Royden Loewen, Horse-and-Buggy Genius: Listening to Mennonites Contest the Modern World (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2016). Paperback, 256 pages, $27.95.
Old Colony Mennonites have been called many things since attracting international attention for the rape and abuse of over 100 women in Bolivia in 2011. Genius is not one of them. And yet, provocatively, this is what Royden Loewen, chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, has labelled these people in his new book.
Horse and Buggy Mennonites are a group of antimodern agrarian Mennonites that, like the Amish, have shunned much of modern technology in favour of plain dress and community living. By separating themselves from the world, these antimodern Mennonites are often used as pawns in wider political and theological agendas. For some, they represent the essence of moral, community-minded, environmentally sustainable, and peaceful living. For others, they represent a socially regressive, patriarchal society at odds with the progress made in the modern world.
Loewen is neither ignorant nor dismissive of these tensions; rather than viewing these Mennonites through the lens of a particular agenda, he creates space for the voices of these communities to speak on their terms about how they view their approach to life. The result is an account of Horse and Buggy Mennonites that neither romanticizes nor dismisses their way of life. This is the genius of Loewen’s book.
Though a scholarly work, the book is surprisingly readable, even for non-Mennonites. The book tends to focus on two similar but different groups: the Old Order Mennonites of Swiss-American descent residing in Ontario, Canada and the Old Colony, Low-German speaking Dutch-Russian-Canadian Mennonites residing in seemingly perpetual migration throughout Latin America. The largest portion of the book focuses on the Old Colony Mennonites in Bolivia and Mexico. Based on extensive interviews with community members, Loewen offers an account of their way of life, their decision-making processes, and the motivations that cause them to choose this way of life.
Two themes come through in these interviews: The first is that Horse and Buggy Mennonites may be suspicious of modernity, but they are also a community that does change and adapt to its surroundings. For example, the migration of Old Colony Mennonites to new regions and countries is a strategy of resistance to the modern world, but it also forces these farmers to adopt new farming styles and crops in relation to their new climates and market demands. These pressures bring out many of the same tensions faced by any farmer regarding crop varieties and reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. What makes Old Colony Mennonites unique is how decisions are made with regard to adopting new practices and technologies. Decisions are made by the community, not the individual, through governance structures linked to the church itself. While changes and adaptations do occur, these decisions are made with the goals of protecting their way of life and remaining autonomous from the pressures of the world around them, as opposed to integrating into their surroundings.
The second theme made clear by the interviews is that motivating factors facilitating the way of life within Horse and Buggy Mennonite communities include both a collective desire to remain faithful to their understanding of what it means to be Christian, and more fundamentally, a collective satisfaction with the simple life. In an age of technological dominance, it is tempting to see antimodern stalwarts as having an ascetic agenda. Many of us can see how our lives would be better if we were not tied to the artificial glow of smartphones and Netflix. But fewer of us can take that suspicion as far as denying ourselves modern conveniences such as dishwashers and engine-powered vehicles. For those interviewed in Loewen’s book, resisting technology is about living a better, not more difficult, life. As one Old Colonist says, “It’s a joy living outside the world!”
Yet it is admittedly hard to suspend judgment of the communities while reading statements like this. To read these accounts through a lens that considers gender roles, for example, one has to assume that for those 100 allegedly sexually abused women, living outside the world was less of a joy. To read through the lens of colonization, one may struggle with the narrative of migration to a new and barren land.
Nonetheless, while it is important to hold on to these lenses, there is nothing to be gained by closing our ears to the voices of Horse and Buggy Mennonites. What Loewen gives us is not an account of the romanticized genius of these Mennonites, but a window into their humanity. Of course, there are plenty of contradictions and criticisms that can be made of these communities, as can be made of all communities. But Horse and Buggy Mennonites are also parents who want to protect their children, farmers who want to be stewards of their land, and people trying to make it through a confusing world in the best way they know how. As one Old Colony member said, “There are good and bad people among non-Christians and Christians . . . I think all people have their own opinion and are supposed to live their own lives. You are responsible and decide about how you live your life. I believe in working together in the community.” Genius indeed.
Daniel Leonard works and teaches at the University of Winnipeg. His research explores rural community sustainability in Manitoba.