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October 1979 · Vol. 8 No. 4 · pp. 33–38 

Baptist Influences on Mennonite Brethren with an Emphasis on the Practice of Immersion

Albert W. Wardin Jr.

Mennonite Brethren historians readily admit that the Mennonite Brethren arose in Russia from a convergence of several theological streams. For example, A. J. Klassen in his master’s thesis, “The Roots and Development of Mennonite Brethren Theology to 1914,” following the lead of the great pioneer Mennonite Brethren historian, Peter M. Friesen, described three distinct sources—the original Anabaptist heritage, the later pietistic influences, and the still later Baptist contributions. 1 The Baptist denomination first arose in the early seventeenth century among English Separatists; but German Baptists, the section which had the closest relations with the Mennonite Brethren, were almost contemporaries of the Mennonite Brethren. John Oncken founded the German Baptists in Hamburg, Germany, in 1834. They soon spread to neighboring countries. With the baptism of Gottfried F. Alf in November, 1858, in Poland, the German Baptists began to penetrate the Russian Empire. They soon spread into the Baltic area of Latvia and into the Ukraine.

German Baptist relations with the early Mennonite Brethren in Russia were close and frequent. Friesen recorded that such Baptists as Oncken, who himself visited Russia in 1864 and 1869, August Liebig, {34} and Karl Benzien provided pastoral if not organizational assistance to the emerging Mennonite Brethren. 2 Liebig was particularly helpful in the establishment of a Mennonite Brethren General Conference with its own financial program as well as a committee for itinerant preaching and annual Bible study courses primarily for ministers and ministerial candidates. 3 An important early confessional document, although not accepted by all Mennonite Brethren, was the confession of faith of the Einlage Church. Except for Mennonite additions it was an adaptation of the Baptist confession of faith which the Baptists of Germany approved in 1849 in the formation of their Union. 4 Through Baptist influence “close communion” (only immersed believers in proper church standing may partake of the Lord’s Supper) became, by and large, the prevailing view of Mennonite Brethren of the nineteenth century. 5 The most influential hymnbook for Mennonite Brethren in Russia was Glaubensstimme, published by the German Baptists. 6 Baptist mission activity provided Mennonite Brethren with an example in home and foreign missions and also an avenue for giving to foreign missions. For a number of years before the First World War, Mennonite Brethren in Russia supported their own missionaries in cooperation with the American Baptist Missionary Union with headquarters in the United States. 7

With the influence, together with personal relations and exchanges of letters, one would think that Baptists, above all, would have had a direct influence on the Mennonite Brethren in the practice of believers’ baptism by immersion. Mennonite Brethren historians with the possible exception of Friesen, however, generally tend to minimize Baptist influence at the point Mennonite Brethren began believers’ baptism by immersion in the Molotschna Colony. Some historians ignore any influence. 8 Others acknowledge that individual Mennonites were influenced by Baptist literature, thereby creating a receptive climate for this practice; but they stress or at least imply that the initial baptism was done without personal Baptist contact and make no attempt to show any step by step linkage with Baptists. 9 One reason for this attitude, of course, is the fact that Jacob P. Bekker and Henry Bartel in 1860 in the Molotschna Colony initiated immersion among Mennonite Brethren by immersing each other without any other administrator. Also, Friesen made it clear that correspondence between the German Baptist Alf did not occur until after immersion had already begun in the Molotschna Colony. It may even be noted that Alf was critical of Mennonite Brethren in Poland performing a similar act of self-immersion and in a form which he considered unbiblical. 10 But there is probably more to it than this. Mennonite Brethren themselves have had a rather ambivalent attitude toward Baptists. On the one hand, they have often appreciated Baptist contributions to Mennonite Brethren life but, on the other hand, have at times felt threatened by them, fearing even that they might be absorbed. Therefore a stress by Mennonite Brethren writers on Mennonite {35} principles and distinctive origins would help to preserve their unique identity. 11

It should first be recognized that Mennonite Brethren authors do acknowledge a strong Baptist influence for believers’ baptism by immersion in Chortitza, the older Mennonite colony. In this colony Abraham Unger with others received the German Baptist periodical Missionsblatt der Gemeinde getaufter Christen, and as early as 1859 Unger was corresponding with Oncken. Unger accepted Baptist principles on baptism and church order, and it was only after others brought great pressure upon him that he reluctantly withdrew an invitation for a German Baptist to come to Chortitza to establish a work conformable to Baptist principles. Although Unger was later baptized by the Mennonite Brethren, he was later ordained an elder by Oncken himself. 12

But more important for Mennonite Brethren views on baptism is the question—was there Baptist influence for believers’ baptism by immersion in the Molotschna, the younger colony? One of the Mennonites who assisted in establishing the Mennonite Brethren church in Molotschna was Jacob Reimer of Gnadenfeld who already in his youth was favorably influenced towards baptism by immersion through reading a biography of Ann Judson, a Baptist missionary in Burma. Two tracts supporting immersion, one of which was printed by the Baptists, later came into Reimer’s hands and further reinforced this conviction. 13 But according to the manuscript of Jacob P. Bekker, the one who initiated the first Mennonite Brethren immersion, Reimer evidently was not the one who precipitated this action. The manuscript points to a different source.

Even with the availability in more recent years of the Bekker manuscript, which has now been translated and published in English, it is unfortunate that Mennonite Brethren historians, even though quoting from this work, have not seen fit to utilize the evidence in the manuscript of Baptist influence on the first Mennonite Brethren baptism. In fact, one recent commentator has even suggested that, since Bekker claimed—in the manuscript-that he knew nothing about Baptists in 1860 or the practice of immersion before John Claassen brought his attention to the issue, Baptist influence was therefore nil. 14 But in the tracing of theological or other influences, it is sometimes the one who raises the right question rather than the one who has all the answers who is the catalyst. Claassen asked Bekker the critical question: “If you are going to baptize, how are you going to do it?” 15 Claassen posed the question on the basis of a pamphlet he brought back with him from St. Petersburg. This question and similar ones led to a study of the pamphlet by both Bekker and Bartel, and this study ultimately led to the immersion of Bekker and Bartel which each performed for the other. It is of interest that Bekker then and only then found confirmation for immersion {36} in the writings of Menno Simons; it was not the other way around.

It is clear from the Bekker manuscript that Claassen gained the pamphlet from Baptists in St. Petersburg. Considering the recent origins of German Baptists and their recent arrival in Eastern Europe, is it correct to assume that there were Baptists in St. Petersburg at this time? For one thing, they could not have been high officials as Bekker suggested. The Czarist regime would never have allowed sectarians, such as the newly formed Baptists, to hold positions of trust in the government. And even if they were permitted, Baptists were still too recent and too few to attain such a high standing at this time. But then could these Baptists, like Claassen himself, have been petitioners for recognition by the government? Friesen recorded that in December, 1861, Claassen wrote that Latvian Baptists from Courland (now part of Latvia) were with him also petitioning the regime. 16 (It is unfortunate that the recent English translation of Friesen’s work incorrectly refers to these individuals as “Lithuanians” from the “electorate.” 17) The evidence points to a negative conclusion. Claassen had already gained the pamphlet in early 1860 and, according to Baptist records, 1860 would have been too early for an earlier group of Latvian Baptists to have petitioned the Czarist government. But there is a Baptist in St. Petersburg who is almost certainly the source of the pamphlet. Friesen recorded that upon Claassen’s arrival on his second trip to St. Petersburg on behalf of the Mennonite Brethren in late 1860 he resided for a short time with C. Plonus, a Baptist layman. Friesen also wrote that Claassen had a continuing relationship with Plonus during this particular stay in the city. Because of this immediate and personal relationship with Plonus, it is not unreasonable to assume that Claassen knew Plonus in St. Petersburg on his earlier journey in early 1860. 18 Otto Ekelmann in his valuable history, Gnadenwunder, which described the spread of the German Baptist movement from Memel, East Prussia, into the Baltic area and St. Petersburg, wrote that Plonus was the first Baptist to settle in St. Petersburg, arriving in 1856. Because of his religious activity, two circles developed—a mission group and, beginning in 1857, a religious fellowship which met on Sunday mornings and Monday evenings. But what is of particular importance is that, according to Ekelmann, Plonus was a dedicated distributor of tracts. 19

Relations between Baptists and Mennonite Brethren, however, did not develop in only one direction. In 1869 Unger baptized the Stundist, Efim Tsymbal, the first Ukrainian Baptist. John Wieler, another member of the Mennonite Brethren, presided in 1882 at a conference of German and Russian Baptists at Rückenau in the Ukraine. In 1884 he presided at a conference at Nova-Vasil’evka which resulted in the formation of a Russian Baptist Union.

The fact that Mennonite Brethren borrowed much from the Baptists, {37} including their views on baptism, does not make them any more Baptist than it makes Baptists who were probably influenced in the seventeenth century by Mennonites in their adoption of believers’ baptism by immersion, Mennonite. 20 The relationships between Mennonite Brethren and Baptists in Russia in the nineteenth century enriched both bodies. A knowledge of these former ties should help both denominational groups to gain a greater appreciation for the other body in our day.

NOTES

  1. A. J. Klassen, “The Roots and Development of Mennonite Brethren Theology to 1914” (Master’s thesis, Wheaton Graduate School, 1966), pp. 59ff.
  2. P.M. Friesen, Die Alt-Euangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Rußland (1789-1910) im Rahmen der mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte (Halbstadt, Taurien: ‘Raduga,” 1911), pp. 291-2, 380-6.
  3. Friesen, Brüderschaft, pp. 385-6. J.A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, edited by A.J. Klassen (Fresno, California: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1975), p. 74.
  4. Toews, History, pp. 74-5, 97.
  5. Hans Kasdorf, “Reflections on the Church Concept of the Mennonite Brethren,” Direction, IV (1975), 340.
  6. Toews, History, p. 99. Gerhard Wilhelm Peters, The Growth of Foreign Missions in the Mennonite Brethren Church (Hillsboro, Kansas: The Board of Foreign Missions, Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, 1947), pp. 43, 49.
  7. See Peter Regier, Kurzgefaßte Geschichte der Mennoniten Brüder-Gemeinde (Berne, Indiana: Light and Hope Publishing Company, 1901), pp. 44-5, and John H. Lohrenz, The Mennonite Brethren Church (Hillsboro, Kansas: The Board of Foreign Missions, Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, 1950), p. 36.
  8. See John F. Harms, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten Brüdergemeinde (Hillsboro, Kansas: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, c. 1925), pp. 19-20; Abraham H. Unruh, Die Geschichte der Mennoniten-Brüdergemeinde, 1860-1954 (Hillsboro, Kansas: The General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church of North America, 1954), pp. 67ff.; and Klassen, “Roots and Development,” pp. 130-1.
  9. Friesen, Brüderschaft, pp. 244-5.
  10. See Harms, Geschichte, pp. 46-57, and Jacob P. Bekker, Origin of the Mennonite Brethren Church, translated from the German by D. E. Pauls and A. E. Janzen (Hillsboro, Kansas: The Mennonite Brethren Historical Society of the Midwest, 1973), pp. 178-182. {38}
  11. Friesen, Brüderschaft, pp. 241, 245-6, 382.
  12. Friesen, Brüderschaft, pp. 242-3.
  13. John B. Toews, “The Russian Origins of the Mennonite Brethren: Some Observations,” in Paul Toews, ed., Pilgrims and Strangers: Essays in Mennonite Brethren History (Fresno, California: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1977), p. 93.
  14. Bekker, Origin, p. 70.
  15. Friesen, Brüderschaft, p. 314.
  16. Friesen, The Mennonite Brethren Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910), translated from the German and edited by J.B. Toews, Abraham Friesen, Peter J. Klassen, and Harry Loewen (Fresno, California: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1978), p. 371.
  17. Friesen, Brüderschaft, pp. 297, 306, 307, 313.
  18. Otto Ekelmann, Gnadenwunder: Geschichte der Ersten Ostpreussischen Baptistengemeinde in Memel and ihrer Missionsfelder in Ostpreusen and Rußland, 1841-1928 (Memel: Selbstverlag, 1928), pp. 86-7.
  19. See Glen H. Stassen, “Anabaptist Influence in the Origin of the Particular Baptists,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review, XXXVI (1962), 322-348.
Dr. Albert W. Wardin, Jr., is Professor of History at Belmont College, Nashville, Tennessee. He is a member of the Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. One of his interests is the evangelical movement in Russia with attention to Baptists, Mennonites, and Pentecostals.

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