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April 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 2 · pp. 20–25 

How Our Fathers Understood the Hope of Christ's Coming

Abe J. Dueck

Christ’s coming has been understood in many different ways in the history of the Christian church. In the broader Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition itself there have been many different views concerning eschatology. The Mennonite Brethren church has not been spared considerable diversity of opinion regarding the biblical teachings on this topic. Although most of us are aware of present diversities, there appears to be considerable doubt as to whether such diversity was present from the beginning or whether it developed later. And very few Mennonite Brethren know how particular views came to be accepted.

The present article does not claim to provide a definitive answer to the above questions. The sources do not always provide adequate answers and not nearly all the available sources have been investigated. Thus this article can only point in a preliminary way to some of the evidence concerning the teaching of our fathers and indicate some of the possible influences which molded their thinking. The primary emphasis here will be on the period in Russia. 1


The sixteenth century was marked by the emergence of individuals and movements with very radical eschatological ideas. Some of these were very closely associated with early Anabaptism and caused acute tensions from the very beginning. Chiliastic teachings (the doctrine of a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth following his second coming) became an important constituent of the preaching of such individuals as Hans Hut and Melchior Hofmann. Hofmann was particularly victimized by his own prophecies and died after spending the last decade of his life in prison in Strassburg. It was Hofmann’s followers, Jan Matthijs and Jan van Leiden, however, who ultimately adopted the most radical chiliastic views and sought to establish God’s Kingdom by force in the New Jerusalem—the city of Muenster in northern Germany. They were eventually overcome by outside forces and a terrible slaughter followed. This tragic episode has served as an effective warning against an over-zealous preoccupation with the Old Testament and New Testament apocalyptic writings. {21}

The majority of the Anabaptists in the first generation, as well as in later generations, did not exhibit chiliastic tendencies. This includes such leaders as Conrad Grebel, Michael Sattler, Pilgram Marpeck, and Menno Simons. According to J. C. Wenger, this continued to be true for several centuries thereafter. 2 The Russian Mennonites were apparently the first to be exposed to chiliastic (pre-millenial) teachings. To some extent, these teachings must have affected the Mennonite Brethren also, either directly or indirectly. It will therefore be helpful to indicate the sources of some of these influences.


The most significant millenarian influences in Russia prior to 1860 undoubtedly came from German pietism, which was also one of the sources of revivalism in Russia. The so-called Stundistenbewegung, as the revival movement in Russia became known, was significantly influenced by the Wuerttemberg Pietists, many of whom had moved to the Ukraine in the early nineteenth century. These Wuerttembergers were strongly aroused by eschatological expectations which were nurtured especially by the writings of Jung-Stilling. 3 Thousands had moved east between 1816 and 1823 to find a haven where they could meet the returning Lord. They finally settled in the Ukraine, north of the Crimea. Although these eschatological anticipations must have waned to some extent in succeeding years, they did not die altogether.

Furthermore, these ideas did find their way into the Mennonite communities of South Russia. Tobias Voth reports that he made a trip to visit his parents in 1818 and that he returned with some of the writings of Jung-Stilling. 4 It was through the reading of these writings that he experienced the grace of God. In a recent article on millennialism among the Russian Mennonites, Fred Belk details some of the further associations and influences of Jung-Stilling on the Mennonites. 5 Particularly significant was the influence of Stilling’s eschatological thought on Claas Epp, who apparently read Stilling’s Heimweh and other works. 6 Basing his ideas on the book of Daniel, Epp set the date of Christ’s return as 1880 and proclaimed that a place of refuge and deliverance was to be found in the province of Turkestan in Central Asia. A group of followers actually migrated, only to be thoroughly disillusioned and disappointed. A group of his followers which was purged of such radicalism eventually organized a Mennonite Brethren church. 7

It is difficult to estimate the extent to which chiliastic ideas of the kind emerging from the German Pietists, and Jung-Stilling in particular, were present among the founders of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Nevertheless it is remarkable that although the writings of Jung-Stilling must have been readily available there appear to be no specific references to them by the early brethren. Indeed, it is striking that there seems to have been very little interest or preoccupation with eschatology at all. Again and again the concerns that surface (in the Document of Secession as well as in other letters and statements) center around the assurance of salvation, the grace of God, righteous living, and a formal and dead Christianity.

The prominent feature of Wuest’s preaching certainly was not an emphasis on a timetable of the last events leading to Christ’s return. Wuest did read a German periodical, the Sueddeutsche Warte, which was published regularly after 1853. It emphasized prophecy to a considerable degree, especially later {22} when it became known as the Warte des Tempels. Radical chiliastic ideas emerged from segments of the group associated with this publication. According to Abraham Kroeker, Wuest’s biographer, Wuest was critical of some of the teachings in the Warte as early as 1858, but he did continue reading it until his death. Kroeker asks rhetorically what Wuest would have said had he lived to see the later developments of the Temple-teaching. 8

Most of the early brethren were apparently not affected by these ideas. Bekker, in the Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church, included a statement entitled “On the Return of our Lord” 9 which might reflect some ideas arising from German chiliasm; but a closer examination reveals that the statement was written largely in response to Adventist teaching in America and comes from a much later period in Bekker’s life. 10 By and large, Mennonite Brethren apparently were not affected by chiliastic ideas.


Another stream of millenarianism entered Russia in the latter part of the century. This source of millenarianism was the Plymouth Brethren movement in England which originated with J. M. Darby around 1830. The development of the movement in England in the nineteenth century is well documented in Sandeen’s, The Roots of Fundamentalism. 11 It is this movement which developed into modern dispensationalism. It found its classical expression in Scofield’s Reference Bible and influenced the development of millennial thinking in America to a great degree. The dispensational millennialism of Darby and Scofield, however, needs to be clearly distinguished from the millennialism which had entered Russia with German pietism.

The dispensational views of the Plymouth Brethren apparently first entered Russia through the person of Lord Radstock. Radstock was closely associated with the Plymouth Brethren, especially during the early part of his ministry after his conversion, probably in the early or middle 1860’s. 12 Radstock visited Russia twice, once in 1874 and a second time in 1877-78. While he apparently did not seek to impose his distinctive teachings on others and preferred to work with sincere Christians of various denominations, it is likely that his millennial and dispensational views became known to some extent.

Much more significant, however, was the influence of his so-called successor, Dr. Baedeker. Baedeker was a German who had lived in England for some time 13 and was converted at one of Radstock’s meetings in England in 1866. 14 Baedeker later went to Russia (first in 1877) and became engaged in a very effective ministry to prison inmates and also to many others. Like Radstock, Baedeker did not emphasize distinctive teachings—he was a typical “Allianzman.” 15 Again, however, his dispensational views certainly became known. Baedeker had a number of contacts with Mennonites and also ministered to them on occasion. 16 His name was well known among Mennonite Brethren.

At this point a direct line of succession between the Plymouth Brethren and the Mennonite Brethren can be established. One of the young Mennonite Brethren men who was converted as a result of the ministry of Dr. Baedeker was Jakob W. Reimer, who later became a well known “Reiseprediger” and interpreter of the books of Daniel and Revelation. As H. H. Janzen states, Reimer “became a leading advocate of chiliasm.” 17 His dispensational views were eventually published in the booklet entitled, Der wundervolle Ratschluss {23} Gottes mit der Menschheit (The Wonderful Plan of Salvation of God with Men). In Russia, Reimer preached in many churches, was a speaker at Bible courses for ministers which were held at various locations, and helped to bring other speakers from Germany, Switzerland, and England to Russia for these conferences.

The extent of contact between the Russian Mennonite Brethren and evangelical groups like the Plymouth Brethren and Baptists in Germany and England in the last decades of the nineteenth century is truly remarkable. The most popular centers of contact were undoubtedly the Blankenburg Conference and the Hamburg Baptist Seminary. Another center which became more significant later was St. Chrischona. Blankenburg and St. Chrischona were both Plymouth Brethren centers which had developed on the continent. J. W. Reimer served as lecturer at Blankenburg on at least two occasions. 18


In reviewing the historical evidence that is available concerning the millennial views of the Mennonite Brethren in Russia until the beginning of the twentieth century, several observations can be made. First, it is well to remember that although there were two sources of millenarian influence, the majority of Mennonites in Russia probably were not significantly affected by either. Further, although the early Mennonite Brethren may have been influenced to some degree by the millennialism of the Pietists, they apparently did not seek to refine their views on eschatology to any marked degree. Many may have held to a mild form of pre-millennialism, but they certainly were repulsed by the chiliasm of individuals like Claas Epp and others who set dates for Christ’s return. They were not even aware of the intricate dispensational theology of the Darbyites until a decade or two after 1860. When dispensational theology made its inroads, to the extent that it was accepted, it probably happened without much awareness of the implications or a thorough understanding of the alternatives. Mennonite Brethren views on eschatology developed in a relative vacuum of theological understanding. Dispensational eschatology, although widely accepted eventually, never became the official view of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia. P. M. Friesen himself deeply lamented the extent to which chiliastic teachings had entered the Church and was convinced that they were contrary to Mennonite teaching. 19

A final general comment regarding the relationship of dispensationalism to historic pre-millennialism should be made. Apparently a great deal of confusion still exists regarding these two movements and often they are virtually identified. 20 A very clear distinction must be made, however; for dispensationalism is only one form of pre-millennialism and differs quite radically in its methods of biblical interpretation. A failure to take into account such differences can lead to many false conclusions in interpreting the historical documents. There is always a serious temptation to impose modern systems of thought on an earlier generation. Eschatology was not a major concern of the early brethren, and they did not consciously separate themselves from historic Anabaptism on this issue. {24}


  1. For a discussion in relation to both Russian and American developments see the section entitled “Dispensationalism” by John A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church: Pilgrims and Pioneers (Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1975), pp. 377ff.
  2. J. C. Wenger, “Chiliasm,” Mennonite Encyclopedia (Scottdale: The Mennonite Publishing House, 1955) I, 558.
  3. Johann Heinrich Jung was generally known as Jung-Stilling (1740-1817). Interest in prophecy seems to have been awakened by the difficult situations during the Napoleonic wars. See Waldemar Gutsche, Westliche Quellen des Russischen Stundismus (Kassel: J. G. Onchen Verlag, 1956), pp. 16, 17 and also Walter Birnbaum, Christenheit in Sowjetrussland: Was wissen wir von ihr? (Tuebingen: Katzmann-Verlag, 1961), p. 145.
  4. P. M. Friesen, Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Bruderschaft in Russland (1789-1910), (Halbstadt: Raduga, 1911), p. 570.
  5. Fred Belk, “The Emergence of Millenialism among Russian Mennonites,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XLIX:3 (July, 1975), 217-225.
  6. Ibid., p. 221.
  7. P. M. Friesen, pp. 480f.
  8. Abraham Kroeker, Pfarrer Eduard Wuest: der grosse Erweckungsprediger in den deutschen Kolonien Suedrusslands, (Hillsboro: M.B. Publishing Co., 1903), p. 97.
  9. Jacob P. Bekker, Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church, trans. by D. E. Pauls and A. E. Janzen (Hillsboro: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1973), pp. 186-205.
  10. Ibid., pp. 165, 203.
  11. Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism 1800-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  12. Gutsche, p. 60.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Rev. Alexander Karev, “The Russian Evangelical Baptist Movement” or, “Under His Cross in Soviet Russia.” An unpublished manuscript translated by Frederick P. Lehman (1959), pp. 92ff.
  15. Gutsche, p. 60.
  16. A. A. Toews, Mennonitische Maertyrer der juengsten Vergangenheit and der Gegenwart (Winnipeg: The Christian Press, 1949), 1, 370-371.
  17. “Chiliasm as accepted and taught in the Mennonite Brethren Church,” Mennonite Encyclopedia, 1, 559.
  18. J. H. Lohrenz, “Reimer, Jacob Wilhelm,” in Mennonite Encyclopedia, IV, 277.
  19. P. M. Friesen, p. 264: “Das die Lehre vom tausendjaehrigen Reich wider die altmennonitische Lehre ist, ist gewiss. . . . Wir lassen die Frage von der biblischen Berechtigung dieser Lehre hier voellig uneroertert; nur {25} haben wir uns hunderte. Male gefragt; welchen Nutzen hat die Art and Weise, wie these Lehre unter uns getrieben worden ist, in einem halben Jahrhundert and besonders in den letzten 8 Jahren [1902-1910?], uns gebracht in Beziehung auf unsere ‘Heiligung durch and durch. . . .’ ”
  20. For a good brief analysis see Dispensationalism in America: Its Rise and Development by C. Norman Kraus (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1958).
Abe Dueck is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology and Dean of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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