Sites of Nonresistance

 Ontario Mennonites and the First World War

This exhibit was installed in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario gallery from May 2017 until May 2019. This page is the online version of the exhibit. Content can be copied and used as follows:

Creative Commons LicenseSites of Nonresistance: Ontario Mennonites and the First World War by Mennonite Archives of Ontario is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About the exhibit

War monuments, cenotaphs and honour rolls remind us daily of the most dramatic and familiar stories of war.  This exhibit tells war stories of a different kind, and lays out an alternative memorial landscape—the landscape of nonresistance.

These stories are gleaned from letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs, government documents and family histories found in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario. Together, they paint a picture of the Great War from a “peace church” perspective.

Underlying this exhibit are the questions: Why are these stories not more well known? How does our society choose which events and places of the past to commemorate? What does it mean to remember war?

"Sites of Nonresistance" exhibit themes

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Matthew 5:38-39

This Bible verse is the source of a foundational Mennonite belief: nonresistance. For nearly 500 years, Mennonites have used this word to describe their rejection of military service and refusal of violence. As the Bible instructs, they are not to return evil with evil, but rather reject violence as a response, even if doing so comes at a personal cost.

Since 1793, Mennonites and other "peace churches" in Canada had been assured by law of exception from military service due to their religious beliefs. In May 1917, after three years of terrible casualties in the Great War, the Canadian government announced compulsory service. As conscription became the law of the land, would the assurances of exception hold?

On city streets and along rural roads, at railways and border crossings, in homes, churches and government offices, Ontario Mennonites navigated the passage between their 400-year-old peace tradition ("nonresistance") and their society engaged in Canada's first modern war.

The exhibit highlights 12 "sites of nonresistance:"

  1. Erb Street, Waterloo:
    Mennonites in Russia respond to the war on the eastern front. Canada bans Mennonite immigration from 1919-1922. Russian Mennonite immigrants arrive after the ban is lifted. panels
  2. Wideman Mennonite Church, Markham:
    Mennonites take part in a pre-war peace movement, the Mennonite Peace and Arbitration Association panels
  3. Macdonald Institute, Guelph:
    Student Mary Wismer questions her vocation as a Mennonite in wartime panels
  4. Berlin Mennonite Church, Kitchener:
    Mennonites react to the city rejecting the German name Berlin, and taking the name of a “warlord” panels
  5. Victoria Avenue, Vineland:
    Bishop Samuel Coffman corresponds with government and responds to surveillance reports that he had preached against the war panels
  6. Steeles Avenue, Markham:
    Thomas Reesor and others raise funds for the relief of war suffering and start the Non-Resistant Relief Organization panels
  7. King Street East, Kitchener:
    Mary Ann Cressman urges Mennonite women to organize and sew for relief panels
  8. Siegburg, Germany:
    Soldier Gordon Eby meets Germans after the Armistice, experiencing the hospitality of the former "enemy" panels

  9. Courtland Avenue, Kitchener:
    Mennonite men are the targets of overzealous recruiting efforts panels

  10. 15th Line, East Zorra Township:
    The Brenneman cousins are apprehended and held in military camp in London, while resisting pressure to enlist panels

  11. Windsor/Detroit border:
    American Bishop E.L. Frey is discouraged from entering Ontario to preach against war panels

  12. New Sites of Peace
    In 1988, Bertha Landers creates a "peace button" in response to the red poppy worn on Remembrance Day. The button has sparked discussion and opinion ever since. panels

Learn more at the Archives

The exhibit showcases samples of photographs, letters, diaries, newspaper articles, government documents and other records from the rich collections of the Mennonite Archives of Ontario. See the Archives' Peace Research Guide for a full listing of our records of Mennonites and the First World War.

Many of the historical photographs displayed in the exhibit are also online in the Mennonite Archival Image Database.

The Ontario Mennonites and the First World War digital files are open for research.

The Archives invites the donation of personal and organizational records related to Ontario Mennonites in order to preserve the story for future generations. If you are in possession of these records and would like to consider donating them, please contact the Archivist.

Further reading

Ali, Faisal. "Exhibit provides the Mennonite take on the War to End All Wars." Woolwich Observer, September 29, 2017.

Epp, Marlene and Laureen Harder-Gissing. "Remembering an Old War in a New Way." Waterloo Region Record, September 8, 2017.

Harder-Gissing, Laureen. "Postcards from the Other Side: Post-war Diary Demonstrates Soldier's Humanity." Waterloo Region Record, November 16, 2018.

Jackson, Adam. "Exhibit Explores Mennonite Moral Dilemmas during First World War." New Hamburg Independent, September 8, 2017.

Outhit, Jeff. "The Great War Surges, Mennonites Struggle." Waterloo Region Record, September 19, 2017.

Consult the Milton Good Library catalogue for more resources. Residents of Ontario can borrow our books for free.

Special events

The World RemembersIn fall 2017 and 2018, the Archives Gallery was a display location for "The World Remembers." Every day from September to November 11, 2018 the names of soldiers and nurses on all sides of the First World War who lost their lives from 1917-1922 were displayed at more than 60 locations around the world.

The commemoration was a unique expression of remembrance, reconciliation and education, and showed the enormous human cost of the war.

Exhibit credits

Curator: Laureen Harder-Gissing

Assistant Curator: Anneke Sears-Stryker

Additional Research: Paulina Hem, Fred Lichti, Sam Steiner

Historical  Photographs: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Gerhard Lohrenz, University of Guelph Library Archival & Special Collections

Contemporary Photographs: Matthew Bailey-Dick, Margaret Gissing, Google Street View, Frieda Harder, Laureen Harder-Gissing, Louise Pogue, Terry Pugh, Alison Ralph, Wideman Mennonite Church

Graphic Design: Aurrey Drake

Special Thanks: Canadian Mennonite, Mark Epp, Esther Epp-Tiessen, Trevor Ford, Institute of Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies, Lindsay Mollins Koene, Rachel McQuail & Religious Society of Friends Kitchener,  Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, George Reesor


Generally 9:00 am - 4:00 pm Monday to Friday. An appointment in advance is recommended.


Mennonite Archives of Ontario
Conrad Grebel University College
140 Westmount Road North
Waterloo, ON N2L 3G6

Phone: 519-885-0220 x24238