Chapter 1: Sources of our Identity

Sources of Our Identity

Upon the prompting of my family and friends, I seek to give an orderly account of our family’s pilgrimage: of God’s dealings with us in our Russian homeland, of his guidance and protection in our flight from the Soviet Union and our coming to America. This is how we came to be who we are, and where we are.

We are a Mennonite Brethren family. Our faith comes from the truths revealed in the Bible, the Word of God. It is also rooted in events that began almost five centuries ago, during Reformation times in Europe. In order to understand how God has shaped us, we must go back and survey that Reformation history. To some readers it will seem we are going back quite a distance. Yet it is both necessary and profitable.

Our Anabaptist Heritage

Most of us are familiar with the best-known reformers:
Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran movement, is well known as the reformer in Germany; John Calvin (born in France) later worked in Geneva, Switzerland; Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland. These are the leading reformers of their time. It is with the latter, Zwingli, that we take up our story.

Zwingli surrounded himself with young, educated men, all in their twenties. They had studied the biblical languages, Greek and Hebrew, at prestigious universities. This equipped them for serious Bible studies. They were dedicated to rediscovering early Christianity. They studied the New Testament, and the Bible as a whole, together with Zwingli, whom they called “Meister (Master) Ulrich.

The young men came to the conclusion that the reformers were not going far enough in the reformation of the established church. They talked with their leader, saying, “Meister Ulrich, you are not going far enough; we need to go back to the New Testament”.

In particular, they thought that Zwingli and the other reformers were neglecting two key issues: baptism, and the nature of the Church. The reformers, who had come from the Catholic Church, were continuing to baptize infants and promote the State Church, just as the Catholic Church had done. The churches were state-controlled. Citizenship and Church membership were synonymous.

These young men said, “We do not find in the New Testament that infants were being baptized. It is “believers” who are baptized—those who make a voluntary commitment to Jesus Christ. And there is no connection between the Church and the State. One is a secular institution; the other is a religious institution, relating to God”.

Where the church and state are synonymous, every citizen is a member of the official state church. Therefore, infants were required by law to be baptized. The young zealots took this very seriously. They were challenged to debate Zwingli before the City Council of Zurich.

They were defeated, of course; the conclusion of the debate was decided before it ever started. But this setback didn’t dissuade these men from their conviction that they must go back to the New Testament in their teaching. They went out on their own, separating themselves from Zwingli’s fold. They refused to surrender their children to be baptized.

Two individuals emerged as leaders in this movement: Felix Manz and Conrad Grebel. Grebel’s father was a member of the city council of Zurich, obviously a prominent citizen. This indicates the caliber of some of the dissenters.

When Felix Manz was ordered to bring his children to the church for baptism, he refused to obey. After ignoring repeated orders, he was arrested, convicted, and executed by drowning on January 5, 1527. Paul Peachey, quotes Horsch, in Mennonites of Europe (p.62) where he renders Bullinger’s account of the Manz drowning as follows: ‘He was led by the executioners from the Wellenberg prison, a stone tower in the Limmat, down to the lake, accompanied by two preachers who admonished him to recant and save his life. His mother and brother were also present and encouraged him to constancy and steadfastness to the end. He praised God for grace to give his life for the truth. When he had been tied and was about to be thrust from the boat he sang with a loud voice, ‘into Thy hands, Father, I commit my Spirit’, and forthwith was held under water by the executioner and drowned.

According to the chronicler Wyss, his martyrdom took place at three o’clock in the afternoon. He was “the first [of the Swiss Brethren, or Mennonites] to be put to death by Protestants.” A Mennonite Guide to Zurich, by Paul Peachey. The spot where Manz was executed in the Limmat River in the city of Zurich is well marked even today.

Manz became the first martyr of this movement, which by this time, was well identified as a new direction. The Martyr’s Mirror, as quoted by S. L. Loewen, lists nearly 1500 martyrs in the provinces and nearly 400 in Flanders, of whom 32 percent were women. The last one of the Mennonites to die during this period was a young woman who was buried alive near Brussels in 1557. (History of the Jacob Loewen Family)

This original band of New Testament Christians called themselves “The Brothers” and later became known as “The Swiss Brothers.” They were also known as Anabaptists, or “baptizers again,” because they were baptized into their faith, even though they had been baptized as infants.

The conventional Protestant churches did not accept them, nor did any government support them, as were the other reformers, because of their insistence on the separation of Church and State. Thus, they became the originators of the concept of the separation of Church and State, which is now accepted by all Protestant groups.
Our Mennonite Roots

In time, the movement became more stable. In 1531, an ordained Catholic priest named Menno Simons, of Lewarden, Friesland (now Holland), heard how some Anabaptists were executed for being baptized again upon their confession of faith. As he pondered their willingness to give their lives for their beliefs, he sensed his own shallowness and guilt before God. He began to study his Bible more seriously until he came to a living faith in Christ.

In his thorough study of the New Testament, he developed the conviction that infant baptism was not found in the Scriptures. He noted also the lack of union between church and state. He subsequently left the priesthood in 1536 and was baptized by Obe Philipps in 1537.

Menno became the foremost spokesman for the Anabaptist movement. Because of his many writings, expounding the doctrines and ethics of the movement, he gained fame as its informal spokesman. Opponents started calling the group “Mennonites” after this former priest, Menno Simons. Later, the group itself adopted the label, until it finally became their official name, as it is today.

This movement began, as we saw, in Zurich, Switzerland, during the time of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1520’s. From there it spread to the Netherlands and throughout the rest of the lowlands. The Mennonites’ strong commitment to the truth of biblical teaching regarding separation of church and state, and the resultant pacifism, led them on in an eastward migration from the lowlands to Prussia by 1560.

Prussia was a great European empire comprised of what are now parts of Russia, Germany, Poland, and The Czech Republic. But Prussian economic and religious policies made further migration necessary. The Mennonites found greater freedom in the Vistula Valley of Poland. This hard-won freedom was of short duration, though, since the partitioning of Poland in 1772-1775 returned the region to Prussian jurisdiction. [History of the Jacob Loewen Family, S. L. Loewen, Hillsboro, Kansas.]

The Mennonites were persecuted nearly every place they went. Their wanderings eventually brought them to Danzig in Northern Germany (now Gdansk, Poland), next to the Polish border. Still, they found little rest. Their position on the nature of the church, which led them to advocate separation of church and state, also led them to refuse to participate in the military. They were convinced from their study of the New Testament that they could not take human life; therefore they could not participate in war.

Nevertheless, because of their industriousness, they were finally accepted in Prussia, though not without difficulties. It was here their language changed from late 16th Century Flemish and Friesish, which are Dutch dialects, to “Low German.” But they remained a separatist group because of their differences.
 Others did not identify with them unless they came to the same faith. When they did, of course, they became part of the group. They did not live in communes as such, however, a rather strong “we” feeling developed, which is generally a part of ethnic identification.


Migration to the Ukraine
 By 1776 the Empress Catharine II (“The Great”) of Russia was looking to the west, wanting to attract people to come and develop the vast territories that she had conquered. (See Manifesto of Catharine II.)  The Czarina invited the Mennonites to come and occupy her lands in order to raise agricultural standards in Russia. They were given a number of promises and privileges: no military service, free homesteads, tax-exemption for several years and self-government in local affairs. She even offered some financial assistance for three to five years to help them get started. This seemed quite attractive to many. At first, it was the lay people who responded. Most of the ministers, called “Teachers,” didn’t want to go. But, finally, as more people went, the leaders decided to join them.
 They first settled in the Ukraine, and then later spread to many other places in the country. That is how the Mennonite people got to Russia. Their origins were Swiss, Dutch, German, and some Polish. The original group settled near Ekaterinoslav (see map), now Zaporozhye, in the Ukraine, the area called Chortiza. Their site was known as the Chortiza Colonie, and later, “The Old Colony.” Other groups settled about 75 miles north, along the Molotschna Colonie. This is where our ancestors settled. My parents were born in the village of Alexanderwohl. (See maps)


The pioneers soon prospered. The Mennonite settlement comprised several counties, which included a self-sufficient local economy—under the state, of course. As mentioned, strong ethnic feelings—a “we” feeling—as well as a common religious faith and common language united the settlers into a strongly cohesive people.

They were not all Dutch, nor Swiss, but all spoke what they called “Low German.” There is no official script of this language; though, in later years, some people have put it in writing. In schools they taught German, and at home they spoke the Low German, a pattern that has persisted to the present generation.

However, under communism, they tended more and more to be absorbed into the general population. Yet even now, German and Low German persist in many locales. Wherever there is a large group of Mennonite people, Low German is often used in preaching.

This is our background, our tradition. Our family was part of this movement. We started moving to the Ukraine in the third-quarter of the eighteenth century. Our ancestors were good farmers, hard-working and thrifty, who became very prosperous there.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, land got scarce in the region, so the Mennonites spread out to different parts of Russia.
The Terms of Agreement
“Catharine the Great”

While considering the whole experience of the Mennonite people in Russia, the inevitable question arises: Why did they immigrate to Russia in the first place? Dr. Karl 1Stumpp writes, “Basic to the entire emigration...was the Manifesto of the Empress Catharine II, issued July 22, 1763. In due course, other edicts and regulations were published for the settlers in the Black Sea region. Here is the (translated) text of the Manifesto of July 22, 1763.”

It appears to me that the following lengthy excerpt will
answer the “why” question, at least in part, and at the same time shed some light on other questions and practices maintained in the community.
By the Grace of God,

We, Catharine the Second, Empress and Autocrat of all Russians, at Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod; Czarina of Kasan, Czarina of Astrachan, Czarina of Siberia…

As We are sufficiently aware of the vast extent of the lands within Our Empire, We perceive, among other things, that a censorable number of regions are still uncultivated which could advantageously be made available for productive uses of population and settlement. Most of the lands hold hidden in their depth an inexhaustible wealth of all kinds of precious ores and metals, and because they are well provided with forests, rivers and lakes, and located close to the sea for purpose of trade, they are also convenient for the development and growth of many kinds of manufacturing, plants, and various installations…

1. We permit all foreigners to come into Our Empire, in order to settle in all the governments, just as each one may desire…
We grant to all foreigners coming into Our Empire the free and unrestricted practice of their religion according to the precepts and usage of their church. To those however, who intend to settle not in cities but in colonies and villages on uninhabited lands we grant the freedom to build churches and bell towers, and to maintain the necessary number of priests and church servants, but not the construction of monasteries. On the other hand, everyone is hereby warned not to persuade or induce any of the Christian co-religionist living in Russia to accept or even assent to his faith or join his religious community, under pain of incurring the severest punishment of Our laws. This prohibition does not apply to the various nationalities on the borders of Our Empire who are attached to the Mohametan (sic) faith. We permit and allow everyone to win them over and make them subject the Christian religion in a decent way.

2. None of the foreigners who have come to settle in Russia shall be required to pay the slightest taxes to Our treasury, not be forced to render regular or extraordinary services, nor to billet troop. Indeed, everybody shall be exempt from all taxes and tribute in the following manner: those who have been settled as colonists with their families in hitherto uninhabited regions will enjoy 30 years of exemption…

3. All foreigners who settle in Russia either to engage in agriculture and some trade or to engage in agriculture and some trade or to undertake to build factories and plants will be offered a helping hand and the necessary loan required for the construction of factories useful for the future especially of such as have not yet been built in Russia.

4. For buildings of dwellings, the purchase of livestock needed for the farmstead, necessary equipment, materials, and tools for agriculture and industry, each settler will receive the necessary money from Our treasury in the form of an advance loan without interest. The capital sum has to be repaid only after ten years, in equal annual installments in the following three years…

5. We leave to the discretion of the established colonies, the internal constitution and jurisdiction, in such a way the persons placed in authority by Us will not interfere with the internal affairs and institutions…

7. The foreigners who have settled in Russia shall not be drafted against their will into the military or the civil service during their entire stay here. Only after the lapse of the years of tax-exemption can they be required to provide labor service for the country…

9. Those among the foreigners in Russia who establish factories, plants, or firms, and produce goods never before manufactured in Russia will be permitted to sell and export freely for ten years, without paying export duty or excise tax…
All the afore-mentioned privileges shall be enjoyed not only by those who have come into our country to settle there, but also their children and descendants, even though these are born in Russia, with provision that their years of exemption will be reckoned from the day their forbears arrived in Russia…
If any foreigner who desires to settle in Russia wishes for certain reason to secure other privileges or conditions besides those stated, he can apply in writing or in person to our Guardianship Chancellery, which will report the petition to Us. After examining the circumstances, We shall not hesitate to resolve the matter in such a way that the petitioner’s confidence in Our love of justice will not be disappointed.
 Given at the Court of Peter, July 22,1763

 In the Second Year of Our Reign.
The original was signed by her Imperial Supreme Majesty’s own hand in the following manner:

 Printed by the Senate, July 25, 1793
 Karl Stumpp comments: “This proclamation was distributed in all European countries; only in Germany did it have a decisive success. To give greater emphasis to the manifesto, the government appointed emigration agents, signed contracts with private entrepreneurs, notably Frenchmen, Swiss, and Belgians, and paid them premiums for each family they recruited…(page 19)
 Associate Councilor H. George Trappe journeyed to Danzig and apprised the oppressed Mennonites of the fact that the “Supreme Edict published by the Empress in 1786’ solicited immigrants to settle in Russia. In 1786 the Mennonites sent two deputies, Jakob Hoepfer and Johann Bartsch, to Russia who were received by the Empress herself in Krementschug. The conditions for settlement were negotiated in Saint Petersburg, and on July 20, 1789, the first Mennonites arrived on the Island of Chortiza. Here in the course of the years 1790 to 1816, fourteen colonies were established, often called the ‘Old Colonies.’ Since the Russian government had experience the best of success with the Chortiza Mennonites and became interested in more immigrants, it apportioned 123,000 dessiatines (=332,100 acres) of land for new settlement on the Molotschna River. In 1800 the privileges of the Mennonites were officially confirmed in an imperial rescript issued by Catharine’s son, Czar Paul I. It stated:?
We, Paul the first, by the Grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russians, etc., etc.
In documentation of Our all-gracious approval of the request reaching Us from the Mennonites settled in the
Gouvernement of New Russia, who, according to the testimony of their overseer can serve as models of excellent industry and decent living to the other colonists settled there, and who are, therefore, deserving of our special attention, We wish not only to confirm all the rights and privileges granted to them in earlier agreements, but also, in order to encourage them in their efforts and devotion to agriculture, to graciously grant them additional privileges set forth in the following:
*First. We confirm the freedom of religion promised to you and your descendants, by virtue of which you can practice your religious beliefs and church traditions. We also graciously grant the request that the spoken statements of Yes and No shall be accepted as valid in courts of law, in place of an oath, whenever the occasion requires.
*Second. (Regarding the apportionment of land:
65 Dessiatines (175.5 acres) per family)
*Third.    (Freedom to engage in trade) ...
*Fourth.  (The special right to manufacture beer,
vinegar, and brandy) ...
*Fifth.    (No outsider is permitted to establish taverns on the land of the Mennonites or sell brandy without their permission) …
*Sixth.   We give you Our most gracious assurance that none of the presently settled Mennonites, nor those deciding to settle in Our Empire in the future, nor their children and descendants shall at any time be compelled against their expressed desire to perform military duties or civil services.
*Seventh. (Exemption from lengthy military billeting,
transport duties and Crown labor, services and the obligation to build bridges and roads…)
*Eighth. (The right to own property and make provision  for their heirs and orphans…)
*Ninth.  (10 or 15 years exemption from Crown taxes…)        
*Tenth. (Orders given to authorities not to curtail these
privileges accorded to the [Mennonites] but to protect them in all instances). . .
Given in the city of Gatchino on the sixth of September in the year of the Birth of Christ, one thousand and eight hundred, the fourth of Our reign, and the second of Our office as Grand Master.

[The Emigration from Germany to Russia in the Years 1763 to 1862 by Dr. Karl Stumpp, Lincoln, Nebraska. American Historic Society of Germans from Russia, 1978. Pp. 15-22. Used by permission from publisher.]

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