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Mennonites in unexpected places : an authentic tradition and a burdensome past Nobbs-Thiessen, Benjamin

Abstract

This paper explores a post-Second World War environment in which North American Mennonite scholars expressed increasing interest, sympathy and concern for Mennonite colonists in Latin America. It also speaks to broader attempts that complicate the relationship between tradition and modernity and addresses the nature of diasporic affiliation amongst a transnational religious community. In particular, I focus on Joseph Winfield Fretz’s writings on Paraguayan Mennonites living in the Gran Chaco as well as articles published in the periodical Mennonite Life. These works came at a time of social, cultural and religious change for North American Mennonite communities when issues of secularization, urbanization and evangelicalism were of increasing import. Faced with these challenges, Mennonite colonies in Latin America provided academics with an “outside space” for critical reflection as well as a nostalgic return to an authentic agrarian lifestyle lacking in North American life. Sociologists such as Fretz were uniquely positioned to act as cultural brokers, imparting these vital experiences to North American audiences through periodicals like Mennonite Life. However, their romantic appraisals of colony life occasionally ran aground against the profound differences between themselves and colonists. This revealed the degree to which they were invested in, and even committed to, the changes underway in North American society. Scholars attempted to mediate these differences by insisting upon historical continuity and focusing on external difference but when these attempts failed their tone turned condescending. This was particularly apparent in discussions of religion during a time in which the North American churches were increasingly embracing evangelicalism. It was then the position of colonists and not North Americans that was defined in terms of lack. The ambivalent nature of this identification is what this paper seeks to capture, a relationship that was equally intimate and distant and in which colonists appeared as both pilgrims and strangers.

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