It probably shouldn’t be surprising that Low Germans dominate the Russian Mennonite story. After all, they were the largest group to emigrate to the Ukraine and from there to North America and later to South America and Germany. In Russia, the Low German Mennonites proceeded to flourish in agriculture, industry, education and health care, creating longstanding structures and institutions; they also had more than a few religious dramas, such as formation of the Mennonite Brethren and the Claas Epp adventure. Then factor in the great saga of the Communist experience, and the Low German story becomes almost intoxicating for historians, authors and artists.
The multi-faceted Russian Mennonite experience, including the immigration stories, has thus become virtually synonymous with Molotschna and Machno, famine and Volendam, Plautdeutsch and Paraguay. That has left non-Low Germans from Russia in many ways absent from North American Mennonite historical and cultural consciousness. Into that void Rod Janzen has thankfully stepped with The Prairie People: Forgotten Anabaptists, about the noncommunal Hutterians in North America. But the book’s flaws leave the void only partially filled.
The Hutterians were part of the 1870s migration from Ukrainian Russia, joining Low Germans and Swiss-Volhynians in settling in what is now southeastern South Dakota. Only about a third of the 425 Hutterian immigrants organized themselves into colonies, located in river-bottom lands. The rest chose noncommunal living on the prairie west of the town of Freeman, hence their name
Prairieleut or prairie people. The communal Hutterite identity has remained firm, which has been underscored by the many historical, sociological and scientific studies about the colonies and their members. But the Prairieleut have struggled to maintain their identity:
They were not communal Hutterites, but neither were they Mennonites until a generation or two later, and even then they continued to think of themselves first as (p. 4). As a result, Janzen laments, Prairieleut identity as Hutterians has
Hutterians and only secondarily as
vanished in a Mennonite fog (p. 3)
The Prairie People lifts Prairieleut identity out of that fog in a number of ways. While Janzen unfortunately offers little insight into why the Prairieleut eschewed colony life, his contributions include a chronology of their settlement and organization, folkways, and interactions with their colony cousins and various aspects of the non-Hutterian world (including a fascinating look at political involvement). From a Mennonite perspective, of particular interest is the Prairieleut attraction to the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren prior to the turn of the 20th century, born out of real or perceived spiritual malaise. Ethnic Hutterians, at one point constituting nearly half of KMB membership, exuded great influence in the denomination, something that remains largely unstudied, as Janzen points out. While noting the KMB arrival caused some families to go different directions on church membership, the book virtually ignores the deep emotional and relational scars the disagreements left on the Freeman-area Prairieleut. Those injuries have apparently only begun to disappear in recent years.
While Janzen appropriately devotes significant space to the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, he does not grant similar attention to Hutterian congregations joining the General Conference Mennonite Church around the time of World War II. The Prairie People makes only a couple of references to those congregations’ desire to join a pacifist denomination in order to uphold the peace position at a time when it was threatened by world events. Because they had not previously joined a Mennonite denomination, these noncommunal Hutterians presumably held the strongest Hutterian identity. An examination of their joining the General Conference Mennonite Church no doubt would have shed more light on that identity’s disappearance into the surrounding Mennonite world.
Despite the welcome insights to an Anabaptist immigrant group, The Prairie People is burdened by its lack of definition of who exactly these people are. That is desperately needed considering that the chief defining attribute of colony Hutterians is their common community of goods. Without that, what defines the Prairieleut? Are they still a faith community (as the book’s subtitle indicates)? Or are they merely a cultural and ethnic remnant of a faith community? The answer is not readily apparent. Janzen repeatedly laments the disappearance of Hutterian characteristics with little delineation of what they may be. To be sure, Janzen sprinkles throughout the book suggestions such as language, martyr hymns, nonresistance, common communion cup, separation of the sexes at church meeting and changes in sermons and congregational leadership. But many of these--other than nonresistance and perhaps the hymns and sermons--could be identified as cultural trappings that can be separated from the fundamentals of faith. Both cultural expressions and religious beliefs are important elements to any group’s story. It is essential, however, that distinctions be made between the two, lest culinary distinctives, for example, be equated with theological ones. It is not until the end of the book that Janzen finally confesses that the Prairieleut are only a cultural and ethnic group:
Whether a people could successfully mediate historic Hutterian principles without experiencing a traditional communal way of life, however, was extremely questionable (p. 254).
The absence of a clear articulation of a noncommunal Hutterian faith propels Janzen into dangerous, unproven territory when he asserts tensions between Mennonitism and Prairieleut beliefs. He even charges without substantiation that
Mennonites wanted Hutterians to get rid of their cultural and theological distinctness (p. 246). It is unclear what was in peril. The local Low Germans and Swiss-Volhynians of the times had some similar cultural attributes, such as German-language services and separation of the sexes for worship. And the Mennonites and Prairieleut shared basic Anabaptist beliefs. Disturbingly, Janzen provides zero supporting evidence for his accusation, either anecdotal or factual.
The Prairie People is also peppered with errors, such as the wrong name for the North American Mennonite Brethren conference, a reference to the South American country of
Columbia, misspelling a writer’s name in a footnote, placing a South Dakota lake on the wrong highway, and claiming that the General Conference Mennonite Church was started by renegades from the Mennonite Church. Such mistakes are inexcusable, particularly considering that Janzen teaches social sciences at Mennonite Brethren-affiliated Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University; taught for six years at Freeman (S.D.) Junior College and Academy, just six miles south of the mislocated lake; and is part of a congregation that is member of both the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church.