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Spring 2017 · Vol. 46 No. 1 · pp. 10–25 

The Mennonite Brethren Church and Russia’s Great Reform in the 1870s

James Urry

In a 2007 paper that showed his increasing interest in the history of Mennonites in Russia, Paul Toews revisited the impact of the most significant of Russia’s Great Reforms of the 1870s, the threat of universal military service. 1 His paper considers many aspects of the issue that resulted in 17,000 Mennonites leaving Russia for North America. One aspect Paul did not discuss in detail is the impact of these events on the Mennonite Brethren. This is not surprising, as even P. M. Friesen, author of the major work on the Mennonite Brethren published in Tsarist Russia, makes only scattered reference to their involvement. 2 My intention here is to reexamine these events in relation to the wider context, the formation of a united Mennonite Brethren Church, and why some members emigrated while others chose to remain.

Mennonites . . . feared they would lose control over their youth if they were forced to join the military. If a way could be found to serve the state while avoiding military service, some were willing to compromise. {11}


During the 1860s several disparate religious movements emerged among south Russian Mennonites. The period has been interpreted as one of religious revival, renewal, innovation, and awakening. But it was also a time of confusion and chaos, when radical religious ideas and practices gripped individuals and communities. The negative reaction of some Mennonites to these events cannot entirely be blamed on a lack of Christian tolerance: good order and the reputation of Mennonites were seen to be at risk. The fact that many of these changes were the result of outside influences also played a part in how they were received. New religious ideas disseminated through non-Mennonite publications and from the preaching of evangelical ministers in neighboring German-speaking colonies influenced Mennonites differently in various locations, sometimes causing friction between Mennonites friendly to new ideas and those antagonistic to them.

The diversity of the religious movements is significant. Individuals met in small conventicles, often without ordained ministers, to discuss ideas and practices at variance with Mennonite traditions. Some participants had attended revival meetings of the preacher Eduard Wuest in German settlements close to the Molochna Colony. Similar conventicles had formed earlier in Khortitsa, independently from Molochna. The conventicles tended to consist of younger members, often educated in the schools reformed by Johann Cornies and his son-in-law Philip Wiebe. Conventicles in Molochna drew members mostly from the progressive congregations, such as the Frisian congregation centered on Rudnerweide, and the Groningen Old Flemish congregations.

Some members of the conventicles felt moved to take matters further than just meeting quietly. They decided to withdraw from their congregations, call for reform, and administer communion only to themselves. Mennonite historical accounts all record that this first occurred in Molochna, and this is associated with the founding of the Mennonite Brethren in 1860. 3 But whether the Mennonite Brethren were formed in 1860 or later is open to interpretation. A declaration of separation proved the easy part; agreeing on core ideas and practices required time and a degree of organization not always apparent in 1860. Opposition to, and persecution of, those who had withdrawn and challenged the established order caused additional difficulties. It took time to gain official recognition and to establish legitimate religious communities. 4

Whether from the outset all the followers could be designated as “Mennonite Brethren” in form or practice is less clear from contemporary sources than is often suggested in later accounts of events. Some stressed that baptism could only be given on proof of a spiritual {12} conversion, often performed by immersion, neither of which agreed with established Mennonite ways. But there were also a range of other practices involving exuberant forms of worship and other practices that caused concern. In Molochna and other related communities there was often a degree of division, disorder, if not chaos, despite attempts at order. In Khortitsa, although there were similar occurrences, organizational rigor was established in the late 1860s.


From the mid-1830s, German Baptists had expanded their influence eastward, making contacts and converts among Mennonites in West and East Prussia and into Russian Poland. 5 Direct contact between Mennonites and the leader of the German Baptists in Hamburg, Johann Gerhard Oncken, were established as early as 1861 when they sought his advice over disorder in their new movement. 6 Mennonites in Khortitsa led by Abraham Unger also assisted Lutherans from the settlements of Alt and Neu Danzig to open contacts with Oncken in 1864. Oncken dispatched missionaries to instruct Mennonites and Lutherans in Baptist ideas, practices, and structures.

In 1869 Abraham Unger wrote to Hamburg in response to “your request for detailed information” on “the work of the Lord on baptized Christians in Southern Russia.” 7 The information Unger supplied presented a picture of a proto-Baptist congregation, organized into German-Baptist style “preaching stations,” where services were held and further evangelization encouraged. But Unger also spoke of a “union” of three churches: his own in Einlage, a second in Molochna, and a third in the Caucasus in the Kuban. The latter consisted of Mennonites from Khortitsa and Molochna who practiced baptism by immersion. The Molochna church was smaller than the Einlage church, which had an elder (Heinrich Huebert) and three preachers. But as “the members live far apart in various villages,” this “renders guidance of this church difficult.” The Kuban church had 180 members but no elder, only a preacher. As this was a pioneer settlement, the people were “temporarily poor.” “Many matters still require regulating here,” he concluded. Unger finally mentioned a “small band” of twenty believers in Alt Danzig close to Einlage.

In 1869 Oncken travelled to southern Russia. In early October, Oncken baptized new members and appointed deacons, in the process of reorganizing the Alt and Neu Danzig Baptists as a community. He then proceeded to Einlage where he repeated the process. Unger was ordained as elder, others as ministers and deacons, and baptisms were performed. Oncken’s presence in southern Russia had not gone unnoticed {13} by the police and he was briefly arrested. 8 After completing ordinations he left the country for the Turkish border. Baptist missionary Johann E. Pritzkau and Unger were left to finish the task of building a Baptist church. But troubles continued.

Oncken apparently hoped that the Khortitsa Mennonites would draw even closer to the Baptists. They would be useful in the spread of Baptist ideas and practices to other Mennonites, and would be the basis for the type of union favored by Baptists as they spread their teachings. But despite the work of earlier Baptist missionaries and Oncken, the Khortitsa Mennonites were not entirely committed to becoming Baptists. As he left southern Russia, Oncken noted that while “they have withdrawn [from other Mennonites] on the point of view of baptism, [they] hold their [Mennonite] principles still.”

In 1871 Einlage minister Aron Lepp requested help from the Baptists, and August Liebig was dispatched to assist them. Liebig had assisted the congregation in 1866 before being expelled after complaints from Khortitsa Mennonites. But after he arrived in June 1871 he managed to stay a year, living in a settlement away from Khortitsa. His first task was to establish proper order, as the German Baptists believed “God is a God of order.” 9 Following the lead of earlier Baptist missionaries, he set up procedures for meetings such as regulating speaking rights and the keeping of minutes. But within months of Liebig’s arrival, the Mennonites received news that made the importance of remaining Mennonites in a Mennonite church more important than becoming Mennonite members of a Baptist church.


In November 1870, Khortitsa minister Jakob Epp recorded in his diary disturbing news: one of the Mennonite’s most cherished privileges—freedom from military service—might be revoked through a new law on universal military conscription. 10 Although Catherine the Great had promised this right to all foreign colonists willing to settle in Russia, for Mennonites it had religious significance in relation to the principle of Christian nonresistance. For this reason, it had been inscribed in their own Privilegium awarded by the Emperor Paul in 1801.

Universal military service was one of several reforms begun in the late 1850s that would not come fully into force until the early 1880s. In 1861 serfdom was ended and the peasantry emancipated. Other reforms followed. 11 The military reforms involved introducing a system of universal conscription. In strategic terms the need for reform had been hastened by the rising power of Prussia on Russia’s western borders. Also {14} involved in the decision, however, were social factors: no one was to be exempt from conscription on the basis of status or privilege. All subjects of the Tsar were to serve their country.

Starting in 1871, Mennonite leaders quickly mobilized, arranged meetings, drew up statements, and dispatched delegations to meet with Russian officials. Their aim was to reassert the rights enshrined in their Privilegium, explain their religious objections to serving in the military, and to seek total exemption. But no leaders from the new Mennonite religious groups in Khortitsa or Molochna appear to have been consulted or included in these delegations. Instead, they were dominated by members of established congregations, many hostile to the new sectarians whom they considered not truly Mennonites and, worse, linked with German Baptists.


The appeals of the Mennonite petitioners seeking exemption from any new legislation were met with sympathy, but little else. 12 Mennonite leaders were told that the new law would be inclusive. This was to be not just a military, but also a social reform, embracing all sections of society. It was the duty of all subjects to serve the Tsar. The Mennonites, however, did receive recognition that their opposition was founded on long-established religious values. When the law eventually was published in 1874, it included recognition of these principles, and allowed Mennonites to carry out alternative services in nonmilitary roles.

As the reality sank in that Mennonite principles enshrined in the Privilegium would no longer apply, the colonies became gripped by emigration fever. The announcement of provisions for alternative service added a new dimension to the debates. Some refused to compromise their principles, distrusted Russian officials, and continued with their plans to emigrate before the new laws would come into force in the early 1880s. Others believed that the Russians were willing to listen to Mennonite religious principles, believed their future lay in Russia, and so they must accept the duties of being subjects of the Tsar and members of Russian society.

Leaders and members of the new Mennonite religious groups were as concerned about their loss of rights and the proposed changes in military law as were other Mennonites. While their attitudes and responses also varied in line with the wider movement, there were additional forces at play. First, they were not organized as a united church outside local areas. Second was the issue of identity through their links with the Baptists. Finally there were other reasons involved in whether to stay or to leave Russia than just being loyal subjects. {15}


August Liebig’s agenda appears to have been to bring order to the Einlage congregation and its affiliated “preaching stations,” to include the Alt and Neu Danzig Baptists in closer connection, and to extend links to Molochna-related Mennonite groups who practiced baptism by immersion. The aim was to create a “union,” which required organization at a higher level. 13 This also involved organizing conferences, often to plan for further missionary activity to spread the Baptist message. P. M. Friesen referred to such “business-like” practices as “Hamburg forms,” emphasizing how alien they were to most Mennonites at the time. 14 Liebig called the first of what would become annual events in Andreasfeld in May 1872. In attendance were Mennonites from Einlage, Molochna, and the Kuban. No minutes of the meeting have survived. There is only a report from Unger of a business meeting that may have preceded it and a few notes in a diary of Johann Wieler. 15 Unger gives the impression that mainly missionary matters were discussed. He mentions no concerns with the new military law or loss of privileges even though these were major topics of conversation in the larger community.

The next conference was held the following year in Molochna, also in May. While again no minutes have survived, a report appeared in the German Baptist Missionsblatt written by the Baptist missionary Karl K. Ondra. 16 Also present was Johann E. Pritzkau, the leader of the Baptists from Alt Danzig, and another Baptist missionary, Eduard Loeppke. It appears that a business meeting involving leading Baptists and Mennonites who discussed mission outreach was held before the conference. The mission work included a plan to send missionaries to communities in the Volga and Crimea so they could be brought into closer union and their members warned against religious irregularities. The Crimean group included former members of the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites from Molochna who by 1869 had adopted baptism by immersion. 17 The Volga groups included Mennonites and non-Mennonites influenced by Mennonite radicals from the Molochna in the early 1860s. They continued to practice singing and dancing in worship services as well as the “sister-kiss,” which had been suppressed in the South Russian colonies. 18

Ondra reports that he suggested writing a note to be copied into the Zionsboten, probably a quarterly newsletter that circulated among the scattered Mennonite Brethren congregations. 19 The note was “On the Points of Difference between us and these Mennonites.” Ondra apparently assumed that the Mennonites and Baptists at the conference were united on major points of doctrine and practice. But he also appears {16} to have been aware that the Mennonites were unwilling to surrender their Mennonite identity and become Baptists. While Ondra makes no mention of nonresistance and the threatened loss of privileges, the issue was obviously still a sensitive one for both Mennonites and the Baptist missionaries.

Ondra’s offer to write a note on “differences” may have reflected his awareness of another statement that differentiated those calling themselves “Mennonite Brethren” from Baptists. Early in 1873 a Russian official approached the Einlage Mennonite Brethren to learn how they differed from other Mennonites and the Baptists. 20 By now Mennonites realized that exemption from any state service was impossible but alternative forms of service might be negotiable. The official was charged with identifying who was, and who was not, a Mennonite. Unlike other colonists belonging to the Catholic Church, Lutheran, and other Protestant denominations, it was impossible to identify a central, organizing authority for the Mennonites. They consisted of independent congregations, of which some (like the Mennonite Brethren) had formed in Russia. No doubt some leaders of established congregations had taken the opportunity to suggest that the Mennonite Brethren were not really Mennonites, but rather Baptists.

The Einlage Brethren prepared a response that included a statement on the “Differences between the United Mennonite Brethren Congregations and the Baptist Congregations.” 21 This must have been presented to the official before the May conference, and the Molochna and Kuban leaders must have known of its existence as the reference is to “United Congregations.”

The statement of “differences” clearly differentiated the Mennonite Brethren from Baptists. The first point states that the “Baptists permit the use of the sword, which our church does not regard as scriptural.” The second point concerns the swearing of oaths, which the Baptists permitted “in situations” that “our church” regarded as a contradiction of its principles. The rejection of these points by the Brethren placed them in the Mennonite camp and apart from the Baptists. The document is odd in that it emphasizes what Mennonites do not believe rather than what they believe. 22 The statement, however, was a response to an official request and remained unpublished for the moment, as did whatever changes were made to the German Baptist Confession of Faith that apparently was included with it.

Ondra discovered that Mennonite Brethren differentiated themselves from Baptists. While common links were recognized, they remained “Mennonite.” Ondra described them as the “so-called Mennonite Brethren.” {17}

By 1874 the Mennonites were aware they would receive an offer that would not involve military service. This offer was not open to other German colonists even though their ancestors also had entered Russia on the understanding that they would not be conscripted. 23 There was now an urgent need for all Mennonites who sought to take advantage of the exemptions from military service to clearly identify as Mennonite. Across the colonies various Mennonite congregations held conferences to discuss this issue and to see if unification could be achieved through recognition of common faith principles and practices. 24

The United Mennonite Brethren held a meeting to consider such issues in Molochna in fall 1875 and Unger was invited to attend from Einlage. 25 Although he reported that over four hundred people were present, Unger says nothing concerning any debates or business discussions or outsiders being present.

At some point in the conference, however, Mennonites from other congregations were present to discuss areas of common interest that might lead to a union of all Mennonites. Several issues were discussed, including silent versus audible prayer and women’s roles in worship, and Unger reported that agreement on certain issues was reached. The form of baptism, however, remained a barrier to any agreement, as Mennonite Brethren insisted on immersion. 26


Efforts to create unity between Mennonite congregations, with or without the Mennonite Brethren, proved difficult. Differences remained concerning practice and belief. Added to this were the pressures and tensions associated with the threat of military service and decisions as to whether to remain in Russia or emigrate. These problems increased once the provisions of the new law were announced in 1874 and continued until the early 1880s, when the first recruits were to be called for alternative service. All Mennonites faced similar challenges, but the Mennonite Brethren faced additional choices. Some of these were associated with shared views of faith and others involved opinions of individuals attracted to the movement. It must be remembered that the Mennonite Brethren was a new movement, with its members scattered and not entirely “united” either in ideas or organization.

Pritzkau would later note how the Mennonite Brethren were disunited over nonresistance, loss of privileges, and whether to accept some kind of alternative service. He identified “three camps.” First were those who demanded that their members, and presumably non-Mennonite converts, accept established Mennonite teachings on nonresistance, irrespective of the consequences. The second camp believed they should {18} “remain within the framework of the Mennonite Privilegium,” declare themselves to the government as a Mennonite group and accept no new confession and presumably no non-Mennonite converts who threatened their rights. This required them to “sever their connection with the Baptists.” The third group shared Baptist views on military service and agreed with the Baptist Confession of Faith. While Christians might not “want war,” they needed the protection of government and the military to survive. 27

The meeting of members of the “new” religious groups from different colonies and settlements raised questions about leadership, faith, and practice. While baptism by immersion was accepted in contrast to the established Mennonite practice of pouring or sprinkling, how to immerse appears to have been an issue. Questions concerning military service and its consequences, however, were issues that divided not just Mennonite from Mennonite but also Brethren from Brethren, where they faced the additional issue of establishing closer links with the Baptists.

Among the Baptists was Eduard Loeppke, born into a West Prussian Mennonite family, but who as a youth had converted to the Baptists. 28 Loeppke’s role was to support Liebig in building a closer union, spiritually and organizationally, between Mennonites and Baptists. But in Russia he aligned himself with those who favored retention of a distinct Mennonite identity and became a supporter of the principle of nonresistance. In fact, he went as far as to suggest that any Christian who rejected nonresistance could not have salvation. 29

Although Mennonite Brethren in Molochna and Kuban were divided over nonresistance, emigration, and alternative service, divisions in Khortitsa appear to have been even stronger. Here, links with the Baptists had long been established and were closer than elsewhere. Unger, in particular, believed that Mennonites and Baptists could “walk hand in hand” without any threat to Mennonite privileges. But as it became clear that the rights in the Privilegium would be lost, attitudes to nonresistance “gave rise to repeated and sharp debate” among the new group. 30 Unger understandably received support from the Baptists, who believed Mennonites attitudes to nonresistance were not central to faith. One of their missionaries reportedly announced that he thought it time for Mennonites to unsheathe their “rusted sword.” 31 Aron Lepp, a minister in Einlage, favored retaining nonresistance as a central principle of the new united church and initially received Eduard Loeppke’s help. 32 Loeppke also found others sympathetic to his views. He corresponded with Johann Claassen in the Kuban, who had been a central player in the initial separation movement of the 1860s in Molochna and the force behind the resettlement of Molochna and Khortitsa followers to the Kuban. {19} Claassen was enthusiastic about the idea of emigration but died in 1876 before he could act. 33 Reports indicate that in 1875 the emigration movement was stronger among Kuban Mennonites than among Mennonite Brethren in Molochna and Khortitsa, and numerous families immigrated to North America in 1876. 34


In 1876 a decision was made to publish the 1873 Einlage statement of differences between Mennonites and Baptists and the amended Baptist Confession of Faith. Later sources suggest that some thought its publication was unnecessary, as Mennonite Brethren had established their credentials and were now clearly differentiated from the Baptists. Others rejected the statement of differences. 35 But both were published as documents of the “United Mennonite Brethren of Baptized Believers” as if it was an approved statement. It was a source of embarrassment to some Mennonite Brethren, as it was neither truly Mennonite nor Baptist, but some kind of strange compromise. 36 The fact that it was published in Switzerland, apparently without a Russian censor’s certificate of approval, is interesting. 37 So is the fact that Unger’s name appears twice on the title page, as both publisher and distributer. This raises questions about whether the statement truly reflected the opinions of the “United” Mennonite Brethren or predominantly those of Unger.

While the list of points that differentiated Mennonites from Baptists has received attention, less notice has been paid to the Baptist Confession of Faith submitted with them. 38 Although largely unaltered elsewhere, the text published by Unger in 1876 was changed in the section on obligations to the state. 39 Both the original and revised articles recognized that government was ordained by God to protect the righteous and punish wrongdoers, and that it was the duty of believers to obey their authority. But then the two confessions sharply deviated. The Baptist confession continued with a paragraph on the legitimacy of oaths and use of the sword for the protection against enemies, including punishment by death and through service to the state, including in military roles. This is not reproduced in the Mennonite confession. Instead, a subheading “On Nonresistance” is added, stating that while the state had the right to punish offenders, this did not extend to the death penalty or the use of the sword against enemies. The swearing of oaths is also rejected. 40

It is unclear who was responsible for the new confession’s construction. Friesen indicates that it was the work of members of the Einlage congregation. 41 But there is good reason to think that Unger had a central role. There were many in his congregation who wished by this time to distance themselves from the Baptists, especially Aron Lepp and Eduard {20} Loeppke. Of all the Mennonite Brethren leaders, Unger was closest to the Baptists, and by adopting most of their confession he reinforced the links he had helped establish and foster. 42 He was also most willing to compromise by accepting alternative service.

Unger resigned as elder in 1876. The reason given in the literature is that he experienced business problems that made his position untenable. But in light of opposition within his congregation and the publication of the confession so closely tied to his name, there may have been wider issues involved.


By 1876, the emigration movement was well under way. It had started in 1874, peaked in 1875 and 1876, but declined steadily over the next four years. 43 Some emigrants from the Bergthal Colony, the Alexanderwohl village in Molochna, and the Kleine Gemeinde from Molochna and their other settlements, moved as congregational communities, complete with their elders and ministers.

While some individual Mennonite Brethren members emigrated before the late 1870s, it appears that their emigration occurred later, with many leaving in 1879, as the 1880 deadline for exemption from service and permission to emigrate without loss of property approached. 44 There are several possible reasons for this. The precarious union of the scattered groups only occurred later, and agreement on certain issues, including whether to stay or leave in response to the reforms, had not been reached. The presence of the Baptists and differing attitudes to whether they should provide leadership complicated the decision-making. Kinship also played an important role, but as most Mennonites were married within their congregations, any congregational movement would entail people interrelated by kinship and marriage. The marriage patterns of Mennonite Brethren had not become fully established and many maintained kinship links with non-Mennonite Brethren.

P. M. Friesen was generally sanguine about the emigration of those Mennonite Brethren who left for North America. “Russia” he suggested “was now free of these unmanageable, pious foster children whom it was impossible to satisfy.” 45 Events among some of these groups once they reached the New World seemed only to confirm his opinion. 46 So one result of the emigration was a sorting-out of the various religious groups and a strengthening of the core of the Mennonite Brethren located in Khortitsa, Molochna, and the Kuban. Reasons for choosing to stay rather than to leave, however, went far beyond creating a better, more unified church. One factor may have been a desire to evangelize {21} Mennonites, other German colonists, and Orthodox believers, even though converting the latter was illegal.


The imperial decree that recognized Baptists required local officials to report the number of Baptists within their jurisdiction. Khortitsa and Molochna officials chose to report differently. 47 In Khortitsa, Mennonite Brethren were all identified as Baptist; in Molochna, they were not. Mennonite Brethren classified as Baptists risked being excluded from the new alternative service provisions. Khortitsa authorities might have hoped to rid the colony of a troublesome religious group. On the other hand, the Khortitsa Mennonite Brethren had maintained closer links with the Baptists than those in Molochna, and as late as 1910, David H. Epp, a non-Mennonite Brethren minister from Khortitsa, reported that many in Khortitsa still spoke of Mennonite Brethren as Baptists. 48

When the Khortitsa Mennonite Brethren learned what had occurred, they appealed to the Russian authorities, who demanded that they submit their Confession of Faith in both German and Russian. It was translated and submitted in 1880. The government found that the confession was sufficient to permit the Mennonite Brethren to be considered “Mennonite” and not Baptist, and that their “dissent” from other Mennonites was “irrelevant” to their choice of identity. 49 The confession submitted was the 1873 version, complete with the statement of “differences” that previously had concerned some Mennonite Brethren. Now, as their identity had become a crucial issue ahead of the implementation of the new law, it served an important purpose.

In America, at almost the same time, there was a move to establish order and an American Mennonite Brethren Church. In 1888 Abraham Schellenberg and another minister, Peter Wall, wrote an account of a crucial meeting held on August 10, 1879. Eduard Loeppke apparently “wanted to see everything concerning governmental affairs in the strictest light.” But, after a “thorough discussion, they agreed to ‘go with the path of the church in Russia’ and adopt the 1873 Confession of Faith, except for the appendix dealing with differences.” 50 With no conscription or requirement to perform alternative service, the appendix had no meaning in America. But why adopt the questionable Baptist Confession of Faith? Religious groups in the United States were not required officially to register a confession of faith as in Russia. Perhaps, while establishing continuity with the church in Russia, the confession also helped assert a sense of order. {22}


The movements associated with new religious ideas and practices that emerged in the 1860s were often confused and disorganized. They lacked both unity and a common purpose. German Baptist ministers provided a major contribution to the establishment of order. This association, however, soon turned into a liability, as Russia’s Great Reforms required all the Tsar’s subjects to perform military service, irrespective of birth, rank, or religion. Mennonites did not want to serve in the military on the grounds of faith, and they also feared they would lose control over their youth if they were forced to join the military. If a way could be found to serve the state while avoiding military service, some were willing to compromise. Those unwilling to compromise chose emigration instead. These different reactions were found among members of the new religious movements as well as those from older established congregations.

If Mennonites based their case for alternative service on their religious principles and could prove this through historical documents, the Mennonite Brethren as a “new” religious group who had chosen to separate themselves from established Mennonite ways found they needed to reassert their “Mennonite” credentials. Identification with Baptists compounded the problem as Baptists accepted military service and other practices clearly at odds with established Mennonite ways. Too close an association with them might mean the loss of “Mennonite” rights.

Russia’s Great Reforms, specifically those concerned with state service, therefore had an important influence on the development and organization of the Mennonite Brethren. These were influences that continued to affect them well beyond the 1880s, creating ongoing problems in their relations with the larger Mennonite community in Russia and Baptist groups with whom Mennonite Brethren maintained contact. It also affected relations with Russian officialdom into the twentieth century. Finally, Mennonite Brethren reaction to the Great Reforms influenced the formation and development of the early Mennonite Brethren Church in North America founded by those who chose to leave Mother Russia.


  1. Paul Toews, “Mennonites and the Search for Military Exemption: State Concessions and Conflicts in the 1870’s,” in Вопросы германской истории [Voprosii Germanskoi Istorii] (Denproptrovsk: Porogi, 2007), 81–105.
  2. Peter M. Friesen, The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789–1910) (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, 1978). This is a translation of Die {23} Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Russland (1789–1910) im Rahmen der mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte (Halbstadt: Raduga, 1911).
  3. Mainly Friesen’s Mennonite Brotherhood, which remained the major source until access to archival documents in Russia and Ukraine, which Paul Toews helped to facilitate.
  4. John B. Toews ed., The Story of the Early Mennonite Brethren (1860–1869): Reflections of a Lutheran Churchman (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Press, 2002).
  5. See report of Oncken assisting Prussian Mennonites revise their “primitive” Confession of Faith in American Baptist Magazine 14 (1834): 293.
  6. Missionsblatt der Gemeine getaufter Christen (Hamburg) (hereafter MBltt) 19 (1861): 130–33; Albert W. Wardin, On the Edge: Baptists and Other Free Church Evangelicals in Tsarist Russia, 1855–1917 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 63.
  7. Quarterly Reporter of the German Baptist Mission (QRGBM) 45 (April 1869): 357–59; The Missionary Magazine (hereafter MM) 50 (1870): 16–18.
  8. QRGBM 48 (1870): 802; MM 50 (1870): 19.
  9. Ida Toews and Ken Reddig, “Documents in Mennonite History: The Founding of the Einlage MB Congregation” [a translation of Part II of Heinrich Epp’s Recollections from the Life and Work of the Late Elder Abraham Unger, Founder of the Einlage Mennonite Brethren Congregation (1907)], Direction 20, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 130.
  10. Harvey L. Dyck, ed., A Mennonite in Russia: the Diaries of Jacob D. Epp, 1851–1880 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 304.
  11. See David G. Rempel, “The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia: A Sketch of its Founding and Endurance, 1789–1919,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (1974): 33. During the 1860s, extensive land reforms also occurred following conflicts over landlessness.
  12. On these delegations and examples of their appeals, see David H. Epp, Die Chortitzer Mennoniten. Versuch einer Darstellung des Entwicklungsganges derselben (Odessa: Schulsse, 1889), 150–71.
  13. See G. Alexander Kish, The Origins of the Baptist Movement among the Hungarians: A History of the Baptists in the Kingdom of Hungary from 1846 to 1893 (Leiden: Brill, 2012).
  14. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 460–61.
  15. Ibid., 467, 475–76, 514; Wieler Tagebuch 1872–1883, document 1108, file 12, Johann Wieler Fonds, Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, MB.
  16. MBltt 30 (1873): 136–42.
  17. See the account of its founder J. A. Wiebe, Das Entstehen der Krimmer Mennoniten Brüder Gemeinde in Süd-Russland im Jahre 1869 (Elkhart, IN: Rundschau, 1905).
  18. Johannes Kufeld, Die Deutschen Kolonien an der Wolga (Nürnberg: Historischer Forschungsverein der Deutschen aus Russland, 2000), 260–90.
  19. Production of a newsletter (Sendschreiben) was agreed upon at the previous year’s conference (Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 475). It was {24} probably a handwritten bound “copybook” circulated among congregations. It included mission reports (see Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 522). Censorship restricted publication in Russia until after 1905, but the name Zionsbote was used for a Mennonite Brethren newspaper in North America that was widely circulated in Russia.
  20. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 478–79; see also Epp, Recollections, 136.
  21. Verschiedenheiten zwischen den vereinigten Mennoniten-Bruedergemeinden und den Baptistengemeinden sowie den alten Mennonitengemeinden in Glaubensbekenntnis und Verfassung der Gläubiggetauften und Vereinigten Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde im südlichen Rußland von 1873 (Basel: Spittler, 1876), 57–64; republished with a new introduction by Heinrich Epp in 1908 (Odessa: L. Nitzsche); Abe J. Dueck, Moving Beyond Secession: Defining Russian Mennonite Brethren Vision and Identity, 1872–1922 (Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1997), 105–107.
  22. Heinrich Epp, “Vorwort zur zweiten Auflage,” in Verschiedenheiten zwischen den Vereinigten, 3. Epp links the document’s production with concerns over military service, especially for future generations.
  23. Often forgotten in Mennonite accounts is the substantial emigration of other German colonists from Russia because of conscription laws. Mennonite Brethren converts not born to Mennonite parents were excluded from exemption.
  24. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 491, refers to this as “biblical unification.”
  25. In MBltt 34 (1876): 12–13. Unger reports that services were held, a large meal was served, and that Liebig married two couples.
  26. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 491–92.
  27. Johann E. Pritzkau, German Baptists in South Russia, trans. Walter Regehr (Winnipeg: Kindred, 2013), 74–75. As the passage is confusing, this is an expanded interpretation.
  28. Also spelt Loeppki, Lopke, etc. See Peggy Goertzen, Miracle of Grace at Ebenfeld (Hillsboro, KS: Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Church, 2001), 181–82.
  29. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 466, 476–77.
  30. Ibid., 463–64.
  31. Ibid., 465.
  32. According to a memoir Lepp wrote in 1900, in Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 466.
  33. Ibid., 597.
  34. Ibid., 504–506.
  35. Epp, Recollections, 137.
  36. See the comments to the introduction to the later Confession of the Mennonite Brethren (1900) translated in Dueck, Moving Beyond Secession, 109–10.
  37. The publisher, C. F. Spittler, was associated with several missionary and evangelical organizations, including the Basel Mission Society.
  38. Abraham Friesen, In Defense of Privilege: Russian Mennonites and the State Before and During World War I (Winnipeg: Kindred, 2006), 114, does {25} not mention any differences in the Baptist and Mennonite Confessions.
  39. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 479, merely notes that the Baptist Confession was “adapted to the Mennonite teaching,” without indicating where.
  40. Glaubensbekenntniss und Verfassung der Gemeinden getaufter Christen, gewöhnlich Baptisten genannt, Article XIV and Glaubensbekenntnis und Verfassung der Gläubiggetauften und Vereinigten Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde, 48–50.
  41. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 479, 1016 n.272.
  42. To Friesen, Unger was second in importance in the formation of the Mennonite Brethren only to Johann Claassen, but “so differently disposed with respect to outside movements,” i.e., the Baptists. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 502.
  43. Epp, Chortitzer Mennoniten, 122.
  44. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 497; on the date, see 1028 n.25.
  45. Ibid., 594.
  46. On discord in America, see the account by J. F. Harms in Peter Martin Friesen, Mennonites in North America (1874–1910) (Winnipeg: Kindred, 2012), 1–8.
  47. For an account of these events with documents, see Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 479–81.
  48. Epp, “How is this Possible?” in Dueck, Moving Beyond Secession, 180–81.
  49. Friesen, Mennonite Brotherhood, 480.
  50. In Friesen, Mennonites in North America, 3.
James Urry is an anthropologist, a graduate of University College, London, and Oxford University. His doctorate dealt with Mennonites in Russia and was later published as None but Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia (1989). He has published widely on Mennonites in Russia and North America, including, Mennonites, Politics and Peoplehood (2006). He taught in Australia and New Zealand until he retired in 2011. He is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

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