Finding a Home: How the Migration of 1874 Shaped the Alexanderwohl Mennonites and Central Kansas Through their Leadership

Issue 2023, vol. 77


Over the course of about 300 years, Mennonites migrated across the continent of Europe searching for a nation that would accept them. Mennonites were often persecuted in Europe for various religious reasons – driven out of the places they called home and forced to find new nation-states that would allow them to live there. Oftentimes, these migrations only took place after countless hours of negotiations and deliberations by church leaders. Eventually, groups of Mennonites started to leave Europe to escape religious persecution. Many moved to the United States for the promise of religious freedom. One of these was a group of Mennonites from Russia led by Elder Jacob Buller. This group, the Alexanderwohl Mennonites, moved to central Kansas at the end of the 19th century and had a profound impact on the community there. Church leaders were instrumental in establishing institutions like schools and hospitals that would directly influence the success of the community that would come to be known as Goessel, as well as in surrounding communities in central Kansas.

The Mennonites in Russia

Throughout their history in Europe, the group of people who would become known as the Alexanderwohl Mennonites were forced to migrate across the continent as they faced religious persecution or military conscription in the various nation-states where they lived. Originally from the Netherlands, these Mennonites migrated to West Prussia between 1600 and 1650, where they stayed for several years.[1] The Mennonites were well received at first because of their farming skills. However, as militaristic trends started to rise in West Prussia, the Mennonites began to be viewed with animosity because they refused to perform military service. This led to the West Prussian government enacting laws that limited what Mennonites were able to do. For example, they could only buy and sell property amongst themselves; they could not proclaim their faith to anyone who was not already a Mennonite.[2]

These developments in West Prussia caused Mennonite communities to start looking for alternatives. As persecution rose in West Prussia, new developments in Russia made that nation seem like a viable place for the Mennonites to migrate. By 1785, the Russians had expanded their empire and were looking for people to settle their newly acquired lands. They sent agents to recruit colonists. One of these agents, George Trappe, traveled to Mennonite communities to try and convince them to move to Russia. Many were skeptical of Trappe’s message, but two Mennonites, Jacob Höppner and Johann Bartsch, agreed on Sept. 22, 1786, to travel Russia to find a suitable spot for the Mennonites to settle.[3] During their travels, Höppner and Bartsch were able to negotiate with Empress Catherine of Russia about terms and conditions concerning where the Mennonites would settle and how they would be treated once they arrived. After some deliberation, leaders of some of the Mennonite congregations signed an agreement with Empress Catherine on Sept. 7, 1787.[4]

Mennonites started migrating to Russia. However, the group that would become known as the Alexanderwohl Mennonites did not migrate from West Prussia to South Russia until 1820.[5] The Przechovka Church, as they were known before their migration, decided to move because they could see no future for their community in West Prussia. Therefore, under the leadership of Elder Peter Wedel, the group migrated to the Molotschna Colony.[6] Wedel, who was 28 at the time, led his community on a trip of several months to their new settlement. On their journey, they encountered Emperor Alexander I, who stopped to have a conversation about the migration with the leaders. Alexander I wished the Mennonites well on their journey. This visit had such an impact on the community that when they arrived in Russia at the Molotschna settlement, they decided to name their church “Alexanderwohl,” to commemorate how Alexander I had wished them well (“wohl”).[7] Wedel’s leadership during the migration, as well as the further development of different leaders and leadership structures while they were in Russia, would benefit the Alexanderwohl community as they prepared to migrate once more in 1874.

Normally, individuals did not migrate on their own. Instead, congregations and communities usually went together. Mennonite congregations in Europe tended be more tight-knit communities that functioned as self-sustaining entities.[8] These groups wanted to remain separate from the world – pure – in preparation for the final days and the Lord’s return. They often tried to refrain from involvement in communities outside their own, including interaction with citizens of the country they lived in. However, this also meant they cut themselves off from other Mennonites, and that the Mennonites in Russia as a whole were becoming more diverse. Mennonites in Europe often settled as rural farming communities, creating isolation through physical separation from others. But for the most part, Mennonite communities never achieved total isolation – they still relied on markets and merchants in surrounding villages to acquire goods they did not have the ability to produce.[9]

These communities built their own hierarchical systems to govern both church and civic matters. Leaders were elected by the members of the congregation, so they usually had jobs outside their position of authority in the church. At the top of this structure was the elder, who was in charge of all affairs of the church. Teachers and ministers served under the elder and often gave the sermons, while deacons aided in minor congregational matters.[10] This structure remained true for the Alexanderwohl Mennonites who settled in the Molotschna region.


The Molotschna region in Russia was first settled by Mennonites in 1803. Over the course of the next two years, 13 villages were established along the Molotschna River and four along its tributary.[12] Those who settled there tended to be wealthier than those who had settled in other regions, like Chortitza, meaning they were usually more educated and able to organize their settlements more efficiently. Organizing church life early in the settlement process proved to be useful in avoiding hardships that other settlements had faced.[13] Church services were usually held in different homes and led by teachers and ministers until the community was able to elect an Elder. The first Elder elected in the Molotschna region was Jakob Enns, in 1805.[14]

Since each village in the region usually represented a different congregation from Prussia, Elder Enns had no easy task, forging a new church out of the diverse views these different communities held. However, these were not the only challenges Enns faced during his time as Elder. Until their migration to Russia, the Mennonites had always governed their communities through church polity, meaning the Elder was the congregation’s religious and political authority. The Mennonites believed that all aspect of life should be lived according to the Christian faith and should then be governed by the church, which was a significant reason why they tried to live in isolated communities away from the rest of society. However, when the Mennonites settled in the Molotschna region, the Russian government required them to set up a civil government separate from the congregation leadership. This meant that there were two heads of the community in Molotschna: the Elder (religious leader) and the District Mayor (elected head of the civic government).[15] These developments caused many schisms of the Mennonite communities in the Molotschna region because, up until this point in their history, they did not have a separation of church and civic authority.[16] These schisms could have been avoided if the Mennonites would have come to the decision on their own to separate these authorities. However, since this decision was forced upon them by the Russian government, there was much room for disagreement within the Molotschna community on how to best handle this.

Since the Mennonites had always viewed the Elder as both religious and civic leader, this forced transition proved difficult in the early years. Both Elder Enns and the first District Mayor, Klaas Wiens, disagreed on several topics, especially pertaining to who had authority in certain situations. The disagreements of these two could be attributed to different worldviews they had, but also be to the fact that the two had a personal feud dating back to before they were in positions of power.[17] These differences made each leader feel his power and authority were being challenged by the other. Enns had tradition on his side, whereas Wiens had the Russian law. Their disputes became so tense that at one point Enns placed Wiens under a ban to remove him from office and had someone else installed.[18] The position of Elder was weakened because of these disputes and because religious leaders in the community were willing to relinquish some of their authority in certain areas.[19]

Several ministers in the Molotschna community were unhappy with Elder Enns’ leadership, particularly in relation to his interaction with the District Mayor. One of the most notable ministers who opposed Enns was a senior minister, Klaas Reimer, who had arrived in the Molotschna community in 1804.[20] Reimer was deeply rooted in tradition and felt that Enns was straying from that tradition by allowing civil punishment over congregational discipline in some matters.[21] Reimer believed Elder Enns was allowing worldly forces to punish those who were not following the laws of the community, rather than invoking congregational discipline, which was initially established to purify the church. When confronted, Elder Enns defended his stance. He felt his authority was being challenged, and he and Reimer reached no compromise. Therefore, in 1812, Reimer and 17 others began to meet as a separate group for worship, ultimately forming their own church.[22]

This split made it clear there would not be a single Mennonite community in the Molotschna region. Although they still lived in the same community, Reimer’s congregation members remained separate from Enns’s. As new groups of Mennonites started to migrate to Russia around 1820, they created their own congregations in Molotschna instead of assimilating to one of the preexisting groups.[23] This was the case for the Alexanderwohl Mennonites when they migrated to the region in 1820. Under the leadership of Elder Peter Wedel, they settled in the center of the Molotschna settlement.[24] At the time of their migration, the Alexanderwohl community was more traditional, in the sense that they were stricter when it came to things such as church discipline. This meant they would have been more aligned with Reimer’s congregation than Enns’s.[25] This might have caused tension among the Mennonites, because new migrants arriving in the Molotschna area boarded with people from several different villages until new villages were ready for occupation.[26]

In order for the new and established colonists to co-exist, leaders of the different congregations felt they should work to live together in unity. However, this proved difficult because of differences that resulted from the various communities having lived in isolation from each other before ending up together in the Molotschna region. They had developed separate views on how they should pursue and practice their faith. Conflict arose mostly between the two different conferences of Mennonites who had migrated to the region – the more conservative Flemish Mennonites and the Frisian Mennonites, who were more open to change.[27] Since the Alexanderwohl Mennonites were Flemish in origin, they did what they could to keep to common Mennonite beliefs while in Russia, like separation from the state and nonviolent practice. However, they did stray from their belief in church-state separation in one area: the Russian Bible Society, run by the Russian government. In 1821, representatives of the Russian Bible Society came to the Molotschna settlements and persuaded some of the elders, Peter Wedel included, to establish a branch there. Wedel then became its president.[28] This upset many of the Flemish Mennonites because it meant they were now part of and influenced by an organization out of their control.[29]

The Alexanderwohl Migration

As the 19th century progressed, the Mennonite colonies in Russian started to face not only more internal problems, but also external issues due to changing Russian policies. By the 1870s, nationalism was on the rise in Russia. This meant that speakers of German, including the Mennonites, were facing more forced assimilation in Russian culture. One of the most concerning reforms was a mandatory military service act in 1871.[30] After a meeting at the Alexanderwohl Church on Jan. 22, 1871, four delegates from the Molotschna settlements and two from the Chortitza settlements were chosen to go to St. Petersburg to plead for an exemption. These delegates were told they would either submit to hospital service or find a new home outside Russia. After two more unsuccessful attempts to negotiate, the Mennonites began looking for a new home.[31]

There were several different options discussed. Some opted to stay in Russia despite the rise in conscription and the required military service being forced on them. Some chose to move to Canada, where they would be completely exempt from military service. Some, like the Alexanderwohl Mennonites and others in the Molotschna region, decided to move to the United States, which had compulsory military service but, unlike Russia, not during peace time.[32] In the summer of 1873, the Molotschna community sent a group of 12 delegates to the United States to meet with officials and to procure land where they could settle. Each delegate represented a different congregation in the Molotschna region. Elder Jacob Buller was the delegate from the Alexanderwohl congregation. This group inspected several different prospective areas where they could settle, mostly in the Midwest.[33] When the U.S. government found out that this large group of Mennonites planned to migrate to America, many in Congress were excited at this prospect, considering Mennonites to be among the best farmers in Russia.[34]

Eventually, the delegates found Kansas to be preferrable because of its warmer climate that meant a longer growing season and fewer supplies needed for winter. Elder Buller was concerned that the warmer weather might be a problem at first, but the other delegates persuaded him otherwise.[35] While in Kansas, the delegate received an offer from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company (AT&SF) to give the Mennonites as much land as they wanted for an extremely reduced price. In fact, the first part of the proposition made was: “The railroad company will sell as many sections of land at 50% of the market price as the congregation wishes to buy for cash.”[36] Since the Mennonites had reputations as good farmers, the railroad saw them as desirable customers because they could settle and farm large tracts of land that the companies had acquired. After working out a deal with the railroad, the delegates returned home to lead their communities to the United States. By the time Elder Buller returned to Russia, the Alexanderwohl community had already decided to leave Russia for the United States.[37] However, Buller’s report no doubt played a role in reassuring his community that they were making the right decision, and also in persuading people from other communities to join them.

The time between the decision to migrate and when the migration actually took place proved to be especially worrying for the Alexanderwohl Mennonites. Many members of the congregation fretted about transporting not only themselves, but also their belongings as well. However, throughout the process, Elder Buller was in communication with the Mennonite Executive Aid Committee in Pennsylvania, with whom he discussed the best travel arrangements for his congregation, as well arrangements to have people meet them once they arrived in the United States and to guide the group to their new home.[38] The congregation also worked to make sure everyone could move together as one unit. One way they achieved this was through wealthy families donating to a fund that would go towards supporting poorer families on their journey. Elder Buller did not want to leave behind anyone who wanted to come with them so he did what he could to aid this process. The money was divided among the less fortunate families at the discretion of a committee set up by the Alexanderwohl church leadership.[39]

Another roadblock the Alexanderwohl Mennonites encountered was that, when the Russian government found out they were planning to leave, their travel visas were put on hold. While the Alexanderwohl Mennonites were waiting on their visas, the Russian government sent a representative to try and convince them to stay, offering incentives that included, among others, exemptions from military service if they moved to a different region in Russia. However, by this point the Mennonites had lost faith in Russian promises. Prominent Mennonites such as Bernhard Warkentin discovered that moving to Eastern Siberia would prove more difficult than moving to Kansas. So the Alexanderwohl Mennonites decided to go ahead with their plans to leave Russia.[40] When the government representative realized the sincerity of the Mennonites, he promised to do what he could to get them their visas, which they received shortly thereafter. After waiting for nine months, the Alexanderwohl Mennonites finally had the legal documentation they needed to leave Russia.[41]

Because they were the only congregation that decided to move as a unit, the Alexanderwohl community was unique among those leaving Russia during this time.[42] Under the direction of Elder Buller, the community embarked on July 31, 1874, aboard the Cimbria.[43] Most did not know what to expect when they arrived in the United States, or especially when they traveled out west to Kansas. They tended to pack almost everything they owned, not knowing what they would be able to buy once they reached their destination.[44] Many of these possessions, along with wagons to transport them overland, were sent ahead of the group and held in storage by members of the Mennonite Executive Aid Committee in Pennsylvania, as previously arranged by Elder Buller through written correspondence.[45]

After the Alexanderwohl Mennonites arrived in New York, on Aug. 27, 1874, church leaders under the direction of Elder Buller had to decide which land offer to accept.[46] Since they had a reputation as desirable immigrants, and a mass quantity of people, they received offers in addition to the AT&SF one. Since these offers were made to the congregation as a whole and not to individual families, it fell upon Elder Buller and the other leaders to decide which deal would be best for their congregation.[47] The group decided they wanted to see the land they were going to buy before they committed to buying it. Therefore, the Alexanderwohl Mennonites traveled west with an uncertain future ahead.

When they arrived in Topeka, a majority of the group stopped and rested while leaders met with different railroad companies. While they were in Topeka, local newspapers published articles about this large group of Mennonites who had come to take up residence in Kansas. One of these newspapers, the Topeka Daily Commonwealth, stated that about 1,900 Mennonites had arrived in Kansas during September 1874.[48] In Topeka, Elder Buller and the other leaders met with a couple of other railroad companies to compare the offers they were receiving. When some of the companies did not receive the Alexanderwohl leaders as well as they would have liked, the deals they offered became less favored.[49]

Eventually, the Alexanderwohl leaders decided to go with the AT&SF, feeling that company had received them best and offered the best – the original pitch made to Elder Buller in 1873 was a significant reason why they had decided to come to Kansas. On Oct. 15, 1874, the Topeka Commonwealth described this transaction of land from the AT&SF to the Alexanderwohl Mennonites as “one of the largest bonafide land sales ever made in Kansas.”[50] Elder Buller and other leaders of the church believed that this land purchase in Marion County would give them their best chance to reproduce the lifestyle they desired and had enjoyed in Russia. They believed they could turn the unsettled land they had purchased into lands filled with grain, as they had done in the Molotschna region.[51] The Alexanderwohl leaders envisioned turning Kansas into the breadbasket of the nation.

Establishing the Church Community

From the start, the Alexanderwohl community already had an advantage over the early groups of Mennonites that had moved to the Molotschna region in Russia – that instead of migrating as individual families, they migrated as a whole community. This was important in the early years in America, because they did not have to go through the trouble of establishing a new congregation and leadership. As previously stated, this was beneficial in the process of acquiring land, as well as in organizing money-lending within the congregation to support those who did not have all the funds required to move to the United States.

The success of their community in Russia and their background as Flemish Mennonites inspired the Alexanderwohl Mennonites and other groups who moved to Kansas during the end of the 1800s to want to organize their societal structures to mirror what they had in Russia. In addition to keeping the same established leadership and community structures, these Mennonites also wanted their villages to look the same, so they constructed them similarly to how they had been in Russia. However, before the individual houses went up, the railroad company had built immigrant houses on the land the Mennonites had bought so they could settle immediately on the land they had purchased. There were very few interior walls in these houses – families did what they could to partition themselves in order to have some privacy.[52] However, it did not take long for many of the new houses to be far enough along to be habitable. By the end of fall 1874, 80 houses had been built and were occupied, which meant that the large immigrant houses began to be used for other purposes, one being to serve as a church building.[53] The official church building was completed in 1886.[54] Not all the early houses were built of lumber – in fact, the Mennonites found that plowing the prairie produced sod that could be used to make temporary shelters. Since winter was nearing by the time the Mennonites reached Kansas, they knew that some sod houses would have to be built to shelter those who, due to financial restraints, would not have permanent houses constructed.[55]

Houses were erected in several different village clusters, with farmland adjacent, as the Mennonites were used to in Russia. This was one of the ways the leaders wanted to keep within Mennonite tradition. These clusters typically contained from two to eight families, with each given a name. These were typical Mennonite names or Americanized versions of them (names from different Molotschna villages), or names inspired by surrounding landmarks. The village clusters that were a part of the Alexanderwohl congregation were “Rosenort, Weidefeld, Hochfeld, Springfield, Gnadenthal, Gnadenfeld, Gruenfeld (Greenfield), Emmathal, and Blumenfeld.”[56] Elder Buller was a resident of Emmathal village, which got its name from the nearby Emma Creek.[57]

Starting a new life on the prairie proved difficult for reasons other than housing. During the fall of 1874, a grasshopper plague infested the region, just as the Mennonites were trying to settle the land. This caused issues when it came to planting crops needed for the winter, putting some of the Mennonites under financial strain. Despite this, the members of the Alexanderwohl community were still strong in their faith. Wealthier members of the congregation continued to contribute to the poorer ones to help as contracts became due. Elder Buller worked to get loans from other congregations to help with this burden as well.[58] He also kept the community strong during this time of hardship by trying to strengthen their faith. His prayers and lessons encouraged members of the congregation to keep going even when times seemed dark. Through his addresses to the church as well as through conversations with individual members, Elder Buller strengthened the community’s resolve. He remained confident in his sermons, reminding the people of the community to remain strong and not be discouraged.[59]

Another way the leaders of the community stuck to tradition was through the structure of church services. Elder Buller tried to keep church services similar to how they had been like in Russia. Before they left Russia, there had been some changes made as to when members were to stand and sit during the service. For example, one of Elder Buller’s partners in the ministry, Heinrich Richert, asked the congregation to rise during the pronouncing of the benediction. This tradition stayed the same for as long as Buller was Elder.[60] He was very much a leader who wanted to stick to tradition and do things the way they had always been done, and this is evident in the way that the Alexanderwohl Mennonites started their lives in Kansas. He also recognized the importance of keeping the standards for church services constant because everything else in the people’s lives was changing drastically.

Shortly after the group arrived in Kansas, another member of the congregation began exerting more influence. Peter Balzer was a prominent educator, his influence even extending beyond the immediate Alexanderwohl community. In the winter of 1881-82, Balzer boarded 16 students in his home, who came from surrounding communities to receive instruction from him.[61] However, Balzer’s success as an educator did not transfer to success as a minister. During Balzer’s ministerial work, he tended to make his lessons and speeches to the church longer than they needed to be, and many members of the congregation found that his sermons went farther beyond what they had studied.[62] While his sermons and lectures may have seemed a little dry to the congregation, Balzer’s passion for education was not wasted. In 1886, Balzer became one of the directors of the Department of Mennonite Education in Kansas, advocating for Christian instruction in schools.[63]

In 1884, Balzer was elected to the ministry. He worked closely with Elder Buller during the early years in Kansas. At Balzer’s suggestion, the Brotherhood (the male governing body of the church) adopted a motion on Oct. 18, 1892, to keep records of their meetings and proceedings.[64] These records would help determine the issues that would be discussed among church leadership as they established ties to their new home. Elder Buller brought up the question of whether or not the church should build a parochial school. While the proposition of a church-sponsored school was dropped, members of the surrounding communities pooled their money to build a school for the members of the Alexanderwohl congregation.[65] These records also indicate that members of the Brotherhood valued special ministries given by the elders and ministers, especially in relation to house calls. On Jan. 21, 1893, a request was made that the elders and minister make house calls on those who were sick or had other reasons why they could not attend church.[66] Even if they could not attend the weekly services, the members of the congregation still felt that the spiritual connection given to them by the leaders of their church was important.

Near the end of Buller’s time as Elder, the Alexanderwohl congregation recognized all that he had done for them to get them to the United States and successfully settled in Kansas. As a thank-you gift for his service, the Brotherhood decided to use church funds to purchase Elder Buller a new buggy and harness, along with a fur coat to keep him warm in the winter, since there was not much shelter out on the treeless plains. The congregation was not the only group to recognize Elder Buller’s efforts. The AT&SF also gave him two sections of land to express their gratitude for the enormous land deal Elder Buller had negotiated with them on behalf of the Alexanderwohl Mennonites.[67]

After Elder Buller retired in 1896, Peter Balzer was elected to lead the congregation. Balzer’s election as Elder sparked some changes, which Balzer had had in mind but was unable to enact until he was Elder. He ran into problems soon after assuming his new position. Elder Balzer found it difficult to balance his passion for the academic world with the needs of his congregation.[68] One challenge he faced as Elder was that the congregation disagreed with some of his practices during the weekly services. Elder Balzer raised his hands when pronouncing the blessing during the service, but many people in the congregation believed it was biblically wrong for him to do this. He also changed some of the things that were expected of the congregation. He felt that certain changes needed to happen in order for the Alexanderwohl Mennonites to adapt to their lives in Kansas, such as removing the requirement to kneel during prayer. Elder Balzer’s reasoning for this was that kneeling in expensive clothes was too humble and was therefore was unnecessary. [69]

Another way Elder Balzer was different from his predecessors was that he focused more on preaching and less on pastoral care – he was primarily an educator who felt more comfortable giving sermons than offering individual care. In one instance, a teenager in the community had a shooting accident that ended with the death of another child in the community. Despite how distraught this teenager was because of the incident, Elder Balzer and other leaders of the congregation failed to visit the boy and give him the care he needed.[70] Elder Balzer tried to maintain the wellbeing of the congregation through his preaching, rather than through personal relationships with those in his congregation, which made him less desirable as a leader as time went on.

Despite their Flemish background, which made them a congregation that wanted to stick with tradition, the Alexanderwohl Mennonites started to be influenced by the larger American culture. Even though they tried to model their society after what they had had in Russia, there were certain aspects of American culture that they had to adopt when settling in Kansas. For example, these Mennonites hoped to be able to keep the community autonomy that they had had in Russia, but instead were forced to adopt individual self-sufficiency.[71] This meant that instead of the comfort of having their legal identity tied to the congregation, the members were forced to be individuals when it came to legal matters. Part of the reason Elder Buller and others pushed to model their settlements in Kansas after their settlements in Russia was so they could still feel like the close-knit communities they had always tried to be. This became especially important when outside forces pushed the Alexanderwohl Mennonites to become Americanized.

As these pressures rose, the Mennonites often turned towards the congregation for support.[72] However, as leadership changed in the Alexanderwohl church, the church started to adapt to more American ways. While this may have started with Elder Balzer’s change to remove the kneeling requirement, it continued until the members of the Alexanderwohl community became “a people of two kingdoms” – one in which they still followed many of the Mennonite traditions, and the other in which they embraced certain American behavioral patterns to better adapt to their lives in Kansas.[73]

Effects of Alexanderwohl on the Broader World

As the Alexanderwohl Mennonites settled in Kansas, they tried to remain a self-contained group like they were in Russia. However, as they soon found out, this would be hard to do. As their area of Kansas became more heavily populated, their influence on new immigrants would prove to be substantial. The migration of these Mennonites to central Kansas would prove to be very beneficial to the area in terms of economic and community growth. One of their most obvious impacts would be their successful farming techniques and their introduction of Turkey red winter wheat to the area – why they were so sought after by the railroad companies, which wanted people to settle and cultivate the sparsely populated land along the railroads so that the companies’ investment in the land would be fruitful. Since the Turkey red wheat could survive and grow in the Kansas climate, the Mennonites were the best people to settle this land. However, after the Alexanderwohl community had established itself, the people started to have a greater impact on the region. The three most profound ways were through establishment of a hospital, establishment of educational institutions, and through what would become the Western District (Mennonite) Conference.

One early way that Alexanderwohl Mennonites had an impact on their immediate neighbors was through constructing the Bethesda Hospital in Goessel, Kansas, founded June 20, 1899, one of the first hospitals in the region.[74] This hospital had the support of many of the Alexanderwohl leaders, particularly Elder Balzer, who served as chair of the Bethesda Hospital Association from its creation until his death in 1907.[75] Heinrich Banman, who succeeded Balzer as Elder, also served in several leadership positions at the hospital for 25 years – eight as board chair, 14 as board secretary, and three as a board member.[76] Through this, it is evident that the wellbeing of the greater community was important to the leaders of the Alexanderwohl church.

The establishment of the hospital sparked an exciting change in Alexanderwohl leadership. One of the members of the congregation, Martha Richert, participated in training courses at the Bethesda Hospital that led her to dedicate her life to the deaconess cause. On Nov. 28, 1907, Richert was elected and ordained as a deaconess of the Alexanderwohl church.[77] Her duties in this role were not clearly defined for several months after her ordination but she worked with the hospital to better the health of the community by making house visits to the ill and tending to their medical needs. On Sept. 29, 1908, a committee was formed to oversee and regulate these visits, as well as to standardize the cost of care. Just like everything else however, if members of the congregation were not able to pay for care, the church would lend a hand and cover the costs for those who were less fortunate.[78]

Bethesda Hospital created a legacy for the Alexanderwohl community, as well in Marion County. Dr. Peter Richert, who served in the hospital during its early years, worked to get a post office established closer to the hospital since, at the time, the closest post office was Newton, a fair distance from the hospital. This meant coming up with an official name for the township. One of the first attempts was “Cimbria,” the name of the ship on which the Mennonites had come to America and which had recently gone down in the Caribbean. This name, however, was rejected, so Richert then suggested “Goessel,” the name of the captain who went down with the ship. This name was accepted and is the origins of the name of the town of Goessel. Mail started to be delivered to Goessel every day of the week, except Sundays.[79]

The health of the community was important to the Alexanderwohl leadership, but so was their education. Various schools were organized for the children of the community to attend. While attendance was voluntary, most children attended school to attain at least some level of education. In 1877, attendance of children under age 14 was actually near 100 percent.[80]

The earliest schools were held in the homes of several different members of the Alexanderwohl community. This was part of the inspiration for Elder Balzer to host 16 students during the winter of 1881-82.[81] The most notable of these private schools was in Emmental and opened in the home of Peter Richert, one of the ministers of the Alexanderwohl church, in January 1876. This school was focused on teaching the Bible and its applications in life, as well as the German language.[82] The children of the community learned German as their first language because it was the language of church services.[83] Soon after these schools started, English was added to the curriculum as it became apparent the Mennonites would have to learn English in order to succeed in America. The first schools usually had short terms, even as short as two months.[84] When the official schools were not meeting, other community members took education into their own hands, which often took the form of vacation Bible schools. Leaders like Elder Buller actively supported training young men to be educators so they could expand their programs.[85]

As the schools grew, terms lengthened and the curriculum expanded. However, at the foundation, curriculum among schools was not uniform, so what children were taught varied based on what schools they attended. A meeting took place in the house of Heinrich Richert on Nov. 15, 1877, to try to standardize education in the region. The delegates at this meeting adopted 15 resolutions in regard to school matters in the new community. One of these, Resolution 5, set up a committee of three to create a program by which the proposed educational group would conduct its affairs. This committee comprised two Elders of the Alexanderwohl church, Peter Balzer and Jacob Buller, with David Goerz as the third member.[86] This meeting also established the Kansas Conference of Teachers as the organization in charge of standardizing education of member congregations, as well as providing a way for congregations to support each other. The Kansas Conference of Teachers would eventually be merged into what would become known as the Western District Conference.[87]

Eventually, a schoolhouse had to be built to accommodate the expanding class sizes. This building was completed in 1879. It became known as the Preparatory School and is now known as a forerunner of Bethel College.[88] Eventually, the building was rented to the Kansas Conference as a centralized location for higher education – above what was being taught in the area Bible school. This secondary school tried to teach students what they needed to know to live successfully in America, significantly different than what they had known in Europe.[89] In fact, at a meeting of the Kansas Conference in 1877, teachers advocated for the importance of learning the English language.[90] This shows how strongly the members of the Alexanderwohl community wanted to hold on to their culture – it took adopting this resolution for teachers to start uniformly teaching English in their schools instead of only German. In fact, it was through the schools that the older members of the community had the most success in teaching the old traditions to the younger generations. They wanted their German Mennonite traditions to be continuously passed down and they favored many of the old ways over the new American ways.[91]

By the 1880s, Mennonites had started to plan for a college in Central Kansas. In 1883, a group led by David Goerz, in conjunction with the Kansas Conference, financed the Halstead (Kansas) College Association. The Halstead Mennonite Seminary was constructed over the summer of 1883 and dedicated Sept. 16, 1883, with classes starting shortly thereafter.[92] The Kansas Conference had trouble financing the Halstead Mennonite Seminary on its own because it relied on congregations to willingly make donations and many Mennonites were wary of taking out the loans required to pay for building and staffing such an institution. The Halstead College Association was willing to raise the necessary funds as a way to convince the Kansas Conference to locate the school in Halstead.[93] During its existence, the Halstead Mennonite Seminary had a hard time retaining students because it was more of a preparatory school than a real college, and students would often leave before the semester was finished in favor of larger state schools.[94] The establishment of several colleges in central Kansas during the 1880s eventually put an end to the Halstead Seminary. Mennonites began seriously to consider building an actual college of their own, to continue to show how they valued higher education. In 1887, “Bethel College of the Mennonite Church of North America” was founded to fill this need. However, it was not established by the Kansas Conference, but instead by a group of private Mennonite investors. It would replace the Halstead Seminary upon completion of its first building.[95]

The final profound way that Alexanderwohl Mennonite leaders impacted the greater community in the years following their settlement in Kansas was through their influence in the creation and administration of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America. Oct. 19-27, 1896, there was a meeting of the General Conference at the Alexanderwohl church. Although this put strain on the Alexanderwohl community, they were able to unify as a congregation to meet the needs of this meeting. A committee was formed to organize the roles that members of the congregation would fill while hosting the conference delegates. Since there were not many lodging options, members of the congregation were expected to keep delegates in their homes.[96] The committee also decided that members of the congregation should donate a certain amount of money, dependent upon how many bushels they had harvested from their land, to cover the costs of the meals during the course of the conference.[97]

The Alexanderwohl congregation had been a part of the General Conference since 1878 but this was the first time they had met at the church.[98] Alexanderwohl had been selected for this meeting because it was the second largest Mennonite congregation in the United States, and still growing.[99] There was a total of 60 churches represented at the meeting, nine of them new churches. One of the biggest agenda items was approval of a new constitution. Since its inception in 1860, the General Conference had been more of an advisory group than one with actual legislative authority over its member congregations. Debates were held during the Alexanderwohl meeting about whether or not the conference should assume legislative powers. In the end, the final draft of the new constitution kept the General Conference as more of an advisory body.[100]

Even though the delegates in 1896 did not want the General Conference to be a legislative body, they still put language into the charter that encouraged member congregations to support one another. The beginning of the charter lists several purposes for the General Conference, the first being: “the support of religious worship, by the promotion and maintenance of home and foreign missions, religious schools, seminaries, and other church institutions…”[101] It is clear that education was important to the larger Mennonite community, just as it was to the leaders of the Alexanderwohl church. However, since the General Conference was going to be an advisory group, it relied on organizations like the Kansas Conference to regulate and share educational resources. Education was not the only important thing to these Mennonites, though. They wanted a network where they could pool their resources in order to effect greater change than they could if they were trying to do similar things as individual congregations. The General Conference was a way for the Mennonites to do this. The fact that this important meeting was taking place at Alexanderwohl shows how significant an impact the church was making among North American Mennonites after only being there for a little over two decades.

The 1896 meeting of the General Conference was considered a major success, due to the efforts of many members of the Alexanderwohl congregation. The financial contributions raised for this event were more than enough to cover the expenditures for food and lodging for the delegates.[102] The success of the Alexanderwohl Mennonites when settling in Kansas would go on to create more ability for the greater Mennonite community to fund schools around North America, as well as to participate in mission work through the General Conference.


Already in their migration to Russia, the Alexanderwohl Mennonites were more successful than other groups of Mennonites that also decided to move there during the 19th century to avoid military conscription. Alexanderwohl had decided to migrate as a whole community rather than leave the decision up to individual family groups. This decision was beneficial to them when creating new lives for themselves in Russia because they did not have to go through the effort of creating new congregations. This decision played directly into their success when migrating to the United States later in the 19th century to escape military conscription in Russia. Seeing that migrating as an entire community had been beneficial, in keeping leadership structures intact, they decided to do the same when migrating to the United States. This made the Alexanderwohl Mennonites sought-after by railroad companies trying to get people to go west and settle large tracts of land they owned. Instead of negotiating with several different families, the railroad companies were able to deal with Elder Buller, offering the land at discounted rates because of how much would need to be purchased. This meant the congregation was able to get ample amounts of land for relatively low prices thanks to the foresight of the leadership.

The fact that leadership structures remained intact throughout the migration to the United States was so important because it provided a structure for the congregation that allowed them to work together in their time of need to make sure that they could all get where they needed to go. Elder Buller worked with other church leaders to organize loan systems that enabled less fortunate members of the congregation to borrow money from the wealthier ones in order to acquire their bit of land, as well as the materials needed to build a home there.

While keeping the leadership structure was beneficial for financial reasons, it was beneficial for spiritual purposes as well. When moving to the United States, the members of the Alexanderwohl community did not have to worry about what their worship services were going to be like when they reached their destinations. They knew it was going to be exactly what they were used to, with the people they were used to. This provided comfort for the members of the community in the early years when they were facing financial and environmental hardship, as did having leaders like Elder Buller to keep them steadfast in their faith.[103] While some things did change as they adapted to their new home, their worship remained largely the same. One way things stayed the same for years after the Alexanderwohl Mennonites settled in Kansas was in the language they used. Worship services at Alexanderwohl took place in German. In fact, on May 19, 1917, they ran into an issue where a guest speaker did not speak German. Church leaders decided that after his message, a similar one would be given in German for the older members of the congregation who could not speak English.[104] The Alexanderwohl Mennonites did what they could to keep the comforts of what they were used to. Staying strong in their faith is one of the reasons why this group of Mennonites became so successful when they migrated to the United States.

The Alexanderwohl church leadership structure and the leaders themselves were instrumental in the success of the Mennonites in Kansas. Leaders like Elder Buller paved the way for the settlement of the community in Kansas through his negotiations with the railroad. The land that this community settled on and the wheat they brought from Russia allowed them to create a rich farmland that contributed to their wellbeing. Elder Buller and other leaders worked to establish institutions that would have a lasting impact on the community, like the Bethesda Hospital. Elder Buller and Elder Balzer also contributed to the creation of the Kansas Conference of Teachers that worked to facilitate and regulate Mennonite education throughout the region. This organization played a significant role in the creation of the Halstead Mennonite Seminary and later sparked the inspiration for the founding of Bethel College, which still thrives today. The rapid growth of the Alexanderwohl church also made it a prime meeting place for the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America in 1896, when they revised their charter as the organization continued to grow and incorporate new members. The leaders of the Alexanderwohl church provided the necessary guidance and strength to their communities to leave a lasting legacy in central Kansas that would not have been possible without the perseverance these Mennonites had to stick together when leaving Russia.



Primary sources:

General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America. Constitution, Charter, and By-laws of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America. Berne, Ind.: Mennonite Book Concern, 1915.

Krehbiel, H.P. The History of the General Conference of the Mennonites of North America. Self-published, 1898.

Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church Archives, Goessel, Kan.

Schmidt, C.B. “Kansas Mennonite Settlements, 1877.” Mennonite Life, April 1970.

Secondary sources:

Belk, Fred R. “Migration of Russian Mennonites.” Social Science 50, no. 1 (1975): 17-21.

Engbrecht, Dennis D. “The Americanization of a Rural Immigrant Church: The General Conference Mennonites in Central Kansas 1874-1939.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 61, no. 4 (October 1987): 422. a6h&AN=ATLA0000626880&site=ehost-live.

Friesen, John, ed. Mennonites in Russia, 1788-1988: Essays in Honour of Gerhard Lohrenz. Winnipeg: CMBC Publications, 1989.

Haury, David A. Prairie People: A History of the Western District Conference. Newton, Kan.: Faith and Life Press, 1981.

Janzen, Cornelius C. “Americanization of the Russian Mennonites in Central Kansas.” Master’s thesis, University of Kansas, 1914.

Juhnke, James C. Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America 1890-1930. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989.

Kaufman, Edmund G. General Conference Mennonite Pioneers. North Newton, Kan.: Bethel College, 1973.

Krahn, Cornelius, Noble C. Prentis, Leland Harder, Kempes Schnell, Melvin Gingerich, J.A. Wiebe, and Elmer F. Suderman. From the Steppes to the Prairies, 1874-1919. Newton, Kan.: Mennonite Publication Office, 1949.

Longhofer, Jeffery Lee. Land, Household, and Community: A Study of the Alexanderwohl Mennonites. Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1986.

Saul, Norman E. The Migration of the Russian-Germans to Kansas. Topeka, Kan.: Kansas State Historical Society, 1974.

Shipley, Helen B. “The Migration of the Mennonites from Russia, 1873-1883: And Their Settlement in Kansas.” Master’s thesis, University of Minnesota, 1954.

Unruh, Judith, Kris Schmucker, and Brian Stucky. “Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church (Goessel, Kansas, USA),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Last Modified January 2021. (Goessel,_Kansas,_USA).

Urry, James. None but Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1989.

Wedel, C.C., and Samuel J. Steiner. “Bethesda Hospital (Goessel, Kansas, USA),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Last Modified 2006.,_Kansas,_USA)

Wedel, David C. The Story of Alexanderwohl. 2nd ed. Goessel, Kan.: Mennonite Heritage Museum, 1999.

Wedel, Peter J. The Story of Bethel College. North Newton, Kan.: Bethel College, 1954.



[1] David C. Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 2nd ed. (Goessel, Kan.: Mennonite Heritage Museum), 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Judith Unruh, Kris Schmucker, and Brian Stucky, “Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church (Goessel, Kansas, USA)” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, last modified January 2021, (Goessel,_Kansas,_USA).

[6] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 15.

[7] Ibid., 16.

[8] James Urry, None but Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, 1789-1889 (Winnipeg: Hyperion Press), 49.

[9] Ibid., 53.

[10] Ibid., 52.

[11] Odessa A. Schultze, Plan der Deutschen Molotschnaer Kolonien, ca. 1890, Mennonite Library and Archives,

[12] John Friesen, ed. Mennonites in Russia, 1788-1988: Essays in Honour of Gerhard Lohrenz (Winnipeg: CMBC Publications), 56.

[13] Ibid., 55-56.

[14] Ibid., 56.

[15] Ibid., 58.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Urry, None but Saints, 88.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 86.

[20] Friesen, Mennonites in Russia, 59.

[21] Urry, None but Saints, 90.

[22] Friesen, Mennonites in Russia, 59.

[23] Ibid., 60.

[24] Ibid., 61.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Urry, None but Saints, 109-110.

[27] Ibid., 111.

[28] Friesen, Mennonites in Russia, 61.

[29] Urry, None but Saints, 112.

[30] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 20.

[31] Ibid., 20-21

[32] Cornelius Krahn, Noble C. Prentis, Leland Harder, Kempes Schnell, Melvin Gingerich, J.A. Wiebe, and Elmer F. Suderman, From the Steppes to the Prairies, 1874-1919 (Newton: Mennonite Publication Office), 8.

[33] Helen B. Shipley, “The Migration of the Mennonites from Russia, 1873-1883, And Their Settlement in Kansas” (master’s thesis, University of Minnesota, 1954), 35.

[34] Fred R. Belk, “Migration of the Russia Mennonites,” Social Science 50, no. 1 (1975), 19.

[35] Shipley, “The Migration of the Mennonites from Russia, 1873-1883, and Their Settlement in Kansas,” 40.

[36] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 21.

[37] Shipley, “The Migration of the Mennonites from Russia, 1873-1883, and Their Settlement in Kansas,” 77.

[38] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 24-25.

[39] Jeffery Lee Longhofer, Land, Household, and Community: A Study of the Alexanderwohl Mennonites (Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 1986), 105.

[40] Norman E. Saul, The Migration of the Russian-Germans to Kansas (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society), 45.

[41] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 25.

[42] Judith Unruh, Kris Schmucker, and Brian Stucky, “Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church (Goessel, Kansas, USA).”

[43] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 26.

[44] Shipley, “The Migration of the Mennonites from Russia, 1873-1883, and Their Settlement in Kansas,” 81.

[45] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 25.

[46] Ibid., 27.

[47] Longhofer, Land, Household, and Community, 107.

[48] Shipley, “The Migration of the Mennonites from Russia, 1873-1883, and Their Settlement in Kansas,” 81.

[49] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 28.

[50] Longhofer, Land, Household, and Community, 108.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Isaak Fast, “Story of the Alexanderwohl Congregation at Goessel, Kansas,” trans. Richard H. Schmidt, 1935, Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church Archives, 12.

[53] Ibid., 13.

[54] James C. Juhnke, Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America 1890-1930 (Scottdale: Herald Press), 81.

[55] Norman Pankratz, “Pioneer History as Translated from the Bethesda Herald,” trans. Lydia Pankratz, 1971, Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church Archives, 4.

[56] C.B. Schmidt, “Kansas Mennonite Settlements, 1877,” Mennonite Life, April 1970, 53,

[57] Ibid.

[58] Fast, “Story of the Alexanderwohl Congregation at Goessel, Kansas,” 13.

[59] Edmund G. Kaufman, General Conference Mennonite Pioneers (North Newton, Kan.: Bethel College), 62.

[60] Ibid., 13

[61] A.H. Friesen, “Reminiscences of Peter Balzer’s Life as Teacher (Pedagogue), Minister and Pastor,” trans. Marie J. Janzen and Arnold Funk, 1984, Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church Archives, 1.

[62] Ibid., 2.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 49.

[65] Ibid., 50.

[66] Ibid., 51.

[67] Ibid., 51.

[68]Friesen, “Reminiscences of Peter Balzer’s Life as Teacher (Pedagogue), Minister and Pastor,” 3.

[69] Fast, “Story of the Alexanderwohl Congregation at Goessel, Kansas,” 13-14

[70] Friesen, “Reminiscences of Peter Balzer’s Life as Teacher (Pedagogue), Minister and Pastor,” 3.

[71] Dennis D. Engbrecht, “The Americanization of a Rural Immigrant Church: The General

Conference Mennonites in Central Kansas 1874-1939,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 61, no. 4 (October 1987): 422. a6h&AN=ATLA0000626880&site=ehost-live

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] C.C. Wedel and Samuel J. Steiner, “Bethesda Hospital (Goessel, Kansas, USA),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, Last Modified 2006,,_Kansas,_USA)

[75] Friesen, “Reminiscences of Peter Balzer’s Life as Teacher (Pedagogue), Minister and Pastor,” 4.

[76] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 143-144.

[77] Ibid., 63.

[78] Ibid.

[79] Ibid., 136-137.

[80] Ibid., 103.

[81] Friesen, “Reminiscences of Peter Balzer’s Life as Teacher (Pedagogue), Minister and Pastor,” 1.

[82] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 102.

[83] Ibid., 74.

[84] Ibid., 102.

[85] Kaufman, General Conference Mennonite Pioneers, 63.

[86] Peter J. Wedel, The Story of Bethel College (North Newton, Kan.: Bethel College), 15.

[87] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 103.

[88] Wedel, The Story of Bethel College, 15.

[89] Ibid., 20-21.

[90] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 103.

[91] Cornelius C. Janzen, “Americanization of the Russian Mennonites in Central Kansas” (master’s thesis, University of Kansas, 1914), 132.

[92] David A. Haury, Prairie People: A History of the Western District Conference (Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press), 89.

[93] Ibid., 90.

[94] Ibid., 92.

[95] Ibid., 94.

[96] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 52.

[97] Ibid., 53.

[98] Kaufman, General Conference Mennonite Pioneers, 62.

[99] H.P. Krehbiel, The History of the General Conference of the Mennonites of North America (self-published), 391.

[100] Ibid.

[101] General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America, Constitution, Charter, and by-Laws of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America (Berne, Ind.: Mennonite Book Concern), 10.

[102] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 54.

[103] Kaufman, General Conference Mennonite Pioneers, 62.

[104] Wedel, The Story of Alexanderwohl, 74.