Steve Wallace


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White Unto Harvest

Odyssey of the Mennonites in Russia


The Mennonites are a sect that still exists in countries around the world.  We would like to focus our attention in this article on those who moved to Russia in the late 1700’s.  Let us first set forth a little background information on the Mennonites as a religion.  The Mennonites grew out of a group known as the “Anabaptists” in the Protestant Reformation.  In Switzerland,

When the brethren rejected infant baptism, insisting instead on baptizing only those who freely chose to commit themselves to the discipline and fellowship of the body of believers, they affirmed in a new (and for that time very radical) way the separation of church and state. The first adult baptisms took place on 21 January 1525, when Conrad Grebel baptized George Blaurock in the home of Felix Mantz.

Opposition to the movement was intense and immediate. The brethren were mockingly called Anabaptists (meaning "rebaptizers"). The civil and religious authorities first sought to counter the vigorous and vociferous preaching of the Anabaptists with imprisonment and banishment. When these measures failed to quiet the radicals, the sentence of death was imposed. On 5 January 1527, Felix Mantz, an articulate, educated student of Hebrew, was drowned in the Limmat River in Zurich. Thousands of Anabaptists would suffer similar fates before the end of the century.1

The name “Mennonite” came from the prominent Anabaptist preacher and leader, Menno Simons.  Simons founded churches in the Netherlands and Northwestern Germany.2  For the purpose of this study it is important to note some of the bedrock beliefs of the Mennonites.  They were pacifists, refusing to bear arms, hold political office, swear oaths, including oaths of loyalty to a state, and to sue in courts of law.  When the Mennonite-Brethren Church later a adopted a creed in the late 1870’s statements for footwashing, and against military service and taking oaths were included therein.3  One outstanding theme of Mennonite history is migration.  They moved often, mostly to avoid persecution and to gain religious freedom.  These moves led them to various parts of Europe and North America.  Their move to Russia (the first group arriving in 1786) was motivated by a number of things, the desire for religious freedom, promises of free land and freedom from military service.  Some thought the anti-Christ would soon arise and decided to a await the “Parousia” of Christ in Russia.4 

Beyond the above mentioned facts it is important to note the idea of community that the Mennonites inherited from their Anabaptist forebearers.

The Anabaptists clearly saw themselves as a righteous remnant, a people set apart from the world. They denied absolutely the role of the state in the church, rightly assuming that any such role involved coercion. In contrast, they insisted that adults freely consent to join the redeemed community....This commitment to community carried economic as well as spiritual implications. From the very beginnings in Zurich in 1525, mutual aid was a central feature of Anabaptist church practice. Its most extreme manifestation, of course, was among the Anabaptists of Moravia, but the concept was present everywhere. Commitment to the community clearly implied the willingness to sacrifice all one's possessions on its behalf.5

When the Mennonites moved to Russian they set up their own communities, much like the Shakers and Amish in the U.S.  These included their own schools.6 Efforts at evangelism, splits among them and, in the Stalinist era, banishment to the eastern U.S.S.R., led to the establishment of “daughter colonies” in many different places across the broad expanse of Russia.7

While we recognize that the Mennonites are not New Testament Christians a study of their time in Russian commends itself for a number of reasons.  These have to do with different aspects of their experience and decisions there.  Lessons learned from them are beneficial to those doing mission work as well as those in places where the church has been long established.

Lessons We Can Learn from the
Mennonites’ Experiences in Russia

  1. The need for continued emphasis on the restoration principle.  Exposure to Baptist literature led some Mennonites to adapt immersion as the form of baptism (though, of course, not for the scriptural purpose; Jn. 3:23; Acts 8:38; Rom. 6:4).8  On the other hand, the subjects of foot washing, the form of baptism and other subjects brought much discussion and tension between the Mennonites and Baptists, and were debated in correspondence between representatives of both groups.9   However, many of the Mennonites would not change on these matters, i.e., they held fast their opinions in the face of Bible teaching to the contrary.  As Christians, in our efforts to convert the lost, whether in our neighborhood or around the world, the continued emphasis must be on what the Bible teaches and on first century Christianity (Acts 17:11-12; 1 Pet. 1:25).  Contrasting the truth of the gospel with the error and mistaken beliefs of various sects equips new converts for the realities of living a Christian life in today’s world.  One thing that can result from failing to teach brethren to rely on the Bible is the writing of a creed in order to protect and enshrine beliefs.  This leads us to our next point.

  2. The need to equip and build up brethren before they face tests of faith  (2 Tim. 4:2-4; Eph. 4:11-16).  As mentioned earlier, one cardinal doctrine of the Mennonites was pacifism.  Without getting into a discussion of this view in light of the Bible’s teaching we simply want look at the various tests through which they passed relevant to this belief.  The first one we note took place in the 1870’s.  Upon their moving to Russia in the late 1700’s,

    Along with generous financial assistance in resettlement and broad promises for self-rule, Catherine II promised the Mennonites freedom from military conscription for one hundred years. But as the hundred years drew toward a close near the end of the nineteenth century, war in Europe put increasing pressure on Russia to expand her imperial army. A decision was reached in secret to Russianize all foreign colonists. The Mennonites would lose all their special privileges and be subject to conscription.10

    This loss of freedom from military service led thousands of Mennonites to emigrate to Canada and the United States about this time.  Young men of military age among those who did not leave eventually had to choose between service in the military, field hospitals, or the forestry service during the First World War.  More severe challenges were to come.  In October of 1919, during the Bolshevik Revolution, the terrorist Nestor Mancho and his band road into the town of Dobowka (aka Eichenfeld) and gruesomely murdered 80 of the townspeople, most of whom were Mennonites.11  The dangers presented by such terrorists influenced thinking at the General Mennonite Federal Conference a year earlier.  Among the things decided at this gathering was to let the question of self-defense be a matter of personal conscience rather than a matter of faith as it previously had been.12  This writer is in agreement with this decision which was arrived at after much difficulty in application of their previously held beliefs (Rom. 13:4).  In light of this, it is interesting to note that they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by coming to a better understanding of the Bible’s teaching on these matters before enshrining their previously held convictions as matters of faith as they did.  We must recognize that binding opinion and starting human traditions will always be a danger to Christians and strive to build them up in the faith so that they will make proper applications of scripture (Matt. 15:9; Gal. 5:20).  With regards to mission work, preachers who have developed a reputation for hobby riding in their home country are only going to cause problems if they are allowed to deport their erroneous beliefs to other places (Acts 15:1).

    Another lesson related to the above point that comes forth from the Mennonites experience in Russia is the following:  Teaching which prepares a Christian for worst-case scenarios is part of the Christian’s armor  (Matt. 10:17-18; Jn. 15:18-16:3). Persecution will be a part of every Christian’s life (2 Tim. 3:12). While the Mennonites were allowed to continue to practice their religion after the Bolshevik revolution the state slowly put more and more hindrances and restrictions in their way, especially in the area of their private schools.  By the mid 1920’s the law that the national hymn of the USSR, which stated that there is “no God,” must be sung in the schools caused many Mennonite teachers to give up their profession and seek jobs in other fields.  By 1929 Mennonite education had ceased to exist.13  Hundreds of Mennonites migrated to Canada during the hunger years of 1923-1926.  This number grew to 25,000 in 1929 after the announcement of Stalin’s first 5 year plan and collectivization.14 Such flight can be in harmony with both Jesus’ words and apostolic example (Lk. 10:10; Acts 13:50-51).  Staying and facing persecution is not one’s only option.

    Imprisonment in forced labor camps and deportation robbed many Mennonites of their lands and whatever freedom they had enjoyed.15  Many are aware of the suppression and/or state control of religion during Stalin’s rule.  In light of all this it is incredible to learn of a later rebirth of the Mennonite religion after the death of Stalin in the 1950’s and beyond.  In spite of having been forced to exist underground for most of the remaining time of the former Soviet Union, the Mennonites (and other religions) came back to life.  Large numbers of Mennonites migrated to Germany (there is a church made up of such immigrants in this writer’s village).  Some stayed on to establish churches in the various republics (some now separate countries) to which their ancestors had been deported.  A Mennonite church currently exists in Karaganda, Kazakhstan.16  It is hoped that this tragic history will impress upon all Christians the fact that the relatively easy life we have in western society is a blessing which needs to be appreciated and used (Acts 9:31; 1 Tim. 2:2).  However, it also should cause us to see the need of having God’s word written in our hearts that we might be able to live it and teach it come what may (Heb. 8:10-11).  While not New Testament Christians, the Mennonites kept their beliefs alive through some of the most trying times of modern history.  Whatever we might write in opposition to some of the error they hold one can not help but admire how well it was inculcated (cp. Matt. 28:20; 2 Tim. 2:2).

  3. Temptations presented by small numbers.  Many if not most churches established by recent efforts of brethren in various places of the world are not large.  Brethren can be and have been faithful in spite being few in number (Rev. 3:4).  However, there are a number of ways that the devil can use numbers to his advantage.  One is the temptation towards centralization.  Mennonite history joins with the history of the Lord’s church in testifying of the dangerous tendencies involving multi-church organization. A Mennonite missionary society – the Association for the Spread of the Gospel in Dutch Colonies – was founded in Amsterdam in 1849.  It was also supported by Mennonite churches in  Russia.17  The first federal conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia was held May 14-16, 1872.18  Small numbers can also tempt brethren to compromise with the false religions around them.  One sees this among the Mennonites in Russia. Mennonite missionary Abraham Friesen judged the individual Mennonite churches to be too young, inexperienced and week to carry out mission work among the lost alone.  Therefore, he suggested that they work together with the American Baptist Missionary Union in Boston, which was already active in India, to build a mission field among Telegu people in that country.19  Many of the Mennonites in Russia joined with the Brethren (this writer believes this is the same or similar to The Church of the Brethren) to form the Mennonite Brethren Church, which church has already been mentioned in this article.  Let us teach our brethren how God’s people stood alone or in small numbers and how God was with them (1 Sam. 14:6-15; Dan. 3;  Rev. 3:4).

  4. Temptations which come from distinctive doctrines.   The Mennonites’ distinctive doctrines led them to a near monastic way of life. They built their own communities and, later, schools, and lived together.20  In 1874 when the Russian government removed their exemption from military service the Mennonites enshrined their pacifist and other beliefs in a creed.21  In calling people back to God’s original order, New Testament Christians teach many distinctive doctrines. Let us always remember that such texts as Matt. 16:18, Mk. 16:16, Acts 2:38, etc., are not peculiarly ours.  They are independent truths which exist apart from us.  May all who teach and all who are taught depend solely on a “thus saith the Lord” and realize the strength of such a position. 

Conclusion

Many more lessons could be drawn from the Mennonites experiences in Russia.  It is hoped that those we have considered above would prove helpful to all Christians and, where applicable, to those doing mission work.  As we close this brief study let us pause to appreciate the conviction, however misplaced, possessed by these people and their efforts to live consistently with their beliefs. Their mistaken and/or false beliefs and the lengths to which they went to live consistently with them  stand  as  both  a n  example and warning to us today.


Endnotes

1) “Anabaptist/Mennonite History, Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist Roots,” Prepared for the Historical Committees of the Mennonite Church, and the Western District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church By Dale R. Schrag, John D. Thiesen, David A. Haury
http://www.bethelks.edu/services/mla/guide/

2) Catholic Encyclopedia on line
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10190b.htm

3) 200 Jahre Mennoniten in Russland, edited by Gerhard and Julia Hildebrandt (Verlag des Mennonitischen Geschichtesvereins, Bolanden-Weierhof, Germany, 2000), pp. 120-121. Catholic Encyclopedia and Schrag, Thiesen, and Haury (footnotes 1&2) also contain information on Mennonite beliefs.

4) Hildebrandt, ibid., p. 22

5) Schrag, Thiesen, and Haury, ibid.

6) Hildebrandt, op cit, p. 47-48

7) Hildebrandt, op cit, pp. 155-156

8) Hildebrandt, op cit, pp. 108, 115-116

9) Hildebrandt, op cit, p. 109

10) “Mennonites in Russia,” David and Neta Jackson, © 2002,
http://www.daveneta.com/no- randomact/mennonites.htm

11) Hildebrandt, op cit, p. 146

12) Hildebrandt, op cit, pp. 180-181

14) Hildebrandt, op. cit. pp. 62-69

15) The Mennonite Encyclopedia (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1959), Vol. 4, p. 391, via Jackson, ibid

16) “The Karaganda Mennonite Brethren Church: A Requiem?” John B. Toews, ©1997
http://www. directionjournal.org/ article/?932

17) Hildebrandt, op cit, p. 131

18) Hildebrandt, op cit, p. 112

19) Hildebrandt, op cit, p.  143

20) Hildebrandt, op cit, p. 161

21) Hildebrandt, op cit, p. 120


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