The 39 families who followed Claas Epp into the Central Asian wilderness to avoid military conscription and meet Christ’s return in the late 19th century have received undo derision from descendants of other Russian Mennonites who chose instead to go west, to America. But not everyone remembers them in a negative light. The legacy of the relationships they forged is worth review.
A long-overdue exhibition of artifacts related to the Ak-Metchet settlement that existed from 1884 to 1935 near Khiva, Uzbekistan, is an opportunity to give credit where it is due.
It has been easy to remember the Great Trekkers for their fringe Tribulation theology that got Epp excommunicated for ultimately proclaiming himself the fourth member of the Trinity. He died alone in 1913.
While bizarre end-times beliefs dominate our memory of the settlers, their neighbors’ descendants recall the opposite of shame and caution.
The people who live in Uzbekistan today remember the Mennonites’ positive and friendly relationships, perhaps inspired by the welcome they found when they arrived in the region. In 1882, before arriving in Khiva, the migrants received hospitality when they wintered 300 miles away in Serubulak, Uzbekistan. Residents shared their mosque with the Mennonite newcomers, who worshiped there and performed 21 baptisms and two weddings. They continued their journey laden with gifts and money — marks of devotion to Islam’s hospitality mandate.
Upon arriving in Ak-Metchet, the Mennonites didn’t just introduce tomatoes and better technologies. They employed neighboring Muslims with good wages and fair labor practices.
In his 2010 book, Pilgrims on the Silk Road, Walter R. Ratliff describes area villages’ contemporary admiration: “Every spring the townspeople come here and remember the Mennonites in their prayers for a good season, recognizing their agricultural skill and thanking them for their peaceful relationship with the surrounding community.”
In light of the settlers’ context, this is remarkable. Coming from Mennonite colony life in what is now Ukraine, Epp’s migrants embodied an insular tradition suspicious of outsiders. They might not have converted anyone, but they are remembered, generations later, for a faith lived out in action. Good deeds spoke louder than bad theology.
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