The Origins of Mennonite Institutions in Early Manitoba

by Emerich Klaus Francis

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1945-1946 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

This online version was prepared using Optical Character Recognition software so that spelling and punctuation errors may have occurred inadvertently. If you find any such errors, please inform us, indicating the document name and error.

Please direct all inquiries to

Help us keep
history alive!

The Mennonites who settled in Southern Manitoba in and after 1874 were part of a group which, at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, had migrated from West Prussia to Russia. The Manitoban colonists made an attempt to continue their traditional culture pattern. Their partial success was due to the fact that, for almost ten years after their immigration, they were left largely to themselves. The present paper proposes to deal with some of the distinctive culture traits of this ethnic group during the pioneer period.

Before we enter our discussion, we shall briefly outline the origin and history of the Mennonites before their coming to Manitoba. Mennonitism is an offshoot of Evangelical Anabaptism, [1] one of the major Protestant movements of the Reformation. Menno Simons, a former Catholic priest of Friesia, was the founder of the Mennonite church. Between 1536 and 1544 he succeeded in uniting and organizing the persecuted Anabaptists, who had gathered in the Northern parts of the Netherlands. After he had been forced to leave his country, he extended his missionary activities to Northern Germany and, between 1546 and 1553, he worked in the Baltic lands.

West Prussia, particularly the marshy low lands of the Vistula-Nogat-Delta, became the refuge for considerable numbers of Dutch Protestants who had fled before the Counter-Reformation of the Duke of Alba. Many of these refugees were Mennonites who, together with converts made among other settlers, eventually formed large religious congregations. The members of these congregations, who after about 1570 became commonly known as Mennonites, encountered much opposition on the part of the recognized Catholic and Protestant churches, and of the secular authorities of West Prussia, which then was subject to the Polish King. New difficulties which arose after 1772, when that territory came under the rule of the Prussian Kings, induced a section of the Prussian Mennonites to accept a generous offer made to them in 1788 by the Tsarina Catherine II, and to settle in Southern Russia. There, for the first time in their history, these Mennonites found an opportunity to live according to the principles of their faith, in almost complete segregation. This fact has given rise to the opinion that their type of social organization was the direct result of their "unhampered development" [2] in Russia, and that their economic institutions were "a distinct by-product of their religious-sociological existence." [3]

In order to decide whether this interpretation of the origin of Mennonite culture is correct, we will have to answer the following questions:

  1. Which are the institutions and forms of social organization characteristic of our group?
  2. To what extent are they a logical consequence of the religious ideas of Mennonitism?
  3. If it should appear that Mennonite doctrines and religious practices do not fully account for their specific culture pattern, we will have to search for other conditioning factors. Above all, we will have to ask whether there are any striking similarities between Mennonite culture traits and those of other people with whom they came into contact in the course of their repeated migrations.


The socio-economic traits which appear to be peculiar to the Mennonite group during the period immediately following their immigration to Manitoba, are:

(a) a specific form of habitat and communal organization;

(b) certain institutions for mutual aid, mainly: the Waisenamt and fire insurance;

(c) a specific law of inheritance;

(d) close co-operation between church and civil government, tending towards a theocratic structure of society.

The Mennonites settled in Manitoba according to the following general scheme: The homestead claims of individual settlers were entered through their self-chosen representative, called Oberschulze (reeve). There was one of these officials for each of the two "reserves" which had been set aside for the Mennonites by the Dominion Government. Those families who wished to form a village community together would appeal to the reeve's office which then would allot a certain area to this community and make arrangements that the quartersections to which the heads of these families held property rights under the Dominion Land Act would coincide with the contiguous territory of that village. As each family was granted one quarter section of land, the size and area of a village was determined from the beginning by the number of families.. A village of twenty-four families, for instance, comprised six sections of contiguous land. The further planning of the settlement was then left to each village community thus formed. They at once proceeded to elect a Dorfschulze (village mayor) and two councillors, but all the major decisions were made by the Schulzenbott, the assembly of all operators of farms which were incorporated in the village.

The lots for the dwellings, each of the same size, would be laid out on both sides or on either side of a road, and consequently the villages would consist of one or two rows of houses each at the same moderate distance of about 220 feet from the other. The village lot of each farmer comprised not only space for buildings and barn yard, but also a few acres of arable land to be used for a garden, orchard, vegetable plot, and the like. The rest of the land allotted to the village was divided in a number of open fields, a common permanent pasture, and common bush land to provide fuel and timber, while in the beginning some land remained waste for future use. These shares were distributed in the form of narrow strips, usually half-a-mile long, but their configuration was, of course, adjusted to the size and situation of the fields. The number of fields was determined by the texture, accessibility and agricultural value of the available land. By this method an equitable distribution of land among all members of the village community was guaranteed.

Thus, to every farm belonged a lot in the village and a varying number of strips in different fields; moreover every farmer was entitled to send an equal number of animals to the common pasture; to a certain amount of wood and hay to be cut on unimproved lands; and finally, if needed, to one or two lots at the end of the village to build houses for his grownup sons and their families. These latter were called Anwohner (cotters,) as distinguished from the Wirte (farmers), and had no other property in the village except their house lots with small gardens. For all encumbrances and taxes resulting from property held within the village area, the community as such was held responsible, and it was their business to divide them equitably among all inhabitants. Thus, the reeve, who watched over the public works in the colony, would in concurrence with all the mayors of the reserve prescribe to a village the amount and kind of statute labor or other tributes in cash or kind to he rendered; it was then up to the mayor and the village assembly to distribute the burden among all farm-households.

Other performances or payments for purely local purposes such as school and teacher, wells, ditches, culverts, roads and bridges, herd and herdsman, poor relief and the like, were determined by the village assembly and also divided in equal parts among all the farmers. In addition, a considerable number of other co-operative enterprises were carried out and regulated by the community - for instance, transportation of grain, mail and timber, erection of buildings, cheese. factories and mills, and various forms of mutual aid. There are also instances reported of field work done and machinery used collectively on a village level. However, cooperation of this kind was usually left to the initiative of individuals, and was not considered as a concern of the village community as such.

Although collectivistic to a considerable degree, this system cannot be termed communistic. A farm with all its appurtenances was considered private property that could be sold and inherited. It was an independent economic unit and operated by each proprietor according to his own wishes and abilities. On the other hand, ownership, though free on principle, was strictly controlled by the community. As we have seen, the lay-out of each farm within the village area was determined collectively, and could only be changed by collective decision and for all in the same way. As far as real estate was concerned, it was indivisible and sale to outsiders was prohibited. Solidaristic type of settlement, a name chosen with reference to a term coined by R. Koetzschke and W. Ebert, [4] seems to be quite descriptive for this communal, co-operative, but only partly collectivistic, system of agrarian organization. The same type of farm economy has been described by G. C. Homans as champion husbandry for medieval England. [5]

The Waisenamt (literally: orphans' office) was one of the most impressive economic institutions which the Mennonites imported from Russia. It was set up under church supervision independently from the civil administration. Its main business was to supervise the division of the estates of deceased people and to administer the inheritances of minors. In addition, it functioned as a savings bank for church members, and from the sums of money which it held in trust, it provided substantial credits for individual as well as public enterprises. Thus we might call it a combination of a trust and loan company, a credit union and savings bank.

The body of regulations according to which the Waisenamt was run, is to be considered as nothing less than a law of inheritance valid for all members of the colony. When a head of a family died, his whole estate was at once assessed by Waisenamt officials, usually in the presence of the mayor as the guardian of public interests. The value of the total property, real and mobile, was divided so that half of it was apportioned to the surviving parent and the other half, in equal parts, to all the children. If the wife was the surviving part, her interests were defended by two attorneys, while it fell to the Waisenmann (public guardian) to safeguard the rights of minor children. Mobile property, such as animals, furniture, bedding, was divided according to an elaborate key. However, immobile property, being indivisible, had either to be disposed of by public auction, or the farm operator, (the surviving father, a grown-up son or the widow who usually married again shortly after) paid out the equivalent in cash to the adult heirs, and deposited the shares of minor heirs with the Waisenamt. If the family household was not broken up at once, settlement had to be perfected at least before the surviving parent, man or woman, entered a new marriage, and no marriage was solemnized by any minister without a written permit issued by the Waisenamt.

Since it was against the mores and unwritten laws of the church to mortgage one's property, credit was obtained from the Waisenamt against promise and personal security by two persons who were in good standing in the community. The same was true for debts incurred with private money-lenders. Interest was paid and taken at rates common at the time.

Another institution of major social significance was fire insurance. Originally, it was compulsory for all the colonists. As social controls weakened and compulsion to make the payments became difficult, the communal system of security against damages caused by fire, was changed to one which more and more took on the character of a mutual fire insurance association on a voluntary basis. In the early times reparation for loss was made according to an elaborate key. In case of the total loss of the buildings, two-thirds of their assessed tax-value was paid out in cash, as well as fixed sums for each lost animal, piece of machinery, etc. Lost stores of grain, hay, etc., were restituted in kind. Premiums, however, were collected from each of the other insurees only after damage had occurred, and the sums due were divided among them in proportion to the assessed value of their insured property.

A certain degree of separation from church and "state" was preserved not only with regard to the persons of office holders but also in as far as no contributions for church purposes, including charities, were made or collected by the civil authorities (reeve or mayor.) The circumstances, however, tinder which the Mennonites set up and tried to run their colonies in Manitoba, brought about a very close association between church organization and civil administration. The socio-economic institutions according to which these people intended to live were not sanctioned by the laws of Canada and in part were directly contrary to them. Certain legal provisions had been made by Order-in-Council or agreement to enable them to maintain their village habitat, field system and regional autonomy. However, these provisions held good only as long as all Mennonites consented to their communal institutions, while individuals were not prevented from appealing from Mennonite customary law to Canadian statutes or common law. Thus, any court would support a homesteader who might wish to live on and operate individually the quarter-section to which he held legal title even if this meant the immediate disruption of the village collective. [6]

This situation was remedied in the following ways: First, any individual appeal to the courts and the authorities of the Province or Dominion was outlawed, and made an offense against Mennonite mores. Secondly, obedience to the whole body of customary Mennonite law and to all the decisions, made by elected officers as well as by any recognized public assembly, was put under the strictest religious sanctions. Since the civil authorities of the colony had practically no legal means to punish offenders, the Church took over the function of a court of appeal as well as the execution of punishments. A recalcitrant individual who, for instance, refused to comply with a decision made legitimately by the majority of villagers, would be brought to the attention of the church elders and preachers. A number of these, together with reeve and mayor, or separately, would approach the offender and try to bring him to reason by persuasion. Continued refusal to abide by the law would bring about a summons before a Bruderschaft, the general meeting of the church congregation presided over by the respective elder (bishop). Punishment consisted mainly in private censure, public censure, public confession of sin, and as the last resort - the church ban. This latter form of punishment involved very serious discomforts, quite apart from personal religious scruples and loss of face; for, the banned one had to be avoided, or shunned, by all the other members of the community, including his own family; nobody was allowed to deal with him or even talk to him.


In order to answer the second of the questions which we have asked before, we now have to ascertain the principal tenets of the Mennonite creed as far as they affect social life.

(1) The Anabaptists not only continued in their opposition against the old Roman Catholic church, but extended it to the new Protestant churches of Zwingli, Luther and Calvin whom they accused of having betrayed the ideals of the Reformation. As one of them wrote: "It happened to be with them not different as if one mendeth an old kettle, whereby the hole becometh but worse."

(2) Against Luther's and Calvin's doctrines on grace, they emphasized the freedom of will, individual responsibility for moral conduct and the imitation of Christ.

(3) While other Reformers wished to reform the old church, the Anabaptists reject a thousand years of church history as one great apostasy from the ideal of the Apostolic church. To them, the church was the community of those who had been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, a voluntary brotherhood of the saved and saints. They considered baptism as a symbol of church membership which could be attained only upon profession of faith and proof of sanctity. Whenever, after admission to the church, sins were committed without subsequent penance and atonement, church membership was forfeited and had to be explicitly revoked by the ban.

(4) The Anabaptists insisted that true Christians, united in the visible church, ought to live separate from the "world" in communities modelled after those described by the New Testament. They considered the State as an institution of God which has to be obeyed, but as an order outside of the Christian church. Government and force are necessary only for "sinners", while the saints live by conscience and brotherly church control. An Anabaptist conference, which in 1571 convened at Frankenthal, declared that the sword is the rightful attribute of the civil authority, but they wished to have no part in any such authority and to remain always subjects.

(5) In their desire to follow the precepts of the New Testament to the letter, they adopted the principle of non-resistance, particularly after the disaster of Munster, and rejected the taking of oaths.

(6) Their church organization was congregational. They chose as their ministers laymen, either by lot or, more commonly, by majority vote cast by the respective congregations.

These early Anabaptist doctrines and practices, which have been partly preserved intact through the centuries, show some relationship with the Mennonite institutions as described above. Their congregational church structure contains a number of democratic elements, such as majority rule, election of officers and self-government. The emphasis laid on the Christian concept of brotherly love was certainly favorable to a spirit of co-operation and mutual aid. Their sense of justice fostered the equitable distribution of the means of production and of inherited property.

However, it cannot be said that the socio-economic organization and institutions of the Mennonites in Manitoba in all their particular aspects follow as a necessary consequence from their religious ideals. Above all, the intermingling of church and civil authority seems to contradict one of the basic principles of their faith, the separation of church and coercive state. Moreover, the culture of the Old Order Amish Mennonites in Lancaster County, Penna., which is based on the same general religious principles, shows many essential differences from that of our group. The same is true with regard to the Hutterites. Both are offshoots of the Southern branch of 16th-century Anabaptism. Because of violent persecutions, the Amish Mennonites had to leave their old homes in Switzerland, and eventually migrated to Pennsylvania, while the followers of Jakob Hutter, a Tyrolese peasant, established their first Bruderhof in Moravia, but were driven from country to country, to make their way to the New World together with the Russian Mennonites in the eighteen-seventies. The latter live under a system of true communism whereby all property is owned and operated by the congregation as such, which is organized along lines similar to a monastic community. The Old Order Amish Mennonites, on the other hand, recognize private property in the same way as those of Russia and Manitoba, but none of the peculiar institutions described in this paper are known to them. [7] These observations make it highly probable that factors other than their religious persuasion have contributed to the cultural and social development of the Manitoban Mennonites.


We are in a position to assert with a fair degree of certainty that the social conditions under which the Mennonites lived in West Prussia for about 200 and more years prior to their emigration to Russia, differed considerably from those which prevailed among them at the time when they came to Manitoba, another century later. Above all, we find that theirs was not an entirely agrarian community; many of them were store keepers, merchants, craftsmen, manufacturers, fishermen and small tenant-laborers. Actually, they repeatedly were excluded from the purchase of land, although at times the number of farms rented or owned by them was very considerable. Moreover, it seems doubtful whether any of the Hollander settlements in West Prussia were formed by Mennonites exclusively, [8] although a majority of the Hollanders who lived there in the 17th and 18th centuries, appear to have belonged to this denomination.

We are here only concerned with the agrarian heritage of the Prussian Mennonites. A form of land tenure that was wide-spread in West Prussia during the Middle Ages was the Erbzinspacht (heritable tenure with a quitrent). [9] Under the Law of Chulm as laid down in the Kulmer Handfeste (charter of the city of Chulm), of 1233, and in many subsequent patents for urban and rural settlements such as the Handfeste von Preussisch Holland (Charter of Prussian Holland) of 1292, land would be given, for instance, to a village community to be divided in Hufen (hides) as hereditary lease-holds (mansi eensuales) against an annual rent in kind and cash, and performance of certain services. The contract was usually made with the locatores, people who undertook to locate a suitable place for settlement, and to organize groups of colonists from abroad to settle there. In return, these locatores received a number of hereditary Freihufen (free-holds) and the hereditary magistracy in the village founded by them. The Erbschulze, as this magistrate was called, remained the entrepreneur of the settlement vis-a-vis the overlord, and real proprietor, namely: the Teutonic Order, later the Duke of Prussia and the King of Poland.

Inheritance on all holds leased under the Law of Chulm followed the "Flemish Law," which provided equal rights to blood relatives of both sexes. Moreover, both husband and wife had the right to an equal share in half of their respective properties. [10] The economic system and lay-out of fields which prevailed in all the settlements of that time was identical with that among the Mennonites in early Manitoba. However, instead of the row village, we find the nucleated type whereby the buildings are arranged, somewhat loosely, around a central square, the village greens, upon which the parish church and other public buildings are located. [11]

In the second period of colonization, which brought the ancestors of our Mennonites to Prussia, a different system of land tenure was adopted for the new settlers, namely the Zeitpacht (tenure for a certain time) as applied to the Hollaendischen Zinshufen (Dutch leaseholds). Under it land was given to the immigrants in simple non-heritable tenure for a limited, often rather short, period of time. This was usually land which they themselves had first made arable or even reclaimed from the sea. The form of settlement, too, underwent a decisive change. The Hollander villages of that time resemble more closely the French parishes than the Mennonite villages in Manitoba. As a matter of fact, the type of marsh village characteristic of the former, is basically the same as that of the forest village which has found its way to Canada via Northern France. In both cases the farm buildings are more or less loosely strung along a road or a river, and each hide or farm extends in one single piece, parallel to the neighboring farms, back into raw forest or marsh land. Thus, cultivation progresses gradually from the dwellings of the farmers far into the hinterland, until further cultivation becomes uneconomical, for a natural obstacle, or the territory of another settlement, is encountered. Usually, the last portion of the property is preserved as uncultivated commons, where fuel and wild hay can be obtained and animals pastured. The long rows of houses that border the main artery of communication, are united to village communities or parishes, although with this type of habitat, social organization never reaches that high degree of co-operation, solidarity and collectivism which prevails where commons and open-field make enterprise and economy of all the villagers largely interdependent.

The lay-out, described as marsh village, was imported to West Prussia directly from the Netherlands where it had been successfully adopted for a long time. Groups of Hollanders were invited to open up, "after the Dutch manner", certain areas of wet alluvial land that so far had been left waste or had become devastated in the course of time, and that was continuously threatened by floods; or to polder in shallow basins of brackish water to reclaim it permanently for agriculture. Although each individual farm theoretically constituted an independent unit whose operation was left to private initiative, the erection and maintenance of the elaborate dyke and drainage system which was necessary in the polders and marshes of the Vistula mouth, necessitated a closer co-operation and stricter discipline than we find elsewhere under this system, for instance in French-Canada.

A contract was made with a definite group of colonists who had to arrange among themselves the manner in which to execute its stipulations. As in the case of the older Erbschulze villages, of which we have heard above, the landlord did not deal with each individual farmer but with the local magistrate or Schulze who, however, in these Hollander villages was elected for one or two years from amongst the community. In this way, customary laws or mores, copied from their ancestral home, provided a strong regulative force in these communities. Koetzschke and Ebert conclude that "generally speaking, the `neighborhood' regulated practically all forms of village life." As far as the compulsory fire insurance is concerned, we were unable to find any direct proof of its existence in Prussia prior to the Mennonite migration to Russia. However, the fact that in Russia assessment for it was made according to the preussische Brandhufe (Prussian fire hide) makes its Prussian origin unquestionable. This Hube or Hufe (hide) was equal to fifteen dessiatines while the size of the standard Hufe in Russia was sixty-five dessiatines. [12] According to a Mennonite tradition the first fire insurance association was founded in 1625.

Thus we find that the row village, and municipal government under elected officers, was introduced by the ancestors of our Mennonites and their compatriots to replace the native forms of the nucleated village and hereditary magistracy. The principle of the indivisibility of farm holdings, on the other hand, was common to many parts of Germanic Europe from early times, including medieval Prussia. Similarly, the Flemish law of inheritance had been in force in Prussia already in the Middle Ages. Of the compulsory fire insurance we are only able to ascertain that it existed in Prussia where it probably was in no way confined to Mennonite communities. It is interesting to note that openfield system, close habitat and strict supervision of all farm economy by the village community were alien to the Hollander colonies of West Prussia, although it existed there in older settlements founded prior to the Mennonite immigration. It will be seen that these institutions were introduced in Russia without any direct reference to the Prussian culture pattern.


Many years before the Mennonites of Prussia were even considered as prospective immigrants to Russia, their future socio-economic organization was already provided for by the Government of that country. The second half of the 18th century was the grand era of a large-scale colonial policy in Eastern Continental Europe. While the Western States, above all Spain, England, Portugal and Holland, had been conquering vast lands across the ocean, the Eastern Empires, mainly Austria and Russia, had made successful efforts to reclaim from the Turks territories which had been lost to Christianity in preceding centuries. Now, for them the time had arrived not only to consolidate their rather recent conquests by resettlement but also to improve economic conditions elsewhere in less advanced or depopulated parts of their possessions by agrarian reforms and inner colonization. Prussia had joined the other two powers in their colonial enterprise when, with the partitions of Poland, she added further underdeveloped areas to her original possessions.

It was the absolute monarchs of the day, Frederick II, Catherine II, Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, whose names are inseparably connected with the improvement of economic, social and cultural conditions in Eastern Europe. It is true that the East, land-locked and barred from the highways of modern trade and civilization, appears to have been decades and even centuries behind the Western nations, and in part remains so to this day; but these men and women on the throne assisted by their entourages of select and erudite advisors and ministers, were eager and even admiring disciples of the French and English political and social philosophers and statesmen of the time. In their broad and rational economic and social programme, colonial policy was one pillar closely linked up with the wider concepts of agrarian reform.

With Catherine II, German and Western influences made themselves strongly felt in the expanding realms of Russia, although they had been present ever since Peter I had decided to remodel her into a modern European state. Thus, we will not be surprised to find among the socio-economic institutions, decreed by Catherine and her successors for the benefit of foreign settlers, striking similarities to those which belonged to the old German cultural heritage rather than to typical Russian and Slavonic traditions. We also will understand her eagerness to attract colonists from Germany more than from other neighboring countries. For the establishment of foreign colonies throughout Russia was undertaken not simply with the aim of filling empty spaces with some sort of population, but to improve the agricultural practices, then at a rather low level in the country, through the foundation of veritable model settlements. After a few earlier experiments with Bulgars and Serbs, and with a motley crowd of Central European, including German, immigrants had largely met with disastrous failure, the Russian Government was all the more anxious to secure well-trained farmers from Germany and Austria-Hungary. Among these we find not only the Hutterites and the Bohemian Brethren but above all the West Prussian Mennonites.

On December 4, 1762, and July 22, 1763, the Tsarina issued two manifestos by which foreigners from all over Europe, except Jews, were invited to settle in her possessions. In the second manifesto and the Colonial Law, of March 19, 1764, which was based on it, the following provisions among others were made: Free land was to be provided by the Crown above all in New Russia, that is in the southern Governments of Yekatarinoslav, Cherson and Taurida. Complete freedom of religion was guaranteed. The new colonies were to be formed by homogeneous [13] groups, and districts were to be established for about a thousand families each. Within a district (called volost) villages had to be laid out. All the land within a village became the collective and indivisible property (dominium directum) of the village. Land was apportioned in such a way that every settler-family, registered as belonging to a certain settlement, obtained the heritable possession (dominium utile) of a definite measure of land in that village. Its size varied according to different grants but usually was sixty-five dessiatines in the Mennonite colonies, that is about 175 acres per family and homestead. The remainder of the village land, which in the beginning was quite large, was reserved for the common use by the village community. Some of it was left for common pasture, hay-land, bush and the like. But it also could be leased to private individuals, in which case the rent collected would become part of the community's income. Thus, each village resembled a stock-company and each farmer a shareholder. The homestead was given to a family in permanent usufruct, but if it died out the farm reverted to the community. A certain area of land in each colonial district remained the property of the district as a whole, particularly lakes, marshes, roads, church land and lots for factories, etc. Some of the land was reserved for the establishment of new villages, when such became necessary because of the natural growth of the population. For the same reason, each village had to provide house and garden lots for craftsmen and the like.

No land apportioned to a farm family for heritable usufruct and possession was permitted to be sold, mortgaged or partitioned. Also a law of inheritance was included in these initial provisions; as it was repudiated by the Mennonites and most other foreign colonists we need not spend time discussing it. Of greater significance was the insistence of the law on a free "inner jurisdiction", or as we would say, local autonomy, for each colony. However, the provision was revived and carried out only some time later, after concrete experience had been gained with certain classes of colonists, mainly Mennonites. Thus, a legal framework for foreign settlements had been laid down long before the Mennonites came to Russia. We have now to ask whether they made any original contributions to their further socio-economic organization.

Catherine's manifesto had held out the prospect that further privileges would be granted upon request by way of contracts to be concluded with each group of colonists individually. Thus, the scouts sent by the Prussian Mennonites to Russia before the emigration was decided upon, submitted to the Government a list of special requests. Most of them were granted and the decision was made known to them on March 3, 1788, by the Russian Minister to Danzig. [14] It includes little which would have a hearing on the future form of their settlement.

In July, 1789 the first group of Mennonites from Danzig arrived at the Chortitza river, a small creek flowing into the Dnjepr. [15] The division of the land among the individual settlers was left to their own decision. At first, obviously an attempt was made to settle in exactly the same manner as they had been used to in Prussia: All the land belonging to a homestead was apportioned in one piece (probably in oblong strips), and each homesteader built individually on his own farm. However, repeated attacks made by half-civilized Tartar neighbors and horse-thieves, and the general insecurity of the country, soon forced the settlers to move closer together. [16] The transition from a loose to a compact village habitat apparently was brought about by such incidents. However, it seems unlikely that the same reason suggested the change from consolidated farms to the open-field system which became so characteristic of the Mennonite colonies in Russia. This is shown by the next stage of Russia's colonial legislation.


Up to 1800, conditions in the new settlements were rather chaotic. The letter of the law meant little in comparison with the arbitrary actions, greed and brutality of local officials. This, however, left considerable leeway to the settlers in managing their inner affairs according to their own concepts. After the accession of Tsar Paul I to the throne, the authorities made a strong effort to bring order into the colonial administration; to this end, new laws were reacted in the years 1800, 1801 and 1803. With respect to them, Klaus [17] does not hesitate to say that the Russian Government "convinced of the surprisingly quick success of the Mennonite economy, took the institutions of the Mennonites, up to a certain degree, as a model in the organization of the majority of the other colonies." This judgment is all the more valuable since its author was a high civil servant, who held the title of a state councillor, and had had an opportunity to deal with the matter, for quite a time during the 1860's, in an official capacity. He concludes that in this way the communal family organization of the Mennonites and their legal concepts and practices came to exercise a decisive influence upon all colonies of foreigners in Russia.

The Russian legislation therefore seems to offer an opportunity to infer the manner in which the Mennonites, when more or less left alone, developed their socio-economic organization. On September 6, 1800, they obtained from the new Monarch a gramota (charter) which confirmed and partly extended the privileges previously granted to them. It is interesting to note the special emphasis given by this document to the provision that a homestead is to he considered as the indisputable and permanent possession of a family, but may not be left, sold or donated to non-members of the settlement (Article 2). Another passage refers to the fact that inheritance among them did not follow the rules laid down by the Russian Colonial Law, but their own customary law. Now, the gramota of the Tsar recognized, at least in parts, this significant digression. [18]

The Instructions for the Inner Organization which were issued in the years 1800, 1801 and 1803 not only for the Mennonites, but for most of the other foreign colonists in Russia, went considerably further. The resemblance of these provisions to Mennonite institutions, as registered above for the early Manitoban period, proves conclusively that the latter were directly imported from Russia with only minor changes. The form of village self-administration, as described before for Manitoba, is identical with the Russian regulations. In Manitoba, the "Reserve" takes the place of the volost (district), at the head of which we find in both cases the Oberschulze. In Russia, however, the Schulze (village mayor) and Oberschulze (district reeve) were endowed by law with wide executive and judicial powers, which were shared with village and district assemblies, and in court with the "best men", apparently some sort of jury men. All litigations between Mennonites were dealt with by the Mayor's and the Reeve's Court, the latter acting as superior court, and these elected magistrates also acted as justices of the Peace in concurrence with the communal assemblies. The village assembly had not only the right of expelling a member of the community, thus depriving him of privileges connected with the status of a foreign colonist including the family homestead; it also could sorely impede his freedom of movement by refusing his release from the colonists' "estate without which he was unable to obtain civil status in any other "estate".

Without going further into details, interesting as they may be, we now have to decide the question: what was the original contribution of the Mennonites regarding self-administration? Klaus correctly points out that the complete separation of ecclesiastical from civil power was in perfect agreement with their religious concepts. [19] It is also apparent that the highly democratic form of local self-government fits in well with the congregational organization of their church, according to which their ministers are elected by and from the members of the church, and all major decisions are left to the church meeting (Bruderschaft).

In another respect, however, serious difficulties arose from the fact that the Mennonites themselves had now to take over all the local magistracies and the burden of maintaining law and order in their settlements. The reader will remember that refusal to accept worldly power and offices was one of the principles of the Evangelical Anabaptists. Although Menno Simons has not left any definite doctrine on civil authority, the idea was widespread among Mennonites that force and government is necessary only for the sinners, the "world", while the "saved", that is the members of the true church, although bound to obey the civil authority in non-religious matters, do not need any coercive power in addition to their own conscience and the brotherly discipline of the church. The real test for this concept came when the Mennonites themselves had to take over the full responsibility for their political organization, and were unable to leave it to others to "rule the world" as they had preferred to do before. Of course, they at once ran up against the weakness of human nature, even the human nature of baptized Mennonites and their progeny. Since it was impossible to expel from their communities all those who acted against the principles of their faith, even those who were disciplined by excommunication, the civil authorities, now in the hands of Mennonites, had to resort to force and punitive measures, often very severe ones including corporal punishment, just as any other civil authority elsewhere in the world. This unavoidable inconsistency, in fact, became the main cause of many theological quarrels and church divisions, which occurred in the course of the 19th century.

The basic elements of this communal constitution were obviously copied from similar institutions in Prussia. Not only the name of the Schulze but also his official position as the responsible representative of the colony was a direct import from the old home land of the Mennonites, although the Russian practice apparently opened a wider field to autonomy, particularly in judicial matters. Moreover, we should not underrate the contributions made to the political organization by Russian civil servants in their advisory and supervisory capacities, either as local inspectors attached to each volost or as directors of the Vormundschafts-Kanzlei [20] for foreign Colonists, branches of which were established for larger districts such as New Russia. Since many of these officials were Baltic noblemen of German extraction, and many others learned jurists and expert administrators, it would not come as a surprise to anyone if they took institutions, tried out for centuries in certain parts of Germany, as models for their own proposals submitted to higher authorities as well as to the colonists themselves. We may conclude that self-government in Russia was not only the result of past experience in Prussia and of outside influence, but also of well thought-out and efficient adjustment of inherited forms to new conditions made with direct reference to their congregational, democratic, church organization. Their constitution was not only unlike anything else which existed at the time in the Russian Empire, but still remained one step ahead of what was achieved for the Russian peasantry after their liberation on February 19, 1861.

We already have seen that the customary law of inheritance and their institutions of administering inheritances for orphans and absent heirs were partly legalized by the gramota of 1800. In a petition, submitted by the Mennonites of the Molotshna Colony to the Russian authorities and reprinted by Klaus, [21] we find the following passage: "We are unable to depart in the least detail from our rules regarding inheritance ... these regulations are closely connected with our religious beliefs and principles and are even based on them ..." Now, these rules are materially identical with the principles of the Flemish Law of inheritance which was in wide use throughout the Middle Ages, and which the Mennonites simply assimilated from a social heritage shared by them with all the Hollanders of West Prussia. This is a good example of a social phenomenon common to most cultures: Whatever the roots and origin of a particular culture trait, it tends to assume a magic quality, a religious sanction, when threatened from without. Although the law of inheritance of which we spoke above is in no way connected with Mennonite religion, being an ancient social heritage of the in-group, it was felt by them as a tradition almost as sacred and inalienable as non-resistance or any other of their strictly religious tenets. [22] Eventually, the institution and functions of the Waisenamt as have been described above, were fully recognized by the Russian Law for the Mennonite settlements, and even imitated by other foreign colonies in that country.

The aforementioned colonial laws of 1800, 1801 and 1803 and later additions, (all of them were eventually embodied in the Code of 1842) also throw light on the economic system which the Mennonites had developed in much the same way as their political organization does. As Klaus points out, references contained in the earlier of these statutes clearly show that, originally, all the land belonging to a homestead remained undivided in one consolidated piece. It was the Russian authorities themselves who suggested a re-division of the arable appurtenances of all the farms in a village into three, four, five and more fields. The Instructions for the Inner Organization allow such a compulsory redistribution of the village lands "for the improvement of agriculture" upon majority decision by the village assembly. It is obvious that this was a reversal from the more modern form of the marsh and forest villages to a solidaristic system which we have found as typical for an earlier period, at least in Eastern Central Europe. However, this solidarism had its precedent in the agrarian methods of the Russian peasants. In the ancient Slavic villages, land was partitioned among all inhabitants, though not in open fields and oblong strips yet in scattered irregular blocks (checker-board fields). Under the institution of the mir, which in the 17th century had been imposed upon the Russian peasantry, redistribution of the land held in common property by the village was made periodically according to the "male census soul." One reason for this practice was the wish to assure an equitable partition according to the varying agricultural values of fields. All the property, real and mobile, was being inherited in equal parts by all heirs, as was provided by the ukase of March 23, 1714, by Peter I, although this goes back to an ancient Slavonic custom. While Klaus recognized the similarity between the ideal of equal inheritance which prevailed among the Russian peasants and among the Mennonites he, and most authors afterwards, failed to see the origin of the latter in ancient Western legal practices, but attributed it solely to their religious concepts. In the Russian village, the number of farms and of representatives in the village assembly was multiplied not only with every census but with every death that occurred in the ranks of the operators, and the size of the holding decreased in a lamentable manner. The principle of the indivisibility of real property among the Mennonites, of course, made all the difference from the Russian peasant customs; though this was not simply a result of the special Russian legislation for foreign colonists, but has its precedents among the older agrarian systems of the West, whose influence Klaus erroneously denies.

Thus, we see that the lay-out of farm and farm villages, characteristic of the Mennonites in Russia and Manitoba, stands in between the system of the Russian mir and that prevailing among the Prussian Mennonites. Communal property by villages and heritable usufruct by families was decreed for both by the Russian Government. Division of farm appurtenances into two or more open fields also was a result of government measures. In both cases the family, not the individual, formed the basis of political and economic organization. However, by declaring every farm with all its appurtenances an indivisible family possession, the authorities prevented, in the foreign colonies, the dangerous pulverization of the farm unit which became so characteristic of the Russian peasant economy.

It seems doubtful whether in this respect the Mennonites contributed much to the final socioeconomic organization of their colonies in Russia, apart from their Prussian and Dutch social heritages. Only one, though important, exception to this general statement has to be made, namely, that the Mennonites adjusted themselves quickly and as a whole readily to the new legal framework set up by the Russian Government. Klaus' conclusions, therefore, seem to the point when he says: "The principle of communal property of land, which is known to Mennonites abroad, appears however as de jure completely identical with the communal-religious doctrines and statutes of their church order. On the other hand, the principle, according to which one person should operate a farm, corresponds with the agricultural methods of the Mennonites. For, this principle gave the Mennonite community the full opportunity to develop logically that system of personal-communal economy the essential points of which had been already established by the Law of March 19, 1764." [23]

We are now able to answer the questions raised in the beginning of our discussion. The following factors can be distinguished which are responsible for the socio-economic organization of the Mennonites in early Manitoba:

(A) Certain elements are part of a social heritage developed in the Hollander villages of West Prussia without any reference to peculiar religious beliefs. These are: law of inheritance, indivisibility of the farm, row village; and in a rudimentary form: village self-government, communal fire insurance, and perhaps the administration of orphans' money by some church institution. As all these institutions remained within the framework of the legal system at the time prevailing in West Prussia, and were fully safeguarded by the ordinary courts and superior civil authorities, there is no reason to assume that the Mennonite Church had any cause or opportunity of taking over public functions in the fields of economy, local government and law. Moreover, it must be kept in mind, that the Mennonite religion was only tolerated by either of the recognized churches, Evangelical and Catholic, as well as by the State; it had no official status, and probably few, if any, of the Hollander villages were made up exclusively of Mennonites.

(B) For the first time in their history, the movement to Russia made possible the organization of homogeneous communities exclusively comprising Mennonite church members and their unbaptized children. Contacts with the out-group were tabooed by the church, and made difficult through difference of language, and this segregation was fully recognized by the Russian code of law and administrative practice. Thus assimilation of Slavic culture traits was largely excluded. Moreover, there was a strong tendency to give the fullest religious unction to institutions which originally had no religious connotation, but had become part of their social heritage.

(C) New culture traits were introduced in Russia mainly under the influence of government legislation, such as: the strongly solidaristic character of the colony and above all of the village community, combined with private, though collectively controlled, operation of the individual farm by the family. The general framework of the social and economic organization of the Mennonite colonies in Russia was laid down independently from and prior to their immigration. Later on, however, it was partly adjusted to their own customs, and to spontaneous developments within their settlements which were stimulated by novel environment. These modifications concern principally the form and extent of local self-administration. The introduction of the open-field system is entirely due to Russian economic planning.

(D) The religious concepts of the group played largely a supporting and selective role in the formation of these institutions. None of them were completely new inventions of the Mennonite group as such. On the other hand, the church was always a decisive factor in the preservation of once accepted culture traits. When the law and institutions of the country failed to protect them any longer, the church-contrary to the traditional principle of strict division between church and civil authority- took over a large proportion of the latter's functions. Thus we may say that only in combination with social heritage, migration and the isolation resulting therefrom, and a legal system imposed and enforced from outside, did religion produce the institutions which became characteristic of the Mennonite culture in early Manitoba.


1 See R. J. Smithson, The Anabaptists, London (1935); a valuable analysis is given by Ernst Miller, Geschichte der Bernischen Taeufer, Frauenfeld, 1895; cf. also H. S. Bender, "The Anabaptist Vision," Mennonite Quarterly Review, April, 1944, and D. E. Smucker, "The Theological Triumph of the Early Anabaptist Mennonites," ibidem, January, 1945.

2 C. H. Smith, The Story of the Mennonites, 1941, p. 383.

3 E. Correll, "The Sociological and Economic Significance of the Mennonites as a Culture group in History," MQR, July, 1942.

4 In German: Siedlungsform der Gememschaft. Cf. R. Koetzschke and W. Ebert, Geschichte der ostdeutschen Kolonisation, Leipzig, 1937. B. Huppertz, Raeume and Schichten haeuerlicher Kulturformen in Deutschland, 1939, maintains that scattered settlement with Eschfiur, as still found in Westphalia, was characteristic for the ancient Germanic culture. The progress of urban culture from the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages brought about a tendency to move closer together also in rural areas. According to Huppertz, the solidaristic type of settlement is closely connected with crop rotation and three-fallow economy; it originated in France from where it spread over Germany and to Eastern Europe. The marsh village, on the other hand, came into being in Flanders and Holland from where it was brought to the East by colonists in the 12th and 13th as well as in the 16th and 17th centuries. The forest village, finally, is considered as a later variety of the marsh village, probably also instigated by Flemish immigrants to Central Germany.

5 English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass., 1941.

6 In this way, the existence of a whole village settlement could be endangered it only the one member separated, on whose quarter-section the buildings of all the farmers happened to he erected. Such cases did actually occur, for instance in Neuanlage near Gretna.

7 Cf. W. M. Kollmorgen "The Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, Pa. (Culture of a Contemporary Rural Community)", Rural Life Studies 4 (1942). U.S.A. Department of Agriculture (mimeographed publication), and John Horsch, The Hutreriari Brethren, Goshen, Ind., 1931.

8 That in the old villages of West Prussia the Mennonites lived intermingled with nonMennonites, follows clearly from the account given on early settlement by H. Bertram, in H. Bertram, W. La Baume and O. Kloeppel, Das Weichsel-Nogat-Deita, Danzig, 1924.

9 Cf. W. von Bruenneck, Zur Geschichte des Grundeigenthums in Ost' and Westpreussen, Vol. 1: Die koelmischen Gueter, Berlin, 1891.

10 "Vom flamischen Recht der niederlandischen Kolonisten im nordlichen and ostlichen Deutschland wissen wir, Bass ihm das gleiche Erbrecht der Sohne and Tochter and der ubrigen Blutsvewandten der damit begabten Grundbesitzer, ohne Unteschied des Geschlechts, immanent war. Zugleich verknupfte sich damit bei stattgehabter Veheiratung die eheliche Halbteilung." ".. Nach flamischem Recht and dem adoptierten Prinzip der ehelichen Halbteilung gebuhrt (sc. dem Ehegatten), wean nicht schon bei Lebzeiten, so doth beim 'lode des anderen Ehegatten, (lie Halfte des beiderseitigen Gattenvermogens (sog. kolmische Halfte)." Brunneck, l.c., pp. 3, 80.

11 Bertram, LaBaume and Kloepel, l.c., reproduce the plan of a West Prussian medieval Angerdorf or nucleated village. The same habitat is found in certain towns of New England.

12 Cf. A. Klaus, Unsere Kolonien, Odessa, 1887. (German translation of a Russian book, published in 1869).

13 The homogeneity of a group was determined not only by nationality hut mainly by church affiliation.

14 This and a great number of other legal documents concerning the Mennonite colonies in Russia, have been published in the German text or in German translations from Russian originals, by D. H. Epp, Die Chortitzer Mennonites, Rosenthal near Chortitz, Russia, (1888), and Franz Isaak, Die Molotschnaer Mennoniten, Halbstadt, Taurien, 1908.

15 This settlement was located on the Eastside of the Dnjepr, in the guberme of Yekatarinoslav.

16 Epp, l.c., chapter 111.

17 Lc ., p. 163 I .

18 Cf. Epp. l.c., p. 66; Klaus l.c., Appendix, p. 114.

19 It was only in the course of later events that a rather serious blending between church and civil affairs took place, particularly in the Molotshna colony. In their extended struggle against demands advanced by the landless members of the community, the party of the farmers frequently used the church as a powerful weapon in the defense of their interests. This was all the easier to be achieved as elders and preachers usually were elected from the ranks of the wealthy farmers. In order to suppress dissident church groups, which were composed largely of the economically and socially dissatisfied elements, the ministers organized themselves into district conferences, which closely cooperated with the civil district authorities, not always to the advantage of religion. Cf. Klaus, l.c., Isaak, l.c., and P.M. Friesen, Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Bruederschaft in Russland, 1789-1910, Halbstadt, 1911.

20 Department for the Care of Foreign Colonists.

21 L.c., p. 238.

22 "With exactly the same tenacity and religious arguments, Mennonites have repeatedly upheld others of their folkways such as dress, church language and music, beards (or the shaving of them; as the case may he), etc.

23 l.c., p. 199f.

Page revised: 21 November 2020