Animals, Mennonites and the Modern World

Bicentennial Parade from Vineland Mennonite Church featuring 'Acculturated' Mennonite women celebrating the Dairy Cow, 1989. Credit: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON CA MAO 1990-8 1

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I grew up on a farm in Manitoba and vividly recall the culture that infused it in the 1960s and 70s.   My own sense of animals recounts them as ubiquitous on the farm and intersecting with humans in multiple ways.  But stories of the animal world also infused the culture of the farm.  Some accounts were of betrayal and harm: my mother told one of her family’s rabid dog who terrorized the household of 6 girls when it leapt through the dining room window; my father loved talking about the day he was tangled in the harrows, furiously yanked along by a team of run-away horses, cutting his upper lip, leaving a life-long scar.  I’ve told my own “coming of age” when at age 14 Dad announced that I had graduated from Dixie the pony and deserved a 14-hand high horse, but not just any horse.  He vetoed both a tall lanky ‘bay’ gelding and a beautiful ‘roan’ mare as too quiescent, but settled on an almost uncontrollable wild ‘sorrel’ mare; this quarter horse would make a man of his boy.  Stories of animals were narratives with meaning, cultural artifacts of the farm.

Mennonite farmer, Wilbert Brubacher's Guernsey cow, in Waterloo, Ontario; October 1954. Credit: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON CA MAO Hist.Mss. 10.28-DH-428
Mennonite farmer, Wilbert Brubacher’s Guernsey cow, in Waterloo, Ontario; October 1954. Credit: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON CA MAO Hist.Mss. 10.28-DH-428

‘Come Watch this Spider’ is the title of my new article in the latest issue of the Canadian Historical Review.  Subtitled, ‘Animals, Mennonites and Indices of Modernity,’ it argues that the stories people tell about animals not only illuminate the inter-species relationships, but illuminate the very nature of modernization, or liberalism, in Canada.  In this article I employ the Mennonites of Canada as a case study, in part because they are an identifiable group, living in defined communities across Canada, but also because they have been a disproportionately rural people, statistically more rural than urban until the mid 1970s.   This demographic fact allows for a comparative analysis of stories told about animals in pre-industrial, industrializing (i.e. the mid-twentieth-century decades of farm commodification), and post-industrial, urban living.

I argue that stories from these three eras demonstrate an evolving relationship with the animal kingdom.  The article takes you on a bit of an epic journey over the course of 150 years.  I concur with previous studies that these relationships are conditioned by evolving identities of class, gender, religion and ethnicity.  Significantly as these identities and social relations changed in the Mennonite community, so too did the ways they wrote about inter-species relationships.  Pre-industrial farm diaries and community-oriented memories are chalked full of references to animals in which humans seem to respect them, see divine messages in their action, and live in a symbiotic relationship with them.  Twentieth-century memoirs that trace the commercialization of Mennonite farms and the significant Mennonite migration to the cities after the 1960s change the way writers speak of the animal: now horses, cows, pigs and chickens are introduced into the narratives seemingly as literary devices to establish the ascendancy of the individual.  Numerous memoirs now speak of human dominance over the animal – horses are  ‘bred up’, pigs face a violent butchering, chickens are ‘tricked’ into laying by artificial light, wild life acquiesces to ‘man’.   Then in a final literary iteration, late twentieth-century voices from the peripheries of Mennonite society – from both traditionalist ‘horse and buggy’ communities and from the hands of urbanized, avant garde, anti-modern poets and novelists – rise, articulating love for the animal and harsh criticism of animal subjugation.  Novelists caricature the perversion of the factory farm – chickens in cages, pigs on concrete slabs – while poets romanticize the splendor of the animal kingdom – horses and cows in the boreal forest, caterpillars and bees in eco-erotic form.  Most recently Mennonite artists have displayed ‘collaborative’ work with bees, as well as neo-romantic, bucolic scenes of farm animals as illustrated in this article from works by Lynda Toews.

The article springs from a life-long interest in an inclusive, social history.  If as historians we have learned to consider life in its breadth and depth – adding the voiceless and peripheral voices – gendered, racialized, ‘normalized’ – is it time we more generally add another social dimension to the social history of Canada?  Leading Canadian historians – including Tina Loo, Bettina Bradbury, Catherine Wilson, Rod Preece, and others – have demonstrated that Canadians related to animals and as they did so they gave expression to deeply-rooted ideas of gender and class.

Horse-drawn Old Order Mennonite "dach weggly" in southern Ontario., 1986  Credit: Mennonite  Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON  CA MAO 1986-1 79
Horse-drawn Old Order Mennonite “dach weggly” in southern Ontario., 1986 Credit: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON CA MAO 1986-1 79


For a long time I have known about a story told in a memoir by one the leaders of the epic 1870s migration from New Russia to Manitoba.  To help interpret the divine meaning of this migration, minister Gerhard Wiebe tells how he encountered a spider one day in his house in New Russia.  Pressed by Russian officials and Mennonite schoolteachers to accept a new, more secular school curriculum Wiebe saw a spider weaving a web and then realized that the curriculum was but a trap that would snuff out the Mennonites’ historic commitment to simplicity and nonviolence.  It was a wake-up call to Mennonites, he writes, that eventually led to their migration to Manitoba to escape changing military service laws in Russia.  The spider had awakened him to an encroaching hegemonic power.

Mr. Mann feeding a bear in a Conscientious Objector Camp in  British Columbia, 1940s.  Credit: Mennonite Heritage Centre,  Winnipeg. CA MHC 088-265.0
Mr. Mann feeding a bear in a Conscientious Objector Camp in British Columbia, 1940s. Credit: Mennonite Heritage Centre, Winnipeg. CA MHC 088-265.0

I have been intrigued by this story for a long time, mostly because historians have quite ignored it in explaining Mennonite migrations.  It doesn’t fit our anthropocentric narratives of cause and effect, linked to repressive national leaders or amorphous economic forces.  Over time I kept bumping into other animal stories that their authors declared to be pivotal in community and family histories.  In 2012 I hired a student assistant, Kelly Ross, to survey such histories for their animal stories.  With her discoveries and my own research I undertook this survey of 150 years of Mennonite writing.  My hope is that students of Canadian liberalism will see through this micro-study another way to understand the ascendancy of the individual in history, while students of ethnicity and religion will see the role of the animal as inseparable from the quest to understand performativity, affective relationship, cultural construction of subjectivities.  Of course, historians of the environment may be reminded that ecology includes more than plants, water and soil, but also the sentient beings with whom we humans share this planet.

In my current SSHRC-funded research on environmental history I hope to contrast the ways in which traditional Mennonite teachings on nonviolence, community-cohesiveness and simplicity, manifest themselves in disparate ways in seven localities around the world.  In a future blog entry I would like to talk about research in Java, Manitoba, Bulawayo, Friesland, Iowa, Siberia and Santa Cruz (Bolivia).  In the meantime I continue in the search for animal stories from these disparate places to more fully illuminate how humans have related to the animal in history.

For more, read “‘Come Watch This Spider’: Animals, Mennonites, and Indices of Modernity” Canadian Historical Review 96, no. 1 (March 2015): 61-90.

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Royden Loewen is the Chair in Mennonite Studies and Professor of History.

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