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Fall 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 2 · pp. 127–39 

Historical Endnotes

Heinrich Epp

DOCUMENTS IN MENNONITE BRETHREN HISTORY: THE FOUNDING OF THE EINLAGE MENNONITE BRETHREN CONGREGATION

(Part II of the booklet by Heinrich Epp, Recollections from the Life and Work of the Late Elder Abraham Unger, Founder of the Einlage Mennonite Brethren Congregation (1907) appears in translation in Direction 20/1 (1991) 125-40. Ida Toews and Ken Reddig are the translators.)

PART I

The founding of the Mennonite Brethren Church in 1860 was not without controversy. Various new life movements had been sweeping the Steppes of the Ukraine. Among the residents of the Ukraine were Mennonites who had immigrated from Prussia and were, like other settlers on the Steppes, influenced by these movements.

In telling the story of the founding of the Mennonite Brethren Church the influence of these movements is largely forgotten. Reference is often made to the “Exuberance Movement,” but usually in the context of being a post-1860, i.e. post-founding, influence.

Recently attention has been drawn to documents which have not been utilized in the historiography of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Among these documents receiving renewed attention is the booklet published by Heinrich Epp in 1907 entitled: Notizen aus dem Leben and Wirken des verstorbenen Aeltesten Abraham Unger, dem Gruender der “Einlager-Mennoniten-Brudergemeinde.”

As the title indicates, the booklet is intended as an account of the life of Abraham Unger, founder of the Mennonite Brethren congregation in Chortitza. However, as the reader will soon see, the author devotes his attention mostly to the early years of struggle within this congregation, where Unger played a leading role.

In his brief Foreword to this volume, the author notes that he bases his narrative upon his own experiences as a member of the Einlage Mennonite Brethren Church and upon letters he found among the papers of Abraham Unger. The intention is, as the author goes on to state, “To describe the reasons and the course of events of the separation by someone who was himself a part of this time. I will briefly describe both the lighter and darker sides, unadorned, according to the example of the Bible.” 1

The importance of this brief document is that it tells the story of the founding of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Chortitza, and only briefly mentions the Molotschna story—which John A. Toews in his History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, and others, have tended to highlight as the normative experience. Thus what we have here is a fresh new perspective {128} on how a parallel Mennonite Brethren congregation eventually came into being, quite apart from the congregation in Gnadenfeld, Molotschna. Due to the length of the booklet, the translation which follows has been divided into two parts.

PART I

The question, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” was asked eighteen hundred years ago when Jesus, in his thirtieth year, appeared publicly and revealed himself as the promised Messiah. Likewise, in the year 1853, this was said of a little village in southern Russia named Neu Kronsweide, District of Chortitza, Province of Jekaterinoslav. This village lies at the bottom of a steep, narrow valley, which after many twists and turns, opens into the nearby Dnieper River at the point where the water tumbles with a great roar over the scattered rocks known as “Paroggen.” In this village, where dancing and games were daily happenings, where a deep spiritual darkness reigned, the bright light of the gospel suddenly began to shine.

How did all this originate? The almighty God does not lack in ways and means, and this was true here. A young man by the name of Johann Loewen from Chortitza, but living in New Kronsweide, through God’s word and the sermons of Ludwig Hofacker, was awakened by the light of the gospel to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, on 2 February, 1853.

Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds, and praise your father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16). 2

In accordance with this challenge, Johann Loewen testified about the light he had received. At this time, it was dark everywhere in the Mennonite congregations on the “Old Colony.” (That is how the colony of Chortitza, founded in 1789 was known in contrast to Molotschna, founded in 1804-1806). So brightly did the light of the gospel shine in the darkness through Loewen’s witness that by the spring of 1853, a small group of believing children of God had gathered. The leader {129} was so filled with spirit and life, that whoever came into conversation with him was soon convinced of the truth, and thus the little group grew to fifty souls.

When the enemy saw that so many were turning away from him, he began to devise means of putting an end to this activity. His tools were, once again, people. The clergy, who were themselves in darkness, saw a false light in the activity of God’s children. Therefore they attempted to silence Loewen (who testified for Christ wherever he appeared), or, as they put it, to correct him. Because this was not successful the inhabitants of the place brought an accusation before the district court against Loewen and his followers. The inhabitants received permission from the court to reprimand and correct Loewen and his followers, thus starting the persecution. This was in early spring of 1853. Special prisons were not available everywhere, so the confessors of Christ were locked up in granaries, special rooms and cellars. But at the beginning of seeding time they were freed so that they could look after their families.

The enemy of souls, however, did not rest. He sought to lead the people of the Savior onto a slippery way so that they might fall. In part, he succeeded. A man, Jacob Janzen (who died in Alexandrovsk in the summer of 1886), was originally a preacher in Kronsweide, but had been dismissed before the Kronsweide revival. This man found a new cause in prison. He was the instigator of the freedom movement which brought so much shame to the little band of believers. On the basis of Romans 7, they emphasized the difference between the old and the new person, whereby they implied and convinced themselves that they could glorify their freedom in Christ in spite of living in a worldly way. (He [Janzen] died in this error although many spoke with him, trying to dissuade him).

This man now brought leader Johann Loewen to share his erroneous viewpoint. Through his huge success, for whatever he said was accepted, Loewen succumbed to spiritual pride. God permitted him to get onto this slippery way and he fell. Following the example of Jacob Janzen, he interpreted God’s word in a one-sided, erroneous way. For example, “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do” (Rom. 7:15-20). “. . . as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and ever-increasing wickedness . . .” (Rom. 6:9). {130}

These passages were incorrectly interpreted. Disruption and decay followed. Indeed, he went so far as to permit freedom of morals against which Paul had warned when he said “But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another in love” (Gal. 5:13). Paul also said: “After beginning with the spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal. 3:3). If someone could not admit to such a freedom, they said, he had not yet penetrated the truth. Some in this little group fell from one sin into another. However, many of the brethren were not in agreement with this; to most of them it was totally unknown since these activities were considered “strong food” and kept secret.

Since nothing under the sun remains hidden, the immorality and sin saw the light of day. The result was that the little group, the innocent as well as the guilty, were lumped together. As there was yet no congregational organization, they still belonged to the Mennonite congregation. Even though only a small number had participated in the transgressions, all the brethren were punished by excommunication.

Policy in the Mennonite church was that transgressors were excommunicated for two to three weeks, and then accepted back into membership. Thus it was with the brethren in 1855. They found their way back in the usual way, were reprimanded, and received into the Chortitza church. Then Abraham Unger declared openly, before the whole congregation, that he would read God’s word anyway and live according to it. Whereupon the senior teacher, Heinrich Penner, replied “Who would wish to hinder you?”

The glimmering wick did not quite go out in this time of affliction and disgrace. In fact, after five years, it began to shine once again. The Lord led the brethren Heinrich Neufeld, Abraham Unger, Kornelius Unger, and Peter Friesen to a chance meeting where they discussed what might be done. The disgrace and humiliation of the awakened brethren was too great to be allowed to be left lie dormant, so they worked to rally their spirits. The church authority had forbidden any kind of religious communication. In God’s word we find the command to have fellowship and prayer, and since we ourselves felt the need for this, it was agreed to go to the elder and request permission to gather for prayer. This was granted with the provision not to proselytize. From that time on we gathered {131} with our families, and the Lord blessed our prayer meetings. He gave us strength and understanding, and the group of believers increased.

The brethren in Einlage, Heinrich Neufeld, Abraham Unger and Kornelius Unger, subscribed to various missionary newsletters at that time. These included the newsletter of “The Congregation of Baptized Christians” now know as “Witness to the Truth.” Abraham Unger became aware of two points: separation and baptism.

The question we often discussed; why did Baptists deal so much with baptism in their publications when it is only the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses us from our sins? Heinrich Neufeld had put baptism aside because he believed that one could be saved without being baptized. Abraham Unger was not satisfied with this. He wrote to Brother Oncken in Hamburg, asking why the Baptists printed so many articles on baptism in their periodicals when only the blood of Jesus Christ, the son of God, could cleanse us from our sins. The kindly brother Oncken did not have to be asked twice. He replied, “Dear Brother Unger: Whereby shall one know that one is a child of God if one does not obey the Word of God? Study God’s word diligently and the Lord will guide your understanding.”

And that is how it happened. By reading the Word of God it became clearer to him that he had not been baptized upon his faith, and likewise, separation must follow. But what was to be done? He did not remain silent, but discussed this with the brethren. However, no one had any idea as to the way in which a new congregation could be organized. The government did not permit invitations to itinerant preachers from outside the country.

Love, however, finds a way. Since Abraham Unger was a tradesman, they got the idea to ask a few brethren from Hamburg to come over; brethren who could also help in congregational matters. In 1860 Abraham Unger wrote to brother Oncken in Hamburg. The latter discussed these matters with his congregation, and suitable brethren for Russia were found—one was Brother [August] Liebig.

In the meantime, before the brethren from Hamburg came over, the brethren in Molotschna had already baptized some brethren. Gerhard Wieler, a teacher, came to a living faith and was baptized. Since he belonged to the Chortitza {132} district, he was banished from Molotschna and sent to us. Abraham Unger took him into his home where he remained during the winter of 1861 to 1862. Because Gerhard Wieler was deeply religious and gifted, as well as having good educational skills, he tried to persuade Abraham Unger to cancel the invitation to the Hamburg brethren. Brother Unger was unwilling to do this but finally he grew tired and gave in, writing them not to come.

Brother Oncken replied saying that they had lost nothing, but that we would experience a great deal more hardship, for founding a new congregation was not easy. During this time several brethren—Abraham Unger, Johann Loewen and I (Heinrich Epp)—travelled to the Molotschna to be present at a baptism, and to consult with the brethren of that place.

As far as baptism was concerned, it was done according to God’s Word, immersion in the water. Concerning order and rules, we found the opposite. Quite a few of the dear brethren had gotten onto the theme: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). So things were in a state of “rejoicing” there. Some were moving about this way, some that way, some were jumping around in a childish way creating a bad image before the world which we could not condone in the light of God’s Word. We went home with saddened hearts and considered what was to be done.

We had broken off the invitation to the brethren in Hamburg. The situation in the Molotschna did not appear to be right to us, nor did we wish to remain as we were. Then we realized, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved . . .” (Mark 16:16). Now we believed that Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, had taken away our sins too. The baptism, as carried out by the brethren in Molotschna, appeared to us to be the correct form, according to God’s word. So we waited for a suitable time when Becker (one of the leaders in Molotschna) and Wieler (who was with us now and was the actual driving force) would be of one mind. Both had designated themselves as the leader of the brethren.

The brothers Abraham Unger and Heinrich Neufeld traveled to Molotschna in the spring of 1862, were baptized by Gerhard Wieler, and returned home. On 18 March, 1862, the first baptism was held in the Dnieper River. Those baptized were: Abraham Unger’s wife, Heinrich Epp and his wife, believers in Kronsweide, and several more from Einlage. The {133} ice on the Dnieper was pushed aside and 18 people descended into the water. Only one outsider was witness to this, a fisherman named Hoeppner, and he later told the authorities. Both Abraham Unger and Heinrich Neufeld performed the baptisms in order to be finished as quickly as possible.

After the baptism we continued on our way rejoicing, and everyone could see that we were changed. The little group of baptized brethren grew quickly to 76 souls by May of 1862. This aroused general notice and the village authorities tried to put a stop to this movement, and so persecution began anew.

A brother, Wilhelm Janzen, was beaten with a whip. They bound six twigs together, stripped him, and threw him on a bundle of straw. He then was mercilessly whipped by a man who had undertaken to whip the “piety” out of the believers in two weeks. Since Janzen neither could or would recant, the village elder became so incensed that he locked Janzen up in a damp, cold summer room which was not heated in the winter. In addition, his fur-lined coat was taken away and a block was thrown in to sit on. But since he was so badly beaten, he could not sit.

Every crevice which might permit light into the summer room was covered to prevent any possibility of his being able to read. His food consisted of half-baked, unsalted bread. As he could not survive long under these circumstances, he was transferred to another prison where he received better treatment. There he was given enough to eat, and had a good bed, but all this was done in secret. The humanitarian who did this was Johann Neufeld, a Kronsweide resident. He was the father of the late manufacturer Jakob Neufeld, the founder and onetime owner of the factories in Andreasfeld and of the estate, Sophievka. The victim Wilhelm Janzen on the other hand, is the father of the manufacturer Jacob Janzen of Sergejevka. After 10 days of confinement he was allowed to go free. But in general, persecution increased.

Heinrich Neufeld, Abraham Unger, and Gerhard Wieler, who were looked upon as the leaders, were excommunicated from the old church along with several others. Since they could not return to the church, they were accused of being deceivers, leading many souls astray. The brethren were actually gathering those scattered during the years 1853 to 1855, a small group of 91 souls, into a new congregation in which Neufeld and Unger were elected to the positions of teachers. {134}

The accused brethren were now forced to make many court appearances—from the village reeve to the elder and from the elder to the district administrator. Since this was futile, it was announced that no one was to have anything to do with them, neither to buy from them nor to sell them anything. That is how they treated us also. If there was an auction anywhere, our word was not accepted. If a brother wished to make a contract with another, no one would comply.

The landowners were not as badly off as the tradesmen. Their apprentices were taken away from them. They had to pay their debts. If they were not able to, they were pressured.

Already by 29 March, 1862 several brethren, fathers of 27 households, were summoned to appear before the Chortitza District Court. They were asked if they wished to persist in their faith in the Lord Jesus. They naturally answered in the affirmative. They were then presented a paper requiring their signature stating that they, the brethren, were prepared to comply without question, if the Mennonite Church found it in its best interests to banish them. Further, that they surrender all rights as Mennonites.

However, the arraigned persons did not give their signatures—the Lord be praised. As a result, the two teachers, Abraham Unger and Heinrich Neufeld, were summoned again on 7 May, 1862. This time by the Pristav [official] of the second district of the Jekaterinoslav area, by the name of Bachinsky. In the presence of Reeve Dueck, they were asked to give personal information on the more than 3 5 families they had misled into their special sect. Information included first and last names, ages, education (if they could read or write), place of birth, marital status, names and ages of children, religious confession and if they had left their original Mennonite faith. To all these questions the brethren gave full information. Among other things Heinrich Neufeld said the following:

“I, Mennonite Heinrich Neufeld, have in no way renounced my adherence to my Mennonite faith. Instead I confess that the reformer Menno Simons, introduced baptism and holy communion according to {135} God’s Word. In the course of years it has degenerated so that today it is no longer carried out according to the scripture. Because a group of us Mennonites have come to this insight through the Holy Spirit, we are endeavoring to act according to God’s Word again. Therefore our fellow brethren have elected us, namely myself and Abraham Unger, as teachers.”

After this statement they were all allowed to return home and were there for two days, fully anticipating further recrimination. And they were not wrong. During the night from the second to the third day, brethren Neufeld, Unger and Isaak were taken by the village authorities to the Chortitza district jail. The windows were covered so that they would not be able to read. On 7 May, 1862 they were taken before the “Stanovoj” [official] of the second district who took them to a Russian village, Tschernischev, where they were placed under guard.

When the inhabitants of this village, who were curious about the captive Germans, came and saw that they held worship services they were amazed at what manner of prisoners they were and inquired why they had been imprisoned. Joyfully the brethren gave them to understand that they were being held captive for the sake of Christ and their faith. The brethren were glad that they were being held captive for the sake of Christ and their faith. The brethren were glad that they were under Russian jurisdiction, for when the guard realized that the Germans would not try to escape, he gave them the freedom to go to town, ten werst away [10.6 kilometers], in order to buy food. They were compelled to stay there for seven weeks but not in the jail. They were allowed to move about freely and to speak of God’s Word—which they naturally did.

The road from Einlage to Tschernischev was travelled frequently, though it was a distance of 50 werst. All those who came to living faith in their home villages during this time, were baptized here in the Russian village. Thus the little group increased in numbers.

The brethren were finally permitted to return home to their families on 26 June after a detention of seven weeks. On 12 July the brethren, Heinrich Neufeld, Abraham Unger and P Berg were summoned to the city jail known as the “Ostrog.” They were released only upon guarantee or bond after a two)week detention.

As the brethren were still being threatened, the congregation thought it necessary to send Gerhard Wieler to the Czar in St. Petersburg with a petition. This took place in the spring of 1862. The Molotschna brethren had already sent Johann {136} Klassen to St. Petersburg in 1860 with a petition authorized by the congregation with the two-fold purpose of representing them before the authorities and to work out land grants for the settlement of the oppressed brethren. The latter was also achieved later.

In the meantime, while Johann Klassen and Gerhard Wieler were in St. Petersburg, we were summoned before the Chortitza district court again. Here we were to give account of ourselves. We told them that we wanted to wait and see what the brethren in St. Petersburg would achieve and what the government would conclude regarding us. Whatever it was we would accept as from the Lord. Upon this they became thoughtful and let us go home.

The decision was now made to exclude the brethren from the status of Colonists. The district authorities announced this in all the villages, gathering the responses of the congregations. Most, with the exception of a few individuals, gave their signature.

In the Molotschna the situation was the same. On 11 October, 1862 the entire conference of churches was summoned to the Halbstadt administrative center. The area administrator, Friesen, declared that they had no choice, either the Brethren must be dropped from the status of the colonists, or they must be looked upon as a special congregation.

From the very beginning two Molotschna elders, one from the Kleine Gemeinde and the other from the Halbstadt-Orloff Gemeinde, did not give their consent to drop the Brethren from the status of the Colonists. The first stated this orally, the latter in a written statement on 12 November, 1862. He declared that their congregation found no justification in the Word of God to remove these separated ones from the status of the colonists. This was very gratifying to us Brethren.

Likewise, the higher Russian government was, after God, our protection. The brethren Gerhard Wieler and Johann Klassen found a favorable hearing there, and they returned home on 28 July, 1862.

In October of 1863, the government announced in both the Old Colony and the Molotschna that there was no hindrance to the Brethren if they wished to emigrate to the Kuban district where each family would receive 65 desjatine (71 Hectares) of land and the same rights and privileges as the {137} Mennonites here. Herewith the persecution was ended and we could live our life of faith in peace.

With some sadness I must relate how things were in our congregation at this time. When the brethren returned from prison in Jekaterinoslav, the congregation met to hear about their experiences. To our regret, they saw that the leading brethren did not agree in their interpretation of the gospel. As in the past when Becker and Wieler introduced the “exuberant” behavior from the Molotschna, with which many here disagreed, we once again realized we could not go along with Wieler. And so the congregation departed with heavy hearts.

However, Gerhard Wieler, as already mentioned, had an eloquent way with words, and persuaded Heinrich Neufeld to share his convictions. Thus there were two leaders in a congregation with the same doctrine. Since Heinrich Neufeld was a gifted and respected teacher, the largest group joined his side. From then on one error led to another. For example, young unmarried women could not appear without a cap, even during a marriage ceremony. This drew ridicule from the rest of the community, for such women were considered as having lost their honor. No pictures or mottos were permitted on the walls. Likewise, no pictures in Christian books. All were destroyed and burned—not even the Christian books such as Ludwig Hofacker’s “Sermons”, or Arend’s “Christianity” were spared. Everything except the Bible and the New Testament were thrown into the fire-only these were to be read. Into this error I, the writer of these pages, also stumbled. Gerhard Wieler stepped before the congregation, lifted up the Bible and declared, “This book, the Bible, is the only book that leads to salvation. All other books are useless in this respect and must therefore be destroyed and burned.” He had lost sight of Paul’s admonishment, “Test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

Abraham Unger and several other brethren did not agree with this. Gerhard Wieler, the originator of this mistaken viewpoint, was the first to be guilty of breaking it. As already mentioned, Gerhard Wieler was sent to St. Petersburg. When he returned, he brought back his own photograph, whereas he had previously forbidden photography most severely. Thus he came under the suspicion of practicing Christianity more in word than in deed. In spite of this, several were converted and added to the church. {138}

When Brother Oncken in Hamburg heard how “the Brethren” in Russia were faring he travelled to St. Petersburg in 1865 to intercede for them before the high Russian government. He was warned not to speak up, that he was in danger of being banished to Siberia. He said that even there he would preach the gospel. Later the “Evangelical Alliance” also interceded and freedom was thus achieved.

With regard to our congregation I must admit that at this time it stood on slippery ground. As we learned from the previous incidents, Brothers Neufeld and Wieler agreed in doctrine. This left Abraham Unger and several families standing alone. When he saw that he could do nothing with his colleagues, Abraham Unger resigned from his position as teacher. Later he regretted this. This dragged on for a while. We were only a burden to our teachers Neufeld and Wieler.

In October of 1864 they condemned us, saying: “Whoever is on Abraham Unger’s side can no longer be a brother.” So, several families, altogether 14 souls, were formally excommunicated: Abraham Unger, the father of Gerhard Wieler and his brothers Johann and Franz Wieler, Kornelius Unger, Heinrich Epp, K. Heubert, J. Koslowsky, P Friesen and P Berg. From that time on the situation went completely off track as it had done ten years previously. They interpreted God’s Word in a literal, one-sided sense. For example, “Go out to dance with the joyful” (Jer. 31:4). “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). And another, Rejoice in that day and leap for joy” (Luke. 6:23). This set the pattern for the services. No sermons were permitted, although they praised God and thanked him. The latter became less and less until the meetings became mere amusement. They played and danced until their clothes were wet with perspiration. With those who had become excommunicated they were to have no association. They even came upon the place in the scripture which says: “Greet no one on the street.” This became an offence to some.

After the congregation had been in this state of disorder for two years, permission came from the government that we might settle in the Kuban. But what now? As the Brethren would not have any communication with us, we could naturally not move with them. In the Molotschna congregation it was the same. For example, a Jacob Reimer family had taken a large part of their household and farm articles to the Kuban before the excommunication. Then they found they could not {139} move there because most of the Brethren there would be of the other conviction and would not associate with them.

We were in the same situation. We could not go to the land which the government had given to us and which had cost us so much effort and expense. We had to wait until God would move in another way.

(Part II will appear in a subsequent issue)

ENDNOTES

  1. Heinrich Epp, Recollections from the life and work of the late Elder Abraham Unger founder of the Einlage Mennonite Brethren Congregation (Light and dark sides, unadorned), trans. by Ida Toews and edited by Ken Reddig. The booklet was first published by the author in 1907 and printed by HA Braun, Halbstadt, Taurien Province. The quote is from page 2.
  2. All biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (1978).

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