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July 1972 · Vol. 1 No. 3 · pp. 74–81 

The Impact of the Family in Mennonite History: Some Preliminary Observations

Alan Peters

Each one of us has experienced, in his own unique way, the powerful influence of the family. Those of us who are Mennonite in background and upbringing can easily recall the distinctive influence that the family had upon us. Indeed, to a certain degree, we have tasted a slightly different flavor of that substance known as the family because we were Mennonites.

For example, we have always been closely in touch with our extended family. Not only have grandparents and uncles and aunts exerted considerable influence upon our upbringing, but we have also included relatives of more distant degrees in our family-consciousness. Consequently, at many family functions there were great-uncles, second or even third cousins, and other more distant relatives, who were called “uncles” and “aunts” not only out of respect, but also to emphasize that they were still “family.” I still remember the time that a friend, in talking about his family, identified one of his sixth cousins as still having family connections with him!

A second distinctive feature of the Mennonite family is the deep concern for the family “image.” The activities of an individual were seldom considered in isolation from those of the rest of his family. An individual was considered to reflect his entire family, and we all remember those who were frequently described as bearing certain blessings or blemishes solely because of their family connections.

The third and most pervading distinctive of the Mennonite family is the extremely complex overlapping between the family and the faith. Indeed, this close, interlocking relationship between one’s faith and one’s family has existed from the earliest days of the Anabaptist movement. Despite the fact that the Anabaptist-Mennonite churches have always emphasized that faith must be a voluntary, individual response to God, nevertheless the influence of family upon faith, and faith upon family, have always been keenly recognized.

Thus, the early Mennonites held that excommunicated members were to be shunned even by the members of their own families. Likewise, if a member of the church married a person outside the fellowship, the member was to be excommunicated.

Much more could be said about the sociological and theological aspects of Mennonite family life. However, the primary concern of this paper is not so much the nature of the Mennonite family, but the impact that this deep sense of “family” has had upon the history of the Mennonites. 1 My research in the areas of genealogy, family history, and Mennonite church history, has caused me to develop some preliminary thoughts and theories concerning the role which the Mennonite family has played in the process of Mennonite history. {75}

I. WHAT CAN WE LEARN ABOUT MENNONITE FAMILIES?

My personal interest in the Mennonite family began, rather naturally, with an interest in my own. While still a teenager, I began to search out my own ancestry. What started as a rather simple genealogical interest soon blossomed into a full-blown curiosity about my own family’s involvement in Mennonite history. As time passed, my interests broadened even further, and I began to explore the histories of all Mennonite families, not only my own, in an effort to relate the histories of families to the history of the church.

Because my own family stems from that branch of the Mennonites which originated in the Netherlands and then moved successively to Prussia, Russia, and finally America, most of my research has centered upon this particular group of families, and upon the many families which joined this group at various times and places in their history.

The Obstacles in Such Research

Events in the history of the world in general have thrown many obstacles in the path of the Mennonite historian. The overriding difficulty in my own research has been the geographical location of the areas involved. Most of the historical events which are crucial to my research have occurred in countries which are now under communist control. Consequently, most documents and other primary sources of information are not presently available to the American Mennonite scholar. In addition, it is not even known at this time which documents have survived the hazards of war and revolution.

However, there are some bright spots which dispel some of the gloom caused by this scarcity of information. First, there are some published documents which were copied at a time when the information was more readily available. Most notable of these published sources is the compilation by Benjamin H. Unruh of various immigration lists and censuses of the Mennonites in Russia. 2 Secondly, there are some recent indications that source materials inside Russia may be made available to western historians. We can only hope that the negotiations regarding these source documents will bring about the release of information that has therefore been unavailable to the scholar.

In contrast to the Russian records, the records of the Prussian Mennonites are much more accessible. The reason for this is the fact that many records were moved during the late stages of World War II from the areas which are now under communist control to sites in Western Europe. Thus, many Prussian records are now located at the Mennonite Research Center at the Weierhof, West Germany. In addition, the records of the Danzig Mennonite Church, which was the oldest, largest, and most significant of all the Prussian Mennonite Churches, are now located at the Mennonite Historical Library at North Newton, Kansas. A number of other church record books from Prussia and Russia are also preserved at the Mennonite Historical Library, including the records of the Deutsch-Michalin and Heinrichsdorf churches. Finally, a number of Prussian-Russian churches migrated as a total church community to America, and these churches brought their old records with them. The outstanding example of this is, of course, the record book of the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church of Goessel, Kansas, which dates back to 1640 in its birth records. {76}

The Genealogical Society of the Church of Latter Day Saints has microfilmed many Prussian church records, including many Mennonite record books. These microfilmed records are available to the scholar at their library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and can be ordered at the genealogical libraries in many Mormon churches throughout the country. Thus, the Mennonite family records of Prussia are quite accessible to the family historian. Likewise, the recent family records of Mennonites in America are close at hand and easy to use. The major obstacle in family research, therefore, is the securing of information covering the period of time that a family resided in Russia. “Bridging the Russian gap” is the frustrating task of the Mennonite genealogist and family historian.

A System of Family Research

My own research on the Mennonite family has brought to light an amazing number of sources of information regarding the family. I have gleaned information about Mennonite families from (1) church records; (2) family Bibles and record books; (3) vital records, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates; (4) court probate records; (5) United States governmental materials, especially passenger lists and census records; (6) published obituaries from periodicals such as the Christian Leader, Zionsbote, and Wahrheitsfreund; (7) published genealogies; and (8) other published historical materials such as biographies, encyclopaedias, and Mennonite histories.

All of these sources contain virtually unlimited data concerning Mennonite families. As a result, I have obtained significant information regarding thousands of Mennonite families, with many individuals and families being mentioned in a number of the different source materials listed above. Consequently, I have developed a Master Index-Crossfile of Mennonite family information, which, at the present time, contains information on over 15,000 families. In addition, I have materials relating to at least 5,000 other families which I have not yet incorporated into my index. I am presently adding to my index the church family records of a number of Mennonite churches in the United States which have graciously permitted me to microfilm their church records. A major recent project, now completed, was the inclusion in the index of the complete family records of the Danzig Mennonite Church, covering the years from 1660 to approximately 1860. Additional family records will continually be added to the Master Index, and hopefully the index will progressively become more complete and comprehensive. Without a doubt, this project will demand considerable time and effort for years to come before it can claim to represent anything approaching a complete record of the so-called “Low German” Mennonite families.

II. HOW HAS THE FAMILY AFFECTED MENNONITE HISTORY?

A careful look at the Mennonite family, using the resources outlined above, has caused me to notice that the history of the Mennonite people is often a history of certain families. Almost every Mennonite settlement has had a limited number of families which, generation after generation, virtually, dominated the history of that community. In Danzig, it was the DeVeers and the Kauenhowens. In Chortitza, it was the Epps. The history of the Molotschna Colony consistently hinges on the history of the Cornies-Wiebe family, and the history of the Kuban is really a history of {77} the Claassen family. In America, we repeatedly hear of the Hieberts of Minnesota, the Regiers of Nebraska, the Schellenbergs and Harms of Kansas, and the Toews and Unruhs of Canada.

A second observation which my studies verified is the rather amazing fact that the concepts of “family” and “Mennonite” have been so closely integrated for so long a time that we now have the odd and somewhat embarrassing situation that certain names are described as “Mennonite” names, and persons are labelled as Mennonites because of the names they carry. This is a rather strange turnabout for a religious movement which was founded upon the belief that faith is an individual’s personal response to God, and never an inherited quality.

An even closer look at these general observations about the Mennonite family, and a careful examination of the historical sources in relation to the family information in my Master Index, have caused me to develop three proposals, or hypotheses, concerning the impact of the family upon Mennonite history. These proposals relate to the three areas of (1) Church Origins, (2) Church Expansion, and (3) Church Migrations.

Church Origins (or, more bluntly: Church Divisions)

PROPOSAL NO. 1—DIVISIONS AND AWAKENINGS AMONG THE MENNONITES APPEAR TO HAVE BEEN FAMILY-CENTERED.

Little family information is available in the earliest history of the Mennonites. Thus, it is difficult at this time to study the composition by families of dividing factions in the early Mennonite churches. However, it is interesting to note that the two major factions of the Mennonite church in Prussia—the “Frisian” and “Flemish” factions—maintained their separate identities for over two centuries. So pronounced was this separation on the family level that scholars are even today able to identify certain family names as being “Frisian” or “Flemish” family names.

There is much more family information relating to the divisions of the Mennonite church which occurred in Russia. Likewise, the Russian period of Mennonite history seems to have been a “heyday” for schisms among the Mennonites, and virtually every division appears to have been profoundly influenced by the family.

The Kleine Gemeinde.—In 1814, Klaas Reimer left the existing Mennonite church, and became the first elder of a new group which was called the “Kleine Gemeinde.” Most of the original members of this church were close relatives of Elder Reimer. The second elder of the church, for example, was Reimer’s brother-in-law, Abraham Friesen, and the third elder was his nephew, Johann Friesen. Even more significant is the fact that the present-day churches which find their origins in the Kleine Gemeinde, namely the Evangelical Mennonite Church (EMC); the Canadian branch of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite; and the Emmanuel Mennonite Church of Meade, Kansas, are composed almost entirely of Klaas Reimer’s descendants, and bear relatively few last names. The predominant family names are Reimer, Friesen, Loewen, Isaac, Rempel, Barkman, and Toews. 3

The Mennonite Brethren.—Those of us who are Mennonite Brethren have often heard of the eighteen men who founded the Mennonite Brethren Church in 1860. However, few people seem to realize that many of these eighteen men were very closely related, and came essentially from {78} four different families. For example, Franz Klassen, one of the eighteen, and indeed the oldest of the group, was the step-father of two of the other founders, Abraham and Cornelius Wiens. In addition, one of his step-daughters was soon to marry another of the eighteen, Jacob P. Becker, and another step-daughter was married to Bernhard Janzen, a signer of the Kuban document, an early Mennonite Brethren manifesto. This close family relationship becomes even more intricate when one discovers that the brother of the Jacob P. Becker mentioned above, Benjamin Bekker, was a signer of the March 19, 1860, document, as was their sister’s husband, Abraham Regier. In addition, Benjamin Bekker was soon to marry the daughter of Heinrich Neufeld, a signer of the Kuban document, and an early leader of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Einlage, Chortitza.

This same kind of close family relationship is reflected in the Claassen family. Johann Claassen and his brother, Dietrich Claassen, were among the eighteen. A third brother, David Claassen, signed the March 19 document, as did a brother-in-law, Jakob Reimer. In addition, Dietrich Claassen’s two sons, Johann and Dietrich, signed the Kuban document, as did their cousin, Johann Claassen (David Claassen’s son), and another of Johann Claassen’s brothers-in-law, Cornelius Reimer.

In short, it is obvious from these two examples, that the early members of the Mennonite Brethren Church tended to be very closely related, either by blood or by marriage.

Other Divisions.—A number of other divisions occurred among the Mennonites of Russia. Elder Herman Peters established a church which was called the “Breadbreaker Church” due to its method of observing the ordinance of communion. In America, this church survives as the small congregation known as the Church of God in Fairview, Oklahoma. Since 1898 the elders of this church have all been members of the Penner family, a fact which often has caused this church to be known as the “Penner Church.”

Trying to explain the reasons for these family phenomena is a much more difficult task than was the actual discovery of their existence. We can conjecture that perhaps there was a strong family leader, who persuaded other members of his family to join him in a new expression of religious belief. Or, perhaps, the first concern of a person who had experienced a new insight was to share it with his family. Another possible reason for this phenomenon might be that similar styles of upbringing could encourage similar expectations in religious experiences. Perhaps further study and research can reveal why these church divisions were influenced by the family to the extent that we now know they were.

Church Expansion (or, Evangelism, if you prefer)

PROPOSAL NO. 2—THE ADDITION OF NON-MENNONITES TO A MENNONITE CHURCH APPEARS TO REQUIRE THAT THERE BE A WILLINGNESS FOR THE NON-MENNONITE TO ALSO JOIN THE FAMILY.

This proposal could be paraphrased: “If you want them to share your faith, you must let them have your daughters also.” The history of the Mennonites has been surprisingly characterized by a continually increasing number of so-called “Mennonite” family names. Again, there is {79} little family information from the very earliest periods of Mennonite history, but certain assumptions can be made, based on the nature of the last names which were being added to the membership of the church.

The Alexanderwohl Church record book, for example, narrates the addition of a Mr. Becker as a new member of the church during the early 1600’s. Mr. Becker, a German by birth, not only joined the church, however. He also married one of the Dutch girls who was a member of the church, and thus introduced the name “Becker” to the Mennonite Church. The same church record gives a similar account of a certain Mr. Funck of Swiss nationality who joined the church and married into the church family, introducing the name “Funk” to the Mennonite community.

There appears to have been a remarkable willingness on the part of the Prussian Mennonites to invite non-Mennonites into their churches and families. More family names were added to the Mennonite church records during this period than during any other recorded period in Mennonite history. Examples of such names are the Polish names Sawatzky, Tillitzky, and Schapansky; the Swedish name Dahl; the Slavic name Ratzlaff; and the German names Unruh, Bartsch, Hildebrand, and Ediger. Many other such names could be given. The most amazing aspect of this particular phenomenon in Prussian Mennonite history, is the fact that the dominant German culture of Prussia deplored the presence of the Dutch Mennonites in their midst and continually discovered new ways of harassing and persecuting them. Nonetheless, many new members brought into the Mennonite community not only their alien ideas and experiences, but also their alien last names.

There is a rather interesting parallel to this during the years of the Mennonite sojourn in Russia. Even though the Mennonite Brethren Church was founded by members of only a few families, as is described above, nevertheless there was soon a willingness to accept persons of non-Mennonite backgrounds into the fellowship and families of the church. The evangelistic fervor of the early Mennonite Brethren caused inhabitants of the surrounding German colonies to be added to the Mennonite Brethren Church during its early years. Consequently, a German Catholic man by the name of Lange joined the church and brought a new last name into the church. Similarly, German Lutherans and Pietists with such names as Seibel, Faul, Lautt, Ollenburger, Wiest, and Leppky were accepted as church members and sons-in-law.

There is even the rather remarkable story of the early Mennonite Brethren man named Jacob Martens. He considered it his particular calling to evangelize the native Russians. On several occasions, in fact, he was imprisoned for proselytizing the natives, which was forbidden by law. However, he was not only successful in converting a number of Russians to the Mennonite Brethren faith, but also willing to allow his daughter to marry one of the Russian converts. His efforts resulted in the establishment of both Baptist and Mennonite Brethren churches, composed mainly of his Russian converts.

Clearly, it would seem appropriate for us to evaluate our modern methods of evangelism in the Mennonite community in terms of our willingness to accept the potential converts into our families. In this regard, I recently heard a friend comment, “It seems to be the general feeling nowadays that it is better for one’s child to marry an unconverted person with a Mennonite heritage, than to marry a converted non-Mennonite.” {80} If this is the case, it certainly is contrary to the feelings of our great-grandfathers, who did seem to be quite successful in evangelizing.

Church Migrations

PROPOSAL NO. 3—RELIGIOUS MIGRATIONS HAVE THEIR ROOTS NOT ONLY IN ECONOMICS AND THEOLOGY, BUT ALSO IN CERTAIN FAMILY ASPECTS.

This proposal is largely based upon my recent investigations into the family records of the Danzig Mennonite Church, and corroborating evidence in the immigration lists itemized by B. H. Unruh. It seemed peculiar to me that certain family names virtually disappeared from the membership of the Danzig church as a result of the migrations to Russia, while other family names, common in the Danzig membership both before and after the migrations, go unmentioned in the immigration lists and the later censuses in Russia. Examples of these Low-German Mennonite names are Momber, Focking, Eggerath, Mahl, Reincke, Dunckel, Sprunck, and Lamberts. We don’t recognize these as Mennonite names any longer, mainly because no member of these families made the trek to Russia and America along with our own ancestors.

On the other hand, the immigration lists seem to indicate that the families which did migrate to Russia, did so en masse. It is not uncommon at all to find long lists of family members—brothers, uncles, cousins, and even grandparents—all migrating together to their new homeland. It is even more remarkable to notice how this same phenomenon occurred with regularity in the later migrations from Russia to the Americas.

The records seem to indicate, therefore, that the bond of the extended family was strong enough, at times of migration, to compel massive group migrations involving entire families. Similarly, the decision not to migrate seems to have been a decision of an entire extended family group, and not merely a matter of individual choice.

The influence of the family upon the decision to migrate is also demonstrated, in a rather amazing way, by the choice of first names in a family group. There were those families in the Danzig church who gave their children a number of contemporary, non-traditional, given names. For example, Johann Conwentz and his wife, Catharina Kroeker, named their three children: Catharina Henriette, Jean Friedrich, and Johanna Adolphine. On the other hand, there were those families who gave single, traditional, given names to their children. An example of this would be Peter Epp and his wife, Maria Penner, who named their six children: Peter, Gerhard, Abraham, Catharina, Cornelius, and Anna. The interesting fact which my research revealed is that virtually none of the families with the non-traditional names migrated to Russia. The families which did migrate to Russia took with them children with the simple, traditional names which had characterized the families two centuries earlier.

The reasons for this could be manifold. Perhaps the giving of nontraditional names indicated that the family in question was beginning to become assimilated to the prevailing Prussian environment. In other words, the use of such names might suggest that the family was now at home in Prussia, and comfortable with Prussian culture, and therefore had no desire to migrate elsewhere. Some might even suggest that some were experiencing subtle changes in their religious outlook, and this was {81} reflected by their use of new names, rather than the biblically-based names of their ancestors. In any event, it is evident that there is a correlation between a family’s choice of given names and its willingness to migrate to a distant land.


These three proposals regarding the impact of the family upon Mennonite history are based upon a preliminary study of a rather limited body of information. Hopefully, these proposals are only the first step in an ongoing study of nature and function of the Mennonite family. As more information becomes available, we will continue to discover how the remarkable institution of the family has affected the very nature and course of the Mennonite church. We now know that the family has played a critical role in the origins, expansion, and pilgrimages of the Mennonites in history. We can only hope that a growing understanding of the impact of the family upon our history will help us not only to recognize the powerful influence which the family can exert, but also to develop, for our own time, a concept of the family which will bring a new strength to our churches and to our society.

FOOTNOTES

  1. For a concise study of the Mennonite family, see the articles entitled “Family” and “Family in Mennonite History and Life in America” in the Mennonite Encyclopedia (Scottdale: Mennonite Publishing House, 1956), II, 293-9. Both these articles have excellent bibliographies for further reference.
  2. Benjamin Heinrich Unruh, Die Niederlaendisch-niederdeutschen Hintergruende der Mennonitischen Ostwanderungen im 16., 18. and 19. Jahruhndert (Karlsruhe, 1955).
  3. For further information, refer to Familien-Register der Nachkommen von Klaas and Helena Reimer mit Biographien der Ersten Drei Generationen (Winnipeg, 1958).
Mr. Peters is a social worker in Fresno, California, and is the worship leader of the College Community M.B. Church of Clovis.

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