Spring 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 1 · pp. 136–40 

Historical Endnotes

Ken Reddig


The interpretation of the founding of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia in 1860 has entered a new era. Whereas previous historiography concentrated primarily on the immediate ecclesiastical and theological context, more recent attempts have viewed the foundational events within their broader social, political (community), economic as well as theological contexts—factors absent in many of the early histories.

Initial interpretations centered on the Gnadenfeld (Molotschna) story in Russia and viewed the beginning of the Mennonite Brethren Church almost exclusively in relationship to the Old Church. Among the first such interpretations was the booklet by Peter Regier, Kurzgefasste Geschichte der Mennoniten Brueder-Gemeinde (1907). Another was the amply documented Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Bruedershaft in Russland (1789-1910) by Peter M. Friesen (1911). Both interpret the secession of a group, and the formation of the Mennonite church in 1860, as inspired by Lutheran pietistic influences which brought new life into the decadent Mennonite colonies. A first hand account by Jacob Bekker, The Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church, was penned after he had emigrated to the United States. This chronicle, in manuscript form and possibly never circulated, can hardly be considered formative in shaping interpretations since it was only published in 1973, in translation.

The same year that Peter Regier published his brief history, an important biographical sketch was published by Heinrich Epp, Notizen aus dem Leben and Wirken des verstorbenen Aeltesten Abraham Unger, dem Gruender der “Einlager=Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde” (1907). Quoted only briefly by P. M. Friesen, it reinforces some of the more recent scholarship which sets the events of 1860 into the context of a religious awakening, influenced by numerous different movements, sweeping through the Mennonite Colonies in the early 1850s. Why Epp’s description, as well as documents in Franz Isaak’s Die Molotschnaer Mennoniten (1908), have been ignored until now is difficult to understand. {137}

Other historical accounts followed. In 1924 John F. Harms wrote his Geschichte der Mennoniten-Bruedergemeinde, 1860-1924 which began the story in 1860 and had little concern for events and developments prior to this date. From his North American vantage-point, Harms expanded the story to include a large amount of documentary material on the formation of Mennonite Brethren Churches in North America.

The first English history of the beginnings of the Mennonite Brethren Church appeared in 1950 with the publication of The Mennonite Brethren Church by John H. Lohrenz. Lohrenz rooted the story in 16th century Anabaptism as well as in the Dutch-Prussian experience. His treatment of the events surrounding 1860 concentrates, as did others before him, upon the decline of the spiritual life in the colonies. Like Harms, so Lohrenz considered the events in Gnadenfeld the normative experience for the rise of the church. No attention was given to possible other influencing factors.

Shortly after Lohrenz published his history, a substantial treatment of the Mennonite Brethren story in the German language appeared from the pen of A. H. Unruh under the title Geschichte der Mennoniten-Bruedergemeinde (1955). After four pages, quotations of documents related to the emigration of Mennonites to New Russia, he sets the context of 1860. He follows closely the interpretation given by P. M. Friesen. The remainder of the volume is a description of the expansion of the Mennonite Brethren Church across North America.

A somewhat different analysis of 1860 appeared in J. A. Toews’ History of the Mennonite Brethren Church: Pilgrims and Pioneers (1975). Contextualizing the story as a movement of Mennonites who were the “spiritual heirs of the early anabaptists” Toews’ primary interest was to prove that the founding brethren of the New Church were attuned to Anabaptist principles. Although he hints that other motivating factors were present, besides those of spiritual decadence and Lutheran pietism, he does little to move the interpretation beyond that of the earlier histories.

Worthy of mention is a series of essays, edited by Abraham Friesen entitled P. M. Friesen and His History (1979), prepared for a special symposium in conjunction with the publication of the English translation of P. M. Friesen’s history. Here factors such as family relationships and diverse pietistic literature are suggested as contributing to the secession of the Mennonites from the Old Church.

Recently the first attempts at a new interpretation of the events of 1860 have begun with the exploration of non-Mennonite Brethren views in the monograph by John B. Toews, Perilous Journey: The Mennonite Brethren in Russia 1860-1910 (1988). Moving beyond the telling of the story from a single perspective, Toews, through the use of diaries by contemporaries, summarized the way in which the events of 1860 were viewed by members and leaders of the Old Church.

Another attempt to understand the broad context of 19th century Russia appears in the work of James Urry. Both in his doctoral dissertation, “The Closed and the Open” (Oxford, 1978) and his recently published None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889 (1989), he surveys important factors never before taken seriously. These include Frisian-Flemish distinctive, the politics of Mennonite leadership particularly with reference to the transfer of religious leadership in the Molotschna Colony from Orloff to Gnadenfeld, conflicts between civil administration and church councils, the disruptive influence of various revivalistic movements (within and without the Mennonite Colonies) sweeping through New Russia and economic disputes. In his chapter on “Dissent and Division,” but more fully discussed in his article “Social Background to the Emergence of the Mennonite Brethren in Nineteenth Century Russia” (Journal of Mennonite Studies, 1988), Urry contends that the events of 1860 can no longer by understood as an isolated revival that spread beyond the confines of Gnadenfeld, but must be seen as indicative of social, political, religious and economic changes that provided ferment out of which the new movement sprang. Urry leads the reader to conclude that the events of 1860 may likely have sprung from very complex interrelationships and disagreements within 19th century Mennonite colonial life, which in turn were fanned by the flames of evangelical religious movements from western Europe.

A discussion of some of these developments appears in an article by Abe Dueck, “Mennonite Churches and Religious Developments in Russia 1850-1914,” in the recently published Mennonites in Russia (1989).

These recently published books, articles and theses suggest the need for a reexamination of the critical events of 1860. They surface the fact that sources such as diaries, the Odessaer Zeitung, other German and Russian newspapers, as well {139} as various Baptist publications must be examined and compared with previous interpretations. An example of a recent research is the thesis by Heinrich Loewen, In Vergessenheit geratene Beziehungen (1989).

In reading some of this recently discovered documentation one is tempted to conclude that the recent identity confusion among the Mennonite Brethren may be more deeply rooted in the events of 1860 than we would like to think. Certainly, as Urry clearly argues, the contributing factors beyond Lutheran pietism and the quest for a renewed Anabaptist ecclesiology are multiple and perhaps even contradictory.


  • Bekker, Jacob Peter. The Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the Midwest, 1973, 215 pp.
  • Dueck, Abe, “Mennonite Churches and Religious Developments in Russia, 1850-1914;” in Mennonites in Russia, John Friesen, ed. (Winnipeg, CMBC Publications, 1989). pp. 149-181.
  • Epp, Heinrich. Notizen aus dem Leben and Wirken des verstorbenen Altesten Abraham Unger, dem Grander der “einlager-Mennoniten Brüdergemeinde.” Halbstadt: HA Braun, 1907, 32 pp.
  • Friesen, Abraham, ed. P. M. Friesen and His History. Fresno: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1979, 176 pp.
  • Friesen, Peter M. Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Russland (1789-1910). Halbstadt: Raduga, 1911, 776 + 154 pp.
  • Harms, John F. Geschichte der Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde: 1860-1924. Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, nod., 342 pp.
  • Isaac, Franz. Die Molotschnaer Mennoniten. Halbstadt: H.J. Braun, 1908, 354 pp. {140}
  • Lohrenz, John H. The Mennonite Brethren Church. Hillsboro: Board of Foreign Missions of the Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church, 1950, 355 pp.
  • Regier, Peter. Kurzgefasste Geschichte der Mennoniten Brüder-Gemeinde. Berne: Light & Hope Publishing Co., 1907, 97 pp.
  • Toews, J. A. History of the Mennonite Brethren Church: Pilgrims and Pioneers. Fresno: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1975, 490 pp.
  • Toews, John B. Perilous Journey: The Mennonite Brethren in Russia, 1860-1910. Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1988, 98 pp.
  • Unruh, A. H. Geschichte der Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde. Hillsboro: General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, 1954, 847 pp.
  • Urry, James, “The Closed and the Open: Social and Religious Change Amongst the Mennonites in Russia (1789-1889).” Oxford: Ph.D. dissertation, Oxford University, 1978, 830 pp.
  • ———. None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1989, 328 pp.
  • ———. “Social Background to the Emergence of the Mennonite Brethren in Nineteenth Century Russia.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 6 (1988): p. 8-36.
Ken Reddig, Archivist
Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies
Winnipeg, Manitoba