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Fall 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 2 · pp. 257–259 

Book Review

In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario

Samuel Steiner. Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 2015. 877 pages.

Reviewed by Jonathan Seiling

This historical overview of Mennonites in Ontario explains their religious diversity in terms of the interplay of regional, national and international denominational and social history, and legal developments and politics, including economic-industrial and gender factors. It accounts for the way a relatively small geographical region could host, over two centuries, more than thirty different groups who call themselves Mennonite or relate primarily to Mennonite institutions. The theme of the book, signaled by the title, serves to explain “the startling diversity of Mennonites in Ontario in the twenty-first century” (24). By this Steiner means both settlement on land and the spiritual-theological searches that led Mennonites to find so many reasons to erect borders and divisions within and among their various communities and groups, and to separate themselves from society in ever differing ways. Their attempt to wrestle with land settlement does not overshadow their struggle with issues such as assurance of salvation and fundamentalism, both of which were originally foreign territory to Mennonites.

The author’s broad and detailed account of Mennonite groups stems both from long-term comprehensive research and his professional role as archivist at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario where he worked for over three decades. Significant also were his leadership roles in provincial and national historical societies through to the present. Steiner also managed such projects as the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO, see The other noteworthy quality which positively shaped the author’s perspective, is his “insider-outsider” status within the {258} Ontario Mennonite community. Steiner was raised as a pastor’s son in a Swiss Mennonite community in Ohio, where he challenged many aspects of the theological and religious heritage through his college years, and then immigrated to Canada as a conscientious objector with his wife, Sue (Clemmer) Steiner, later a major leader in the Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada.

The book is organized into sixteen thematic chapters. Staggered and overlapping timelines allow one theme to be dealt with discretely over the attenuating period rather than mixing themes together and adhering to a strictly chronological narrative. In this way, Steiner tries to represent the various Mennonite groups on a given theme. Each chapter opens with a biographical tale about an individual or a family who exemplifies the theme, which provides a tangible foray into the general theme. Although the abundance of historical details may not appeal to those who prefer light historical fiction, the biographies and the overall story is dynamic and full of remarkable characters. The book concludes with an insightful summary of over two hundred years of diverse Mennonite experience in Ontario, focusing on theological issues that unite (584–85) and those that pushed and pulled groups toward change and reaction. Steiner’s summary ends with a projection of what the next decades might hold for the four groups of Mennonites: Assimilated, Separatist Conservatives, Evangelical Conservatives, and Old Orders.

Instead of sensationalizing his subject, as some religious historians are tempted to do, Steiner favors a more self-critical approach to understanding Mennonites’ motives and behaviors. For example, while he knows that Mennonite migrations from Europe to North America and from the United States to Canada were significantly driven by the longing to escape religious persecution, he suggests that they were just as strongly motivated by promises of “fewer restrictions and greater opportunity” (27, 57). Neither does he hesitate to report that some Mennonites owned slaves and kept their distance from both the abolition movement and the Underground Railroad (30).

Yet Steiner’s narrative is sensitive to the difficulties early Ontario Mennonites had to deal with. His clear account of the challenges they faced as settlers on First Nations treaty territory will help readers gain perspective on these unsettled legacies. He examines the role of women in Mennonite communities, providing abundant evidence that they significantly shaped religious practice and social actions, including missions and leadership. He looks at migration, wartime challenges, and conscientious objection, as well as the influence of revivalism, fundamentalism, and missions, not to mention the perennial issues of assimilation and separation. The {259} themes he covers are about as comprehensive as one could manage in a single volume.

Indeed, Steiner has deep empathy for the groups he describes, both for the progressive (“assimilated”) and for conservative (“separated”) groups. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ (MBiC), for example, dropped their formal identification as Mennonites in 1947, changing their name to the United Missionary Church (now called the Missionary Church in the United States; in Canada, the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada). But he treats the MBiC so sympathetically that contemporary descendants would likely approve of his account of the history of their denomination. Steiner is equally judicious in telling the complicated story of the development of the Mennonite Brethren (MBs) in Ontario. His reflection on particular MB communities within the context of broader trends within the MB conference in Canada and the United States is well done, even if he overlooks contemporary developments such as the Southridge Community Church network in Niagara.

Other omissions are more regrettable. For example, the “Meeting House” community of Brethren in Christ (BiC) churches—attended by 5,000 on Sundays and led by Bruxy Cavey—is arguably the most prominent and engaging development of any assimilated Anabaptist denomination in Ontario today. Fortunately, Steiner’s historical reflection upon the BiC denomination will help readers understand how the BiC, originally marginal to mainstream Mennonitism, has become a dynamic partner and full-fledged member of Ontario’s Mennonite community.

Steiner’s compelling account of Mennonites in Ontario illustrates how tensions between groups result from internal religious reflection upon external socioeconomic pressures and changes in society. Those different Mennonite groups reacted differently—in some cases, surprisingly—to social changes; their adjustments were influenced by a variety of social factors, theological commitments, and by leadership personalities from outside as well as inside the province. The themes of growth, assimilation, separation, and diversity are tightly interwoven with the narrative of those reactions and adjustments. As Mennonites everywhere consider the geographical and spiritual landscapes in which they reflect upon their identities, this book will provide them with copious examples of the dynamics of culture, tradition, and faith, and perhaps even inspire them to introduce responsible change.

Jonathan Seiling, Associate Pastor of the Vineland United Mennonite Church, holds a PhD in historical theology from the Toronto School of Theology.

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