This book consists of a set of documents recently discovered in the St. Petersburg Imperial Archives dealing with an investigation of the controversial emergence of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia. The scope of the documents is broader than merely the "Reflections of a Lutheran Churchman." In addition to the official reports of the government investigator, letters and reports of numerous other government officials and religious spokesmen are included. The translated documents were compiled and skillfully edited by John B. Toews, a leading authority on Mennonite-Russian history.
Did the rise of the Mennonite Brethren reform movement in the early 1860s pose a threat to economic and social stability? What was the nature of this new sect, and what were the motives of the secessionists? These were questions that evoked concern among civic and religious leaders in the Mennonite colonies and officials in the Russian government.
The dissenters maintained that the established Mennonite Church was spiritually decadent and displayed an overall lifestyle deficit. Their efforts to bring about renewal from within had been rebuffed. Only by withdrawing, they believed, could they create a pure church based on the precepts of the Bible and the teachings of Menno Simons. Some of the early more radical Brethren leaders endorsed ecstatic religious services involving dancing, leaping, shouting, and hymn singing accompanied by a variety of musical instruments. Because of their exuberance, these adherents were scornfully referred to as Hüpfers, or Jumpers. (The exuberant movement was formally condemned by the Brethren in 1865.) Some church and village leaders resorted to harsh measures, including court procedures, imprisonment, and threat of exile in an effort to convince the dissidents of the error of their ways, and to discourage others from joining them. The controversies and rumors surrounding the movement, plus the concern that the Brethren were seeking to evangelize among the Orthodox population, prompted the czarist government to investigate the "new mystical sect."
The man appointed to make the investigation was Alexander Brune, an Evangelical Lutheran magistrate. Brune's name was submitted by a Lutheran church official, indicating that the Lutherans were also concerned about the active proselytizing of the Brethren. The inquiry took place from December, 1863 through November, 1864. Brune filed his reports periodically, divided into Parts I through IV. He agreed with the dissidents that the Mennonite Church had strayed far from the teachings and lifestyle promulgated by Menno Simons. And he believed that they had served the church well by issuing a warning cry for spiritual renewal. Brune interviewed persons on both sides of the split, including a number of the Brethren leaders who were advocates of the exuberant movement. To him they came across as fanatical, arrogant and confrontational. Thereafter he became more critical of the dissenting group. It appears this aggressive element may have colored his perceptions of the entire Brethren movement. Also, he became greatly disturbed by the attempts to convert Lutherans and the adherents of other faiths, and to force rebaptism by immersion upon them. And he criticized them for breaking civil and church laws.
On the other hand, Brune was also critical of the Molotschna elders who opposed the formation of a new church. They had sent a letter condemning the secessionists and recommending that they be "dealt with according to the law," claiming that it came from all of the elders, when in fact it expressed the views of only some. He also addressed the harsh treatment of the dissidents, and consistently pointed out the need for renewal in the existing church. But by the time Brune completed his investigation, he had concluded that the "Hüpfers" were not God's chosen instruments "for reforming the fallen Christian church." (112). What had begun as worthy and good, he said, degenerated into hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and "pharisaic conceit" (110).
The investigator predicted the Brethren movement would suffer a quick decline. Spiritual flaws, including a loveless spirit, weak leadership, and internal disputes were among the reasons given. The decision to move to the Kuban would not alter their ultimate fate. Initially he believed the movement held the potential for dangerous consequences, but in the end he concluded otherwise. Let them move, set up their own church system, and fall to anarchy, he advised. Another document included in this study reveals that the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs arrived at similar conclusions. Purely religious sects, officials declared, did not pose a threat to the established order; and sectarians should be permitted to form their own congregation. It was believed that such a congregation would soon suffer from factionalism and lose its zeal to convert Orthodox adherents. Resettling the Brethren in the undeveloped Caucasus, it was believed, would defuse the immediate situation and probably hasten their demise. Of course, the predictions of the decline and fall of the new church did not materialize, although the Kuban settlement did initially suffer from dissension and defections to other religious sects.
Brune's reports, according to Toews, confirm the content of materials found in the published works of Franz Isaak, Jakob Bekker, P. M. Friesen, and others. In addition, some previously unknown documents surfaced, including a February 29, 1860 Mennonite Brethren membership list. Of great interest to me was the discovery that my great- grandfather Jacob Kroeker and his family accounted for seven of the 130 members of the church as of that date.
The Brune investigation is of further value in that it provides us with a rare outsider's view of the Mennonite Church split. Toews believes that "Brune certainly tried to be objective—at least initially." (7). It is clear that over time he developed a strongly negative attitude toward the Brethren movement and its leaders At times his Lutheran bias is evident. Many of his criticisms of the Brethren, for example, echo the arguments made by Lutheran theologians against the Anabaptists during the Reformation period. These included their view of the sacraments and who should administer them; disobeying government authorities; the practice of rebaptism; and arrogantly claiming to have established the true church.
Brune's assertion that "The Mennonite community of South Russia remains at its former low and impaired level of intelligence, morality and religious education," reveals at best a jaundiced view of the Mennonites. (107). His consistent use of the term Hüpfers in reference to the Mennonite Brethren may also be revealing. By adopting the derisive nickname given to them by their detractors, rather than the name chosen by the founders, he appears more like an antagonist than a neutral investigator. Nevertheless, this outside perspective, added to our existing inside perspectives—also not bias-free—broadens our understanding of the Mennonite schism. Since the publication of this work more Brune archival materials have been found. It will be interesting to learn what they might add to the story.
We are indebted to Professor Toews for making this material available in the English language, and to Kindred Productions for publishing it. It is unfortunate that an index was not included.
Marvin E. Kroeker
Professor Emeritus of History
East Central University