Mennonites and Empire

Every Mennonite in the small town of Goessel, Kansas knows the date 1874. It is emblazoned on the “Turkey Red Wheat Palace,” erected on the centennial of Mennonites’ migration to the Great Plains from Imperial Russia. Having spent the first years of my life in Goessel, I happen to take 1874 as a historical benchmark. When I recently was back in the area to give a talk on religion and race, I did some reading on the Kaw (or Kanza) people, for whom my home state is named. White settlement pushed the Kaws south into Oklahoma, where their Nation is located today. The story of the Kaws’ removal from Kansas seemed a bit darker for having occurred in 1873.1

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“Turkey Red Wheat Palace 1874-1974,” Goessel, Kansas.

There a common belief among the Mennonites with whom I grew up that our faith has a particular affinity with liberal democracy. This idea owes much to a still-influential 1942 essay, The Anabaptist Vision, by the churchman Harold Bender. “There can be no question,” Bender claimed, “but that the great principles of freedom of conscience, separation of church and state, and voluntarism in religion, so basic in American Protestantism and so essential to democracy, ultimately are derived from the Anabaptists of the Reformation period.”2

It would be hard to write a more misleading sentence about Mennonites. In the centuries prior to the Second World War, which was raging when The Anabaptist Vision appeared, the global Mennonite Church was by far a greater beneficiary and product of empire than of democracy. Bender wrote his landmark essay at a time when he and other peace church leaders were seeking to maintain alternative service options for conscientious objectors.3 Aligning Anabaptism with democracy made strategic sense at a time when the United States was at war with fascism.

But part of the context driving The Anabaptist Vision—Bender’s desire to ensure Mennonites’ exemption from military service—was itself a legacy of the Church’s long entanglement with imperial states. Beginning in the late sixteenth century, Mennonite communities found tolerance in European empires, often guaranteed in formal documents known as Privilegia. These enumerated special rights and duties available to Mennonites, including certain financial and judicial freedoms as well as non-participation in armed conflict.

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Mennonites immigrants from Imperial Russia in Goessel, Kansas, 1896. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

In the 1870s, when 18,000 Mennonites emigrated from the Russian Empire to Canada and the United States, they were largely responding to the institution—contrary to their Privilegium—of universal military conscription. While this has been remembered in places like Kansas as the dictate of an autocratic regime, nineteenth-century drafts were often democratizing events, intended to remove social inequalities by consistently mandating national service. Many Mennonites grasped this dynamic. In Germany, some offered to renounce voting rights to keep the old system.

What drew Mennonite migrants from European empires to North America in the 1870s was not an affinity for democracy, but a desire to settle in new, expanding imperial states. Indeed, some settlers explicitly identified democracy as a draw-back of coming to the United States. What they sought was cheap land, relative freedom from legal strictures, and state protection from indigenous Americans. Records show that some migrants fleeing military conscription were willing to use weapons against natives.4 Today, narratives of dangerous Indians still suffuse white Mennonite memory.

Scholars have recently engaged in ambitious efforts to retell Anabaptist history from beyond single nations. These accounts have made impressive use of “global” and “transnational” analysis. Indicative of the former is the wonderful Global Mennonite History Series, which outlines the story of the Church in five volumes: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. This series has shed key light on the world-wide reach of Anabaptism. But with the subject divided by continent, readers miss specificity regarding exactly how Mennonites globalized.5

The outstanding new history of Mennonites from a transnational perspective is Roy Loewen’s Village among Nations, about the hundreds of thousands of conservative Low German-speaking Mennonites scattered from Argentina to Canada. Loewen’s book stresses the separatism of these groups, explaining how they live in states “without pursuing either social or cultural citizenship in them.” For Loewen, “They were thus not Mexican Mennonites or Paraguayan Mennonites as much as Mexico Mennonites and Paraguay Mennonites, a subtle, but significant, difference.”6

But here, too, a transnational approach can elide exactly how these Mennonites have moved through the world—or what citizenship they did hold. The answer in many cases: British. This may seem surprising unless one considers Anabaptist history from an imperial standpoint. It was to the British Empire that most “Swiss” Mennonites moved when they came to colonial America. The founding of the United States led some to relocate to British Canada as “liberty’s exiles.”7 And across the twentieth century, British bureaucrats kept tabs on their Majesties’ Mennonite subjects.8

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Part of a letter to Australia from G.D. Klassen of Mexico, 1927. Source: National Archives of Australia, Canberra.

Why did migrants arrive at certain destinations? The archives of empire are revealing. In 1916, Mennonites in Imperial Russia, unhappy with restrictions imposed during the First World War, considered moving to the British dominion of South Africa. Holding affinity for the Afrikaans-speaking Boer settlers, some Mennonites described themselves as “Russian Boers.”9 Although South African officials ruled that “no obstacle will be placed in the way of these people,” war hindered migration.10 When it finally commenced in 1923, settlers went to the British dominion of Canada.

Australia, another dominion, was less accepting. Mennonites in North America approached Australia in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s, often responding to calls for white settlers. In 1927, G.D. Klassen of Mexico wrote to Australian officials after reading a propaganda pamphlet entitled “Australia: The Land of the Better Chance.” He inquired about the quality of available land, and whether Mennonites would be given military exemption and educational freedom. Klassen also wanted to know “if there are many niggers living in your Country.”11 Australian officials, however, consistently opposed group settlement.

Empire mattered. It seized land for settlement. It provided a global set of destinations. It enabled communication and transportation. It said yes, sometimes no. And it persisted. In the late 1950s, British Honduras (later renamed Belize) offered Mennonites a Privilegium and moved 1,700 individuals from Mexico.12 Empire also changed the ethnic and cultural composition of the Church. The first Mennonite mission fields were all located in colonies or territories opened by imperialism: the Dutch East Indies, Indian reservations in the American West, British India, China, and the Belgian Congo.13

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Mennonite missionaries—including my great-great-great uncle Peter Penner (center)—at a leper station in British India, ca. 1903. Source: Mennonite Library and Archives, North Newton, Kansas.

From the Reformation to today, Anabaptist history is inconceivable without robust consideration of empires and imperialism. Even those of us, like Harold Bender, who prefer to think of the Church as a bastion of democratic principles must come to terms with the deep imbrication of Anabaptism and imperialism. You, too, are shaped by empire. This may take on innumerable different forms—whether as someone who inhabits stolen land, or as someone whose own land was taken, or perhaps both. Acknowledging and reckoning with these histories is a task for us all.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University and the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.


  1. On the history of the Kaw Nation until 1873, see William Unrau, The Kansa Indians: A History of the Wind People, 1673-1873 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971). A brief history of Mennonite-Indian relations is available here
  2. On Bender and the Anabaptist Vision, see Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1998), 306-331. 
  3. On Mennonites’ navigation of the tensions between Christian pacifism and US nationalism in the mid-twentieth century, see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). 
  4. For example, John Gering, After Fifty Years: A Brief Discussion of the History and Activities of the Swiss-German Mennonites from Russia who Settled in South Dakota in 1874 (Freeman, SD: Pine Hill Printery), 1924, 42-43. 
  5. Consider the critique of “globalization” as a historical analytic in Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 91-112. For a full-length study of world history through an imperial lens, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). 
  6. Royden Loewen, Village among Nations: “Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916-2006 (Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 5. 
  7. This was part of a much larger exodus of British loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution. See Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Vintage Books, 2011). 
  8. For example, see correspondence regarding Mennonites of British citizenship in Mexico during the 1930s: FO 723/271, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom, hereafter TNA. 
  9. See James Urry, “Russian Mennonites and the Boers of South Africa: A Forgotten Connection,” Mennonite Historian 20, no. 3 (1994): 1-2, 9. 
  10. Acting Under Secretary for the Interior to Principle Immigration Officer, June 2, 1916, BNS 1/2/19 A629, National Archives and Records Service of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa. 
  11. G.D. Klassen to Development and Migration Commission, August 26, 1927, CP211/2 53/61, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, Australia. For an earlier discussion of possible Mennonite migration to Australia, see James Urry, “Bishop Bugnion, the Mennonites and Australia: The Immigration-That-Never-Was, 1873-1880,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 32 (2014): 175-209. 
  12. “Note on Mennonite Communities in British Honduras,” July 30, 1959, CO 1031/2769, TNA. 
  13. Here, too, colonial-era archives provide insight into the mechanics of missionary expansion. For example: “Grant of land to Revd. J.A. Ressler of the American Mennonite Mission at Dhamtari in the Raipur District, Central Provinces,” 1902, Revenue & Agriculture, Land Revenue, 39-40, National Archives of India, New Delhi, India.