Since Anabaptism’s birth nearly five centuries ago, adherents have been persecuted for their faith by civil authorities, from Austrian archdukes to American courts to Vietnamese police. For the Mennonite Brethren in their early years, however, their tormenters were their fellow Mennonites.
The Mennonite Brethren were founded by Mennonites in Russia seeking reform and revival in a church they considered wayward. When stymied in their efforts, a group withdrew in 1860, condemning the larger fellowship in a “secession statement.”
“It is tragic to behold, . . . when in the market places before the very eyes of their neighbors, [Mennonites] live satanic lives; and even the ministers go about and see it, yea even at the celebrations, sit and quietly by, and see and hear how people serve the devil!” the group asserted.
The main Mennonite body immediately ruled the group’s meetings illegal. The former became known as the Kirchliche Mennoniten, or church Mennonites, because they met in church buildings, while the secessionists were forced to gather in homes.
Yet even some Kirchliche Mennoniten had to agree with their departing brothers and sisters.
“There is no fear of God, no faithfulness, or honesty in the land,” wrote Bernhard Fast, a progressive elder and Mennonite Brethren ally. “Everyone must beware of his fellow man, his own brother. . . . And those who boast, boast of their roguery and revelry, as a hero of drunkenness, as a ruffian and the like. The keepers of Zion see it and remain silent.”
But the Mennonite Brethren withdrawal was not just a religious matter. When Catherine the Great invited the Mennonites to settle in Russia in the 17th century, she promised them the right to govern their own settlements. A system of mayors, clerks, constables and councils was soon established to oversee village and colony civil affairs. For most Mennonites, this was the first time they had participated in government.
As a result, the lines between the “spiritual ‘Mennonite brotherhood’ and civil ‘Mennonite jurisdiction’ ” were frequently blurred, according to 19th-century Mennonite Brethren historian P.M. Friesen. That, in turn, meant that the new group was assailed by Mennonites in positions of secular political power as well as those with church power. It was all reminiscent of the treatment suffered by the early Anabaptists.
For example, while the church placed the Mennonite Brethren under the ban — a legitimate and long-used form of discipline — civil authorities prevented them from buying and selling goods and services. Anyone who traded with them would be subject to the ban themselves. Some Kirchliche Mennoniten even ceased repaying debts to the members of the new fellowship. That brought to a standstill Mennonite Brethren business, industry and farming. Many were forced into bankruptcy.
Some unrepentant members of the new group were incarcerated. One person was jailed for 14 days with a diet of bread and water, then spent 10 days at hard labor. After three more days in jail, he was released due to his worsening physical condition. Others were verbally abused, physically beaten and confined to cold cells with little clothing. School teachers also lost their jobs.
In addition, the Mennonite Brethren were subjected to smear campaigns, including accusations that they were polygamists, considered “scientific knowledge and secular learning” as false and believed God “has commanded that all books and publications other than the Bible are to be burned.”
By the late 1860s, however, tensions between the Mennonite Brethren, who were officially recognized by the Russian government in 1864, and the Kirchliche Mennoniten had started to decrease. Members of both groups migrated to the United States in the mid-1870s, settling near each other in Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and what is now South Dakota. In their new home, the Mennonite Brethren maintained their status as a separate denomination, while most of the Kirchliche Mennoniten joined the General Conference Mennonite Church.
But the poisoned relations of the past could not be completely eliminated. Finally, in 1960 — the centennial of the Mennonite Brethren’s birth — their persecutors’ descendants apologized. GCMC President Erland Waltner brought that message from his denomination to the Mennonite Brethren convention in Reedley, Calif.
“We are . . . sorry for all feelings, words and deeds expressed by our fathers in an unbrotherly way and in a manner contrary to the spirit of Christ,” he said. “We are sorry that these events resulted in such an intense break within the Anabaptist-Mennonite brotherhood. . . .
“It is our prayer that for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the sake of our children and in behalf of a more united Mennonite witness within the Christian brotherhood, efforts be made in the spirit of humility to explore ways in which we could develop a closer fellowship.”
Fifty-eight years later, may those efforts continue.
Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.