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The Mennonites and the Protestant Ethic

by Dr. Katherine George

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1964-65 Season

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Though it is by no means easy to define what Max Weber means by the Protestant ethic, it does appear to be clear at least that this ethic has something to do with economic success in a capitalistic world. He begins his argument, after all, by noting that in Germany the Protestants of the North have come to dominate economically and politically the Roman Catholics of the South. Protestant Prussia, specifically, has been the agent of German unification and has humbled Roman Catholic Austria and Roman Catholic France in the process.

Behind this initial argument is a further and much more significant observation: that in the late 19th and early 20th century, when Weber formulated and promulgated his thesis, Protestant England, at least to all outward seeming, was queen of the world. A nation of shopkeepers, the land of Adam Smith's rational economic man - these are the clichés concerning essential English character and the human source of English dominance which inhabited Weber's thought. By the stringing together of still more clichés, Weber links this essential English character, this Spencerian ideal of the competitive individualist, with English nonconformity. Ignoring the strong Arminian strain in English non-conformity and indeed its whole congregational emphasis, he next identifies English non-conformity with Calvinism. England was prosperous and powerful. She was more prosperous and more powerful than was Germany. (Here, indeed, I contend, was the central problem for Weber, German nationalist that he was: why was England more prosperous and more powerful than Germany?) The source of England's prosperity and power was her energetic, rationally calculating core of shopkeepers and individualistic entrepreneurs. Her shopkeepers and entrepreneurs were Calvinists. Hence Calvinism was the source of English prosperity and power. Since the prosperity and power with which Weber was concerned were obviously capitalistic entities, it followed finally that Calvinism was the source of capitalism.

There are leaps enough already in the development of Weber's thought. He uses bits and shreds of fact like stepping stones by means of which he jumps from one great island of generalization to another. Perhaps the greatest leap of all is the one by means of which he bounds from an ethic of hard work and frugality appropriate to free artisans, yeomen farmers, and small shopkeepers to the administrative and manipulative talents and the speculative elan characteristic of the great enterprisers who have constituted the vanguard and the elitist element of capitalism in all its phases. To be sure, he is in essence simply dealing here with yet another cliché. For it was part of the bourgeois mythology of the 19th century that hard work and frugality were the primary foundations of supremacy in commerce and industry and of the wealth which automatically attended supremacy. Malthus, after all, had maintained long before Weber that poverty, in the mass, was the product of the absence of certain restraints on irrational impulses, and that wealth, in the minority, was the product of calculating asceticism. Wealth, in these several senses then, was the reward suitably due to virtue and to rationality in a presumably basically virtuous and rational universe.

Weber, following consistently the inconsistencies of this extraordinary mythology, performs a feat of intellectual legerdemain yet more striking than these previous achievements. For he builds in his Protestant ethic a code of morality suitable both for the enterpriser who owned the machines in the factory and for the workman who tended them. "A specifically bourgeois economic ethic had grown up," he writes of this presumably Calvinistic code; "the bourgeois business man ... could follow his pecuniary interests as he would, and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so. The power of religious asceticism provided him in addition with sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God." [1] What an extraordinary picture this is which Weber offers us of the 19th century industrial worker, man, woman, and child, who toiled through his twelve or fourteen hour day in the noise and filth and danger of a factory for the pittance that he earned, under the driving scourge of the foreman's anger and with the threat of dismissal and unemployment to urge him on. "The power of religious asceticism," "a life purpose willed by God" - how foolish are such phrases in the face of facts.

Turning back from facts to theory once again, one finds that in presenting a definition of this Protestant ethic, one begins with the words "industry" and "frugality" and with their implications of rational restraint of presumably natural impulses to indolence and waste. Yet many ethics have counselled industry and frugality, at least to the mass of men. The mass of men, in point of fact, have had to work very hard in all civilizations and times and to be sparing in the use of the produce of this labor, in order to support themselves and their families on the one hand and on the other, their lords and masters, who have tended always to squeeze them dry of any excess beyond the barest need. One must add, therefore, to fit the specific case the additional concept of individualism. Industrious work and frugal preservation of the rewards of work by a self-restrained individual in the service of an individualistic goal-here one starts. Yet Weber's purpose, to engage this ethic with capitalism, is still not fully served. The goal too must be defined. At this point the final Weberian miracle of logical illogic is performed and, since the spirit of capitalism is out of hand declared to be the rational pursuit of profit, the goal of the Protestant ethic must automatically become the same. The combination is complete at last, and the Protestant ethic becomes a code of individual industry and frugality directed toward the rational pursuit of profit. As so often happens in the so-called social sciences, we see a problem being set, and then the solution is accomplished simply by the device of a suitable definition. Of course, there is a connection and an unseverable connection between the Protestant ethic and capitalism, since by definition they have been made to be both the same thing.

Yet the facts of history are not so easily manipulated as the concepts which spring out of history. The purpose of this paper is to test the Weberian thesis in regard to the nature of the origins and development of capitalism by investigating the story of a Protestant sect, the sect of the Mennonites. The Mennonites are not and never have been Calvinists, of course; yet Weber specifically embraces them and all similar Protestant movements (such as Pietism and Quakerism) in his very inclusive system of ideas. [2] From the area of the Protestant ethic, indeed, and its presumably stimulating or even causative influence for the development of modern capitalism, he excludes only Lutheranism, by precise fiat, and Anglicanism, by implication.

There is no doubt that in recent and modern Mennonitism the Protestant ethic is present in its full-blown glory. Mennonitism might be said even to be backward (and it will be part of my argument that Mennonitism has been in a general sense sociologically backward through much of its history) in the present stress which one finds within certain of its branches upon the intimate association between virtue, religiously defined, and economic prosperity. The incident which started me forth on this investigation will illustrate the point. I was taken on a tour of the country of the Mennonites to the south of Winnipeg, the East and West Reserves. The group of which I was one was shown with an almost proprietary pride by the conductor of the tour the evidences, not so much of agricultural efficiency, as of commercial and industrial enterprise in the solid little towns to which we were taken. After a tour of one of the privately owned and recently erected plants to which our attention had been directed, the tour-leader turned, as we were departing, swept with a gesture over the gleaming equipment and displays and said, "Here we see Christianity at work." Are we not carried back here to the rampant celebration of "the partnership between God and Mammon" which found wide expression in 19th century British and American moralism as in this pronouncement by a certain Episcopal Bishop Lawrence who sermonized that "Godliness is in league with riches?" Some spokesmen for modern American and Canadian Mennonitism, for the very reason that their fellow Mennonites are relative new-comers to the game of capitalism, and for the reason too that they are still religiously oriented as few others continue to be in this secular world, feel enjoined to rationalize capitalistic practice in a Christian and a specifically Mennonite way. But this does not make capitalism Mennonite or Mennonitism capitalistic any more than similar remarks by 19th century Methodists or Presbyterians or Episcopalians (so gullibly absorbed by Weber) established a true historical linkage between capitalism and these other branches of Protestant religiosity.

Let us turn back now to the root of Mennonitism, to see what Mennonitism was like in its beginnings. The Mennonite sect is part of the broader stream of Anabaptism, and Anabaptism is part of what has been aptly called The Radical Reformation. Anabaptism rises very shortly after Protestantism, in its first Lutheran and Zwinglian manifestations, arises. Its technical mark as a religion is the insistence on adult conversion to the faith and adult baptism. This ceremonial concern reflects the sectarian nature of the Anabaptist position and its definitive split from the institutional, church-oriented outlook of the Magisterial Reformation. Anabaptists were to be a group ceremonially isolated from the world, a group of true believers in and true practitioners of a saving Christianity. They were, in English parlance, thorough-going Separatists. Doctrinally, Anabaptists were Arminians, and this fact should be noted in order to dispose at once of Weberian involvements with a claimed connection between predestinarian ideas and the rationality and individualism characteristic of the Protestant ethic.

Anabaptism is a Teutonic phenomenon almost exclusively. It emerges, in its several guises, in Southern Germany, Germanic Switzerland, and the Dutch and Flemish Netherlands. It numbers among its founders literate and humanistic spokesmen like Grebel and Manz; and converted priests, like Menno Simons himself, are to be found among its leaders, but its peculiar appeal is to peasants and, above all, to artisans. It is the closest of any of the branches of Protestantism to being a religion of the poor. There are violent and militantly rebellious episodes associated with the first emergence of Anabaptism. However much modern Mennonites may wish to disavow the connection, there were linkages between Anabaptism and the peasant revolt in southern Germany and clearly, of course, with the exotic, bloody story of Munster. The Hutterian sect, in its origins and in its continuing existence is also part of the Anabaptist agitation, and here we encounter, as at Munster, that historical mark of a truly proletarian movement, the promulgation and practice of a socialist policy. Anabaptism expresses then peculiarly the protest quality of Protestantism, and it does so in social as well as in religious terms. It is a religion, at least to begin with, not of the successful and the powerful but of the fairly markedly underprivileged.

Since my investigation began with an interest in the Mennonites of Manitoba, and there are requirements of brevity in this paper, I shall shake off now all references to Anabaptism in Austria, Southern Germany, and Switzerland and turn to a sole concentration upon the Anabaptist stream as it flows from Holland. For the Manitoba Mennonites trace their ultimate origins to a Dutch source and to their foundation as a religious faith and group in the teachings of the Dutch priest, Menno Simons, who became in 1535, in the very year of the Munster debacle, a baptized convert to Anabaptism.

What is Anabaptism for Menno Simons? It is to begin with essentially a faith of suffering, a preachment of the cross. To comprehend his message, one must be aware of the status of Anabaptists in his time, a harried group of people as they were, chased as relentlessly and treated as cruelly as dangerous beasts or rabid dogs would be. Those who embraced the Christ of Anabaptism must have been willing, down to the very end of the sixteenth century and even beyond in some areas, to embrace the fate of Christ as well. Far and away the most constant theme in Menno Simons' writings is this theme of the necessary readiness which must be found in the true Christian to suffer the loss of all things which were his in the world, including life itself.

The next theme in Menno's preachments - and it follows from the first - is the theme of absolute brotherhood among the faithful. The individual Christian was really not asked by Menno in his suffering and his death to stand alone. The assumption was that the tight-knit group of fellow believers would stand beside him, sharing their goods with him when he lost his own, sharing his exile and bereavements, sharing, if need be, even his death. This was no faith for individuals, but for a self-contained and tightly integrated group. This was no faith for prosperity in the world but for dying to it, often in the early phase in the most literal sense. It was, like New Testament Christianity, a faith for martyrs.

What Menno peculiarly gave to the faith, moreover, was discipline, absolute and unbending. One thinks how foolish is all Weber's talk of the activism, which is presumably a special feature of the Calvinistic outlook and which has led to the Calvinistic building of an industrial and capitalistic world, when one encounters the real activism of Menno's ethic. Menno again and again directs his criticism at Roman Catholicism and the whole Magisterial Reformation alike in that these official and approved religions give to their official and approved adherents a complacent sense of security in grace or salvation while they continue to live unchanged and sin-filled lives. [3] Only the Anabaptist really lives his faith and only in doing so is he brought within reach of the gift of salvation which his faith alone or the performance of routine, ritualistic works could never offer him.

Menno Simons, then, lays down no mere list of inner attitudes which the Christian must possess but, in his discipline, a course of behaviour which the true Christian must follow. And this course of behaviour is contrary to virtually everything which Weber's Protestant ethic comprehends. There is no talk of industry and frugality. I have not found one mention of thrift, even as a word, in all his writings. A kind of productive activity is assumed for the believers, in so far as the word permits him to engage in it. But it is not stressed. The term calling is used entirely in the Christian sense of a calling to Christian duty and to salvation directly through full participation in Christian life. [4] It is used most often in the specific (and also, as it happens, the Roman Catholic) sense of a calling to the ministry of the Word. Whatever the worldly business of the Christian may be, therefore, he must be willing to abandon it if the higher responsibilities of his Christian calling command that he should do so. "All who do not believe the Lord's Word," Menno declares, "would rather have money, property, body and life than Christ. These are earthly and carnally minded." [5]

The Lord would provide, to be sure, and the Christian was assured that, in one way or another, a sufficiency would probably be forthcoming. "O fear the Lord, ye His saints," Menno promises, "for there is no want to them that fear Him. The rich He sends away empty, but they that fear the Lord shall have lack of nothing ... Thou shalt eat the labor of thy hands; happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee." [6] But even this sufficiency is not to be sought directly, and wealth is positively to be avoided as an obstacle to the basic profession of the Christian. "Our rich people," he declares, "seek more and more how they may increase their money and possessions, build their houses expensively, and add field to field ... They do not remember what is written concerning them: Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted ... Your gold and silver is cankered ... Woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." [7]

There is no talk in Menno Simons of the individual and his special privileges, religious, social, or economic. To be sure, the doctrine of every man his own priest is embodied here and more explicitly than in Magisterial Protestantism. One of the characteristics of Anabaptism has been its long tradition of a lay ministry. Yet whatever this tradition may imply in terms of individualism as against the Roman Catholic monopolization of clerical privilege by a select and segregated group of specialists who are organized hierarchically, the whole issue is subordinated by Menno Simons to the welfare and continuity of the entire body of believers and to the authority of a congregationally chosen or accepted but indispensable and extremely powerful leadership. Anabaptism will prove itself to be in its history peculiarly subject to schismatic divisions, but these divisions are the product more of the disciplinary heritage of the faith than of a truly individualistic quality. Differences between groups will occur because differences within the group are not tolerated.

Economic individualism is negated by the repeated injunction to the sharing of goods and services among the faithful. Cautioned perhaps by the failure of the Munster experiment in this regard, the Mennonite impulse never goes as far as Hutterian communism, but it nonetheless effectively blocks at this early date and for centuries to come an economic of unrestrained individualistic enterprise. "We do not teach and practice community of goods," Menno explains. "But we teach and maintain . ... that all truly believing Christians are members of one body and are baptized by one Spirit into one body ... All those who ... are, according to the Scriptures, called into one body and love in Christ Jesus, are prepared by such love to serve their neighbours, not only with money and goods, but also ... with life and blood. They show mercy and love, as much as they can. No one among them is allowed to beg ... They entertain those in distress. They take the stranger into their houses. They comfort the afflicted; assist the needy; clothe the naked; feed the hungry; do not turn their face from the poor; do not despise their own flesh." [8]

Above all, there is no talk in Menno Simons of the rational pursuit of profit. The whole concept of profit could not be other than anathema in such a moral setting. Private property is preserved, to be sure. Menno speaks once of the ideal society in which each man may live under his own vine and his own fig tree with his wife at his side and his children clustering around him. But there is never the least sponsorship of a wish to expand possessions or to acquire beyond the level of the most moderate requirements. The desirability of work and of a suitable reward for work may be said to be implied in some of Menno's commentary - a reward sufficient to support the worker and his work and to provide for his necessary expenses. But profit is by definition that which rewards beyond the point of subsistence and necessary expenses, which permits, in its most moral guise, at least the expansion of the enterprise. Nowhere in all the literature of early Protestantism is there, to my knowledge, a defense or even an explicit countenancing of profit. Most certainly this defence or countenancing is not to be found in the writings of Menno Simons. "The wicked merchants and retailers," Menno writes, "are so bent on accursed profit that they exclude God wholly from their hearts ... Yes, good reader, the whole world is so affected and involved in this accursed avarice, fraud, false practice, and unlawful means of support; in this false traffic and merchandise, with this finance, usury, and personal advancement that I do not know how it could get much worse." [9]

Menno Simons, then, provides no ethic suited to a future capitalistic world. There is, on the contrary, in the concepts of Menno, as there is in all the ideology of the Protestant Reformation (which is not termed by its spokesmen a re-formation without reason) a tendency to look backward for a code of behaviour and a way of life suitable to the faithful. This backward glance is directed by all of Anabaptism explicitly to the time of the Apostles and to the pattern of living and the temper of mind for Christians which are presented in the Acts. But in speaking of the backwardness of this initial Anabaptist and Mennonite ethic, I do not mean to link it in any wholesale manner with the Weberian (and now the all too general sociologistic) sense of "traditional" society, which in turn is built on a romanticized version of the society of the Middle Ages. It is true, of course, that, as an ethic, it appears to be much more at home in Weber's "traditional" society with that society's combined qualities of collectivism and authoritarianism, than it is in the rational and impersonal capitalistic society of Weberian modernity. Mennonite doctrines, the whole Mennonite ambience, is anti-feudal, however. We are dealing here with a faith which fits free men only-free farmers and free artisans-who are able to choose their faith and their career of life. The non-resistance which is, after Munster, a universal characteristic in the Anabaptist position, is a direct repudiatioin of feudal militarism. The implications of the social preachments of Mennonitism and of the character of its first adherents involve rejection of the entire aristocratic structure and ideology of an estate society-the setting apart of a secular, as of a religious, elite whose primary qualification is their non-involvement in manual toil. The assumption is that, just as Mennonites are all and together and equally saints, so they are all and together and equally men and women who earn their livelihood by work with their hands.

We turn now from the teachings of Menno Simons and the Mennonitism immediately associated with him to a consideration of the later course of development of the faith, first of all in the Lowlands, the place of its birth. [10] The decades passed in the Lowlands, and the harsh regime of Catholic Spain was pushed southward by the Dutch revolt, which occurred, of course, under Calvinist rather than Anabaptist auspices. Toleration came, however, to the Mennonites in Holland, and the remnants of the Flemish Mennonites, whose land was still under Spanish dominance, fled to the North. Mennonitism was thrown, as it were, out of the harsh but, in its way, protective custody of persecution into the hurly-burly and the push and pull of the relatively ordinary world. Within the sect, sectarianism grew and multiplied into a dozen or more squabbling divisions and subdivisions. Mennonitism came to constitute, in this respect, a most unedifying spectacle in 17th and 18th century Holland. But for our purposes this sectarianism is an extremely useful fact for analysis. For it all, or almost all, involved the issue of conservatism versus liberalism or adjustment. The antagonism between the old ways or the older ways of the faith and the ways of the more rapidly moving world was again and again the basis of recrimination, excommunication, and the setting up of a new branch of the faith while the remnant continued in its relatively traditional and unadjusted ways. Eventually, by the late 18th and the early 19th century, the old was essentially gone for Holland, and a much diminished Mennonite body took its oddly liberal place on the left-wing, secular and Unitarian side of the Dutch religious spectrum.

The degree and rapidity of this adjustment were no doubt due in very large part to the fact that Holland was a small and, by the 17th century, a very commercial country with no place for a truly isolated rural life. The Dutch Mennonites, moreover, had always tended to be more urban than rural. As peace and toleration came to them, numbers moved from their initial occupations as artisans into commercial and manufacturing undertakings and ultimately into the professions. It would be a mistake to think of the Mennonites as peculiarly successful in these respects. The dominant place in Dutch economy and society has always gone, as in all economies and societies, to representatives of the dominant faith, in the case of Holland, to members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Still there appears to be evidence of a tendency for Mennonites to cluster in this particular urban society, as they were later to cluster in other urban settings, around a relatively prosperous and wholly respectable middle-class level.

But already in the time of Menno Simons some Mennonites had escaped from this particular Dutch setting which was to prove in time so subtly destructive of the original Mennonite impetus and code. They were driven out by persecution, and they found a variety of refuges in western, northern, and northeastern Germany. The refuge of concern to us is the one occupied by a sizeable group of Mennonite-Anabaptists in West Prussia, which is the region on both sides of the lower Vistula between Danzig and Thorn. For most of the Anabaptists who came to this new Prussian land, it became and remained a rural world which provided a basis for much longer and better preservation of certain traditional ways than Holland itself was to afford. Thus flight to Prussia, for the ancestors of the Mennonites who came ultimately to settle in Manitoba, was also a first flight from change.

The Mennonite population of West Prussia probably never exceeded 15,000, but West Prussian Mennonitism is the mother soil from which nearly half the Mennonites of the entire world were transplanted to Russia, Asia, and North and South America. Scattered individual and small groups of Dutch Mennonites came to the general Prussian area and some managed to find a footing there, always as farmers, even before the mid-16th century. The first real chance of organized and permanent settlement, however, began about 1547-50 when the enterprise of draining the Vistula Delta was undertaken by Polish and German authorities, landlords, and financiers. Dutch, Flemish, and some German Anabaptists were welcomed and even actively solicited as participants in this effort. So rapidly did this Prussian Anabaptist group become important that in the summer of 1549 Menno Simons himself came to Prussia to establish his church in a permanent form, and Dirk Philips, who had come with him, remained for the rest of his life as the leader of the large congregation in Schottland just outside the walls of Danzig.

Thus began for a Mennonite group their first experience, not only as a special religious, but also as a special ethnic group. Their conservatism, their eagerness to preserve an identity in terms of an older tradition, is indicated by the fact that the Dutch language, despite the relative similarity to the dominant German tongue, was preserved in worship services and even in ordinary converse into the 18th century. The Mennonite farmers had their own schools very shortly after the settlement, and from 1700 on the charters granting privileges to the Mennonites almost universally mentioned their right to have their children educated by their own teachers. These schools were intended to provide only the most basic education in literacy that the Bible might be read, and those who taught in them had no special training but were simply farmer-teachers. Wealthy Mennonites (and there came in time to be a few), especially those in Danzig, tended to send their sons to Amsterdam to complete their schooling and learn commercial practice (for wealth was to be found not in farming but in commerce). Thus, in an interesting reversal of the usual process of faster adjustment to an environment and to change in general in the city, the Dutch language was longer preserved in the urban than in the country districts, where a Low German dialect known as Werderplatt came into relatively early use in everyday life. The country churches even introduced High German into preaching one or two decades earlier than did the city congregations.

Some Anabaptists in Prussia had from an early date engaged in manufacturing activity, notably the making of textiles and brandy. Most of the immigrants in the first one hundred years, after all, were from the cities of Holland, Flanders, and northern Germany, and some of them, as we have already indicated, found and maintained, despite official restrictions on their entrance into Prussian cities, an urban residence in this new land. But the great majority of these Anabaptist settlers were forced by the circumstances of their invitation and acceptance to engage in the life of farming. The rural settlements prospered, to be sure, within the limits of rural prosperity. By the mid-17th century the major tasks of drainage in the three Werders (the Danzig Werder, the Unterwerder, and the Grosswerder) had been accomplished with windmills, dikes, sluices, and countless drainage ditches. The extensive polders of the Werders were completed and cattle pastured in the fertile meadows.

After 1700 the problem of population pressure arose and became increasingly acute with every decade. In addition, another problem, the problem of non-resistance, plagued the Anabaptists. Already in 1613 the Mennonites of the Danzig Werder had refused on conscientious grounds to obey the demands of the city council for military service and had received exemption from this service only on the basis of a money payment.

The problem became severe only with the extension of the power of the Prussian state over the major area of Mennonite settlement when in the late 18th century Frederick the Great, the fountainhead of Prussian militarism, became king. According to the Prussian army code, the obligation of military service derived from the ownership of property; and though Frederick the Great made exemptions in favor of the Mennonites, he did so only on the basis of the payment of increasing sums of money. Under Frederick's successor, Frederick William II, the situation worsened, and thus began an eighty-year struggle by the West Prussian Mennonites to maintain their practice of nonresistance, which was to have a two-fold consequence, the emigration to Russia of thousands who refused to submit and the eventual capitulation to the demands of the state by the majority who chose to remain.

The families who first and principally chose to emigrate were the landless and the relatively poor. Numbers of others, to be sure, among those owning farms sold their land and joined the exodus. But that during the years of emigration, between 1787 and 1866, it was the surplus population of West Prussian Mennonites who went to Russia is evidenced by the fact that the population figure in the homeland remained static at about 13,000 individuals. Those who stayed in Prussia became good Germans and by the end of the 18th century, were to be little distinguished, except in the formalities of religious belief and practice, from the surrounding population. The doctrine of non-resistance was, of course, completely abandoned.

Whatever the reason for departure, whether landlessness or poverty on the one hand or, on the other hand, the desire to retain, land and prosperity being sacrificed, traditional patterns of behavior, those who emigrated from Prussia effectively accomplished another flight from change. The major geographic goal of these Mennonite settlers at the end of the 18th century and into the mid 19th century was New Russia, known at a later time as the Ukraine. This territory, located in South Russia and inhabited at the time only by nomadic peoples and Cossacks, finally came under complete control of Russia with the annexation of the Crimea in 1783. Potemkin, the minister of Catherine the Great, had begun to extend Russian administration into the region in 1774, and he busied himself from the start with efforts in a number of European countries to find settlers who would be willing to venture into the wild and lonely land. An invitation was specifically extended in 1786 to the Mennonites in the area of Danzig, and in 1788 the first 228 families left for Russia, to be followed shortly by additional groups, a total of 462 families, who established the first Mennonite settlement, Chortitza, in the province of Ekaterinoslav. Another wave of Prussian emigration occurred between 1803 and 1806, when some 365 Mennonite families went to Russia. The first of these families stopped at the Chortitza settlement, either temporarily or permanently, but, beginning in 1804, they tended rather to go directly to the province of Taurida where they established Molotschna, the second setlement. Chortitza and Molotschna constitute thus the two original Mennonite settlements in the Ukraine; from them almost all the other settlements of Mennonites in Russia originated.

The Russian situation afforded to the Mennonites a rare opportunity, for these Mennonites of Dutch origin indeed, an unprecedented opportunity, for establishing a way of life apart from the life of the non-Mennonite world and in terms of their conception of what truly constituted Mennonite tradition. There were other foreign settlers in the area and other non-Mennonite Germans. Russian serfs were brought into the region too by Russian landlords. Yet the settlements were scattered, and the population over-all was sparse. The relatively primitive conditions in which the natives in the country lived, and the Russian serfs likewise when they came, further entrenched the Mennonites in the attitudes of superiority to their social and economic, as well as their religious, surroundings, which had already been established in Prussia that frontier of Germanism on the fringes of the vast and backward Slavic world. The physical facts of their circumstances and the smugness of their outlook both limited contact; and by the limitation of contact the patterns of traditionalism were upheld.

The older and poorer settlement of Chortitza embodied these patterns of traditionalism in particular. It would be a rash scholar who would endeavor to argue that the early 19th century Russian villages of the Chortitza settlement represented exactly what Menno Simons intended as a model of Christian living. But at least we have here a situation where every man had indeed his own vine and his own fig-tree or the equivalent thereof and where an element of economic equality, or similarity at least, existed which might well be held to be the practical equivalent to Menno's strong emphasis on the sharing of goods among the brotherhood. The compact villages themselves were a relative guarantee, both of a measure of cooperation and of that mutual surveillance of behavior without which tradition cannot be maintained.

Change came, of course. Change came first in terms of necessary adjustments to the natural environment. Gradually the Mennonites shifted their agricultural policy from the Prussian emphasis on the raising of cattle and dairying, and from the effort to raise sheep and horses, to the cultivation of grains, particularly winter wheat. Primitive agricultural machinery was replaced by better implements produced in Mennonite shops and eventually in Mennonite factories. In general the Molotschna settlement, in advance of Chortitza from the beginning, led the older colony in responsiveness to change, as it led it too in prosperity. The two factors - change and prosperity - are clearly not without relationship. Those who stayed the same also stayed relatively poor.

It was out of the Molotschna settlement that Johann Cornies came, and, accomplishing his work, as he did, in the face of considerable resistance from many of his fellow settlers, he well represents the vanguard of Molotschna progressiveness. We see him working at linking his backward compatriots into the forward march of Russian capitalism. "Cornies achieved more than anybody else in the realm of cultural and economic advancement among the Mennonites," it is asserted in the Mennonite Encyclopaedia. "In dealing with the opposition of religious leaders, ignorant conservative farmers, or personal opponents he could be ruthless. That he was able to carry through his mighty reforms in spite of great opposition was due to the fact that as representative of the authority [of the Russian state], he was endowed with almost unlimited powers ..." [11] Cornies was personally responsible for a number of agricultural innovations in the Mennonite settlements and for the stimulation of industrial and commercial enterprise. He particularly insisted that the educational system of the Mennonites be reformed, and in 1818 he founded the Society for Christian Education which built in Ohrloff in 1820 the first secondary school in the colonies. A year before his death in 1848 the Department of Crown lands also placed the Chortitza schools under his control. In Chortitza the first secondary school had not been established until 1842.

In the Molotschna colony as well there developed the only major sectarian division among the Mennonites of Russia, the Mennonite Brethren. Though the lines of distinction are confused by Pietistic and evangelistic influences, the fundamental issue, I contend, is still the ancient one so often displayed in the Netherlands, the negative versus the positive response to change. For the Mennonite Brethren possessed and possess in their very emphasis on outreach and the richer interior faith a more flexible base than the older and staider Mennonite doctrines for adjustment to many aspects of modernity. At an earlier date, to be sure, in 1814, a small protest group, the Kleine Gemeinde, had originated in the Molotschna, whose purpose was to save a small remnant of the children of God from the disastrous influences of the worldly transformations occurring around it; its founder and first elder was a man, notably enough, who had spent a year as a resident in the Chortitza colony.

It is not without relevance to the whole question of the relative progressiveness (i.e. the relatively capitalistic quality) of the Molotschna colony that it was here that the problem of the landless, the so-called Anwohner, took on particularly distressing proportions. By 1860 nearly 2/3 of the Molotschna families were landless, which meant that the wealthy farmers of the colony had an abundant source of labor on which to call when there was need. Only the landed settlers had a voice in the government of the colony, and the Anwohner were caught in an economic prison until official pressure from the Russian government was brought to bear to solve the problem by distribution of the excess land available in the colony itself and by the purchase of new land and the formation of daughter colonies. It was an interesting case where the brotherhood supposedly inherent in the sect had to be stimulated and enforced by exterior and non-Mennonite compulsion. Capitalism, with its primary concern for the greater success of the successful, had indeed made progress, among these Mennonites at least.

The increase of Mennonite population was the basic factor in producing the problem of the Anwohner. The number of migrants coming from Danzig and Prussia to Russia between 1788 and approximately 1860 (including those 500 families who established two new settlements in the mid-19th century in the province of Samara) is estimated to have been between 8,500 and 10,000 individuals. By 1859 the total population of the four basic settlements had become 34,500. To take care of this rapidly growing population, daughter settlements were the only resource. The Chortitza colony had already participated in the founding of six daughter colonies by 1865 (among which were the Bergthal and the Furstenland settlements). Until official pressure was exerted, the Molotschna colony, as we have seen, was much slower and more reluctant to exert itself in this way for the sake of its landless.

Since the solution of new settlements for the problem of the growing population appears to have been readily available in this vast and open Russian country, the difficulties of confinement and landlessness would not appear to have played as large a part in the next great upheaval in Mennonite life, the removal to North America, as they had done in the Prussian exodus. The primary factor was no doubt the new intrusion by governmental authority upon the preserve of Mennonite separateness and the threat afforded by this intrusion to the maintenance of the traditional Mennonite life. The issue, as in Prussia, was the issue of military service. In 1870 the Russian government issued a release abolishing all special privileges to non-Russian settlers in South Russia, including exemption from military service, the new inclusive rules to become effective in 1880. Numerous official delegations were sent to St. Petersburg in 1871-73 with appeals to the government to withdraw its order regarding military service. As these efforts proved fruitless, however, an emigration to North America, which began in a small way in 1873, assumed mass proportions in the following years. In 1873 the total Mennonite population of Russia was 45,000; before the migration movement was concluded 1/3 of this number had gone to the prairie regions of the United States and Canada.

Thus occurred another flight from change for those conservative Mennonites who chose not to stay where they were and allow themselves to be caught up in a world that was being transformed around them. Between 1874 and 1880 some 1,800 Mennonite families, about 8,000 individuals, emigrated from southern Russia to Canada and settled in the province of Manitoba. While most of the Molotschna emigrants, significantly enough, went to the Middle West of the United States, the Canadian immigrants came mainly from the Chortitza colony and her daughter colonies, Bergthal and Furstenland, and from the sectarian group, the Kleine Gemeinde. All these Canadian settlers adhered to begin with to the same tenets of faith, used the same catechism, and were, in terms of Russian variations in the faith and associated patterns of life, at the conservative end of the spectrum. The Bergthal Mennonite settlement left Russia as a compact group and church and settled in 1874-75 on the east side of the Red River in what was known as the East Reserve. In 1875, when the first Mennonites of the Chortitza settlement and its other daughter settlement, Furstenland, arrived in Manitoba, they settled on the West Reserve. A total of 580 families or 3,240 persons left the Chortitza and Furstenland colonies. About 2/3 came from Chortitza and 'is from Furstenland and this group, in comparison with the Bergthal settlers, was to constitute the solid core of conservatism in Canada. The majority of the Kleine Gemeinde emigrants who came to Canada (some went to the United States) settled in two segments, the smaller one in two villages in the West Reserve, the larger in five villages in the East Reserve in the Steinbach area. Already, as compared with the conservatives of the West Reserve, this was a moderately progressive group.

Barely had the Chortitza-Furstenland Mennonites established themselves, when a movement of the Bergthal Mennonites from the East Reserve to the West Reserve began. Around 1880 some 3,00 families had moved to the West Reserve, which left only 400 families on the East Reserve. The reason given for the move was primarily that the East Reserve suffered more during the wet years. In addition the land of the West Reserve was better.

The Bergthal Mennonites moving in and establishing homes for the second time in Manitoba were inclined to give up some old practices brought from Russia and to adjust themselves more fully to the Canadian environment. Thus they introduced a disrupting element into the way of life of the so-called Old Colony Mennonites of the West Reserve. Some of them discarded the practice of living in closed villages from which each farmer would work his narrow strip of land adjacent to the village and by means of which all farmers would share the community pasture and usually a community cow-herder. This village plan constituted as in Russia, a closely knit civic entity which was the nucleus and foundation for self-government, the parochial schools, and the total traditional pattern of life. Many felt that deviation from this pattern would involve a breakdown of cultural and religious ways cherished for generations. Yet deviation occurred, and on the basis of the stimulus provided by an external, non-Mennonite environment.

In 1880 when the Canadian provincial government replaced the Mennonite self-administration of the Schulze and Oberschulze by regular civic organization, the Bergthal Mennonites of the West Reserve were ready to accept the policy, while the Old Colony - Furstenland Mennonites were determined to retain their old system. From now on the unofficial Oberschulze functioned among them along side the official reeve of the municipality. The Old Colony Mennonites also became guardians of the old school system which they wished to preserve despite pressures to improve educational facilities and standards and to accept governmental aid and supervision of educational procedures.

Religious schism grew apace with these differences in economic, political, and educational policy. Soon in the West Reserve there was an Old Colony Mennonite Church divided from a Bergthal Mennonite Church, which in turn had become separated from the old Bergthal church in the East Reserve which came to be known as the Chortitza Mennonite Church since its elder lived in the Manitoba village of Chortitz. In 1890 the majority of the membership of the Bergthal Mennonite Church refused to follow their elder, Johann Funk, further along the line of progressivism and broke away to form the conservative Sommerfeld Mennonite Church. The issue was the question of acceptance of the Manitoba government requirement of attendance at standard English schools.

The Manitoba conservatives continued to be restless under the threat of the English school system, and yet another flight from change occurred in the formation of two large new settlements on the frontier in Saskatchewan: first, the Rosthern Reserve in 1893 and, secondly, the Swift Current Reserve in 1900. Most of the settlers in both colonies were Sommerfelders from the West Reserve, though a certain number of Old Colony adherents also went to Saskatchewan. Both colonies were organized as typical Russian colonies with an Oberschulze and the village type of settlement.

Change thundered on in Canada, however, whether the conservative Mennonites would have it so or not. Change thundered indeed in terms of the guns of the First World War, and additional pressures upon the educational system and the linguistic practices of the Mennonites were brought to bear by a government grown unfriendly to the preservation of all aspects of German culture. In the face of this pressure the most conservative of the Mennonites of Manitoba and some from Saskatchewan, sought a still securer and more remote refuge and engaged in another, and, for the purposes of this study, a final flight from change. Between 1922 and 1927 several thousand Mennonites from these Old Colony and Sommerfelder groups emigrated to Mexico. The Mennonites were granted in Mexico all the privileges they sought, such as freedom from military service, freedom from the swearing of oaths, freedom to conduct their religious life and observe their church regulations without molestation or restrictions, freedom to establish and manage their own schools and select their own teachers, and freedom to dispose of property and maintain any economic system which they desired. The Mennonites of Mexico, along with the Old Order Amish of the United States (who have preserved their conservatism without the recourse to repeated flight) constitute today the most conservative and hence also the least capitalistic of the Mennonites of the world.

But the Mennonites who stayed behind in Manitoba adjusted to the environment around them as the Dutch Mennonites in Holland and in Prussia and the Prussian Mennonites in Russia had all adjusted in their time. This process of adjustment was hastened by the inrush into Canada after the First World War of many of the Mennonites who had stayed in Russia and allowed themselves to be caught up in the building of Russian bourgeois society, only to be stopped short and completely discomfited in this process by the Russian Revolution. Still more Mennonites of this kind came after the Second World War, and still more change came with them. This new flood of Russian Mennonites, with its two-fold crest, is particularly associated with the growth of the Winnipeg Mennonite settlement. Winnipeg contains now, in increasingly scattered residence, the largest group of urban Mennonites in the world. These Mennonite men and women have penetrated all or almost all the bourgeois sanctums of industry, commerce, and the professions in central Canada's major city, and of Mennonite successes in this urban society surely the tour leader who served to conduct me on so much more than a mere journey through the countryside and small towns of southern Manitoba - surely of all this he would say, "Here is Christianity at work."

The detail of this account no doubt has already become tedious, and it is a detail which could be almost infinitely extended. To the student of the subject and the cautious reader, there are many particular aspects of the subject which cry out for further investigation. But the major task of this paper has been merely to place the slightly-touched upon facts of an historical people and their four-century pilgrimage in search of a surcease from change beside a theory which has maintained that this very change has sprung from the faith these people cherished and by which they sought to live. Surely I do not need to labor further the moral of this account. Theories are strong, but facts are even stronger.


1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons, New York, Scribner, 1958; pp. 176-7.

2. Ibid., p. 44.

3. Menno Simons, Complete Writings, translated from the Dutch by Leonard Verduin and edited by John C. Wenger, Scottdale, Pa., Herald Press, 1956; p. 167.

4. Ibid., p. 60.

5. Ibid., p. 349.

6. Ibid., pp. 955-6.

7. Ibid, pp. 366-7.

8. Ibid., pp. 558-9.

9. Ibid., p. 368.

10. The data involved in the remainder of this paper is extracted primarily from the following sources: The Mennonite Encyclopaedia, 4 volumes, Mennonite Publishing House, Scottdale, Pa., 1955. Emerich K. Francis, In Search of Utopia, Glencoe, Illinois, Free Press, 1955. Additional Books are: C. A. Dawson and Eva R. Younges, Pioneering in the Prairie Provinces, the Social Side of the Settlement Process, V, VIII, Canadian Frontiers of Settlement, MacMillan Co., Toronto, 1940. Frank H. Epp, Mennonite Erodes, D. W. Friesen & Sons, Altona, Manitoba, 1962. Hans J. Hillerbrand, Bibliography of Anabaptism, Gerd Mohn Verlag, Gutersloh, 1962. Cornelius Krahn, ed., From the Steppes to the Prairies, Mennonite Publication Office, Newton, Kansas, 1949. C. H. Smith, The Story of the Mennonites, Mennonite Publication Office, Newton, Kansas, 4th Edition, 1957. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, Weidenfeld and Nieolson, London, 1962. Unpublished Theses: David Rempel, The Mennonite Colonies in New Russia, A Study of Their Settlement and Economic Development from 1789 to 1914, Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Stanford University, 1933. John Warkentin, The Mennonite Settlements of Southern Manitoba, Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Toronto, 1960.

11. The Mennonite Encyclopaedia, VI, pp. 717-18.

Page revised: 4 September 2022

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