March 22, 2003

Out of Frisia

I feel that at this point I should provide some background information about Mennonites, and how they came to be in Russia. If I had Grandpa's library on hand, this would be a piece of cake. He had dozens of books on Mennonite history and culture. However, his books are in Canada, in his last house, and I am seven time zones east of them.

I am therefore warning you: I'm working mostly from memory and this is not a complete history. It's probably not fully accurate, it's not very serious, and it should be treated in the same category of historiography as that capsule history of America in the middle of Bowling for Columbine.

It all starts in the Reformation.

Menno Simons was born in 1492 in Frisia and was a religious radical. He went beyond the teachings of other Protestants to claim that baptism and communion did not bestow God's grace on people. He was the major - although not the only - figure in a movement called the "Anabaptists", so named because they rejected baptism as the road to salvation. His followers were primarily in the Low Countries - Frisia, Holland and Limburg especially - and in Switzerland and southern Germany.

They had a number of doctrines that were unique at the time. They rejected the legitimacy of the state and of monarchies. They rejected police and courts, and renounced violence altogether, refusing to go to war or to support executions. They felt that Christians should resolve their disputes in a Christian way, through the community and the church.

They were sort of medieval libertarian-socialists, living in their own communities apart from the rest of the world, handling their affairs internally and using shunning and banning as their only punishments. They did not view themselves as Protestants or Catholics, but as a sort of "third way." This - for obvious reasons - did not endear them to local government during the devastating religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and Anabaptists spent most of that time trying not to get killed.

To escape this violence, many of the Swiss and Swabian Anabaptists went to America as did so many other German refugees, settling first in the area now known as Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This group included the Anabaptist Brethren, the Amish - who are relatively well known in the US - and the Mennonites who now live across much of Pennsylvania and the midwest.

There, they became involved in various peace movements and anti-slavery campaigns, and the organisations their biological and ideological descendants founded over the years continue to play a role in American political life. I don't doubt many Anabaptist organisations participated in the recent anti-war marches.

The other group - the Low Country Mennonites - have a somewhat different history. Mennonites, for all their rejection of Calvinist doctrine, were known as an industrious bunch. In the mid-16th century, the various big-wigs of what is now northern Poland encouraged them to move to into the swampy and unproductive land of the Vistula River delta, where it was hoped they would be good little Hollanders and drain the swamps to produce useable farmland. They were only permitted in Catholic Poland under restricted conditions. They could not leave their reserves or convert the local population, although quite a few Poles wandered in over the years, leaving much sperm and a few common Mennonite last names like "Sawatzky."

The Vistula Delta

They were also free of regular taxation and military service, and were for the most part left to their own devices. It is in Poland that the Dutch Mennonite language developed - a sort of creole of Lower Saxon, Frisian, Limburgish, various north Holland dialects and the German used primarily in church and in interactions with outsiders. Like all good libertarians, freedom from the clutches of the state - in order to sustain their own rather illiberal ways - became a major part of the Mennonite lifestyle.

This arrangement with the Polish nobility lasted until the mid-18th century. The first partition of Poland in 1772 made the Vistula delta Prussian territory. Mennonite doctrine - pacifism, piety, segregation and tax-free living - was not very compatible with the Prussian way of doing things. It didn't look good for the Dutch Mennonites.

It is with the accession of Catherine the Great to the Russian throne that things start to change. Catherine II - a German princess who married into the Romanovs and is generally believed to have been complicit in the removal of her unpopular and possibly insane husband - expanded Russia's borders and pressed for the modernisation of the state. To this end, she invited many thousands of Germans to settle Russia's immense and largely empty territory, bringing with them industry, culture and hopefully a tax base. Catherine the Great is credited with many things, but one thing that is often forgotten is that she was the first to try to modernise a country by providing internationals with tax vacations.

Catherine the Great

There is, in fact, an English translation of her offer to foreigners on the web over here.

July 22, 1763
We, Catherine the second, Empress and Autocrat of all the Russians at Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Czarina of Kasan, Czarina of Astrachan, Czarina of Siberia, Lady of Pleskow and Grand Duchess of Smolensko, Duchess of Esthonia and Livland, Carelial, Twer, Yugoria, Permia, Viatka and Bulgaria and others; Lady and Grand Duchess of Novgorod in the Netherland of Chernigov, Resan, Rostov, Yaroslav, Beloosrial, Udoria, Obdoria, Condinia, and Ruler of the entire North region and Lady of the Yurish, of the Cartalinian and Grusinian czars and the Cabardinian land, of the Cherkessian and Gorsian princes and the lady of the manor and sovereign of many others. As We are sufficiently aware of the vast extent of the lands within Our Empire, We perceive, among other things, that a considerable number of regions are still uncultivated which could easily and advantageously be made available for productive use 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 most convenient for the development and growth of many kinds of manufacturing, plants, and various installations. This induced Us to issue the manifesto which was published last Dec. 4, 1762, for the benefit of all Our loyal subjects. However, inasmuch as We made only a summary announcement of Our pleasure to the foreigners who would like to settle in Our Empire, we now issue for a better understanding of Our intention the following decree which We hereby solemnly establish and order to be carried out to the full.

We permit all foreigners to come into Our Empire, in order to settle in all the gouvernements, 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 belltowers, 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-religionists 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 law. This prohibition does not apply to the various nationalities on the borders of Our Empire who are attached to the Mahometan faith. We permit and allow everyone to win them over and make them subject to the Christian religion in a decent way.

[In short, you can't convert Orthodox or other Christians, but if you manage to win over a few Muslims, more power to you.]

None of the foreigners who have come to settle in Russia shall be required to pay the slightest taxes to Our treasury, nor be forced to render regular or extraordinary services, nor to billet troops. [...]

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

[Not only are they tax-free and free of conscription, the government will loan them money to set up businesses.]

We leave to the discretion of the established colonies and village the internal constitution and jurisdiction, in such a way that the persons placed in authority by Us will not interfere with the internal affairs and institutions. In other respects the colonists will be liable to Our civil laws. However, in the event that the people would wish to have a special guardian or even an officer with a detachment of disciplined soldiers for the sake of security and defence, this wish would also be granted.

[The foreign settlers could make their own laws and run their own governments, so long as they didn't interfere in the rest of the empire.]

For the Dutch - now Prussian - Mennonites, this was a dream come true, and over the course of the following century most of them took her up on her offer, especially after she explicitly exempted them from military service, then and forever. Only a handful remained in Prussia, ending up living in Germany after it was unified in 1870. There were still a number of Mennonites in the Vistula delta in 1945 when they were expelled after the Oder-Neisse line became the East German border.

The Mennonites thrived in their fertile, tax-free enclaves in Ukraine. They - along with the other Russian Germans - built much of Russia's heavy industry. However, any deal that good could never last, and it didn't. Alexander III - starting in the 1860's - began requiring all schools in Russia to use Russian and started levying taxes on non-Russians. For a lot of Mennonites, this interference was the writing on the wall and a search for some new tax-haven began.

At this point, yet another remote political event offered the Russian Mennonites a new land to settle.

Our story now shifts 8000km to the west, where we have to briefly talk about Louis Riel. Riel was - until fairly recently - regarded much as Americans regard Benedict Arnold: a traitor against his state, an insurrectionist, and a madman. In recent years, he has been rehabilitated, and made into something of an honorary "Father of Confederation" - the Canadian equivalent of the founding fathers, except we recognise that our country was founded by a bunch of politicians. Except for Louis Riel, a budding Ché Guevara born a century too soon.

In 1869, Riel started a rebellion in the Red River valley - the part of Canada now known as southern Manitoba. At the time, the area wasn't part of Canada, it was the territory of the Hudson Bay Company which enjoyed a semi-exclusive right to exploit and administer most of what is now Canada. The residents - mostly people called the Métis who are the descendants of male French traders and aboriginal women - did not appreciate a situation in which they were ruled by a board of directors living in London. Louis Riel hoped to remedy this situation by taking control of the valley and negotiating self-rule of some form within the British Empire. He briefly established his independent state of Assiniboia in western Canada. The Canadian army put it down.

Canada in 1870, after the Riel Rebellion

Letting chartered corporations run physical territory was, by then, unfashionable in Great Britain and civil governments for colonies were all the rage. The lands of the Hudson Bay Company were turned over to Canada, giving it its current borders except for British Columbia (which joined a few years later) and Newfoundland, which only became part of Canada in 1949.

But this only solved half the problem. French-Canadian nationalism existed even back then, and between Ontario and the Rockies, the French language and the Catholic church dominated the country. That was unacceptable. The French had rebelled once and inevitably would do so again. In 1885 Riel did just that, in a short lived rebellion in Saskatchewan. The US was expanding west, and looking lustfully at the undefended expanses of western Canada, and the Métis might have decided that they were better off under Washington than Ottawa.

This problem had arisen before in Canada. In the 1750's the British government had employed ethnic cleansing in Nova Scotia, incidentally founding Louisiana because that was where they sent the refugees. But the Peace of Paris at the end of the French and Indian war ensured the rights of French-Canadians, and ethnic cleansing was now largely unfashionable. The only real option was to out-populate them. Fill the land with people loyal to the Queen (Victoria, that is) and turn the French and Métis into a minority in their own land.

The problem was that there was no readily available population to do so. Britain was industrialising. Standards of living were, in fits and spurts, rising. Transporting convicts was becoming passé as the Victorians reformed their prisons, and what transportation and emigration was taking place was mostly bound for Australia. For the British public, having to choose between the warm beaches of New South Wales and the frozen wastelands of Canada was a pretty easy choice.

So, who could they find who was foolish enough, stupid enough, or hard up enough to move to western Canada?

If Jeopardy had been played in Victorian London among the British diplomatic corps, and had Alex Trebek offered the answer "foolish, stupid and hard up" in the category of "International Affairs", the winning question would have been "What is Russia?" The "prison of nations" was teeming with inconvenient masses unloved by the central state.

Through a complex political deal between Russia and the United Kingdom, Russia's unwanted were encouraged to move to Canada, and thousands of Ukrainians, Germans, Poles, Finns, Doukhbours and some Russians themselves took them up on the offer. This emigration included many Mennonites, including my mother's grandfather, who came to Canada in 1876 when he was in his early 20's and is recognised as one of the founders of the small city of Steinbach, Manitoba.

Canada let the Mennonites have a deal not unlike the one they enjoyed in Russia. Two specific areas in Manitoba - in the middle of the pre-existing French communities of the Red River valley - were set aside for Mennonites and divided into quarter square mile sections, one per family. One was on the east side of the Red River, the other one the west. This geographic split resulted in a dialect difference in Mennonite Plautdietsch between the Mennonites who lived on one side and the ones who lived on the other. My mother refers to her dialect (from the east side) as ditzieda - "this-side-ish" - and calls the other dialect jonzieda - "that-side-ish." Unsurprisingly, the people from the west side of the river also call their dialect ditzieda and the other jonzieda.

After the Russian revolution, many of the Mennonites who had chosen to stay in Russia followed suit, coming to the prairies as refugees sponsored by the relatively wealthy Mennonites of Canada. That is where Grandpa re-enters this story, now a seven year old boy, with a family that no longer owns much of anything and wants to get out of the Soviet Union while there's still time.

Addendum: I should add that Mennonite migration didn't stop in Canada. In the late 1920's, Manitoba began forcing English-language public education on all its diverse ethnic communities. For many Mennonites, public education was the thin end of the wedge that would destroy their community and values. For them, it was Russia all over again.

So, they found new lands where their isolation could again be preserved, in Chihuahua, Mexico and the Chaco wilderness in Paraguay. Later, in the 50's and 60's, Mennonite colonisation expanded into Belize and Bolivia.

This unusually international scope to Mennonite demographics was brought home for me in a Mi Pueblo grocery store in Mountain View, California. There is a Russian Mennonite specialty cheese made in Manitoba called New Bothwell Cheddar. It really is an extraordinary cheese, but it's unavailable outside of western Canada.

At Mi Pueblo, I came across queso menonita chihuahua and bought some out of simple curiosity. It tasted a whole lot like New Bothwell.

Old Comments

Posted 2003/03/22 0:56 (Sat) | TrackBack

I read with interest about the Mennonites, but knowing that they believed the Bible as the truth, I see nothing in your essay that mentions that they believed they must be "saved" to have eternal life. Regardless of what their background was, the most important aspect you left out. Could you add it now? Or don't you know about it? I'd welcome an email from you.
Sincerely, Jane

Posted by: jane at March 4, 2006 17:48

I have a comment regarding the comment posted by Jane. The Mennonites did not have the assurance that they could have eternal life. I also don't ever remember them saying anything about being born again. I am in the process of doing a family history book and I too, was saddened by the fact that so little about their relationship with Jesus Christ was known. My Grandfather was a German school teacher who taught the Bible as a text book. Yet, he did not have the assurance of salvation. He only hoped he would have eternal life. There are Mennonites today who know about salvation through Jesus Christ and Mennonites who do not know. The old order Mennonites are still very orthodox in their beliefs.


Posted by: Karen Tieszen at September 13, 2006 4:33

Regarding Karen's statement -"The Mennonites did not have the assurance that they could have eternal life."
The earliest 16th century Mennonites had a firm belief that they were citizens of heaven NOT of this world - that is why they were willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Christ. And yes they believed that salvation was in Christ alone but also that "faith without works was dead".
They did not feel they could boast in anything save Christ therefore the idea grew that they could not SAY they were saved.
They saw themselves as saved and yet still becoming saved. I think many through the years walked with Jesus as a daily friend and did believe they were saved by grace alone and yet also believed that every follower of Christ could choose to walk away from Christ at anytime.
We Mennonites were and are still very much believers that we are born sinners with free will.
Individuals within the various Mennonite denominations still struggle with believing they are worthy of salvation. Other individuals accept Calvinistic views that once you are saved you can do all the sinning you want and Christ, with His love and compassion, is duty bound to keep you anyway.
In my studies I have found that teachings of assurance can vary much even in one small community. Often parenting styles play into this a lot and you will find one family line that views "the Mennonite church" as legalistic and rule oriented without grace and another family line that has had complete joy and freedom serving others in the very same church. Sometimes sadly parents used the church to threaten children and often ended up with needlessly rebellious children.
Many problems in churches today are a result of poor listening skills. Ture example of three different peoples view on a sermon preached in 1946- A preacher warns the church that adults playing hockey may eventually lead to these same adults losing interest in church leadership positions. One listener hears that the preacher has condemned hockey as a sin and against the Bible and never allows his sons to play for fear of hellfire. Another listener hears prophecy-someday those who play hockey may choose sport over church leadership and encourages the son to choose leadership over sport when the time comes. A 3rd listener gets upset and encourages his sons to play hockey because the minister has abused the Word of God because it doesn't say you can't play hockey.
Can you guess if what the preacher warned happened? Can you guess which sons left the church, which ones still attend and serve, and which ones attend but have very little interest in serving?

This still happens today.

Posted by: Lori at October 4, 2006 1:22
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