It is not entirely clear that Pietism predated Anabaptism – in as much as Zwingli is considered to be an Anabaptist antecedent, and Dirk Philips is considered an Anabaptist founder, so would any reformer that displayed the key ingredients of the pietist theo-philosophy be by definition worked into the Radical Reformation as an Anabaptist or at least, heavily and perhaps fatally suspected of significant Anabaptist-leanings. Just as the Mennonite and Hutterite Anabaptists built on the traditions of Zwingli, Huss, and the Waldenses, and even, for that matter, on Luther and Calvin, the Pietists represent a distinctive moment in time, separate but probably heavily influenced by Anabaptism – especially the Anabaptist strains from the Netherlands and Danzig.
Most notably, Spener was, and remained, a Lutheran born about 100 years after the death of Menno Simons. Of the Pietist precedents, none shines out more clearly than Johann Arndt. In The Pietist Theologians, Carter Lindberg puts forth a pretty strong case that while Arndt was definitely a contributor to Pietism, he was not in the end a true Pietist and that the honorific of “Father of Pietism” should remain on the faithful shoulders of Spener and his Pia Desiderata. Arguably, both Arndt and Spener contributed significant personal and new content to the shaping of Pietism and peculiar approaches to the combined influences of the Luther Reformation, the Dutch-German Mystical traditions dating back to the Middle Ages, and the spirited Anabaptism that those men saw around them. In fact, we know from his biographical narrative that Arndt was acquainted with and probably influenced by Mennonite neighbors and business connections. Interestingly, his exclamatory exclamation contra his Mennonite neighbor leaves room for being both influenced by the Mennonites as well as sharing a new discovery with them -- that they, the Mennonites, would want to keep such a wonderful things to themselves.
Adjusting Spener’s Pia Desiderata for the benefit of hindsite, it is not difficult to fit his particular vision into a specific time-frame and situation – that of a true Protestant (Lutheran) informed by but not directly participating in the Anabaptist Reformation of a generation earlier. His five points are meant to address failings within the Protestant church – failings that are clearly brought forth in the writings of Menno Simons and the other Anabaptist leaders and writers to counter Protestant charges of heresy against the Anabaptists and to help define and differentiate the Narrow Anabaptist movement from both the Radical Munsterites and the “worldly, unfinished” churches of the Calvinists and Lutherans. In fact, Spener’s principles could easily have been drawn from his observations comparing the defects he felt were evidenced in the contemporary Prussian church with the spirituality of his Anabaptist neighbors. What he was in fact doing, was echoing the same call of the early Mennonites to the Protestants to “finish the reformation that they had begun but abandoned,” using the same church methods and practices apparent to a passive observer of the pastoral Anabaptist church-villages (gemienden). That he was influenced but not taught by the Anabaptists is possibly evidenced by his easy acceptance of the sacraments (symbols and signs) of the Lutheran Church, including pedo-baptism, and Lutheranism’s basic church structure, both internally and within the state. What Spener wanted was the intense spiritual vibrancy he noted amongst the Mennonites and read about from the classic Dutch and German mystics, especially the rationalized mysticism of Johann Arndt. In other words, Spener’s Pia Desiderata could be read as a desire to adopt the forms and spirituality of the Anabaptists without adopting their core theology or rejecting the Lutheran state-church structure.
That being said, then what do we find happening in Gnadenfelde, Russian Ukraine, almost a century and a-half later? The answer is as simple as the single word – Reform. Just as Spener looked to the Anabaptist reforms of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches for his inspiration, so too would the more spiritually-minded Russlander Anabaptists look back to Spener for inspiration to reform their own churches, which had by that time grown cold and mouldy with the passing of time and entrenchment of spiritual entitlements, elitism, and heavy traditions. In fact, the Russlander Pietism took hold in Russia not just as the casual result of accidental meetings and migrations, but rather as the purposeful intent of the Prussian migrants’ desire to reform their own religion and moribund ethnic tradition. Wall clearly demonstrates that the Mennonite Pietist reform movement had clearly established itself in Prussia prior to the migration. Understand, that at this time, the Prussian Mennonites had settled in and become some of the most prosperous, comfortable, and “traditional” of the ethnic Mennonites. Given Anabaptism’s evangelical heritage and focus on the personal relationship with God (priesthood of the believer, et al), Anabaptist congregations are generally rife with attempts to reform and perfect both personal lifestyles and that of the general congregation – a fact that has made Mennonites both very self aware and Mennonite –Amish congregations quite prone to schism. It is likely that this situation was exacerbated by the Kaiser’s call of the Mennonites to Prussian military service. In such a case, each individual would be forced to examine his or her own personal conscience and comfort level with such a demand, and each congregation would be called upon to formulate its own collective response to such a crisis. Common-sense dictates that there would be those who feel compelled to assimilate and accept the Kaiser’s “realistic” and “understandable” demands, and those who cannot accept the Kaiser’s challenge to the Anabaptist world view or weltenshaung. Once these differences in perspective and toleration for change are out in the open, divisions or parties will become apparent. In a case where such a decision could impact the personal freedom and economic well being of not only the individual, but of the entire community or gemiende, the assimilationists would understandably call for understanding and restraint on the part of the traditionalists, while the traditionalists could understandably see such accommodation as a spiritual weakness or lack of conformity to tradition and call for repentance by those individuals and reform of the church that tolerates and produces such “Christians”. In as much as the surrounding non-Mennonite Pietists were probably preaching their reform to all people, Lutheran, Calvinist, Mennonite, and even Catholics, the Lutheran Pietist call to reform would have hit upon a receptive audience, providing encouragement and support to the reform-minded Mennonites who were already calling for a church reform back to the pacifist and separatist principles of their forebears – adoption of the Pietist reform movement would not only strengthen the pre-existing Anabaptist tendency for personal piety, but provide evidence by the back-slidden Mennonites of the vitality and renewal of their faith.
Encouraged by their adoption of the new Pietism, and determined to faithfully adhere to their traditional religious pacifist perspectives, those determined to migrate from Prussia to Russo-Ukraine would have been more receptive to the Pietist teachings in Prussia, and more prone to define themselves as Pietist Mennonites in Russo-Ukraine.
In the case of the Prussian Russlander, their openness to and companionship with non-Mennonites such as Lange probably indicate that their Pietist impulses had already taken root before Eduard Wust even arrived on the scene in Gnadenfelde, Molotschna.
The taking up of Wust as a spiritual leader probably indicates a failure of assimilation by the core group of Prussian immigrants – especially the ancestral forebears of the heavily Pietistic Kleine Gemeinde (KG, now EMC) and the future Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (EMB-FEBC). A necessity for similar reform of similarly prosperous, spiritually toned-down farmer communities as found in Prussia was probably encountered amongst the more established Grosse Gemeinde of Molotschna, and to be blunt, just as in the days of Anabaptism, the Pietist Enlightenment of Gnadenfelde coincided with the call to reform of other aspects of church, social and economic life in response to heavy industrialization (or the desire for such economic development), the Napoleonic reforms and new efficiencies in governance, the Democratic reforms of the French Revolution, and the upcoming Liberal Revolutions of 1848.
In fact, one might argue that if Wust had not made himself available to the Mennonites, that an alternative Wust would have had to be found.
Lest one is tempted to overstate the impact Wust had on the Gnadenfelde Mennonites, I find it dubious to believe that he “led the Mennonites to Pietism” but rather that those who had already been exposed to it in Prussia and those among the established Russlander who were predisposed to outside ideas and calls to reform for intellectual, social and economic reasons, simply availed themselves of the opportunity Wust offered to make him a sort of head or focal point of the movement. At the same time, as indicated by Wall, Wust never adopted Anabaptist practices relating to the liturgy or regarding pedo-baptism, nor did those Mennonites who attended his services and evangelistic meetings adopt Lutheranism. As far as the EMB are concerned, we are certain that Wust impacted and probably conversed Aron Wall, Isaac Peters, and Henry Epp (amongst others) and that those future founders of the EMB movement in the United States were at the same time known for their traditional conservatism and love of tradition. One might be justified in believing that in Peters' case at least, that Wust was the instrument used to call for a personal reform of the individual and of the church that would lead it back to its understood traditional values – especially amongst the KG and future Petersgemeinde or Ebenezer Churches. Certainly, Peters, who is described as “the most learned of men in the traditions of the Mennonites” saw no discrepancy between Pietism and traditional Anabaptism. In his person, he clearly sought to re-institute both, as did the KG.
Generations of living comfortable and yet segregated lives under the Kaiser and the Tsar had left the Prusso-Russlanderen with a situation of established, secularized, ethno-religiosity. Forced by Frederick’s cancellation of the pacifist exclusion for the Mennonites to take a stance on the value of their spiritual faith to the comfort of their lifestyles, those Prussian’s who migrated to Russia were by definition either economic opportunists or more traditionally conservative (meaning allied to the values and practices of the Radical personalized (in-dwelt) Reformation of the martyrs. This combined with the presence of Wust to solidify the hold of Pietism as a reform movement amongst the Mennonites of Molotschna and led to schisms that allowed the KG, the Mennonite Brethren, and later the EMB to withdraw from the Grosse Gemeinde or larger, accommodating Mennonite population who saw these calls for reform and individuality as a threat against the lifestyles and social networks that they had been forced to build and had worked so hard to establish in the uncertain foreignness of Russo-Ukraine.
At this point, I believe that the Mennonites of Russia (including the Prussian migrants) had hit one of those historic turning points where they were being forced to change and re-examine their values and lifestyles. Many forces confronted them – passive forces of economic, social and political change, the absorption of many new colonists while trying to find land for the existing Russlander, the Tsar’s direct attempts at modernizing the state and society of the Russian Empire, and increased interaction (both formal and informal) between the Russlander and the Jewish and Slavic populations of neighboring communities and cities. As such, the need to migrate to North America both repeated the earlier trends apparent in the Prussian Migration, and possibly interrupted the natural progression of the growing schism amongst the Mennonites of Molotschna and Chortiza, possibly interrupting the spread of Pietism to Chortiza and Samara, and delaying the schisms of preachers and congregations such as Epp, Peters, and Wall until after they reached the safety of the North American plains. Once in the Americas, the immigrants found themselves in an unsettled situation where they were both forced to reorganize their society and churches, and left free by circumstances and the democratic tolerance of the United States and Canadian Federation to separate and form their own communities and churches, established in whatever manner they saw fit. Arguably, this is the situation that Epp, Peters, Aron Wall, and CM Wall found themselves in Henderson, Nebraska, and Mountain Lake, Minnesota, respectively. According to historians such as Royce Loewen, the KG in Jansen, Nebraska, and Steinbach, Manitoba, were likewise freed to reconsider and reorganize themselves leading to the establishment of Ebenezer-Bruderthaler or Holdeman churches in those communities as well – adding only that economic and social frustrations may have played a clearer role in the KG reforms than in the more General Conference-affected Henderson and Mountain Lake congregations.
Now comes the kicker and the point that prevented the coming together of the EMB and the MB – that in the United States, at about the time, under the somewhat different guise and somewhat different direct motivations, the EMB and MB were both free to redefine themselves so as to freely express their Pietist tendencies as Anabaptists but with or without the additional tools and teachings of the United States fundamentalist movement. Crucially, the fundamentalists and the Petersgemeinde were both calling for a return to traditional values, were endorsing a Pietistic or Pietist-like personal lifestyle, and both reacting to (though possibly in different ways) the challenges of Modernism. (at this point one might argue that the American Fundamentalists were ironically arguing to separate themselves from and withdraw from the scary Modernist-leaning society while the EMB were reacting to Modernism by opening themselves up to the possibilities and interactions that that very society offered. This is complicated by the challenges they faced as German speakers in an English-language environment, but the distinct desire to reach out to their new society is clearly evidenced in the EMB tradition. In a way, one might observe that the shared language and goals but different motivations, understandings, history, and socio-political positions of the Mennonites and the American Evangelicals met in the group of EMBers to maximize cooperation in shared goals and Biblicism while minimizing the more damaging dangerous and/or excessive tendencies of the larger Mennonite or Fundamentalist movements, in effect establishing an early version of the later Evangelical Free Movement that later come to represent if not define the centrist, moderated Evangelical Fundamentalism of the United States and Canada.