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Fall 1999    Vol. 28 No. 2    pp. 201–17 

Mennonite Millennial Madness: A Case Study

Walter Unger

History is replete with examples of “millennial madness.” As we approach the beginning of a new millennium, a strong case could be made for “millennium madness” (and a weaker case based on the dawning of the previous one). Here I use the word millennial to refer to the second coming of Christ and the one thousand-year reign of Christ on this earth as discerned from Scripture. The term chiliasm could also be used (from the Greek for “thousand”) referring to the doctrine of the thousand-year reign of Christ.

Prophecy is a vital part of Scripture and calls for reverent study. Yet, there is danger when end time rhetoric is extremist, exaggerated, and alarmist.

When I refer to “Mennonite millennial madness” I do not mean to say that historically Mennonites have had an obsession with end time events, although some Mennonites in Russia in the nineteenth century did develop some extreme teachings and were, indeed, obsessed with the doctrine of the second advent and the events surrounding it. Thus I refer to this essay as a “case study,” i.e., one example of such an extreme. My purpose in choosing Claas Epp and his followers as my case study is not to make light of this movement or to poke fun at the people involved. My purpose is to seek to understand what motivated Epp and his people, to indicate some of the sociological and theological aspects of the movement, and to extrapolate some lessons we can learn to maintain a balanced, sane, and soundly biblical view of end time doctrine. {202}

ANABAPTIST RADICALS

The sixteenth century could have been chosen and an even more colorful and bizarre array of our ancestors’ millennial extremes described. The enormous political, social, and religious upheavals of that century were accompanied by great anxiety and foreboding regarding the imminence of the end of all things.

For his part, Luther denounced the pope as the antichrist and the Ottoman Turks, who were threatening to overrun all of Europe, as the Gog of Ezekiel 38. In 1530 the reformer was so convinced that the end was about to occur that he resolved to immediately publish his translation of Daniel so that it would warn people before the great and terrible day of the Lord. He feared the translation would not be completed before the second advent. 1

Some radical Anabaptists began predicting precise dates for the end. Hans Hut set Pentecost 1528 as the time. Leonhard Schiemer came up with the same date. In 1530 a Hessian Anabaptist prophesied three successive end dates: September 11, November 11, and Christmas 1530. 2

One of the most influential Anabaptist calendarizers was Melchior Hoffman who announced that Strasbourg was to be the site of the New Jerusalem and the Lord would appear there in 1533. He believed himself to be Elijah chosen by God to proclaim the second advent. Going to Strasbourg, Hoffman had himself imprisoned. The year 1533 passed and the deluded prophet remained in prison until his death ten years later. He never gave up hope, reinterpreting his eschatology over and over again, trying to convince himself and the world that Christ was yet to come as he predicted.

Although Hoffman’s predictions were not fulfilled in Strasbourg his disciples took his teachings a step further. The city of Muenster in Westphalia was now seen as the New Jerusalem where the faithful were to gather and prepare the way for Christ’s return by force. Those who were not converted had to leave the city. In a terrible battle, the radicals were massacred and Anabaptism given a black eye. This fringe group was hardly representative of the main body of evangelical and pacifistic Anabaptists soon to take on the name Mennonites after Menno Simons.

Walter Klaassen summaries the sixteenth century milieu well:

For the people of the sixteenth century time was running out. The world was old and had reached the stage of senility. This was a common conviction in Europe. Our ancestors were therefore very much people of their time. Their views were not unique. {203} 3

Klaassen goes on to point out that what distinguished the Hans Huts and Melchior Hoffmans and Muensterites was that “they considered themselves to be clearly identifiable actors in the last scene of the cosmic drama.” Consequently, this made the rest of the Anabaptists extremely cautious. 4

NINETEENTH CENTURY CHILIASTIC INFLUENCES IN RUSSIA

German Pietism fuelled millennial hopes in Russia in the early nineteenth century. Wuerttemberg Pietists of the late eighteenth century were deeply influenced by the great theologian Johann Bengel who taught a specific eschatology and went so far as to calculate the date for the return of Christ for either 1816 or 1836. Building on Bengel’s theology was Pietist physician, economist, and author Johann Heinrich Jung-Stilling. Jung-Stilling’s works were immensely influential not only among his German Pietist brethren, but also among Mennonites in Russia. 5

Jung-Stilling’s end time views were most effectively conveyed through his famous allegorical novel Heimweh (Longing for Home) published in 1794. The novel tells the story of a great oriental monarch and an empire stretching over all of Europe and Asia. A secret conspiracy in France has plotted the downfall of the empire. Loyal followers of the emperor form a counter organization to protect him. Throughout the novel there is a yearning by the king’s true subjects to reach the final kingdom of peace in the East among the Tartar tribes of the region of Samarkand and Bukhara in Central Asia.

The prince in the kingdom and hero of the novel is Eugenius. He is a very religious man and journeys east to the place of refuge. On his way he meets and marries a Mennonite girl, a nicety which undoubtedly charmed Mennonite readers.

The allegory is very clear in its millennial connotations. Jung-Stilling wrote that Eugenius “will gather the small band of protected believers from all nations and lead them until the Kingdom of our Lord begins. He who has ears let him hear!” 6

As early as 1817 whole communities of Pietists left Wuerttemberg and traveled east to the realms of the Russian Czar, whom they believed would provide them a place of refuge until the return of Christ. After all, the Czar was a pious Christian and Russia had not adopted the godless spirit of social democracy spawned by the French Revolution.

Upon relocating to Russia, the German Pietists formed a number of villages north of the Black Sea. When pastor Eduard Wuest went to these places in 1845 he found that these Pietists had become rather {204} well-to-do and comfortable on the Russian steppe and that they had largely forgotten their original reason for moving east. In 1855 Wuest wrote that their chiliasm “has been cooled off by time; indeed, even more: a good number of them have made themselves so comfortable on the generous and fruitful Russian steppe that they remind one of those who are referred to in the Revelation as ‘inhabitants of earth.’ ” Wuest’s preaching soon lead to a revival. 7

Mennonites in Russia were also taken up with eschatological ideas through reading Jung-Stilling and other Pietist literature. For example Tobias Voth, one of the first Mennonite teachers in Russia, made a trip to visit his parents in 1818 and acquired some of the writings of Jung-Stilling. Through reading these, Voth testifies that he was converted to Christ. 8

Chiliastic notions were also nurtured among the Mennonites in Russia by Christoph Cloeter, the German author and editor of a weekly paper, Bruederbote (Messenger for the Brethren). Soon most of the preaching in the Am Trakt settlement was dominated by prophetic themes, alerting people to signs which indicated the imminent return of Christ. 9

The growing acceptance of specific end time teachings in Am Trakt set the stage for the disasters which were to follow. Key prophetic passages were Isaiah 26:20-21 and Revelation 3:8-10 and 12:14-17 which concern the flight and preservation of a remnant of believers during the testing period of the antichrist’s reign. This doctrine was given specific application to the Mennonite church. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 represented seven consecutive periods in the history of Christendom. The Mennonite church was placed in the role of the church of Philadelphia. The words “you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” could only refer to nonresistant Mennonites who had not compromised the peace position and whom God rewarded with an “open door,” first from Holland to Prussia, then from Prussia to Russia. Now again there was the promise of an open door to a sanctuary in the East, a place of refuge from the final tribulation period which was soon to come on earth before Christ’s second coming and the commencement of his millennial reign. 10

Another strand of chiliastic teaching came from the Templers. Mennonite historians have amply documented the influence of Pietist Eduard Wuest’s revivalist preaching in the formation of the Mennonite Brethren Church. What has not been so well researched is the influence Wuest exerted on Mennonites in South Russia through his being an ardent Jerusalemsfreund, i.e., a supporter of the chiliastic early Temple movement.

The Templers were started by a German separatist, Christoph {205} Hoffman. His passion was to see the Kingdom of God realized on earth in a concrete and holistic way. He read biblical prophecy as teaching that believers should begin the earthly kingdom in Jerusalem. A group formed around Hoffman known as “Friends of Jerusalem.” In preparation for the Lord’s return, they intended to emigrate to the Holy Land and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem—hence the name Templers. They did do some colonization in Palestine but never achieved many of their other lofty goals.

In his 1955 book, Mennonite Templers, Heinrich Sawatzky describes how a group of Russian Mennonites became Templers, breaking with the mother church in the Molotschna in 1863. Sawatzky was a Templer himself and devoted his life to the movement. 11

With all of these chiliastic winds blowing through South Russia in the nineteenth century it is little wonder that, as in the sixteenth century in the cradle of Anabaptism, some radical millennialists also bent on acting out end time events would emerge. This brings us to Claas Epp, Jr.

THE EMERGENCE OF CLAAS EPP, JR.

In 1850 the Prussian constitution abolished Mennonite exemption from compulsory military service on religious grounds. Consequently, a considerable number of Prussian Mennonites made plans to emigrate to Russia, like so many of their brothers and sisters had done earlier in that century. A tract of just under forty-seven thousand acres was set aside for the newcomers in the province of Samara, in the immediate vicinity of the great Salt Trakt, a road upon which the salt from the Elton Sea was conveyed to the interior provinces. Hence the settlement was called the Am Trakt and it eventually consisted of ten villages, established between 1854 and 1875. The first two were Hahnsau and Koeppental which were modeled after the Molotschna villages. Claas Epp, Sr. was the organizer and leader of the Trakt settlement and one of the founders of Hahnsau. Another founder was Johann Wall, minister and first elder of the settlement. David Hamm was also minister at Hahnsau. Many of the original settlers of Am Trakt had founded their homes with the clear understanding that this was but a temporary step along the way and that their journey was to take them further east. 12

There was a strong chiliastic faction among the emigrants who centered in Koeppental and Hahnsau. Elder Johann Wall was a millennial enthusiast, while the senior Epp had little sympathy for the chiliastic faction from its very beginnings. Indeed, in some comments Epp put to writing in the 1870s and which only came to light after his death, the colony founder wrote: {206}

Our emigration to Russia and the province of Samara, specifically to the salt tract, had a fanatical element which has continued to this day. Despite its experiences, this group was not cured of this tendency which finally resulted and climaxed in the premature assumption of the parousia of our Lord and Saviour for the purpose of establishing the millennium (the Kingdom of peace) on earth. Hence, our belief that the Son of Man would appear in the clouds of heaven, the most important event awaiting his church, has been reduced to the dust of an unsavory fanatical imagination. 13

Ironically, Epp’s own son was one of those given over to “an unsavory fanatical imagination.”

Claas Epp, Sr., had four sons. Claas, Jr., born on September 8, 1838, was the oldest. From childhood on, the young Epp avidly read and quoted Jung-Stilling’s Heimweh, which by this time had become a second Bible to the chiliasts of Russia. Claas Epp, Jr., was successful in agriculture and apparently owned three farms in the village of Orloff in addition to his land in Hahnsau. He was a gifted leader and had an attractive personality. 14

When the Russian government began removing privileges Mennonites had received, including exemption from military service, migration to America was discussed and many followed that opportunity. In 1874, greatly disturbed by the decisions to migrate and also plagued by disagreements with his sixty-nine-year old father over theology and the leadership of the family, Claas, Jr., decided to stay in Russia, work in private circles, and emphasize the imminent end of the age. Incorporating the ideas of Jung-Stilling and adapting them to his Mennonite setting, Epp taught that the Mennonites were elected to please God, who had promised them an open door in order to prepare a place of refuge for other believers in the Christian church who were fleeing the tribulation.

Epp put his ideas down in a book, the first edition of which was published in 1877. It was entitled, The Unsealed Prophecy of the Prophet Daniel and the Meaning of the Revelation of Jesus Christ. In the second and third editions the author brought his views up-to-date in revised prefaces.

While many Mennonites continued to plan for emigration to America, Epp’s teaching and preaching pointed in another direction. America was doomed with the rest of the world. All European governments except Russia’s would also be destroyed. Deliverance for the faithful could only be found in the east, south of Samarkand. 15 By 1879, Epp was urging his followers to sell their possessions and move to Turkestan, a {207} newly acquired Russian province in Central Asia. Six hundred people, struck with millennial fervor, responded and from 1880 to 1884 the Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia unfolded with dramatic episodes of bravery in the midst of hardship, suffering, and death; fanaticism in blind adherence to Epp’s irrational and increasingly bizarre beliefs; and ultimate disillusionment as one by one the failed predictions proved Epp to be a false prophet.

THE GREAT TREK

Two key factors motivated the bold move eastward by the Mennonite trekkers. One, of course, was the fervor of their millennial hopes as fuelled by Claas Epp; the other was the imminent loss of exemption from military service and other privileges. Holding on to their nonresistant beliefs, together with their convictions regarding the end times, combined to provide a powerful impetus. 16

Permission was received to emigrate to Turkestan where the German Konstantine von Kaufmann served the czar as governor-general and was very favorably disposed toward the Mennonites. Some generous provisions were made. Young Mennonite men of draft age were granted permission to serve the government in Turkestan. Fifteen years of exemption from military service for those under twenty years of age and remittance of taxation for all Mennonites for that same period was also granted. A location at Kaplan Bek, a former military post near Tashkent, was set aside as a temporary settlement for a year until the Mennonites could find more suitable accommodation. About one hundred families on the Volga, led by Claas Epp, and one hundred families in the Molotschna, led by Abraham Peters, prepared to leave their homes. A number of families from the Kuban region of the Caucasus who had the same millennial convictions also joined the Molotschna chiliasts and planned to emigrate east. Among Peters’ most ardent followers from this Kuban group were three families of Mennonite Brethren. 17

There was opposition to the proposed migration from some high-ranking government officials who feared that the exodus would take on such large proportions so as to threaten the existence of the Am Trakt colony. Many fellow Mennonites were critical of the venture and many refused to accept Epp’s end time teachings, viewing him as a religious fanatic. Considerable tension was building up over this issue within the Am Trakt and Molotschna settlements. Those planning to leave began to feel discriminated against by those in their respective communities who decided to remain.

Tension became so pronounced that even the millennial migrants {208} split into two parties. The division arose over whether to heed the criticisms and concerns of the government and fellow Mennonites who were trying to dissuade them from migrating, or to continue following Epp and his teachings. 18

To answer his critics, Epp wrote several vindications of his enterprise and had them published. In an effort to restore unity of purpose, Epp called for a communion service at Hahnsau on June 25, 1880. About thirty-five families came and all but one stuck with their leader’s program. 19

The communion meeting, rather than leading to unity, led to the separation of the Epp faction known as the “Bride Community”—a body of believers totally committed to meeting Christ the bridegroom in Central Asia. The Bride Community—”super saints”—became the nucleus of leadership for the entire project but their sense of superpiety and intransigence would contribute to future schisms.

Opposition to the trek came not only from the Russian officials and fellow Mennonites within Russia, but also from brethren in America. The editor of Zur Heimat (To the Homeland) warned that the Epp venture was destined to fail because of the dissension in the movement. Prospects of peace and unity in a distant “utopia,” he stated, would never be realized if Mennonites could not agree in their Russian homeland. The hardships of the trip to Turkestan would only heighten dissension; the millennial controversy would tear them apart. Zur Heimat offered a truly prophetic word which unfortunately went unheeded and came to tragic fulfillment. 20

In all, five wagon trains consisting of some six hundred people made their way across steppe, desert, and mountain to the new Russian province of Turkestan. Some of the migrants would remain in this new land; the majority would leave in a few years, disillusioned but seeking refuge in a new country: America.

HARDSHIP, DISSENSION, AND DISILLUSIONMENT

All of the five wagon trains went through different degrees of hardship, but of particular note are the experiences of the third and fifth contingents, the latter led by Claas Epp. 21

The group of eighty families of the third wagon train left Waldheim in the Molotschna on August 1, 1880. They spent their first Sunday in the Hutterite village of Johannesruh. These friendly brothers and sisters gave the group baked goods, apples, and cherries.

In her autobiography, Elizabeth Schultz relates what happened at Johannesruh: {209}

Before we left here a messenger came riding telling us the sad news; a young man loved a girl but the parents did not allow it. The parents of the boy forced him to come along, the parents of the girl did not allow her to go along to Asia, so she committed suicide by hanging. This was a bad shock for the boy, he had a nervous breakdown, had to be watched day and night. A sad thing to happen at the beginning of our trip. 22

When the wagon train reached the Volga River on the way to Orenburg they received a visit from Claas Epp. Schultz describes this as follows:

A well-known preacher, Mr. Claas Epp, arrived accompanied by a few other preachers. We had Bible Studies in the forenoons and services in the afternoons. Such explaining of Bible truths . . . [our group] had never heard before. Some joined the church, the Lord’s Supper was held, and [we were] introduced, for the first time, to having a Love Feast. These people here felt that having a Love Feast together was for greater fellowship together—we could all partake whether poor or rich. For God loved us all alike. After this the rich in our caravan were a bit more humble. 23

One of the group’s most harrowing experiences took place when they reached central Turkestan. Late one Saturday evening after sixteen weeks of travel the wagon train arrived at the large Muslim town of Chimkent. The gates were locked and only after much coaxing did the town officials allow the wagon train through to make camp in an open field covered with many mysterious looking mounds. As the group settled in, the officials warned the Mennonites under no circumstances to wander from their wagons, not even for water—their hosts would bring it to them. The weary travelers quickly had supper and retired for the night. Schultz describes the macabre experience of the next morning:

Next morning after we awoke, we heard a scream—one girl had not heeded the order—had gone to get water, finally walked over a mound—broke through and fell into her armpits, was she scared. They pulled her out and realized we were parked on an old graveyard. Over which we were quite puzzled for they always revere their dead. After {210} breakfast we went to look through the graveyard. Some had only a stone wall around, some were broken or fallen in and we could see a lying or sitting corpse in the holes . . . . Nowhere did we ever again see a graveyard like this one. 24

DESTINATION REACHED

The Molotschna group finally reached their destination, Tashkent, on December 2, 1880. Their eighteen-week trek was to be the longest of the five contingents to migrate. They left nine people buried along the trail.

Even before the fifth and final wagon train containing the bulk of the “Bride Community” left Am Trakt there were doubts and divisions in the very group soon to embark under Epp’s leadership. Many had doubts about leaving at all. Reports coming back from Turkestan from those who had gone before were very unsettling. A terrible typhoid epidemic had swept through both Kaplan Bek and Tashkent with over a hundred people taken. By the most conservative estimates between 15 and 20 percent of all Mennonite migrants died in the epidemic of 1881. 25

Another disconcerting development in Turkestan was the emergence of an anti-Epp faction led by three of the leading ministers. They took objection to Epp’s weekly letters in which he told them that the Lord was writing to the church of Philadelphia, as he called them according to Revelation 3. The strong leader of the Molotschna migrants, Abraham Peters, realizing how radical Epp’s theology was becoming, called him a modern-day false prophet. 26

Similar doubts struck the “Bride Community” group. Some could not withstand the criticism of friends and relatives who called the trek a “crazy venture.” To exacerbate things, a leading Trakt minister, Jacob Janzen, like Peters, began denouncing Epp as a false prophet. He warned that disaster would befall those who stubbornly followed Epp. For his part, Epp formally excommunicated Janzen and his family, as he would others in the future. Janzen was no longer worthy of the Bride Community and anyone who tried to challenge Epp’s authority was not suitable to meet Christ in Turkestan. 27

DISSENSION INCREASES

Discord continued throughout the summer of preparations, as it did after the September, 1881, departure. Epp pushed the 277-person wagon train at a rapid pace early on, but freezing temperatures and snow slowed down the last part of their journey. By the time they reached the city of Turkestan on December 17, the frozen party had encountered temperatures as low as twenty-six degrees below zero Fahrenheit and had been plagued {211} by a total of eighteen broken axles. In the four months of their journey they had traveled 1,566 miles under the most appalling conditions.

While wintering in Turkestan, dissension only increased. Some in the party wanted to go directly to Bukhara, which did not want more settlers; others wanted to see relatives in Kaplan Bek; a minority concluded Epp was a religious fanatic and made plans to go to Aulie Ata. These three factions argued constantly. 28

After a brief sojourn in Serabulak, which proved not to be the promised place of refuge, Lausan was chosen as the place. Epp really wanted to go to Khiva. Nevertheless, his group settled in a low-lying, insect-infested marshy area surrounded by bush and tall reeds and sounds of wild animals such as hogs, jackals, and tigers. This “open door” they had looked forward to so joyfully brought only grief and discouragement. Indeed, October 1882 through to Spring 1884, when Epp again moved the group to a new place of refuge, was a disastrous time for the Lausan community. For example, in the Spring of 1883, with their crops of beans, onions, carrots, cabbage, melons, maize, barley, peas, and clover carefully irrigated and cared for, a black cloud of grasshoppers passed through the region. Fortunately not much damage was done, but right after this, wild hogs came and finished off anything missed by the grasshoppers, eating all they could find. The harvest was very small for some; others harvested nothing. Epp’s response was that the problems his people were having now were nothing compared with the trials ahead in the Great Tribulation. And he was right—even greater difficulties lay ahead for the group. And tensions mounted. 29

Surrounding the Mennonites were some 300,000 Turkoman natives. Though most of the natives near Lauson made their living in settled pastoral or agricultural pursuits, they had still not completely cast off their old character as nomadic marauders. Starting late in March 1883 and continuing regularly thereafter, Mennonite horses were stolen by the Turkomans. As time went on, the natives became bolder and they began to plunder Mennonite houses.

The young men of the settlement wanted to fight back—at least for purposes of self-defense. They demanded weapons. The leaders of the community granted permission for the men to form a nightly guard among themselves with canes, clubs, and sticks to use in a defensive manner. Such an approach proved unsuccessful and the Turkomans became ever bolder, culminating with the murder of Heinrich Abrahms. 30

The local Turkoman authorities were notified about the murder but did nothing about it. They suggested the Mennonites buy guns for protection. It was obvious that their belief in nonresistance was being put to {212} the supreme test. The settlers debated the issue of self-defense at length. The compromise solution was to hire two Cossack night watchmen to protect them. Their presence resulted in a definite drop in the rate of robbery and assaults. 31

Although relative calm returned to the settlement, dissension continued to dog the millennial migrants. Some openly maintained Lauson was no longer the place of refuge and that the entire group should move to a new land. Three of the leading ministers admitted that they had been duped by Epp for a long time and said the so-called “refuge” was a farce and a figment of Epp’s imagination. With this Epp’s following got even smaller.

A NEW HOPE

In the Spring of 1884 the khan encouraged the Mennonites to move to Khiva. He said it was difficult to protect them in Lauson and suggested that he had a “big garden” near Khiva that would serve them well. Epp rejoiced. Here finally was the true place of refuge. Abruptly on April 16, 1884, thirty-nine families led by Epp left by boat, carts, and wagons. They took everything they could use in a new settlement. They left so suddenly that families did not have a chance to reconcile differences and many simply separated without further discussion. 32

The new village was named Ak Metchet and was totally controlled by Claas Epp. He now became very specific and predicted that Christ would return to Ak Metchet early in 1889. His followers began to construct apartments for the great influx of refugees they expected would soon be arriving.

But here too the unity was soon broken and Epp had detractors. Teacher and minister Jonas Quiring broke with Epp and for that was excommunicated from the Bride Community. Epp called Quiring the “dragon” of the Book of Revelation. For his part, Quiring decided to take his family to America. 33

Epp became more and more eccentric and alienated more of his dwindling flock of followers. He announced the very date of Christ’s return: March 8, 1889. Some of the people wondered why refugees from the west had not arrived to find safety during the tribulation, but they were so preoccupied with their own preparations that they decided not to concern themselves about details.

EPP’S PROPHECIES FAIL

The great day came. Epp had informed his people that the Lord had decided that he, as their leader, would be caught up first and then the rest would follow. A church altar was carried outside as a throne for Epp. {213} When the Bride Community settled, Epp gave a prayer and seated himself on his throne. All day long the standing congregation, dressed in white robes, fasted and prayed, awaiting the big event. At nightfall, Epp told the group that the Lord had tarried. 34

Bartsch’s version of that day and a subsequent prophecy is as follows:

The day dawned—without the previous appearance of the Antichrist, without any refugees from the west, without the preceding judgement of the vials of wrath—and passed without the Second Coming of Christ. The number of doubters and deserters of Epp’s cause increased, while his loyal followers no longer quite knew what to believe.

But Epp always found a way out. One day he met Penner and said, “Penner, a miracle has happened! You know my ship’s clock? The hands pointed to 8 and 9—that was a sign from the Lord—but the clock was hanging at an angle so the hands were pointing incorrectly. Now it is hanging straight with the hands pointing to 9 and 1. The Lord is coming in 1891.” He was so enamoured with this idea that he led Penner into the room and showed him the clock.

Can one imagine anything more absurd? 35

Needless to say, 1891 came and went and the Lord still tarried. As rationalization, Epp began to teach that because of the approaching new age, many of his former prophecies had become invalid. Going even deeper into delusion, he said that he was now the son of Christ as Christ was the Son of God. Future baptisms were now to be done in the name of the quadruple godhead rather than the Trinity. At this point, three of the ministers began a concerted assault on Epp’s leadership. Epp excommunicated the dissidents and tried to convince the people that he was a completely new man: “Elijah of the New Testament, Melchizedek of the New Earth, formerly Claas Epp.” After this, others left Epp’s community leaving a pathetic flock of ten to fifteen families as blind followers. 36

Claas Epp continued his errant teachings for another twenty-two years. Soon after the turn of the century, he prophesied that a “New Ak Metchet” would come down from heaven in the near future, a parallel of the New Jerusalem. One by one more families left Epp’s fold. A disappointed old man, he died on January 19, 1913, succumbing to stomach cancer. {214} 37

AN APPROPRIATE PLACE FOR PROPHECY

In the 1907 foreword to his book Our Trek to Central Asia, Franz Bartsch wrote:

The reason for these memoirs . . . is not to point out the weaknesses and errors of the persons in this movement nor to write something sensational, but simply to remind the present generation of a series of events which have had far-reaching effects on the life of our congregations. I want to remind them and us of a devastating example in our history to prevent us from committing the same errors: of interpreting Scripture capriciously and arbitrarily in order to justify and re-enforce preconceived notions and opinions, and of accepting uncritically the emergence of self-appointed and self-aggrandizing leaders. Rather we are to test all teachings and all leadership through sober use of Scripture as the Word of God so that we will not fall prey to any kind of fanaticism. 38

In 1857 William Ramsey shared that shortly after the publication of his book on the Second Coming of Christ, a brother laid his hand on his shoulder, and in a very persuasive tone said, “My dear brother, do let me advise you to stop your studies of the prophecies. I never knew a man who began to study them and to write on them who did not ultimately go crazy.” 39

From the above two citations and from the study of Claas Epp one might conclude that we should resolutely avoid the study of prophetic and millennial themes lest we ultimately “go crazy.” Not at all. Prophecy is a vital part of Scripture and calls for reverent study. The response to excesses in past millennial teaching is not avoidance of the topic but, as Bartsch suggests, safeguarding against those elements which lead to excess and error.

I conclude with four cautions, interweaving some Scriptural guidelines which point toward a balanced and sane approach to eschatology.

  1. There is a grave danger when visions, prophecies, and other so-called “revelations” outside of Scripture are given and received as authoritative. Epp went the same mystic way as Muentzer, Hut, Hoffman, et al., with the same disastrous results. Thomas Muentzer told Luther that God came to him in dreams and visions and spoke directly by the Holy Ghost. The reformer responded that the Spirit and the Word must never be separated, that the written Word is the channel through which the Spirit’s revelation flows, and that this alone is what is {215} authoritative and to be followed. Heeding such advice could have averted many of the errors in millennial thought and action which unfolded in the subsequent four centuries.
  2. There is danger when end time rhetoric is extremist, exaggerated, and alarmist. Blowing prophetic teaching completely out of proportion and sensationalizing it is the exact opposite of what Scripture enjoins: “The end of all things is at hand; therefore keep sane and sober for your prayers. Above all hold unfailing your love for one another . . . . Practice hospitality . . . . [E]mploy [gifts] for one another . . . .” (1 Pet. 4:7-11 RSV). Unlike Epp, the believer’s response in light of the end of all things is not panic but prayer, not passive retreat but active hospitality, not preoccupation with end time mechanics but commitment to end time service.
  3. There is grave danger when leaders do not submit their views to community hermeneutical examination. Claas Epp was challenged regarding his interpretations of prophecy but would not listen to those who sought to modify his views. The collective discernment of the body of believers is a safeguard against the extremes of unbalanced individual interpretation.
  4. There is danger in methods of biblical interpretation which insist on a literal approach, particularly to prophetic passages. The interpretation is often switched to a symbolic one when there are inconsistencies within the literalism, as Walter Klaassen shows in his Armageddon and the Peaceable Kingdom. 40 Furthermore, a sane understanding gives way to fanciful and fantastic speculations when Scripture is not interpreted within the context of its own historical, cultural, and grammatical setting. Particular injustice is done to prophetic texts when the interpreter assumes they are being fulfilled in his or her own day. Contemporary prophecy teachers who read current events back into Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation are repeating Claas Epp’s error (and that of legions before him).

We need to approach biblical prophecy in a sober, hermeneutically sound manner, attended to with utmost humility, for we now see through a glass darkly and know only in part (1 Cor. 13:12). Our focus must be clear, remembering that there are two great biblical themes regarding the fulfillment of God’s end time purposes: (1) what God will do, and (2) what we as God’s people ought to be doing. We need to avoid any prophetic emphasis which gets caught up in the mechanics of the former and leads to a neglect of the imperatives of the latter. And we need to resist any system of interpretation which leads to a fixation on the calendar, current events, Israel, the antichrist, and escape from tribulation. Our focus should be on holiness of life and holistic witness and not on a theology of escape and refuge. {216}

When the end comes—as it surely will in God’s own time (1 Tim. 6:14-15), a time which we can never know (Acts 1:7)—we need to be found not in fanciful speculation but in faithful service.

NOTES

  1. Walter Klaassen, “Eschatological Themes in Early Dutch Anabaptism,” in The Dutch Dissenters, ed. Irvin B. Horst (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 16; see also Klaassen, “Visions of the End in Reformation Europe,” in Visions and Realities, ed. Harry Loewen and Al Reimer (Winnipeg: Hyperion, 1985), 11-57.
  2. Klaassen, “Visions of the End in Reformation Europe,” 50-51.
  3. Ibid., 57.
  4. Ibid. Menno Simons shared with his contemporaries the belief that the end of all things was at hand. The signs of the end were evident: persecution, war, pestilence, natural disasters, and omens in the heavens. Menno wrote to his sister-in-law, “We daily expect Christ Jesus.” However, he clearly rejected the violent eschatology of those who were taking it on themselves to mete out God’s judgment and bring in the Kingdom by force (Ibid., 54).
  5. Victor G. Doerksen, “Translator’s Preface,” in Heinrich Sawatzky, Mennonite Templers (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications and Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1990), xiii—xiv; see also Fred Richard Belk, The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia 1880-1884 (Scottdale, PA and Kitchener, ON: Herald, 1976), 53-55.
  6. As cited by Belk, 55.
  7. Victor G. Doerksen, “Mennonite Templers in Russia,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 3 (1985): 130. The Wuest citation is note 7, 136.
  8. Belk, 55.
  9. Franz Bartsch, Our Trek to Central Asia, trans. Elizabeth Peters and Gerhard Ens (Winnipeg, MB: CMBC and Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1993), 5-6.
  10. Claas Epp, The Unsealed Prophecy of the Prophet Daniel and the Meaning of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, 2d Printing, 1878, trans. Dallas Wiebe and Kervin Dyck (Newton, KS: Mennonite Library and Archives, 1997), 9-26; Bartsch, 22.
  11. See notes 5 and 7.
  12. Bartsch, 3.
  13. Ibid., 4.
  14. Belk, 58-60.
  15. Epp, 25. {217}
  16. Cf. A. J. Dueck, “Claas Epp and the Great Trek Reconsidered,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 3 (1985): 139-47, responding to Waldemar Janzen, “The Great Trek: Episode or Paradigm,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 51 (1977): 127-39. Dueck concludes that the merger of pacifism and millennialism was not an isolated instance in the nineteenth century, and not uniquely Mennonite.
  17. Bartsch, 56-57; Belk, 97; P. M. Friesen, The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910) (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, 1978), 570.
  18. Belk, 82-83.
  19. Ibid., 84.
  20. Ibid.
  21. In addition to Bartsch as a primary source, a teenaged Elizabeth Unruh shares fascinating details in her autobiography (Elizabeth Schultz, Autobiography, trans. Annie Keyes [unpub. ms., n.p., n.d.]). Bartsch was part of the first and Unruh of the third group of the Great Trek.
  22. Schultz, 13.
  23. Ibid., 16-17.
  24. Ibid., 20-21.
  25. Belk, 108.
  26. Belk, 111-12. Bartsch states that the group looked forward to Epp’s letters with great anticipation and joy: “They were regarded almost as apostolic epistles, considered above reproach and by some as infallible” (65).
  27. Belk, 130.
  28. Bartsch, 89-98; Belk, 129-34.
  29. Belk, 161-62.
  30. Schultz, 58-59; Bartsch, 114-15; Belk, 165-66.
  31. Belk, 167.
  32. Bartsch, 109-17; Schultz, 60-61; Belk, 168-70.
  33. Belk, 170-71.
  34. Schultz, 61; Belk, 173.
  35. Bartsch, 124-25.
  36. Ibid., 127.
  37. Belk, 190.
  38. Bartsch, xiv.
  39. As cited by Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1992), ix.
  40. Walter Klaassen, Armageddon and the Peaceable Kingdom (Waterloo, ON and Scottdale, PA: Herald), passim.
Walter Unger is president of Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Simon Fraser University where he wrote his dissertation on the North American prophecy movement, 1875 to 1900.

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