The migrations from Prussia to Russia proved to be mere stop-gaps to the larger problem posed by the two-kingdom theology – how to subject yourself in total obedience to one’s Lord and Saviour as indicated by conscience, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the wisdom of the consensus of the Fellowship, and to yet subject oneself to the needs and desires of the temporal government under which God has placed them and to whose authority their earthly well-being has been remanded. Their commitment to the two-kingdom theology and its corollaries made the Russländer Mennonites more than just periodic martyrs. In their determination to avoid a spiritual compromise with Modernity, the Russian Mennonites have possibly become perpetual refugees.
An interesting and oft underexplored position of the Mennonites is that essential definition or understanding of temporal lordship. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) determined that a ruler’s authority was limited to the land under his or her direct rule and was further restricted to prevent the ruler’s incursion into the conscience of his or her subjects. Equally important to this binding of the sovereign’s will directly to the realm was the loosing of the peasant and the citizen from the land – whereby the peasant Mennonites were to find themselves released from being defined as chattel to the real estate and free to migrate – free to place themselves voluntarily under the authority of sovereigns who would freely allow the Mennonites to pursue their religion and lives in conscience to the Lord, and the urbanized artisanal Mennonites were free to travel and trade more-or-less at will.
The states and kingdoms thus faced significant issues. In 1793, Napoleon Bonaparte threatened to bring all of Europe under the rule of the French Empire he had created by forcing Modernization on the failed and fallen Kingdom of France. Amongst the tools of this empire were the mass conscription of citizens in a drafted military, the strength of the French Charter or Rights of Man (interestingly co-authored by the United States’ revolutionary war heroes the Marquis de Lafayette and the future U.S. President Thomas Jefferson), and the justice of the Napoleonic Code. While Napoleon’s conquest would eventually meet its demise under the allied armies of Britain, Sweden, Prussia and Russia at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon had nonetheless changed the rules and cost of warfare and thereby the necessary structures of the modern nation state, forever. The return of Napoleon to the marshaling of armies in 1812 and his near capture of Moscow, and the repeated intervention of modern Britain forced the evolving empires of eastern and central Europe to strengthen their own capacities for war – either to avoid another Napoleon, or to avoid an embarrassing dependency on the liberal kingdom of Great Britain. While Russia could depend on vast open spaces, winter and summer extremes, and seemingly limitless masses of peasant farmers for her defense, other states such as Prussia and the Austro-Hungarians sought to modernize their war capacities while reserving as much authority to the established imperial powers-that-be as was possible (King, Army, Church). Frederick the Great and his successors had to impress the citizenry of the Prussian realm into military service – but they could no longer direct or command the obedience of freemen such as the Mennonites had become. They found himself demanding compliance or offering exile – serve or move – initiating the second great wave of migration to Ukraine’s Molotschna Villages.
By the mid-century, St Petersburg too would find itself in need of completing the modernization began under the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine II, the Great. Unwilling and unable to depend on the forces and peoples whom the Tsar distrusted in his or her own empire, the Empire of the Russias looked towards central Europe for programs and expertise – bullheadedly, and as some would see it historically, naïve and incorrect. Regardless, in 1868, Tsar Alexander III used the same dire wording once used by Frederick William II – and so informed the Mennonites of the Ukraine by agent of their loss of status. Similarly to Frederick William II, Alexander gave the Mennonites ten years to acclimate themselves to the new reality or to remove themselves from his realms.
Unlike their fellow Russlander or Ausleider, the Mennonites were thus faced with a problem of conscience – while all were free to give up the special privileges under which they had established lives, villages and families and become “true” Russians, only the Mennonites were being forced to contemplate being forced to act against their religion and their personal conscience. Like the companions of Daniel, they had to a point refused to eat the rich meats and delicacies of religious conformity and had separated themselves by a simple and healthy spiritual diet. Yet, as did Daniel’s boon companions find themselves confronted by guile were forced eventually to choose between bowing to the image of the King or to obey their conscience, a certain few, roughly 4,000 persons or 1/3 of the population of the Mennonite commonwealth in Ukraine, prepared to leave. As did Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander also eventually realized what he had done and the depth of faith amongst the Mennonite peoples and offered a compromise. In exchange for alternative service, the Tsar offered to exempt the Mennonite peoples from greater commitment to the Imperial armies. According to subsequent EMB tradition, no fault would be held against those who chose to stay in Russia under the new terms, apart from an oft-quietly voiced criticism that many had chosen to remain behind in comfort and luxury rather than to follow their conscience. Yet, this was a judgment that had already begun to grow with the spread of Pietism amongst the late ancestors of the EMB through Wust’s teachings in Gnadenfelde. The decision of many of the Grossegemeinde to remain in Russia probably served merely to confirm spiritual prejudices already existent to the renewal and reform minded Bruderthaler and Petersgemeinde. In many ways, Alexcander III’s expulsion probably preserved the unity of the Mennonite gemeinde in Russia by allowing those in dissent or who sought reform to leave rather than to force a separation as had occurred with the withdrawal of the Mennonite Brethren (MB) in 1860.
As historians we are also confronted with a questioning of the official narrative – to what extent were these Mennonites immigrants and to what extent refugees? Generally, Mennonites in the United States have held that like their fellow Russlander, the Mennonites were also economic immigrants whom the various American states and Canadian provinces vied against each other to attract. Yet, contrary to the reasoned arguments of General Eduard Totleben and despite the Tsar’s late concessions, the Mennonites were still being confronted the need to conform or remove themselves from Russia. As would be later demonstrated by the Soviet heirs of the Russian Empire, failure to comply with the ordered assimilation would bear tragic, often deadly consequences. At no point was a consideration made to honor the agreement of freedom of conscience under which the Mennonites had originally been attracted. Unlike the Lutheran and Catholic Russlander who were attracted by economic and lifestyle opportunities in the New World, the Mennonites more or less sought a refuge. The early Bruderthaler and Petersgemeinde were quite possibly in fact refugees – a status made permanent with the next generation and the fall of the Tsar and the destruction of the gemiende communal structure.
Because we today distinguish between refugees and immigrants, and accord special rights and understanding to those who enjoy refugee status, an accurate understanding of the 19 and 20th Century position of the Mennonites in the United States and Canada entails greater attention to their actual, not perceived status. Furthermore, we now understand that the pressures and cultural psychology of the two statuses have been established as quite unique from each other and are in fact very different. In this case, the two key facts seem to be that the primary motivation for moving was not in fact simple economics but rather to avoid the penalty for continuing in their ancestral religion and openly practicing their established beliefs. Secondly, they would be explicitly forbidden this freedom of conscience and freedom of worship were they to attempt to remain. Whether or not their eventual status improved or not is irrelevant. As the Kleine Gemeinde established in Jansen, Nebraska, the move was intended to transplant a specific way of life and set of beliefs to a setting where they could abide in peace, not to where they could perhaps become wealthy – to state their primary motivation as otherwise runs the danger of mistaking their determination and later success to base material considerations rather than a strong spiritual commitment and determination. We owe them this much – to at least consider the alternatives.
The argument that I put forward simply indicates that the Mennonites of the 1874 Migration had more in common with their early Swiss forebears who sought shelter under William Penn than with the greater majority of their fellow immigrants to the prairies. This point must also be staked out for out of it stems the argument that the United States of America and the nation of Canada were founded not merely as economic plantations but included a significant commitment to religious tolerance and freedom and define these young nations beyond being mere economic clubs but as a pact to shelter those in need, i.e. refugees – a commitment that in and of itself bears specific political fruit that must not be allowed to fade from lack of diligent attention.