MENNONITE HISTORY — A Brief Overview
The roots of the Mennonite people grew out of the reformation of the sixteenth century, due to dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church of that time.
Adherents to this new religious movement, know as Anabaptists or re-baptizers, believed in salvation by faith through grace, and baptism upon confession of this faith. They held a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as opposed to a church or state legislated membership. They were non-resisters and did not hold political office. Theirs was a “voluntary fellowship of regenerated believers, a Christian brotherhood, a community of the redeemed.”
The Anabaptists were situated mostly in Moravia, South Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
The Dutch theologian from whom Mennonites take their name—Menno Simons—was born in 1496 in Witmarsum, Friesland, a province in the northern Netherlands. Simons, a former priest, was greatly influenced by the suffering of the Anabaptists for their beliefs, and eventually became a leader in the movement.
Due to severe and constant persecution, the Mennonites adopted a lifestyle of separation from the world, continuing to hold to their Dutch/German ethnic roots. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, many Dutch Mennonites fled to the free city of Danzig and settled in the Vistula Valley. This area was under Polish rule at the time, but was transferred to Prussian administration in 1772. The Mennonites were welcomed because of their knowledge of land drainage and general good farming practices, and were to remain until 1790, a total of 250 years.
The Mennonites experienced tolerance and relative freedom in Prussia, but in many cases, their original Christlike lifestyle began to give way to a religion of tradition and rules, even as their material and financial status improved.
In 1789 an edict disallowed any further purchase of land by Mennonites. The various changes brought about by Frederick the Great and his successor became increasingly difficult to accept. Therefore, when Catherine II of Russia invited the Mennonites to her country with the promise of economic, political and spiritual freedom, they accepted this offer as from the hand of God. Included in Russia’s “charter of privileges” was freedom of religion, 175 acres free land per family, exemption from military service for all eternity, and control of schools and religious and civil affairs.
The first 228 families migrated south to the lower Dneiper River in 1789 to establish the colony of Chortitza, and in 1804, 342 families settled on the banks of the Molotschnaya River to form the Molotschna colony. More migrations followed.
Problems began when the government refused subdivision of land in the colonies, and eventually there were many landless Mennonites. As a partial solution, crown lands formerly rented were distributed to the landless in 1865, and over the next fifty years, daughter colonies were established in the Ukraine, Crimea, Caucasus, South-central Asia and Siberia.
For the most part, the villages were run efficiently and uniformly. The colonies built and supported village schools, girls’ schools, secondary schools, and training institutions, homes for the elderly and schools for the deaf, nurses’ training schools and hospitals, and facilities for the mentally ill or handicapped. Agriculture was progressive, with much guidance from Johann Cornies in the early years.
The church, also orderly and efficient, eventually began to suffer spiritual decline. Disagreements and tensions over issues such as land ownership also caused friction and pride within the brotherhood. Another reason for spiritual decay was the stagnation of the closed society. Truly born again ministers were rare. Church membership often became a simple rite of passage into community life. Believers’ baptism, for which many of the early Anabaptists had given their lives, became merely “adult baptism.” The fruits of the Spirit were, in many cases, gradually replaced by the works of darkness, as alcohol, greed and immorality became more prevalent.
As a result of dissatisfaction with the established church, groups broke away to form new congregations. The Mennonite Brethren church was born on January 6, 1860 and the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church (also known as the Allianz Gemeinde)
was established in 1905.
A czarist shift from military exemption and self-government to conscription and general “Russianization” resulted in the migration of about one-third of the Mennonite population to North America between 1874 and 1880.
During World War I, the Mennonites were regarded as Germans, and were required to participate in alternate service. In 1917, the Russian Revolution spread terror across the land as Red and White armies fought each other, and groups of bandits fought for both factions or for themselves, killing, looting, raping and terrorizing. Drought and famine followed in 1921-22, to complete the devastation. Many starved. Many more would have died but for the saving relief of MCC (Mennonite Central Committee).
After the Revolution, the Russian government declared complete nationalization of all land and property, schools and churches. As a result, Mennonites exited en masse in search, again, of religious freedom. Between 1923 and 1930, 20,000 Mennonites came to Canada.
RUSSIAN HISTORY — A Brief Overview
|A.D. 800||First Russian state established in Kiev|
|988||Christianity introduced into Russia|
|1220-1263||Alexander Nevski fought Mongols with strength and diplomacy|
|1480||Ivan III (Ivan the Great) broke Mongol control|
|1547||Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible), first Czar; serfdom|
|1613||Michael Romanov, beginning of the Romanov Dynasty|
|1682-1725||Peter I (Peter the Great); Westernization, education, technology|
|1773-1774||Peasant revolt crushed by Russian troops|
|1762-1796||Catherine II (Catherine the Great—German), Serfdom spread. Western fashion and lifestyle, French court, the arts, Italian operas, ballet, chamber music. Peasants remained in poverty and ignorance.|
|1801-1825||Alexander I; liberal, fought Napoleon, later discarded liberalism|
|1825||Alexander died without an heir, named brother Constantine as Czar. Constantine declined and swore allegiance to younger brother Nicholas. Discontented army officers staged Decembrist uprising, which was put down.|
|1825-1855||Nicholas I; police state, against reform; defeated in Crimean War (against Ottoman Empire); much achievement in literature.|
|1855-1880||Alexander II; freed serfs in 1961, need for reform. Assassinated|
|1881-1894||Alexander III; stern, repressive despot. Industry and railroads greatly improved.|
|1894-1917||Nicholas II, autocrat, but lacked firmness.|
|1914-1918||World War I; Russia fought against Germany. Nicholas at war front, with Empress Alexandra in charge at home under Rasputin’s influence.|
|1917||Revolution overthrew Nicholas II in March. Bolsheviks (Communists) seized power in November, Lenin became dictator. Russia withdrew from the war|
|1918-1920||Communists defeated anti-Communist forces in civil war|
|1920-1922||Severe famine in south Russia|
|1922||USSR established; Stalin eventually took over as dictator|
RESOURCE LIST (Beginning with my favorites. This is not an exhaustive list.)
▪ Mennonite Historical Atlas, William Schroeder and Helmut T. Huebert
▪ Events and People, Helmut T. Huebert
▪ With Courage to Spare, John B. Toews
▪ Czars, Soviets and Mennonites; John B. Toews
▪ The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia 1789-1910, P.M. Friesen
▪ Diary of Anna Baerg 1916-1924, edited by Gerald Peters
▪ My Russia, Peter Ustinov
▪ Mennonite Foods and Folkways of South Russia, Volumes I & II, Norma Jost Voth
▪ Mennonite Settlements in Crimea, H. Goerz
▪ A Russian Dance of Death, Dietrich Neufeld
▪ Storm Tossed, Gerhard Lohrenz
▪ Journey to Yalta, Sarah Klassen
▪ The Romanovs, Virginia Cowles
▪ Lenin and the Downfall of Tsarist Russia, Elizabeth M. Roberts
▪ Rasputin: Satyr, Saint or Satan, Douglas Myles
▪ Profiles of Mennonite Faith, General Conference of M.B. Churches, various authors
▪ Turning Life into Fiction, Robin Hemley
▪ Mennonites in Canada 1920-1940, Frank Epp
▪ The Russian Revolution, Ira Peck
▪ The Russians (7 volumes of historical fiction), Judith Pella
▪ Liberty in Confinement, Johannes Reimer
▪ Chariots in the Smoke, Margaret Epp
▪ Days of Terror, Barbara Classen Smucker
▪ Mysteries of Grace and Judgment (film)
▪ Lions of the Desert (three volumes of historical fiction), Linda Chaikin
▪ Nicholas and Alexandra (film, 1971), Robert K. Massie
▪ The Shadow of the Winter Palace-Drift to Revolution, Edward Crankshaw
▪ The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, Robert K. Massie
▪ An Introduction to Mennonite History, Cornelius Dyck
▪ The Idealists, Henry Carlisle and Olga Andreyev
▪ A Lifelong Passion-Nicholas and Alexandra, Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko
▪ The File on the Tsars, Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold
▪ Hippocrene Companion Guide to the Soviet Union, Lydle Brinkle
▪ Hippocrene UKRAINE Language and Travel Guide, Linda Hodges and George Chumak