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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 74–95 

The Calm Before the Storm: Mennonite Brethren in Russia (1900–1914)

John B. Toews

An unprecedented economic prosperity; a cultural renaissance with a determined commitment to schools and advanced studies; a vigorous colonization in the direction of northern and eastern frontiers; a revitalization of traditional Mennonite piety—for the Russian Mennonites of the early twentieth century these were the main components of a “golden age.” The world of the Mennonites living in Russia seemed intact. There were no major threats to their prevailing sense of well-being, and most felt secure under the larger umbrella of Mennonitism.

In the early twentieth century, the Mennonite Brethren, as they had throughout the later nineteenth century, continued to focus on evangelism and congregational nurture.

The russification and state service pressures of the last three decades had been successfully accommodated. The Mennonite minority status was protected by Russian law and the Romanov dynasty remained the guardian of historic privileges. The mass exodus to North America had occurred more than two decades ago and the majority now saw no reason to leave what they looked upon as their motherland. Within the community the number of landless Mennonites never again reached mid-nineteenth century proportions thanks to a well-regulated and systematic settlement program within the Russian Empire. The traditional pattern of village life remained intact. The mechanization of agriculture, though accompanied by increased land acquisition and farm debt, generated no identity crisis.

The villager remained protected from outside influences by an effective network of institutions, beginning with the village school and {75} expanding to encompass almost every dimension of his life experience. There was no danger of succumbing to assimilation pressures nor any need to seek an identity in any other minority group, not even the other German colonists.

EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY STRUCTURES

Neither the Mennonite nor the Mennonite Brethren churches experienced any radical changes during the first decade of the twentieth century. Religious style and liturgy as well as organizational structures remained unaltered. In their own minds both groups were dedicated followers of Menno Simons and clung to all the distinctives set forth in their respective confessions of faith, especially matters like nonresistance and the rejection of the oath. The majority probably felt they understood Menno fully. They did not reject his views on radical discipleship nor the notion of the church as a covenant community, but were possibly not conscious of the full meaning of these doctrines.

Some of the older religious quarrels still lingered. There were those in the Mennonite church who chided the Brethren for their continuing exclusiveness and their concern with immersion baptism. On the other hand Brethren objected to the time-honored liturgies of catechetical instruction and baptism which often brought all the young people into the church without a careful scrutiny of their personal faith. The two groups cooperated on most other issues. They sat together at All-Mennonite Conferences, the meetings of the various teacher associations, the annual sessions relating to the support and supervision of the forestry command and finally at village and volost assemblies.

Village and volost politics constituted an integral part of the life experience of both the Mennonite and Brethren church members. Here were two peoplehoods separate from Russian society by their terms of settlement. Their identity was further sustained by a distinct religious confession, geographic isolation and a German cultural ethos. Their dissenting forebears left established religion in the interests of a free church voluntary in its membership. Yet as successive generations lived apart Mennonites became a society unto themselves. Religion and politics intermingled, church and state became one. One component could not function without the other. The church was obligated to Christianize all of Mennonite society. Though the Mennonite Brethren objected to this paradigm in the 1860s, they had erected their own societal model which, with minor variations was not that different from that of the Mennonite church. Certainly the demand for decisive conversion, immersion baptism, circumspect discipleship, and church discipline were still part of {76} the Brethren ethos, but there were also detectable elements of formalization and stratification.

THE BLANKENBURG ALLIANZ

In an earlier article dealing with the Mennonite Brethren during the 1890s, we mentioned Hermann Neufeld’s somewhat frustrating interaction with the Blankenburg Allianz Conference. 1 He felt its theology did not agree with his definition of the church nor with his views on the meaning and practice of communion and baptism.

Neufeld was not the first Russian Mennonite to encounter the transdenominational Allianz. The movement was rooted in a loose affiliation of German evangelicals which emerged in 1886 as an offshoot of the Evangelical Alliance founded in London in 1846. Known as the Blankenburg Conference, after the city which hosted its annual gatherings, it had, by the turn of the century, crystallized the central tenet of its theology: the unity of the body of Christ. Minimizing denominational dogmatics and practices, its annual conference stressed prayer meetings, renewal, and the importance of personal faith, as well as devotional preaching.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, a number of prominent Mennonites living in Ukraine were in contact with the movement in one of several ways. Mennonite estate owners, attracted by vibrant spirituality of the Allianz, frequently attended the week-long conference themselves or sponsored ministers like Hermann Neufeld. On other occasions these pious patrons invited Mennonite ministers and teachers to all-expenses-paid conferences on their estates. Here the participants listened to articulate Allianz spokespersons from Germany. 2 Early in the twentieth century, Russian Mennonite students began attending the Allianz Bible School in Berlin and returned with broadened Christian visions, not all of which fit the perimeters of their Russian Mennonite world. 3 Still others read Allianz publications, including the Elberfelder Bible Translation, or subscribed to the Evangelische Allianzblatt or Ernst F. Stroeter’s dispensationally-inclined publication, Das Prophetische Wort. 4

These varied Allianz influences penetrated the ranks of the spiritually-minded within both the Mennonite church and the Brethren. But its impact was most noticeable among the Brethren, e.g., open communion celebration with all believing saints; a minimizing or even rejection of the need for baptism; the elimination of confessional boundaries. These priorities basically conflicted with Brethren views on closed communion, believer’s baptism, and the demand for a circumspect life of discipleship lived in the context of the local congregation. {77}

In a sense, the clash between ideologies culminated in 1906 when Mennonite Allianz advocates succumbed to a form of denominationalism by organizing the Evangelical Mennonite Brotherhood (Evangelisch-Mennonitische Bruederschaft) in a large granary on David Dick’s Apanlee estate. 5 While known Brethren ministers like Jakob Reimer from Rueckenau and Jakob Kroeker from Halbstadt actively participated in the organizing process, they did not become official members. 6 Most of the charter members came from the Mennonite church in Lichtenau, and the term Lichtenau Allianz became synonymous with the presence of the group in the Molotschna region. For the Brethren, the crystallization of Allianz sentiments, especially among some of its leaders, set the stage for considerable tension in the pre-war period. 7

TENSIONS REGARDING THE ALLIANZ

There are few sources which document the initial impact of the Allianz movement on the Mennonite Brethren. One of the earliest involves a report sent to the Zionsbote in 1899 by a correspondent from the Zagradovka settlement. He noted that the itinerant minister Quiring

spoke a great deal about Allianz meetings which are now the fashion and with which we can’t agree. He read 1 Corinthians 12:13 but did not deal with the first part of the verse. We think the first part is as important to unity and fellowship as the second. . . . It is quite biblical to have a church which consists only of the children of God, but what if one is baptized as a child, another by effusion, and the third by immersion. . . . I don’t find a single church in the Scriptures structured in this fashion. . . . Today it seems we have a new Gospel, for we hear that people are being admitted to communion who have not been baptized. I fear that before long we will not understand one another. 8

Some years later, correspondent Claassen from Davekanovo in the Ufa settlement reported three baptisms: the founder of the local school for the poor, Franz Klassen; its teacher, Jacob Martens; and a Kornelius Siemens. These three were accepted into the Mennonite Brethren church even though it was publicly known that all were supporters of the Allianz notion of open communion. 9

The Brethren evangelist and itinerant minister, Jakob Reimer, of the Rueckenau Mennonite Brethren church typified the relationship between Allianz and the Brethren. It is difficult to establish Reimer’s first contact {78} with Blankenburg, but an incident in 1899 first made his constituency aware of his views.

He and his traveling companion, Penner, were on their way to Alexandertal (Molotschna) and en route stopped at Steinbach. Penner had expressed an interest in baptism, and so Reimer asked him to share his conversion experience with a small group of Steinbach believers. He then baptized him. An open communion celebration followed.

Though most of those present were members of the Brethren church, Reimer was severely reprimanded at the next congregational meeting of the Rueckenau congregation. There were even threats of excommunication. 10 Another issue figured in the dispute. Reimer was increasingly involved in the activities of the Lichtenau Allianz. Though Reimer did not officially join, he functioned as its coleader.

THE QUESTION OF COMMUNION

In the absence of conference minutes covering this period, Hermann Neufeld’s memoirs tell at least a part of the story. The question of celebrating communion with unbaptized believers had already emerged at the Brethren conference meeting at Naumovka in 1900. Neufeld identified the leading spokesperson of the Allianz notion of open communion as “brother Jakob Reimer.” There was more to report in 1901,

Some people celebrated communion at Apanlee including some of our folks as well as believers from the Mennonite Church. . . . People began to think of founding a believers church in the Molotschna in which all believers could participate in communion, including those who did not wish to be baptized. . . . Later when I traveled with brother Reimer I asked him what would really be gained by founding such a church and whether it was right to do so, but he did not accept my humble counsel. . . . Later they founded a congregation called the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church, which had no elders, only a council of elders to which all ministers and deacons belonged. The only condition of membership was conversion, baptism was optional. 11

The surviving Waldheim Molotschna conference minutes from 1903 further document the saga.

The majority of the delegates opposed having communion with those who have not received biblical baptism {79} (immersion). Motivated by a discernible sense of Christ’s presence the assembly unanimously agreed to tolerate those who practiced open communion. 12

The minutes appear to minimize the prevailing tensions, at least judging by Neufeld’s assessment of the proceedings,

Some brothers, especially those from the Molotschna, generated disunity at the conference—especially those who felt they possessed more profound insights than the others and considered them to be narrow and parochial. They felt the Brethren church did not fully understand the gospel and so celebrated communion with all believers whether they were baptized or not. There were even occasions when they gathered at special places and celebrated communion whether ordained ministers were present or not. They also baptized without subjecting [the candidate] to congregational scrutiny or using the congregational baptismal rite. 13

Allianz and its advocacy of open communion again surfaced at the 1904 Mennonite Brethren Conference held in Reinfeld. The delegates expressed concern about the ministries of Jakob Reimer, Jakob Kroeker, and Abraham Wall and, in an act of censure, Reimer and Kroeker were not reappointed to the itinerant ministry. 14 As an ordained Brethren minister, Reimer repeatedly ignored established ritual in the practice of open communion. At one point the Conference apparently urged the local Rueckenau congregation to force Reimer to transfer his membership to the Lichtenau Allianz, which they refused to do. 15

Allianz tensions within the Mennonite Brethren church during subsequent years are difficult to document. The continued Rueckenau support of open communion was again a conference issue in 1908. The delegates, meeting in Kotlarevka, Memrik, refused to reappoint several advocates of open communion as itinerants. 16 Ruekenau meanwhile continued to support open communion, a practice followed by all of its affiliates (Alexandertal, Sparrau, Trege, Tiegenhagen, and Waldheim). Neufeld documents the prevailing crisis. An extraordinary Bruderberatung (Brotherhood Consultation) held in 1910 generated a terse statement,

Among other things we decided that, like the Einlage congregation, we do not want conference contact with the Rueckenau congregation and several others because they do {80} not wish to practice communion and baptism as stipulated in the Brethren confession of faith. 17

Similar tensions emerged at the annual conference held in Rueckenau in 1912. Yet the surviving minutes of both the 1910 and 1912 General Conferences make no mention of them. 18

ONGOING ALLIANZ IMPACT

Blankenburg Allianz, with its emphasis on the unity of all believers, impacted the Brethren in other ways. The case of Jakob Kroeker illustrates one of them. Following his conversion, the one-time elementary school teacher spent four years in study at the Hamburg Baptist Seminary. Upon his return to Ukraine he, along with several others, founded the Raduga printing house in Halbstadt which was destined to have a significant cultural and religious impact upon the Russian Mennonites. Kroeker was also elected to the Brethren itinerant ministry.

While active in the Molotschna region he joined the special conferences often sponsored by such estate owners as David Dick of Apanlee and Peter Schmidt of Steinbach. Here he came under the influence of Blankenburg advocates like professor Ernst Stroeter, F. W. Baedecker, and others. He later related how he was impacted by Baedecker’s notion of the “unity of the Spirit and his teaching that the church was not a confessional entity but reflected the communion of saints.” He eventually left the Brethren, settled in Germany, and participated in the transdenominational ministry, Licht im Osten. Recounting the transition he wrote,

I had to give up my positions in my church even though its spirituality was very close to that of Blankenburg. Our annual Mennonite Conferences in Russia could not understand why I as their called and ordained minister could share the communion fellowship with others who were not part of our Mennonite brotherhood. . . . It was among the most difficult experiences of my spiritual ministry when at one conference three venerated elders, mature in the service of the Lord and deep in their love for me, tried to persuade me amid tears that my newly acquired convictions were wrong. 19

Allianz exerted another kind of pressure upon Brethren members. There are a number of instances which document the fact that, on {81} occasion, Blankenburg theology penetrated the ranks of the Mennonite church. Lay persons, ministers, and even elders opted for the Allianz salvation model as it pertained to conversion and baptism. Naturally such individuals could not remain unaffected by its rejection of the conventional church.

In his diary, Martin Hamm relates how, following his conversion, he sought membership in the Brethren congregation of the Borosenko settlement. He finally submitted to immersion baptism on the condition he be exempted from church membership because “I did not . . . want to carry any other name except that of Christ.” 20 Meanwhile he was exposed to various Allianz speakers as well as Brethren Allianz advocates like Jakob Reimer and Jakob Kroeker. By November 1908, the dissidents from the Mennonite church divided to organize their own Allianz congregation. Cooperation with the local Brethren did not seem possible: “They call us sisters and brothers but deny this in practice for they will not celebrate communion with us.” 21

In the fall of 1910 Hamm relocated to Schoenau in the Zagradovka settlement. Here the Mennonite elder in Nikolaifeld, Franz W. Martens, resigned his position in 1907 and became one of the founders of the Altonau Evangelical Mennonite Church. Like Hamm, Elder Martens was significantly influenced by Allianz conferences and speakers. In a 1911 memoir entry, Martens, referring to his wife and himself, tersely wrote, “On September 11 we were baptized by brother Martin Hamm in Altonau.” 22 Martens unfortunately provides no further details of his theological pilgrimage.

In the end Hamm found it difficult to establish an Allianz identity in the context of the local village. Even the practice of open communion demanded rules and regulations, and a new congregation required conditions of membership. When a Tsarist bureaucracy demanded an official registration of the new Mennonite group, Hamm complained, “The government does not ask whether one is born again or not. . . . [F]aith lays hold of Christ, not Menno or Luther.” 23 In the end, his Allianz activism notwithstanding, Hamm remained a member of the Mennonite church.

The theological paradigm of Allianz, though not unlike that of the Brethren, was nevertheless destabilizing. Major tenets of faith were certainly not at risk. Mennonite Brethren theology affirmed Blankenburg teaching: the meaning of the cross, the role of the Holy Spirit, the importance of personal holiness, and the need for evangelism. It would likewise have affirmed personal spiritual experience, the need for prayer meetings and fellowship, as well as the importance of edificatory preaching.

In the end it was the Allianz reaction to the organized church and its {82} disregard for traditional structures which most impacted the Brethren. The varied experiences of Jakob Kroeker and Martin Hamm illustrate the problem in part. Brethren in the early twentieth century still viewed the church as a visible, separate community which defined the perimeters of acceptable discipleship. Blankenburg’s ecumenism simply did not address the issue of the local church. In fact, its transdenominationalism and advocacy of open communion raised some serious questions. How did slogans like the “communion of the saints or the unity of the spirit” apply to the life of the village congregation? Was baptism really optional for the Christian? Should a congregation baptize but not require membership?

By 1900 the self-contained Brethren congregations in Russia had evolved traditional governance and liturgical practices. Preaching was usually modeled on the examples of venerated ministers. In part, the influx of sophisticated biblical wisdom from abroad challenged the prevailing hermeneutical model. Some Allianz representatives like Ernst Stroeter espoused a dispensational exegesis popular among German Plymouth Brethren. His teaching presence at conferences in southern Ukraine was not lost on Brethren ministers like Jakob Reimer and Jakob Kroeker. In later years the influx of Allianz literature, influential theologians like Erich Sauer, and students attending the Plymouth Brethren Bible School in Wiedenest, Germany, continued to direct segments of the Mennonite Brethren in Russia and Ukraine toward dispensationalism.

EVANGELISM

As previously indicated, Allianz in its German setting sought to revitalize a Lutheran state church which, it felt, was weakened by liberal theology and orthodox ritual. While themes like the meaning of the cross and personal conversion often dominated Blankenburg agendas, there was also a concern with mission and evangelism. The early twentieth century certainly brought an intensification of Brethren evangelistic fervor, but it is difficult to determine whether this was energized by the customary patterns of the Brethren house church or directly imported via Blankenburg speakers.

One Allianz spokesperson, Dr. F. W. Baedecker, certainly became a model for evangelism among both Russians and Germans. Born in Germany in 1823, he became a teacher at the Weston-super-mane boys school on the English west coast in 1854. Following his conversion in 1866 he eventually became an independent evangelist. He was present at the first Blankenburg conference in 1886 and attended the gathering regularly in subsequent years. Evangelist Baedecker crisscrossed Russia {83} from Sakhalin Island to southern Ukraine. Though his Russian language skills consisted of little more than “Jesus loves you,” he visited and spoke through translators in many Russian penal colonies and prisons.

In the Mennonite colonies his powerful German preaching and personal charisma generated both renewal and revival. 24 He personified Allianz interest in evangelism, especially among the Russian people. On occasion Baedecker visited the Brethren congregation in Alexandertal, Molotschna. Persons like Heinrich J. Enns, Heinrich Goossen, Adolf Reimer, and Johann Toews called that village home, and their interest in evangelism during the 1920s was not unrelated to Baedecker’s influence.

A shift in Tsarist strategy may also have played a role in Brethren evangelism. By the turn of the century the reactionary religious policies orchestrated by one of the chief advisers of Tsar Alexander III (1881-1894), Constantine Pobedonostsev, were gradually eroded through the public unrest erupting throughout the Russian Empire. These revolutionary movements eventually forced the Tsarist regime to issue the October Manifesto of 1905 which, among other things, guaranteed liberty of conscience. Mennonites eager to evangelize sensed a greater freedom. Increasingly aware of the Russian world around them and more comfortable with the indigenous language and culture, men and women actively reached out to nearby and more distant Orthodox populations.

EVANGELISM AMONG THE RUSSIANS

In the early twentieth century many such evangelistic efforts were initiated by individuals with a strong sense of personal calling. Initially there was virtually no constituency support for this outreach, whether the Mennonite Brethren or Mennonite constituencies, mission societies, or even the ordained clergy. One of the promoters of Russian evangelism, the Mennonite church adherent Peter Riediger, addressed the issue in a personal memoir:

Both conferences, the Mennonite and the Mennonite Brethren, remained silent. A minority even objected to those who carried on mission among the Russians. Some feared the police, others wanted to live in peace and quiet. 25

Riediger further observed that the finances for Russian evangelism usually came from isolated persons or a missionary-minded local church. In some instances support groups or associations informally organized around specific individuals or special ventures. For example, in 1908 the Brethren conference meeting in Memrik organized a committee of five {84} persons to oversee evangelism efforts. They appointed nine workers, mostly Russians, to work in the Baptist churches of Odessa, Kharkov and Simferopol. 26 In one locality, Naumenko, committee members bought New Testaments and tracts which Mennonite businessmen sought to distribute.

In 1909 the committee secretary, G. P. Froese, invited a Russian Baptist minister to conduct an evangelistic meeting in the Naumenko district without securing police permission. Both he and A. H. Unruh, later a noted Brethren preacher, endured lengthy interrogations and were imprisoned for twenty days. 27 It is difficult to ascertain whether this committee had official conference status, nor do we know the exact nature of its activity. Surviving conference minutes from 1910 and 1912 make no reference to it.

The 1918 minutes mention Gerhard Froese and the “Russian-Bulgarian Mission” whose name was changed to “Russian-Bulgarian Evangelism.” Apparently the conference listened with enthusiasm “to the reports of several brothers about the open doors for evangelism in Russia.” The conference encouraged “all Mennonite believers” to support the agency. Treasurer Froese processed his funds through the conference mission committee, but the minutes do not make it clear whether the conference as such directly funded the Russo-Bulgarian venture. 28 The assembly, however, strongly endorsed continued support for the printing of Russian Bibles by the British Bible Society. The conference also voted a full-time salary for Froese “primarily for the purpose of evangelism among the Russians.” 29

In some ways the career of Heinrich P. Sukkau of Lugovsk, Peshanovo, illustrates the personalized and even impulsive style of Russian evangelism. He commenced his career by inviting Russians from nearby villages to the services of the local Brethren church and by making home visitations among Russian believers. Rather suddenly he gave up his rented farm, sold his farming inventory by auction, and settled in the city of Samara in order to study Russian. 30 While there he “preached God’s Word in all the nearby Russian villages. Everywhere lost sinners accepted the Word and gave themselves to the Lord.” 31 Sukkau then began his ministry in a small Russian Baptist church. Often beset by poverty he lived simply and accommodated himself to the people he served.

He completely adapted to the Russian lifestyle [wearing] belt and shirt without a collar or necktie. He ate [Russian] food and if necessary gave an old man with scruffy beard a hearty, brotherly kiss. 32 {85}

Sukkau’s ministry was largely self-supporting. In his home village of Lugovsk he was content to patch the walls of mud-brick homes or repair thatch roofs, pursuits which ensured perpetual poverty. His limited education and lack of practical experience in ministry in no way curtailed his success. His intense identification with the Russian people, extensive home visitation, and simple preaching generated a widespread response. Sukkau eventually became an elder over some ninety [Baptist?] congregations in northern Russia before his arrest and exile. 33 Little wonder that a contemporary exclaimed,

Look at brother H. P. Sukkau’s influence! Almost every village he has been to has a small or a larger church. And yet educated people say he is not the right man [for evangelism among the Russians.] 34

ADOLF REIMER, JACOB WIENS, AND OTHER EVANGELISTS

Adolf A. Reimer (1891-1921) was one of the better-known evangelists working among the Russians. A school teacher in Tiege, Molotschna, he resigned his post in 1902 and began an itinerant preaching ministry. By 1905 some of his early converts were baptized by the Brethren congregation in Orloff, Molotschna. In the next few years he preached in factories, Russian villages, cities like Kharkov and St. Petersburg, prisons, or even on the estates of the Russian nobility. On some occasions, like Sukkau, he ministered to emerging Russian Baptist congregations. 35

Following his return from compulsory state service, he settled his family in Alexandertal, Molotschna. During the Russian civil war he preached alternately to the opposing armies crisscrossing the region. On one occasion he addressed one thousand White Army troops in Marienthal, on another mounted calvarymen ready for battle in Gnadenfeld. In Alexandertal a Red Army commander who threatened a bloodbath joined a crowd of some three hundred and respectfully listened to Reimer’s passionate preaching. 36 In 1921, while serving the Russian Baptist churches in Kiev, Reimer contracted typhus. Friends managed to transport him to Alexandertal, where he died shortly afterwards. 37

Peter Riediger mentions other evangelists known to him personally: a Jacob Wiens who was active in the city of Samara; a Cornelius Janzen who preached in the Orenburg-Samara region; 38 the Bernhard Klassens working in Siberia; the Mennonite church member Federau in the Crimea; and finally, a Johann Peters and his friends who went to live among the Ostyaks of eastern Siberia. Their activities were individualistic and spontaneous, at best endorsed by a small group of faithful {86} supporters. Some, if random reports are reliable, were fringe figures operating entirely on their own. Convinced they were called to evangelize, they did so in their own unique way. 39 They held home Bible studies, 40 distributed New Testaments (only to be arrested), 41 or, as in the case of Mennonites living in Friedensfeld near Nikopol, read Scripture to neighboring Russians during winter evenings. 42

Jakob Wiens merits special mention. Born in the Molotschna in 1874, he was converted and joined the Brethren church in either 1891 or 1892. He fled to Ufa province when Tsarist police began to investigate his preaching activities in Russian Orthodox villages near his home congregation of Alexanderheim, an affiliate of the Einlage church. For just over a year he served as a colporteur for the British and Foreign Bible Society. After his 1905 return from studies at a small Bible school in Berlin, he became pastor of a Russian congregation in Samara province which eventually joined the Russian Baptist Union.

Gifted in preaching, organizing, and music, he soon emerged as a leader in Russian Baptist circles. Facing arrest and imprisonment in his native Russia, he decided to remain in America after attending the Second Congress of the Baptist World Alliance in 1910. What followed was a remarkable career in North America, a missionary stint in the Balgoveschchenk Baptist church near the Amur river in eastern Siberia, exile to Manchuria in 1923, a return to the Soviet Union (1925-1928), and finally multiple pastorates in Canada until his death in 1944. 43

HERMANN JANTZEN

Hermann Jantzen was born in the Mennonite settlement of Trakt, Samara in 1866. His father, a wealthy farmer, was lured by the generous settlement concessions offered by the governor of Turkestan and decided to migrate there in 1879-1880. Known today as the Uzbek, Turkmen, Tadzik, Kirghiz, and Kazkh republics, the massive territory was everything but the “promised land.” Following several years of wandering and mishap, the family, together with other Mennonite migrants, finally settled in Ak Metschet under protection of the Khan of Khiva in 1884. 44 Young Hermann was linguistically gifted and soon mastered Uzbek as well as some of the regional dialects. Before long he was periodically employed by the Khan as his official translator. This interaction spawned a special friendship between Hermann and the Khan’s son, Bagadur.

Meanwhile a second Mennonite colony, Aulie Ata, was established. In 1890 Jantzen and his new wife settled here together with some one hundred Mennonite families. With characteristic energy and skill he confronted the challenge of Kirghizian language and culture. At the turn of the {87} century he experienced a faith crisis. Illness in his family, the loss of his cattle in an epidemic, a personal confrontation by a minister visiting from abroad—all this induced Jantzen to make his peace with God. 45 Sensing a call to evangelize the Muslim world in which he lived, he left for two years of study at the Allianz Bible School in Berlin. 46 Upon his return he became an evangelist to the Kirghiz, the Uzbeks, and at least two Turkmenian tribes, the Sarts and the Tajiks. For a time Jantzen also headed the Bible House of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Tashkent, which was closed by communist pressure in 1918. 47

Hermann Jantzen’s memoirs detail his life experiences, but tell surprisingly little about his evangelistic efforts or methods. While in Tashkent he speaks of visiting Muslim teahouses and distributing literature. 48 Thanks to his knowledge of the region’s customs and practices, its languages and dialects, as well as the Muslim faith, he did not find it difficult to dialogue with the mullahs (Muslim spiritual leaders) in oriental market places or among wandering Kirghiz herdspeople on the vast plains of the region. Reflecting on his ministry just after he fled to Europe in 1923, he wrote,

This was my mission field for the past ten years. . . . They were wonderful hours and days and months when I, together with brother Bohn or Regehr or Janzen, traveled to the Sarts and Tadjiks and preached God’s Word. The Lord was at work. Four Muslims were convicted by the Holy Spirit and accepted God’s grace through the blood of Jesus Christ. We were also able to distribute many Testaments and tracts. 49

Jantzen made several return visits to Ak Metschet, the second in 1913, and the third late in 1916. A 1916 revolution in Khiva led by dissident tribes resulted in the capture of the city and the murder of Khan Ispendjar. He was succeeded by his son Bagadur whom Hermann had befriended as a youth. 50 Both Jantzen and his wife were received at court and lavishly entertained.

My brother-in-law and I were received in the front courtyard hall. After we had been well fed, I was allowed to read God’s Word with him, in which he had a great interest and a clear understanding. As we prepared to leave and were saying farewell, I presented him with a [New] Testament and spoke a few words. He gave me his photograph with the inscription, “To my unforgettable brother Irrmann {88} (he always called me that) in remembrance of Abdulla Bagadur Khan.” He requested I always pray for him. 51

Jantzen and his wife then returned to Aulie Ata where war and revolution ignited nationalistic hatred against all foreigners, including the small German minority. Warned of a plot to eradicate all Europeans in the region, the Jantzens fled to the Netherlands in 1923. Here, until his death in 1959, he continued to take an active interest in Muslim evangelism as well as the fate of Mennonite settlements in Central Asia. 52

FRANK WIENS AND REVIVALISM

In Ukraine both Mennonite and Brethren congregations were impacted by the 1910 arrival of Frank and Adina Wiens, independent Brethren missionaries from America. En route to China they stopped in Ukraine to visit relatives and solicit funds for their future work. 53 Frank, the son of 1870s emigrants from Ukraine, grew up in Henderson, Nebraska. As a seventeen-year-old he felt the call to mission and soon emerged as a Brethren evangelist of considerable reputation during the first decade of the twentieth century. 54 In 1909 Frank and Adina were accepted for service in China by the newly-organized Mennonite Brethren Mission Board. When it reversed this decision, the couple decided to go to China on their own. 55

While Adina lodged with relatives in Sparrau, Molotschna, the Mennonite Brethren constituency made good use of Frank’s German preaching skills. Musically gifted he sang and accompanied himself on the organ or, lacking such an instrument, he played his harmonica. His Russian Mennonite audience found the preacher/musician combination unique, but on occasion were taken aback by his aggressive evangelistic style. The Brethren elder, Hermann Neufeld, traveled with Wiens for a part of his evangelistic itinerary. He wrote,

Brother Wiens came to us around February 8, [1911] and spent a week with us. There was a service every evening. On the very first evening we carried our parlor-organ to the school. When he (Wiens) sang alone he accompanied himself on the organ. He sang and played well but he preached even better. He is a simple man with childlike faith in Jesus. His preaching is simple—there is nothing extraordinary or American about it. In each service he simply calls people to conversion. It’s quite incredible. When he gives the invitation people stand up, lift their hands, or come to the front {89} and sit down. Some brothers can’t understand his methods, but the Lord is honoring his work. . . . During the week he was here some 129 people responded and most of them were genuinely converted. . . . He asked them to sign their names if they desired forgiveness. . . . And [he] left the signatures with us. 56

What was intended as a brief visit turned out to be a ten-month stay. Frank undertook extended missions in Ukraine, then journeyed to other areas in Russia such as Millerova, Arkadak, Samara, and Orenburg. While on his way to China via the trans-Siberian railroad, he stopped briefly at Omsk. Here he resisted persistent invitations to spend additional weeks evangelizing the Mennonite villages of Siberia. 57

Wiens proved an important, if dramatic, link in the Russian Mennonite revivals of the early twentieth century. In most instances his converts entered longstanding Christian communities which offered them safety and ongoing nurture. Ironically, neither the Mennonite periodical, Der Botschafter, nor the Brethren Friedensstimme commented upon the ongoing revival, which in some localities generated over one hundred converts. 58 Perhaps the former dreaded the excessive emotionalism while the latter felt uncomfortable with his American evangelistic techniques. Hermann Neufeld reported that “some of the brothers in Molotschna could not understand Wiens, had little confidence in his work, and in some places did not give him the best reception.” 59

Neufeld elaborates upon the tension when describing the services in Einlage:

Wiens requested the persons who wished to convert to come and sit in the front benches, and many came and sat down. . . . When brother Wiens asked them to pray, many did so. Some cried and there was a moving in the congregation like I never before experienced. Some screamed and collapsed. Yet as sister Unger observed, they were all unstable people who could not be expected to follow through, which proved to be the case. 60

Even Wiens observed that “at several localities there was exceptional screaming.” 61 It was the first time Russian Mennonites had encountered American revival techniques. Few quarreled about its apparent effectiveness, yet some questioned whether excessive emotion ensured long-term stability. {90}

Early twentieth-century reports from many Mennonite settlements reported spontaneous, quietistic revivals, which were often associated with the dedicated work of itinerant ministers. These preached at meetings in the local school or church, or ministered more informally at house meetings, prayer gatherings, or home visitations. Unfortunately the surviving documents do not provide a composite picture of what was happening. A revival in the Fuerstenland village of Sergeyevka in 1907 had encompassed the villages of Alexanderfeld, Olgafeld, and Rosenbach by 1909, when Sergeyevka alone experienced over fifty conversions. 62 Similarly in her autobiography Justina Martens reports how, in 1913, a group of Kleefeld believers met for Bible study on Wednesdays and Sundays.

During the winter this spiritual nurture was supplemented when preachers like Johann Dick and Abram Nachtigal from Alexanderkrone or Abram Loewen and Heinrich Dick from Halbstadt visited the village. 63 “There were services every evening, and during the day the brothers visited and encouraged the newly-converted. Almost all the young people in Kleefeld were converted to Christ.” 64 Justina’s account reflects the traditional pattern of Brethren evangelism, but its results were now more spectacular, and new converts steadily augmented the size of the local congregation.

SOME REFLECTIONS

In the early twentieth century, the Mennonite Brethren, as they had throughout the later nineteenth century, continued to focus on evangelism and congregational nurture. As in previous decades there was widespread revival and church growth, usually at the expense of the Mennonite church.

Such activity generated considerable tension, especially among the traditional, longstanding communities in Chortitza and the Molotschna region. Ironically, Brethren involvement in the German Blankenburg Conference (Allianz) eased these tensions, but also created new ones. Allianz emphasis on evangelism and the unity of the people of God generated inter-Mennonite goodwill and cooperation while its lack of a theology of the church at times threatened the very institutions it was benefiting. Ultimately it brought both renewal and division to the Brethren and to the Mennonite church. When actual Allianz congregations were organized, they often drew more members from the Mennonite church than from the Brethren. Brethren losses came more via dissidents who remained within the movement and generated friction and strife.

Allianz certainly rekindled an interest in evangelism which went {91} beyond converting cradle Mennonites. In the early twentieth century the Allianz Bible School in Berlin trained a number of Russian Mennonites and by doing so produced several evangelists who worked among the Orthodox populations. There was more: a century-long sojourn in the Russian Empire meant a greater comfort level with Russian language and culture. Men and women became concerned about Russia’s millions—locally and in distant places. Though this interest in evangelism among the Russians was evident in both Brethren and Mennonite church circles, it remained a minority interest. Individuals actively encouraged such endeavors, but officially neither church sponsored it. Splendid examples of self-sacrifice reflected private dedication and zeal, but not the support of the community as a whole.

Visits to Ukraine by Frank Wiens from America in the early twentieth century contributed to a partial shift in the traditional paradigm of revival and evangelism. It now moved outside of the perimeter of the local church and included mass meetings, emotional appeal, special music, and a defined public conversion model. Many congregations were both blessed and shocked by his activities. Fortunately long-established church structures remained intact. These were able to disciple new converts and to retain the decades-old balance between saving the sinner and nurturing the saint.

At the dawn of the twentieth century the Mennonite Brethren church in Russia was still characterized by a continuity of faith and practice. Outside theological influences may have produced minor adjustments, but the inner life of the community was still governed by traditional perimeters. Spiritual nurture came via time-honored liturgies which allowed lay empowerment, remained highly relational via the itinerant ministry, and provided a framework in which a broad-based Christian church culture, involving theological education and music, could evolve. Few in 1910 or even in 1912 would have predicted a sudden and violent end to this “golden age.”

NOTES

  1. John B. Toews, “The Mennonite Brethren in Russia During the 1890s,” Direction 30 (fall 2001): 139-52.
  2. See for example P. Riediger, “Bericht ueber die Bibelbesprechung auf Apanlee,” Friedensstimme, 1911, nos. 45-48. Among the visitors were George von Viebahn, Ernst F. Stroeter, and Dr. F. W. Baedecker.
  3. C. Koehler, “Mitteilung von der Allianz-Bibelschule in Berlin,” {92} Friedensstimme, 1909, no. 43, 3.
  4. Das Prophetische Wort began publication in 1907. A partial run of this publication (vols. 2-7) can be found in the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Fresno, California.
  5. Peter Riediger, “Entstehung der Evangelisch Mennonitischen Bruederschaft in Sued-Russland an der Molotschna im Jahre 1906,” (B. B. Janz Papers, Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Hermann Neufeld’s journals repeatedly cite clashes at annual Brethren conferences. Neufeld, Tagebuch (Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba), 428ff., 502-3. Hermann Neufeld recopied his journals several times, and in the case of numbers one and two in the archival listing, there is some overlap. Both tell the same story, the first is more detailed (528 pp.) and covers Neufeld’s experiences through 1903. Number two in the listing is condensed and takes the story through 1911. In the footnotes, number one in the archival listing is referred to as Tagebuch, while number two is referred to as Lebensgeschichte I, number three as Lebensgeschichte II, and number four as Lebensgeschichte III.
  8. J. R., “Aus Russland,” Zionsbote, 1899, no. 45, 2.
  9. G. Claassen, “Russland,” Zionsbote, 1904, no. 20, 7.
  10. A. H. Unruh, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten-Bruedergemeinde 1860-1954 (Winnipeg, MB: Christian, 1954), 229ff.
  11. See Neufeld, Tagebuch, 428-30.
  12. “Bericht ueber die Jahressitzung in Waldheim vom 17, bis zum 20. Mai, 1903,” Zionsbote, 1904, no. 1, 2; Neufeld, Tagebuch, 500ff.
  13. Neufeld, Tagebuch, 502-3.
  14. Neufeld, Lebensgeschichte I, 346-47. The conference chairperson, Elder David Duerksen from the Crimea, sent a lengthy report on the proceedings to the Zionsbote, but does not mention the incident. “Arbeits und Segenstage,” Zionsbote, 1904, no. 27, 7; no. 28, 7.
  15. Unruh, Geschichte, 230-31.
  16. Ibid., 231.
  17. The quote is from Lebensgeschichte II.
  18. “Jahresitzung der Vereinigten Christlichen Taufgesinnten Mennonitenbruedergemeinden in Russland am 14. und 15. Mai 1910 zu Tiege, Sagradovka,” Friedensstimme, 1910, no. 40, 3-5; no. 42, 4-5. “Protokoll der Jahresitzung der Vereinigten Christlichen Taufgesinnten Mennoniten Bruedergemeinde in Russland, die am 25. 26. und 27. Mai 1912 im Bethause der Molotschnaer Mennoniten {93} Bruedergemeinde zu Rueckenau, Gouv. Taurien, stattgefunden.” (Printed by Raduga Press, Halbstadt. Copy in possession of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba.)
  19. Jakob Kroeker, Ein Reiches Leben (Wuestenrot: Kurt Reith, 1949), 83.
  20. Diary of Martin Hamm 1869-1919 (Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba), June 5, 1908. I am indebted to the late Peter Hamm of Clearbrook, BC, for bringing his grandfather’s diary to my attention.
  21. Ibid., November 17, 1908.
  22. Franz W. Martens, “Chronologishe Aufzeichnungen aus meinem Leben,” (Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba), entry for 1911.
  23. Martin Hamm diary, November 20, 1909.
  24. “Dr. F. W. Baedeker. Ein Leben in Kraft,” Friedensstimme, 1907, nos. 1-3.
  25. Peter Riediger, “Mission der Mennoniten in Russland unter den Russian,” (B. B. Janz Papers, Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba), 2-3.
  26. Unruh, Geschichte, 258ff.
  27. Ibid., 259-63.
  28. “Protokoll der Konferenz der Vereinigten Mennoniten-Bruedergemeinde am 14. 15. und 16. September 1918 in Wassiljewka, Gouv. Charkow” in Unruh, Geschichte, 316-23.
  29. Ibid.
  30. A. A. Toews (ed.), Mennonitsche Maertyrer, vol. I (Winnipeg, MB: Christian, 1949), 123-24.
  31. Riediger, “Mission,” 20.
  32. Toews, Mennonitsche Maertyrer, 127. Riediger notes he wore “boots and plain, loose-hanging clothing,” 30.
  33. Toews, Mennonitische Maertyrer, 126-27.
  34. Peter Riediger quoting Jacob Wiens, a Mennonite worker among the Russians in Samara, 18.
  35. Adolf Reimer, “Bilder aus der Arbeit unter den Russen,” Friedensstimme, 1907, no. 11, 128-29; no. 12, 141-42; Adolf Reimer, “Reiseerfahrungen,” Friedensstimme, 1909, no. 44; no. 48, 3.
  36. Toews, Mennonitische Maertyrer, 69.
  37. Reimer’s widow, Sara, soon found herself and her family deprived of civil rights and disenfranchised. She found temporary refuge in villages like Walheim, Gulyapole and Elisabethal only to be {94} expelled by local authorities. In the end she, together with the widow of another evangelist among the Russians, packed their meager belongings and walked some 65 verst to Melitopol.
  38. Riediger, “Mission,” 18.
  39. In 1907, a 76-year-old Kornelius Wall reported how, in 1904, he had traveled to the city of Samara and distributed tracts. Kornelius Wall, “Erfahrung meiner Reise von 1904-05,” Friedensstimme, 1907, no. 25, 316-18; no. 26, 326-29.
  40. “Die Buchhandlung P. Perk in Gross-Tockmak,” Friedensstimme 1907, no. 7, 82. See also P. Perk, “Gross-Tockmak,” 1907, no. 24, 303.
  41. Jakob Huebert, “Kamenskaja, Dongebiet,” Friedensstimme, 1909, no. 24, 9-10; Abram Reimer, “Newolja,” Friedensstimme, 1907, no. 14, 166-67.
  42. Heinrich Friesen, “Erweckung unter den Russen in der Umgegend von Friedensfeld,” Friedensstimme, 1907, no. 16, 193-94. By 1907, thirty Russians from nearby villages had been converted.
  43. The career of Jakob Wiens has been carefully reconstructed from various Mennonite and Baptist sources by Albert W. Wardin. See his “Jakob J. Wiens: Mission Champion in Freedom and Repression,” Journal of Church and State 28 (summer 1986): 495-514.
  44. For more information on the migration, see Franz Bartsch, Unser Auszug nach Zentral Asien (Halbstadt, H. Braun, 1907); Fred R. Belk, “The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia, 1880-1884” (Ph.D. diss., Oklahoma State University, 1973); Alexander Rempel, “Geschichte von Ak Metschet,” Der Bote, 1947, nos. 44-51.
  45. Hermann Jantzen, Im Wilder Turkestan. Ein Leben unter Moslems (Giessen/Basel: Brunnen, 1989), 66-70.
  46. Ibid., 71-73.
  47. Ibid., 89, 110.
  48. Ibid., 89.
  49. Hermann Jantzen, “Die Mennonitishe Ansiedelungen in Tuerkestan,” (ms. in possession of the Weierhof Mennonite Archive, Germany. Copy in the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba).
  50. Hermann Jantzen, “Ergaenzung zur Geschichte von Ak-Metschet,” Der Bote, 1948, no. 8, 1; no. 9, 1-2.
  51. Jantzen, “Ansiedlungen in Tuerkestan,” 11. Bagadur was later taken to Yekaterinaburg by the Bolsheviks and, together with his brothers, forced to work in a coal mine. {95}
  52. An obituary can be found in “Missionar Herman Jantzen,” Mennonitische Rundschau 1960, no. 22, 1, 5.
  53. The most comprehensive portrait of the couple can be found in a family publication: Adina Wiens Robinson, China Beckoning (n.d.).
  54. Ibid., 35, 57.
  55. Letter of August 3, 1910, in Zionsbote, 1910, no. 39, 4.
  56. Hermann Neufeld, Tagebuch, 1911 (Hermann Neufeld Papers, Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Winnipeg, Manitoba).
  57. His letters describing his experiences in the Russian empire can be found in Zionsbote, 1910, nos. 39, 41-43, 46, 49; 1911, nos. 7, 19, 33, 43. See also Johann Dueck, “Russland, Sparrau,” Zionsbote, 1911, no. 9, 5-6; Hermann Neufeld, “Russland Nikolajewka,” Zionsbote, 1911, no. 37, 4-5.
  58. As reported by Hermann Neufeld in Nikolayevka (Ignatyevo Settlement) and by a Wiens letter in the case of Einlage, Chortitza. Zionsbote, 1911, no. 19, 4.
  59. Neufeld, Tagebuch, 1911.
  60. Ibid.
  61. Zionsbote, 1911, no. 19, 4.
  62. Dietrich Kroeker, “Das Wirken des Heiligen Geistes in Sergejewka,” Friedensstimme, 1907, no. 12, 142; Jakob Janzen, “Erweckung und Tauffest,” Friedensstimme, 1909, no. 22, 4.
  63. Justina Martens, untitled autobiography (ms. in possession of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Fresno, California), 5-8.
  64. Ibid., 8.
John B. Toews is Professor of Church History and Anabaptist Studies at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia.

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