The Legacy of Mennonite Studies and History at Grebel

Because Grebel’s mission and programs are rooted in and inspired by its Anabaptist/Mennonite heritage, the College puts a significant emphasis on teaching Mennonite studies and History. While Mennonite Studies wasn’t an official program from the outset, Grebel’s founders wanted to ensure that Mennonite students pursuing post-secondary education at a secular university still had some grounding in Mennonite education. So from Grebel’s inception, the College taught courses that related to Mennonite history, beginning with Winfield Fretz’s “The Left Wing of the Reformation.” As a result of this early focus, Grebel soon established itself as a major centre for the study of sixteenth century Anabaptism and Mennonite history. This reputation among church leaders and scholars is based on the distinguished scholarship of Grebel’s History professors over the last 60 years, augmented by faculty contributions from other Grebel programs.

Today, undergraduate course offerings in History at Grebel are an integral part of University of Waterloo’s History Department. Grebel specializes in courses on the history of Christianity, the Reformation and Radical Reformation, and Mennonites, in addition to larger surveys on the history of peace movements, immigration, food, and the west in the broader world.

With Grebel courses in History, Religious Studies, Church Music and Worship, Peace and Conflict Studies, and Sociology making up courses in the Mennonites Studies minor, teaching in this interdisciplinary program is a College-wide effort. Upon graduation, students have a better understanding of Anabaptist-Mennonite history, culture, thought, and practice from the early sixteenth century to the present and they have explored how Anabaptism has interacted with the surrounding society and expanded into a global, multicultural movement. In addition to History classes, Grebel has offered Mennonite Sociology and Literature courses by scholars and professors who made significant contributions to Mennonite studies.    

Grebel’s founding president, Winfield Fretz (1963-1979), studied Mennonites from a sociological viewpoint, focusing on mutual aid, Mennonite colonization in Paraguay, Waterloo Mennonites, and Waterloo Mennonite agriculture. As a scholar on the forefront of Mennonite studies as a field, he also recognized the importance of preserving history and was the founding president of Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario and the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada. Looking beyond academia, he translated his research
interest in mutual aid into the act of helping found the Mennonite Savings and Credit Union.

The College’s first faculty hire was Walter Klaassen (1964-1987) as Chaplain and Professor of Religious Studies and History. His research interests included church history, particularly radical movements such as Anabaptism. In addition to theology, Klaassen has translated the writings of early Anabaptists, most notably Pilgram Marpeck and Menno Simons.

The second President of Grebel, Frank H. Epp (1971-1986), was also Professor of History at the College. He was a prolific writer, focusing on topics like the Mennonite exodus from Russia, Mennonite peoplehood, draft-dodgers, peace, refugees, and the Palestine-Israel conflict in the Middle East. A major contribution to the study of Mennonite history came in the form of his three-volume series on Mennonites in Canada.

As someone who furthered the field of Mennonite studies, Calvin Redekop (1979-1990) was a Professor of Sociology at Grebel, as well as a writer, teacher, and activist for environmental change. As a prolific writer, his research topics included creation and the environment, Mennonite faith and economics, Mennonite and Indigenous relations, Mennonite identity and society, and entrepreneurship. He put his research into practice in his work with Mennonite Economic Development Associates and in establishing companies that promoted sustainable environmental practices.

History professor Werner O. Packull’s (1983-2003) research interests focused on 16th-century Anabaptism, Anabaptists in Moravia, and Hutterite beginnings. He co-authored an especially groundbreaking article called “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: the historical discussion of Anabaptist origins,” and engaged with and encouraged other Anabaptist scholars. According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), “he placed great emphasis on scholarly integrity; he aimed for accuracy that told the story complete with blemishes.”*

A champion of Mennonite literature, Hildi Froese Tiessen (1984-2021) nurtured a field of study and community of Mennonite writers and scholars both inside and outside the classroom. As Professor of English and PACS, not only did she teach courses in Mennonite Literature and Quest for Meaning, but she enriched the College’s academic atmosphere by bringing many Mennonite writers to the Grebel campus in numerous lecture series and by organizing Mennonites/s Writing conferences.

With the addition of C. Arnold Snyder (1985-2011) as Professor of History at Grebel, the College established itself as a hub of early Anabaptist research. Snyder studied church history, the Radical Reformation, and the life and thought of Michael Sattler. He has worked to connect 16th-century Anabaptist history with topics of theology, spirituality, and peace. A key contribution to the field is his book, Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction.

While a History professor at Grebel, Leonard Friesen (1988-1995) focused his research on Russian and Soviet history as well as the history of Russian Mennonites. He went on to teach at Wilfrid Laurier University where he is now Chair of the Global Studies program.

In addition to his role as Chaplain, Ed Janzen (1999-2021) introduced students across the UWaterloo campus to the unique aspects of Mennonite society, teaching the course, Mennonites as a Sociological Community, which included the most famous of midterm assignments: a potluck. Later, he co-taught Who are the Mennonites with other members of the Institute for Anabaptist-Mennonite Studies (IAMS).

With wide-ranging research and teaching interests, Marlene Epp (2000-2022) was Professor of History and Peace and Conflict Studies at Grebel. Her work spans topics of Mennonite studies, migrations and refugees, women and gender, the history of peace and nonviolence, and the history of food and culture. As one of the first scholars to use oral histories in studying Mennonite history, Epp’s early work on women’s oral history was considered methodologically groundbreaking.

History professor Troy Osborne’s (2011-present) research and teaching interests centre generally on Mennonite history and the Reformation, and particularly on the development of the Dutch Anabaptist tradition. His research uses discipline records and political appeals to trace the development of Mennonite identity across Europe. His soon-to-be-released textbook called Radicals and Reformers: A Survey of Global Anabaptist History will inform the next generation of Mennonite history students.

David Y. Neufeld (2019-present) is a historian of religion, culture, and everyday life in early modern Europe. His research and writing examine post-Reformation dynamics of conflict and coexistence, processes of minority formation, and archival cultures and practices through investigation of the experience of Anabaptists. He teaches the history of premodern Europe and the world, the history of Christianity, colonial Latin American history, and historiographical methods. 

Established in 1973 by Walter Klaassen, IAMS began with seminars and the sponsorship of oral history projects. GAMEO noted that “When Calvin Redekop became director in 1982, IAMS shifted more to large academic conferences and formal publication of collected papers from the conferences. [Librarian-Archivist] Sam Steiner became Director after Redekop’s retirement in 1990, and the focus shifted to support of specialized publication projects related to Anabaptist-Mennonite themes. Marlene Epp became Director in 2006,”* followed by Laureen Harder-Gissing in 2016, and David Y. Neufeld in 2022.

Mennonite History has never been taught or researched in a vacuum at Grebel. Grebel professors have consistently worked to situate Mennonite narratives within wider historical contexts, such as the history of settlement in Waterloo Region, Indigenous-settler relations, refugees and migrations, as well as Canadian history, church history, and food history.

A recent example of Grebel academics collaborating with others to reexamine Mennonite narratives took place at the 2022 Indigenous-Mennonite Encounters conference. The intent was to advance understanding on the part of Mennonites and other interested participants of their colonial histories, and to advance reconciliation and bring justice to Indigenous-settler relations.

Grebel faculty often engage with local, national, and global Mennonite communities, collaboratively working to expand Mennonite studies and history. Today, IAMS offers the Bechtel Lectures in Anabaptist-Mennonite Studies series to make the academic world of research and study accessible to a broader constituency and to build bridges of understanding between the academy and the church. Through the Grebel-to-Go program, faculty members at the College share in community and church settings and provide expertise on a variety of topics, including Mennonites and history.

Working with the newly-formed Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, Winfield Fretz developed “a Mennonite archives at Grebel with a mandate to gather and collect documents and other historical material of Anabaptist and Mennonite value.”* The Mennonite Archives of Ontario at Grebel continues to collect, preserve, and provide access to archival materials that reflect the religious, cultural, and organizational life of Mennonite, Amish, and other related groups in Ontario. The archives provides unique, hands-on resources for the study of Mennonites in Waterloo classes, local communities, and around the world through digital outreach. The Archives also houses the Mennonite Historical Library which is the largest Canadian collection of Anabaptist and Mennonite published materials, dating from the 16th century to the present. Both of Grebel’s Archivists, Sam Steiner and Laureen Harder-Gissing, have contributed to Mennonite scholarship as well. Among other works, Steiner wrote In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario and Harder-Gissing is currently co-writing a history of Mennonites in Canada since 1970.

Mennonite Studies students at Grebel are supported with awards like the Dyck Award for Russian Mennonite Studies, the Karin Packull Anabaptist Studies Award, and the Felstead Research Award. Likewise, thanks to generous donors, the J. Winfield Fretz Endowment for Mennonite Studies funds academic programs in this area.

Grebel professors have expanded the field of Mennonite studies with creative research, thorough study, and by connecting findings to a broader range of historical narratives. Grebel’s programs, student support, and faculty composition are evidence of the College’s commitment to advancing Mennonite Studies and History at the University of Waterloo and in the wider academic community.

*Samuel J. Steiner (October, 2018). “Conrad Grebel University College,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO), with source material from Marlene Epp, Bridging Mind and Spirit: Conrad Grebel University College, 1963-2013.