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.


  1. What a fascinating piece of Ukrainian and Kansas history, Leroy! Thanks.

  2. Local Thinking Friend Eric Dollard wrote,

    "Leroy, thanks for your interesting comments below. There is also a large population in north central Kansas of Volga Germans, who are mostly Roman Catholic. Their ancestors had also emigrated to Ukraine and Russia at the invitation of Catherine and then later to the U S.

    "As for the Mennonites, many went to Canada, which now has about 200,000 Mennonites. Many of the Canadian Mennonites live in Manitoba, which also has a sizable population of Ukrainian Orthodox, so the Mennonites (and German Catholics) were not the only ones to emigrate from Ukraine.

    "It was interesting, in crossing the Canadian border from Minnesota into Manitoba, to see the transition from Lutheran and Catholic churches in Minnesota to the onion-domed Orthodox churches of Manitoba."

    1. Eric, thanks for your comments. They help correct two misunderstandings my article might have triggered.

      (1) Certainly, Kansas and Minnesota were not the only places the Ukrainian Mennonites emigrated to. As you correctly pointed out, there are also many who emigrated to Canada. I am a bit confused about the numbers, though. The Canadian Encyclopedia gives the number of Mennonites in Canada as 200,000, which you cited, but the Mennonite Church Canada, said to be the largest of the Mennonite denominations, lists only 31,000 members on their current website.

      (2) Also, it is true that various church groups in addition to the Mennonites migrated to and from Ukraine for various reasons. Pacifism was not the main reason for other groups' emigrating, nor was it the only reason for the Mennonites--but I think it was the main reason for the latter.

  3. Thinking Friend, and church historian, Glenn Hinson wrote,

    "That's very interesting, Leroy. Mennonites deserve more attention than we've given them in church history."

  4. Local Thinking Friend Jerry Cain, sent the following comment:

    "This is a wonderful history lesson. What a wonderful example of radical adjustment to maintain a radical principle."

  5. When I wrote the above blog article, I had forgotten that Dr. Fred Belk, my old college friend and current Thinking Friend, had written a book titled "The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia: 1880-1884"

    The first chapter is about Mennonite backgrounds, the second chapter includes information about Mennonites moving to Ukraine, and the third chapter contains information about how some of them moved to the U.S.

    So while the bulk of the book is not directly related to the blog posting, there is much in the first three chapters which is.