Monday, May 5, 2014
In Praise of Ukrainian Mennonites
The beleaguered country of Ukraine continues to be much in the news, and no one knows what is going to happen there.
In March I wrote an article titled “What about Crimea?” Of course, Ukraine was mentioned several times in that article. But this time I am writing about events in Ukraine in the 18th and 19th centuries and not about the current turmoil there.
In the article about Crimea, I mentioned Catherine the Great, who was the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796. (I mentioned her because she annexed Crimea to Russia in 1783.)
Soon after becoming Empress, Catherine issued a manifesto in 1763 inviting Europeans to move to the Ukrainian area of Russia and to farm the unoccupied agricultural lands there.
Many Europeans moved east to do just that, including many Mennonite Christians from the country we now know as Poland.
In 1787 two Mennonites from Prussia (Poland) visited Russia and were even able to meet with the Empress.
Catherine promised that if they moved to Ukraine, each family would be given 175 acres of free land and they all would be given special privileges, including religious freedom, exemption from military service, and the right to establish their own schools and teach in their own language (Low German).
That sounded good to them, so their migration to Ukraine began. In 1789, 228 families formed the first colony there, about 125 miles north of Crimea.
The second wave of migration was in 1803-04, two years after Alexander, Catherine’s grandson, had become Emperor of Russia. That colony, Molotschna, was less than 100 miles from Crimea. It became the largest Mennonite colony in Ukraine.
By 1806 there were 365 families living in Molotschna. In the years that followed, others families from Prussia joined them. During their journey there in 1820-21, one group met Emperor Alexander, who wished them well (wohl in German). Consequently, they decided to name their new village Alexanderwohl.
In 1870, the Russian government issued a proclamation stating its intention to end by 1880 all special privileges granted to the Mennonites. Alarmed at the possibility of losing those privileges, especially their military exemption, many of them decided to migrate to the United States.
Among them was the entire congregation of the Alexanderwohl church, who in 1874 migrated to Marion County, Kansas.
A couple of years ago, as June and I were driving south from Abilene to Newton, Kansas, we came upon the largest open country church building we had ever seen. It turned out to be the building of the Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, which was constructed in 1886. (It has been remodeled and added on to at various times through the years.)
As you know, a lot of winter wheat is grown in Kansas. But you may not know that it was the Ukrainian Mennonites who first began to grow wheat there, having carried wheat seed with them when they migrated to Kansas in the 1870s.
Many of our church friends now are descendants of those Mennonites who came to Kansas from Ukraine.
Also, some of you know our oldest son Keith and his wife Brenda. Brenda’s mother was from a Mennonite family, and all eight of her great-grandparents lived in the Molotschna colony in Ukraine, although their families migrated to Minnesota rather than to Kansas.
Largely because of the strong desire to maintain their pacifistic beliefs, many Mennonites migrated to Ukraine and then later from Ukraine to the United States and elsewhere. For that reason, among others, it seems to me that the Ukrainian Mennonites are praiseworthy indeed.