A Sense of Pride and Suspicion: Ethiopia’s Habitus and Its Impact on Interactions with Foreigners

By Henok Mekonin

Ethiopia’s history of resisting European colonization and efforts to maintain its own cultural and religious identity have contributed to a sense of pride and confidence among Ethiopians. This has also resulted in a sense of suspicion towards people from the global north, which affects how Ethiopians interact with foreigners and their efforts to evangelize in the country. This essay utilizes Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus”1 to analyze how Ethiopia’s history of resistance and cultural identity have influenced the dispositions and practices of its people, including their pride and confidence, as well as their resistance to foreign religions, and how this unique habitus engenders a hermeneutics of suspicion2 within Ethiopian society.

The first historical period that contributed to Ethiopia’s sense of pride and confidence, was the early Christianization of the country. The belief that Ethiopia is a Christian nation has been strong since in the early fourth century. That is when Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity which is credited to Syrian brothers Frumentius and Aedesius, who were saved and taken as slaves by locals and brought to the reigning monarch.3 Ezana left relics of his conversion to Christianity by stone inscriptions and coins that attest to his conversion and efforts to establish Christianity as the official religion of Ethiopia4 and his efforts to spread it among the population.5  Since then, many Ethiopians have felt that foreign religions are undesirable.

With a distorted hope and determination to bring together the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which has a long-standing history and strong ties to the Coptic Church of Egypt (another Oriental Orthodox Church) and with the Catholic Church of Rome. Jesuit missionaries, mainly Spanish and Portuguese, started traveling to Ethiopia in 1557. Besides their endeavor to advance the Catholic faith, the Jesuits were seen by Ethiopian priests and monks as agents of European colonialism.

In 1622, Pope Gregory XV (1621–1623) founded a mission oversight organization, the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), aimed at transforming mission work from a colonial phenomenon into a purely ecclesiastic movement, freeing the missionaries from political interference. The Holy See thought that a new and solid organization was necessary to manage missionary work and to reduce Spanish and Portuguese power.6

Since the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers were expanding their influence in Ethiopia during the sixteenth century, the Ethiopian Church was wary of European political and economic interests and saw the Jesuits as a threat to their independence and autonomy. So, from early on, there is this sentiment among Ethiopian leaders and people that say, “we don’t need any foreign religion.”

 Looking back at Ethiopian history, it is evident that the emperors were primarily interested in obtaining material, rather than religious, support from missionaries. For instance, Emperor Yohannes I criticized missionaries who sought to reform the Ethiopian church, telling them to “Go and convert first the Muslim Egyptians and the Turks instead of coming to Abyssinia where we are all Christians.”7 The close relationship between the King’s palace ideology and governance, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) polity and theology, can be compared to the way that two hands fit perfectly together in gloves. This strong connection resulted in the Orthodox Church protecting the emperors’ divine right to rule, while the Ethiopian state supported the growth and influence of the Orthodox Church.8

Emperor Haile Selassie I (1930-1974) was considered “Elect of God.” His power was unlimited and unquestionable by the people.9 It was during his time that Amharic was instituted as the official language10 and Orthodox Christianity state religion.[11] This bond was founded on the belief of all Ethiopian emperors that they were descendants of the line of Judah, which was directly linked to Christ. All emperors based this belief on the historical lineage dating back to the relationship of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Hence, there is a common belief among these emperors and their feudal regime with that time EOTC leadership that the king is a descendant of this union.12 The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has had such a profound influence on Ethiopian society. “One cannot read Ethiopia’s political history discerningly,” said Girma Bekele,” without paying attention to the role that the church has played in shaping the country’s identity as Africa’s independent nation.”13 However, the EOTC has led to a syncretism of Christianity with African religion and Judaism.14 It’s because of this syncretism argues Rode Molla that the Western missionaries- specifically Lutheran Europeans- led the effort to renew the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC). However, the idea of renewing the EOTC was met with resistance from local converts (new converts of Ethiopian leaders) and eventually led to the creation of the Lutheran church in Ethiopia, which is now known as the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY). Molla argues in her article that the Ethiopian leaders persisted in their requests to continue as a separate church from EOTC and remained firm in their decisions to share the good news as a newly formed protestant church, which went against the wishes of the Lutheran European missionaries at that time. 15 Mola uses this interaction as a base to go on with her main point of why she is writing the article. She stated:

The EECMY was established through the mission organizations and converted indigenous believers, and that gave the church a complex background. Conversion and authentic experience to one’s ethnic, linguistic, and cultural experience conceived the EECMY’s holistic theology and reflection. I would argue that the foundation of the EECMY is in-betweenness that demonstrates its hybrid existence with both Western and African roots. The in-between approach of the EECMY could be a model to demonstrate how one organization, nation, church, or community may be able to flourish with intercultural competence beyond either/or identities. The church may be able to use its complex and in-between identity to resist identity politics in the age of neoliberalism.16

The second historical event that played a role in Ethiopia’s sense of pride and confidence was the country’s resistance to European colonization, particularly during the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896. This sense of pride in having a unique, undiluted form of Christianity was later fused with a broader sense of Ethiopian identity when the Ethiopian army’s victory over Italy in the Battle of Adwa in 1896. That victory was and continued to be a significant event, as it marked the first time that African forces had defeated a European power during the colonial era. This victory bolstered the confidence and pride of Ethiopians in their country and their religion.

The third historical period that contributed to Ethiopia’s sense of pride and confidence was the return to power of Emperor Haile Selassie. The emperor’s exile to England forcefully also gave rise to more distrust towards foreigners and their religions when Italy invaded Ethiopia later in 1936, also known as the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.17 The Italian invasion of Ethiopia lasted from October 1935 to May 1936 and resulted in driving Emperor Haile Selassie into exile for five years in which the emperor traveled to various countries seeking support for Ethiopia’s resistance to the Italian occupation. He addressed the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1936, calling for international assistance to repel the Italian invaders. Despite his efforts, however, the League of Nations failed to take effective action18, and Ethiopia remained under Italian occupation until 1941.19  The experience of Ethiopians during those years-when Italians were in Ethiopia, especially the fact that Ethiopians were fighting from every corner and never giving up20 which then eventually leads to the Italians defeat for the second time and chased away from Ethiopia- added to already existed pride and being suspicious toward Westerners. “Because of the Patriots’ Resistance Movement during the Italian Occupation,” said Bahru Zewde, “Italian rule in Ethiopia was largely confined to the towns; hence it was mainly in the urban centers that the impact of the Occupation was felt.”21 When he returned to Ethiopia in 1941, the king was determined not to allow any foreigners to enter the country. Those experiences have contributed a lot of Ethiopians a sense of pride and also being suspicious of any white people, as Ethiopians called them “ፈረንጅ-Ferej”.22  When World War II ended Italians left the country, after the 5-year occupation,23 King Haile Selassie wanted to modernize Ethiopia.24 But when the king returned from exile in 1941, the sentiment of not trusting foreigners and their religions remained strong and even to the point the king had to craft the policy nationwide. The sentiment of not trusting foreigners and their religion that they bring along was very high at this stage. It was during this time that Mennonites were granted permission to enter the country and help the king in his efforts to modernize it. Being relief workers and trained personnel in different sectors was key to gaining access to the country, and that is exactly what the Mennonites used to enter the country.25 The Mennonite mission, which involved both development and evangelism, was in line with the imperial goal of modernizing the country. The imperial governments have been more accepting of the mission due to the alignment of the Mennonite approach with the development aspect of the imperial agenda, rather than their approach to evangelism.26 “ At the end of the Italian occupation when the progressive Emperor, Haile Selassie I, was restored to his throne, certain influential individuals in the government were instrumental in adopting a very cautious policy concerning the permitting of foreign elements in the country.”27

We don’t need to go too far back. However, if we look at our recent history in Ethiopia, we can see the reactions of Ethiopians who live both in the country and abroad toward westerners and how the western governments and their Media handled when the Ethiopian government was involved in a senseless war with the Tigray regional government, located in the northern part of Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians protested aggressively against foreign interference in a sovereign country. This immediate reaction towards the West, sometimes with unsubstantiated claims but usually with lots of facts, was natural for many of us.28 The people of Ethiopia are still upset about the attitude that many individuals in the global north hold towards those in the global south. This kind of racism is especially concerning when it comes from someone in a high position, such as the former U.S. President Trump, calling countries in Africa ‘shithole’ countries and the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell during a speech at the inauguration of a pilot program. Josep Borrell described Europe as “a garden” that needs to be taken care of by the privileged white people because the rest of the world is like “a jungle” that could invade the garden.29 According to Bekele Girma, if solidarity means believing that all humans are created equal and have the right to access the common good, then we need to address the issue of fair distribution of global resources within the current socio-economic system.30

All of these events have contributed to a sense of pride and confidence among Ethiopians, which in turn affects how they interact with foreigners and their efforts to evangelize in the country. We are products of our lived history and experiences. This sense of pride and confidence among Ethiopians developed over the years and shaped the habitus31 of Ethiopians. Ethiopians are often described as proud people, and this pride is not limited to their cultural and religious identity. An Ethiopian Christian habitus is one that enables Christians to act as if Christ died for us so that we are no longer alienated from God. Christian formation is key to how an Ethiopian Christian habitus is fostered. Many foreigners have worked with Ethiopians in different fields, including the ministry of health and other relief works, and they have found that the Ethiopians’ confidence and education have made working together much easier. Ethiopians are not intimidated by foreigners and their efforts to evangelize, and they are not afraid to critique them.

In conclusion, Ethiopia’s history of resisting European colonization and maintaining its own cultural and religious identity has played a significant role in shaping the country’s interactions with foreigners and their efforts to evangelize in the country. This sense of pride and confidence is evident in different historical periods and events, including the early Christianization of the country, the Battle of Adwa, and the exile and return to power of Emperor Haile Selassie. This history has created a culture that is proud of its identity and unafraid to resist foreign domination. The churches in the global north need to understand there is a hermeneutics of suspicion that is very important to understand Ethiopian perspectives and that hermeneutic of suspicion arises out of this Ethiopian habitus. This sense of pride, confidence and being suspicion to anything coming to the global north is not a threat to any kind of collaborations and partnerships but rather an invitation to know and realize the habitus from which Ethiopians think and approach different topics and answer any questions posed to them. And that awareness and knowledge will pave the way for much greater international collaborations and cooperation that are grounded in respect and openness.

Henok T. Mekonin, MATPS 2021 AMBS, currently works at AMBS as a Global Leadership Collaborative Specialist. Mekonin’s ministry is jointly supported by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Mission Network. He provides leadership for a partnership with Meserete Kristos Seminary. He is married and a father of two daughters. He is originally from Ethiopia and currently lives with his wife, Misgana, and their two kids in Goshen, IN.


Adejumobi, Saheed A. The History of Ethiopia. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2007.

ALEMU, NEBEYOU. “How Amharic Unites – and Divides – Ethiopia.” African Arguments (blog), May 8, 2019. https://africanarguments.org/2019/05/08/how-amharic-unites-and-divides-ethiopia/.

Assefa, Lydette S. “Creating Identity in Opposition: Relations between the Meserete Kristos Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 1960-1980.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 83, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 539–71.

Bekele, Girma. “Globalization Echoes A Repetitive Story of Injustice.” Medium (blog), October 18, 2022. https://girmabekele.medium.com/globalization-echoes-a-repetitive-story-of-injustice-f8ba1a3d9180.

———. “Is Christian Imperialism Resurging and  Tearing  Ethiopia Apart?” Medium (blog), June 27, 2022. https://girmabekele.medium.com/andrew-decort-extensively-writes-on-issues-ethiopia-is-facing-with-the-expressed-interest-to-be-a-cf3b7802feaf.

Belcher, Wendy Laura, ed. The Jesuits in Ethiopia (1609-1641): Latin Letters in Translation. Translated by Jessica Wright and Leon Grek. 1st ed. Harrassowitz, O, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvckq54b.

BORRELL, Josep. “European Diplomatic Academy: Opening Remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell at the Inauguration of the Pilot Programme | EEAS Website,” October 13, 2022. https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/european-diplomatic-academy-opening-remarks-high-representative-josep-borrell-inauguration_en.

Checole, Alemu. “Mennonite Churches in Eastern Africa.” In Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts: A Global Mennonite History, edited by John Lapp, 191–253. Simon and Schuster, 2006.

Eshete, Tibebe. The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and Resilience. Reprint edition. Baylor University Press, 2017.

Gurmessa, Fekadu, and Ezekiel Gebissa. Evangelical Faith Movement in Ethiopia: The Origins and Establishment of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus. Minneapolis, Minn: Lutheran University Press, 2009.

Hege, Nathan B. Beyond Our Prayers: Anabaptist Church Growth in Ethiopia, 1948-1998Iopia, 1948-1998. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Pr, 1998.

Heliso, Desta. “Were 750 Christians Really Massacred? The Truth About Ethiopia’s Recent Crisis.” Religion Unplugged, February 10, 2021. https://religionunplugged.com/news/2021/2/10/were-750-christians-really-massacred-the-truth-about-ethiopias-recent-crisis.

Jones, Pip, and Liz Bradbury. Introducing Social Theory. Third Edition. Cambridge ; Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018.

Mishler, Dorsa J., and Mary K. Mishler. Invited by the King, 1999.

Molla, Rode. “Holistic Theology To In-Between Theology: Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 21, no. 1 (January 1, 2022): 202–2019.

Zeleke, E. Centime. Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964-2016. Historical Materialism Book Series, volume 201. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2020.

Zewde, Bahru. A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991. 2nd ed. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2016.

———. “The Ethiopian Intelligentsia and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1941.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 26, no. 2 (1993): 271–95. https://doi.org/10.2307/219547.

[1] In their book Pip Jones and Liz Bradbury have discussed in greater detail what Bourdieu had meant by Habitus. The concept of Habitus was developed by social theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–200). Habitus is a concept which seeks to describe the way objective or material conditions of existence are internalized into a subjective disposition, a practical set of expectations, and an attitude to time which reflects the objective future as the field of possibilities. Other words, Habitus refers to the internalized dispositions, habits, and practices that shape an individual’s behavior and perception of the world. Pip Jones and Liz Bradbury, Introducing Social Theory, Third Edition (Cambridge ; Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018), 132.

[2] The majority of Ethiopian Christians use hermeneutics of trust when they read the Bible. However, lots of Ethiopians, including Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and others, use some level of hermeneutical suspicion when they interact with foreigners and other ethnic groups inside the country for political discourse.

[3] Tibebe Eshete, The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and Resilience, Reprint edition (Baylor University Press, 2017), 16.

[4] Eshete, 16.

[5] Lydette S. Assefa, “Creating Identity in Opposition: Relations between the Meserete Kristos Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, 1960-1980,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 83, no. 4 (October 1, 2009): 542.

[6] Wendy Laura Belcher, ed., The Jesuits in Ethiopia (1609-1641): Latin Letters in Translation, trans. Jessica Wright and Leon Grek, 1st ed. (Harrassowitz, O, 2018), 1–2, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvckq54b.

[7] Fekadu Gurmessa and Ezekiel Gebissa, Evangelical Faith Movement in Ethiopia: The Origins and Establishment of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (Minneapolis, Minn: Lutheran University Press, 2009), 131.

[8] Assefa, “Creating Identity in Opposition,” 542.

[9] The Constitution of the Empire of Ethiopia, 1931, the 1955 Revised Constitution of the Empire of Ethiopia, the Civil Code of the Empire of Ethiopia Proclamation, No. 165 of 1960 and other laws of Imperial Ethiopia.

[10] Nebeyou Alemu, “How Amharic Unites – and Divides – Ethiopia,” African Arguments (blog), May 8, 2019, https://africanarguments.org/2019/05/08/how-amharic-unites-and-divides-ethiopia/.

[11] The 1955 Revised Constitution of the Empire of Ethiopia, arts 125 and 126, respectively

[12] Assefa, “Creating Identity in Opposition,” 542.

[13] Girma Bekele, “Is Christian Imperialism Resurging and  Tearing  Ethiopia Apart?,” Medium (blog), June 27, 2022, https://girmabekele.medium.com/andrew-decort-extensively-writes-on-issues-ethiopia-is-facing-with-the-expressed-interest-to-be-a-cf3b7802feaf.

[14] Rode Molla, “Holistic Theology To In-Between Theology: Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 21, no. 1 (January 1, 2022): 202.

[15] Molla, 204.

[16] Molla, 205.

[17] Eshete, The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia, 85.

[18] Bahru Zewde, “The Ethiopian Intelligentsia and the Italo-Ethiopian War, 1935-1941,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 26, no. 2 (1993): 290, https://doi.org/10.2307/219547.

[19] E. Centime Zeleke, Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production, 1964-2016, Historical Materialism Book Series, volume 201 (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2020), 32, 46.

[20] Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991, 2nd ed (Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey, 2016), 248.

[21] Zewde, 246.

[22] Ethiopians use the term “Ferej” or “ፈረንጅ” to refer to someone from outside of African continent, and this term does not carry any negative meaning. However, during the medieval period, the Arabic term “Faranj” or “Faranji” (فرنج / فرنجي) was commonly used to refer to people from Western Europe. This term originally referred specifically to the Crusaders from France, who were known as “Franks” to the Arabs. With time, the term “Faranj” became more widely used to refer to all Europeans, and it often had negative connotations. This reflects the historical tensions and conflicts between the Islamic world and the Christian West during that period.

[23] Alemu Checole, “Mennonite Churches in Eastern Africa,” in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts: A Global Mennonite History, ed. John Lapp (Simon and Schuster, 2006), 207.

[24] Nathan B. Hege, Beyond Our Prayers: Anabaptist Church Growth in Ethiopia, 1948-1998Iopia, 1948-1998 (Scottdale, Pa: Herald Pr, 1998), 44.

[25] Checole, “Mennonite Churches in Eastern Africa,” 207.

[26] Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991, 32–41, 56; Saheed A. Adejumobi, The History of Ethiopia, The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2007), 100.

[27] Dorsa J. Mishler and Mary K. Mishler, Invited by the King, 1999, 130.

[28] Desta Heliso, “Were 750 Christians Really Massacred? The Truth About Ethiopia’s Recent Crisis,” Religion Unplugged, February 10, 2021, https://religionunplugged.com/news/2021/2/10/were-750-christians-really-massacred-the-truth-about-ethiopias-recent-crisis.

[29] Josep BORRELL, “European Diplomatic Academy: Opening Remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell at the Inauguration of the Pilot Programme | EEAS Website,” October 13, 2022, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/european-diplomatic-academy-opening-remarks-high-representative-josep-borrell-inauguration_en.

[30] Girma Bekele, “Globalization Echoes A Repetitive Story of Injustice,” Medium (blog), October 18, 2022, https://girmabekele.medium.com/globalization-echoes-a-repetitive-story-of-injustice-f8ba1a3d9180.

[31] Jones and Bradbury, Introducing Social Theory, 132.

Letters from Mennonites While Post-World War 2 Refugees

Rosanna Formanek Hess

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was active in post-World War 2 (WW2) relief ministries, caring for tens of thousands of refugees across Western Europe. The distribution of packages, sent from Mennonite congregations in the United States, brought joy, hope, and gratitude to their recipients, Mennonites and non-Mennonites alike. Many of those beneficiaries found donors’ names and addresses in their packages and wrote letters expressing their sentiments.

During those years, my grandparents, John and Mary Godshall Forman, attended the Franconia Mennonite Church, in Franconia, Pennsylvania, and were involved in donating clothing, dried food goods, and household supplies to MCC. The Formans also helped their neighbors and friends with translation and transcription of thank-you letters that came from refugee recipients in Europe. Our family possesses an old yellowed spiral-bound notebook with sixty letters transcribed in English in my grandmother’s handwriting, dating from 1947 to 1953. In that notebook is also a list of over three hundred names and addresses of donors and recipients, also in my grandmother’s handwriting. This list includes dates when the letters were written in Europe and received in the United States. My grandparents did not keep the original German letters.

I was given access to a second group of letters, from the same era, which were translated and transcribed by Noah Zimmerman, a longtime archivist in Juniata County, Pennsylvania. He retained over 160 transcripts of letters in German and English.  He also mentioned his translation work and some of the names of the letters’ recipients in the diary that he kept. The letters translated by Zimmerman contain names but no addresses of the U.S. recipients.

All of the letters from Europe were written between 1947 and 1951 by children, teenagers, mothers, and fathers. Many of the mothers were widows. Besides words of gratitude for the packages, many writers described the horrors of war and post-war life as refugees.  Some mentioned their towns or villages of origin, where they had lived before fleeing to Allied-occupied Germany. They came from South Russia, Ukraine, and the formerly German territories of East and West Prussia. They wrote of fleeing the cities of Danzig, Mariensburg, Elbing, Bonhof, and Neuendorf, among others. They sent letters from the displaced persons’ camps of Backnang, Delmenhorst, and Gronau, Germany; from Kapfenberg, Austria; and Aalborg, Denmark. In later years a few letters came from several families who had immigrated to South America.

For the purpose of this blog post I have chosen to share content of letters that specifically use the word Mennonite or details that indicate a link to Mennonites in some way. This eliminates the majority of letters but provides a specific link to Anabaptist history. The letter writers who mentioned being Mennonite also wrote of fleeing from the East (Russia) to the West (Germany) during or shortly after World War II. Themes drawn from these letters include Mennonite identity, spiritual life, connections to military life, and future aspirations.

Mennonite Identity

Thirteen letter writers identified themselves as Mennonites. One Frau Koster wrote a letter on February 12, 1947, to Cora Kauffman. In it she stated, “I am Mennonite, born in Neuendorf, Russia.” This town was part of the Chortitza Mennonite settlement. Another woman, Hildegard Guthe, wrote a letter to Walton Detweiler on December 28, 1947, from Frelsdorf, Germany. She described her family as a husband in a Russian prison camp, and two children with her, Manfred, eleven years old, and Doris, seven. She wrote, “We originate from Bonhof, West Prussia. We belong to the Mennonites.” A widow, Marie Dyck, wrote to the John Weaver family from Neu Holtsee, Germany, on December 26, 1947. Marie, her mother, two sisters, and sixteen year-old son, Gerhard, were living with a farmer. They had come from Ukraine. She wrote, “Through the MCC we received clothing and food. May God bless the givers across the Sea. We, with other Mennonite families here, have no Mennonite church or pastor.” The Wilhelm Mensch family, with eight children, wrote on January 3, 1948, from Kapfenberg refugee camp in Steiermark, Austria, to Ruth Saner. They described themselves as “formerly Russian Mennonites.” The couple, Hans and Erna Tyart, wrote from Dahlenburg, Germany, on January 10, 1948, to Floyd Hackmans in Elroy, Pennsylvania. Their six-week journey west from Poland in 1945 was filled fear and danger. “At the beginning, always in anxiety and danger at being overtaken by the Russians, many of our brothers and sisters fell in their hands. And the reaper of death made broad [in]roads in our Mennonite group.” On January 17, 1948, Ernst Voigt wrote from the displaced persons’ camp in Delmenhorst, Germany, to a Mrs. Brubaker. He stated, “In the Christmas gift from the Mennonite Church we received some meat, meal, and pencil and paper for our young son. We are grateful for the tenderhearted givers who have opened their hearts to us. We are homeless Mennonites, and are scattered. Our home was Elbing, West Prussia.” Mrs. Lenore Nickel wrote from Hoya, Germany, on February 2, 1948, addressing her letter to the Boyd Kauffman family. She included these details. “We have for many years, in Bremen [Germany], the largest city near our home, gone to worship and serve God in a Mennonite Church that is found there. My husband, while in Danzig, stood for this church, so I changed and took the Mennonite faith.” A 13 year-old girl, Anny Penner, wrote from Lolsburg, Germany, on April 14, 1951, “We are from West Prussia – Kreis Marienburg and belong to the Mennonite Church of Thiensdorf, Preisch Rosengart.”  Numerous other letter writers mention Russia, Poland, Ukraine, East or West Prussia, and their flight toward Germany, but are not specific about a Mennonite connection.

Spiritual Life

The refugees described their spiritual life in their letters to the package donors with praises, prayers, Bible verses, laments, and descriptions of church activities. Many of the comments were related to Christmas since that was the usual time of year they received the packages from MCC. A twenty-four year-old woman, Hedi Kemper wrote to Clair Saner in December 1948. “Christmas is here again and will be celebrating under better conditions than in previous years. Praise the Lord. Things are still very costly. When we want to get presents for our children, it is often not done, for the money to be [spent] is used for more necessary items. But for the children we do all we can. Above everything else, our foremost thoughts in celebrating Christmas are on Jesus our Lord and Savior who came in this world to die of the Cross for all men. So we wish you will be thinking of Him too as you celebrate your Christmas feast. We will again wish you a joyous Christmas blessed of God.” Marie Dyck gave testimony to God’s grace in her letter written in December 1948. “A merciful God has brought us so far and we trust him to bring us further. We thank Him that after so many years of unrest and anguish we can again rest peaceably.” The Mensch family wrote, “A loving Heavenly Father has brought us through darkness into light. Praise God that we have a father yet, for this we bring thanks to God; for many children have lost father and mother. It is very heavy for me at times too, but as I seek the place of prayer, there is shown to me the cross He bore, so I would not complain . . . For God gives strength to bear, a pure heart gives strength and confidence. We hope our Heavenly Father will give us a home on this earth for our children, for He always gives better than we think. God will show us the right road according to his will. So may I beg of you, pray for us that we may be true and stand firm till the end.” Jakob Klassen wrote as a thirteen-year-old, from Colony Volendam, Tiefenbrunn, Paraguay, on February 22, 1948. His letter was sent to Jonas Freeds. “Christmas Eve was celebrated in [the] jungle, under the open sky. It was altogether different from where we came from, as in Europe there is always snow at Christmas. And here everything is green. The Christmas story impressed me very much; the angels, the shepherds in the field. Christmas Eve was wonderful, from the starry heaven and deep through the forest, the Christmas candles were gleaming, and yet it is summer! . . . I was born February 17, 1935 in Ukraine, Alte Kolonie, Kreis Chortiza. My father died in 1936. My mother and four brothers and sisters are here . . . We were homeless for the last twelve years and now we are here in Paraguay in the forest. We are allowed to build a house. It is not finished yet but we thank God that we can lie down to sleep in peace. We have Sunday school here and the week before last we had Bible hour. They are encouraging hours.”  (Note: This young man is listed, with his mother, Katharina (Derksen) Klassen, and three siblings, Otto, Käthe, and Anna, on the ship’s passenger list of the Volendam that sailed to South America in February 1947. His birthdate is listed as the same one he mentions in his letter.)

Mentions of Military Life

There are a few mentions of military life in the letters that also refer to a Mennonite connection. Ernest Voigt, originally from Elbing, West Prussia, wrote that he became a solider in 1939 and a prisoner in 1945.  After release from prison he found his family again. It is not known in which army he was a solider or who imprisoned him. Lenore Nickels described her husband’s background and current suffering in her letter of February 1948. “In March 1945 we had to leave our home, and this is the first joyous Christmas for us since then. Unfortunately my husband is a cause of much distress, because of illness, due to poor living [conditions]. Since our flight from Danzig, [he] is much worse. The first of next month he will be forty-six years old, and cannot [walk] without a stick or cane. In Danzig he was a High Officer, a Corporal.”  One other letter makes reference to military life without specifying a Mennonite connection. Fifteen year-old Günter Regehr wrote just after Christmas 1948 to Emma Clemmer and included details about his family. He did not write the names of his parents but mentioned his sister Marilse and brother Ernst. He wrote that when his family had to flee Danzig in January 1945. “Our papa was a sergeant [stationed] in Norway at that time.” From this letter we cannot learn in which army “Papa” Regehr was serving. At Christmas 1948 he was again with his family. Günter wrote, “The four Sundays before Christmas our papa was hardly a day at home as he is deacon over all the refugees in the British zone. And it is his duty to oversee their welfare and minister to their needs.” (Note: A man by the name of Ernst Regehr is in a photo of the 1956 General Conference Mennonite Meeting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mennonites_in_Uruguay); and in another photo which indicates he was an elder in the Rosenort congregation and went to Uruguay, South America https://archives.mhsc.ca/index.php/ernest-regehr-johann-entz). Could this be Günter’s father?)

Future Aspirations

Since the letter writers were refugees, many were praying for a better life, a life beyond the horrors of war and post-war displacement. Almost thirty letters mention a dead or missing husband or father. Some writers still hoped for the return of their loved one. Gertrude Wiebe, wrote from Lüdingworth, Germany to Anna Stover in April 1949.  She shared her prayer burden. “I still have a little hope that God will hear my request and return my dear husband to us. There are many men coming out of Russian prisons. Then the end is well when our family is all together again. The uncertainty is very hard. My greatest comfort is my children [Gisela, Hans, and Klans]. Other refugees were making arrangements to leave Europe. Emil and Elga Rupp wrote in April 1949 from Polau, Germany, to Cora Kauffman. “We hope in the spring to be with our children in South America. We are waiting and hoping till it is accomplished. We are assisted by MCC as a transport of Danzig Mennonites will sail, and we are accepted for the month of October to sail for Uruguay. But conditions are not secure. It all depends on the five hundred; if they all report, or whether the Uruguayan government will allow more than five hundred to enter at that time. We hope with God’s help to be privileged to leave this fall and [we] wait the six months with reluctance. We receive pleasant letters from our children in Uruguay, how glad we are that it is going well with them; and they so readily adapted themselves. They are writing this it is so much better with them than with us and are so sorry that we must wait so long.” Sixteen year-old Gerhard Dyck wrote to Mr. and Mrs. John Weaver, on December 28, 1947, looking back and forward. “My father is still in Russia. He died in 1940 in exile. He was arrested in 1936. We lived awhile in the Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia, on the Dnieper [River]. In 1943 we came to Germany. And we hope right soon to go to Canada if permitted. An aunt of ours lives in Winnipeg and owns a farm. She sent us a guarantee or bail. We have other relatives there too. So many Mennonites have gone from here to Canada and Paraguay.”


These letters, and others of the same era, in the two archives used in this blog post, are rich in history, emotion, suffering, and meaning. They contain details of contents of the packages sent through MCC, farms and homes left behind, life in displaced persons’ camps, and some of lives of immigrants to Mennonite colonies in South America. Family historians searching for more information about their ancestors can access the full inventory of names. Copies of the letters transcribed by the Formans are located in the Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville, Pennsylvania. The letters translated by Zimmerman are housed in the Juniata Mennonite Historical Center, Richfield, Pennsylvania. His diary is also located there and is being published in the Center’s newsletter, Echoes.

Rosanna Formanek Hess,
4321 Northampton Road, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223

Spohn Collection of Ephrata Imprints Digitalized

In 2019 the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietists Studies at Elizabethtown College purchased the Clarence E. Spohn Collection. Spohn, a life-long resident of Ephrata, worked at the Ephrata Cloister from 1968-1996, serving as Museum Educator from 1988-1996.  The collection includes rare imprints from printers active in Ephrata from 1745 to about 1830, as well as artifacts pertaining to the Ephrata community (Ephrata Cloister), records and notes pertaining to legal transactions about the property, and Spohn’s copious research notes.  The collection is the single most important grouping of imprints from the various printers who worked at Ephrata, including the Cloister press and the Baumann and Ruth presses that followed. Because of his extensive work at Ephrata Cloister, Spohn’s research notes are a rich source of information about the imprints and the Ephrata community. Among the objects are a rare woodblock engraving of the Ephrata seal used in printing and a rare wooden communion chalice and bread plate (paten).  The collection is housed at the Hess Archives in the High Library at Elizabethtown College.  Hess Archives recently digitalized fifty-nine of the imprints and have made them available through Brethren Digital Archives. They can be accessed by way of the High Library’s research guides at: https://libraryguides.etown.edu/spohn.

The imprints include a rare liturgy printed by the Ephrata brothers in 1785 for the Moravian congregation in Lititz. The only other known copies are in the Moravian Music Foundation library in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and in the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Another imprint, Das Andencken etlicher Heiligen Martyrer (The Memorial of a Few Holy Martyrs), has special importance for Mennonites and Brethren. It is a small volume of two martyrs stories from the Dutch Mennonite Martyrs Mirror, translated into German by Bro. Theophilum, which was the spiritual name for Alexander Mack Jr., the youngest son of the founder of the German Baptist Brethren. Printed in 1745, the book was one of the earliest imprints of the Ephrata press. It was printed at about the time that Alexander Mack Jr. left Ephrata with his friends Israel and Gabriel Eckerlin, who were expelled by Conrad Beissel, the founder of Ephrata. By 1748, Mack had rejoined the Brethren in Germantown. This little book was a precursor to the complete translation of the Dutch Martyrs Mirror printed by the Ephrata brothers in 1748.  Among the other Mennonite related imprints available are the first and second printings of Mennonite bishop Christian Burkholder, Nützliche und Erbauliche Anrede an die Jugend (1804); and two printings of the Mennonite prayerbook, Die Ernsthafte Christenpflicht (1785) and (1808).

Edsel Burdge, Jr., research associate, Young Center

Digital Mennonites

By Samuel Boucher

When leaving the gates of our tightly knit Mennonite community, and we´re often asked, ¨What’s your nationality?¨ in a language, we may or may not understand well, the answer becomes messy very quickly, ‘I’m Mexican, holding a Canadian citizen, I don’t really speak Spanish or English, I speak Plautdietsch which is a non-written language, and the High German written language I was supposed to learn I didn’t really learn.1

On a cold February morning during the Canadian winter, the bedroom window was completely frosted. I shuffled out of my make-shift bed in the home office of my friend, David2—the principal of an elementary school in a small town in Ontario. I had been touring western Ontario giving a series of lectures to ‘Mennonite’ schools in small Canadian towns. Listowel—the town my friend worked in—had a sizable amount of Old Colony Mennonites, so David had invited me to give a lecture on Mennonite history. Many of these students are recent migrants from Mexico (while still holding Canadian passports). It was a surreal experience to see Mennonite boys and girls in winter coats and fleecy ear-flap hats dropped off by horse-and-buggy to rush into the heated school and pick up their school-issued Ipads and laptops to play academic programs and to write essays. This made me wonder how much Old Colony Mennonites and Old Order Amish are willing to accept these new digital technologies—specifically social media. In the following paper, I will explain the origins of the Mennonites, their conception of migration, their use of social media, and how virtual space may become the new horizon for migration to preserve their cultural identity.

Originating in the Radical Reformation, the Mennonites are an ethno-religious community dispersed in small colonies throughout the Americas. These followers of Menno Simmons have tended to split into small, decentralized churches, beginning with the Swiss Mennonites and the Dutch Mennonites. These two groups followed two different historical trajectories that led their descendants to end up in the Americas. As part of the Radical Reformation, the Mennonites were constantly on the edge of persecution under the pronouncements of the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 (Cuius regio, eius religio/Whose realm, his religion).  The Dutch Mennonites fled repeated rounds of persecutions, first to East Prussia, then to New Russia, and finally to Canada. From Canada, the more conservative members and churches left in the 1920s for Latin America in order to maintain their Low German language schools and colony system; they are now known as the Old Colony Mennonites. The Swiss Mennonites fled Switzerland for the New World arriving in the Thirteen Colonies and slowly spreading westward into the Midwest and Canada. These are the familiar Old Order Amish well-known for their Pennsylvania Dutch language and anti-modern outlook.

Several characteristics bind the Mennonites together despite their diffusion.  Theologically—like other Anabapists—they reject infantile baptism and believe that church membership should be a conscious decision. Additionally, they uphold absolute pacifism and believe they must remain separated from the ‘World’ following their conceptualization of Two Kingdoms theology.3  For this reason, they tend towards anti-materialism and non-political engagement. Culturally, these insular communities speak their own language (Low German or Pennsylvania Dutch), have their own strictly enforced set of rules (called the Ordnung), and maintain their own customs and beliefs—probably the most well-known one being that they avoid or eschew much of modern technology. Despite these similarities, some differences are rather pronounced between the Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites.

While the Amish have spatially remained in North America and slowly creeped outward from their communities with nearby land purchases, the Low German Mennonites have a history of migration which has become a key aspect of their mythos. Because of their constant movement—The Netherlands-East Prussia-New Russia-Canada-Latin America—the Mennonites never truly settled any geographic parameter long enough to develop a mythic attachment to it.  Therefore, they do not hold ties to a nation-state for the ‘Kingdom of Heaven is their fatherland.’

Even beyond not having an attachment to a specific location, Mennonites have an internal need to migrate to replicate their colony system. It is via migration itself that Old Colony Mennonites maintain their community. The Mennonites enter each country with the promise to aid in the development of colonial projects and “accepting citizenship while simultaneously rejecting nationality through the building of a community that spans across state borders.”4 Ironically, it is the anti-modernist sects of the Mennonites who have tended to migrate most frequently transnationally and developed new regions. In the words of historian Royden Loewen, Mennonites “court modern economic forces in order to sustain an antimodern culture.”

Typically, the Mennonites migrate primarily as a means to escape persecution and assimilation. Yet, in many ways, Mennonite colonies also exist as sacred spaces to be differentiated with the outside world as they seek to separate themselves from the evil of the ‘world.’ They construct sacred spaces here on Earth in the form of their colonies, which are conceptually attempts at neo-kingdoms of Heaven. But where can Mennonites now migrate when every territory has now come under the control of the nation-state paradigm? For anthropologist Bottos, the answer is through this transnational network. Bottos explains, “cross-border strategies to flout their incorporation into the nation seems to be the Mennonite answer to the globalization of the nation-state.”5 Yet, another possibility exists. More and more Old Colony Mennonites (as well as Old Order Amish) are using social media as means to maintain this network. The internet has created a means to distort spatial reality by shrinking the distance between these dispersed colonies. It is quite possible that Mennonites will now turn to virtual space as the new frontier of migration.

Several studies have examined the social media and internet use of the Amish and Mennonites. Anthropologist Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar conducted a comparative survey of the Old Order Amish and Orthodox Jews. Rivka specifically studied whether the Amish women themselves viewed social media and the internet as a net positive or negative. Rivka surveyed forty women of the Old Order Amish community living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.6 None of the Amish women interviewed had smartphones and only eight percent had ever browsed the Internet.7 While a small number, this may be surprising for the average reader who conceives of the Amish as embodied visions of a distilled past. Despite this minority, most Amish women cast an evil eye toward the internet. Rivka categorized the responses to social media and internet use by the Amish women into:

(1) destruction and ravage—danger, dangerous, catastrophe, spoils the spiritual world, a weapon, harmful; (2) degrading—garbage and filth, bad, shocking, filthy, horrible; (3) temptation—seductive, slippery slope; (4) access—uncensored information, worldly; (5) religious exclusion—impure, evil things forbidden by the church; (6) spiritual effects—destroys souls, influences thoughts; and (7) a waste of time—takes time away from family time.8

In this way, Rivka found that the Old Order Amish women maintained a primarily negative view of social media.  But while the mothers are rejecting social media, some of the youths are embracing it.

 ‘No other site . . . has taken off as massively as Facebook amongst the Amish teens. Everyone is on Facebook.”9 This was told to investigative journalist Justine Sharrock, writing for the popular online blog Buzzfeed in 2013, by twenty-two-year-old who had recently left the Amish. Anthropologist Charles Janzti has recently studied this phenomenon in his article, “Amish Youth and Social Media: A Phase or a Fatal Error.” He has found that many Facebook posts by Amish teens show context of parties and drinking alcohol. One such photo of ‘Amish beer pong’ received twenty likes and three shares.10 Still, the degree to which Amish youth have accepted social media is difficult to estimate. A separate estimate suggests that the earlier quote is widely exaggerated with only one to two percent of Amish youth using Facebook.11 Other specialists on Amish society have suggested that these teens were most likely still in their Rumspringa12 years and moreover, that “many of the youth on Facebook are on the margins, not mainstream Amish youth.”13 But it is very possible that social media is set to take off with the Amish in similar ways that have happened with their religious cousins, the Old Colony Mennonites.

It is estimated that about eighty-five percent of Old Colony Mennonite students in Canada have cell phones while most still do not have televisions nor access to internet in their homes.14 In the 2014 article, “Living on the Edge: Old Colony Mennonites and Digital Technology Usage,” scholar Kira Turner has found that “OCM accept digital technologies more readily than other traditional Mennonites; notably they use cell phones, communicate through social media such as Facebook, and text their families in Mexico.”15 This is especially important when one considers the Mennonites in their transnational context. The Old Colony Mennonites are connected via digital space to their relations in colonies in Latin America while residing in North America. In this way, ironically, certain Mennonites have utilized social media in order to maintain their colony structure and anti-modernist outlook.

Mennonites have used social media for a variety of reasons—including business, networking, and cultural promotion. Mennonite businesses make use of social media for purposes of marketing. A good example is juwie16, an apple juice company hailing from Mexico with the tagline—El Gran Sabor Menonita—the great Mennonite flavor (see the picture below). The Mennonites in Chihuahua are well-known for their apple orchards—controversially, at times, because of the overuse of limited water resources by the Mennonites to irrigate their thirsty orchards. Logically, these Mennonites have then processed their apples into apple juice for added value.

These Mexican Mennonites are much more modern and are more willing to make technological and cultural concessions than the typical horse-and-buggy sects. Importantly, on their website, juwie notes how Cuauhtemoc is considered of the city of the three cultures: Mestizo, Raramuri and Mennonite.

Other more anti-modern groups also make use of the internet and social media for business. Several Amish and Mennonite businesses have combined to publish their businesses on JustPlainBusiness.17 These Amish and Mennonites are joined together as ‘plain’ to distinguish from other Mennonite groups. Plain designates that sect is anti-modern and enforces strict rules for clothing and behavior. One such business is Helmuth’s Country Store which sells Mennonite-built furniture and other home goods (see the photo below).


It is not solely Mennonites in North America using social media for business. I have found several Instagram accounts tied to the Mennonite colonies in Argentina. Of particular note is the coloniasmenonitas account,19 which appears to be a business account for a Mennonite business specializing in the manufacturing of silos (an interesting niche20 that the Mennonites have developed in the Pampas). Despite the commercial nature of their account, the business also posts general photos of the colonists on their farms, churches, and in everyday life (see the photos below).

The Mennonites in Argentina are Old Colony conservative and horse-and-buggy sects. This is evidenced by the primary photos found with the #menonitasargentina. This compares interestingly with the hashtag #menonitasbrasil where the Mennonites exist mostly as a religious category and have culturally assimilated into the mainstream Brazilian society (see the photo below).

Colonias Menonitas are also on Facebook as a business account:

As the posts are primarily in Spanish, it seems that the Facebook business account is mostly marketing to the wheat farmers (needing silos to store grain) in the pampas of Argentina.

No Mennonites have used social media in order to become an ‘influencer’ with one notable exception: Dietsche mejal, German Girl, (see the photo below) who has accounts on almost all major platforms. Her followers are in the hundreds of thousands across her platforms, and she maintains millions of likes and views. Dietsche mejal—schooled in Canada and living in Mexico—provides content in three languages: English, Low German, and Spanish. She creates content both for Mennonites (with inside jokes and cultural references) as well as non-Mennonites (explanations of Mennonite culture and history).

Dietsche mejal is not the only account to promote Mennonite culture. Comparable to The Onion or The Babylon Bee, The Daily Bonnet21 is a satirical news site written by Andrew Unger based in Steinbach, Manitoba (a historically Mennonite city) catered to a Mennonite audience. Unger also operates a local news site with his wife Erin called Mennotoba which plays off the history of the pioneering Mennonite settlements in Manitoba.  These two publications re-enforce Mennonite identity with readership residing across various nation-states including but not limited to Mexico, Canada, United States, and Bolivia.

While business and cultural promotion are interesting uses, the main application of social media by Low German Mennonites is to maintain familial connections across various states and nations. Despite being a transnational group with far-flung colonies across the Americas, Mennonites are a close-knit community. As most transnational groups, families end up being split up on two sides of the globe. In The Madonna of 115th Street, Orsi notes the stress and hardship of this separation for Italian families in the early twentieth century when he writes,

Some immigrants, to be sure, pined for the old country and longed to be back in familiar surroundings. This desire was particularly acute in times of crisis or loss. It could be strong enough to kill: Edward Corsi’s mother died after a long depression brought on by the dislocations of immigration. This powerful nostalgia was alive among the first generation, and those who felt it most acutely served as revealing mirrors to those who were trying to still this longing.22

In the 1920s, many of the Mennonites returned to Canada due to this same feeling of longing for family. Today, WhatsApp and Facebook are the primary platforms for older conservative Mennonites in order to maintain these contacts.

Of these two, perhaps the most important platform for the Mennonite transnational network is WhatsApp. Both Low German and Pennsylvania Dutch are primarily spoken languages. Thus, Mennonites’ preference for WhatsApp is due to its VoiceNote function. With the VoiceNote function, Mennonites are able to leave vocal recordings to their contacts rather than writing and reading text messages. As Mennonites exist in various nations, they may write and read English, Spanish, German, or Portuguese to varying degrees. Low German is the connecting language for this community. As a spoken language, only a social media platform with internet usage that provided a function that enabled a primarily oral message system would the Mennonites have been able to properly use in their transnational context. This was noted by Anna Wall, a healthcare interpreter, in her blogs on the Mexican Mennonite community in Canada. Wall writes,

As the years passed and the rest of the world evolved, more and more of us became illiterate. Living in a Spanish-speaking country, speaking Plautdiesch at home, also known as Low German and reading and speaking only High German at school and church, writing letters as a means to stay connected became more and more challenging, to say the least.23

Wall goes on to state that the app is especially useful for transnational groups that crisscross borders since it does not change plans or phones, a transnational media for a transnational group.

Amongst themselves, the use of new technologies is a constant debate in horse-and-buggy communities such as the Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites. Typically, the Mennonites have addressed new technologies in three ways: assimilation, limited adoption, or separation. Additionally, some Mennonites have circumvented this problem of modern technology has been to outsource the function to a third party: they hire someone. This is especially common for horse-and-buggy communities to hire taxis for travel into town when they are forbidden to own cars. Other debates have split churches. Rivka notes that “The emergence of landline phones set off a big debate among the Amish and led to a schism in 1910, with one-fifth of the congregation leaving the Amish church. The Amish see the telephone as ‘an umbilical cord tied to a dangerous worldly influence.’”24 In today’s context, the debate consists of prohibition of cellphones and social media use being a constant feature in their preachers’ sermons.25 Still, several Amish interviewees seem unworried about this development. Janzti writes, “An Amish father, who grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, suggested that there is little difference between what can be seen on Facebook today and what exists in photo albums tucked away from his era of Rumspringa.”26 Each Mennonite community has contended with these new technologies in different ways. Turner elaborates, “The David Martin Mennonites keep their computers in the barn or shop for business purposes but not in the house, while Markham-Waterloo Mennonites have gone to great expense to create their own server so they can manage their members’ Internet access.”27 Therefore, the response to technology exists on a wide spectrum for the Mennonites. More progressive Amish and Mennonite communities have phones and use social media while the stricter communities do not have access to smartphones, the internet, or social media.28

It is important to understand that Mennonites do not simply reject all technologies out of hand. New technology is simply not accepted without stiff deliberation. The main focus is on the net benefit or negative that the adoption of the technology will have on the community. Thus, Mennonites consider the usefulness of the technology while technology for entertainment’s sake is rejected out of hand in the more restrictive communities. There is also a distinction between spaces. Business spaces are considered separate from the home space and are given more allowances for more technological use due to this consideration. Business is inherently connected to the outside world due to the needs of supply and customership.

Limited adoption has often been taken by these communities where they have implemented technologies with modifications that allow a certain degree of social control on their usage. Plainizing digital technologies into non-internet access contraptions.29 This ‘plainization’ has even become a verifiable niche industry within the Amish community. One entrepreneur, Allen Hoover, retrofits tools to run on alternative power with the tagline—made specifically for the plain people by the plain people. He has also created what he calls Classic Word Processors, essentially computers without internet access.30 The Hutterites—a related Anabaptist group—have even created their own internal network service within their colonies to maintain control over what comes in through their servers.31

Several scholars have commented on the possible consequences of social media on these isolated communities. Rivka views the use of social media as contrary to the core values of community-oriented groups such as the Amish. She writes, “The individualism, autonomy, personal empowerment, and networking that characterize new media pose a challenge to the core values of religious communities: traditionalism, cultural preservation, collective identity, hierarchy, patriarchy, authority, self-discipline, and censorship.32” For Rivka, the internet and social media poses a danger of breaking the self-imposed boundary of sacred space (home) and ‘the world.’33 Rivka believes that social media use will break down community boundaries following studies by scholar Meyrowitz (1985) who observed that electronic media erodes the boundary between the private and public spheres.34 Importantly, Rivka primarily interviewed Amish women due to the concept of ‘gatekeeper’ for traditional values. According to Rivka, women exist in Amish Mennonite communities as the main gatekeepers for religio-cultural preservation.35

While Janzti ponders that “perhaps Amish young people have always engaged in this level of self-reflection and discussions regarding their perceived experience and the perception that those outside of the Amish have”, but he ultimately seems unconvinced. He notes that “the difference today, however, is that the internet both provides a window on the Amish world and gives the Amish a platform to reflect on themselves and their culture in a public fashion.”  Ultimately, Janzti agrees with Rivka that Facebook (and other forms of social media) are contrary to Amish-Mennonite beliefs. These platforms are designed to be self-oriented with “the whole premise of the ‘selfie’ is the individual.”36 Furthermore, these platforms have a fundamental difference between earlier technologies such as television: they allow for the interactive engagement of the user with the outside world.37 Janzti argues that the internet’s true danger is not in exposure to sex and violence or in change of Amish behavior during their youth but in changing the core values of the Amish community.38

Anthropologist Kira Turner disagrees with Rivka’s and Janzti’s conception of the Mennonites. Turner explains that “While digital technologies may create tensions within the community, they also act to blur lines between geographical boundaries, extend social networks, and allow Old Colony Mennonites to create their own vision of the society in which they wish to live.”39 Adoption of new technologies are becoming increasingly necessary in order to navigate and function in the modern world. This includes but not limited to: schoolwork, filling out tax forms, accessing government documents such as immigration requests, banking, applying for employment, and making purchases.40 Furthermore, Turner notes that “digital technology usage within the Old Colony (community) expands and contracts the walls surrounding isolation and separation from mainstream society. Although it allows ideas to flow between groups, it also allows for the shrinking of space locally and globally. It may inevitably lead some to move away from the church, but it also may lead some to strengthen their ties.”41 Evidently, Turner assumes a moderate course for digital technology in Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonite communities through deliberate adoption.

To this point, it is interesting to note that the aforementioned Amish youth on Facebook do not seem to be interacting with youth outside of their Amish circles.42  Chris Weber who works with Amish teens in Indiana notes that ‘they use Facebook to do what they would do anyway—connect with one another—and they would not spend their time playing video games on their phones or Facebook.”43 In Pennsylvania, one Amish group have even created a Facebook page solely due to the promotion of benefit volleyball tournaments—a common sport amongst Amish youth.44 The Amish youth have primarily used social media in similar ways that they have used previous technologies.

Social media can be used as a means to maintain Amish-Mennonite separation with the world. In Diaspora in the Countryside, historian Royden Loewen examines how global economic forces uprooted rural folk and displaced them from their family farms. Diaspora uses the comparative history of two Mennonite communities (one in the United States and one in Canada) to explain the ways in which historical and cultural differences between these two settings influenced the Mennonites response to the Great Disjuncture.  Mennonites in Hanover had more critical mass to sustain their cultural cohesiveness and lived in a more openly multiculturally accepting Canadian society which allowed for the maintenance of their culture.  On the other hand, Mennonites in Meade had more social pressures to assimilate into the general American consensus.  The author writes, “Clearly what sociologists of the 1950s claimed to be seeing, an assimilation into mainstream America, was occurring.  Mennonites were dressing, speaking, and thinking like their American neighbors.”45 In this way, it is possible that the Mennonites could use social media such as WhatsApp as a means to sustain their critical mass globally and prevent assimilation.

Much work has been done considering the ideas of space and identity. In her book, Performing Piety, cultural anthropologist Elaine Peña writes how:

De los Angeles also spoke of the need to keep and teach “nuestra cultura, nuestra lenguaje” (our culture, our language) to our children . . . Her statements made layers of time and history, tradition and migration, spirituality and affiliation explicit. Michel de Certeau’s claim that “space is a practiced place” provides an optic through which to examine the idea that the specters of past performances . . . Space, as de Certeau suggests, is always in the process of transformation.46

Pena is attempting to understand the production of sacred space. Following ethnographer Pena, I am attempting to consider questions of space and sanctity. Much like Catholics in central Mexico and the Chicago area created Guadalupan shrines as a means to produce spaces of sanctity in a processual manner, Mennonites also produce sacred spaces in the form of their closed colonies. Rather than a single building or shrine, it is the colony territory and the colony network itself that is the sacred space which is created via the process of migration and construction. The act of separation from the proverbial ‘World’ and the Old Colony Mennonite and Old Order Amish attempts at living a simple and peaceful lifestyle produces this sacred space. In this way, I follow Pena’s advice to view “the migration networks and the approaches to local integration as a process— as layers of culture, history, and traditions imbued in specific locations at specific times.”47 Mennonites connect their transnational network via Mennonite mythology to “reinforce the idea of connectivity among sacred spaces in disparate locations based on comparable embodied practices.”  I also follow Orsi who explains that the sacredness of a space can be separated from its location. For Orsi, meaning and sanctity is derived from the ‘lived religion’ embodied in the practice and imagination of certain spaces. Thus, spaces become sacred due to the actions and beliefs of the actors using these spaces rather than in the spaces themselves. The behavior of the Digital Mennonites themselves will convert these online platforms into sacred spaces.

 From the Reformation to the present, the Mennonites have consistently attempted to develop their own sacred spaces in their colony network. Fleeing persecution and modernity, the Old Colony Mennonites constantly migrate between nation-states while the Old Order Amish settled apart from society within North America. With the complete coverage of territory on the globe within the nation-state paradigm and the increasing interconnectedness of society, the Mennonites need to assimilate, adapt, or use virtual space as a new frontier of digital migration. As previously shown, with Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, these Digital Mennonites have used and are continuing to use social media as a means of preserving their cultural cohesion by transferring their closed colonies which exist as sacred spaces (their neo-Kingdoms of Heaven) into virtual sacred spaces in online isolated communities.

Samuel Boucher is a historian of the Low German Mennonite colonies in Latin America. His main research focuses on the transnational network of the Mennonites and the main drives for Mennonite economic success.


Cañás-Bottos, Lorenzo. 2008. “Old Colony Mennonites in Argentina and Bolivia: Nation Making, Religious Conflict and Imagination of the Future.” Brill.

Janzti, Charles. Jan 2017. “Amish Youth and Social Media: A Phase or a Fatal Error.” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 91 71 – 92.

Kraybill, Donald. 1998. “Plain Reservations: Amish and Mennonite Views of Media and Computers.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 13(2) 99-110.

Loewen, Royden. 2006. Diaspora in the Countryside: Two Mennonite Communities and Mid-Twentieth Century Rural Disjuncture. Toronto: University of Illinois Press and University of Toronto Press.

Orsi, Robert Anthony. 2010. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880 1950 Third Edition. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Peña, Elaine A. 2011. Performing Piety Making Space Sacred with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Los Angeles and London: University of California Press Berkeley.

Rohrer, Eunice. 2004. The Old Order Mennonites and Mass Media: Electronic Media and Socialization. Doctoral dissertation. Morgantown: West Virginia University.

Shahar, Rivka Neriya-Ben. 2020. “Mobile internet is worse than the internet; it can destroy our community”: Old Order Amish and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women’s responses to cellphone and smartphone use.” The Information Society, 36:1 1-18.

Shahar, Rivka Neriya-Ben. 2016. “Negotiating agency: Amish and ultra-Orthodox women’s responses to the Internet.” Sapir Academic College, Israel new media & society 2017, Vol. 19(1) 81–95.

Sharrock, Justine. 2 July 2013. “The Surprising, Ingenious Amish Gadget Culture” BuzzFeed News. http://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/justinesharrock/the-surprising-ingenious-amish-gadget-culture.

Turner, Kira. 2014. “Living on the Edge: Old Colony Mennonites and Digital Technology Usage.” Journal of Amish and Plain Anabaptist Studies 2(2) 165-185.

Wall, Anna. 2020. “WhatsApp With the Mennonites?” Woolwich Community Health Care. Nov 10. https://wchcvirtualhealth.wixsite.com/mysite/post/whatsapp-with-the-mennonites.

[1] (Wall 2020)

[2] I had met David in my Low German course in Alymer in Southern Ontario.

[3] Each Protestant sect conceptualizes the Two Kingdoms Theology differently. For the Anabaptists, the two kingdoms are the kingdom of Earth ruled by the devil and the kingdom of Heaven ruled by God.

[4] (Bottos 2008), 2.

[5] Ibid., 71.

[6] (Shahar 2016), 84.

[7] (Shahar 2020), 8.

[8] (Shahar 2016), 86.

[9] (Janzti 2017 ), 80.

[10] Ibid., 86.

[11] Ibid., 72.

[12] Rumspringa means ‘jumping around’ and the Old Colony Mennonites have a similar conception. A similar American idea is ‘sowing your wild oats.’ Essentially, these Amish youths are not yet baptized church members and have lower behavioral expectations.

[13] (Janzti Jan 2017 ), 72.

[14] (Turner 2014), 171.

[15] Ibid., 170.

[16] https://juwie.mx/

[17] https://justplainbusiness.com/

[18] https://justplainbusiness.com/helmuths-country-store/

[19] https://coloniasmenonitas.com/

[20] https://siloscoloniamenonita.com.ar/

[21] https://dailybonnet.com/

[22] (Orsi 2010), 20.

[23] (Wall 2020)

[24] (Shahar 2020), 5.

[25] Ibid., 5.

[26] (Janzti 2017 ), 87.

[27] (Turner 2014), 170.

[28] (Janzti Jan 2017 ), 81.

[29] (Shahar 2020), 5.

[30] (Sharrock, 2013)

[31] Discussion with John Sheridan

[32] (Shahar 2016), 82.

[33] Ibid., 85.

[34] (Shahar 2020), 2.

[35] (Shahar 2016), 87.

[36] (Janzti 2017 ), 87.

[37] Ibid., 89.

[38] Ibid., 91.

[39] (Turner 2014), 165.

[40] Ibid., 172.

[41] Ibid., 181.

[42] (Janzti 2017 ), 72.

[43] Ibid., 80.

[44] (Janzti 2017 ), 85.

[45] (Loewen 2006), 101.

[46] (Peña 2011), 43.

[47] Ibid., 10.

A Letter from Maggie Leonard

John Thiesen

The Mennonite Library and Archives recently received a box of papers of Heinrich H. Epp (1857-1933), who was a minister in the Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, Nebraska, for many decades and elder of the congregation 1910-1924. As I unpacked the box, a folded-up document caught my attention when I noticed the signature “Maggie Leonard, Mennonite Mission, Darlington, Ind. Terr.”

Margaret/Maggie Leonard, first person baptized at Darlington, Oklahoma, mission in 1888; this photo probably taken while she was attending school in Halstead, Kansas (Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas)

Maggie Leonard was the first person baptized in the mission work conducted by the General Conference Mennonite Church among Cheyenne and Arapaho at Darlington and Cantonment in what is today Oklahoma. She was baptized in 1888, but did not come from the two groups among whom the Mennonites were working. Her father Joseph Leonard was white (likely an Indian agency employee) and her mother was Caddo. (Maggie Leonard is listed as Caddo in the 1900 census). She also attended the Indian Industrial School at Halstead, Kansas, run by Christian Krehbiel, and also the Mennonite Seminary (teacher training school) at Halstead (during 1890-1892).

This is the text of the document:

What I learned on my trip to Kansas.

When we went to Kansas I was very glad. And I learned some things that I did not know before.

I learned how to milk a little but not quite good enough yet. And that we must clean the yard every Saturday or at any time when it is dirty around the house. And I learnt how to play some games that I did not know before, and how they dry apples, cherries, peaches etc. And I learned how they put they prepare <sic> pickles for Winter. I learned something about the railroad I did not know it could run so fast, and that so many people could be in it at the same time. And I even saw a great many cattle in the train. I saw how the people thrash grain. I think it is nice to look at the thrashing machine when it is working. And I know how the people spend their Sundays. They always go to church. I wonder how many of you likes to go to church. I think it is nice to go to church or to Sunday Schools. I learned how they can make milk into clabber in a short while by putting rennet in it and then from the clabber they make cheese. I learned how they prepare can fruits. And I know how they water the flowers with a pump and it has a long rubber pipe fastened to it. And the person who waters the flowers and the grass, takes it and waters whatever he wants to water. And I know now how the large cities look and the hotels & stores, and the large streets. And I know many more German people than I would if I stayed here. I saw how they work on their farms & orchards. I think it is nicer to live on farm than to live in a large city. Because there is so much noise in the large cities and it may happen sometime that the city might catch fire and then may be the inhabitants that live in the city might have to burn up. And I also saw some large bridges, some are for the wagons to go over, and some are for the train. When the train goes over the bridge, it makes very much noise. Now I am very glad that I went to Kansas. I would not know so much now if I did not go there.

Maggie Leonard.
Mennonite Mission.
Darlington Ind. Terr.

It is unclear if she is describing her time in the Halstead schools or whether she had made a trip to Kansas before that already.

Maggie Leonard did not retain formal ties to the Mennonites after her baptism. Sometime in the early 1890s she married someone named Garen and had a son. In 1898 she married a widower, John David Downing, and they had 7 more children. Downing was apparently a prominent rancher and Freemason in Grady County, Oklahoma. He is listed as Cherokee in the 1900 census. He died in 1923. (see https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/53563566/john-david-downing).

Margaret Downing did keep some personal contacts with Mennonites over the years. In March 1936, Missionary News and Notes, the publication of the Women’s Missionary Association of the General Conference Mennonite Church, included this note:

Last week Mrs. Goerz received a letter from Mrs. Margaret Downing–nee Maggie Leonard. Some of the older readers will remember that she, then 17 years old was the first Indian who accepted Christ and was baptized in our Mission at Darlington on June 3rd, 1888. Rev. H. R. Voth was the missionary stationed there then. Later Maggie came to Krehbieltown, at Halstead, Kansas and during that time she attended the Mennonite Seminary at Halstead. She has been married twice, is mother of eight children–three girls and five boys–all living. At present she is keeping house for her youngest son who is in the government service as clerk in the Jicarilla Indian Agency at Dulce, New Mexico.

Mrs. Goerz was Martha Krehbiel Goerz, Mrs. Rudolph A. Goerz, a daughter of Christian Krehbiel. She was an editor of the Missionary News and Notes. Martha Goerz may well have been acquainted with Maggie Leonard already from her Halstead school days.

Margaret Downing returned to her home territory towards the end of her life. Here’s the death notice from the Chickasha Daily Express, Aug. 14, 1966, p. 3. (see also https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/25408163/margaret-l-downing)

Funeral services were held Thursday in Arcadia for Mrs. Margaret Downing, 97, who died Aug. 2 in Oklahoma City. Mr. and Mrs. Downing were early ranchers north of Verden. Surviving children are: Mrs. Thelma Moring, Mrs. Pearl Dennero, Mrs. Rena Topatche, Ernest and John Downing, all of Oklahoma City; and Eden Downing, of California.

A major unanswered question is, how did Maggie Leonard’s early handwritten account of a visit to Kansas end up in the possession of Heinrich H. Epp in Henderson, Nebraska? He was not a member of the General Conference mission board; there is no indication he ever visited Darlington, nor that Maggie Leonard ever visited Henderson. The link between the two persons remains a mystery.

The Rise of LGBTQ Mennonite Leaders

Rachel Waltner Goossen

People identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer have long faced stigmatization and discrimination in many North American Mennonite churches and institutions. But during the past decade, two parallel denominations, Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, have been moving sporadically but irrefutably toward policies of inclusiveness.1 The rise of LGBTQ Mennonite leaders is reshaping the North American Mennonite world, expanding a faith tradition that has staked its identity to radical Christian nonviolence and reinterpreting what it means to live in peaceable communities.

These changes within several Mennonite groups, which have been accompanied by intense controversy and schism, signify substantial developments in Anabaptist faith traditions. Until the early 2000s, when profiles of LGBTQ Mennonite individuals began appearing in a few publications, Mennonites were rarely visible in histories critiquing homophobia and heterosexism.2 More likely, students of Anabaptism might have encountered stories conforming to, in the words of literary scholar Daniel Shank Cruz, “the usual Mennonite trope of leaving the community because of its restrictions.”3

In 2016, I began interviewing theologically-trained Mennonite leaders on both sides of the Canadian/U.S. border who identify as LGBTQ, a project culminating in newly-published scholarship in the journal Nova Religio: “’Repent of the Sins of Homophobia’: The Rise of Queer Mennonite Leaders.”4 To help me locate potential interviewees, staff and board members of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, headquartered in Minneapolis, provided names of colleagues ranging in age from 24 to 80. Snowball sampling—that is, the practice of following leads gleaned through personal contacts—yielded forty-four seminary-trained LGBTQ leaders across the U.S. and Canada, some of whom no longer affiliated with Mennonite institutions.

Of the forty I was able to contact, thirty individuals consented to interviews. Many of them also made available sermons, letters, photographs, and other relevant documents for this study. Our interviews, which cover personal narratives and engagement with congregations and church-related institutions ranging from schools to mission agencies and publishing houses, provide windows into the experiences of queer leaders across decades and geographic regions. Although I had begun this work intending to document the loss of theologically-trained pastors and others to Mennonite faith communities as a result of discriminatory practices, I learned that their paths had been both complicated and highly variable.

Theda Good (in rainbow stole) at her ordination celebration in Denver, December 2016. Courtesy Theda Good

In some cases, individuals had been pushed out of their faith communities or had left in search of more hospitable church homes. Stories of harm and spiritual violence, both episodic and sustained, are an integral part of these oral history narratives. At the same time, many interviewees recounted how they persisted in professional roles as Mennonite pastors, chaplains, and administrators, despite barriers embedded in institutional policies and practices. Still others, who in previous decades had departed their faith communities under painful circumstances, had eventually circled back to Mennonite structures undergoing profound theological shifts regarding sexual ethics and congregational hospitality.5

Interviews conducted for this study are now available for further research at the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Elkhart, Indiana.6 Leaders whose narratives have been archived include Sharon Andre, Michelle Burkholder, Jason Frey, Joanne Gallardo, Theda Good, Sarah Klaassen, Shannon Neufeldt, Paula Northwood, John Rempel, Annabeth Roeschley, Russ Schmidt, and Randy Spaulding. Additional Mennonite pastors and theologians who are hetero-identified and allied with LGBTQ Mennonites also contributed interviews for archival repository and public dissemination. Notably, former Mennonite Church USA officials Ervin Stutzman and Nancy Kauffmann, prior to retiring from their administrative positions in 2018, also went on record with interviews focused on their practices affecting LGBTQ pastoral candidates. In their interviews, Stutzman and Kauffmann reflected on the sustained criticisms of the denomination’s policies from the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, Pink Menno, and other progressive activists within the church, as well as the exodus of conservative churches and conferences from Mennonite Church USA.7

This body of recorded oral histories is a significant resource for contemporary Mennonite studies. At its heart are first person narratives of theologically-trained individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer. Some of the interviewees have been in leadership in Mennonite congregations that have long welcomed all adherents, regardless of sexual orientation.8 One respondent, for example, recounted the prophetic witness of the Hyattsville Mennonite congregation in Maryland, which, she noted, has been a welcoming church for more than three decades and, as such, has earned the status of “rebel stepchild in the Mennonite Church.”9 But nearly all the respondents, in their personal and professional lives, have navigated far more conventional Mennonite settings.

The oral histories reveal how complex negotiations have been in the broader Mennonite world, as queer leaders and their allies have strategized to transform churchwide perspectives on sexual identity, and, in some cases, have moved to less heteronormative sites to practice their faith.10 Some left the church temporarily, even for decades, before returning with broadened perspectives to Mennonite settings. When queer Mennonite leaders and their allies departed, where, denominationally speaking, did they go? The evidence suggests that most individuals who moved away from Mennonite affiliations turned to the Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Society of Friends (Quakers), United Church of Canada, and the Unitarian Universalists. Others have circled again into Mennonite congregations that have grappled with, and ultimately dropped, exclusionary practices.

The oral history interviews make clear that “staying Mennonite” is not necessarily the most desirable outcome for pastoral leaders who have moved on to other faith traditions. Most who leave continue to identify culturally and theologically as Anabaptist Mennonites, even while serving as pastors, chaplains, and administrators in other faith communities. Several of the interviewees referenced other Mennonite pastors, beyond the scope of this study, who identify as LGBTQ but, at present, remain circumspect about publicly acknowledging their sexual identities. And although I sought to interview transgender Mennonites, only one transgender person agreed to be interviewed. Further historical research is needed on transgender leadership in Mennonite settings, as well as on the experiences of LGBTQ Mennonites who are not theologically trained.11

The witness of LGBTQ-identified leaders living their lives authentically continues to impact faith communities across geographic and denominational boundaries. Their perspectives inform and alter Mennonite institutions that are seeking, however convulsively, to acknowledge and address homophobic religious culture reaching back many decades. Beginning in 2014 with Theda Good’s ministerial licensing at First Mennonite Church in Denver and continuing to the present, regional conferences within Mennonite USA that have licensed openly LGBTQ pastors and chaplains include Mountain States Mennonite Conference, Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference, Central District Mennonite Conference, and Allegheny Mennonite Conference.12

The quickening pace of LGBTQ leaders arriving into and heading out from Mennonite institutional life blurs the lines of denominational identification, as openly queer pastors and theologians move into positions of influence in and beyond the Mennonite church. While many sectors within the broader Anabaptist landscape—not only in North America, but worldwide—continue to deny calls for equity and justice, queer leaders are pushing Mennonite bodies to make history, dismantling discrimination against LGBTQ-identified members and confronting the sins of homophobia.13

Rachel Waltner Goossen is Professor of History at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Thanks to Ben Goossen for providing comments on this essay.

1. In 2020, for example, an advisory group within Mennonite Church USA proposed a series of nondiscriminatory practices regarding LGBTQ individuals; formal action is expected in 2021. See “Report from the Advisory Group on Mennonite Church USA Guidelines,” 27 January 2020, http://mennoniteusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/REPORT-MGAdvisoryGroup-Final-2.pdf; “Panel Recommends Retiring Membership Guidelines,” Mennonite World Review, 10 February 2020, 1, 13. On the Canadian context, see the General Board of MC Canada’s statement of apology to LGBTQ individuals across the denomination, “General Board Confession,” The Canadian Mennonite, 29 Sept. 2017, http://www.canadianmennonite.org/stories/general-board-confession.

2. Significant scholarship includes Roberta Showalter Kreider, From Wounded Hearts: Faith Stories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People and Those Who Love Them(Gaithersburg, MD: Chi Rho Press, 1998); Together in Love: Faith Stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Couples (Kulpsville, PA: Strategic Press, 2002); The Cost of Truth: Faith Stories of Mennonite and Brethren Leaders and Those Who Might Have Been (Kulpsville, PA: Strategic Press, 2004); Alicia Dueck, Negotiating Sexual Identities: Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Perspectives on Being Mennonite (Zurich: LitVerlag, 2012); Stephanie Krehbiel, “Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA,” Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 2015, and Irma Fast Dueck and Darryl Neustaedter Barg, The Listening Church, documentary, 2016, http://listeningchurch.ca/?page_id¼16.

3. Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 136.

4. Rachel Waltner Goossen, “’Repent of the Sins of Homophobia’: The Rise of Queer Mennonite Leaders,” Nova Religio, 24 (February 2021): 68-95. Academic audiences provided commentary that informed this work at the Crossing the Line Conference, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, in June 2017; the Menno Simons Lectures, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, in October 2018; the Women Doing Theology Conference, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, in November 2018; and the Queer History Conference, San Francisco State University, in June 2019.

5. Examples include Shannon Neufeldt, Keith Schrag, and Randy Spaulding.

6. Rachel Waltner Goossen Collection on LGBTQ Mennonite Leaders, 2016-2020, HM1-1030, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Elkhart, Indiana, https://archives.mhsc.ca/index.php/rachel-waltner-goossen-collection-on-lgbtq-mennonite-leaders.

7. Stutzman interview via phone, Harrisonburg, VA, 5 February 2018, audio recording; Kauffmann interview via Skype, 18 January 2018, Elkhart, IN, audio recording. On the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests and Pink Menno, see “BMC Mission and Vision,” https://www.bmclgbt.org/about, and “Pink Menno: History and Vision,” http://www.pinkmenno.org/history-vision/.

8. Cf. Richard Lichty, An Increase in Time: Story Lines of Germantown Mennonite Church and Its Historic Trust, 1683-2005 (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2015), and an account of Hyattsville Mennonite Church’s relationship to Allegheny Mennonite Conference in Emma Green, “Gay and Mennonite,” The Atlantic, 18 March 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/03/gay-and-mennonite/388060/.

9. Annabeth Roeschley interview via Skype, Washington, D.C., 5 Sept. 2017, audio recording.

10. On queer theologians incorporating personal experience, see Stephanie Chandler Burns, “Queering Anabaptist Theology: An Endeavor in Breaking Binaries as Hermeneutical Community,” in Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method, eds. Laura Schmidt Roberts, Paul Martens, and Myron A. Penner (London: T&T Clark, 2020), 77–92.

11. The Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests’ Oral History Project, one avenue for fruitful research, makes available videotaped oral history records pertaining to individuals from multiple Anabaptist groups; see https://www.bmclgbt.org/center-history.

12. On the historic first licensing of an openly queer leader in Mennonite Church USA, see “Theda Good, Lesbian Mennonite Minister, Licensed in Denver, a First Step Towards Gay Ordination,” Huffington Post, 4 February 2014, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/theda-good-gay-mennonite_n_4723272.

13. This study is intended to spur broader research on other continents, as well. Mennonite leaders identifying as queer are prominent in Europe, but LGBTQ membership and leadership remain controversial among adherents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. See Rachel Waltner Goossen, “Transnational Perspectives: LGBTQ Mennonites,” chapter in Just Peace, Vol. 2, Amsterdam Centre for Religion and Peace and Justice Studies, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, forthcoming.

The Philosophical Legacy of Robert Friedmann

Maxwell Kennel

Robert Friedmann was born into a Jewish family in Vienna on June 9, 1891, and by the time he was twenty-three years old he had earned an engineering diploma and aspired to continue his education. His father, Dr. Peter Friedmann, was a physician and wanted Robert to become an engineer or physicist. But at the beginning of World War I in 1914 Robert Friedmann’s life took a different turn, and he became an officer, and eventually a lieutenant at the Italian front, in the army of Austria-Hungary for four years until 1918. Following the collapse of Austria-Hungary after WWI, in 1920 Robert Friedmann enrolled at the University of Vienna where he studied history and European philosophy, completing a dissertation on German philosophy in 1924, and then teaching for the next thirteen years at various colleges and technical schools in Vienna.1

Robert Friedmann (Provided by Author)

In November of 1938, during the Anschluss when Austria was being annexed by Germany, Robert Friedmann was imprisoned by the SS, just after the Kristallnacht on the morning of November 10. He writes of his imprisonment in a pseudonymous account published in the Neue Wege.2 After twelve days of imprisonment he and his wife were mysteriously released, and in the early days of 1939 Robert Friedmann and his wife Susi fled Austria, first spending six weeks in Switzerland and then staying in Sussex before immigrating to the United States. Friedmann’s arrival in the United States was orchestrated by Roland Bainton, a professor at Yale University, and after a short stay at that institution Friedmann connected with Harold S. Bender.3 Bender recalls the moment when Robert Friedmann and his wife Susi stepped off of the train in Goshen, Indiana, and into a new life “at 10:30 pm on a warm July night in 1940.”4 New to the United States, the Friedmann family attended Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, although Robert and Susi had joined the Reformed Church before leaving Europe. From 1940 to 1943 Robert Friedmann was a visiting lecturer and research fellow in Anabaptist Studies at Goshen College, but in 1944 his wife Susi died after a serious illness.

From 1945 onward Robert Friedmann taught at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Although he had become interested in Anabaptism in the 1920s when he was working on Hutterite codices,5 and although he authored over two hundred articles on theological and historical themes in the Mennonite Encyclopedia, Friedmann had a long-standing interest in European philosophy and literature, particularly German philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche and literary figures like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. This interest endured from his doctoral studies in the early 1920s to his time at Western Michigan College (later renamed Western Michigan University) where he taught introductory courses in history, philosophy, and ethics.

During that time, Friedmann taught a philosophy course on ethics and values called “Design for Living.”6 This course is exceptional for many reasons, not least of which is that few Mennonites taught philosophy courses in the 1950s.7 Robert Friedmann’s friend Leonard Gross recalls that Friedmann would diligently prepare for his lectures, but then would use only a few written notes instead of following his prepared material.8 His course called “Design for Living” was taught from 1948 to 1960, but in the middle of that time, in 1954, after the end of the school term, a student approach him and gave him a copy of his lectures that she had typed out. This came as a great surprise to Friedmann, and he used the opportunity to edit the text for publication, revising and rewriting the original oral lectures so that they would read well as a book. Unfortunately, Friedmann’s efforts to publish the manuscript as a book in 1956 were met with failure, and presumably he gave up on the manuscript in favor of other projects.9

Shortly before his death in 1970, Robert Friedmann gave copies of two book manuscripts to his friend Leonard Gross, with the hope that he would publish them. The first manuscript is one that he is well known for: The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation, published by Herald Press in the Studies in Anabaptist Mennonite History Series in 1973. The second book manuscript, however, was Design for Living. Unlike Theology of Anabaptism the manuscript for Design for Living was rejected for publication by the Mennonite publishing house. In a letter dated March 13, 1972, an editor for Herald Press wrote to Leonard Gross, stating that they would not publish the manuscript because of the “limited market,” adding: “Now this sounds commercial, but if we can get no one to buy the book then no one will read it and it lies on our inventory shelves and this is not very pleasing to the publisher.”10 And so the manuscript for Design for Living sat in the Mennonite Church USA Archives from 1972 onward, being cited only a handful of times by Levi Miller and J. Lawrence Burkholder.11

In 2013 I began a research project on the relationship between Mennonites and philosophy, part of which meant I went looking for any use of philosophies or philosophers by Mennonite thinkers. After reading about Friedmann’s manuscript in J. Lawrence Burkholder’s entry on ‘Philosophy’ in the Mennonite Encyclopedia I acquired a digitized copy of Design for Living from the Mennonite Church USA Archives.12 In 2015 I began to work on an edited version of the manuscript, and by early 2017 I had secured a contract to publish the book with Wipf and Stock. While in contact with Robert Friedmann’s friend Leonard Gross and his sons John and Martin, I began to prepare the manuscript for publication, editing the text and adding some additional references. The more I worked on it the more I realized that the manuscript contained a wealth of insight into the very existential questions that initially spurred me toward graduate work in Religious Studies and the Philosophy of Religion. A scholarly exercise in doing editorial work on an old manuscript soon became part of my own moral convictions. In reading Friedmann’s lost manuscript I became convinced of its value because of its combination of Anabaptist and Mennonite values with the works of secular, philosophical, and literary figures.

Friedmann’s insight in Design for Living is that the good life is about regard, concern, service, and love.13 Friedmann wants to educate the heart, and he begins by citing Ezekiel 36:26 and its promise of a new heart of human flesh rather than a cold and inflexible heart of stone (1). His first goal in the book is to make more sensitive the hearts of his readers without avoiding the challenges and complexities of life, and the seriousness of the task of living. Design for Living implores the reader to examine their values and priorities – and Friedmann defines values as those things we prioritize and put first, those things we spend our time and energy on, and those things we sacrifice other things for. For Friedmann the most important concern that we ought to have is for the meaning of life, and he thinks that the quest to understand life’s meaning requires a reorientation of the heart and the mind amidst the violent conflicts of the world (2-3). Friedmann calls out to his readers, arguing against apathy and disinterest, contending that life is about more than gaining personal pleasures like money, sex, or power (11-19), and challenging the hegemony of self-interest (20-23). Against hedonism and conventional morality, Friedmann pushes his reader to move beyond mere reception of values, and toward intentional living (23-26).

Friedmann begins by establishing a minimum ethics: a basic moral standard to which all people ought to be held. At base he argues that we should be decent to each other (26-29), although I worry that language of ‘decency’ is still too embedded in the colonial project of propriety and education. Friedmann argues within a western Jewish and Christian paradigm, suggesting that his reader should consider the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule to be basic standards of secular morality (29-36). For Friedmann, without these foundational guides we are already missing something, and he argues that we cannot afford to be indifferent, given the seriousness of our task to figure out what exactly it means to live, and to discern what is morally required of us (37-40). For Friedmann, mutual responsibility is basic, and without it we cannot ascend toward the goal of a truly meaningful life.

Preparing his reader for the ascent to his positive answer, chapter 2 of Design for Living insists that the reader look outside of themselves and consider the needs and suffering of others in the world that we share. Through confession (chapter 3) and an acknowledgment of the inherent difficulty of life (chapter 4), Friedmann builds a four-part framework upon which he argues we should scaffold our moral life, our religious life (if any), and our everyday life. Anticipating objections with a substantial preparatory section, Friedmann provides four steps that build upward toward the meaning of human life. He begins with Regard, which “means to take the other person fully as a person” (119). When we look at another person, we need to see them for who they are, rather than reducing them to an object or dehumanizing them by considering them to be less than ourselves. This is the first step, required of all people so that those from different backgrounds can live well together, both politically and socially. The next step is Concern, which “affirms our interrelatedness, our belonging together” (119-120). Concern means that we not only understand the other as a person, but that we take another step toward them by caring for them. I can see someone else as human, but it may take some effort, self-awareness, and education of desire to feel care toward them. The third step requires the first two. Friedmann writes that “service presupposes the two earlier steps: regard for the fellow human being as a person, and concern for this fellow person and their affairs by an inner participation. In service these steps now become activated into a doing” (120). When we act on our care for others by actually serving them and taking care of them, then we move to Friedmann’s penultimate step on the ladder of human meaning and purpose – his design for living.

The final step on the ladder is Love, and Friedmann understands that love cannot be commanded or legislated without defeating its aspirations. For Friedmann, love “is the crowning of all endeavors to fill life with value and meaning and to be interrelated with our fellow people.” (120). After presents his fourfold principle in summary, Friedmann concludes the book with a postscript that begins with a quotation by H.E. Fosdick: “Life consists not simply in what heredity and environment do to us but in what we make out of what they do to us.” (169).

These issues are not abstract for him, for he struggled to find work in America after he fled Austria in 1940, and many of his job applications were rejected because he was a refugee. The Mennonite Church USA Archives preserves papers that document his struggle to find work in a culture that was suspicious of European immigrants. Prejudice lived then, and it does now. Friedmann saw this and understood it. But he did not become bitter and resentful, despite the difficulty of trying to support a family on a low income. Without resorting to a cheap redemption narrative that covers over suffering and violence, and contrary to contemporary politics of resentment, Friedmann became resilient and turned his negative experiences into fuel for a critical and positive philosophy of human values, encouraging his students at Western Michigan University to consider their social responsibility for those around them.

At its best, this is exemplary of the underground tradition of philosophical and secular humanism in the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition. As I looked into his life, I found that Friedmann’s identity was much more complex than it is often presented, and cannot be fully captured by the Mennonite name. Throughout his career Friedmann’s identity shifted and changed and I explore some of these changes in my preface to Design for Living.14 But there is more work to be done exploring the complexities of Friedmann’s self-understanding. He identified as a “Jew who sides with Christ” in the 1930s, he situated himself between religious socialists and Anabaptists in the 1950s, and he regularly attended a Quaker meeting in his late life.15 In a footnote to his work on Hans Denck, Clarence Bauman makes an intriguing suggestion:

Robert Friedmann, more than any other Anabaptist scholar, recognized in his own educated heart [a reference to the first chapter of Design for Living, which Bauman read] the implicit Jewishness of Anabaptist spirituality, though in his writings he himself hardly dared to make this connection explicit – possibly for personal reasons – and, instead, identified the genius of Anabaptist ‘existential Christianity.’16

It is not out of the question, then, to consider Bauman’s suggestion that Friedmann’s identity may have been more than just primarily Mennonite, but also may have been akin to the Jewish Marrano phenomenon. Elsewhere, in a forthcoming book chapter titled “Secular Mennonite Social Critique: Pluralism, Interdisciplinarity, and Mennonite Studies”, I argue that complex identities like Friedmann’s must be considered within the scope of Mennonite Studies, both because they challenge the dominant narrative of Mennonite identity from within and because they show the entanglement of philosophical and secular sensibilities within a Mennonite figure.

Maxwell Kennel is a PHD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University where he has taught courses on religion and violence and methodological approaches to the study of religion. He has published articles on postsecular approaches to time and history in Studies in ReligionTelosrhizomes, and Political Theology, and articles on Mennonite topics in Literature & TheologyMennonite Quarterly Review, and Journal of Mennonite Studies. In 2017 he edited Mennonite historian Robert Friedmann’s manuscript Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love (Wipf & Stock), and in 2021 he will edit a special issue of Political Theology on Mennonite Political Theology. His dissertation is on ontologies and epistemologies of violence in the works of Jacques Derrida, Mennonite philosophical theologians, and the late work of philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. 

1. Robert Friedmann, Das Harmonieprinzip in der Metaphysik, ein problemgeschichtlicher Versuch, dargestellt an Haupttypen [The Principle of Harmony in Metaphysics: A Study in the History of Philosophy] Doctoral Dissertation, University of Vienna, 1924. 128 pp. Examined by J. Döller, F.E. Suess, and R. Much. A copy of the dissertation can be found in Box 20 of the Robert Friedmann Papers, housed in the MCUSA Archives, in Elkhart, Indiana.

2. Robert Friedmann (pseudonym Peter Worb), “Gott shuf den Menschen nach seinem Bilde [God Created Man in his own Image].” Neue Wege (1939): 335-337. Trans. Elizabeth Bender. Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (April 1974): 174-176.

3. “Conversations with Robert Friedmann,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (April 1974): 141-173.

4. See Steve Nolt, “The Spiritual Journey of Robert Friedmann,” (https://8thstmennonite.org/?page_id=3777).

5. See his description in Robert Friedmann, “Ein persönlicher Bericht als Vorwort,” in Die Schriften Der Hutterischen Täufergemeinschaften: Gesamtskatalog Ihrer Manuskriptbücher, Ihrer Schreiber, Ihrer Literatur 1529-1667. Zusammengestelt von Robert Friedmann, unter mitarbeit von Adolf Mais (Hermann Böhlaus, 1965).

6. For his lecture notes see Box 60, 4/48 “Ethics, Design for Living Course” and 4/49 “Design for Living,” Robert Friedmann Papers.

7. See the brief survey of Mennonites who taught philosophy courses in Delbert Weins, “Philosophy and Mennonite Self-Understanding” in Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Calvin Wall Redekop with Samuel J. Steiner (London: University Press of America, 1988), 117-135.

8. See Leonard Gross, “Foreword: Robert Friedmann: His Life, His Philosophy,” in Robert Friedmann, Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love. Ed. Maxwell Kennel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), x.

9. The Friedmann Papers collection, Box 28, contains reader reports for the publisher Rider and Co. (then an imprint of Ebury publishing, which is now a part of Penguin), dating from June 1956. Of the two reports, one recommends publication and the other recommends rejection. Presumably, the manuscript was rejected by Rider and Co.

10. Box 25. Letter from Herald Press to Leonard Gross, dated March 13, 1972.

11. Levi Miller, “Leo Tolstoy and the Mennonites.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 16 (1998) 163-180.

12. I have since written an update to this entry: “Philosophy” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Philosophy (April 2020).

13. Robert Friedmann, Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love. Ed. Maxwell Kennel. Foreword by Leonard Gross (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), page references in-text.

14. “Discovering the Other Friedmann,” in Friedmann, Design for Living, xv-xx. (https://maxwellkennel.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/dfl-excerpt.pdf)

15. Astrid von Schlachta, “Robert Friedmann—Searching for the Meaning of Faith for the World,” in Robert Friedmann, Hutterite Studies: Celebrating the Life and Work of an Anabaptist Scholar. Ed. Harold S. Bender. 2nd Ed (MacGregor, Manitoba: Hutterian Brethren Book Centre, 2010).

16. Clarence Bauman, “Denck’s Spirituality,” in The Spiritual Legacy of Hans Denck: Interpretation and Translation of Key Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 44, note 139. I am grateful to Jamie Pitts for bring this to my attention.

Willi Peters (1940-2016), Siberian Mennonite Minister

William Yoder ( Gvardeysk/Moscow) and Dr. Lawrence Klippenstein (Winnipeg)


The Chortitza and Molotschna Mennonite settlements in New Russia became the so-called ”mother colonies” of all the subsequent settlements in New Russia (later Ukraine). Their total population by the end of WWI is said to have reached about 110,000. They spread out widely in Central and southern Russia and began to look elsewhere in the search for more land.

They did not begin to settle in western Siberia until 1897. The first to do so, as far as we know, was the J. J. Hildebrand family who moved to Omsk in that year. They founded an agricultural machinery business there. Families seeking land for farming then followed and to make a long story short, began to establish settlements westward from Omsk along both sides, north and south, of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and to the southeast somewhat in another cluster of villages that were at first oriented toward the old city of Barnaul, and then, settling east and south shifted their attention more to the much closer and newer city of Slavgorod located on a southward stretching spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway. A later expansion of these village settlements took some thousands of persons to an area on the north bank of the Amur River, around Blagoveschensk. A settlement at Pavlodar west of Slavgorod sprang up also.

Eventually, all these areas came under Soviet control also, but the villages of these larger communities remained relatively free of physical damage resulting from World War II. Hundreds of persons were forcibly resettled to northern prison and work camps during the war, with many dying there, and others managing to return to warmer southern communities. Some were reunited with their families on their return, with others were deprived of reunions.

In this process of resettling, many found themselves in Siberian and Central Asian new and former urban areas to attempt more permanent resettlement and community reorganization. One of the sites which acquired a large new congregation of Mennonites, with membership ultimately over four hundred was the city of Novosibirsk. Bernhard Sawatzky was an early pastor of this congregation in the 1970s. It belonged to the so-called kirchliche (lit. church) branch of the larger Soviet Mennonite body in the USSR.

Minister Willi Peters (1940-2016) Novosibirsk, Siberia

Right: Minister Willi Peters and his son Andrei with Ben Falk, MCC volunteer at Neudachino, Siberia (1993). Photo : Lawrence Klippenstein

Willi Peters was born in the Ukrainian Mennonite colony of Chortitza on April 30, 1940. Times were highly volatile, so Willi had little chance of growing up in Ukraine. After the massive German attack of June 22, 1941, an edict of the Supreme Soviet issued on August 28 that year decreed that all ethnic Germans in western USSR would be deported eastward away from the approaching Wehrmacht.

By 1942, the year after the German attack, Willi’s family found itself in Tayshet in Central Siberia. This city is a critical junction of the Trans-Siberian Railway 245 miles east of Krasnoyarsk. Willi’s father, Jakob, had been forced into the Trudarmee (forced labor camp) and consequently spent years as a logger in the forests of Tayshet region. However, the family was exceptionally fortunate in one respect: Jakob’s wife Maria, nee Toews, with their children, were allowed to live with him in Tayshet.

The family remained subject to the Soviet military regime ((kommandatura) until its dissolution in 1956. At that time the family was permitted to move southeast-ward to the industrial city of Angarsk, founded in 1948 near Irkutsk. It was there that young Willi received his education as an electrician. He remained an electrician for the rest of his life.

Willi’s future wife, Maria Gunther was also born in Chortitza in 1941. Her family was among the 313,000 Germans overtaken by the German army moving into the Soviet Union before they were evacuated eastward. Maria, along with her brothers and sisters then fled westward along with the Wehrmacht now retreating, in 1943-44. Maria’s father disappeared during WWII and was never found.

According to the agreements at Yalta signed early in 1945, the USSR was permitted after the war to repatriate former citizens of the USSR from refugee camps in Western Europe. The 200,000 ethnic Germans forced to return eastward included Maria’s and siblings who had been waiting in a refugee camp in Yugoslavia. Maria’s mother was then forced to eke out a subsistence living for herself and her children working as a maid for military officers in Berdsk, south of Novosibirsk.

By the late 1950s, the Mennonites of Central Siberia knew the whereabouts of many members of their faith in the region. In the early 1960s, Willi Peters began a search for a spouse and ended up making repeated treks to Berdsk. Willi and Maria married in October of 1967; the couple immediately moved back east to Angarsk. Their three children were born there: Anna in 1967, Andrei (Heinrich) in 1970 and Katarina in 1974.

For Mennonites Angarsk had only house gatherings where they could worship, so the family chose to move to Berdsk in 1976. Almost immediately the Peters joined the large Mennonite congregation meeting in a renovated private house at Ulitsa Proyektnaya 13 on the western fringe of Novosibirsk. Here the minister at the time was Bernhard Sawatzky (savadskii). The congregation registered since 1967, had nearly four hundred members meeting in its chapel. The group was connected to forty smaller gatherings in Tomsk, Berdsk, Barnaul, and other sites throughout the region.

Church services in Novosibirsk took place on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Mennonite Brethren congregations were strong to the west of Omsk, but Novosibirsk was by far the largest gathering of kirchliche (lit. church) Mennonites in the area.

Willi first became involved in the congregation by singing bass in the Novosibirsk choir, with his son Andrei joining in 1983. After the choir director’s emigration westward in 1988, Jakob Dirksen succeeded him as leading minister, in Novosibirsk. However, the emigration to Germany had been in high gear since 1986, and Dirksen who already perched on packed suitcases accepted his new calling with reluctance. However, after Dirksen’s departure in early 1990, fifty-year-old Willi Peters was ordained and commissioned as the new leading minister in May. Since Willi had only begun preaching in 1986 and had not previously served as a minister, his appointment was not entirely without dissent.

Why did Willi and Maria not join the trek westward? “We saw staying as God’s calling,” Andrei explained briefly. “My parents were convinced that we had been called to remain here and serve others who had not left. We were not called to be where life was most comfortable, but where God wishes to use us.” Andrei believed that his father was called because of his wide acceptance as a convinced Christian. He thought it was easy for his father to get close to his people. He was a gifted counselor and knew how to converse with people. People felt the love of God in presence, Andrei pointed out.

Retired seminary professor Walter Sawatsky has noted that ninety percent of Russia’s Mennonites, roughly one hundred thousand persons, moved to Germany during the last great exodus. The movement was a nearly fatal blow for an ongoing Mennonite presence in Russia. Sawatsky added at the same time that immigrants to Germany formed numerous relief/mission agencies and church associations for Russia, which became the primary Mennonite support lasting until present times.

Sawatsky noted further that Mennonite church bodies in Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and MCC had long tried to walk alongside those who could not leave Russia. The Peters family had also served as a lightning rod drawing Mennonites who were seeking contact with brothers and sisters in Siberia.

Willi stopped working when his firm collapsed in 1990. After 1990, his family received support from family and church members who had left and settled in Bielefeld, Germany. He visited Germany several times after 1990. In January 1997, Willi made a most memorable trip when he and Nikolas Dueckman from the Evangelical /Mennonite Brethren congregation in Marianovka near Omsk, attended the Mennonite World Conference sessions in Calcutta, India.

When the Novosibirsk house caretaker moved to Germany in 2005, Willi, Maria, and Andrei had moved into the former church quarters. As of 2018 only daughter Katarina, who is single, remains in the family apartment in Berdsk. Anna and her two children have also moved from Berdsk to the Novosibirsk church home.

The end began to arrive for Willi when he suffered his first stroke. His son, Andrei, had been assisting him pastorally since 1997 and was consequently ordained as a second minister on September 29, 2000. Two additional strokes and a heart attack followed. Willi became less and less able to fulfill his ministerial duties. He continued to meet people in a friendly manner as he was able but passed away quite unexpectedly on April 20, 2016. After his funeral in Novosibirsk two days later, he was buried in Berdsk where his parents were also interred.

Through deaths and emigration, kirchliche Mennonite ministries have shrunk considerably in Siberia since 1990. Andrei continues to serve as leading pastor in the local congregation at Novosibirsk, also attempting at the same time to maintain with other smaller groups in Artyemsk, Barnaul, Grishevka, and Orsnyak.

The even smaller group in Neudachino lost its leading pastor, Gerhard Neufeld, when that entire family of two dozen or more persons moved to Germany also. This group remains independent, having virtually no contact with the Novosibirsk congregation, officially, and also does not relate significantly to the local Evangelical/Mennonite Brethren congregation. The sermons of the kirchliche remaining small group are read from a book by a member of the congregation.

That the entire Peters family should remain in Russia to carry on its life together and maintain their mission as found possible, is a very rare phenomenon. Willi’s sister (a second Maria Peters) and Maria’s sister, Anna Gunther, now reside in Bielefeld. A kirchliche Mennonite mission outreach ministry, directed from Bielefeld, remains active in the Orenburg area of the Urals region. Willi Peters’ devotion to his church, his Christian integrity, and sense of duty in good times and bad, and periods of illness and adversity, his refusal to abandon a Mennonite remnant of believers, remain the lasting testimony of his life.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2019 issue of the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta Chronicle. Learn about their work at mennonitehistory.org


Harms, Wilmer A., ed. The Odyssey of Escapes from Russia: The Saga of Anna K (Hillsboro: KS , Hearth Publishing, 1998).

Klippenstein, Lawrence. A series of articles on Mennonites in Siberia in Mennonitische Post, 2011- 2013, Steinbach, Manitoba.

…… “The kirchliche Mennonites in the USSR,” Mennonite Historian, Vol. V. December, 1979, 1-2, and Vol. VI, March, 1980, 2-3.

Rahn, Peter, Mennoniten in der Umgebung von Omsk (Vancouver, B.C.: by the author, 1975).

Savin, A.I. and Paul Toews, comp. and ed. Ethno-Confession in the Soviet State. Mennonites in Siberia, 1920 – 1989. Annotated List of Archival Docunents. Translated by Olga Shmakina and Liudmyla Kariaka (Moscow and Fresno: Russian Academy of Sciences and Center for MB Studies, 2008).

Sawatsky, Walter, “From Russian to Soviet Mennonites,” in John Friesen, ed., Mennonites in Russia.1788-1988. Essays in Honour of Gerhard Lohrenz (Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1989), 299-339.

Yoder, William, News releases from Moscow for the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ca. 2000-2019. See especially release of news dated November 14, 2018.

Clarke E. Hess (1954-2018)

Editor’s note: The following memorial for Clarke Hess by Carolyn Wenger—currently museum curator and archivist at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, which she directed from 1976 to 2001—is excerpted from a tribute she gave at his funeral. Hess was heavily involved in Lancaster Mennonite history, with a special emphasis on material culture, as expressed in Mennonite Arts, published in 2002. He passed away from complications from ALS on November 7, 2018.

Carolyn C. Wenger

A bit over four years ago, as it became apparent that Clarke’s physical ability to participate in Historical Society activities was declining, I was asked by the board to write a tribute, which I read to him at a board dinner in his honor. A short time later (April 6, 2014) it was also read to him at our more public Annual Banquet. I want to share that, now, with you.

*  *  *  *  *  *

While still in high school, Clarke was already researching in the Society library on a regular basis, having become passionate about history from his grade-school years on up. At a young age he developed an exceptional feel for what had enduring value. In 1981, as a twenty-six-year-old, he joined the LMHS board and served thirty years, until limited by new term rules. On board meeting nights his sunny-yellow Sting Ray sat in the parking lot, along with the more subdued colors and models of other, older board members. But that was OK. That was Clarke’s car.

In his gentle unassuming manner, he cultivated friendships and amazingly educated himself through association with a wide array of collectors, educators, and curators—always listening, learning, documenting objects, and winning people’s confidence. He even taught himself to read old German-script handwriting. He went far beyond what many historians have done with academic degrees.

He served on the Society’s Genealogy Committee for decades, helping to oversee the successful family history conference. For the annual fundraiser, the outdoor Bookworm Frolic, he and his family partnership at Hess Homebuilders and Precision Wall &Truss provided valued support in the form of loaned lumber and suggested the use of trestles instead of earlier hay bales for tables. Clarke provided the table layout for the event. He also wrote a variety of historical and genealogical articles for Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage.

Through his own contributions and personal contacts, he helped acquire some of the Society’s most valuable artifacts, which have been exhibited at the Society, loaned for other museum exhibits, pictured in books, and reproduced for sale. I specifically remember a Farmersville auction in the 1980s that we both attended. My heart was pounding as he sat beside me, encouraging me to keep bidding, knowing that we would have to solicit donations to cover the cost. Until that point I had never spent so much money at one time, that the Society or I did not have. Even though several board members were unhappy with me, time proved the purchases to be wise—in fact, a chance of a lifetime.

As chair of our Museum Committee, he gave valued leadership to collection-development and exhibit policies. He also led historical field trips for the Society and presented lectures or seminars as part of the educational program. He served on the Society’s 1992 Building Committee, when expansion became necessary, and as his pet project oversaw the documentation, moving, and installation of the nearby Landis Cabin log wall in our museum, along with reconstruction of the fireplace.

As the Society was still educating itself and its constituency about the educational role of a museum and had completed the initial process of restoring the 1719 Herr House, he joined its Administrative Committee and helped to develop that site and its policies. He also influenced the decision to correct the initial roof restoration to provide a front overhang to the house as it is now.

With his book, Mennonite Arts, his multiple liaisons with other area cultural institutions, and his photographic memory, he helped—more than any other one person—to educate the church and the public about Mennonite material culture. He restored his 1744 Hess ancestral homestead and made it into a first-rate Mennonite museum, which he willingly shared with friends and the public.

Among all of his activities and accomplishments outside the realm of the Society—and I certainly cannot name them all—were curating a historical exhibit comparing Mennonite arts in Ontario and Pennsylvania. He has been associated locally with the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, Landis Valley Museum, the former Heritage Center, the Lancaster County Historical Society, and care of the historic Hans Hess Cemetery. He served as a board member of the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley in Ephrata, where he curated an exhibit on, of all things, privy bags. He also actively helped to rescue and restore the Stoner House with the Manheim Township Historical Society. In addition, as a dealer in antiques and with Lee’s technical help, he wrote an internet blog on Mennonite material culture and events and maintained a website on Lititz area farmsteads.

Clarke, we love you and look forward to your continued involvement with us as you are able. As a brother in the Mennonite faith community, we recognize the unique place you have filled and continue to fill among us. We are deeply grateful that you have dedicated your years of study, collecting, documenting, and educating to raise historical awareness among the public, but especially among your Mennonite family—past, present, and future. Thank you!

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As a recipient of God’s love, Clarke reflected this love to others through unselfish sharing of his artifacts and their beauty with persons he knew to be related to the items, with visitors to his home, and with neighboring museums. For him, artifacts served as symbols beyond themselves of a larger reality of time, place, and context. They also connected him with an extended Mennonite family and faith tradition—a heritage past, present, and future.

As we wondered why in God’s providence ALS should be permitted to afflict such a caring, devoted, and knowledgeable individual, he nevertheless inspired visitors with his patient, uncomplaining acceptance of his lot and his always-cheerful disposition. This was his unfailing witness to us, his friends and family, as he lived out his faith.

Clarke followed his calling as long as he was able—to the final click of his computer mouse, and he left us on the most beautiful day of the year. Grateful that we had him as long as we did, and yet not wanting to prolong his struggle with the courageous process of living, we surrender him to God’s all-wise timing, knowing that a part of each of us dies with him in this life. Yet, we have the blessed hope that now his quests are fulfilled and that the veil of this life, through which we see darkly, has for him been removed so that all is now light, truth, and new life.