Among the thousands of settlers who rushed to stake claims in the Cherokee Outlet of northwest Oklahoma in 1893 were hundreds of Mennonites. This book examines how these Mennonites understood themselves and adjusted to change. The author’s approach is not that of a historian or social scientist but of a professor of communication. Iorio looks at the role of communication and language in shaping identity and preserving the past.
Each chapter of the study contains two parts: a short narrative based on secondary sources and then a memoir or interview with one or two individuals telling their personal experiences. Iorio conducted and recorded some sixty interviews and attended Mennonite worship services and other activities to learn about their beliefs, concerns, and changes in their life and community.
The story begins with a brief history of Mennonite origins and migrations, which eventually led to the plains of the United States and Canada in the 1870s. As land in Kansas became more scarce and expensive, Oklahoma offered new opportunities. Generally it was younger and less affluent Mennonites who joined the over one hundred thousand settlers who sought land in Oklahoma in 1893. They formed small, agricultural communities centered around the church and, at least in part, maintained by their use of the German language. Isolation and hardship made it more difficult to maintain their identity.
Iorio singles out the two world wars as the major challenges to the identity and survival of the Mennonites in northwest Oklahoma. Urbanization became another strong force in threatening their community life during the second half of the century. However, the anti-German and anti-pacifist feelings during World War I provided the most significant threat to the Mennonite ethic. English replaced German very quickly during and after the war. Interest in relief work and a more activist form of non-resistance were stimulated. Acculturation rapidly accelerated.
Iorio observes that during just over a century of living in northwest Oklahoma that the boundaries of Mennonite life shifted. They moved from poverty to prosperity, from nonconformity to integration, from closed congregations to open worship, and from quiet nonresistance to active peace initiatives. Other more visible changes included the transition from German to English and from parochial to public schools. The role of women has changed, more non-Mennonites joined the church, many youth left the church of their parents.
The diaries and memoirs at the end of each chapter give the study a good personal touch. Nevertheless, some significant questions regarding the uniqueness of the Mennonite experience in Oklahoma remain unanswered. Iorio only begins to capture the uniqueness of the Mennonite communities in Oklahoma. The original communities were much smaller than those in Kansas, and the families were generally young and poor. Individual farms frequently failed and entire communities dissolved. Some families moved a dozen times from central Kansas, to western Kansas, to eastern Colorado and to various sites in Oklahoma. Churches lacked leadership and depended on itinerant ministers. Iorio notices these factors but doesn’t explain how the dissaffection, isolation, and even turbulence impacted the development of the Mennonites in Oklahoma. How did their environment and development differ from that of Mennonites in central Kansas?
Iorio’s approach also resulted in a tendency to generalize. Were there no significant differences between the communities of the General Conference Mennonites and the Mennonite Brethren? While the focus is on Mennonites of Dutch-Russian backgrounds, the Deer Creek and Medford groups were largely South German in origin. Institutional developments other than that of the Oklahoma Bible Academy and more recently of the Mennonite Central Committee receive little mention. What role did the Oklahoma Convention and regional conferences play in identity maintenance?
The book includes a useful index, bibliography of secondary sources, and list of churches with their locations and dates. What is missing is a list of those interviewed, citations to the interviews, and the location of the transcripts of the interviews. In fact, only three of the ten chapters reference the interviews as the personal narrative in the second half of the chapter, and it is largely unclear how and when the author is using the oral histories. Twenty-five photos are grouped together in the center of the book, and strangely are all identified as being from the author’s collection rather than indicating their original sources.
Those seeking a more traditional historical account may be disappointed by this work, but the insights into the beliefs and lives of the Mennonites of northwest Oklahoma are nonetheless valuable. Those with roots in the community will appreciate the chance to read the story of their ancestors and how they arrived at where they are today.
David A. Haury