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.