Faith in Swiss Mennonite family life, yesterday and today

Author: Nelly Gerber-Geiser

'Für Spys und Trank, für d’s täglich Brot, mir danke dir, o Gott‘. (For health and strength, for daily food, we give thee thanks, oh God). The table is set. The extended family has gathered, ready to eat. It is Sunday, early November, 2013. Mealtime is an opportunity for grandparents to pass on an important tradition of the faith to their grandchildren. A song is sung as table grace, which, though not known to everyone present, is acknowledged respectfully. Some present have just come in from church, one grandchild from Sunday School. Sowing the seeds of faith, and tending to the seedlings: …that the coming generation might know them… and declare them to their children, that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments –  Psalm 78:6-7


Preparing Sunday

‘We can no longer read the Bible and hold devotions together. Everyone leaves the house at different times.’. Those were the words of a mother in the 1960s. She continued: ’Back on the farm when I was young, we would never even consider beginning the day without meeting for morning prayers. Every evening at least 12 of us met again to hear father read from the family Bible, and to pray. It was important to our parents to pass on their faith, at home, in school, and in church’.


’As the eldest of a large family I had to work hard preparing for Sundays, shining many pairs of shoes, laying out Sunday clothes, scrubbing floors, tidying the yard, bathing younger siblings in a large tub in the kitchen, and (finally) baking the Sunday cake. Saturday smelled of soap, floor wax, Zopf  (a braided loaf baked for Sundays), cake and soup. We wanted to have as much as possible prepared for Sunday, so that we’d have time to go to church (after dinner) and to meet with relatives and church friends. Almost every Sunday dinner included guests’.



Hospitality was important on Anabaptist farms, not only on Sundays. When peddlers or people in need knocked at the door, they were given a hearty meal, sometimes receiving food and lodging in exchange for work. These people were all welcomed at the dinner table and were included in family activities such as singing in four-part harmony around the harmonium.


Building and construction

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

Rooms for church service, prayer and fellowship

These days it is normal that churches have their own buildings. Rooms in which the congregational life happens. It is also normal to share these rooms. But the Mennonite history there were many different kinds of places where the congregation gathered. In times of prosecution they even met in secret in caves or under big old trees, in open fields or secretly church member's houses. Later the church gatherings were in ordinary buildings like farms, houses, inns, barns, and warehouses.

Mennonites in South Germany didn't develop a typical architecture, although you can find distinguishing marks in Mennonite assembly halls and prayer houses. They were developed because the places were defined by the theology, the worship practices and also by the economical and political limitations of each church. So all these places have one essential aim: The congregation gathers there to read God's word, to hear it, to teach it and to fill it with life.

So the church celebrates baptisms and the Holy Supper together, as well as eating meals together. Based on the size of the congregation opportunities to build or rent assembly halls tailored to individual wishes can occur. Some congregations in southern Germany have their own places (Ingolstadt/Regensburg). Others are rent out space in other churches (Augsburg/München).


Not holy places

So the rooms used are not ‘holy places’ in and off themselves, but they are still rooms where believers can serve God and each other. The relationships between church members influence the atmosphere of the premises and show the living relationship to God. Church services and meetings in the name of Christ contribute to the significance of our church rooms.


Hospitable places as a chance for open words

In 2013 we opened our rooms to pupils of the nearby school, because it was being renovated. For three weeks they were using our rooms and in this time many opportunities for dialogues occurred. Hospitality can be an opportunity to make Jesus' message of redemption be heard again.

The new open silhouette church of Witmarsum

Author: Gerke van Hiele

Next to the Menno Simons monument (1878) near Witmarsum, in 2008 an open silhouette church was built. It was initiated by the Frisian Mennonite Monuments Foundation (SDMF) and designed by Joute de Graaf. It shows the silhouette of 'Minne Siemens old meeting-house' which was demolished in 1879. The architect has taken good care not to build a replica of a secluded Mennonite church, but an open structure with space for light, rain and wind.



For many visitors this new silhouette church is an invitation to ponder the significance of the Anabaptist tradition. It is part of a meditative pilgrimage at the birthplace of Menno Simons. The starting-point of this route is the Koepelkerk in Witmarsum, the place where Menno left the Roman-Catholic Church and closed the door behind him, a moment which has become a crucial one, showing the Anabaptist tradition as a tradition of renewal. The next station is the old and hidden meeting-place of Pingjum. This building reflects a history of persecution and strife, leading to the Mennonites eventually becoming the 'quiet in the land'. The last station is this open and colourful silhouette church. Here one can sense the inspiration for the future direction of our communities. 


Past, presence and future

Witmarsum has finally become a proper place of pilgrimage. Before 2008 foreign tourists and pilgrims came to this place enthusiastically, but they tended to leave slightly disappointed. There was the Menno Simons monument, but now there is also this silhouette church which shows a clear profile of the Mennonite tradition and community. We may build carefully on Jesus' foundation, but we have to be careful how we build (1 Cor 3:11). It is our turn to live our personal and communal life both faithfully and authentically wherever we may be.


Anabaptist Characteristics

This  structure with its strong profile may also bring to mind all that we share. For example the Shared Convictions (MWC 2009), but also the characteristic elements of our tradition like baptism, discipleship and work for justice & peace. One could also think of the seven Practices of David Augsburger: radical attachment, stubborn loyalty, tenacious serenity, habitual humility, absolute nonviolence, concrete service, and authentic witness.


References: David Augsburger, Dissident discipleship, A spirituality of self-surrender, love of God and love of neighbor, (Grand Rapids 2006). F. Stark, E.J. Tillema (red.) Kracht van een minderheid (Zoetermeer 2011). G.J.J. van Hiele, ‘De zevensprong. Over doperse spiritualiteit’ in: Doopsgezinde Bijdragen DB 34 (2008), pp. 127-152.


Author: Svietlana Bobileva
Translator: Katerina Revunenko 

Catherine the Great invited the Mennonites to Russia to develop the new lands of the empire. Chose for being skillful farmers they were given land, and money for travel and adjustment. They were exempt from military service and got some civic and self-government rights.


Colonies in Ekaterinoslav,  Alexandrovsk and Molochansk

The first 228 Mennonite families arrived in the Ekaterinoslav province  from Prussia. They established eight colonies: Chortitza,  Einlage, Rosenthal,  Kronsweide, Neuendorf, Shoenhorst, Neuenburg and the Insel Chortitza settlement. The next immigration group (118 families) arrived in the Novomoskovsk and Alexandrovsk area in 1793–1796. At the beginning of the 19th century, 150 Mennonite families were settled in the Tavria province (1804) where they set up their villages along the eastern bank of the Molotchna River. In 1804–1806 another 365 Mennonite families settled in this district.  During the first decades of the century the Mennonites founded 27 colonies in Molotchna: Halbstadt, Tiegenhagen, Schoenau, Fischau, Lindenau, Lichtenau, Muensterbeg, Altonau, Tiege, Orlovo, Blumenort, Muntau–Ladekop, Mariental, Rudnerweide, Franzthal,  Pastva, Grossweide and Blumstein.


In 1835 five more Bergtal colonies (145 families) settled in the Alexandrovsk area. In 1852 they were united into the third Mariapol Mennonite District.   When in 1836–1866  Doukhobors,  Russian sectarians, left for the Caucasus, the representatives of the Gnadenfeld Old-Flemish congregation  from Prussia took those vacated land, founding Gnadenfeld Mennonite Volost in the Molochansk Mennonite District.


Samara and Volhynia

Mennonites  from Danzig, Marienburg and Elbing settled in the Samara province from the 1850’s. By 1874 there were 16 colonies. Some Mennonite settlements were located in the Kiev province (Mikhalin village) and in Volhynia (Karlsweide, Swiss Mennonites settlements). By 1870 the total number of Danzig and Prussian Mennonites, who had  arrived in Russia, amounted to 2300 families.


New migration due to land problems

Economic development and population growth caused land problems. ‘Inheritance Law’ (1866) allowed fragmentation of land holdings but could not solve the lack of  land. However, the Mennonites bought the nobility’s lands after 1861, when serfdom had been abolished . Some new groups of colonies were established in new parts of Russia. At the beginning of the 20th century the total Mennonite population in the Russian Empire was 104.000. The Mennonites mostly lived in the Ekaterinoslav, Tavria and Samara provinces. The largest Mennonite colonies were: Chortitza (1800 people), Rosenthal (1226), Neuendorf (1121), Osterwick (3100), Einlage (1258) (in Ekaterinoslav province); Halbstadt (915) and Waldheim (946) (in the Tavria province).


Photo: Wally Kroeker, An Introduction to Russian Mennonites: A story of flights and resettlements to homelands in the Ukraine, the Chaco, the North American Midwest, Germany and beyond. (Good Books, PA, 2005).


Key moments in the history of the Polish Mennonites

Author: Michał Targowski

From the hopeful moment of their arrival in the 16th century until the sad time of departure in 1945, Mennonites were an important part of the difficult history of Poland which was once home to the biggest Mennonite population in the world.


Welcomed and feared

In the mid-16th century the first Mennonites settled down in Poland. Their migration from the Netherlands to the delta and valley of the Vistula River evoked various reactions in the local people. On the one hand, they were seen as a threat to Catholic and other Protestant churches and as dangerous competitors for urban jobs. On the other hand, they were welcomed because of their skills in farming on marshy lands. From time to time towns, bishops and nobility wanted the Mennonites gone, but they stayed in Poland, supported by kings,  landlords and administrators of land estates.


In contrast to other states in early modern times, Poland was famous for its legally guaranteed religious tolerance. In 1642 Polish Mennonites received a special privilege in which they were promised freedom of belief and protection from persecution. This, however, did not save them from Northern wars taking place in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries, which caused decimation or even annihilation of many Mennonite settlements, destroyed by wandering troops and epidemics.


Lost Freedom

For more than two centuries the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a place where Mennonites could exist according to their traditions and beliefs. This changed completely with the partitions of Poland in 1772 and 1793, when the areas they lived in were incorporated into the Kingdom of Prussia . The new monarchy imposed new regulations on the Mennonites, who were forced to pay a great sum of money annually for exemption from obligatory military service and were not allowed to buy farms which had not been in Mennonite hands before. This resulted in a  new migration from Żuławy and the Lower Vistula Valley to the East. Some Mennonite families settled near Płock and Warsaw, but most of them responded to the invitation from Czarina Catherine II to colonize Russian steppes. Families who stayed in Prussia identified themselves more and more with the Germans and in the 1870s they finally lost the struggle for exemption from military duties. Meanwhile a new stream of migration took many Mennonites from Prussia to the Northern and Southern Americas.


After World War I the Mennonites who lived in Żuławy and the Lower Vistula Valley were separated by the new borders of the Republic of Poland, Germany and the Free City of Gdańsk. Treated as Germans and therefore later charged with responsibility for the disasters of World War II, they were forced to leave their homes in the beginning of 1945. They fled, mainly to Germany or the USA. This way, the more than 400 years of their existence in Poland were brought to a dramatic and painful end.



When death is a guide to new life!

Author: Martin Podobri

It was on October 10th 2010, when the leadership team of the Mennonite Church in Salzburg came together to dissolve the church. It was the lowest point in the 50-year history of the Mennonite conference in Austria.

The big question within the board of the Mennonite conference was: Does it make sense to keep the conference alive?


In January 2011 the five oldest Mennonite Churches met in a conclave. There  they saw, that all churches are struggling with the same problems: there are conflicts in the church, it is difficult to find workers, it is difficult to appoint elders.

And so the question came up: how could a conference help to solve these problems? It was the beginning of a process, called ‘MFÖ new’ (=Mennonite Conference in Austria).


With the result of this conclave the board of the MFÖ started a process and they found 5 points where the conference should help the churches:  


To create identity

‘Who are the Mennonites, what do they believe and where do they come from?’

The conference should help the churches to find their own identity and also the identity of the conference.


To support the offspring of the leadership

The oldest are often not able to support a second generation of the leadership. The conference should help to keep the next generation of leadership in their focus as well


To realize biblical leadership

If there are troubles in the leadership team or they are involved in  the wrong things, who is there, to help them? In the New Testament the Apostles helped the churches to realize biblical leadership. Today the conference should help the leadership teams of the churches to realize biblical leadership.


To help the church to grow

The conference has many links to missionary organizations and to other conferences in other countries, so that they can bring in good ideas.


To plant new churches

For one church the mission to plant a new church is too big. But if all 5 Mennonite Churches help together, it is possible to realize it. So the conference should help here as well.


It is sad, that we have to close the church in Salzburg. But we have seen, that the death of the church in Salzburg has brought new life in the conference.


The long way of suffering begins

Author: Hermann Heidebrecht

The most difficult time for Mennonites in Russia came after the October 1917 revolution when the Bolsheviks seized the power. With it, in Russia, a Civil war begun that ended in 1922/23. Several groups fought each other. Most feared by the  Mennonites were the Anarchist terror bands of Nestor Machno that regularly attacked Mennonite villages. For instance, in the Eichenfeld village in just one night in October 1919, 77 men and 4 women were murdered. Even more victims died from epidemic typhus which was also spread through the villages by Machnovites. Whole families died. In the Schönhorst village 132 of the 350 inhabitants died, in Chortitza 180 of the 767. More than 10% of the population died from the epidemic.



After all the years of bitter struggle the Mennonite economy was totally destroyed. Food tax collector troops of the new Soviet government seized agricultural products, taking away the last cereal from the peasants. A terrible famine broke out. After difficult negotiations with Bolsheviks, American and Dutch Mennonites were able to deliver food and clothing to their suffering brethren.


Prohibition of migration

Mennonite delegates explored the possibilities of migration to America, and found much support. Canadian Mennonites requested immigration visas with the government, obtained credit for traveling, and promised that the newcomers would not become a burden to the state. Between 1923 and 1928, ca. 23.000 Mennonites found their way to Canada via Germany. In 1928, the Soviet government stopped this migration.


The impact of collectivization

The collectivization which should replace the private economy by a collective one began in Russia in 1929. Again, a terrible famine was the result, with 10 million victims in the Soviet Union in 1932-33 alone. Among the dispossessed and deported were many Mennonites. They were deprived of land, livestock, and machinery. Many were forcibly resettled and had to leave their villages and homes. Many of them died of starvation or illness in the deportation areas. Some deprived Mennonites went into cities looking for jobs and food. This is how the dissolution of the Mennonite colonies was brought about.


See more about Mennonites in Russia in the Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (


From monarchists to democrats

Author: Nataly Venger

The Mennonites were invited to the Russian Empire by the Empress Catherine the Great. How did the monarchy change its attitude towards the Mennonites and why did it happen?



The Mennonite colonization was started by Catherine II. It was one of the methods of colonizing new lands: increasing the population to improve the economy of the empire. In the Manifests written by the Empress, new settlers were promised additional benefits. The active emigration policy for the Mennonites allowed them great economic prospects. ‘The Mennonite Privileges’ were signed by the Empress in 1788. Interestingly, other ethnic groups and the Russian population were not given these benefits.



Paul I (1796–1801), Alexander I (1801–1825) and Nicholas I (1825–1855) also supported the Mennonites. Paul I gifted the Mennonites with a ‘Charter of Privileges’ regarding their moral behavior as an example for other social groups. Alexander I established new colonization rules relying on wealthy immigrants. He ordered to gather all the former laws into “Colonies’ Statues”. The Monarch funded construction of churches in the villages Orloff and Rudnerweide. The settlement Alexandrwohl was named in honor of Alexander who visited Steinbach and Tiege. Nicholas’ II ideology was reflected in the slogan ‘Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality’. Even though Mennonites were Protestants, they supported the idea of a ‘monarch as father'. They demonstrated their devotion to the monarchy. In 1937 Nicholas II also supported the ‘Privileges’.


Change of status

The modernization and unification conducted by Alexander II started a new chapter in the history of settlements. In 1871–1874 Mennonites lost their ‘colonist’ status and were drawn into alternative military service. Nevertheless, reforms did not stop the development of colonies, mostly because Alexander II did not support nationalists. Mennonites kept the idea of ‘economic messianism’ that determined their connection with the monarchy. A new settlement was named in honor of Alexander.


From monarchists towards democrats

Alexander III (1881–1894) and Nicholas I (1894–1917) were influenced by nationalistic sentiments. Following the ideology of nationalism, they equated the Russian nation with Orthodoxy and were against Protestants. Nicholas II supported the anti-German legislation of 1914–1918. For a long time the Mennonites supported the monarchy. Yet democratic processes engaged settlers in dialogue with the government. These processes were caused by the revolution of 1905–1907 and by Russian nationalism. It changed the Mennonites' attitude from supporters of the monarchy to supporters of democracy and parliamentarism.

A new beginning after World War II

Author: Johannes Dyck

During the severe persecutions in the Stalin era, Mennonites lost almost all church elders, preachers and church buildings. After the Soviet Union entered World War II in June 1941, all Germans from the European part of the country were forcibly deported to Siberia and Central Asia, not allowed to leave these places. Mennonites were part of that tragedy. In addition, in the beginning of 1942, all remaining capable men were mobilized away from their jobs into the Worker’s Army.


Prayergroups during deportation

In the Worker’s Army, under appalling conditions and often near to death, men began to cry to God together, occasionally coming together for hidden prayer meetings with no regard to confession. One of such secret prayer groups was organized in 1942 by Heinrich Voth, former elder of the Mennonite church in Nikolaifeld. And God heard them. So a revival of faith began. Hidden prayer groups came into being in many places. In 1945, many Mennonites that were taken to Germany during the war, were repatriated to the Soviet Union. They also gathered to worship in the places they found themselves. Where possible, Mennonites joined Russian Baptist congregations that were allowed during the war.


After Stalin

After the death of dictator Stalin in 1953, a political thaw set in, and in 1956 all Germans were released from their exile. The oppression of religion declined somewhat, and in many villages people that were converted in previous years, were baptized by courageous men. This led to the establishment of small village congregations in former places of exile. Being released from exile, Germans, and among them Mennonites, moved from their places of exile into the south of the country, especially to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where they established new churches or joined existing Russian Baptist churches which showed much similarity to the Mennonite Brethren churches. This way a new church geography was established.


Non-resistance rejected

The thaw, at least in matters of religion, ended in 1958, and a new wave of persecution began. Mennonites were regarded as reactionary anti-governmental sectarians because of their historical non-resistance position. Their congregations were excluded from the list of officially permitted confessions, and had no chance of being legally recognized. This situation changed in 1966, giving the way for legalizing the first Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren congregations.


Many Mennonite Brethren and persons with a Mennonite background also joined Baptist churches.


Reference: And When They Shall Ask. A Docu-Drama of the Russian Mennonite Experience (1984/2010) dvd.


Relying on donations

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

Mennonite churches are financed through donations. In the Ingolstadt Mennonite congregation every member gives a monthly amount of money which they think is appropriate. In this decision the biblical concept of tithing informs many of them.

In our church a small source of income is the renting out of our rooms. For a small contribution a private person or an institution can rent the rooms for seminars or celebrations.

The maintenance costs for our church house, all reparations, fuel bills, and other expenses for special services, concerts or our yearly children's week are covered by the members' contribution.



Also, in the weekly offerings during the church service we collect money for the choirs, but also for special purposes and for larger Mennonite organisations,  for example in South Germany: the JUWE (for youth and children’s work) and the VdM (Union of German Mennonite Congregations).

But we also collect money for national organisations in Germany such as:

The AMG (Association of German Mennonite Congregations); DMFK (German Mennonite Peace Committee); DMMK (German Mennonite Mission Committee); CD (Christian Service) and worldwide for MWC (Mennonite World Conference).


Because of a responsible way of dealing with the donations and the yearly financial report about its use, we manage to be independent of the state, self-governing, autonomic and to freely service the kingdom of God.

‘… Freedom in Christian faith…’

Author: Alfred R. van Wijk
Translator: Betty Lavooij-Janzen 

Mennonites practice baptism based on a self-written confession of Faith. To accomplish this, their religious education takes a longer period of time and is offered to young children as well as young people preparing themselves for baptism.


No established doctrines

Currently  many congregations offer the preschool children their own Sunday morning service. This is a Sunday School lesson with a theme and little rituals based on picture books containing different themes. Corien van Ark developed a method called ‘Join the circle’ (Kom in de kring) for these lessons. For adults preparing themselves for baptism, catechism meetings are held, often using a method edited by Gerke van Hiele called ‘Touched by the Eternal One’ (Aangeraakt door de Eeuwige). The purpose of this method is not to pass down a written doctrine. Instead, at each meeting a series of Bible passages, songs, discussion items, creative activities and a summary of questions are presented for the members to work with as a group.  Apart from this, there is a short course for those eighteen and older to prepare themselves to be lay preachers in church services.


A personally experienced faith

Both methods of Corien van Ark and Gerke van Hiele are aimed at forming a personally experienced faith. In the postwar years material was collected by those concerned with education in faith, especially women. For the Sunday School they contributed children’s books with stories with a key point, and stories for reflection , along with a manual for parents.


From passing on knowledge to forming faith

Only since the end of the seventeenth century did parents request the congregation to take care of education in faith. Before this, it was seen as the job of the parents. The teaching material contained  a doctrine to be learned by heart and it also put and emphasis on virtues and on knowledge of the Bible. In the eighteenth century a moderate Enlightenment slowly gained more influence on the education in faith. Mennonites had a prominent position in this development because in their study material they had already included the connection between the natural sciences and knowing God. In the next century, modernism, which developed under the influence of academic Bible criticism, pointed the catechism in a more liberal direction. This liberalism which promotes a personally experienced faith and an individual interpretation of faith, sets the tone of education in faith to this day.