The Radical Mennonite Union

Down with Fat-Cat Christianity
Obscenity is stuffing yourself and your garbage can while watching
with quiet glee as ‘our Boys’ burn rice paddies in Vietnam,
Happiness is smashing the state
Before change, understanding; before understanding, confrontation.
Anabaptists have a persecution complex, or is it prosecution complex?
A New Christianity for a New Religious Age
God is alive; Magic is Afoot
“Welcome to you who read me today. Welcome to you who put my heart down. Welcome to you, darling and friend, who miss me forever in your trip to the end.”

Cohen1

A few years ago, while researching the history of Mennonite involvement in labour unions for my book NOT Talking Union, I came across a file at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario labelled “Radical Mennonite Union.”2 Sadly, the Radical Mennonite Union was not actually a labour union. But it was such an interesting entity that I was compelled to do further research. That research was published as the final chapter in an edited volume titled Entangling Migration.

Surprisingly, Braun saw my Entangling Migration chapter and contacted me, inviting me to conduct oral history interviews with him at his current residence in Oregon, and to accept his personal papers for archival deposit. Though Braun has revised his understanding of the significance of his past activism, the Radical Mennonite Union offers an insight into the diversity of belief in the post-1970 North American Mennonite community. Braun’s story is a reminder that even “conservative” religious groups have radicals among them, that the failure of communities to embrace those radicals sometimes leads to their disaffection, and that what was once radical can become mainstream.

The Radical Mennonite Union (RMU) was a university student group led by John Braun, a Simon Fraser University student from Abbotsford, British Columbia. Braun founded the RMU in 1968, influenced by the Vietnam War draft resistance movement, the Students for a Democratic University (SDU) at SFU, and the SDU’s subsequent occupation of an SFU administration building in 1968. Braun produced what he now describes as “the most ill-tempered thing ever written”:3 the RMU Manifesto. The Manifesto’s purported goal was to unite the ideals of the New Left with those of Anabaptism.

Copies of the Manifesto rapidly spread throughout North America, reproduced in various underground student newspapers and distributed by mail to various professors, leftist students, communes, and intentional communities. The Radical Mennonite Union, a group of some two dozen people in British Columbia committed to the content of the Manifesto, undertook various activities in an attempt to radicalize young Mennonites and, by extension, the church. In 1972, Braun even secured a Canada Council grant for this purpose, renting a van to drive across Canada and meet with other young Mennonite dissidents to discuss the potential for radicalizing the Mennonite church.4

The RMU Manifesto focused on four key issues in Mennonite theology and society: Mennonites’ failure to engage with political and social issues; undemocratic practices within the Mennonite church; the failures of Mennonite schools and colleges; and Mennonites’ general conservatism. The Manifesto’s radicalism lies both in its content and its forms of expression: Mennonite church members, for example, are described as “passive, docile idiots… human near-vegetables incapable of facing life with any kind of honesty.”5 The Mennonite church is accused of promoting a “rigid theology and outdated social mores” as well as supporting “the status quo in the political sphere.” Nonetheless, the church itself is not rejected, but instead is called to radically transform itself. Examples of such transformation are offered, including active support of war resisters, the promotion of “free and open discussion of all theology, doctrines, rules, etc.,” and the equal treatment of women. Mennonite schools (secondary and post-secondary) are called to a similar radical transformation. But the transformation was to extend beyond the walls of the churches and schools, and into the broader, non-Mennonite society, since “to honestly follow Christ in this day is to make the social revolution.”

In retrospect, Braun believes that his formation of the Radical Mennonite Union was somewhat disingenuous. He wanted to “build up credibility as a radical on campus more so than actually try to change anything in the Mennonite world, which is pretty impossible.”6 And yet he fairly quickly experienced disillusionment with the New Left as it degenerated into sectarianism and (in some instances) violence. The legacy of the Radical Mennonite Union, for him today, is the “need to work to make the world a better place for the less fortunate.”7 His politics when he was an SFU student were “revolutionary and theatrical.” Now, he believes that “politics can’t be a matter of pure ideas” but must be a “matter of real solutions to real problems.”

Braun’s story reveals that Mennonitism is neither static nor cohesive, and that what was once radical can become mainstream. Braun’s ideas regarding the Mennonite church in the 1960s and 1970s, as outlined in his Manifesto (and his subsequent Confession of Faith), were no longer radical by the turn of the millennium. Much of that for which he had agitated has been embraced by the denominations of both the Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren Church: acceptance of war resistance, greater involvement of women in decision-making within the church, relaxation of prohibitions on lifestyle choices like smoking or movie theatre attendance, greater understanding of the role of colonialism in Canadian society, and even cooperation with non-Christians in social protests (such as the Women’s March).


  1. John Braun, “A Confession of Faith,” 32, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON. The final three sentences are a quotation from Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers.
  2. John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  3. John Braun, interview by Janis Thiessen, McMinnville OR, 14 June 2016, audio recording, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  4. I presented a paper about this at the A People of Diversity: Mennonites in Canada Since 1970 conference in Winnipeg in 2018, and published an expanded version of that talk and this blog post as “John Braun and the Radical Mennonite Union,” Journal of Mennonite Studies37 (2019): 119-32.
  5. John Braun, “Manifesto of the Radical Mennonite Union,” typescript, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  6. John Braun, interview by Janis Thiessen, McMinnville OR, 14 June 2016, audio recording, John Braun fonds, Hist. Mss. 1.156 (s.c.), Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Waterloo ON.
  7. Ibid.

Reflections on Selective Immigration and Questions of Belonging

There is a strange thing about academia, namely, that once a book or article is published, one’s research has often moved to other topics. My research remains related to larger questions involved in my book about Mennonites and Mormons in Mexico, such as the relative power or weakness of the nation-state, and how and why a nation-state might include or exclude various minority groups, but no longer focuses on a group of people related to the topic of Anabaptism. More importantly, for the purposes of this short post, none of my recent research would help me write a post for this blog.

Then, last week, I received an invitation to speak about the work that led me to this blog in the first place, and I am reminded that while Mennonites are not the largest or most important group in Mexico (my area of study) let alone anywhere else, the questions that came up in my research for Liminal Sovereignty, remain relevant. The country where I live (the USA), the country I’m from (Canada), and the country I study (Mexico) are all trying to regulate who gets to come in.

I am particularly struck by the commonalities between my own experience as an immigrant to the United States, and those of early Mennonite immigrants to Mexico. I moved to the US for a job, and my current employer was willing to sponsor me to become a permanent resident. This process – which is inaccessible to millions of undocumented immigrants, and incredibly lengthy for people who immigrate for the purposes of family reunification – was remarkably easy for me. My employer has an office to do most of the work, to coach me for my interview, to make sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed. I also am white, middle class, educated and speak English in a way that makes people immediately realize these things about me.

I think again about the Low German Mennonites who migrated to Mexico. They also had “brokers” who dealt with the Mexican government to negotiate their initial immigration and “brokers,” like David Redekop, who could assist them with their dealings with Mexican officials once they arrived. I still wonder, though, how with all the troubles that these people face how they went about creating a new life, how they went about trying to understand the ways that Mexican agrarian reform would affect them, and how, in more recent years, their lives would be changed by drug trafficking.

All this wondering is because I want to understand who these people were, what they were doing, and why. Sometimes, the way the past resonates with our lives today can give us some indications.

Language Shift among Weaverland Conference Mennonites

In a post to this blog last year I discussed the use of Pennsylvania Dutch among Weaverland Conference Mennonites (also known as Horning or Black-bumper Mennonites). Although they are closely connected to the Groffdale Conference (Wenger or Team Mennonites), with whom they share an Old Order affiliation since 1927, when the two conferences divided over the use of the automobile, the less tradition-minded Weaverland Conference has seen a shift away from the use of German in worship in favor of English.

In many Weaverland families, active use of Pennsylvania Dutch as an everyday language continues today, however there, too, the shift to English is evident. For their part, Groffdale Conference Mennonites maintain both German in church and Pennsylvania Dutch as a community language. The gradual transition from German/Pennsylvania Dutch to English within the Weaverland Conference parallels the experience of the Beachy Amish, whose split from their Old Order brethren also dates to 1927. Use of English in worship has become the norm in Beachy congregations and proficiency in Pennsylvania Dutch has declined among younger members.

An astute witness of the changing language situation among traditional Mennonites is the historian Amos B. Hoover, who together with his wife Nora founded Muddy Creek Farm Library on their farm near Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in 1956. This library is a leading repository of documents related to the history of traditional Anabaptists. As a Weaverland Conference member who was born in 1933, Hoover has had a unique vantage point from which he has observed and written about numerous changes in the life of his church and related groups.

The language question has been of special interest to Hoover. Recently, he has written a fascinating volume that complements wonderfully the scholarship on Anabaptists and their languages. Titled German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage (Ephrata, Pa.: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018), Hoover’s book is a rich compendium of primary and secondary resources he has gathered over decades, many of which have not been easily accessible to researchers. Just as important as the documentary material Hoover shares is his analysis of the language trends he has observed. In this way Hoover combines an insider’s perspective with scholarly objectivity, making this an invaluable resource for a range of readers.

The subtitle of the book is “Struggles with Language Change among Mennonites,” which points to the fact that the shift from German/Pennsylvania Dutch to English has not been one universally welcomed among Hoover’s brethren. As Mennonites in this country and Canada have felt the pull of modernity, different opinions on the continued use of German have emerged. Among those groups who sought formal training for their ministers, pursued mission work, and desired to sponsor Sunday schools for their children, the shift to English made sense. Most Old Orders, however, who have preferred to hold the line on these and other changes, are committed to “keeping Dutch.” Interestingly, Hoover himself views the shift to English with regret. As he comments on p. 247 of his book, “… our losses have been great by tossing our native tongue.”

Hoover begins his book with an introductory essay in which he presents six theses about language based on his experience and supported by the documentation in the chapters that follow. I will paraphrase these six theses, which are given on page 15.

  1. Most Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups have successfully maintained some form of German since their arrival in America nearly three centuries ago.
  2. Language is a central part of the religious expression of Old Orders (and certainly many other people of faith as well), therefore the choice of which specific language a group uses will have spiritual implications. Hoover sees the preference of English over German in hymnody (or vice versa) as an especially important example in this regard.
  3. The increasing importance of English as a language of literacy has “opened the door to mainstream Protestant theology.”
  4. Bi- or multilingualism is a good thing for anyone, but brings special benefits to Christians by making multiple translations of Scripture accessible.
  5. Whenever North American Mennonites have experienced divisions over the past nearly two centuries, language has played at least some role, if not the central one.
  6. As a practical matter, knowledge of German (including the old typeface and handwritten script) and Pennsylvania Dutch is important for researchers to be able to engage with many primary historical documents.

Hoover’s book is divided into eight parts. The three main sections of the book, part II “Personal Interviews, and Observations on Language Related Issues,” (35–137); part III “Language Issues Mentioned in Previously Unpublished Documents,” (141–165); and part IV “Language Issues Mentioned in Previously Published Sources,” 169–241), are framed by two essays by Hoover, “Introduction to Language Transition among Mennonites” (15–28) and “The Author’s Summary on PA German” (247–252). The book concludes with brief “Biographical Sketches of Contributors to this Study” (253–275), a list of language-related materials held in the Muddy Creek Farm Library (277­–282), and an index (283–311).

I will share a few gems from part II, which is essentially a journal assembled by Hoover that includes hundreds of entries describing community events and conversations related to language use that he either observed or participated in between 1959 and 2017. One theme that recurs in many of these conversations is the linkage of the preference of English over German with the sin of pride. One illustrative quote is attributed to Bishop Joseph O. Wenger (1868–1956), who led the Groffdale Conference at the time of the 1927 division. (In Pennsylvania Dutch, Groffdale Mennonites are referred to this day as Tscho Wenger ‘Joe Wengers’.) Documenting a conversation that he had with a contemporary of Wenger, David K. Martin (1915–2012), in 1975, Hoover shares the following (p. 59):

[Q]uoting Joe Wenger in Zeigness [commentary after an Old Order sermon]: “Sis nau so weit as es englisch Singes rei komme is an die Singings, aber die Junge sette doch jo net Stimmig singe. Sis nix letz mit die englisch Sproche. Es scheint aber won d[ie] Deutsche leit mohl englisch warre welle, dann dutt der Hochmut sich ei stelle.”

This is such a classic statement and quote of Joe Wenger, that I also write it in English. It is undated but early in the 1920s. This is based on the fact that the singing schools were restarted in 1920 and there was a sentiment among some people that we need to do something for the young people even if they sing some English: “It has now changed to the point that English singing came into use at the young people’s singings, but youth should not sing four-part harmony. There is really no problem with the [English] language, but it appears that when German people make an effort to become English then pride is getting a foothold.”

The connection between the use of English and pride (Hochmut) is a strong one for many tradition-minded Mennonites. In a conversation from 1976 that Hoover records, his interlocutor, Minister Wesley P. Martin (1898–1985), shared the following (pp. 60–61):

We always preached in German. In 1917, we elected a minister and my father Bishop Joseph Martin preached the qualification sermon and he cautioned the congregation that perhaps in this day and age the time is here that we should choose a minister that can preach some English. When he was through old Elias (Eli) Hornberger got up and testified, “Des English predige is nix weder hochmut.” [This English preaching is nothing but arrogance.] They got a real Dutchman too. It was Davy Hornberger.

Other comments linking language use to Scripture are especially interesting. Hoover quotes a conversation he had with a Weaverland Conference minister, Lester B. Martin (b. 1936), in 1978, in which speaking English with a “Dutchy” accent, which is regularly stigmatized, may not be such a bad thing (p. 69):

We should not be ashamed of our [English] language if it contains a PA Dutch accent, and if we cannot speak “as the world.” This may be as a “thorn in the flesh” or even as a means of saving our souls as Peter’s Galilean accent did when he was told “thy speech betrayeth thee,” thus Peter repented.

Indeed, other brethren with whom Hoover spoke extended the equation of the use of English with pride by connecting maintenance of German/Pennsylvania Dutch with the cardinal virtue of Old Order life, humility (Demut). As Hoover recalls from a conversation with another Weaverland Conference minister, Luke N. Good (1928–2015), in 1973 (pp. 52, 54):

Ich mehn es Deutsch es mir hen is ken g’schrivene sproch awwer is genunk für helfe uns zammenhalte. Gott hut die sproche verwechselt un es hut gedient zum gute, nau vielleicht sette mir net schaffe für en unified sproch. Ich denk als oft, glei as ich bei die gmeh war hut en alte fraa grote, “D[ie] schul kinner sette aa wenig lerne ihr kreitz drage, mit die gleder dracht” un ich mehn aa so mit die sproch. Sis gut won sie wenig verschpot warre.” [I believe though the German we have is not a written language, yet it is enough to help keep us together (as a people). God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose, now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.]

The interpretation of the confusion of tongues after the fall of the Tower of Babel as offering a reminder of the importance of humility, with multilingualism as its tangible expression, is a profound one.

Amos B. Hoover’s contributions to the documentation of Old Order history are many, as German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage attests.

Archive Spotlight: The Thomas A. and Katherine (Gingrich) Brady Collection

This past semester I had the privilege of spending a few months looking through a new collection donated to the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, housed in the Milton Good Library at Conrad Grebel University College. The collection is a gift from Thomas A. Brady Jr. and Katherine Gingrich Brady. Thomas Brady, the Sather Professor Emeritus of History at UC Berkeley and his wife Katherine, an expert paleographer, have spent decades studying the history of the Reformation(s) in Strasbourg and Reformation-era politics more broadly.1 During that time, they gathered a wealth of early modern primary sources on microfilm, which they have now donated to Conrad Grebel University College. The collection promises to be a great resource for scholars interested in the late medieval/early modern history of Strasbourg and politics in the Reformation era.

The Grande-Ile, the heart of Strasbourg’s old town, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. Many of the buildings first erected in the medieval and early modern periods are still standing there today. Photo by the author.

The city of Strasbourg is of particular interest to scholars of early Anabaptist history, both for the number and diversity of Anabaptists it attracted and the relatively mild punishments Anabaptists and other religious dissenters faced there. While Strasbourg’s Anabaptists alone numbered as many as 2000 in 1530—a substantial minority of the city’s population—only two Reformation-era non-conformists received a death sentence from Strasbourg’s magistrates: Claus Frey, who practiced bigamy, and Thomas Salzmann, who called Christ an imposter.2 As the spiritualist chronicler Sebastian Franck put it, “he whom one hangs elsewhere, one drives out of Strasbourg with rods.”3 While some scholars have attributed Strasbourg’s relative tolerance for dissent to the irenicism of its reformers—and Martin Bucer, Wolfgang Capito, and Mathis Zell were certainly less quick to burn bridges than many of their contemporaries—Brady has argued convincingly that the primary impetus for toleration came from Strasbourg’s magistrates, who sought peace and order more than they sought conformity.4 While few of the documents in the collection deal directly with Anabaptists, the primary sources the Bradys donated shed light on the inner workings of Strasbourg politics and the history of the city leading up to and during the Reformation era, all of which helps to illuminate the context in which so many sixteenth-century Anabaptists managed to survive and even thrive to some extent.

The majority of the microfilms in the collection contain copies of documents housed in the Archives de la ville et de l’Eurométropole de Strasbourg (the Strasbourg municipal archives, which also house the Archives de St. Thomas, dedicated to Strasbourg church history), the Archives départementales du Bas-Rhin (the regional archives for the Lower Rhine), and the Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg (the Strasbourg university library, which houses a substantial collection of premodern manuscripts and rare books). Other microfilms include copies of documents from a number of other European and North American libraries and archives, including the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, the Weimar Staatsarchiv, the Danish Royal Library, the Newberry Library, and the Harvard University Library. The contents of these documents include multiple late medieval and early modern chronicles of Strasbourg history, large amounts of sixteenth-century correspondence from Strasbourg’s Reformation-era political and religious leaders (including the entire Thesaurus Baumianus, a collection of nineteenth-century copies of the Strasbourg reformers’ correspondence), sixteenth-century notes from Strasbourg Senate meetings (particularly focused on the years of the Schmalkaldic War), and many other treasures. For scholars interested in Reformation-era religion and politics, the collection promises to yield the raw material for several fascinating projects.


  1. Among Professor Brady’s best-known books are Ruling Class, Regime, and Reformation at Strasbourg, 1520-1555 (Leiden: Brill, 1978), Protestant Politics: Jacob Sturm (1489-1553) and the German Reformation (Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1995), and German Histories in the Age of Reformations, 1400-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  2. John David Derksen, From radicals to survivors: Strasbourg’s religious nonconformists over two generations, 1525-1570 (Goy-Houten, Netherlands: Hes & de Graaf Pub., 2002), 53; Camill Gerbert, Geschichte der Strassburger Sectenbewegung zur Zeit der Reformation, 1524-1534 (Strasbourg: Heitz & Mundel, 1889), ix.
  3. Cited in Bodo Brinkman and Berthold Hinz, Hexenlust und Sündenfall: Die Seltsamen Phantasien des Hans Baldung Grien (Petersberg: Imhof, 2007), 181.
  4. Brady, Ruling Class, 247n43.

Willi Peters (1940-2016), Siberian Mennonite Minister

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

Introduction

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


Resources:

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.

Early Modern Anabaptists: Syllabus Draft

This fall I’m teaching HIST 348: The Radical Reformation at Conrad Grebel University College. Given how much I’ve benefited from other instructors’ pedagogical transparency, in this post I’m sharing an early draft of the syllabus. As I describe here, the status of the “Radical Reformation” as a recognizable historical phenomenon and framework for research is a matter of current discussion. I intend to involve students in this debate in class, but have decided to center the course itself on early modern Anabaptists and Anabaptism. The course is twelve weeks long, and students meet twice a week for eighty minutes. The content and structure of the course reflects my intent to help students both master the subject matter and engage in tasks of historical investigation and interpretation. I welcome comments and suggestions. 

Expected Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Identify questions that animate the scholarly study of early modern Anabaptism and pose their own
  • Assess the impact of context on the content of primary source evidence
  • Critically evaluate and compare the content of other historians’ written argumentation
  • Synthesize evidence from various sources of information about the past to produce a historical argument
  • Communicate original and persuasive historical interpretations in oral, written, and visual form

Assignments

Class Participation (15%)

Writing Assignments: Historiographical Workshops (20% each)

1. Secondary source scavenger hunt and analysis (1000 words)

Students will select two articles from the assigned essay collections (see course schedule below). They will identify the following elements related to the mechanics of scholarly writing: the author’s field and affiliation; the volume’s intended audience; the essay’s argument; the location and scope of the article’s literature review; and three pieces of primary source evidence. The analytical portion of their essay will address the authors’ approaches to the question of “radicality” in relation to their historical subjects. 

2. Primary source analysis (1000 words)

Students will select a pair of primary sources with a theological focus from distinct regions, time periods, or Anabaptist writers/groups (I will provide a list of source pairings). In their essays, students will (1) contextualize the sources, (2) describe their contents, and (3) formulate a conclusion about Anabaptist theological commonalities and differences, using chapter eight from Snyder (1997) as a framework for comparison.

3. Additional syllabus unit (3 pages)

Students will create an additional unit for the course syllabus, which includes a topic/theme, lecture/activity outlines, and reading(s). The scholarship on which this unit is based will have been published in the last ten years. Students will include a one-page reflection in which they explain their choices. 

Final: Timeline JS Assignment (25%)

Students will select a course topic (theme, theological position, or Anabaptist group or figure) and create a visual representation of 10-12 related historical developments using the open source tool Timeline JS. In addition, they will submit a three-page essay in which they explain the significance of the events they have selected and explore the interpretive implications of their work. The purpose of this summative exercise is to lead students to make an argument about the meaning of continuity and/or change over time in relation to the historical subject they have selected. 

Course Texts

  • C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (1997)
  • Other readings listed in course schedule below

Course Schedule

I. Origins

1. Introduction

  • Sept. 5 – Presentation of course themes

2. Context

  • Sept. 10 – Late Medieval European Religion
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapters 1 and 2
  • Sept. 12 – The Reformation, 1517-1525
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 3, 4, and 5

3. Polygenesis

  • Sept. 17 – Origin Stories: South
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 6 and 7
  • Sept. 19 – Origin Stories: North
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 11

4. Spread and Development

  • Sept. 24 – Persecution, Migration, and Missions
    • Reading: Martin Rothkegel, “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 85, no. 1 (2011): 7-36
  • Sept. 26 – Conversion
    • Reading: “Hans Fischer Responds to Questioning (1548),” in C. Arnold Snyder (ed.), Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists, 1529-1592 (2017), 57-67.

5. Historiographical Workshop #1: A “Radical Reformation”?

  • Oct. 1 – Definitions of Reformation Radicalism
    • Readings: student selections from Bridget Heal and Anorthe Kremers (eds.), Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform (2017) and James M. Stayer and John D. Roth (eds.), A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism (2007)
  • Oct. 3 – Conversation with Invited Guest

II. Anabaptist Religious Cultures

6. Authority and Gender

  • Oct. 8 – Scripture, Prophesy, and Communal Practice and Belief
    • Readings: “Margret Hottinger of Zollikon” and “Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock of Strasbourg,” in C. Arnold Snyder and Linda A. Huebert Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women (1996), 43-53 and 273-87
  • Oct. 10 – Courtship and Marriage
    • Lyndal Roper, “Sexual Utopianism in the German Reformation,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 42, no. 3 (1991): 394-418
  • Oct. 22 – Münster

7. Communication

  • Oct. 24 – Orality and the Written Word
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 9 

8. Historiographical Workshop #2: “Anabaptist Theological Divergences and Commonalities”

  • Oct. 29 – A Common Anabaptist Theological Core?
    • Readings: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, chapter 8; selected primary source pairings
  • Oct. 31 – Conversation with Invited Guest

9. Anabaptist Minorities in Conflict and Coexistence

  • Nov. 5 – Swiss Brethren
    • Reading: “Strasbourg Discipline,” in Snyder (ed.), Later Writings, 92-99
  • Nov. 7 – Dutch Mennonites
    • Reading: Piet Visser, “Mennonites and Doopsgezinden in the Netherlands, 1535-1700,” in Stayer and Roth, 299-345

10. Identity Formation

  • Nov. 12 – Hymns and Martyr Stories
    • Readings: Ausbund, number 17; Erin Lambert, “Friction in the Archives: Storytelling in Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 41, no. 2 (2018): 113-138
  • Nov. 14 – Transnational Disputes and Convergences
    • Reading: Troy Osborne,  “The Development of a Transnational ‘Mennonite’ Identity among Swiss Brethren and Dutch Doopsgezinden in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 88, no. 2 (2014): 195-218

III. Continuing Anabaptist Traditions

11. Historiographical Workshop #3: “New Directions”

  • Nov. 19 – A Short Historiography of Anabaptism
    • Reading: Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology, appendix
  • Nov. 21 – New Approaches
    • Readings: Mathilde Monge, “Research Note: Who Is in the ‘Society of Christian Brothers’? Anabaptist Identity in Sixteenth-Century Cologne,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 82, no. 3 (2008): 603-614; Kat Hill, Baptism, Brotherhood, and Belief in Reformation Germany: Anabaptism and Lutheranism, 1525-1585 (2015), chapters 5 and 6

12. Continuing Anabaptist Tradition

  • Nov. 26 – Genealogies: Visit to “Growing Family” Exhibition at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Conrad Grebel University College
  • Nov. 28 – Global Anabaptisms
    • Reading: Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (2014), chapter 5

On the Emden Kirchenrat, and Naming Anabaptists

An important set of sources for understanding Anabaptism in Emden are the Kirchenrat records, which were edited by Heinz Schilling in the 1980s. Though the Kirchenrat itself was established in 1544, the records did not begin for another decade due to the interruption of the Interim.1 Looking for inhabitants called before the consistory and labelled as some variation of “Täufer,” we can identify Reformed community members flirting with marginal beliefs and navigating life in Emden as it assumed its full height as a refugee city. These records begin after the rapid expansion of the city in the mid-1550s, following the influx of Dutch Calvinist refugees, and demonstrate a need to police the edges of the reformed community–precisely because there were a variety of nonconforming believers in the city.2

A few examples will give texture to this source. Johan van Bellen first appeared in the records on 15 November 1557. Subjected to instruction regarding his nonconforming beliefs, the “doepers” were identified as a source of these errors.3 Moreover, and incriminatingly, he had at least three unbaptized children. Van Bellen was something of a troublemaker; he recurred repeatedly in the records of the consistory, and was admonished for both his beliefs and actions.4 Though he was not always identified as holding Anabaptist sympathies, he was clearly an outsider – and he expressed this in a rare bit of direct speech: “So Menno Simons’ sect does not want me and you do not want me and the papists do not want me . . . ”5 Lacking any true institutional affiliations, he was brought before the consistory in an attempt to bring his religious and lifestyle choices under the aegis of a stabilizing authority.

It is important to note that the consistory differentiated between generalized “Anabaptists” and those Mennonites, Jorists and others who were identifiable as belonging to a particular nonconformist community. On 26 July 1557, we see concern that one Severin Koperslager belonged to what must have been a small but persistent community of Jorists.6 Because David Joris himself, or some of his followers, had taken to announcing the coming of the “third David” by the later 1540s, the accusation was that Severin “knew another savior.” Severin is thus forced to gainsay David Joris and denounce him as a “spirit of the devil.” Most interestingly, however, no mention is made of “Anabaptists” or baptism at all, suggesting some separation between a larger understanding of Anabaptism and these individual charismatic groups. There are two later references to suspected Jorists; one mentioned as a “Davidiorismo” in February of 1559, and one who may be a papist or a libertine or belong to the “David-Joris” group.7 Again, neither of these accusations accompany anything like a denunciation of Anabaptism, and suggest a separate category has formed for the purposes of communal discipline.

In March of 1559, the two groups arose in conversation during the same day of consistory testimony8 In a discussion about bookbinding and publishing, Cornelis Benninck mentioned the need to address Mennonite writing in Holland, while Adrianus de Kuper presented two pamphlets he wrote against “de wederdopers.” Though representatives of these groups were not present to defend themselves, the separation of one from another seems significant. That the consistory would attempt to limit Mennonite publishing or publish treatises against marginalized beliefs is not surprising, but the careful deployment of these contested categories seems significant for decision making within the Reformed church court system.

These few pieces of the Kirchenratsprotokolle, then, might be read as merely the continuation of an increasingly sophisticated deployment of terms. The church council both took up and further populated the categories which we have seen in the official correspondences of the 1530s and 1540s, and it is certainly worth further study to determine how discourses between secular and religious authorities intertwined during this period. Yet the development of these distinctive categories proved operational for the Emden Kirchenrat, who associated particular beliefs or behaviors with certain Anabaptist groups and treated suspected individuals accordingly. That the church council found these categories to be meaningfully different may reflect a more intimate knowledge of these groups, or perhaps an increasingly codified understanding of exactly who these groups contained and what these groups believed. The creation of categories became useable knowledge, and altered the lives of individual nonconformists when authorities began to differentiate rehabilitation and punishment accordingly.


  1. Heinz Schilling, “Einleitung” in Die Kirchenratsprotokolle der reformierten Gemeinde Emden 1557-1620, Vol. 1 (Vienna: Heinz Böhlau, 1989), xviii-xix. Hereafter KRP.
  2. A 2001 article by Samme Zijlstra examined some Anabaptists and spiritualists who came before the consistory, and focused on the theological differences that motivated conversions between members of the dominant Reformed church and these smaller, marginalized communities; Samme Zijlstra, “Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and the Reformed Church in East Frisia,” in Mennonite Quarterly Review (Jan. 2001, Vol 75:1), 57-73.
  3. KRP I:10.
  4. KRP I: 75, 80, 83, 115, 120, 126, 128.
  5. KRP I: 141.
  6. KRP I: 3.
  7. KRP I: 71; 125.
  8. KRP I: 78.