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Spring 1996 · Vol. 25 No. 1 · pp. 55–60 

Two Letters of Heinrich Huebert

John B. Toews

Almost all we know about the beginnings of the Mennonite Brethren Church in the Ukraine was preserved by Peter M. Friesen in his massive work, The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia. 1 In presenting the story Friesen detailed the birth pangs of the movement as best existing documents allowed. Unfortunately some Mennonite leaders viewed the emergence of the Brethren as an act of rebellion against the prevailing order. A flood of materials reflecting the legal and bureaucratic intricacies of the mid-nineteenth century Mennonite world ensued. The material provided little information on any of the founders’ personal pilgrimages or the inner spirituality of the early Brethren. 2 Among the dissidents themselves the internal struggle associated with the so-called “exuberance movement” drained the revival of much of its vitality. It is therefore not surprising that we possess relatively little knowledge about the spiritual beginnings of Brethren founders, especially the first Brethren elder, Heinrich Huebert.

Heinrich Huebert, born in Muensterberg, Molotschna in 1810, credited his early religious formation to his teacher Tobias Voth (1791-?). He attributed his love for music and poetry as well as his interest in nature and science directly to Voth’s influence. 3 A member of the Ohrloff congregation, though resident in Liebenau, Huebert became a participant in the so-called Gnadenfeld “brotherhood,” a loose affiliation of spiritually akin individuals who came under the influence of the pietist revival preacher Eduard Wuest. 4 Like a number of other “brotherhood” affiliates he was a signatory to the secession document of January 6, 1860. His name then appears prominently on both of the earliest known Brethren membership lists. 5 He was already elected as a Brethren minister on May 30, 1860, and somewhat later confirmed as an elder. 6 Since the issue of immersion baptism emerged a year later, Huebert was a minister for almost a year before being rebaptized.

Not long after he assumed his leadership role, Huebert became embroiled in a struggle with a segment of the early Brethren who advocated the on-going celebration of grace through music, dance and the shouting of praise. Huebert steadily opposed the “Froehliche Richtung” and as a consequence was deposed by two uncompromising advocates of the movement, Benjamin Becker and Bernhard Penner. In 1865, when the Brethren rejected their {56} celebratory excesses by drafting the so-called “June Reforms,” Huebert was re-elected as elder and his deposition from office ruled unjust. 7

The summer of 1865 brought another crisis. In 1862 Huebert and two others were present at the baptism of a Russian servant girl, who worked for Huebert between 1855 and 1862. Since such proselytizing among the Ukrainian or Russian population was deemed illegal, authorities questioned Huebert and others. When Huebert refused to divulge the name of the baptizer he was imprisoned in Tokmak for some months in 1865. 8 According to one of his letters he was kept in strict isolation. Not even his wife, who supplied him with food, was allowed to speak to him.

Huebert now appealed directly to the privy councillor von Brun who had been commissioned by the Minister of the Interior to investigate the dissidents in both Chortitza and Molotschna. The letter of August 13, 1865, is significant in that it identifies the Russian girl in question and details the action of local authorities with regard to her baptism. Brun was probably acquainted with the problem thanks to an appeal made by Christian Schmidt and Philipp Isaak on behalf of Huebert, but was either unable or unwilling to facilitate the elder’s release. 9 On September 28, 1865, Huebert wrote a second letter addressing it directly to the Minister of the Interior. He speaks of a twenty-two week imprisonment in Tokmak and implies that he has been released on bail. As a result local authorities refuse to grant him the travel pass essential for his migration to the new Brethren settlement in the Kuban.

After his release Huebert moved to Blumenort in the Molotschna, then resettled in the Kuban in 1873. Here, in the words of P.M. Friesen, he possessed a “lovely house, a small farm, an orchard, a nursery and an apiary.” 10 He lived there until his death in 1895 at the age of eighty-five and was always active in his yard and garden. 11

Huebert’s sincerity, the depth of his spiritual insights and the strength of his personal piety made him ideally suited to lead the devotional style services of the early Brethren. He was apparently attracted by the sermons of Charles Spurgeon and Ludwig Hofacker and often read them in German at Bible studies or worship, then commented on their content in Low German. 12 Once Brethren services moved from a reflective and participatory mode towards more formal preaching services, Huebert’s weak voice and self-effacing manner lessened his effectiveness. His theological and organizational skills are amply demonstrated in the June, 1868, polity statement he drafted in response to the demands of Halbstadt district officials. 13

The two following letters are preserved in the Russian Imperial archives in St. Petersburg. They are probably the only surviving letters written in Huebert’s own hand. Both letters refer to his weakness and physical infirmities, which P.M. Friesen identifies with frequent fainting spells. The letters {57} also touch upon the reasons for Huebert’s imprisonment: Brethren missionary activity among the Russians. Reports reaching the Ministry of the Interior by 1864 indicated that the proselytizing of Gerhard Wieler had induced as many as fourteen Russians to convert from the Orthodox faith in 1862. He and others apparently continued such activities during 1863-64, not only baptizing Russians, both Lutherans and Catholics as well. 14 The report identifies Wieler as the most prominent “baptizer” and may well have baptized the Priska Morosov mentioned in Huebert’s letter to Brun.


  1. P. M. Friesen, Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Bruederschaft in Russland, 1789-1910 (Halbstadt, Raduga, 1911).
  2. See “Mennonite Brethren Founders Relate Their Conversion.” Direction 23 (Fall, 1994): 31-37.
  3. P. M. Friesen, 78.
  4. Ibid., 86-87, 173-75.
  5. St. Petersburg Imperial Archives, Zakaz 109, Fond 823, opis 5, dielo 976, pp. 54-55. The lists were obviously compiled by district officials and eventually found their way to ministerial offices in the Russian capital.
  6. P. M. Friesen, 201-2.
  7. Ibid., 183, 362-65.
  8. Ibid., 202. Friesen speaks of a ten-month imprisonment. This may have included the time Huebert was under village arrest in Liebenau.
  9. Philipp Isaak and Christian Schmidt visited Brun to request Huebert’s release and assured him that the problems related to the exuberance movement had been settled. Ibid., 368-69.
  10. Ibid., 451-53.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 388.
  13. Ibid., 390-92.
  14. “Information about the Religious Sect Which Emerged in the South Russian Mennonite Colonies, “ St. Petersburg Imperial Archives, Zakaz 109, Fond 821, opis 5, dielo 976, pp. 27-37.


His Excellency, the Privy Councillor Baron von Brun

[From] The Mennonite Heinrich Huebert

Taurida Province, Berdyansk Region

Molotschna Mennonite District

In my dire circumstances I turn to your excellency for help convinced of your empathy for the suffering of God’s children. I am confident you will do what you can to free me from prison.

The reason for my arrest is the following. On April 1 [1865] I refused to disclose the name of the baptizer of a Russian girl Priska, the daughter of Ivan Morosov, to an investigating commission. This girl served in our household from 1855 to 1862. During this interval she learned sufficient German to understand the Word of God when it was being read. When it was subsequently read to her in Russian by Russians living on the other side of the Tokmak river opposite Liebenau, God’s Word as expressed in Romans 1:16 “. . . for the salvation of everyone who believes” found fulfillment in her. Unfortunately “. . . everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).

In the spring of 1862 a police commission came to the estate opposite Liebenau to interrogate several Russian believers. Priska was commanded to confess to a Russian priest, admit the error of her faith and renounce it. When she refused to do so, like-minded Russian believers were ordered to beat her. When they refused, Priska’s father requested permission to beat her which he did in the most brutal fashion. She was then transferred to another workplace. They were also Mennonites. Her new place of service proved a new blessing for God’s kingdom. The entire household, with one exception turned to God. Then on July 2, while still serving that household, she no longer resisted the voice of God’s Spirit and requested we baptize her. We anticipated persecution and commended ourselves to the One to whom all power in heaven and earth is given. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). We obeyed this command and baptized her.

Since April 9 I am in the prison in Tokmak where no one is allowed to speak to me, not even my wife who brings me food. I have not been questioned throughout this entire period. My wife’s petition to the magistrate Malorov requesting my temporary release for reasons of declining health has been ignored.

I am convinced that your excellency has compassion for my suffering and {59} will accept my case and explore the possibility of my release. For my part I will not neglect to remember your excellence in my prayers. At the feast of the Lamb, when people from the east and west, from the north and south will take their place (Luke 13:29), my joy would be unspeakable if we were to greet one another.

In the sure hope that you will be able to fulfill my humble petition I sign myself as the most obedient servant of your excellency.

Heinrich Huebert

Tokmak, August 13, 1865


His Excellency, The Minister of the Interior, the honorable

Privy Councillor and Knight, Baron von Valujev

[From] The prisoner of the Liebenau Colony,

Heinrich Huebert, Taurido Province

Berdyansk Region

I am aware that your excellency has been accurately informed of the religious movements in the Molotschna Mennonite colonies by the privy councillor von Brun. You are especially acquainted with the group which baptizes in the river by immersion and accepts members in accordance with the Mennonite confession of faith, the Word of God and the [teachings] of the reformer Menno Simons. I, the petitioner, also belong to this group.

Three years ago one of our members baptized a Russian girl, who served in my home for seven years. She was studious, attended our Bible studies and listened to the reading of God’s Word. She insisted on receiving baptism in accordance with our confession of faith and was baptized in the presence of two other brothers and accepted into our fellowship.

When authorities learned of this matter they took immediate measures to {60} arrest the baptizer, a person unknown to them. Because his name was not disclosed I, as a participant, was arrested instead of the baptizer. I have been interred in the Gross Tokmak prison under heavy guard for twenty-two weeks.

The Russian girl, who was assigned to a Russian deacon, rejoined the orthodox church. The baptizer’s identity became known. He had moved to the Kuban. I was released into the custody of the village of Liebenau. Now one of the eyewitnesses by the name of Martens also came under police surveillance. Our fellowship decided not to pursue the matter until freedom of conscience in the true sense of the word breaks the bonds of our current [restrictive] laws. The matter was closed.

Your excellency will also be aware of the fact that our group is settling as master farmers on land in the Kuban, graciously granted to us by his majesty. I, however, cannot join them. I, like the above mentioned Martens, am still out on bail and cannot leave. Meanwhile our co-religionists have moved to their new settlement area. All those who wish to resettle had to register their intentions with Russian authorities by October 3 or risk the forfeiture of their land. My pass is still being denied me.

My fervent and urgent plea is that we will not be kept as prisoners. May your excellency extend grace and justice. {Kindly] order that my arrest be lifted as soon as possible and grant both Martens and myself a pass to the Kuban. [Kindly release] the meager resettlement monies I have left, which have been confiscated by the court.

Your excellency, do not refuse the special petition of a weak and grey-haired old man who will soon be journeying to the other side. He would like to visit his children once more and be in their midst until he dies. He desires nothing more than to hide his soul in the wounds of the once bleeding and now triumphant Savior Jesus Christ and be a useful and loyal person for humanity and our land.

My prayers for your excellency continue to ascend to the throne of grace. May the words of our master Jesus “What you have done to the least of these my brethren you have done unto me” place you among the blessed of the Father.

Anticipating an early response I remain your high excellency’s humble servant for ever.

Heinrich Huebert


September 28, 1866

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