21, so our scribe was savvy to take notes. The first rule under, “General Rules and Regulations” sets the tone, stating that, “The discipline of the school will be parental and homelike but firm and positive.” The rest of the 23 rules and regulations cover behavioral expectations both in and out of the classroom.2 EMS sought to educate young people to become good workers for the Mennonite church, and their rules were meant to keep students in good standing with the school, the church, and their fellow students. The “Discipline and Decorum” section states that “for a denomination to maintain and perpetuate doctrines which are unpopular and the observance of which call for self-denial and non-conformity to the world, she must exercise a rigid and judicious discipline.” and “It should not be considered that obedience and submission to wholesome discipline and authority militates against the happiness of man, or that it infringes upon his real liberty”3. Following the rules was required to maintain the harmony of community at EMS and foster an environment where learning was possible.

Here is a sampling of what was noted in the catalog: 

On curfews and timeliness: 

“Gentleman in the building by 7 o’clock. Ladies in the building by supper time.”

“Prompt to come, prompt to go. Do not linger in basement hall.” 

In the halls, one must not linger or loaf habitually or blockade the stairway and doors.

“Students must be in their rooms when last bell rings for study period. At 10 o’clock all lights must be out and quiet”

“No noise before 6 A.M.” 

On relationships:

“Students will be allowed to associate on the campus provided there is no habitual coupling off of the same individuals of opposite sex”

“Students will not be allowed to couple off away from the campus except on outings accompanied by authorities. Violations of this rule will be punishable by at least 10 demerits.”

“No visiting during study hrs. without permission from H.M. or assistants” 

On personal health:

“Bathe twice a week–bathing schedule on bulletin board Friday P.M. 20 minutes each” 

“Have a study schedule, refrain from eating between meals, exercise regularly, and avoid too much sweet.”

Failure to follow these rules, along with other infringements like unexcused absences could result in a demerit. The writer notes that five demerits disqualify someone from office (for school clubs or literary societies), 10 earn a reprimand from the principal, 20 a reprimand before the faculty, 25 suspension and 30 expulsion.

There was at least one perk of 1920 EMS–someone else does your laundry! The scribe writes that students were allowed 12 pieces besides bedding and were to throw their items down the chute Sunday afternoon. 

Though the above rules have gone, the 2020-21 school year at EMU has seen a new crop of regulations–this time for the physical health of all on campus and in the wider community. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students must do their best to observe social distancing, mask wearing, and there are limits on the dining hall, athletic spectators at games, and gathering size. Following the rules is yet again required to maintain the harmony of community and to foster an environment where learning was possible.  Though the methods and reasoning look different a century on, I believe the hoped for outcome is the same: a conscientious and caring community that prepares students to make a difference in the world.


1. Kraybill, Donald B. Eastern Mennonite University: a Century of Countercultural Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017. p. 343.

2. Eastern Mennonite School. Annual Catalog 1920-21. p. 22-23.

3. Eastern Mennonite School. Annual Catalog 1920-21. p.17.

Joseph W. Miller and a Case for Reframing Amish Compulsory Education

Regina Wenger

In stark black and white, a photographer captures three Amish men clad in their dark hats and plain coats as they ascend the marble Supreme Court steps. It is a study in contrasts. The photographer snapped this picture during the 1972 proceedings of Wisconsin v. Yoder—a case involving the Amish and compulsory education. The Court unanimously ruled that education laws stood in violation of the Amish parents’ First Amendment rights to freely practice their religion. Wisconsin v. Yoder stands as a landmark ruling on religious liberty. But is religious freedom the only reason these fathers found themselves in this peculiar place?

Fair Use (AP Photo/John Duricka)

Though religious liberty may be the reason provided when Yoder and company walked up those stairs, it would be a mistake to believe that the Court’s explanation is the only one. Since the 1910s, the Amish have endured fines and jail in an effort to educate their children. In reality, the steps these men took to the Supreme Court mark only the last stage in a civil dispute between the Amish and the government regarding education. One might assume, alongside the Court, that religious freedom—however amorphous the concept—serves as the primary lens through which to interpret Amish educational practices. However, I think that to more accurately understand Yoder, and conflicts about the Amish and compulsory education more broadly, the issue needs reorienting within earlier twentieth-century educational contests over state and parental authority. An examination of one of the earliest incidents of the Amish violating compulsory education laws illustrates this necessary context.

It’s 1915. Just southeast of Cleveland is the village off Middlefield, Ohio. East of the village, in the Hayes Corner district, sat the farm of Joseph W. Miller. He, his wife Salome, and their children formed part of the Old Order Amish community that settled in Middlefield around 1886.1 The Miller children, like many of their peers, attended school as often as the weather and farm work allowed. But that situation was changing.

Beginning in the 1890s, governments in the State of Ohio and across the country increased their oversight of public education. These top-down pressures blended with local interests to radically transform American public education. Through efforts like reforming rural schools and combating child labor through compulsory education laws, professional and lay reformers turned to public education to edify the state and society. “In the process,” observes historian Tracy Steffes, “they defined children’s education and welfare as a public interest that transcended the family and community and justified new state interventions.”2 Joseph W. Miller, and other parents like him, grappled with deteriorating parental rights over their children’s education.

In 1900, Middlefield Township, where the Miller children attended, contained eight school districts: one in the village and the others in the surrounding area.3 This organizational structure underwent a massive overhaul in 1914, when Ohio consolidated its school system, specifying core content and eliminating a majority of its one-room schoolhouses.4 Geauga County, and thus Middlefield Township, quickly complied with the new structure.5 For the first time, pupils needed to show competency in particular subjects and attend school regularly. The 1915-1916 school year would be different than any before.

Ohio law required that schoolchildren know “reading, spelling, writing, English grammar, geography, and arithmetic.”6 Yet the previous spring, Miller had heard something from his oldest daughter Mary that troubled him greatly. She had said that, in geography, she had been taught that the earth was round. Based on Revelation 7:1,7 Miller believed the earth was flat. He determined that, since Mary was 12, she did not need more schooling, especially since what she was learning conflicted with biblical teachings. So in the fall of 1915, when Miller sent his four school-age children off to school, Mary stayed home.

On October 14, 1915, Fred B. Hamilton, the Middlefield truancy officer, arrested Miller for failing to send Mary to school, and as a result, preventing her from taking the state content exam. Earlier that day, Hamilton deposed himself before the justice of the peace E.H. Brigden, stating:

On or about the 14th day of October 1915, at the County of Geauga aforesaid, one Joseph Miller, being then and there the parent, to-wit:- the father of one Mary Miller a minor between the age of eight and sixteen years of age, who [h]ad not passed a satisfactory 7th grade test in studies enumerated in section No. 7762 General Code, failed to cause said minor to attend public, private, or parochial school altho [sp] said Joseph Miller had been given notice by a truant office[r] as provided by law.8

As a result of Fred Hamilton’s testimony, Justice Brigden issued a warrant for Joseph Miller’s arrest. With Miller now in custody, Hamilton appeared before Justice Brigden, who “convicted, fined, and dismissed” Miller.9 However, the brevity with which Justice Brigden processed Miller obscures deeper issues at work.

Looking at the section violation with which Justice Brigden charged Miller provides a key into the case. Ohio first passed a compulsory education law in 1877, seeking to ensure that minors attended school for at least part of the year.10 Then, due to increased concern for child labor, Ohio passed an amended law in 1890.11 When states passed these laws, they fell into two categories, one being “laws regulating schooling and the curriculum,” which “proscribed” types of education, like private education, or “prescribed” the specifics of education, such as content areas to be taught.12

The 1910 General Code of Ohio contains a whole chapter on compulsory education, listing twenty-two sections of code. Justice Brigden indicted Joseph Miller for infringing upon Section 7762, which states that “All parents, guardians and other persons who have care of children, shall instruct them, or cause them to be instructed in reading, spelling, writing, English grammar, geography and arithmetic.”13 However, the next section of code stipulated that children attend school for a specific numbers of weeks.14 Thus, by charging Miller with disobeying Section 7762 instead of Section 7763, Justice Brigden framed the case as one regarding curricular content, rather than simple truancy. It was because Mary failed the state content exam that her father faced charges. Still, for the next month Miller refused to send Mary to school. So, on November 13, he again found himself at a hearing in Justice Brigden’s court.15 The State prosecutor, Hubert O. Bostwick presented his evidence against Miller, who was found guilty and fined $20.16

Over the next several months, Miller found himself party in a series of motions, trials, and appeals over his daughter’s education. Two lawyers took Miller’s case, navigating it from the Township level, to the Geauga County Court of Common Pleas, and finally the state’s Court of Appeals. It generated interest from the Amish and “English” community alike.17 However, the trail on Miller’s case goes cold after April 7, 1916, with one exception. An undated journal entry from the Ohio Court of Appeals says the following:

Upon consideration thereof the Court finds that there was an error in the proceedings below in that the Justice of the Peace and the Court of Common Pleas failed to find that the complaint therein as filed did not constitute an offence against the laws of Ohio.

The judgment of the Court of Common Pleas and of the Justice of the Peace is reversed and the plaintiff in error, Joseph Miller is discharged.

Reversing the earlier decisions, a three-judge panel reviewed the evidence and ruled in Miller’s favor.18 I wonder, if he had lost, whether Miller might have taken his case one more level to the Supreme Court of Ohio?

Folder noting the information regarding Miller’s appeal to the Geauga County Court of Common Pleas. The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives.

In pursuing legal recourse to prevent Ohio from mandating his daughter attend school and learn content that violated his beliefs, Joseph W. Miller mirrored the concerns of many other parents, though his identity as an Amishman infused his approach with particularities. Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists parents also contested the state’s power to abolish private education and set medical requirements for schoolchildren.19 The question of parental control of education remained very much in flux during the time of Miller’s trials.20

Ohio ruled on the constitutionality of compulsory education in the 1890 case Ohio v. Patrick F. Quigley, citing the logic of parens patriae, thus using parental neglect as the instrument to supersede parental authority in favor of the state best insuring the child’s welfare.21 By 1903, courts favored asserting the police powers of the Fourteenth Amendment as a method to curb parental control of education.22 This resulted in a blank check for state governments to dictate all aspects of educational policy.23 Though Miller eventually achieved a legal victory in 1916, the State of Ohio continued to consolidate and control education. Only in 1922 did the Supreme Court’s decision in Meyer v. Nebraska finally put a check on unlimited state control.

Miller’s identity as an Amishman imbued him with a particular worldview and educational philosophy, but in his attempt to preserve these ideals, he skirted the bounds of Amish tradition and discipline. As summarized by Steven Nolt, the Amish hold a premodern, communal worldview that stands in stark contrast to our own.24 The most basic unit in a community is the family, so the maintenance of the Amish way of life begins at home. According to Amishman Joseph Stoll, the Amish believe that the responsibility to educate children belongs to parents, not state-run schools.25 However, as historian Albert Keim stated,

“Consolidation appeared to the Amish as a major threat because it often ushered in new curricula and, in their view, faulty pedagogical methods…”26 While throughout the nineteenth century pubic education proved relatively compatible with Amish educational philosophy, by the early twentieth century that was no longer the case. This transition likely accounted for the mixed reports of Miller’s motivations for keeping Mary at home. One article cited the need for farm labor, the other religious reasons.27 Miller and other Amish joined their neighbors in asserting parental rights in education, but soon state power created a profound cultural shift that eventually overwhelmed most opposition. Nevertheless, Amish religious beliefs enabled their persistent challenge of the state’s authority.

Even as he stood firmly within the Amish tradition, Miller’s actions during his trial transgressed normative behaviors within Amish communities. First, he accepted legal counsel to argue his case. It’s important to remember that the Amish, for reasons of faith, preferred not to hire attorneys. To do so would be participating in the “violence of the court system,” an objectionable practice in Amish communities.28 Though in later legal cases involving compulsory education some Amish hired attorneys, considering Miller’s case falls at the beginning of Amish struggles over education, to have lawyers present appears to be unprecedented behavior. Second, Miller chose to appeal his case multiple times. Typical Amish practice would have Miller accepting the decision of the court and moving on with his life. After all, he viewed himself as a subject rather than a citizen of the United States.29 Yet, in exceptional circumstances, if obedience violates the Amish faith, then resistance is justified.30 Miller and his community likely deemed this relatively new conflict over compulsory education as exceptional. Unknowingly, Miller and other early Amish opponents of compulsory education laid the groundwork for contesting the practice that would eventually carry them in the 1970s all the way to the Supreme Court.

While the Court’s 1972 decision in Yoder to view Amish noncompliance with compulsory education a matter of religious freedom is important, to use that as the only lens for understanding the conflict remains problematic. Doing so divorces the topic from its origins in an issue—parental control of education—not exclusive to Amish religious belief. Occurring within a period of educational transition, the negotiation of state versus parental rights was contested for all Americans regardless of religious affiliation. Centering parental rights as important to understanding Amish compulsory education also offers a possible explanation for why appeal to the First Amendment became their chosen recourse in Yoder. The most notable Supreme Court jurisprudence asserting parental rights in education—Myers v. Nebraska (1922) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)—concerned matters of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. However, the precedents established by both cases did not alleviate the conflict the Amish had with the state once compulsory education became entrenched in American public education. Instead, framing the matter as a First Amendment issue from which an assertion of parental rights emerged made for a viable constitutional case. Joseph W. Miller’s dispute with Middlefield Township over his daughter’s attendance and required content knowledge situates contests over Amish compulsory education as not only a matter of religious freedom, but also as an issue originating from the conflict over state and parental rights at the beginning of the twentieth century.


1. Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1992), 192. This group of Amish emigrants came from a larger community located Holmes County, Ohio. Frederick Stewart Buchanan, “The Old Paths: A Study of the Amish Response to Public Schooling in Ohio,” University Microfilms, Inc. (Ann Arbor, 1967), 7. A newspaper article lists the Millers’ residence as Hayes Corners. Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Amish May Build Own School since Court Fines One Geauga County Members of Religious Sect,” December 12, 1915: 1, 4.

2. Tracy L. Steffes, School, Society, and State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012), 2.

3. “Middlefield Township: Geauga County, 1900.” Historic Map Works.com. Stranahan, H. B. and Company. 1900. http://www.historicmapworks.com/Map/US/20303/Middlefield+Township/Geauga+County+1900/Ohio (accessed April 27, 2015). Rick Seyer, History of the Village, 2014, http://www.middlefieldohio.com/our-community/history.

4. Buchanan, “The Old Paths,” 33.

5. Buchanan, 35.

6. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code of the State of Ohio Being an Act to Revise and Consolidate the General Statutes Ohio Passed (Columbus: HeinOnline, 1910), Section 7762, 1643.

7. “And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.” King James Version.

8. Deposition transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, [undated].

9./a> Hearing transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.

10. Steven Provasnik, “Judicial Activism and the Origins of Parental Choice: The Court’s Role in the Institutionalization of Compulsory Education in the United States, 1891-1925,” History of Education Quarterly 46, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 311-47, 320.

11. Provasnik, 319-20.

12. Provasnik, 314-15.

13. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code, 1910, Section 7762, 1643.

14. The General Assembly of Ohio, The General Code, 1910, Section 7763, 1643. This amounts to a period of 120 days, 60 days shorter than the contemporary requirement of 180 days.

15. Hearing transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.

16. U.S. Census Bureau,Year: 1910; Census Place: Chardon, Geauga, Ohio; Roll: T624_1185; Page: 14B; Enumeration District: 0056; FHL microfilm: 1375198. Hearing Transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 13, 1915.

17. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Amish Man Appeals Case,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 18, 1915: 2. “Would Convince World Is Round,” Geauga County Record, December 17, 1915.Criminal Transcript, The State of Ohio v. Joseph W. Miller file, Geauga County Archives, November 19, 1915, 2. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Amish Man Appeals Case,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.

18. Donald R. Ford, “A Brief History Appellate Review in Ohio and the Eleventh District Court of Appeals,” Court of Appeals in Ohio Eleventh Appellate District, Supreme Court of Ohio, January 2007, http://www.11thcourt.co.trumbull.oh.us/pdfs/11th%20District%20Court%20History.pdf, 22, 24.

19. Steffes, 142.

20.Provasnik, 328.

21. Provasnik, 330.

22. Provasnik, 336.

23. Provasnik, 337.

24. “1) That ideas expressed in words are brighter and truer than ideas which take their form in personal and community life 2) That people who accept the ideas of the eighteenth century’s so-called Age of Reason are the “enlightened” ones of the world 3) That the individual is the supreme unit, individual rights the most sacred rights, and human life the richest when individuals are most autonomous.” Nolt, 196, citing the work of Theron Schlabach.

25. Joseph Stoll, “Who Shall Educate Our Children?,” in Compulsory Education and the Amish: The Right Not to Be Modern, 16-42 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), 18.

26. Albert N. Keim, “From Erlanbach to New Glarus,” in Compulsory Education and the Amish: The Right Not to Be Modern, 1-15 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975), 14.

27. “Amish May Build Own School,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.“Would Convince World Is Round,” Geauga County Record.

28. Nolt, 231. In general, Amish try to avoid all legal entanglements. They will not sue, and the community, not the courts, sorts out quarrels between Amish members. See: Paton Yoder, “The Amish View of the State,” in The Amish and the State, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, 23-42 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 36-38.

29. Donald B. Kraybill, “Negotiating with Caesar,” in The Amish and the State, ed. Donald B. Kraybill, 3-20 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 14. Yoder, 37.

30. Kraybill, “Negotiating with Caesar,” 14. Yoder, 37.

The Radical Mennonite Union

Down with Fat-Cat Christianity
Obscenity is stuffing yourself and your garbage can while watching
with quiet glee as ‘our Boys’ burn rice paddies in Vietnam,
Happiness is smashing the state
Before change, understanding; before understanding, confrontation.
Anabaptists have a persecution complex, or is it prosecution complex?
A New Christianity for a New Religious Age
God is alive; Magic is Afoot
“Welcome to you who read me today. Welcome to you who put my heart down. Welcome to you, darling and friend, who miss me forever in your trip to the end.”

Cohen1

A few years ago, while researching the history of Mennonite involvement in labour unions for my book NOT Talking Union, I came across a file at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario labelled “Radical Mennonite Union.”2 Sadly, the Radical Mennonite Union was not actually a labour union. But it was such an interesting entity that I was compelled to do further research. That research was published as the final chapter in an edited volume titled Entangling Migration.

Surprisingly, Braun saw my Entangling Migration chapter and contacted me, inviting me to conduct oral history interviews with him at his current residence in Oregon, and to accept his personal papers for archival deposit. Though Braun has revised his understanding of the significance of his past activism, the Radical Mennonite Union offers an insight into the diversity of belief in the post-1970 North American Mennonite community. Braun’s story is a reminder that even “conservative” religious groups have radicals among them, that the failure of communities to embrace those radicals sometimes leads to their disaffection, and that what was once radical can become mainstream.

The Radical Mennonite Union (RMU) was a university student group led by John Braun, a Simon Fraser University student from Abbotsford, British Columbia. Braun founded the RMU in 1968, influenced by the Vietnam War draft resistance movement, the Students for a Democratic University (SDU) at SFU, and the SDU’s subsequent occupation of an SFU administration building in 1968. Braun produced what he now describes as “the most ill-tempered thing ever written”:3 the RMU Manifesto. The Manifesto’s purported goal was to unite the ideals of the New Left with those of Anabaptism.

Copies of the Manifesto rapidly spread throughout North America, reproduced in various underground student newspapers and distributed by mail to various professors, leftist students, communes, and intentional communities. The Radical Mennonite Union, a group of some two dozen people in British Columbia committed to the content of the Manifesto, undertook various activities in an attempt to radicalize young Mennonites and, by extension, the church. In 1972, Braun even secured a Canada Council grant for this purpose, renting a van to drive across Canada and meet with other young Mennonite dissidents to discuss the potential for radicalizing the Mennonite church.4

The RMU Manifesto focused on four key issues in Mennonite theology and society: Mennonites’ failure to engage with political and social issues; undemocratic practices within the Mennonite church; the failures of Mennonite schools and colleges; and Mennonites’ general conservatism. The Manifesto’s radicalism lies both in its content and its forms of expression: Mennonite church members, for example, are described as “passive, docile idiots… human near-vegetables incapable of facing life with any kind of honesty.”5 The Mennonite church is accused of promoting a “rigid theology and outdated social mores” as well as supporting “the status quo in the political sphere.” Nonetheless, the church itself is not rejected, but instead is called to radically transform itself. Examples of such transformation are offered, including active support of war resisters, the promotion of “free and open discussion of all theology, doctrines, rules, etc.,” and the equal treatment of women. Mennonite schools (secondary and post-secondary) are called to a similar radical transformation. But the transformation was to extend beyond the walls of the churches and schools, and into the broader, non-Mennonite society, since “to honestly follow Christ in this day is to make the social revolution.”

In retrospect, Braun believes that his formation of the Radical Mennonite Union was somewhat disingenuous. He wanted to “build up credibility as a radical on campus more so than actually try to change anything in the Mennonite world, which is pretty impossible.”6 And yet he fairly quickly experienced disillusionment with the New Left as it degenerated into sectarianism and (in some instances) violence. The legacy of the Radical Mennonite Union, for him today, is the “need to work to make the world a better place for the less fortunate.”7 His politics when he was an SFU student were “revolutionary and theatrical.” Now, he believes that “politics can’t be a matter of pure ideas” but must be a “matter of real solutions to real problems.”

Braun’s story reveals that Mennonitism is neither static nor cohesive, and that what was once radical can become mainstream. Braun’s ideas regarding the Mennonite church in the 1960s and 1970s, as outlined in his Manifesto (and his subsequent Confession of Faith), were no longer radical by the turn of the millennium. Much of that for which he had agitated has been embraced by the denominations of both the Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren Church: acceptance of war resistance, greater involvement of women in decision-making within the church, relaxation of prohibitions on lifestyle choices like smoking or movie theatre attendance, greater understanding of the role of colonialism in Canadian society, and even cooperation with non-Christians in social protests (such as the Women’s March).


  1. John Braun, “A Confession of Faith,” 32, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON. The final three sentences are a quotation from Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers.
  2. John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  3. John Braun, interview by Janis Thiessen, McMinnville OR, 14 June 2016, audio recording, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  4. I presented a paper about this at the A People of Diversity: Mennonites in Canada Since 1970 conference in Winnipeg in 2018, and published an expanded version of that talk and this blog post as “John Braun and the Radical Mennonite Union,” Journal of Mennonite Studies37 (2019): 119-32.
  5. John Braun, “Manifesto of the Radical Mennonite Union,” typescript, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  6. John Braun, interview by Janis Thiessen, McMinnville OR, 14 June 2016, audio recording, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  7. Ibid.

Early Modern Anabaptists: Syllabus Draft

This fall I’m teaching HIST 348: The Radical Reformation at Conrad Grebel University College. Given how much I’ve benefited from other instructors’ pedagogical transparency, in this post I’m sharing an early draft of the syllabus. As I describe here, the status of the “Radical Reformation” as a recognizable historical phenomenon and framework for research is a matter of current discussion. I intend to involve students in this debate in class, but have decided to center the course itself on early modern Anabaptists and Anabaptism. The course is twelve weeks long, and students meet twice a week for eighty minutes. The content and structure of the course reflects my intent to help students both master the subject matter and engage in tasks of historical investigation and interpretation. I welcome comments and suggestions. 

Expected Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Identify questions that animate the scholarly study of early modern Anabaptism and pose their own
  • Assess the impact of context on the content of primary source evidence
  • Critically evaluate and compare the content of other historians’ written argumentation
  • Synthesize evidence from various sources of information about the past to produce a historical argument
  • Communicate original and persuasive historical interpretations in oral, written, and visual form

Assignments

Class Participation (15%)

Writing Assignments: Historiographical Workshops (20% each)

1. Secondary source scavenger hunt and analysis (1000 words)

Students will select two articles from the assigned essay collections (see course schedule below). They will identify the following elements related to the mechanics of scholarly writing: the author’s field and affiliation; the volume’s intended audience; the essay’s argument; the location and scope of the article’s literature review; and three pieces of primary source evidence. The analytical portion of their essay will address the authors’ approaches to the question of “radicality” in relation to their historical subjects. 

2. Primary source analysis (1000 words)

Students will select a pair of primary sources with a theological focus from distinct regions, time periods, or Anabaptist writers/groups (I will provide a list of source pairings). In their essays, students will (1) contextualize the sources, (2) describe their contents, and (3) formulate a conclusion about Anabaptist theological commonalities and differences, using chapter eight from Snyder (1997) as a framework for comparison.

3. Additional syllabus unit (3 pages)

Students will create an additional unit for the course syllabus, which includes a topic/theme, lecture/activity outlines, and reading(s). The scholarship on which this unit is based will have been published in the last ten years. Students will include a one-page reflection in which they explain their choices. 

Final: Timeline JS Assignment (25%)

Students will select a course topic (theme, theological position, or Anabaptist group or figure) and create a visual representation of 10-12 related historical developments using the open source tool Timeline JS. In addition, they will submit a three-page essay in which they explain the significance of the events they have selected and explore the interpretive implications of their work. The purpose of this summative exercise is to lead students to make an argument about the meaning of continuity and/or change over time in relation to the historical subject they have selected. 

Course Texts

  • C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (1997)
  • Other readings listed in course schedule below

Course Schedule

I. Origins

1. Introduction

  • Sept. 5 – Presentation of course themes

2. Context

  • Sept. 10 – Late Medieval European Religion
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapters 1 and 2
  • Sept. 12 – The Reformation, 1517-1525
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 3, 4, and 5

3. Polygenesis

  • Sept. 17 – Origin Stories: South
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 6 and 7
  • Sept. 19 – Origin Stories: North
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 11

4. Spread and Development

  • Sept. 24 – Persecution, Migration, and Missions
    • Reading: Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36
  • Sept. 26 – Conversion
    • Reading: “Hans Fischer Responds to Questioning (1548),” in C. Arnold Snyder (ed.), Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists, 1529-1592 (2017), 57-67.

5. Historiographical Workshop #1: A “Radical Reformation”?

  • Oct. 1 – Definitions of Reformation Radicalism
    • Readings: student selections from Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers (eds.), Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform (2017) and James M. Stayer and John D. Roth (eds.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism (2007)
  • Oct. 3 – Conversation with Invited Guest

II. Anabaptist Religious Cultures

6. Authority and Gender

  • Oct. 8 – Scripture, Prophesy, and Communal Practice and Belief
    • Readings: “Margret Hottinger of Zollikon” and “Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock of Strasbourg,” in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women (1996), 43-53 and 273-87
  • Oct. 10 – Courtship and Marriage
    • Lyndal Roper, “Sexual Utopianism in the German Reformation,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42, no. 3 (1991): 394-418
  • Oct. 22 – Münster

7. Communication

  • Oct. 24 – Orality and the Written Word
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 9 

8. Historiographical Workshop #2: “Anabaptist Theological Divergences and Commonalities”

  • Oct. 29 – A Common Anabaptist Theological Core?
    • Readings: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 8; selected primary source pairings
  • Oct. 31 – Conversation with Invited Guest

9. Anabaptist Minorities in Conflict and Coexistence

  • Nov. 5 – Swiss Brethren
    • Reading: “Strasbourg Discipline,” in Snyder (ed.), Later Writings, 92-99
  • Nov. 7 – Dutch Mennonites
    • Reading: Piet Visser, “Mennonites and Doopsgezinden in the Netherlands, 1535-1700,” in Stayer and Roth, 299-345

10. Identity Formation

  • Nov. 12 – Hymns and Martyr Stories
    • Readings: Ausbund, number 17; Erin Lambert, “Friction in the Archives: Storytelling in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 41, no. 2 (2018): 113-138
  • Nov. 14 – Transnational Disputes and Convergences
    • Reading: Troy Osborne,  “The Development of a Transnational ‘Mennonite’ Identity among Swiss Brethren and Dutch Doopsgezinden in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 88, no. 2 (2014): 195-218

III. Continuing Anabaptist Traditions

11. Historiographical Workshop #3: “New Directions”

  • Nov. 19 – A Short Historiography of Anabaptism
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, appendix
  • Nov. 21 – New Approaches
    • Readings: Mathilde Monge, “Research Note: Who Is in the ‘Society of Christian Brothers’? Anabaptist Identity in Sixteenth-Century Cologne,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 82, no. 3 (2008): 603-614; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (2015), chapters 5 and 6

12. Continuing Anabaptist Tradition

  • Nov. 26 – Genealogies: Visit to “Growing Family” Exhibition at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Conrad Grebel University College
  • Nov. 28 – Global Anabaptisms
    • Reading: Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (2014), chapter 5

The Kindergarten and the Holocaust

Children’s eyes sparkled in the candlelight. This was the first time many had seen a Christmas tree, aglow in the Einlage kindergarten in December 1942. Soldiers handed out wooden toys. They had spent weeks carving them—model houses, schools, churches, city halls, trucks, and trains—while convalescing at the military hospital in this Mennonite village in southeastern Ukraine. The group joined in song, filling the hall with old German Christmas carols. The tunes, which had not been heard openly during the recent years of Bolshevik rule, reminded all those present of the momentous changes wrought since Hitler’s armies had taken control of Ukraine.1

Children march in an October 1942 parade honoring the visit of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, to the Halbstadt Mennonite colony in southeastern Ukraine. Courtesy of the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg, Alber Photograph Collection 151-17.

The Mennonite kindergarten in Einlage was a Nazi showpiece. Military engineers and SS agents had helped refurbish the sturdy stone structure, coated with quality oil paints and sporting its own washroom, kitchen, and cafeteria. The kindergarten had steam heating and electric lights. Einlage’s recovering soldiers hailed from all over Germany, but they affectionately termed the town’s youngest members “their children.” In addition to making toys, they had drawn pictures that inducted the kindergarteners into the fantastical world of German fairy tales and myths. Outside, a swastika flag fluttered in the breezes passing over the Ukrainian steppe.2

No other kindergarten in the whole administrative district of Dnipropetrovsk was as magnificent as Einlage’s. Nazi occupiers had counted 10,000 kindergarten-aged children in the area as being of “German blood.” These had been sorted by men in brown uniforms who could be found in all the villages, going door to door and categorizing inhabitants according to “genealogical and racial biological” criteria.3 Children deemed to be German were put into a segregated school system—separate and very unequal. The 129 pupils in Einlage happened to be the most fortunate of the roughly 5,000 children already organized into the district’s 110 German-only kindergartens.4

We know about the Einlage kindergarten because it was profiled extensively in two Nazi papers that served the Dnipropetrovsk district. The Ukraine Post and the German Ukraine Newspaper regularly featured Einlage and other villages in the Chortitza Mennonite colony. “Chortitza on the Dnieper!” wrote one SS journalist, expressing joy that through the war, readers had become familiar with “the most flourishing” colony in the district’s “chain of German villages.”5 Its fame was rivaled only by that of Halbstadt, Ukraine’s largest Mennonite settlement, which became incorporated into Dnipropetrovsk in September 1942 as Nazi civil administration expanded east.6

Nazi civil administration in occupied Ukraine (shaded) had expanded by September 1942 to encompass the region’s three largest Mennonite colonies (in black). This involved Germanizing place names: Halbstadt was previously called Molotschna, while Kronau had been Zagradovka.

Most of Ukraine’s 35,000 Mennonites lived in three colonies: Chortitza and Halbstadt in the Dnipropetrovsk district as well as Kronau in an area called Mykolaiv. This latter district was served by the German Bug Newspaper, named for the local Bug River. Nazi occupiers reported a total of 13,000 “ethnic Germans” in Chortitza, 25,000 in Halbstadt, and 13,000 in Kronau. Most of these inhabitants were of Mennonite background, although each colony—especially Kronau—included numerous Lutherans and a smaller number of Catholics. All three colonies also had Russians and Ukrainians, whom occupiers subjugated or deported. Death squads shot or gassed resident Jews.

It is possible to reconstruct a detailed picture of Mennonite daily life in Nazi-occupied Ukraine through careful readings of the Ukraine Post, the German Ukraine Newspaper, and the German Bug Newspaper. Scholars must treat these sources cautiously. All three papers’ primary purpose was to circulate propaganda. Their target audiences were German-language readers in Ukraine—including soldiers, bureaucrats, and local Mennonites—as well as interested audiences on the home front. Articles were steeped in anti-communist, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and authors wrote confidently of the Third Reich’s coming victory at a time when the front was already faltering.

Nevertheless, basic information like dates, events, names, and ranks were generally accurate. Selective combing reveals much about Nazi efforts to expand administrative control. Articles tell how local Mennonites joined the army or bureaucracy.7 Village names were Germanized.8 By October 1942, Chortitza had an operational post office.9 Halbstadt’s opened a month later.10 One of Dnipropetrovsk’s two courts held session next door.11 Occupiers sanctioned businesses like an iron foundry in Chortitza and a machine factory in Halbstadt.12 Horse breeding took place, as did silk manufacture.13 And tallies are available for grain, milk, and eggs produced in Kronau.14

The nature of these newspapers as propaganda organs makes them valuable for understanding the landscape navigated by local Mennonites. Content and diction reveal how occupiers hoped the region’s “ethnic Germans” would learn to think and act. In May 1943, a Nazi Party rally took place in Mykolaiv. The main speaker thundered that “international Judaism” had started the war: “Whether on the side of the plutocrats or the Bolsheviks, the Jew works everywhere as agitator and provocateur. This war is a race war. We must break the Jewish danger, or we will be broken by it.”15 Functionaries fanned across the district, repeating this lie in all twenty-nine of Kronau’s villages.

National Socialists murdered 1.2 million Jews in occupied Ukraine, including tens of thousands in the Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv regions. Propagandists avoided reporting explicitly on the Holocaust. Journalists instead portrayed Jews as aggressors who must be stopped. Jews’ alleged victims were Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans.” The very real deprivations and terrors of Soviet rule were thus ascribed to “Jewish-Bolshevik tyranny.”16 Occupiers seized Jewish property and redistributed it, claiming to redress past wrongs. Jubilant reports of one aid action in Kronau mentioned only that the 32,000 clothing and household items were “for the most part used.”17

The same agencies that liquidated Jews provided aid to Mennonites.18 Their backdrop was total war. Thousands starved across Ukraine, and the land was pocked with barely-covered mass graves. But Nazi administrators wanted “ethnic Germans” to live happy and whole. “Blossom-white are the dresses and the head coverings of the women and the girls,” remarked one visitor of a Sunday in Chortitza.19 Another crowed: “The simple church is no longer a movie theater as in Bolshevik times.”20 Both Chortitza and Halbstadt played host to triumphal delegations of the Third Reich’s leading Nazis, including enormous rallies for Reich Minister Alfred Rosenberg.21

“You are a piece of Germany!” Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, spoke to thousands of Mennonites and other “ethnic Germans” in the Chortitza colony in June 1942. Rosenberg and his high-powered entourage visited Halbstadt a year later. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Administrators moved quickly to indoctrinate Mennonites into National Socialism. By December 1941, all able-bodied men in Kronau were organized into a paramilitary German Corps. Boys aged fourteen to seventeen belonged to a German Youth Corps, and their female counterparts aged fourteen to twenty-one joined a League of Ethnic German Girls.22 The local Women’s League was responsible for activities like sewing circles and distributing clothing shipments from Auschwitz. Aid workers arrived in the colonies with such organizations as the German Red Cross, the People’s Welfare, and the SS. Chortitza, Halbstadt, and Kronau all received youth delegations from Germany.23

This 1942 feature piece in the wartime Nazi newspaper, Ukraine Post, lauded local Mennonites: “Thanks to their strict lifestyle and their outstanding work ethic, they became the most successful German settlers in the East.”

Occupiers stressed education. Wartime transportation needs initially prevented regular teacher exchanges between Germany and Ukraine. Small groups of professionals therefore held crash courses so that local educators could be “indoctrinated in the National Socialist mindset.”24 These specialists organized back-to-back three-week camps in Kronau during the spring of 1942.25 Wagon upon wagon of men and women arrived, some from as far as one hundred miles away.26 Participants heard lectures on German politics, literature, and art. They then returned to their villages, where schools received Nazi-oriented workbooks and reading materials.27

Kindergartens comprised just one among many types of German-only educational institutions to open in Mennonite colonies. Chortitza’s segregated kindergartens were joined by elementary schools and, in 1943, at least two high schools.28 Kronau boasted planned or operational middle schools, high schools, an agricultural school, and a training school for rural women’s work. The orchestra of one institute played Wagner for visiting dignitaries, and pupils pledged loyalty to Reich and Führer from the stage.29 A teacher training academy that served as Ukraine’s primary location for cultivating “ethnic German” educational professionals held class in Halbstadt.30

Education prospered both in and out of the classroom. Hitler Youth officers kicked into high gear during the summer of 1943. A third of eligible young people across Dnipropetrovsk already belonged to the German Youth of Ukraine, with the best results from Chortitza and Halbstadt’s “fertile ground.”31 Following a leadership training camp, the graduates—forty-two girls and thirty-two boys—staffed camps throughout the district. The grandest lasted six weeks and had 160 participants.32 Affirmative action also came to Ukraine. In Chortitza, twenty gifted young people competed for five spots to study in Germany.33 Others returned from learning trips to teach true Nazism at home.34

No single school received as much public attention as the Einlage kindergarten. This was the prize institution overseen by “Aunt Müller,” the area’s child education specialist. In 1942, Aunt Müller, who originally hailed from Transylvania, organized a camp for twenty girls and women who would go on to become Chortitza’s kindergarten workforce. They put on a craft exhibition, and those who were particularly quick studies received awards.35 Under Aunt Müller’s direction, plans were initiated to expand the school and to board children aged three to seven from outlying villages. The Chortitza iron foundry agreed to repair donated beds.36

“It is a miracle.” So wrote a German soldier named Leonhard Froese in 1943. He one day hoped to have a kindergartener of his own, and he penned a glowing letter to the German Ukraine Newspaper describing his visit to the school in Einlage. Each day, the building opened by 7:00. At 8:00, the children assembled outside for roll call. The swastika flag would be hoisted, and it was time for athletic exercises. Then everyone would “goose step” through the front door. Each child had a personal cubby for jackets. During field trips, they were divided into three groups by height: giants, dwarves, and Thumbelinas. To Froese’s eye, he could have been in Germany.37

Decades after the Second World War, under entirely different circumstances, I, too, attended a Mennonite kindergarten. My school was in Indiana, not war-torn Ukraine. My parents had not suffered through years of fear and hunger in the Soviet Union. Nor did Bolshevik agents come in the night to shoot my grandfathers or to deport them to gulags. My kindergarten cubby contained a nylon jacket, not some wrap of unknown provenance, perhaps taken from another five-year-old who happened to be born to a Jewish family. Nevertheless, the songs, the laughter, the shouts, and the joy of children at the Einlage kindergarten resonate with me. What a privilege it is to learn.

Precisely such familiarity of experience is what renders Mennonites’ past in wartime Ukraine so chilling. Nazi officials did not hide Einlage’s kindergarten. Unlike the blood-soaked pits virtually a stone’s throw away, writers trumpeted the school in page upon page of propaganda. Education in Einlage was intended to show Nazism’s radiant potential. It represented an alleged antidote to “Judeo-Bolshevism.” It was what the Holocaust was supposed to enable not only in Ukraine, but for all children of “German blood.” Today, historians sift laboriously through archival records to identify Mennonite death squad members. No such work is needed for Einlage’s kindergarteners.

Collective memories of this Holocaust kindergarten have never left us. Mennonites who grew up in Ukraine during the Second World War continue to speak and write with grateful thanks for their generous treatment by the Third Reich. When Hitler’s regime collapsed in 1945 and they became homeless refugees, their plight developed into a cause célèbre for congregations across Europe and the Americas. Their voices and their stories remain heard through film, books, and close family relationships, including my own. Leading Mennonite newspapers in North America still to this day credit Nazi officials with returning a “semblance of normal life” to Ukraine.38

Our denomination, as a Christian peace church, must grapple with our history in the Holocaust. This is first and foremost the tale of the Einlage kindergarteners, of Jews murdered so that Mennonites could flourish. Myths of happy wartime children shine with the light of latent anti-Semitism. It is a vital, urgent task to identify and to root out our anti-Semitic narratives. I have never once felt physically endangered because of my faith. But in my country, Jews are gunned down in houses of worship. If you are a Mennonite, if you attended a kindergarten, or if you ever experienced the wonder of singing around a Christmas tree, this story is for you. This is a task for our church.

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

  1. “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 9, 1943, 8; “Soldaten erfreuen volksdeutsche Kinder,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 29, 1942, 3. All of the newspaper articles cited in this essay are freely available online: https://libraria.ua/en
  2. Leonhard Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 11, 1943, 8.
  3. Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Leistungen deutscher Kolonisten,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung<, August 8, 1942, 3; “Das Bluterbe der Väter,” Ukraine Post, March 6, 1943, 3.
  4. “Fürsorge für die Volksdeutschen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 31, 1943, 3; “Es geht wieder vorwärts,” Ukraine Post, August 10, 1943, 8.>
  5. “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
  6. “Erweiterung des Reichskommissariats,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 2, 1942, 3; “Eingliederung in das Reichskommissariat,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, September 5, 1942
  7. Rudolf Rümer, “Heimkehr in das Volkstum,” Ukraine Post, October 31, 1942, 3.
  8. “Alexanderstadt statt Bolschaja-Alexandrowka,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 9, 1942, 4.
  9. “Neue Dienstpostämter,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 3, 1942, 3.
  10. Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 15, 1942, 3.
  11. “Deutsches Gericht in Halbstadt,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 2, 1943, 3.
  12.  “Amtliche Bekanntmachung,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 12, 1943, 6.
  13. “Körordnung für den Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4; “Aufbau der Pferdezucht,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 29, 1943, 3; “Deutscher Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 31, 1943, 3; “Seidenbau in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3.
  14. “Volksdeutsche Bauern packen weider an,” Ukraine Post, July 3, 1943, 7.
  15. “‘Der Kampf ist hart aber wir sind härter!’” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 29, 1943, 4.
  16. “Der Ruf des Reiches an die Volksdeutschen am Schwarzmeer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 16, 1943.
  17. “Kleider für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 30, 1943, 3; “Kleidungsstücke für 13000 Volksdeutsche,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, July 6, 1943; “Die Hilfsaktion wird fortgesetzt,” Ukraine Post, July 20, 1943, 8.
  18. Rudolf Rümer, “Volksdeutsche sind unserer Hilfe sicher,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 22, 1942, 3.
  19. “Urlaub nach Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 11, 1943, 3.
  20. “Nach deutschem Vorbild,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, December 2, 1942, 3; “Deutsche Art dringt durch,” Ukraine Post, April 17, 1943, 5.
  21. “Führung des europäischen Ostens größte Aufgabe unseres Volkes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 21, 1942, 1; Hans-Joachim Kunze, “Festtag im deutschen Dorf am Dnjepr,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 28, 1942, 3; “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung; “Reichsleiter Rosenberg besuchte die Schwarzmeerdeutschen,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, June 22, 1943, 3-4.
  22. “Aus der Volkstumsarbeit Kronau, Gebeit Alexanderstadt,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 11, 1942, 4; “Der Generalkommissar in Alexanderstadt und Nowibug,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 1, 1942, 4.
  23. “Erzähl uns von Deutschland,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 25, 1942, 3; “HJ-Tagebuch in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, September 5, 1942, 3; “Abschluss der HJ-Fahrt durch den Generalbezirk,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, August 26, 1942, 4; “Jugend als Sendboten des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 19, 1943, 3; “Harzer Hitlerjungen im Generalbezirk Nikolajew,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 24, 1943, 3; “Regelung des studentischen Osteinsatzes,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 4, 1942, 3.
  24. “Umschulungslager volksdeutscher Lehrer,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, April 24, 1942, 3.
  25. “Umschulungslager für volksdeutsche Lehrer,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, April 8, 1942, 4.
  26. “Volksdeutsche Lehrer im Schulungslager,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, May 13, 1942, 4.
  27. “Der Lehrernachwuchs in der Ukraine,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, June 2, 1942, 3.
  28. “Zwei neue deutsche Hauptschulen,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 13, 1943, 3.
  29. “Schülerheim in volksdeutschem Dorf,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, February 16, 1943, 3.
  30. “Der Ruf des Reiches,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung.
  31. “Volksdeutsche Jugend an der Arbeit,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, May 21, 1943, 3; “Jugend im Gleichschritt,” June 5, 1943, 7.
  32. “Volksdeutsche Jugend in froher Gemeinschaft,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, August 17, 1943, 3.
  33. “Ausleselager in Chortitza,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, October 15, 1942, 3; “Aufgeschlossen, begabt, einsatzbereit, kameradschaftlich,” Deutsche Bug-Zeitung, July 3, 1943, 2.
  34. “Die Kinder der ‘Kulaken,’” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, November 9, 1943, 3.
  35. “Für die Volksdeutsche Jugend,” Deutsche Ukraine-Zeitung, January 3, 1943, 3.
  36. Rümer, “Heimkerh in das Volkstum.”
  37. Froese, “Die Brücke zur Heimat.”
  38. Rich Preheim, “From ‘Tauferkammer’ to Burkina Faso,” Mennonite World Review, December 3, 2018, 6.

Necessary Idealism: A History of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate

While the legacies of Anglo and French schooling are well studied, Canada also has a long history of religious schools founded by ethnic groups that were neither English Protestants, nor French Catholics. The Mennonites, for example, were convinced to immigrate to Canada in the late nineteenth century in part by federal government promises that they could create their own education system. Mennonite interest in education, according to John W. Friesen, can be traced back to Prussian Mennonites who believed in a minimalist education that would “perpetuate the German language and acquaint their children with the Bible and Mennonite distinctives.”1

A popular contemporary perception of ethno-religious private schools such as those of the Mennonites is that they were created to perpetuate narrow understandings of religious belief, and to limit—or at least carefully direct—the integration of students with the wider society in which they found themselves. The history of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba provides some contrast to this perception. Westgate was established as much as an alternative to existing Mennonite schools as to the public school system. Its founders believed the existing Mennonite high schools in the province of Manitoba provided too narrow a perspective, both religiously and socially. The formation was thus the opposite of a trend that had occurred among Mennonites in the United States a generation earlier. There, schools like Hesston College were formed in part as an objection to the perceived laxity of older Mennonite institutions like Goshen College2

Westgate

Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, originally known as Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI), was founded by Mennonites in Winnipeg in 1958. It is one of hundreds of small ethnic private schools that had proliferated across Canada by the mid-twentieth century.3 The particular form of ethno-religious identity that the school attempted to inculcate in students differed from the Mennonitism promoted by other Mennonites in the province, and also changed over time. As a result, the school’s history—and possibly the history of other, similar schools—defies simple categories of assimilation or cultural resistance.

Victor Peters, one of Westgate’s founders, promoted a vision of the school as an alternative to Anglo-Canadian assimilation, even as he invoked Anglo-Canadian scholars and politicians in support of his perspective. The school’s objective was not to preserve a static representation of Mennonite culture and belief, but—in his words—to “take on the good aspects” of non-Mennonites while “discarding the less valuable aspects” of Mennonite tradition.4 Over the years, this process resulted in Westgate defining Mennonitism in ways that at times led to demands that the school enforce exactly the kind of static definition of identity the founders had wanted to avoid.

In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the school in 2007, Westgate commissioned the writing of their history. This peer-reviewed publication is now in print at CMU Press. The book’s title, Necessary Idealism, is taken from the initial conversations of the nine men and one woman who met in February 1957, to discuss forming a new Mennonite high school in Winnipeg. Doing so, they concluded, would require not only significant funds but also “the necessary idealism.” This idealism was tested throughout the school’s history, both by those within and without, and the school changed somewhat in response. Despite those changes, the core nature of the school persisted: Westgate was an alternative, not only to the secular world, but to the limits of the Mennonite one.


  1. John W. Friesen, “Studies in Mennonite Education: The State of the Art.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 133.
  2. John Ellsworth Hartzler, Education Among the Mennonites of America Danvers IL: The Central Mennonite Publishing Board, 1925), 165.
  3. See T. Krukowski, “Canadian Private Ethnic Schools,” Comparative Education 4, no. 3 (June 1968): 199-204.
  4. Westgate Mennonite Collegiate archives, untitled typescript with handwritten notation: “V. Petersan die Gruenderversammlung”

Centennial Histories Symposium at Eastern Mennonite University March 24, 2018

20180324-centennial histories conference-001-1000pxPhoto credit: Macson McGuigan/EMU

In celebration of Eastern Mennonite University’s centennial year, history professors Mary Sprunger and Mark Sawin planned a symposium centered around the centennial histories of the five MCUSA colleges: Bethel1, Goshen, Bluffton, Hesston, and EMU. They brought together the five authors of centennial histories as well as past presidents to share their reflections on the histories of the schools. The symposium offered an opportunity for consideration of how the past of these schools plays into their present and future.

The first session was a panel discussion where each author gave a brief overview of the histories of their institution. The authors shared in order of school age; Keith Sprunger from Bethel first, then Susan Fisher Miller from Goshen, Perry Bush from Bluffton, John Sharp from Hesston, and finally Donald Kraybill from EMU. It was interesting to hear parallels in the motives for some of the schools’ foundings. There was a common thread of these schools starting in order to save Mennonite students–both to save them from the evils of the world and to save them from leaving so that their talents could be used in the church. All of the authors recognized that loyal faculty and staff have seen the schools through very difficult times. They also echoed a theme of change and adaptation across the five schools stories. But some differences were apparent as well–Midwest vs. East coast, “liberal” vs. “conservative”, and an openness to the world vs. a fortress mentality. Past presidents Loren Swartzendruber and Victor Stoltzfus and outgoing Bluffton president James Harder also shared their reflections.

In the second session the authors shared about challenges throughout the schools’ history. Keith Sprunger shared about Bethel first, mentioning issues like financial struggles, low enrollment, difficulty in finding quality faculty, and diversity. These topics would be echoed by many of the authors on the panel. Susan Fisher Miller discussed declining Mennonite enrollment and pondered whether the Mennonite institutions have become victims of their own success–did they nurture strong minds early on who then moved on to “greener pastures” of more prestigious education and subsequently encouraged their children to do the same? Perry Bush spoke about how Mennonite institutions are now a part of the national marketplace of higher ed and have to contend with issues like being competitive cost-wise, offering good value for money, and finding support outside of traditional church and parachurch organizations. John Sharp mentioned the historic lack of cooperation between Hesston and Bethel even though they are located just a few miles apart. Don Kraybill spoke of the particular issue of encouraging diversity at EMC while contending with the Jim Crow-era South. The authors all acknowledged ongoing “sibling rivalry” between the institutions, but noted that early attitudes of isolation and competition have since been replaced with an attitude of cooperation.

The third session was a time where groups of faculty, students, staff, administrators and authors gathered around tables for conversation. Participants discussed the morning’s sessions as well as questions from a prepared handout that asked:

  • What should the guiding mission and purpose of Mennonite schools be in coming years given the changes in both the church and the student bodies?
  • Is being distinctively ‘Mennonite’ important?
  • Institutions by necessity grow and change. How will Mennonite institutions need to change to remain relevant in the future? What are the ‘givens’ that must remain? What are the traditions that may need to change?

There was a second handout highlighting enrollment trends at the Mennonite institutions over the past fifteen years. It broke down enrollment by MCUSA conference, trends of Mennonite student attendance, and overall full-time Mennonite traditional undergraduate enrollment at the schools. These graphs can be found here: http://bit.ly/MennoHS & http://bit.ly/MennoSystem

These questions and the data sparked fascinating conversations surrounding Mennonite identity and population at the institutions, what it means to be a Mennonite institution in the face of dwindling Mennonite attendance, and what impact larger societal trends are having on these institutions.

In the final session the authors gave their final thoughts on how the first centuries of these institutions will inform the next. Many reiterated the distinctiveness of these five institutions in maintaining their Mennonite identity over their histories and the importance of loyal faculty and alumni. Susan Fisher Miller highlighted the benefits of diversity and an international focus. Perry Bush reminded the group of how radical and attractive the Anabaptist perspective can be to students, both Mennonite and non-Mennonite, and said he believes remaining distinctly Anabaptist and following a Third Way is the best path forward for our schools. John Sharp posed the question: who are we serving if the church that we serve is scattering? Don Kraybill had to leave early but left remarks that were read reflecting on the difficulties of maintaining Mennonite institutions of higher education without a critical mass of Mennonite students and strong church support. Finally, students responded to what they had discussed in the afternoon. They spoke of their appreciation for the opportunity to learn more about the history of their institutions and called for more cooperation and conversation between the student bodies of the schools.

Many in the Q&A sessions voiced a wish that these conversations had taken place long ago and a desire to see them continue in the future. It was a hopeful time for me to see such cooperation and engagement across a variety of sectors in our Mennonite institutions and I, too, hope that these conversations continue as we all work toward our common goal of providing distinctive, faith-based, Anabaptist education. As I reflect on the symposium, I feel that it is clear that the Mennonite institutions of higher ed are entering a new era. The old models are unreliable and in order to survive and thrive there must be an openness to new ways of being. This brings uncertainty, grappling with questions of identity, and, at times, pain. But it feels necessary to ensure the survival of these beloved institutions in their second centuries. As someone who was shaped by Mennonite education and feels privileged to work at EMU, I hope that the challenges facing the institutions will spark creativity, cooperation, and positive change and allow for the continued flourishing of our Mennonite institutions.

Special thanks to Mark Sawin, Mary Sprunger, Barbara Byer, Scott Barge and all others who contributed to facilitate this fantastic symposium.


  1. Bethel’s history was written to commemorate its 125th anniversary.