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Spring 2007 · Vol. 36 No. 1 · pp. 58–73 

Pietism’s Gift to Russian Mennonites

Harold Jantz

Heinrich Goerz tells a story of his great-grandfather, Aron Rempel, a minister in the Schoensee Mennonite Church in the Molotschna colony in the mid-nineteenth century. In a letter to the elder of the Ohrloff-Halbstadt Church, Bernhard Fast, Aron Rempel asks to be admitted to Fast’s church because he had been forbidden to continue preaching in his own. The reason was that he had visited and preached in other churches of “slightly different Mennonite persuasion” and he was receiving the literature of the Lutheran Barmen mission in Germany. 1

The Pietist impulse irrevocably turned Mennonites to look outwards, beyond themselves.

It was such insularity that begged for change within the Mennonite colonies of southern Russia and in time moved a significant number of Mennonites to find their Christian experience in a different religious milieu, one deeply influenced by Pietism, something much like classic evangelicalism.

It would not be difficult to cite examples of the deadening effects of the way much of traditional Mennonite church and community life was going in Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century. Sermons were read and since the ministers almost without exception had nothing but a village school’s limited education, most had virtually no training to assist them in interpreting what they read. Even spontaneous prayers were forbidden to ministers of many of the churches. 2 A small body of church elders and ministers were responsible for the spiritual well-being of large flocks and as a result, little help was available to individuals. Under such conditions, “can one speak of the spiritual care of the individual?” 3 Large numbers of villagers seldom attended church services.

Despite this, all had to become members to marry and remain in the colonies. If members were disciplined—as they might be for serious offenses like adultery or incest, or for something as trivial as reading something other than a few prescribed books—a week or two of penance and an apology was all that was needed for reinstatement. 4


Some of the stories of the tensions within the colonies for those who showed openness to outside influences are well-known. Three elders inclined to more openness, Bernhard Fast, Franz Goerz, and Peter Wedel (of the Ohrloff, Rudnerwieder, and Alexanderwohl churches), precipitated a split that affected Fast’s Ohrloff church when they established a branch of the Russian Bible Society (which was itself a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society). It happened after Fast had allowed a missionary to the Jews, Johann Moritz, to speak in his church and partake in communion. The furor that ensued led to a division which left Fast with less than a quarter of his congregation in 1824. 5

On another occasion, after the death of Johann Cornies in 1848, who was a leader in agricultural and educational reform, a portion of the lending library he left behind was burned. 6 Schools functioned at a deplorable level under the oversight of church ministers. Deep divisions occurred between and within churches over issues such as land sales, behavior of members, clashes between civic and church authorities, and the attitudes to issues such as some of those named above.

It is not surprising then that the desire for change should surface, even among those who had little idea where or how it might come. Certainly the emergence of the Kleine Gemeinde in 1814 was an expression of such a desire. They did know where they wanted to find renewal. Their vision was to reach back to a kind of Anabaptist canon for the direction that might guide their people to the right way. It represented clear resistance to Pietistic influences. Rigorous accountability within the fellowship of believers and an ethical seriousness in the Christian walk were the hallmarks of the Kleine Gemeinde. As their name suggests, the Kleine Gemeinde always remained a small though not insignificant presence among Russian Mennonites.

One who followed an entirely different tack was Johann Cornies of the Molotschna colony. This unusually talented—though essentially self-taught—agriculturist, scientist, educator, and entrepreneur, after his marriage in 1811 began to introduce to his part of southern Russia new and improved plant and animal stocks (sheep, cattle, and horses, for example, or the silkworm culture and mulberry trees, forestation and new ways of working the land) and improved schools (he wrote a set of standards for schools, for example, and dictated how schools should be built). His work brought two tsars, Alexander I and Alexander II, to his Jushanlee estate. Many Mennonites, however, deeply resented him for dictating changes to traditional practices.


Mennonite life in southern Russia during the first half of the nineteenth century was burdened by a number of elements. They had moved to Russia onto tracts of land that allowed them to establish villages that were at first entirely populated by their own people and could not be sold to outsiders. In fact, they couldn’t even be subdivided for the children, which soon became a source of much strife. 7 Thus they were cut off from the surrounding world much more than had been the case in Prussia at a time when their first real encounter with modernity was happening. The Russian government even insured that the settlers moving into its southern territories were separated by religion, so that German Lutherans and German Catholics were given their own tracts, not to mention the Swedes, Rumanians, Greeks, Bulgarians, and other ethnic settlers. 8

They were also held back by an inherited form of church leadership—especially entrenched within the Flemish Mennonite churches—which saw all authority lodged with the elders. Even these had no formal structure for meeting, until a controversy with the Gnadenfeld, Molotschna, church over the removal of some of its leaders by another elder eventually prompted government overseers in 1851 to insist on a standing Church Council (Kirchenkonvent) made up of the elders. 9 Though it still did not create a structure that might allow members of the churches to come together on a broader level to debate church issues, at least it gave the elders a vehicle for meeting. That lack of formal structure was the source of much frustration when issues arose, for example, between members of different churches. It was also the source of a good deal of the tension that arose not infrequently between men elected to fill community civic offices and the church elders. Real delegate conferences were unknown until the young Mennonite Brethren church established them as a regular practice in the early 1870s. 10

Furthermore, the terms under which Mennonites settled in Russia eventually also posed a great challenge to their faith, even though these may not have seemed strange in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. The invitation first made by Catherine II in 1763 to potential immigrants stipulated that they were not to evangelize among people of other Christian backgrounds, particularly those of Orthodox faith, though they could seek to make Christians of the Muslims. 11 It was also written into the Russian legal code. Moreover, they and other colonists lived in Russia under a government oversight body that came to be known as the Guardians Committee. This body had considerable powers if they wished to use them, even to inject themselves into internal church affairs. Permission to travel any distance also involved obtaining travel documents. 12 Of course, travel was in any case a problem. Roads were very poor and Russia only got its first railway in 1842. 13

Mennonite schools during the first half of the nineteenth century were on the whole very poor. While they may have had better results than was the case for Ukrainian villagers, where only twenty percent were literate as late as the beginning of the twentieth century, 14 the curriculum for Mennonite schools was extremely limited. It practiced rote learning and essentially used only an alphabet book, a Testament, and a songbook, and gave the pupils some instruction in numbers. Along the way, a form of fraktur art also became a part of the program. 15 During the early years, the schools were entirely under the control of the elders and ministers. A later elder described the education of his youth this way:

Little reading material was available for the young persons thirsty for knowledge. If my parents had been as limited and narrow-minded as most I would not have been allowed to read most of the little that came to hand. Reading “foreign” books was regarded as harmful to the soul. 16

Educational reform was a slow process and encountered a great deal of resistance from those who saw the status quo as divinely ordained. Schools were intended to serve only for a very circumscribed context. 17

It might be argued that compared to the increasingly tight conditions under which they had lived in Prussia, Mennonites on the whole found Russia a welcoming environment, particularly in terms of the land available there and the freedom not to do military service. But many failed to see at what price they were gaining such privileges.

They were given advantages denied to the peasants who lived around them. They had agreed—whether explicitly conscious of it or not—to be silent about their faith in return for the privilege of living amid great bounty. They had acquiesced to a paternalistic system of governance that allowed the state to intrude to a remarkable degree into internal church affairs. These were advantages and conditions that Pietism on the whole—its reputation as a quietistic influence notwithstanding—not merely challenged, but significantly helped to change.


To discover how this came about, we must find out how the pietistic religious influences found their way into the Mennonite colonies and what their presence eventually accomplished. If we were to name the entry points, several immediately move to the fore. These include a small circle of teachers and supporters of educational reform, virtually all of whom had experienced a Pietistic encounter with God in their Christian journey. One must include the role of a person like Johann Cornies, who though he might not carry the Pietist mantel comfortably himself, was active in the Russian Bible Society 18 and invited teachers into the colony who came out of that faith experience. One would need to look at the role of churches such as the Ohrloff (of which Johann Cornies was a lifelong member), Rudnerweider, Gnadenfeld, Waldheim and Alexanderwohl churches in the Molotschna colony, or the Kronsweide church in the Old Colony, all of which were particularly open to Pietistic emphases. Or to put it another way, one would need to look at the role of Frisian and Groningen Old Flemish churches in contrast to the Flemish churches.

How did these open themselves to Pietist influences, and themselves become centers of Pietist-evangelical faith, so that they were able to bring significant change to the entire Mennonite community in Russia? In particular, one might ask how one single community—the Gnadenfeld community and its church—could become the motor for so much change within Russian Mennonitism.

This is not to ignore the role of occasional missionaries, such as those associated with the Russian Bible Society, or the Quaker John Yeardley, who came through the colonies in 1853, and shared his understanding of an experience of the gospel and encouraged the reading of the Scriptures. Or the role of Stundist practices, as the idea of holding Bible study meetings found its way through the German colonies, including those of the Mennonites. Or the contribution of German Baptists later on, or the literature of Pietists like Ludwig Hofacker, or the itinerant ministries of people like Fritz Oetzbach or Dr. Baedeker, the great evangelist to Russian prisoners. Or even the influence of something like the Blankenberg Conference and its propagation of Darbyist teaching. All of these and others eventually had a role in the faith experiences of many Russian Mennonites.

But among the groups who came to Russia carrying an openness to renewal of the old bones were in particular the groups with a Frisian and Groningen Old Flemish background. This might have seemed strange to those who knew the background of these two groups, since in the earlier history of Anabaptists, the Groningen Old Flemish in particular were known as perhaps the most conservative group, living and dressing very simply, drawing strict lines from other groups, exercising the ban vigorously, and admitting only their own members to their communion services. 19 Most stayed in Holland and only small groups of them existed in Prussia/Poland in the communities of Schwetz, Przechowka (Wintersdorf), and Jeziorka (Kleinsee) in what were known as the Culm (Chelmno) lowlands along the Vistula River and in small numbers in some of the villages around these.

It is significant that for much of their history they were relatively isolated from the Mennonite heartland in the Vistula delta, even though by today’s standards, not that far from them. That isolation and a gradual lessening of the strict separation which they had once practiced—this was especially true first in Holland—increasingly opened them to interaction with other Christians. In Prussia/Poland their closest Mennonite relations were to Frisian groups, generally known as less conservative than the Flemish Mennonites. Pietist influences on the Groningen Old Flemish came from their Old Flemish brethren in Holland 20 and from such sources as the church in Altona-Hamburg where Jacob Denner, the Pietist-oriented Dompelaar preacher, had been active. 21 Most especially the influences came from the strong missionary and Pietist movement, the Moravian Brethren.


From the small Culm region in Prussia, the Groningen Old Flemish made several critical moves. The decisions to do so came largely because of poor farming conditions and constant harassment from officials and authorities. It took the people in several directions. 22 Some thirty-five families moved southwestward into marshy land owned by a counselor to the Prussian Kaiser Frederick II. This territory, called the Netzebruch, was near the town of Driesen in Brandenburg on the border of Prussia and some one hundred and twenty kilometers east of Berlin. Around 1765, they formed villages called Brenkenhofswalde, named for the counselor, and Franztal. 23 Another group, around 1790, moved about one hundred and forty kilometers in the opposite direction, nearer to Warsaw, and formed a community called Deutsch Wymyschle. 24 And in 1820 still others moved to Russia under their twenty-eight year-old elder, Peter Wedel, and formed the Alexanderwohl village and church in the Molotschna. 25 By the middle of the nineteenth century the Groningen Old Flemish no longer had a church in the Culm lowlands. Those who remained there had joined Frisian churches.

During their years in the Netzebruch, something remarkable was happening within the group. They developed close ties to Herrnhut and the Moravian Brethren who had found shelter there through Count Zinzendorf, a key leader in the German Pietist movement of the eighteenth century. They also felt a close bond of fellowship with Mennonite churches with strong Pietist leanings in Amsterdam and Altona-Hamburg. Thus when they came to building their own church meetinghouse, financial support came from the church associated with the late great Pietist Mennonite preacher, Johannes Deknatel in Amsterdam, and the Altona-Hamburg church in which another Mennonite Pietist, Jacob Denner, had worked and was now led by Jan deJager. 26 Deknatal too had been closely associated with Zinzendorf. 27

The relationship with the Moravian Brethren was especially close. This took an intriguing turn in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Prussian Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III was troubled by threats that emerged during the enlightenment from small politically-motivated groups who in some cases operated under Christian flags. As a result, private group meetings were banned. In the sweep that ensued, the Mennonite groups in Brenkenhofswalde and Franztal were also included. An exception was made, however, for those groups who might meet under the umbrella of the Herrnhut Moravian Brethren. That special relationship apparently existed for the Mennonites of the Netzebruch and the Moravian Brethren from 1812 till the time they left for Russia two decades later. 28 Christian Hege later wrote,

Out of this brotherly exchange, which was furthered by preachers of the Brethren (for example, the evangelist-preachers Gottlieb Jahr and Niederschuh) there emerged an active life steeped in Christian love that stimulated the Brenkenhofswalde-Franztal Mennonite church in a number of directions. 29

The examples he cited were child dedications, missionfests, and promoting improved schools. Most important, however, was the tone of the gospel they proclaimed. It was thoroughly evangelical, rooted in the work of Christ on the cross.


Also striking is the openness that the Brenkenhofswalde Mennonites developed to people outside their own circles. One who joined them was a gifted young Lutheran teacher, Wilhelm Lange, who had grown up in their midst and was greatly attracted to their church. It took a special government dispensation but he was permitted to join them through baptism in 1788. In 1802 he was chosen as preacher by the church and in 1810 he became their elder. 30 This “pious, energetic, and intelligent” elder led the church in a way that made it very attractive to others of Lutheran background, a number of whom eventually joined as well. 31 And he was their leader when they made the historic journey to southern Russia in 1834.

When this group made the decision to move to Russia in the early 1830s because of the withdrawal of their Prussian privileges, they thought they could simply join their brethren already there. As it turned out, the Russian tsar Nikolaus I had other ideas—he declined further immigration. Nonetheless, after an urgent petition was submitted to admit forty families, in 1833 a positive reply came from Petersburg. In 1834, the group made the arduous three-month wagon trek to the Molotschna. They had not been able to come up with forty families, however, and it appears that it was at this stage that at least ten families and two single men of Lutheran background joined the group. These were people who had been part of the church for years and now were given official Prussian permission to join through testimony and baptism. A number of them, with names like Lenzmann, Klatt, Lange, and Strauss, in later years became important leaders in the Mennonite colonies. 32 Out of gratitude for the door the Russian government opened to them, the immigrants chose the attractive name Gnadenfeld (field of grace) for their new home.

In Russia, their closest connections were with the Alexanderwohl, Waldheim and Rudnerweider communities in the Molotschna, made up largely of people of Groningen Old Flemish and Frisian backgrounds. These people too had been touched in one way or another by Pietism and the Flemish church community of Ohrloff, where the community reformer Johann Cornies was a lifelong member and where divisions had progressively moved the church closer to a similar Pietistic religious experience. Those who hived off had chosen the more conservative Flemish pattern.


The Gnadenfeld community thus began their existence in the midst of the two major Russian Mennonite colonies—the Molotschna and the Old Colony—with several critical assets. First, they welcomed learning and were open to improvements in education. Besides their elder, Wilhelm Lange, they had other leaders who possessed a strong education and who supported reforms to the way schools were run and teachers trained. Second, they were open to people of other backgrounds. At least a quarter of the group who made the transition to Russia had come out of Lutheran backgrounds. Their leader himself had such roots. They understood themselves as Mennonites and yet they could attract and incorporate people who came from outside their circle, those who did not share their ethnic roots.

Furthermore, they accepted other Christians and were open to learn from them. They had become convinced of the “one holy, universal Christian church, the fellowship of the saints.” 33 This had become very clear through their relationship with the Moravian Brethren, but also in their connections with Mennonites in Holland and Germany, as well as with Lutherans nearby. Fourth, they had absorbed a missionary ethos from the Moravians, which became increasingly clear in the two or three decades after coming to Russia. Such an ethos provided them with motivation to overcome cultural barriers to people of other backgrounds. It was no accident that the first persons to leave Russia to enter higher learning abroad came from Gnadenfeld (the Langes and Heinrich Dirks) or that the first missionary to go abroad (Heinrich Dirks) was from Gnadenfeld.

Finally, they believed in a profound encounter with God—through the forgiveness of sins and the acceptance of what Christ had done through his death and resurrection—which would bring assurance of salvation. Such teaching brought about a revitalization of what for many Mennonites had become a barren, legalistic, and formal faith, and in time opened the way to renewal of faith and reformation of life for large numbers of Mennonites throughout Russia. A spiritually and intellectually vibrant community like Gnadenfeld was bound to make an impact on the entire Russian Mennonite community.

While it would be overstating the case to say that Gnadenfeld accounts for the progressive spirit that gradually invaded the Mennonite colonies of Russia, it would not be unfair to say that it provided the motor for much of the change that eventually transformed so much of Russian Mennonite life. It provided powerful reinforcement and leadership to influences for change coming from several directions, with a Pietist sensibility providing a nearly constant backdrop. Nowhere among the Russian Mennonites did such resources exist to the extent that was true for Gnadenfeld. Look, for example, at the names of people who later gave leadership to educational reform and repeatedly you will find a connection to Gnadenfeld.

Indeed, one might say that Gnadenfeld and the Molotschna colony as a whole illustrate better than any setting in Russia the choices the Mennonite society would make in dealing with their own faith and the larger world. On the one hand were the Flemish church communities and the Kleine Gemeinde, who turned their backs quite intentionally on modernity, the outside world, innovation, and educational change. And, on the other hand, there emerged in Gnadenfeld and through groups who attached themselves to her, those who chose change and renewal taking (1) the Pietist-evangelical direction (the Mennonite Brethren), or (2) a Pietist-chiliast direction with its strong rationalist overtones (the Mennonite Templars), or (3) the largely middle way that one might label the Pietist-Kirchliche direction (working for renewal in the large Mennonite church). All three directions were fully a part of Gnadenfeld.


It is hard for us in the early years of the third millennium in North America to appreciate how difficult a struggle it might have been to reform education in early nineteenth-century Russian Mennonite colonies. Most of the first teachers were simply village men who could take time from other concerns to impart to their young charges what they had learned in similar settings. Distractions were many, resources paltry, learning almost entirely rote, surroundings uninviting, discipline often harsh and quite unhelpful. Only a small segment of the teachers did reasonably good work. Children were expected to be in school six years.

The first substantial effort at bringing change to such education came through efforts in Ohrloff, where a school society was created in 1820 at the prompting of Johann Cornies. They looked around for a teacher and reached back to Prussia. It turned out to be Tobias Voth, a child of Brenkenhofswalde, who was himself taught by teachers trained in Leipzig and Berlin and was already teaching in a six-room school in Graudenz, Poland/Prussia, when the invitation reached him. Voth and his young wife had experienced a life-transforming conversion through the writings of the Wuerttemburg Pietist Jung-Stilling a few years earlier. 34 In 1822 he began a seven-year stint as teacher in Ohrloff.

He was breaking new ground and the work was very difficult, though response at first was strong. Alongside his classes he offered book-reading and mission evenings. To his classroom he brought content and an approach far richer than anything known in other colony schools, including music, literature, history, and science. But he ran into a great deal of resistance: students who resented his efforts, parents who could not afford their children’s education, and community leaders—in time, notably Cornies himself—who deplored what they saw as a lack of discipline.

The Voth family was shamefully treated and experienced great deprivation, reduced virtually to starvation, yet Voth himself seems never to have lost either his faith or his sense of calling. After seven years in Ohrloff, he lost his position. For a time he worked in the Old Colony and tried to start a new school there, but with little success. Though he probably died without realizing what he had contributed, some of his students had caught a vision of the fruits of learning, “their first inextinguishable Christian impressions and their love for education and culture.” 35 Among them was Heinrich Huebert, the first elder of the Mennonite Brethren, whose interest in the natural world years later proved to be an inspiration to a teenage P. M. Friesen.

Voth was followed at Ohrloff by two other outstanding teachers, Heinrich Heese and he in turn by Heinrich Franz. Both had received thorough training in Prussia. Both were also brought to Russia. Both also—and this is important—learned Russian so they could begin to incorporate something of it into their classwork. 36 Though Franz too had taught in Brenkenhofswalde, neither he nor Heese were fervently Pietist in quite the way Voth was (theirs might be described as a “stiffer” Pietism). Nonetheless both also had far wider spiritual horizons than was true of the Mennonite churches generally. In the 1840s, when Johann Cornies was authorized by the government to create school districts in the Molotschna and set new standards for their operation, many of the young people who had come through the Ohrloff school became their teachers. Reformation of the schools was well on the way. Besides their years in the Molotschna, both Franz and Heese—and Voth too—also worked for some periods in the Old Colony. And for a half dozen years Franz also taught in Gnadenfeld.


Though other efforts at something beyond the village schools were begun in Halbstadt and Chortitza, going back as far as 1835, they did not reach the standard of the Ohrloff central school for a good many years, nor that of the Gnadenfeld “brotherhood” school in its early years. Nonetheless, these were schools that were intended to provide an education that went well beyond a village elementary school education. One of their distinguishing marks was the large number of teachers who came out of them and went into village teaching positions as minister-teachers. 37 As schools improved, descriptions of teachers such as Peter Neufeld of the Halbstadt, then Gnadenfeld and then the Steinbach schools, or Heinrich Epp of the Chortitza school, make clear how their fervently pious Christian faith undergirded their teaching efforts. 38 They became the means for the spread of an understanding of a Christian faith more interested in learning about a larger world, more ready to engage itself with the society and culture outside the colonies and rooted in a life-transforming pietistic encounter with God.

In his massive history of the Russian Mennonites, Peter M. Friesen has a marvelous footnote in which he describes his experience as a teenager, sitting on a wagon or on a bench at home alongside Heinrich Huebert, the first elder of the Mennonite Brethren, and listening as this much older man talked about the things he had read, including works on astronomy of the British scientist John Herschel, the writings of the doctor of theology John Heinrich Kurtz on the Bible and astronomy, and other books. “How I sat, awe-inspired and thrilled and drank and drank in what this now deceased man related, cited [and] popularized out of the knowledge he had read and grasped,” Friesen writes. Huebert’s ruminations ranged “from worms to the cherubs, from the dust and mist of the earth to clouds of stars and the Milky Way, from the Satan-afflicted first Adam [to] his redemption through the Second Adam . . . till we were taken up and far away and it seemed that we could almost see ‘how we will be’ when we ‘will see him as he is.’ ” 39 There was no gap between the thrill of learning and the joy of knowing Jesus Christ. It was God’s world and it could be explored.

In the same footnote, Friesen names others who shared Huebert’s enthusiasm, all leaders among the early Mennonite Brethren: [Johann] Claassen, [Jacob] Reimer, Christian Schmidt, Peter Siemens, all “Stundenhalter” (the Bible study meetings) and all people who shared something of the Huepher (jumper) spirit. 40 Their faith brought joy, they hungered to learn—and to learn was no sin. The books to which Huebert had access came from the reading library that Tobias Voth and Johann Cornies had created and parts of which opponents later burned. 41


It was this joy in learning coupled with a piety rooted in a profound experience of redemption in Christ that gradually affected large parts of the Mennonite community in Russia, even if in time it was substantially influenced by traditional Mennonite reserve and protectiveness. Aside from living out his faith, the matters that were of greatest concern to Johann Claassen, who did so much for the early Mennonite Brethren, were better schools and improved farming, says Friesen. 42

The most explicit opposition to the attitudes embraced by Huebert are likely found in the Kleine Gemeinde’s Heinrich Balzer’s writings, who left the Ohrloff Church and wrote a lengthy treatise entitled Faith and Reason in 1833. In it, minister Balzer wanted to warn his fellow church leaders to “arm [themselves] against the consensus in [their] fellowship to refine the teaching methods in [their] schools and to expand more into the realm of learned knowledge . . . . [After] our young people will be . . . enlightened in the fashion of the world and after these polished worldlings will be in control of the rudder for the second and third generation,” Balzer wrote, they will “depart from the yoke of simplicity” and “stagger unto universal ruination.” Balzer intensely feared anything which, from his perspective, formed a “bridge to the world.” In this case, Balzer was arguing with Cornies’ desire for educational reform. 43

As author Delbert Plett (who was most sympathetic to Balzer) has commented, “the philosophy of education as expressed by Heinrich Balzer had a utilitarian component.” 44 Education existed to prepare children for the farm and the church, though—it could be argued—it did little of either. Little more than the traditional village education of a half dozen years was needed. But the reforms coming in the Old Colony and Molotschna mother colonies would not allow such traditional views to prevail. The desire to know more was too strong. Heinrich Balzer, incidentally, left the same Ohrloff Church to join the Kleine Gemeinde that Aron Rempel—mentioned at the beginning of this essay—later asked to join.

The Pietist impulse irrevocably turned Mennonites to look outwards, beyond themselves, instead of inward to the safety of their own community, as their understanding of Anabaptist teaching had predisposed them to do. The world was populated not merely by enemies to be feared, but people to be won. The natural world was God’s and something that one could study, explore, and learn from. Such a fundamental shift helps us understand many of the great changes that came to Russian Mennonite life in the second half of the nineteenth century up to World War I. It affected not merely their churches, but their education, their economy, and certainly their relationship to the larger Russian society.


  1. Heinrich Goerz, The Molotschna Settlement (Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications and Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1993), 78. Quotes from Goerz will be from this English translation of the original, Die Molotschnaer Ansiedlung.
  2. Ibid., 80.
  3. Peter M. Friesen, The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia, 1789-1910 (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1978), 210. Use will be made of both the German and English editions of Friesen. If the translation is directly from the German edition, it will be indicated by (Ger); if from the English, by (Eng). Though the statement here came from the Lutheran colonies, it applied as much to the Mennonites.
  4. John B. Toews, The Diaries of David Epp 1837-1843 (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2000), gives numerous examples of such church discipline. See, for example, 54ff.
  5. James Urry, None But Saints (Winnipeg, MB: Hyperion, 1989), 101-2.
  6. Goerz, 40.
  7. David G. Rempel, The Mennonite Colonies in New Russia (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1933), 102ff.
  8. Ibid., 105.
  9. Urry, 174.
  10. Ibid., 248.
  11. Rempel, 319ff. Rempel gives the German text of the Manifesto of Catherine II extended to all would-be immigrants in 1763 and also an English translation of the Charter of Privileges given to the Mennonites by Paul I in 1800.
  12. Jacob Bekker, Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church, trans. (Hillsboro, KS: Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the Midwest, 1973), 33.
  13. Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance, A Cultural History of Russia (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 651. Figes provides a very rich description of Russia’s cultural environment, strikingly different from the life of most Mennonites.
  14. Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History, 3d ed. (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 300. Subtelny’s massive history of Ukraine gives an excellent introduction to the setting into which Mennonites came. Subtelny has taught at York University, Toronto.
  15. Goerz, 106.
  16. Ibid., 80.
  17. Delbert Plett, The Golden Years (Steinbach, MB: DFP, 1985), 244. Plett, quoting KG elder Heinrich Balzer, writes out of the Kleine Gemeinde context, but the attitude to education would have been descriptive of the Flemish churches generally.
  18. David H. Epp, Johann Cornies, trans. Peter Pauls (Winnipeg, MB: CMBC and the Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1995), 26, 124.
  19. N. van der Zijpp, “Groningen Old Flemish,” Mennonite Encyclopedia II (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1959), 595. Hereafter Mennonite Encyclopedia will be indicated by ME.
  20. Ernst Crous, “Przechovka,” ME IV, 225.
  21. R. F. Neff, “Denner, Jacob,” ME II, 36.
  22. N. van der Zijpp, “Schwetzer Niederung,” ME IV, 489.
  23. H. G. Mannhardt, “Brenkenhofswalde and Franztal,” ME I, 416.
  24. Erich Ratzlaff, Im Weichselbogen (Winnipeg, MB: Christian, 1971), 22. Ratzlaff was a post-World War II immigrant to Canada from Poland, later the editor of the Mennonitische Rundschau. His roots were in the Deutsch Wymyschle Mennonite Brethren Church.
  25. Cornelius Krahn, “Alexanderwohl,” ME I, 48; Cornelius Krahn, “Wedel, Peter,” ME IV, 908.
  26. B. H. Unruh, “Die Mennoniten in der Neumark,” Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalender (1941), 68. Unruh’s family roots were in this settlement too.
  27. Christian Neff and N. van der Zijpp, “Joannes Deknatel,” ME II, 28.
  28. Friesen (Ger), 83.
  29. Christian Hege, “Netzebruch,” Mennonitische Lexikon II, 207.
  30. Mannhardt, 416; Unruh, 68.
  31. Friesen (Ger), 80.
  32. Hege, 207; Friesen (Ger), 80.
  33. Friesen (Ger), 83.
  34. Friesen (Ger), 570. It was through reading Jung-Stilling’s book, Heimweh, an early Christian novel in some ways not unlike John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
  35. Friesen (Ger), 78. The note about the joy of learning comes up repeatedly in Friesen and was clearly at the core of Tobias Voth’s significance.
  36. See Jacob Prinz, Die Kolonien der Bruedergemeinde (Moscow: Verlag von Jakob Prinz, 1898). Prinz in his book about Eduard Wuest and the Brudergemeinde colony notes that it was Wuest and his followers who pressed for better schools and more engagement with Russian language and culture. See pages 136-39.
  37. Friesen (Eng), 748. Friesen describes discussions with government authorities during the 1870s whose efforts had been directed toward developing a teacher training institute for all the German colonies. The Mennonites resisted this effort because they wanted a Mennonite school which would “train not only the school teachers who were also the religion teachers of our children, but also our future preachers and spiritual counselors.” If one reads Aron Toews’s two-volume Mennonitische Maertyrer, one sees how often the teacher training that eventually emerged accomplished just that.
  38. Friesen (Eng), 751ff. Friesen has several wonderful accounts of Epp’s classroom manners.
  39. Friesen (Ger), 453. Huebert and Friesen would have been delighted to learn that a century and a half later, one of Huebert’s spiritual descendants, Dr. David R. Dyck, a scholar in the history of science, for many years on the faculty of the University of Winnipeg and one-time dean of Concord College, collaborated with a second scholar in cataloging all the correspondence of John Herschel.
  40. Ibid., 453.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Friesen (Eng), 1018. Friesen notes that as a youth Claassen worked on Johann Cornies’ communal sheep farm and after finishing secondary school continued with Cornies as a supervisor.
  43. Plett, 220.
  44. Ibid., 129. In The Golden Years Plett goes to excessive lengths to applaud Balzer’s ostensibly superior reasoning.
For two decades Harold Jantz edited the Mennonite Brethren Herald before leaving to become the founding editor of ChristianWeek, a Canadian national evangelical news tabloid. His interest in Mennonite Brethren history was nurtured by hearing the stories growing up of a great-grandfather, Jacob Jantz, who was the leading minister and elder of the fourth church in the early movement, the Friedensfeld church in southern Russia. Harold is married to Neoma (Hinz) and they are members of the River East Church of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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