Mennonites are a Christian sect that originated in southern Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. They have lived in the Great Plains since the 1870s, when thousands emigrated there at the encouragement of state officials and railroad companies who desired to settle the region. Entire Mennonite villages often migrated en masse from Europe to the Great Plains to flee religious persecution. These mass migrations helped Mennonites create several distinctive population hearths in this region. Today, from a worldwide membership of slightly over one million, approximately 10 percent reside in the Great Plains.
Manitoba became a principal Canadian settlement site because of the East and West Reserve lands, established south of Winnipeg by Canadian officials in 1873 and 1876, respectively, which offered settlers the autonomy they sought. There, Mennonites built their own schools and replicated the economic and social patterns practiced in Europe. In the mid.twentieth century a majority of Mennonites in the Prairie Provinces lived on farms, but this percentage has declined dramatically in recent decades. Today, Winnipeg has the largest concentration of Mennonites of any urban center in the region.
In the United States, Mennonite immigrants found land and a climate that encouraged settlement around Henderson, Nebraska, in 1874, and near Freeman, South Dakota, in 1873. In Kansas, the area near Newton became a major cultural hearth starting around 1874, largely through the construction of liberal arts colleges, hospitals, and relief agencies. In south-central Kansas, land shortages following World War II and economic pressures forced Mennonites off farms and into communities, where they quickly built institutions and businesses that reflected their Mennonite ideology. For example, Mennonite entrepreneur Lyle Yost founded Hesston Corporation (today known as Hay and Forage, Incorporated), a leading agricultural machinery manufacturer.
The multiplicity of Mennonite origins in Europe means that the Mennonites of the Great Plains are by no means a homogeneous group, having brought with them differing traditions and emphases in their faith. The various Mennonite strains do, however, have many practices in common, including adult baptism, separation from the larger culture, simple living, and pacifism. Traditionally, pacifism has meant not complying with conscription (conscientious objection) and not supporting militarism. This pacifistic stance has often put them at odds with the state and non-Mennonites in general, both in Europe and in North America. Today, support for community-based nonviolent campaigns and conflict mediation agencies have become the primary outlet for these pacifist beliefs. Battles with the state over conscription are increasingly rare. In fact, because of the publicized efforts of the Mennonite relief agencies, such as Mennonite Central Committee, service, rather than strident pacifism, became the group's defining trait in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Initially, the Great Plains appealed to Mennonites because of the group's traditional rural bias, derived from centuries of persecution in Europe. Certainly Mennonitism in the Great Plains once was very parochial, as they were a reserved people, speaking Germanic dialects, wearing distinctive, simple garb, and living in isolated rural enclaves. Most Mennonites believed that their faith was incompatible with urban life. Although Mennonites are still widely perceived as a rural people, more frequently Mennonites are making their homes in Plains towns, living and working alongside non-Mennonites. Distinctive dress, language, and physical isolation have given way to service work and conflict resolution as the defining elements of Mennonitism today.
See also INDUSTRY: Swather.
Steven V. Foulke Emporia State University
Foulke, Steven V. "Shaping of Place: Mennonitism in South-Central Kansas." Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1998.
Redekop, Calvin. Mennonite Society. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
Smith, C. Henry. The Coming of the Russian Mennonites: An Episode in the Settling of the Last Frontier, 1874–1884. Berne IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1927.