The Mennonite Story

By Dr. Wayne Holst
On a recent trip to mid-Ontario, where our focus was on nature and friends in the Georgian Bay region of the province, we did get to spend a few days in the area where I grew up – Waterloo County in general and St. Jacobs in particular. I would like to share some thoughts after Marlene and I visited a special museum named “The Mennonite Story“.

This small, but well-designed location tells the story of the Anabaptist movement which began during the sixteenth century Reformation – spread to North America and Russia during the centuries following – and subsequently throughout the world in modern times.


The disciples of former Catholic priest Menno Simons firmly believed that baptism into the Christian faith only had meaning if the recipient chose to be baptised. That understanding is commonly held by many non-Mennonite Christians today, but – five hundred years ago, the “Anabaptist” or re-baptism movement was a radical departure from both Catholic and Protestant tradition. The result was that those who become Christians by personal choice were hunted down and slaughtered as heretics. This story is vividly displayed in the museum and it is both a gruesome and enlightening experience to go through.


Mennonites who were able to escape Europe found refuge in places like Pennsylvania in the United States and the Ukraine in Russia, where new territories opened to an essentially agricultural people. Subsequently, many American Mennonites moved to Southern Ontario and – because they did not trust the American revolution and its leaders – they were determined to remain living in British-controlled North America. Thus, the settlements that began in the Waterloo region of Ontario more than 200 years ago.

Mennonites of the “Russian” tradition had moved to that country as others moved to America. Eventually, political unrest in Russia forced most of them that escaped new persecution to come to Canada as well as the USA in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The ties between the Mennonites of both migrations have grown strong over the years. This led to a third key development in Anabaptist theology and practice.

Proclamation – Peace and Justice

The persecution of Mennonites during more than four centuries led to a major change in the Anabaptist approach to the world. Their theology shifted from self-preservation to an outreach witness devoted to service of those in need and who were now suffering from political injustice. The existence of the Mennonite Central Committee and its many forms of global ministry is important evidence that many Mennonites across their spectrum have learned from their experience and are now sharing their spirituality with everyone – including former religious enemies.

It is a wonderful sign of progress to learn of Anabaptist, Protestant and-Catholic dialogue springing up around the globe. The result is that Christian faith is enhanced, and the world is better served.


It was good for me to visit “The Mennonite Story” museum, located in the same neighburhood where I was raised in my home town.

If you would like to discover more about the Mennonites and St. Jacobs, why not check out the interesting website:

St. Jacobs Country


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinate Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city.

Colleagues List, Vol XIV. No.01. July 01, 2018

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