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July 1978 · Vol. 7 No. 3 · pp. 11–19 

The Mennonite Brethren Church in Paraguay and Its Relationship to the Mennonite Brethren in North America

Gerhard Ratzlaff


There are 16,000 Mennonites of German descent living in Paraguay. About half of these are unbaptized persons (children, young people, and even a number of adults). Except for those in Asuncion, all Mennonites in Paraguay live in closed colonies with their own administrative system and private schools. All Mennonites enjoy special privileges given to them by the government. These privileges include exemption from military service and from taking the oath and the freedom to operate their own schools in the German language and to exercise their religion.

The following Mennonite branches are represented in Paraguay: Old Colony Mennonites in Menno, Sommerfeld, Bergtal, Reinfeld, Rio Verde, and Santa Clara; General Conference Mennonites in Fernheim, Friesland, Neuland, Volendam, and Asuncion; Evangelical Mennonite Brethren in Fernheim; Mennonite Brethren in Fernheim, Friesland, Neuland, Volendam, and Asuncion; Kleine Gemeinde (Evangelical Mennonite Conference) in Tres Palmas; Conservative (Old) Mennonites in Agua Azul and Rio Corrientes; Amish in Luz y Esperanza. {12}

Mennonite Colonies in Paraguay 1


The Mennonite Brethren Church in Paraguay started in 1930 with an estimated 300 members. The membership grew, especially with the coming of the Mennonites after World War II, until the early 1950’s and reached an all-time high of nearly 1400 members. Since then, the membership of the German-speaking churches has decreased to 944 members in 1976. Only the Mennonite Brethren Church in Asuncion has grown in number. The churches in Neuland and Volendam experienced the greatest decrease in membership. By 1957 the M.B. Church in Neuland had registered a total of 509 members since its founding in 1948 by immigrants from Russia. Of this number 200 were added by baptism after 1948. In 1957 the membership stood at 144. In less than ten years approximately 350 emigrated.

The Friesland Church started in 1937 with 153 members. By 1961, 195 persons had been baptized, but membership in the same year was only 155. {13}

The main reason for declining membership was emigration, mostly to Canada, Brasil, and Germany. These three countries have received large numbers of people from Paraguay. There are probably more Mennonite Brethren “Paraguayans” in Canada than in Paraguay itself. Many a fine and able person has left Paraguay. The primary reason for emigration was the difficult economic situation, a situation which offered little hope for progress to the person with special skills and abilities. Only in recent years has the situation changed for the better, which gives hope that the membership of the German-speaking churches will remain steady for the next few years and then increase somewhat. The role of the church in Asuncion will increase markedly in its importance to the whole conference.

The seven local German-speaking churches in Paraguay are organized into the “Paraguaysche Konferenz der Mennonitischen Bruedergemeinden” and meet every two years. Together with Brasil and Uruguay they form the “Suedamerikanische Konferenz der Mennonitischen Bruedergemeinden” and meet every three years. 2 Once every month the Paraguayan Conference publishes its Konferenzblatt which goes into every Mennonite Brethren home in Paraguay. This pamphlet is devotional, informative, and educational in character.

Mennonite Brethren Churches in Paraguay 3

Interest in missionary work was alive in the Mennonite Brethren church from its beginning. The work started among the Indians in the Chaco as an organization of volunteers from the different Mennonite churches under the name “Light den Indianern” (Light to the Indians). Though not an exclusively M.B. work, it was supported financially with missionaries by the Mennonite Brethren Churches of North America through its offices in Hillsboro (in Paraguay often referred to as “Hilfsburo,” or “helping office”). Today there are almost 2000 baptized members among the different Indian tribes. The Neuland {14} Church in the Chaco and the Friesland and Volendam Churches in East Paraguay each have a local missionary outreach among Paraguayans in nearby localities.

Of great importance to the Mennonite Brethren work in Paraguay is the “Erziehungszentrum” (Educational Center, usually referred to as “Instituto Biblico Asuncion,” I.B.A.) with a Bible School and a Primary and High School. This center is also becoming the Conference headquarters for the German and Spanish-speaking churches.


The history of the Mennonite Brethren, and in fact of all the Mennonites in Paraguay originating from Russia, is one of dependence on the churches in North America. The existence and the shape of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Paraguay have been determined to a large extent by its relationship to the North American churches.

At the end of 1929 approximately 5600 Mennonites left Russia and went to Germany. The German Government had made arrangements to send all these people to Brasil to be settled there. But before this plan could be enacted, Mennonite Central Committee (M.C.C.) offered Paraguay as an alternative and accepted full responsibility for all those going to this country. One of the main reasons for this decision was the privileges given by the Paraguayan government to the existing Mennonites in Paraguay. 4 Further, the M.C.C. had received promising reports about settling conditions in the Chaco from the existing Mennonite Colony there (Mennonites from Canada). 5 M.C.C. also paid for the land to be settled.

The new settlers were supposed to repay their debt within a ten-year period. 6 As long as the debt was not paid, major decisions by the Mennonites in Paraguay could not be made without the consent of M.C.C. The Mennonites were glad for M.C.C.’s help, but many a person also resented the restrictions. When in 1937 a large number of Mennonites in the Chaco decided to resettle in Eastern Paraguay (where they founded Friesland Colony), they did so only after M.C.C. gave its consent (reluctantly and under much pressure) and the “dissatisfied” group promised to honor its debt.

Grave tensions arose during World War II when national feelings were running high. The Fernheim Colony split into opposing factions: the “Voelkische” group (pro-German) and the so-called “Anti Voelkische” 7 group supported by American workers. Both Mennonite Brethren churches in Paraguay, the one in Fernheim and the other in Friesland, split over the German issue.

While some actions taken by some of the North American workers during this period were unwise (for example, demands for the {15} renunciation of the two main colony leaders and for calling in the military), they are in no way the only ones responsible for the division; but they made it more tragic. The Mennonites in Paraguay, whether pro-American or pro-German, have to take the major responsibility.

On the other hand, the American brethren contributed greatly to the healing of the wounds and the unification of the church after the war. About one worker, who came as a teacher to Paraguay immediately after the most dramatic events in the colonies, one former “pro-German” testified, “We looked on him as another American spy, but he turned out to be a messenger of God. He loved and respected the ‘Voelkische’ as much as the ‘Anti-Voelkische’ group. He visited with and preached to both groups. He probably realized that to be a winner does not necessarily mean to be right.” For the final reunification of the divided churches, B.B. Janz was sent to Paraguay and acted as mediator.

From 1947 to 1948 more Mennonite refugees from Russia came to Paraguay with the help of M.C.C. As a result of the founding of the Neuland and Volendam Colonies, two new Mennonite Brethren Churches emerged. Since all these newcomers had passed through a turbulent and chaotic period under Communism and the second World War, they had received little religious instruction. There were no preachers with theological preparation. The Mennonite Brethren Churches in North America became aware of this need and sent out teachers for public schools, Bible Schools, and Theological Courses for the church workers. They also led Bible studies and evangelistic meetings in the homes, schools, and churches.

A few brethren whom this writer got to know personally are: P.C. Hiebert, Victor Toews, J.A. Toews, J.J. Toews, J.B. Toews, C. C. Peters, F.C. Peters, G.W. Peters (“If it is Toews or Peters it has to be good”), H.C. Born, and J.H. Franz. Some of these served for a long period of years in Paraguay.

The impact of these men on the religious life and on the organization and theology of the Mennonite Brethren churches in Paraguay has been enormous. All were capable persons with a strong, self-confident character and some, not surprisingly, had a paternalistic attitude. Conversions took place almost exclusively at the annual evangelistic meetings where North American ministers preached. As testimonies from candidates for baptism indicated, many a young person believed this was the only “day of salvation” within a year or two-year period. It is no wonder that many anxiously awaited the visit of a North American preacher.

The Mennonite Brethren Missions Board sponsored a number of students to go to the United States and/or Canada to study. Some of {16} these are presently in leadership positions in the churches of Paraguay. To a certain degree, but with some reservation, it is definitely true that the Paraguayan Mennonite Brethren Churches (or, at least, their workers) are the spiritual children of the North American Mennonite Brethren Churches.

The Mennonite Brethren churches in North America also helped finance the church buildings in Fernheim, Friesland, Neuland, and Volendam. Within the 1960’s the North American-Paraguayan relationship underwent some changes. Few North American missionaries and workers remained. The German churches had become self-supporting and had their own workers. Meanwhile a strong missionary outreach had started among Spanish speaking people in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion. The educational center referred to above was started. Both projects were largely financed by the North American Missions Board, but the workers came from Paraguay, a blessed cooperation.

Special attention must be given to “Evangelismo Extensivo” (EVEX), an intensive evangelistic extension program in a large number of Paraguayan towns, which began in 1973.

The thought of active evangelistic expansion came alive after 1967 when the Paraguayan Constitution granted full religious liberty to all religious groups. Before that date evangelistic campaigns outside the tolerated church buildings were not allowed with the exception of the Billy Graham Campaign in 1962. In the early 1970’s brother Albert Enns envisioned an extensive evangelistic-church founding program in the interior of the country. It happened providentially that at the same time the financial cup at Hillsboro was overflowing. The Mission Board was looking for a project which they would support. The result was the following program of three stages:

Stage One (August 1973—August 1974)

  • Preach the gospel to the masses in 24 carefully selected towns in evangelistic campaigns of 8 days each.
  • Make contact with people interested in the Gospel.
  • Expect conversions.
  • Evaluate the work done during this period and select the most promising places for extensive follow-up work.

Stage Two (August 1974-February 1976)

  • Evangelistic Campaigns of two weeks or more in the selected towns.
  • Organize converted and sympathizing persons into Bible Study groups. {17}
  • Look for promising workers and prepare them for the work.

Stage Three (March 1976-July 1977)

  • Help to organize and stabilize the established groups into churches with their own mission projects.

The results of this program have been great. Churches or groups of believers have been established in ten interior towns. At the end of 1977 approximately 150 persons had been baptized as the result of this program. The growth of the Spanish-speaking churches, which began in 1956 when the first two Paraguayans were baptized, made a great leap forward. In 1966 there had been 108 members; in 1976 there were 306 and presently there are about 400 members. Should this encouraging growth rate continue (which would be wonderful but is not likely), church membership in the Spanish-speaking churches would pass that of the German-speaking church within a decade and could well necessitate some Spanish-speaking workers supported by Hillsboro.

Though this program was almost entirely financed by Hillsboro (about 70%), the German churches were not bypassed. The German-speaking churches were informed about the new project, and it was done with their consent. In fact, the German-speaking conference financed, to a large extent, the first two test-evangelistic campaigns in 1970 in San Estanislao and Villa Rica. The encouraging results of these two campaigns were decisive for the following “EVEX” program.

But the churches in Paraguay were not able to carry the full financial burden for such a big project since each local church has its own missionary projects. The reader should also be reminded that most Mennonites in Paraguay live in closed colonies with their own administrative apparatus, hospitals, schools, and travel and communication system, all of which must be taken care of by the colonies without any financial government support (for these projects they received help from Germany). The doors for missionary work in Paraguay are open, but the outreach possibilities of a conference of a little over 900 members are limited. Therefore, the Mennonite Brethren churches of Paraguay have much reason to be thankful to the North American brotherhood for their financial support in their mission work.

On the other hand, participation in the “EVEX” program by the German churches through its workers cannot be underestimated. The 17 German-speaking students who participated in the “Theologischer Arbeiterkursus” (Theological School for church workers) in the Educational Center in Asuncion during 1976 and 1977 spent their weekends working among the newly-emerging Spanish-speaking {18} churches. In this way, the students had a very important part in the church planting of EVEX.

These 17 students (ten of whom completed the entire two-year program), were financially supported by the German-speaking churches. The North American contribution to this “Theologische Arbeiterkursus” was the contingent of very qualified professors which Hillsboro sent and continuously supported. The variety of these instructors helped the students to avoid forming a one-sided bias. In addition it gave a good number of persons from North America the chance to get acquainted personally with the churches and work in Paraguay. This wonderful, cooperative effort is certainly of great value for further cooperation and mutual understanding.

Recently Hillsboro has offered to finance a study year in North America to experienced workers in Paraguay and Brasil. In 1977 brother Rudolf Plett, long time worker in Paraguay, went to the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno. Another cooperative effort is emerging in the collection of Mennonite Brethren archival and historical materials.


As seen above, the Paraguayan Mennonite Brethren Church is still dependent on the churches in North America. But it is not a subordinated dependence. The General Secretary of the North American Mission Board, during one of his field visits to Paraguay, expressed it this way, “We are not here to tell you what to do; we are here to cooperate with you.”

This writer is a freshman in conference work and inter-Mennonite Brethren relationships. What he knows about past relationships is largely from documents and personal reports. However, concluding from his limited personal experience and comparing it with the reports of the past, he is convinced that the North American Paraguayan relationship at present is most cordial. We in Paraguay know we are loved and respected for our individuality despite differences of opinion. We know we can depend on our brethren in the United States and in Canada, who are represented by their office in Hillsboro. We know we can work together in the name of Christ and to the greater glory of His name. God bless our North American Brotherhood! {19}


  1. A comprehensive and up-to-date study about the Mennonite colonies in the eastern part of Paraguay by this writer was published in the Paraguayan Mennonite paper Mennoblatt, February through June 1977. For English readers good information is supplied in the two books written by J. Winfield Fretz, Pilgrims in Paraguay (1953), and Immigration Group Settlements in Paraguay (1962).
  2. German Mennonite Brethren membership in Brasil in 1975 was 1043 and in Uruguay, 44.
  3. Theologischer Arbeiterkursus 1976-1977, Geschichte der Mennoniten-Brueder-Gemeinde in Paraguay, in Zusammenarbeit mit Clarence Hiebert (Asuncion: 1977), 200 mimeographed copies. This study done by the students of the Theologischer Arbeiterkursus gives an overview of all M.B. churches in Paraguay and their mission work.
  4. See Christian Neff, ed., Bericht ueber die Mennonitische Welt-Hilfs-Konferenz vom 31. August bis 3. September 1930 (Karlsruhe: Verlag Heinrich Schneider), pp. 117-125.
  5. One was written by the American consul in Asuncion, John B. Faust, “The Mennonite Colony in Paraguay,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, III (July, 1929), 183-89, and the other by two Mennonite missionaries in Argentina, T.K. Hershy and Amos Swartzendruber, “Offizieller Bericht ueber den Besuch auf der Mennoniten-Kolonie in Paraguay, S.A., in Februar 1929,” Mennonitische Rundschau, June 5 and 12, 1929.
  6. They were not able to pay and much of the debt was later cancelled by M.C.C.
  7. The translation of this term as “anti-German” would be misleading. All Mennonites were culturally attached to Germany and pro-German but many “anti-Voelkische” resented the overacted and blind enthusiasm for Nazi Germany. Mennonites were not informed accurately about what was going on in Germany. American anti-Nazi and anti-German propaganda was resented and not taken seriously by the majority of the people.
Gerhard Ratzlaff is pastor of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Colony Friesland, Paraguay and a teacher in the local high school. He holds a B.A. from Fresno Pacific College and an M.A. in History from California State University of Fresno.

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