Surprising finds: Mennonites in Mexico and archives of movement

Kat Hill

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

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

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

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

Moving to Mexico

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

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

New Languages of citizenship and movement

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

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

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

Documenting identity

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

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

Migrant lives, culture and violence

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] Janzen, Liminal Sovereignty, 20.

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

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

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

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.

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.