The year was 1953. Mennonites scattered across Canada were a disparate group, having come to this land of freedom in several migrations from Europe, the first of which was of Swiss-German origin from the German Palatinate coming from Pennsylvania and settling in what was to become the Niagara Region of Ontario as early as 1786.
Later waves came from Russia, first in the 1870s, and later in the 1920s as an escape from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, settling mostly in the western provinces and recreating the “colonies” of Ukraine, keeping their language of Low German and nurturing an identity as cultural Mennonites as they had under the tsars.
But by the 1950s a new restlessness was stirring. There was a sense among the more visionary leaders of these various groups that the many historical manifestations of the Anabaptist movement of 16th-century Reformation should find common cause and unite around core beliefs, rather than perpetuate mostly cultural expressions of a faith founded on a Christ-centred theology. Literature from the time shows deep concern that the churches were losing their young people to the wiles of the dominant culture.
Into this milieu came several visionaries, the first of whom, according to “The Story of the Canadian Mennonite” by Ted Friesen, an Altona, Man., publisher, on Aug. 14, 1959, was K.H. Neufeld, well-known in Mennonite circles as a musician and choir director. Neufeld came to the Friesens “with the thought of starting a paper that would serve Canadian Mennonites of every branch and faith.” He urged the Friesens to make this a part of their publishing program.
The idea took root, according to Friesen, because of his father’s “deep and concerned interest in our Mennonite people of every confession.”
Friesen, reflecting Neufeld’s vision, had seven goals for the new publication:
- To provide an inter-Mennonite paper that brings us closer together and transcends national boundaries in our coverage.
- To speak to the Mennonite witness in the current Canadian scene.
- To promote faith in Christ as understood in the Anabaptist tradition.
- To provide an English-language newspaper particularly for the young people.
- To speak prophetically to relevant church, community and state issues.
- To address ourselves in all walks of life, drawing all within the orbit of a dynamic Christian witness.
- To achieve greater ecumenicity among Canadian Mennonites, establish contact with other Protestant groups, holding up a clear witness to the rest of Christianity.
The Friesens then scouted around for someone to translate the dream into reality—“to be both midwife, father and mother of this brain-child.” Someone suggested Frank H. Epp, recently graduated from Canadian Mennonite Bible College.
It was no easy task for Epp to launch his English-language weekly. Many church services were still conducted in High German. He was going up against a very popular Der Bote, the weekly publication of the then General Conference Mennonite Church of Canada, which not only carried stories in German of churches in Canada, but in the United States, Mexico, South America and Europe. Epp himself had been editor of the youth section of Der Bote.
It was a bold and audacious venture, not only with the challenge of publishing in English, but in introducing new theological concepts emerging in the Mennonite confession both in the U.S. and Canada. In his first editorial of Oct. 16, 1953, Epp wrote, “In a dominion-wide Mennonite community which is multiply divided, and in a Canadian community which has not often felt the gospel testimony and the uncompromising peace position of a united Mennonite brotherhood, we believe this new weekly has an important part to play.”
The bold venture would last 18 years—until 1971—when financial troubles contributed to its demise, only to be picked up by the “eastern” Canadian Mennonites in a reincarnation called the Mennonite Reporter.
Canadian Mennonite: Independent or inter-dependent.