Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta


Knowing and Interpreting Our Past:
Alberta's Mennonite History

Table of Contents - Introduction - About the Authors - Order Form

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction (Judith Rempel)
  • What Does this Place Mean? A Meditation on Local Congregational History (Roger Epp)
  • The Historian's Context (T.D. Regehr)
  • Writing Alberta Mennonite History (T.D. Regehr)
  • In Search of the Old Way of Singing (Wesley Berg)
  • Establishing an Archives (Michael Gourlie)
  • Shifting Paradigms: Soviet Archives and the Reinterpretation of Soviet Mennonite History (Colin Neufeld)


With this slim volume, the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta (MHSA) has brought to the foreground information and perspectives relatively untouched by other authors. We were pleased to have the opportunity to bring such careful thinkers, researchers and writers together. Despite our short Mennonite history and few Mennonite numbers compared to the other four western provinces, we can offer a unique contribution to the understanding of the Mennonite experience. And, we are very pleased to be able to offer these essays to those who were unable to hear their presentations to the MHSA meeting in June 2000.

It has been said that the most intriguing research is that which takes what is popularly known, and tests it against scientific evidence. That is, there is a societal understanding of how some political activities evolved, allegiances were formed, what the causes of a social circumstance were, and so on. But, what the researcher/analyst knows is that while there generally are truths in such social statements of fact, there are also hidden truths that are likely obscured by social needs to express the circumstance in a particular light.

We have the tremendous opportunity in this volume to offer re-examination of some of our popular understandings and see them in a new light. With suitable discipline, the authors offer us another way of thinking without making the error of saying that the old understandings were wrong; they aptly demonstrate that history must be viewed and reviewed from many orientations: from the immediacy of events, from the detachment of time, from women as well as men, from lay as well as academic minds, and from a church as well as secular viewpoint. Retelling the same story, over and over, without reflection as to the meaning of historical facts at hand or incorporating new facts that become visible over time results in the development of myth, not history.

As a result, this book represents what appears to be an oxymoron: a new, historical work, that is, a new perspective on the old facts, and ensures that a solitary myth of Alberta Mennonite history is not what remains. And, the obvious extension of that, is that the readers of this work should continue the work of seeking out new viewpoints, seeking out new facts that confirm or deny contemporary (and historical) understanding. We hope you will be enthused by the task of history and find time to embrace the collection, analysis, and preserving of history in your own Alberta Mennonite context.

In the case of the work by Colin Neufeldt, we are given a opportunity to honestly address whether we have been fostering myths about the Mennonite community in the 1920s and 1930s in the USSR. Were the Mennonites all abused victims of a national authority which broke its promise to provide for a safe, comfortable (advantaged) existence? Or, were they co-opted by the pressures which led them to turn on their beliefs and turn on their fellow-Mennonites. The latter view may, of course, include the possibility that they felt they had no choice. That is, they may have willingly participated in the adoption of Soviet understandings that Mennonites had unfair privileges compared to others. This is counter to the generally-reported accounts of Mennonites as persecuted people.

Readers who never have an opportunity to speak with persons who lived in those times and places, who never have an opportunity to dig into the original records found in archives must listen closely and critically to see if the evidence is supportive of one view, the other, or both. Certainly, this chapter requires that we each think about the possibility that there has been myth-telling.

Ted Regehr reminds us that the facts of history are invariably incomplete and that our attempts to make sense of history can lead to a biased view of the past. Analysis must always consider the missing facts, the viewpoints of women, of lay people, and of tales less savoury. He guides us to thinking how the historical facts can be arranged so that they can be more easily understood: devices like temporal ordering, seeking out themes, and seeking supplementary sources to flesh out diversity of opinion are all identified as helpful to the task. Then, applying a model, theory, or metaphor can bring the whole together.

Wesley Berg uses the field of music to show us that the analyst must take care to have an evaluative tone in our analysis of the past, not a judgmental tone. Far more interesting is to learn what causes certain historical experiences (a certain style of singing in this case) to arise. That is another job for the historical writer: to establish some hypotheses as to how certain historical experiences came about. Such hypotheses can be guidance for later researchers in that they provide alternative models or viewpoints by which historical facts may be seen and understanding can be revealed.

Wonderfully, this set of essays is not devoid of the practical. Roger Epp, in his meditation gently chides us to pay attention to context. There is substantial value in being an outside party who neutrally captures local information and reports on it, but this will not likely be a faithful synthesis of widely diverging views and stories. These kinds of complexities come best from inside the community. The imperative is for all Mennonite congregations and Mennonite communities to tell their stories as they are now - captured while fresh. The re-evaluation and reinterpretation can come later, but without those first-told and first-hand accounts there will be far fewer stories to draw on in the future.

And, we are treated to Michael Gourlie's article on the archival role in history. Even the archivist needs to be an analyst. The archivist's job is to sift through the documentary evidence of history and have the wisdom to keep the items of enduring value and discard the other items which will distract by their excessive detail or redundancy. Then, it is so very important that the material not have it's order modified by the archivist's understandings, but to retain the materials in their native order - for that order can be a guide as to the meanings of documents and the sequencing of events. The archivist has an opportunity to share his or her understanding of the material through development of finding aids that make visible the underlying order and possibly alternate themes without disturbing the way the material was found. But, all of this activity needs to be grounded in carefully thought out and agreed-upon acquisition, preservation, and access policies that are supported by adequate financial and other resources. This is an important area for the MHSA to focus on in the first decade of 2000.

In other words, this book contains bountiful inspiration for the person who wonders what the tasks of history are, who would like to write about the past in a way that is new, insightful, and helpful. Enjoy.

Calgary, 2000

About the Contributors:

Wesley Berg
Dr. Wesley Berg, Professor of Music, teaches music theory and Canadian music history in the Department of Music at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. His research interests are music on the Canadian prairies and music among the Mennonites of Canada.

Roger Epp
Roger Epp is a writer and Associate Professor of Political Studies at Augustana University College in Camrose and was previously a journalist with a daily newspaper. His current academic research ranges from the political economy of rural prairie communities to various subjects in international relations, including a recent book chapter on aboriginal diplomatic activity.

Michael Gourlie
Michael Gourlie is Archives Advisor to the Archives Society of Alberta.

Colin Neufeldt
Colin Neufeldt, Doctoral Student of History, currently practices law in Edmonton, Alberta. He has received numerous degrees, culminating in a Doctor of Philosophy. His particular fields of interest include Soviet Mennonite history, and 20th-century Polish Mennonite history.

T.D. Regehr
T.D. Regehr, Professor Emeritus of History, worked for eight years at the National Archives of Canada, and then taught for twenty-eight years at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. He is the author of Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970. A People Transformed, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1996 and is currently working on the centennial history of the North West Mennonite Conference, and on an updated single-volume history of Mennonites in Canada.

Judith Rempel
Judith Rempel Research Social Planner with the City of Calgary has a B.A. and M.A. in Sociology, and has completed course work towards a Phd in Social Demography. She is a member of the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta (MHSA) Board and webster for the MHSA along with other history and family history bodies. Her interests lie in getting historic data and analyses into public use and discussion by making them available in print and electronic media.

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