Mennonite History, Part One: From Reformation Europe to Russia

(Note: In my last post, I gave an introduction to the Mennonite culture and briefly touched upon my experience as an Old Colony Mennonite growing up in Leamington, Ontario. Here’s my introduction to Mennonite history.)

The story of the Mennonites begins in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation, in the German- and Dutch-speaking parts of Europe. At a time when people all over Europe were reacting against corruption in the Catholic Church, a group of reformers called Anabaptists started a movement.

The name “Anabaptist” (meaning “re-baptizer”) refers to the practice of baptizing adults: one of their main tenets was that a Christian ought to freely choose to be baptized and become a member of the body of Christ (as a fully-consenting adult), rather than be baptized as an infant. (The first people to practice this would already have been baptized as infants, though — hence the name; but they didn’t actually advocate more than one baptism. They considered the one they received at birth to be null and void). In addition to voluntary church membership, the early Anabaptists adhered to a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount which prohibited taking oaths, bearing arms, and participating in civil government. They also believed that the church and state should be separate entities, that church leaders should be elected from within their own ranks, and that Christians should be willing to suffer for their faith. They saw their primary loyalty as being to the church, not the state.

The Anabaptists suffered severe persecution from the beginning, from Catholics and Protestants alike. Voluntary church membership was seen as a threat by many government and church officials, who tried to stamp out the movement using torture and execution. Since Anabaptists refused to use violence to defend themselves, many were killed. By 1530, most of the founding leaders had been martyred. Despite this fact, the movement spread around western Europe.

Around this time, Menno Simons, a Catholic priest, heard of the Anabaptist movement and started to reconsider many Catholic teachings. When his Anabaptist brother Pieter was attacked and killed — refusing to violently defend himself — Menno Simons officially left the Catholic Church and became a leader within the Anabaptist movement in 1536.  His followers called themselves Mennonites.

Because of their commitment to nonviolence, Mennonites have a long history of international migration. Fleeing for their lives has always been central to their survival. For this reason, Mennonites have no homeland: they go wherever they can live peacefully and without too much government interference.  That’s why you can find Mennonites throughout Europe, Russia, Canada, the United States, Mexico, and South America.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you’re wondering where the Amish fit into all this, their story begins in 1693 with Jakob Ammann. He was a Swiss Mennonite leader who felt Mennonites were straying from the teachings of Menno Simons. Those who agreed with his more conservative views and stricter church discipline practices withdrew and became a distinct subgroup of Mennonites known as the Amish. I’ll come back to them in a later post.

The Amish, along with other Swiss-South German Mennonites, began emigrating to North America (especially Pennsylvania) in the early eighteenth century. The Dutch-North German Mennonites, however, mostly moved eastward into the areas of Prussia and Poland. The latter are the ones who concern me most, as they are my ancestors.*

In 1763, Catherine the Great issued an invitation to Europeans to come and settle various pieces of land within Russia. Mennonites from Prussia responded to this invitation and agreed to settle as long as they were exempted from military service and permitted to self-govern. Being excellent farmers, they soon converted the barren steppes into flourishing farmlands. (This is a pattern that the Mennonites have since repeated countless times in every conceivable type of landscape, from the Canadian plains to the Mexican deserts to the South American jungle).

In 1870, however, the Russian government announced that they could no longer extend special privileges to the Mennonites. Worried that they would lose their exemption from military service and their right to educate their children in their own schools, the Mennonites sent a delegation to explore North America as a possible place to relocate.

(Upon hearing that 40,000 of their best farmers were about to peace out, the Russian government hurried to offer an alternative to military service [forestry]; but by then most of the Mennonites were already prepared to leave. Some of the more liberal and poorer Mennonites who couldn’t afford to leave remained. Those who stayed are referred to as Russian Mennonites, though most don’t live there anymore).

So in 1873, the Mennonites began a mass exodus to North America. The more conservative groups (including my ancestors) emigrated to Manitoba (Canada), while the more liberal groups chose the United States. These two groups later evolved into two very distinct subgroups of Mennonites.

The more conservative Mennonites in Manitoba continued to live out their traditional way of life, separate from the rest of the world. They governed themselves, educated their own children, and refrained from participating in Canadian politics. And they farmed, of course. They continued to wear distinctive clothing, speak their own distinctive language, and marry within their own community.

As it always happens, however, with time the Manitoba Mennonites began to feel various pressures from the larger culture to give up their traditional way of life. The Manitoba government began to talk about mandatory public education for all of its citizens, as well as (surprise, surprise) mandatory military service. So once again, the Mennonites began to look for a new place to settle.

That’s where I’ll end for now. Next, I’ll go into greater detail about these Old Colony Mennonites, the fascinating people from whom I am descended.

*(This paragraph was added later)

Note: I have to admit that I got a lot of the details for this post from Wikipedia.

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  1. Hey – how about one of these days you write a whole book on the topic?? I’d buy it!

    • Thanks, Emily! You know, I’ve been meaning to. Seriously. For years. Just haven’t gotten to it. Maybe a publisher will read this series and demand I write a book for them! :)

  2. Oh boy I would love reading your book on this subject! I just ate this post up. I’m such a history nerd, and when it’s connected to me in some way, it’s so much better!

  3. I’d buy your book, too, Kathleen! Actually, I’d buy tons of copies and hand them out to kids on Halloween.

  4. As I was reading this I remembered a lot of it from some religion class I took in college. I am ashamed to admit I only took the class though because I had the professor for a different class and I knew I could get an easy ‘A’ in it. But I swear I learned things!
    Bekah recently posted..Paleo Update: I feel like crap.My Profile

  5. this stuff is sooo interesting! again, really glad you wrote it all out! and now i’m looking at the date of these and why i didn’t comment…i was trying to get ready for Samuel! i researched a lot of Christian history when I converted to Catholicism, like trying to understand the Schism and the Protestant Reformation and why Mormons aren’t considered Christian, and it was in learning that the Anabaptists don’t adhere to any sort of apostolic succession (correct?) and that in the Christian history flow chart it has them breaking off very early that was really interesting. helps you understand the differences between Christians more easily.
    one thing i had no clue about was the rigor to non-violence! very, very interesting about how such a commitment would naturally affect your progeny as well. and of course i guess that explains why there are so many off-shoots of Mennonites, eventually people assimilate and create something new. modern, easy life breeds contentment and a carelessness of our values sometimes, huh?
    alison recently posted..Take 7…Summer Edition: Earthquakes, filming, and more MSL!My Profile

    • Hi Alison! The first sign that “apostolic succession” isn’t a part of the Anabaptist faith is that I had no idea what it was, and had to look it up!

      Interestingly, though, the Old Colony Mennonites (not sure about the rest) seem to have developed a sort of quasi apostolic succession, because I remember growing up with talk of bishops. I don’t know too much about this tradition, though, and would have to look into it more.

      And your comment that “modern, easy life breeds contentment and a carelessness of our values sometimes” . . . I didn’t realize how true this was until researching my heritage!

  6. Hi … My Mennonite forbearers included Thonis (Dennis) Kunders who came with twelve other Mennonite-Quaker families from Krefield, Germany in 1683 to found Germantown PA and Bishop Hans Herr who led his group to Lancaster Co. PA in 1710. The Hans Herr House, built 1719 is called the best example of medieval German architecture in the US, and is run as part of a museum by the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.

    Hans Herr and other Mennonites from Switzerland fled persecution there and settled for a while in the Palatinate region of Germany (along the Rhine) before meeting up with representatives of William Penn and buying 10,000 acres in the New World.

    What I am trying to find out more about is what the Mennonites lives were like in the 1500 and 1600’s in Switzerland, what is now Germany, and the Netherlands. I have read references to church records of births, marriages, and attendance at convocations (?) but would love to know where those records are today. I know that Thonis was a dyer, and most of those who came with him were weavers. Together they produced the first anti-slavery statement issued by any group in what would become the US.

    Any suggestions for me?

  7. Kathleen,
    I read the introduction with interest…but where is the next portion and all those to follow???

  8. Rosemary says

    Have you ever read/heard anything about Mennonites taking topsoil from Europe to Russia?
    Someone from the UK said they were taught this in school.

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