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Fall 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 2 · pp. 221–224 

Book Review

German Baptists in South Russia

Johann E. Pritzkau. Translated by Walter Regehr. Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Press, 2013. 185 pages.

Reviewed by Andrew Dyck

While many scholars have pointed out that Mennonite Brethren have been imprinted by other Christian traditions and denominations, less well documented is the extent to which Mennonite Brethren have had a significant influence on other Christian denominations. With the translation and republication of German Baptists in South Russia, the Centre of Mennonite Brethren Studies has provided a window through which Mennonite Brethren can recognize more of the gifts that they have shared with other believers.

Johann Pritzkau (1842–1924) wrote German Baptists in South Russia, first published in 1914, as a personal and researched history of this particular group of Baptists (i.e., distinct from Russian Baptists [11]). Pritzkau was a longstanding leader among Baptist congregations that emerged among south Russia’s German communities at the same time and in the same place that Mennonite Brethren congregations began. Half a century later, commissioned by the United South Russian Conference of German Baptists, Pritzkau sought to “to leave to posterity historical evidence of what great things the Lord did” (xxv).

The chapters in German Baptists divide into three groups (not unlike the history of Mennonite Brethren by Peter M. Friesen). The first twelve chapters describe the beginnings of the German Baptists in south Russia, including persecutions, relations with governments, key Baptist leaders (many of whom also influenced the Mennonite Brethren), and the eventual creation of a formal association and regular Bible courses. Drawing on Friesen’s history as a source, chapter two summarizes the beginnings of the Mennonite Brethren and highlights their close association with the German Baptists. The next section presents the founding and development of ten German Baptist churches. Pritzkau concludes with five chapters that assess the privileges, needs, dangers, and prospects facing German Baptists during relative peace and stability.

Throughout this book, Pritzkau describes features of Baptist life that were very similar to Mennonite Brethren life. He highlights Pietism’s influence among the Baptists, crediting Eduard Wuest as one of the Lutheran pastors who introduced Pietism’s “fire of the Spirit” (1) to the German communities. Pritzkau illustrates this fire with stirring stories about individuals who experienced “true conversion” (85). These conversions were followed by believers baptism by immersion, affiliation with local congregations, and evangelism among other German-speakers. (He mentions foreign missions only rarely and without details). Other features of Baptist life that were similar to Mennonite Brethren {222} life included itinerant ministers, ongoing negotiations with government officials, the use of the same songbooks (46), and even an eastward trek in anticipation of the imminent return of Christ (106).

Among these commonalities, Pritzkau points out specific ways in which German Baptists and Mennonite Brethren influenced each other. Baptists, for instance, provided teaching that “laid the foundation for [Mennonite Brethren] church organization, and also introduced the beneficial arrangement of Bible courses among them” (70). At times, however, Baptist teaching fell on deaf ears, as when Pritzkau and others sought to provide reconciliation and foundational teaching among Mennonite Brethren who, in their “overly enthusiastic” movement had appointed “supposed apostles,” leading to “coarse moral excesses and divisions in the church” (24). Mennonite Brethren presumably also ignored Pritzkau’s advice that they ought to spare their children the challenge of learning Low German, so that they could give their energy to learning a “real, correct High German”—a common language for all German peoples [120]. Pritzkau’s valuing of all things German seems evident also in his explanation that when a Russian-speaker became a Christian through the influence of Baptists, that person didn’t need to be incorporated into a German Baptist church because there were sufficient Russian-language churches (138). Conversely, Pritzkau credits Mennonite Brethren with teaching Bible courses for Baptists (67), purchasing land for a village of mainly Baptists (81ff), and pastoring Baptist congregations—Peter M. Friesen was one such pastor (144). Most notably, Pritzkau credits Mennonite Brethren with introducing believers baptism and immersion baptism to the German Baptists (9), most of whom had previously received infant baptism as Lutherans. (According to P. M. Friesen, the early Mennonite Brethren themselves first learned of immersion baptism from the writings of an American Baptist missionary, Anne Judson, and of an Evangelical Free Church author from Switzerland.) Pritzkau’s portrayal of these interactions suggests that the Mennonite Brethren were more influential among Baptists than vice versa.

Eventually, however, the intimate fellowship that bound Baptists and Mennonite Brethren “together as children in one home” (73) was disrupted by the unique governmental privilege accorded to Mennonites in Russia. Because of this legal privilege, non-Mennonite new believers could not be formally accepted into Mennonite Brethren congregations but only into Baptist congregations (124). Furthermore, as Pritzkau explains, the Russian government granted Mennonites exemption from military service, but Mennonites could extend this privilege only to their direct descendants. Helpfully, Pritzkau points out that Mennonite Brethren held diverse opinions about nonresistance, and were inconsistent in {223} practicing nonresistance (74–75). Baptists, on the other hand, became convinced that the Bible “does not teach a nonresistance . . . prior to the millennial reign of Christ” (75). Because of these realities, Baptists and Mennonite Brethren lost the close mutuality of their early years together.

A careful reading of Pritzkau’s accounts suggests several more differences between Baptists and Mennonite Brethren. Whereas Mennonites were generally landowners, the German Baptists often suffered financial hardship because they were only leasing farmland. Pritzkau emphasizes the independence of local congregations and the importance of acquiring church buildings—emphases not prominent among Mennonite Brethren writers of the time. He also points out that unlike the Germans, Mennonites were a “united people” (120). In addition, Pritzkau’s accounts lack evidence of the kinds of Bible discussions that typified Mennonite Brethren house churches and conferences. His lament that Baptists in the early twentieth century lacked choirs, youth, and music directors (151–152) contrasts with the youthful choral singing that had become central to Mennonite Brethren life. Perhaps some of these differences also become barriers between Mennonite Brethren and Baptists.

In keeping with Pritzkau’s stated purpose, I recommend German Baptists in South Russia to two groups of readers. First, readers looking for Christian inspiration will find that this book effectively illustrates radical personal conversion, the church’s evangelistic mandate, and the necessity of congregational life. Pritzkau’s personal memories, with only occasional quotations from outside sources, make his stories particularly vivid; some sound like stories from America’s Wild West. This vividness is enhanced by Walter Regehr’s fluent translation. Readers may also find their Christian confidence humbled by Pritzkau’s concluding optimism for Baptist churches in Russia during a time of growing religious freedom (163), when he could not know that World War I and the Russian Revolution were about to envelop Russia in violence and devastation.

Second, students of history will learn details of the extent to which Mennonite Brethren and Baptists were intimately related, including ways in which the groups helped and perhaps hindered each other’s development. Pritzkau shows that early Mennonite Brethren provided significant contributions to German Baptists in Russia. His book also raises questions deserving further inquiry. For instance, did Mennonite Brethren share Pritzkau’s views about the superiority of German culture, morals, farming methods, and language (105, 120, 138–9, 160), and about not needing to receive new Russian Christians into German {224} congregations (138–139)? Readers of German Baptists may glean valuable cautions about overvaluing prosperity and limiting evangelistic efforts to particular groups.

Andrew Dyck
Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (Canada), Langley, BC
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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