Migrants, pushed and pulled

Russian Mennonite immigrants refused to blend in. What became of nonconformity?

On frontier outposts from Kansas to Manitoba, Russian Mennonite immigrants staked their futures on the belief that God had led them to a land of promise. Stout faith and fertile soil would reward the rigors of pioneer life.

Had they made the right choice? What were their motives, and what can we learn from them?

The Russian Mennonite migration, which began 150 years ago, changed the face of North American Anabaptism. It determined the destiny of thousands whose fates diverged radically. Drastic reversals of fortune showed it is impossible to predict long-term consequences.

At first, the 18,000 immigrants had reasons to question their decision. A main reason for uprooting, the loss of their exemption from military service, diminished when the Russian government decided to allow alternative service. But eventually, their communities prospered in North America.

Meanwhile, the 40,000 Mennonites who stayed behind enjoyed a 40-year golden age. Wealth grew and culture thrived. But their descendants would regret the choice. In the 1920s and ’30s, Mennonite colony life collapsed amid war, revolution, famine and state-­sponsored terror. By the end of World War II, the Mennonite communities in Ukraine disappeared into a void of death, deportation and desperate flight.

Anabaptist history is a story of ­migrations. Persecution and war pushed; religious freedom and economic opportunity pulled. Usually a mixture of influences prevailed. This was the case when European Mennonites gravitated to William Penn’s haven for religious dissenters in the 1700s. Their descendants (the “Old Mennonites”) extended vital aid to the 1874 immigrants (the Mennonite Brethren and soon-to-become General Conference Mennonites, Holdeman Mennonites and others).

Whatever the trends that pushed or pulled, one fact was constant: Mennonites’ religious views and cultural values differed from the society around them. They refused to blend in. In Russia, military conscription was part of an effort to turn the empire’s German-speaking people into real Russians. The Mennonites who migrated were the ones who resisted this the most.

Economics played a role, too. By the mid-1800s, colony population growth had left a third of the Mennonites landless. Cheap land in North America beckoned, with unexpected consequences. Claiming territory wrested from Indigenous people brought complicity in injustice — first unwitting, then tinged with guilt. Mennonites had not broken treaties, slaughtered bison to the brink of extinction or forcibly removed tribes from ancestral land. But Mennonite settlers benefited from the theft of land and destruction of Native culture.

As late as 1933, a General Confer­ence Mennonite Church Foreign Mis­sion Board report described Indigenous Americans as “heathen people, and uncivilized at that.” Prejudice was slow to fade. Today, there are small acts of atonement: land acknowledgments are spoken; Mennonite agencies file legal briefs in support of Indigenous land rights. The descendants of settlers who benefited from White privilege can do more to redress injustice.

For Mennonites who remained in the Russian Empire in the 1870s, more migrations lay ahead: to Canada in the 1920s, Canada and Paraguay in the 1940s, Germany in the 1980s and ’90s. For all, the path of progress led to varying degrees of assimilation — for some, a loss of Anabaptist identity.

For American and Canadian Mennonites today, questions remain: How does living in North America influence Mennonite theology and identity? In a time when secularism and Christian nationalism are on the rise, will we preserve prophetic nonconformity?

The Russian Mennonites feared assimilation — probably too much and for the wrong reasons: preserving their language, privilege and “purity.” Have we lost a healthy wariness of conformity to culture?

For conscience, religious freedom, economic opportunity. These are the traditional reasons the Russian Mennonites migrated. We could add: for nonconformity. The 150th anniversary reminds us to heed conscience, use freedom well and be different for the right reasons.

Paul Schrag

Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World. He lives in Newton, Kan., attends First Mennonite Church of Newton and is Read More

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Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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