Home Town or Home Community:
JOHANN DRIEDGER: Rebel With a Cause
Johann Driedger was born in a Mennonite village in Chortitza, Russia in 1859, one of hundreds of similar villages. His well-written letters attest that he received the traditional solid six years of German education in Russia, before he came with his family to Manitoba, Canada at the age of fifteen in 1875. They helped form the village of Blumenfeld, one of about 100 villages established in a solid block reserve settlement in southern Manitoba. Johann Driedger lived in Blumenfeld for 29 years, until age 44. Although very little is known about his early life, we do know that he served as village Schultz (mayor), an elected office, which suggests that he was in good standing with the community. Indeed, the “Gemeinde,” as they call their total church fellowship and community membership, could be viewed as a sacred canopy.
The Sacred Village: Trust and Recognition
As a mother cares for her children, so a cohesive Mennonite community (the village), cares for its members. There is mutuality of recognition: regular affirmation and certification. The Old Colony Mennonite village becomes a hallowed place. Even the names of villages (Blumenfeld, Reinland, Gruenthal) first used 500 years ago in Netherlands and Flanders, have been faithfully transplanted to Prussia, Russia, Canada, Mexico, British Honduras, Bolivia, Paraguay. The house-barn architectural combinations begun in Low countries were brought to Canada, as were their outer and inner structures and the furnishings of the buildings. The church and German school take their places in typical row villages. The village settlement, the church services, the voluntary organizations are all part of the numinous ritual of Old Colony Mennonite village life. Most of the fifteen Old Colony Mennonite villages established in the special Hague-Osler Mennonite reserve beginning in 1895 were still in existence in the 1955 study by the first author. Neuanlage (established in 1895), Neuhorst (1898), Reinland (1898), Blumenthal (1898), Gruenfeldt (1899), and Blumenheim (1900) were flourishing. Chortitz (1898) and Rosenfeld (1905) were declining. Osterwick (1899), Hochstadt (1902), Kronsthal (1902), and Schoenwiese (1902) had declined to a few farmers only.
By 1977 many changes had taken place when the first author restudied the community. Neuanlage (forty resident families ), and Neuhorst (forty family residents) were still the largest villages, but populations in Blumenthal (fifteen families), Gruenthal (twelve families), Blumenheim (ten families), Reinland (seven families), Gruenfeldt (seven families), and Chortitz (six families) had declined considerably. The villages of Rosenfeldt (four families), Hochstadt (four families), Hochfeldt (three families), Kronsthal (two families), Osterwick (one family), and Schoenwiese (none) were no longer in existence, except for a few farmers who lived on or near the original village sites.
Originally all of these villages were organized along the Russian Mennonite village pattern, which included a wide village street; a row of homes and farmyards on each side of the street (Blumenheim – an exception) totaling 20-50 families; usually a German school, and often a church and graveyard, located at one end; a common pasture for all the cattle; house-barn combinations with a distinct architecture; and a village Schultz (mayor) and his elected committee. In addition to a section or a half-section of land on which the village and pasture were located, and which was held in common by the villages and its committee, each family took a homestead on one quarter-section of land surrounding the village (Driedger 1955). This basic village pattern existed for about twenty-five years; large numbers of the more conservative villagers who had the financial resources to do so, moved to Mexico in the 1920s, when the solidarity of the pattern was disturbed.
In 1955, most of the village organizational structure was still intact. The larger villages such as Neuanlage and Neuhorst had changed, as the children attended the government school outside the village. A small store, and a few small entrepreneurs such as a blacksmith or a cobbler, had been added, but basically the villages were intact. A few empty lots left by emigrants could be seen here and there. To a lesser extent the organizational pattern for most of the other villages was also in operation, although some villages had begun to disband, in part because they were never as large, or as well organized in the beginning. Many of the other villages in 1955, although not large, or as robust, as Neuanlage and Neuhorst, still continued the original organizational pattern.
By 1977 all except one (Gruenfeldt) of the fifteen villages had abandoned their common village titles and common village pastures. Neuanlage and Reinland surveyed their land in 1976, and the common village title was subdivided among the various residents. About half of the villages still elected a Schultz, and many had an elected village committee. The role of the Schultz, however, had declined, from the leader of all village matters in the early days, to the party responsible for a few matters such as collecting church dues, calling meetings to discuss village concerns, and maintenance of the village street. Half the villages no longer had a village leader and committee. The village architecture had changed drastically. While in 1955 there were still some house-barn combinations in most of the villages, by 1977 few of these structures could be found. Whereas buildings were never painted in the early days, and many were still unpainted in 1955, most of the houses, barns, and churches were painted in 1977. The styles of houses had changed, from wide structures with two small, narrow windows in the gable and two larger windows widely spaced on the first floor, to modern-style architecture. A few renovated old homes still conveyed a hint of the original structure, but they had been changed in many respects. Hip-roofed barns, red barns, long white dairy barns, silos, and a variety of modern styles had replaced most of the original wide, unpainted, wood-shingled, small-windowed (row on top) barns with attached granary-machine sheds.
The Church as Focal Point
From the very beginning, the Old Colony Mennonites were a religious community holding their village land in common. The village organization, the farm occupations, and their church and religious institutions were perceived as sacred forms of social organization. Churches were not located in all of the villages, but in the early days some held services in the German schools in winter. Churches were always sufficiently near, even in horse-and-buggy days, so all could attend worship services.
Church forms were also important. The church building remained unpainted (a sign of humility); the shutters of the church were painted grey-blue; the architecture had a Russian Mennonite look (see photo 1). The inside of the building was austere. The blue-grey benches had no backs; there were nails above the seats to hang hats; the stage was on the side of the church; the pulpit was identical to the one from which Menno Simons preached; the four Vorsaenger (song leaders) sat on the left, and the minister on the right; and a small room was designated for the ministers. The original form of worship included two or more hours of worship. The singing was very slow according to the ‘olle wies’ (old melody) from the traditional Ausbund (early traditional collection of hymns), which contained scores of stanzas. The Vorsaenger (song leaders) led the singing, and part singing was not allowed. Several sermons, copied from those passed on for decades and some for a century or more were read; and short Low German ‘vermanungen’ (exhortations) touched on issues of the day. With very few modifications, most of the old practices were still common in the Old Colony churches in 1955.
In 1977 the basic structures of the buildings and services were similar, but there were also some changes. The church buildings were painted, and Sunday school rooms had been added, in an adjoining building, in an attached building, or in the basement. The inside was renovated to include electric lights, backs were added to the benches, hat racks had been removed, a room for women with small children had been added, and the pulpit and platform had been moved from the side to the end. The worship service was two hours long; the singing was somewhat faster, but in unison; and the remainder of the service was much like the original. At a typical Sunday morning worship service in Neuhorst, there were forty worshipers present. About half of the worshipers were male, about twenty were above fifty years of age, and about ten were young people.
During the depression there was a move to modernize to a somewhat faster pace of singing, but there was considerable resistance, and a group called “Bergthaler Mennonites” separated from the Old Colony church in protest. A second split from the Old Colony church occurred during the 1940s, when the Rudnerweider (Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference) left the Old Colony because they wished greater evangelical emphasis. A third loss occurred when many Old Colony young people joined more liberal General Conference churches in the nearby towns of Osler, Hague, and Neuanlage, and this continued into the 1990s. The two most recent changes occurred with formation of the Pentecostal church in Gruenthal, and the Mission Chapel in the town of Osler.
Individualism and Conflict
During the life time of Johann Driedger, individualism was suspect in such a community. There were explicit cultural mores, customs, and boundaries. They dressed in the fashions of the sixteenth century with long dark blue or black dresses, large shawls, black headdresses, and hair parted in the middle. The men wore shirts without collars, dark suits, and no ties. Adornments such as watches, rings, jewelry, makeup, were taboo. Tradition demanded that house-barn combinations (see photo 2) remain unpainted; inside the house and walls contained no pictures. Houses and churches alike were very plain. The Old Colony Mennonite culture, institutions, and traditional sacred community provided the setting for experimentation with individual autonomy.
Signs of individual innovation were already evident when Driedger was still in the Blumenfeld village in Manitoba. He began a small store in the back of his village farm house. Johann’s eldest son Peter left for Saskatchewan in 1902, and Johann and his family soon followed in 1904. Whether there were push factors in Manitoba, we do not know. Perhaps the less structured opportunities in what was then the North-West Territory, beckoned irresistibly. The Driedgers settled at Clark’s Crossing, on the edge of a solid Mennonite block reserve, begun in Saskatchewan in 1895, nine years earlier. They did not settle in a Mennonite village, but Johann built a store in the open country on the railroad line (on the margin of the community). While he farmed some, he now became a businessman and a postmaster, both non-traditional Mennonite occupations. Living some ten miles north of the city of Saskatoon where he bought his supplies, and some ten miles south from the nearest Mennonite church, he later purchased an automobile to replace the much slower horse.
Signs of innovation are also evident in photograph 3, which was taken in 1906 after they had been in Saskatchewan two years. Johann has a white kerchief in his pocket, and he is wearing a striped shirt with a collar, both interpreted traditionally as a sign of arrogance. Indeed photographs were frowned upon, so having a family photo taken, was itself a form of innovation. There is much evidence that Johann was testing his wings, experimenting with the boundaries of acceptance in the community. The Old Colony norms did not condone photography, living outside a Mennonite village, non-farm occupations, and dress innovations.
The dramatic initiative of Johann Driedger began in early 1907, when he purchased a store in Osler, a small hamlet of several hundred residents three miles from the nearest Mennonite village. Driedger had just transferred his goods from Clark’s Crossing to the Osler store when, on the 10th of February, four businesses (Heinrichs, Kalbfleisch, Fowler and Driedger) burned to the ground. The Heinrichs store next to Driedger’s caught on fire first, and Driedger accused Heinrichs (both Old Colony Mennonite members) of arson designed to eliminate Driedger from competition. Driedger had taken insurance on his Clark’s Crossing store registered with the Old Colony Mennonite fire insurance, but it was not clear whether the insurance covered the newly transferred goods to the store in Osler. Heinrichs had insured his business with a more liberal Minnesota Mennonite insurance company and expected ample coverage of his losses.
The Mennonite church elders were placed in a dilemma: How much opening up to new trends could they afford? 1) Should they allow their members to insure businesses (which was taboo) under the Mennonite insurance plan? 2) Now that Mennonite stores were even located in a hamlet (also taboo), should they support coverage? 3) What about one church member (Driedger) accusing another (Heinrichs) of arson? 4) Driedger had been slowly getting out of line in the past as it was. 5) In fact, while they were deliberating over what to do, Driedger was building a new modern house in Osler, presumably to move into town and start another store. The situation seemed to be getting out of hand. The church leaders demanded that Driedger be reconciled with Heinrichs and refused to pay any insurance on Driedger’s losses. Driedger was outraged.
Within a year, in the spring of 1908, the frequent visits and discussions (arguments?) led to the excommunication of Driedger. These discussions and disagreements were not only the result of the insurance dispute. The discussions also centered around theological and biblical interpretations regarding separation of Church and State, and living the simple life. Thus unexpected disaster highlighted community control problems and pushed the Mennonite leaders into a more legalistic position. Driedger’s individualistic autonomy and egotism would be put to shame, and community pressures would be employed (by the ban, and by business boycott) to bring him under control. By withholding fellowship and assurance of salvation in the believers’ community they sought to raise self-doubt and repentance.
Our research shows numerous innovations in such a solid Mennonite rural community. Consciously or inadvertently, some members were searching for self-identity, and probing the boundaries of the permissible. There were many excommunications, but the reasons for such drastic actions are not always clear.
Increased “worldliness”, “lack of humility,” “bad behavior”, “not following the Word of God” were some of the reasons given by Bishop Wiens (1908) at the Warman hearings, well documented in 100 pages of verbatim information. Often the elders stepped in when they felt they were losing control over their members.
Driedger’s residence in the open country, not the village; his store and post office taking precedence over farming; his deviations from the traditional dress; and his questions about the biblical source of Mennonite community traditions were not sufficiently blatant to deserve excommunication. Better reasons were needed why an articulate member, a former Mennonite village mayor, a prominent community member, and a conscientious church-goer should be excommunicated. The fire and insurance problem provided the elders with a clear opportunity for dramatic initiative in the form of excommunication. The autonomy of Driedger had gone too far; he was plotting against the community; he was emulating “worldly” models, instead of the Mennonite community model.
Driedger dug in his heels after the excommunication in 1908. The church had exerted its will in formalized action by involving the ban (ostracism by all), and by boycotting Driedger’s businesses. As far as the church was concerned, they wished to stop initiative and industry. Driedger fought back by continuing to participate in the church and community, by establishing five businesses in four towns (two in Osler, and by taking formal legal action four times.
One hundred-ten items of correspondence with the bishops and others reveal that Johann’s family tried to continue church attendance in the village of Neuanlage. The first author interviewed six of Johann’s ten children in the fifties, and Dietrich, the youngest son, recalls how the whole family entered the church and sat down. Slowly, all the members got up and left, leaving only Driedger and his family. On another occasion in a letter to Bishop Wiens, Driedger complains that when he came to church the members inside held the door shut so he could not enter. Johann’s persistence became such a problem that the church elders had a non-Mennonite by the name of Fisher sworn in by the RCMP to act as a constable to keep Driedger away, five years after he was excommunicated.
Cultural and Religious Changes
On December 28 and 29, 1908, about seven months after the excommunication of Driedger, Bishop Wiens, Driedger and others testified at the hearings of a provincial commission of inquiry into separate Mennonite German schools, held in the hamlet of Warman, in the heartland of the Old Colony Mennonite community. One fifth of the 100 page proceedings is devoted to questions and answers of Bishop Wiens. Wiens answered in an evasive style, and in very general terms: “the Word of God teaches,” “the whole community,” “because he was disobedient,” “live by the Scriptures.” The examiner is seldom able to nail him down to specifics. Johann Driedger was present at these hearings and testified against the bishop and the church’s forms of excommunication and the ban. Driedger states, “I am trying to live up to the Scriptures just as Mr. Wiens.” Driedger says he is not sending his children to public schools even though he was excommunicated, his friends cannot have dealings with him, and members boycott his businesses. Driedger’s observance of Wiens’ constant referral to the scriptures at the hearings seemed to drive him to biblical study and the use of the Bible in his letters and disputations shortly thereafter. Johann’s youngest son informed us that his father studied the Bible incessantly, especially during the winter months.
Numerous copies of Driedger’s letters reveal a conversant knowledge of the Bible. Indeed, his interpretation of the Scriptures seems quite orthodox, but forward-looking. Numerous informants told us that Driedger and the elders of the church, including Bishop Wiens, had frequent long debates on the meaning of the Scriptures with regard to Mennonite behavior. These disputations often became loud and emotional. Driedger, a practical businessman, seemed to hope that logical discussion would persuade the ministers that his more liberal interpretations were acceptable. However, these disputations on biblical grounds were frustrated by the elders’ vague and general open-ended answers, versus Driedger’s drive for specifics. Specifics were not forthcoming, and the power of the elders prevailed.
Photograph 4 compared to photograph 2, illustrates well the enormous cultural changes that had occurred in Johann’s family. By 1912 they had moved from Clark’s Crossing to a half mile from the small hamlet of Osler, which had a railroad station, several stores and businesses. A modern white house looms in the background (where the first two authors of this piece also grew up), which is an enormous change from the unpainted house-barn combinations found in traditional Mennonite villages, just three miles away. In front of the house is the new shiny Everitt-Metzger-Flanders (EMF) touring car manufactured in Detroit, distributed by Studebaker. It was this car which Johann and family sometimes drove to the Old Colony Mennonite churches in the villages of Neuanlage and Reinland, filled only with horses and buggies. Son-in-law J.C. Friesen tells how his father, who also had a car, parked it a block away, so as not to offend, but Johann liked to park in front of the church.
Johann and Kathrina sit on each side of a fancy modern table, with potted flowers, when their conservative members had mostly homemade furniture, and flowers in well-groomed gardens. Kathrina is dressed in typical traditional Old Colony bonnet, hair parted in the middle and a long black dress, but she is already posed with a stylish elbow on the antique table, and a right hand on her hip, when hands should be folded more humbly. Johann conforms to wearing no tie and a shirt without collar, but he is wearing a vest, a top hat, and a show-off kerchief in his left pocket, with his right hand on the Bible (usually reserved for somber ministers in traditional churches). The youngest four boys (Cornelius, David, Henry, Dietrich), aged 10 to 20, are dressed in the latest fashions, two with hands on their hips. Cornelius (father of the first two authors) is revealing much tie under the open double-breasted suit. To top it off, 18 year old Tina, named after her mother, finds hardly enough room on her slim frame to display stylish flowers on her hat, and the latest crocheted white collar and belt buckle, with hands folded back like royalty. Things were changing culturally. In the earlier photo where neither Johann nor his sons wore ties, the 13 year old youngest daughter Tina had fashioned the “tie” she wore from tissue paper.
Mennonite boycotts of Driedger’s businesses were as effective as their ban on church attendance. After the ban in 1908, Mennonites no longer did business with Driedger in his store in Clark’s Crossing. Since the community was solidly Mennonite, Driedger had to abandon the building (no one bought it from him). In his efforts to continue business, Driedger bought a second store in Osler (the first was burned in 1907). Here too the boycott was so effective that the store never did well. Son-in-law J.C. Friesen tells of how Driedger ordered a train carload of flour, most of which he could not sell.
The boycott forced Driedger to set up businesses in the surrounding towns outside the bloc settlement of the Old Colony Mennonites. In 1914 he bought up stock in “Big 22″ a large hardware store in Saskatoon, and opened up a store there briefly. In 1915 he bought a store in the town of Dalmeny, and that same year bought a hotel in Osler. If his store in Osler was boycotted, perhaps something else would work. In 1916 he bought two stores in the town of Langham, and also a store in the town of Hague. These attempts at conducting business outside of the Mennonite community were short-lived. In the meantime he tried butchering, cattle sales, farming and well-drilling in the solidly Mennonite community.
The ban and the boycott drove Driedger to take legal action four times. This was a desperate formalized action, because traditionally court action was most taboo of all. In 1912 at a farm auction, Driedger’s highest bid for an item was not honored by the Mennonite auctioneer, on the grounds that Driedger was not a member in good standing with the Mennonite community. Driedger took Loeppky to court and won. Buoyed by his success in court with Loeppky, Driedger took three others to court in 1914. Driedger lost his court cases with Houlding (over a business dispute in Saskatoon), and with Guenther (a Mennonite). The fourth court case was against the Mutual Fire Insurance Association of the Old Colony Mennonite Community, where Driedger (7 years after his store burned in Osler in 1907), now sued the Mennonites in an attempt to force them to honor his policy with them, and cover his fire losses. The church tried to collect $1,000 in voluntary contributions from its members to pay Johann some insurance, but not much came of it.
Having lost the support in the local Mennonite community, Driedger sought support elsewhere through correspondence. His chief confidant was his uncle Peter Elias of Hochfeld, Manitoba, a minister in the Old Colony Church who was more open. The ten letters we have, written by Elias between 1908 (shortly after Driedger’s excommunication) and 1916, are often long epistles of quotations from Scripture which encourage Johann to continue to seek reconciliation. Some of these scriptural references and a spirit of reconciliation find their way later into Johann’s letters to the elders. In a February 23, 1912 letter to the Old Colony minister, John Loeppky, Driedger writes:
I cannot begin to express how sorry I am that I cannot come to a reconciliation with Bishop J. Wiens. Indeed the more we discuss together the farther apart we seem to become. I often remember how on July 19 you, Wall of Hochfeld, and Wall of Neuanlage were able to talk together in a spirit of love and the longing we seemed to have for reconciliation.
Many letters suggest that Driedger missed a close Christian fellowship very much. He continued to try to get that fellowship in his old church. Many would have formed a new fellowship, but it seemed that this was not yet possible in his lifetime. His study of the Scriptures pointed to a new ideology. He was eager to commit himself to a new community which would integrate Christianity with the changing times. He seemed to be ahead of his time. And although his convictions were solidifying in a new direction, he could not persuade leaders of the old church to change, nor find individuals wishing to build a new fellowship.
February 26, 1919, Johann Driedger sent a letter to the church saying:
Enclosed find $1,000 to cover the grief which I have caused during the past eleven years. I have hurt you deeply, and I am sorry that because of me you have had so many expenses, worry and work. Please forgive me for hurting you during these years.
In a later letter also addressed to the church, he wrote:
So I ask all of you for forgiveness. . .stretch forth your brotherly hand to me poor sinner. . . let us all together be reconciled.
Driedger died a year later in 1920. The church elders performed the funeral service, and he was buried in the Reinland village cemetery, later joined by his wife. One of the pallbearers, his nephew Cornelius Driedger, reported that his body (in the July heat) smelled so bad that the horses did not want to enter the yard. Perhaps this was a symbol of the whole affair! Driedger was brought to his knees through a rancorous and difficult process of excommunication and shunning. It was two years later that the bishop and the staunchly conservative Mennonites left en masse for Mexico.
A comparison of photographs 3, 4 and 5, show the enormous cultural change that had taken place in the Driedger family between 1906 and 1919. Photograph 3 represented the Old Colony leadership ideal and photograph 5 represents the modern cultural ideal of Johann Driedger. The two are incompatible. They symbolize conflicting norms of what it means to be a Mennonite in modern Saskatchewan.
Had Driedger lived only two years longer he would have seen Bishop Wiens and the orthodox Old Colony Mennonites leave the area (1922-24) for Mexico, because of the pressures of the Saskatchewan government to set up public schools in their villages. The solid village pattern was changed, and the ban would have been broken. Had he lived only eight years longer he would have seen a more liberal General Conference Mennonite church built in Osler in 1928 (two blocks from his store). Abram, his second son was on the building committee, and Cornelius, his fifth son, was the first secretary of the Church council. Four of Johann’s ten children joined this church, and dozens of his grandchildren and great grandchildren are today youth leaders, choir directors, ministers, conference workers, service and missions workers in the church. The well-marked grave of son Cornelius can be found in the Osler church graveyard. His three youngest children (ages 10, 8, and 6 when he was excommunicated), never joined nor attended any church at all. In the process of working out his ideology, during the ritual excesses of Old Colony totalism, these last three children may have been victims of identity confusion.
Driedger did not have the opportunity to see the new modern community for his kin. Authoritarianism and separatism had their day in his lifetime. The Old Colony Mennonite Church tried to keep its members in a rural isolated numinous stage where the church leaders could control life in a judicious way. The church resisted individual initiative and industry. Legalism often resulted. Members either had to conform, or suffer excommunication if they experimented too much with the defined boundaries of the “sacred community.”
Johann Driedger persisted in testing the boundaries. His initiative and industry both inside and outside the Mennonite community resulted in severe conflict. Driedger sought to change the old church and community, where more individual initiative and industry could be used to develop a new ideology. Had he lived two or three years longer, he would have seen the Old Colony church retreat en masse to rural Mexico. Soon thereafter new Mennonite fellowships, more in tune with Driedger’s changing ideology, sprang up where he could have experienced ideological certification. Instead he was forced to recant (at least outwardly), where he found himself back in the old milieu, rather than in a new fellowship which he longed for. The unmarked graves of Johann and Kathrina are located in the Reinland village near Osler.
This reluctance to change, led to serious forms of Old Colony community disintegration. The more well to do conservative members went to Mexico. More progressive members left the Old Colony for the General Conference Church. The poorer conservative members were left behind to fend for themselves. They paid the fines for not sending their children to Government public schools. When the depression of the 1930’s came, many of them became destitute. The strength of Old Colony community identity diminished in the 1930’s and 40’s.
By the time the second author was a social worker for the Government of Saskatchewan, Department of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation in this area, the community was at its lowest ebb after World War II.
Driedger’s life in a conservative Mennonite community raises some serious questions:
- If the Old Colony community had been able to accommodate and transform itself, following some of the initiatives of Driedger to change, would they have survived? Driedger’s vision seemed to be ahead of his time – the Old Colony could not adjust.
- How was Driedger able to survive economically with the ban on his extensive business activity?
- What were the elements that motivated Driedger to move away from the traditional church toward a more open stance in spite of such strong opposition?
- What can we learn about community disintegration, social change and development from the life of Johann who wanted more change?
Grandsons Leo, Otto, Jack and Bill Driedger