Program and Conference Report: Mennonite Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 3, September 2011

Program and Conference Report: Mennonite Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, Canada

By Steven Schroeder, University of the Fraser Valley

The Fraser Valley, nestled between Vancouver and the coastal mountains of British Columbia, is home to a diverse population of which Mennonites comprise roughly 20 percent. Wishing to reflect the regional population in its academic curriculum, the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), in cooperation with the local Mennonite community, has launched a program in Mennonite Studies. January 2011 marked the implementation date for the Mennonite Studies Certificate. Currently, the University is working toward the establishment of a Centre, and a Chair, in Mennonite Studies.

To raise awareness for the program, the University launched a speakers series in Mennonite Studies in fall 2010. Two events took place in Abbotsford, on the main campus of UFV. The first, entitled “Perceptions,” took place on October 19, 2010. A panel of Royden Loewen, Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, Marlene Epp, Associate Professor of History at Conrad Grebel University College, and Bruce Guenther, Associate Professor of Church History and Mennonite Studies at Trinity Western University addressed the question: what constitutes Mennonite Studies? In various ways, all three panelists responded by tackling the thorny, but central, question of Mennonite identity. Loewen identified seven categories of Mennonites, all of which related in some way to how the individual situates him/herself vis-à-vis the Mennonite faith tradition and Mennonite ethnicity. Riding above this taxonomy was Loewen’s notion that: “if you say you are a [Mennonite], you are one,” which underscored the diversity of the Mennonite community, and study of it. Epp agreed with Loewen’s assertion of Mennonite diversity, and focused her talk on aspects of Mennonite ethnicity. Referring to her own work, Epp posited that studying Mennonite culinary practices is a useful way to understand Mennonite ethnicity, particularly as food and cookbooks have been used to preserve Mennonite traditions amidst acculturation. Finally, Guenther addressed Mennonite diversity and identity differently, asserting that Mennonite ethnicity, like all ethnicities, is dynamic. In his view, academics building Mennonite Studies programs must broaden their scope beyond focus on the Dutch-German roots of the Anabaptist movement to reflect the diverse worldwide Mennonite community—including its many ethnicities—and to foster dialogue with non-Mennonites.

The second event, held on November 23, 2010, centered on the theme “Reflections,” and the question: what is the reciprocal relationship between Mennonite writing and Mennonite culture? Responding to this question were Andreas Schroeder, Rogers Communications Chair in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, Hildi Froese Tiessen, Professor of English at Conrad Grebel University College, and Rudy Wiebe, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta. Schroeder provided an historical overview of Mennonite literature from the inauguration of its “golden age,” with the advent of Rudy Wiebe’s work in the 1960s, to the present. Therein, he revealed how Mennonite writers—most of whom are not affiliated with, or interested in promoting, the Mennonite faith community—have, for decades, represented the Mennonite community to the outside world. Tiessen agreed, but blurred Schroeder’s demarcation locus by pointing out that this “outsider’s group” also included people who were members of Mennonite churches, and that negative stereotypes of Mennonite writers are inaccurate. Pointing to the “insider’s knowledge” of the writers, she stressed the positive contributions that they have made to understanding Mennonite life—including its many ethnic sub-groups—both inside, and beyond, the Mennonite community. Finally, Wiebe offered an historical narrative that complimented Schroeder’s and stressed Tiessen’s focus on the positive. Wiebe pointed out that the “the origins of Anabaptism is rooted in anything but fundamentalist, conservative, rural, uneducated people,” and that Mennonites owe their very existence to the scholarly acumen of people like Felix Manz, Conrad Grebel, and Menno Simons. Over the centuries, Mennonites worked as artisans and architects throughout Europe, often shaping the local landscape and culture. Moreover, Mennonite communities had songwriters and poets who commemorated Mennonite experiences and crafted the Mennonite heritage. All three panelists encouraged the University to promote the Mennonite literary tradition, which contributes significantly to Mennonite, and Canadian, culture.

These events provided useful information and engendered important discussion at a timely juncture, as UFV administrators and faculty move forward the Mennonite Studies program. During the question period after each event, the panelists offered specific recommendations for the new program, all of which were well-received. A third event in the speakers series, with the theme “Engagement,” will take place at UFV’s Abbotsford campus in fall 2011.

Please visit the following websites for additional information:

For details on the event to be held at UFV in fall, 2011:

For details about the Mennonite Studies Certificate at UFV: