new Mennonite Life logo    March 2000     vol. 55 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Mennonite Studies in Canada:
The Digital Environment

Richard D. Thiessen


The advent of the so-called information age and the increasing popularity of the Internet and the World Wide Web in particular have had a significant impact on the discipline of Mennonite studies in Canada. While members of the Mennonite academic community have been involved in some of these efforts, it is quite apparent that many others have been able to take advantage of the digital environment in which we live to foster growth in the discipline. Thus, the interests of a wide variety of people are now being served by various Mennonite Internet sites, and in a sense the Internet has levelled the playing field for all interested in Mennonite studies. Three examples of Mennonite studies activities in a digital environment in Canada are the Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, the web sites of a number of the provincial Mennonite historical societies, and the web sites of some of the Mennonite archival centers.

Mennonite Historical Society of Canada / Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (CMEO)

First, one of the most promising Mennonite web sites is that administered by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada. The web site, which features the Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (CMEO), has its origins in the Mennonites in Canada series of three volumes, of which the first two were written by Frank H. Epp and published in 1974 and 1982. While conducting research for volume two of the series, Epp decided to create a Canadian Mennonite congregational database of approximately 1,000 congregations, which his daughter Marlene Epp entered into digital form. After the completion of volume two, the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada decided to make this database available to the larger general public.

The database was printed out and distributed to several Mennonite archives in Canada. However, the dream of several individuals in the society was to make the database available in some sort of digital format. In the 1980s the most obvious choice was as a database that could be housed on a computer hard drive, or as a CD-ROM database. These options were explored for a time, but nothing really came of these discussions. Near the end of the 1980s, individuals in the society such as Sam Steiner of Conrad Grebel Library and Archives, Ken Reddig, who at that time was the archivist at the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg, and Bert Friesen of Winnipeg, who had worked on several electronic indexes of Mennonite publications, were appointed to the Database Committee of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada. This committee continued to look at ways in which the society's database could be made more readily available to the general public.

The committee's goal was finally realized with the advent of the Internet and the explosion in its popularity. Under the leadership of Sam Steiner, the database was mounted on the University of Waterloo Library's Internet server and thus made publicly accessible. Once this initial step was taken, the vision broadened to that of an online encyclopedia. As a result, the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada formed a committee to focus specifically on the augmentation of Frank Epp's original database and the creation of original articles focussing on various aspects of Mennonite history in Canada. At a meeting of the committee in Winnipeg in 1997 it was agreed that articles of the five volume Mennonite Encyclopedia which contained Canadian content should be incorporated into the web site. Permission was obtained from the Institute of Mennonite Studies (Elkhart, Ind.) and Mennonite Publishing House (Scottdale, Pa.) in 1998 and work began on mounting hundreds of articles on Canadian Mennonite life onto the web site. Much of this work was made possible through a grant received from Industry Canada, a federal government ministry, through its SchoolNet project.

Throughout 1999 a subcommittee of the committee centered in Winnipeg began to commission original articles, focussing on Mennonite educational institutions. By the late fall of 1999, a number of these articles were approved for inclusion in the CMEO. As of February 1, 2000, the online encyclopedia included around 2,025 articles.

The development of the Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia Online is consistent with a general trend in society to place less of an emphasis on print encyclopedias and other types of reference works and more of an emphasis on digital and online encyclopedias. The high production cost of encyclopedias and the relatively low demand for subject specific reference works dictates the move to digital or online-only versions of these items. Other factors which have led to the growth in the number of digital and online encyclopedias include the demand for up-to-date information that is quickly and easily accessible, and the expectation that keyword and boolean assisted searches will be available to the user.

The positive benefits to the reader of an online encyclopedia like CMEO are numerous, but embarking on this type of venture demands much from those who create and maintain this type of reference work. The demand for up-to-date content means constant revision of the articles, the soliciting and writing of new articles, and continual editing of the web site, and the demand for advanced search options requires a fairly sophisticated level of web site management. All of this of course takes time and money, especially when the CMEO is freely available over the Internet and not a revenue generating enterprise. This issue has forced the CMEO committee to discuss ways in which the web site can generate some revenue to offset expenditures without creating a fiscal barrier to the end-users. The hope is that this could be accomplished through advertising and sponsorship from the larger Mennonite community.

Provincial Mennonite Historical Societies

A second level of activity by Mennonites on the Internet is that of provincial historical societies. The first society to mount its own web site was the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society (MMHS) in 1995. Richard D. Thiessen, chairman of the Membership and Publicity Committee for the society at the time, decided that a presence on the web by the society would allow it to make a number of research projects available to the wider public at a relatively low cost, while giving the society a higher profile. Items of interest to those researching Mennonite genealogy have tended to form the bulk of the articles placed on the web site, although the society's newsletter articles have also found their way onto the site.

Some of the first articles placed on the MMHS web site include a composite index of early Manitoba Mennonite church registers, of which the most recent version includes names from the Bergthal, Chortitzer, Reinlaender, Sommerfelder and Kleine Gemeinde church registers. Researcher Adalbert Goertz of the U.S.A., who specializes in the history of Mennonites in Prussia, has submitted several dozen articles that he has written which focus on transcriptions of church registers, immigration lists, census lists and court records. Other items include indexes to Russian census lists, church registers and school attendance lists, as well as items relating to Mennonite history in Latin America.

The Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan has chosen to focus its web site on a cemetery transcription project. Their goal is to create a database which will eventually contain the names and burial details of 7,000 Mennonite interments. The Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta features an index of hundreds of names submitted by society members related to their genealogical research. The Mennonite Historical Society of British Columbia features a detailed inventory of their holdings along with a list of family histories held in their genealogical library.

In the case of the provincial historical societies, it is apparent that amateur Mennonite historians have been able to use the Internet to publish items that would otherwise not be available to the general public. Scholars in the discipline of Mennonite studies, and the journals they publish, tend to focus on the political, economic and social forces that have impacted the Mennonite church. Scholarly journals have focussed on the recorded history of the Mennonite church, and the impact of government and society on Mennonite life. Amateur historians working on genealogies and family histories are interested in these kinds of articles, but they are also looking for other types of sources of information, sources to which they have had a hard time obtaining access. Today's Mennonite provincial historical society web sites have started to meet this need.

For example, researcher Adalbert Goertz has carried out extensive research and writing on the history of Prussian Mennonites, focussing on items of great interest to anyone researching Mennonite genealogy in Prussia. While some of Goertz's genealogy articles have been recently published in periodicals like Mennonite Family History, most articles were written for relatively obscure genealogical journals published in Germany. However, through the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society Mennonite Genealogical Resources web site a number of Goertz's articles are now available to the general public. Goertz has also compiled a number of indexes of Prussian Mennonite church registers not published elsewhere that are also available on the web site. Others like Glenn Penner, Bert Friesen and Richard Thiessen have also compiled lists or indexes of interest to Mennonite genealogists that are available on the web site. These items, like Goertz's, have a very limited audience and the cost to publish in print form is prohibitive. However, the costs in making these documents available on a web site are low, and the audience is broader, since individuals from around the world can access them through the Internet.

The Mennonite Archival Community

A third level of Mennonite studies activity on the Internet is that of the various Mennonite archival centers in the country. The Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (Winnipeg) web site focuses both on the various services they provide as well as the beginnings of a detailed guide to their archival holdings. For example, the guide contains an inventory of the centre's personal papers collection, complete with biographical data on the individual along with detailed information on the files contained in the collection. The site also features a detailed inventory of the congregational records of several provincial Mennonite Brethren conferences, along with a short history on each congregation.

The Mennonite Heritage Centre archives of the Mennonite Church Canada, also focuses on the various services they provide as well as a general guide to their archival holdings. A recent addition to the site is the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization Index to the Registration forms for immigrants, 1923-1930. The site also contains a bibliography of Anabaptist-Mennonite works held in their historical library.

In the case of the two Winnipeg-based archives, their web sites serve several purposes. First, they identify and describe the services available to the church constituency and to the larger general public. Second, they attempt to describe in some detail the holdings of the collections, both in terms of archival as well as library holdings.


In summary, Mennonite studies and the Internet are alive and well in Canada. Efforts by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada through the Canadian Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, the four western Mennonite provincial historical societies, and the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based Mennonite archival centers have increased the amount and the types of information available to those interested in Mennonite studies. The digital environment has helped the amateur Mennonite historian in particular to obtain information that would otherwise be almost inaccessible to the general public, and the future looks promising as access to the Internet increases and more people use the Internet to disseminate their research.