By Jonathan Seiling
It is widely recognized that many Upper Canadians did not demonstrate utmost loyalty toward the British Crown on the eve of the war, or even during the war. Some settlers objected to the war in communities on both sides of the border, whether on pragmatic grounds, or due to “disaffection” and political dissent. Others refused to participate on principle.
In the years leading up to the war economic migrants from the U.S., who had little fondness for British rule, settled amid the Loyalists and came to represent a strong majority of Upper Canadians. This created problems for the defense of the province, just as it now creates problems for those who wish to portray early settlers in Upper Canada as a patriotic collective. We might ask ourselves today: amid this national reflection upon the war, is there adequate public space to commemorate and even celebrate the diversity of political orientations in Upper Canada during the War of 1812? Or should the inconvenient legacy of disloyal settlers, and those who refused on other grounds to fight in the war be merely viewed askance?
Among the diverse pockets of settlers, some resisted the war based on what was then called “scruples of conscience”, referring to the religious beliefs of Quakers, Mennonites and other so-called peace churches. Most of them migrated from the state of Pennsylvania starting in the 1780s and they continued to arrive up to and even during the years of the war. John Graves Simcoe regarded the industrious character of these peace church pioneers, and their general refusal to support the American Revolution, as being eminently suitable for the settlement plan of Upper Canada he was devising in the 1780s. By 1793 the Upper Canadian Parliament enacted militia laws that officially granted exemption to Quakers, Mennonites and a related group called “Tunkers”, which was later renamed “Brethren in Christ.” They were even granted exemption from swearing any oath, something that would put Isaac Brock ill at ease as he redoubled efforts on the eve of the war to summon loyalty. In exchange for a rather steep fee and a willingness to be engaged in noncombatant service, the historic peace church groups were spared militia duty. However, they were neither spared the ravages of war, nor from becoming pulled into the violent fray, often being conscripted as teamsters for hauling supplies.
These three historic traditions in Canada look, and in some ways behave, dramatically different than they did two centuries ago, which is important to acknowledge as they face the task of commemoration. Today there is a small but vibrant Quaker community in Canada, and a large, diverse group of Mennonites, many of whom descended from the original settlements in Upper Canada. The Brethren in Christ have associated closely with Mennonites, but recently, most notably in the Greater Toronto Area, they have developed a new model of churches based on a mega-church-satellite-movie-theatre-cell-group system, which has adapted various communication technologies and appealed to a younger generation with startling growth. All of these groups are racially diverse, with only a minority having any stake in the heritage of their religious group, let alone ancestral connection to the “pioneers of peace” in Canada. The “scruples of conscience” these three groups shared in the 1800s are not a uniformly prominent feature or identity marker today, yet all three groups seek to reflect on the historical legacy of their denominational forbears.
These three groups are nevertheless aware that they are the heirs to the earliest legacy of conscientious objection and war resistance in Canada. As the bicentennial of the War of 1812 approached they began to investigate the details of their experience in the war and to reflect on the nature of that legacy. With two centuries’ distance it is much easier for historic peace churches to rest more on imagined realities and assume greater uniformity among these religious communities than to embark upon a concerted and honest reflection on the details of that experience. Part of the challenge they face is that their histories have received only cursory attention by scholars, particularly that of the Tunkers and Mennonites.
My own role in these processes has been twofold: chairing the commemoration committee of these three peace church groups, while simultaneously working toward writing a general history on their varied experiences during the war.
A joint working group including Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren in Christ called the 1812 Bicentennial Peace Committee has attempted to navigate a course which seeks to strike a balance between resisting creating an idealized version of the past for our present edification and admitting diversity among these constituent groups on the eve of the war without encouraging a total collapse of any collective identity and shared experience within or among the three peace churches. This effort to be historically honest and politically sensitive becomes challenging as my research uncovers some fascinating, yet complex, details of the events and actions of the members of these communities. Personal and collective motivations, allegiances and positions, make creating a shared identity a difficult task.
The 1812 Bicentennial Peace Committee has created webpages and a blog, hosted by Mennonite Central Committee Ontario, which provide information about peace church related commemoration activities and facilitate a forum for those who want to reflect on the voices of peace ranging from 1812 to the present: http://ontario.mcc.org/warpeace-1812
The War Resistance in 1812 blog, hosted by Carol Penner, welcomes guest bloggers, comments and links to relevant articles online: http://warresistancein1812.blogspot.com/
Historical markers have been being placed in the Niagara region, with plaques dedicated to the pioneers of peace from the Quaker, Brethren in Christ and Mennonite traditions. The texts of the plaques can be viewed on the MCC Ontario webpages, and these are also available in French translation: http://ontario.mcc.org/historical-markers-french-translations
Jonathan Seiling the is the Chairperson of the 1812 Bicentennial Peace Committee and a research fellow affiliated with Brock University and the University of Toronto.