The first Mennonites in North America were Dutch "Menists" reported to be in Manhattan (now New York City) and Gravesend, Long Island, near New York City, as early as 1644. Nothing is known of them except these reports, and no permanent settlement was made. Pieter Cornelisz Plockhoy's ill-starred colony on the Delaware, south of Chester, Pennsylvania (1663-1665), was scarcely Mennonite. Permanent Mennonite settlement began in 1683 (really not until 1685) at Germantown, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with a small group from the Lower Rhine and Hamburg (ca. 100 families 1683-1705). The major immigration began in 1707-1710 from the Palatinate and Switzerland into the territory north and west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, continuing until about 1756, when it was relatively stopped by the French and Indian War (1756-1763), and was not resumed in force until after the close of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. By that time Eastern Pennsylvania was filled, and the new groups located west of the Alleghenies and on west to central Illinois or to Ontario. The major element in the migration of 1815-1860 was of Amish from Alsace, Bavaria, and Hesse, although also a considerable body of Swiss came in this period to Ohio and Indiana. While the German and Swiss immigration slowed to a trickle after this, a very large migration from Russia brought another ethnic group to North America in 1874-1880, followed by a later, still larger movement from Russia in 1922-1925, a small one 1930-1939, and a larger one again in 1947-1950. A minor movement of this ethnic element came from South America (chiefly Paraguay) to North America in 1950-1957. (For a fuller account, see Migrations.)
Until 1824 all Mennonite immigrants from Europe to America settled only in the United States. Internal migration from Eastern Pennsylvania to Ontario in 1785-1840 established a substantial Mennonite base there. This furnished the attraction for all later substantial Mennonite movements to Canada. First were the Amish from Alsace-Lorraine and Bavaria in 1824-1850, located adjacent to the Pennsylvania Mennonites west of Kitchener. The very large migration from Russia to Manitoba in 1874-1880 was made possible largely by the leadership of Jacob Y. Shantz, a Mennonite of Kitchener, and the financial aid of the Ontario Mennonites. The large later movements from Russia to Canada (almost all the Russian immigrants of 1922-1925 and later came to Canada) were made possible largely by the aid of Russian Mennonites already in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The freer immigration policy of the Canadian government, in contrast to the restrictive policy of the United States, together with the greater availability of land for settlement in Canada, of course played a major role in the diversion of the 20th-century immigration to Canada. Since 1880 almost no Mennonites have immigrated to the United States, whereas the majority of the Canadian Mennonites are descendants of immigrants who arrived after 1920. This fact, coupled with the conservatism of the Manitoba Mennonites in general resulted in longer retention of the German language among the Canadian Mennonites (with the exception of Ontario), in contrast to the United States where the use of German was effectively ended by World War I.
The third country of North America to have Mennonite settlements, Mexico, received them first in 1922 from Manitoba. Except for a very few who came from Russia in 1922-1925, all Mennonites in Mexico came from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. All of them are of Russian origin, and all have maintained the German language, including the Kleine Gemeinde group, which came from Manitoba in 1947-1949. The only substantial Mennonite emigration from North America has been that of the Old Colony Mennonites from Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1926-30 (later groups 1945-1948) who went to Paraguay.
Internal migration has scattered the Mennonites of North America westward from Pennsylvania, the east-central states, and the midwestern and prairie states and provinces to the Pacific Coast in both the United States and Canada.
In 1956 North America had 215,000 baptized Mennonites, with a total population of some 300,000. The baptized members were distributed as follows by groups and countries.
North American Mennonite Population
Table 1. Distribution of Mennonite Membership
The above table indicates that North American Mennonitism at the mid-20th century was not unified in one common fellowship. It is true that most, except the Old Colony group in Manitoba and Mexico, the Reformed Mennonite Church, and the Old Colony Mennonites in the United States and Canada, cooperated organizationally in the Mennonite Central Committee in relief work, peace work, and service projects. But denominationally they remained distinct. The groups were, however, by no means all the result of divisions, at least in North America. The Old Order Amish division and the Mennonite Brethren and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren divisions were imported from Europe and were maintained in North America. The latter two groups have merged, and a large block of the Old Order Amish gradually merged with the Mennonite Church branch. Of the groups formed by division in North America (see pertinent denominational articles) the Central Conference merged with the General Conference Mennonite branch (1950), the Evangelical Mennonite and Evangelical Mennonite Brethren groups worked together in a joint conference, and the Conservative Mennonites almost joined the Mennonite Church. The spirit of cooperation and mutual recognition was growing among the various major and minor groups, but no further organic union was in prospect in 1957.
The history of North American Mennonitism cannot well be viewed as a whole, not only because of the lack of organic union, but also in part because of difference in time of arrival of the successive waves of immigrants, and in part because of the relative isolation geographically and culturally of the various groups from one another. The national boundary between Canada and the United States has had little significance. However, a more detailed account of the general and spiritual history of the North American Mennonites will be found under the articles Canada and United States, so divided for convenience only.
Bender, Harold S. "The Mennonites of the United States and Canada." Mennonite Quarterly Review 11 (1937): 50-75.
Smith, C. Henry. The Mennonites of America. Goshen, IN, 1909.
Smith, C. Henry. The Story of the Mennonites. Berne, IN, 1941.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 914-915. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. "North America." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/N676.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. (1957). North America. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/N676.html.