By the late 18th century, many European governments were moving to increase the power and authority of the central state. As a result, Mennonites on the continent of Europe needed to deal with kings more directly than ever before. Local nobles or other authorities that had offered protection to Mennonites and derived direct economic benefits from doing so were now less able to maintain those relationships of patronage. In the 19th century, a major new political development was a burgeoning insistence on equality before the law, initially limited to male property owners, in place of the system of different rights for different social groups based on birth and tradition. This system of special rights for different groups had made possible the charters of privileges allowing Mennonites to avoid military service and attendance at state church services while still counting as legally tolerated subjects. The dissolution of this system clearly would challenge the early modern mode of accommodating Mennonites in European society.

One key political theory that served as the theoretical foundation for new demands for equality was that of a social contract. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 essay On Social Contract or Principles of Political Right made the case that governments exist in order to fulfill a social contract of rulers looking out for the general interests of the ruled.1 The ruled clearly had the right, even the obligation, to overthrow rulers who did not live up to their responsibilities under this contract. This political theory overturned an older ideal of government instituted by God for the protection of the pious that was widely held among the peoples of Europe and explicitly referenced in Mennonite confessions of faith. A major result of this shift was an understanding that the people - the nation - were at the center of politics since their general will defined the goal and purpose of government. Thus ordinary people should have a say in government as well as equal rights as part of the sovereign newly conceived. This arrangement offered tremendous advantages to Mennonites who had been locked out of many economic, educational, and social opportunities because of their heretical faith. At the same time, the emphasis on nationalism and equality increased the pressure they would face over military service.

An early and famous statement of this demand to alter the way society and politics were constituted can be found in the United States Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.2

Since the main author, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave owner, obviously men here referred to whites. Nor was the use of the term meant in an inclusive gender way. Males were to have these rights, not females. Nonetheless, given the inherited limits on white male political participation in Great Britain, this call was stunningly revolutionary. The Right of the People was now cast as the main driving force of history and as the final authority on right and wrong in the public arena.

In Europe, the French Revolution of 1789 was the most important expression of this new social contract. After a decade of turmoil and the failure to establish a stabile French Republic, Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as the Emperor of France. His regime did promote legal equality for property-owning white males and allowed for more participation and promotion based on merit, but was not democratic. He was a highly successful conqueror, utilizing the mobilization of the French nation via the draft, an invention of the failed French Republic. The draft was based on the logic that the sovereign of the nation is the one most responsible for its defense, so if the people were now sovereign as the nation, they were also required to defend it. Napoleon’s actions included ending the existence of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the same year he also dismantled the Kingdom of Prussia, turning it into a dependent satellite. In 1812, he invaded Russia, the last continental power to defy him. When that effort was turned back with the loss of over half a million lives in the French army and its allies, the Mennonite church in rural Elbing cancelled church services for three Sundays in a row in January 1813 because the disorderly herd of starving and retreating French soldiers made it too hazardous to venture out.3

The French defeat caused some Prussians who were inspired by the new logic of people’s rights to rebel against this foreign occupier. The French army stopped in Danzig to regroup, but the area east of Danzig, including the Vistula Delta where most Mennonites lived, rose in rebellion. New Prussian military units were raised with the aid of the first modern-style draft in Prussia history. After paying a lot of money and donating 500 horses for a new cavalry unit, Mennonites were able to gain an exemption from this new type of military service. Mennonite horses were collected after church services and turned over to the army so that Mennonite boys would not have to be.

The focus on equality and the large-scale conscription of Lutherans in the area changed the dynamic of Mennonites social relations with their neighbors. After the king approved the new arrangements, he received a new type of complaint from the Mennonites’ neighbors,

Please consider carefully, Sire!, that the Christian blood of Protestants and Catholics may not be bought with Mennonite money or replaced with that of horses.... We write to you as patriots, for whom no sacrifice for the fatherland is too great, we reveal the voice of the people and consider those to be unworthy of membership in the state who refuse in the current times to offer life and limb in order to preserve it.4

Mennonites responded in a variety of ways to this new pressure. About a half dozen cases of Mennonites joining the army during this time have been documented. All were banned from their congregations for doing so. When leaders realized that they could no longer completely shield individual members from facing social pressures and making their own personal decisions, they worked to provide more specific teaching and guidance on this issue. The following statement was approved by the collective leadership and was to be communicated to all the members, although evidence suggests this was not done in a uniform manner.

Our religion has long held the principle that according to the teaching of Jesus Christ it is forbidden to kill people, including our enemies. Rather we are required, conforming to the genuine principle of love, to love the same and to seek what is best for them wherever possible, especially concerning the salvation of their souls. This principle of our religion is based on the teachings of Jesus, his apostles, and the prophets, ...

Menno Simons also built his peaceful teaching on this worthy foundation, which he recommended to us so warmly and firmly as a duty, as can be clearly illustrated from his writings...

Since his Royal Majesty only recently gave us his most gracious assurance that our faith will be respected on this point, we live with the firm expectation that it is his highest will that we should not be forced in any fashion to take part personally in the reserve or any other military service. If this should happen, it would mean that we had been compelled by force to break the principles of our religion that we promised God on our knees to uphold. We would then stand before God as breakers of the covenant. No upright Mennonite could do so, even at the cost of his own life, nor could such action be the will of our most gracious king.5

The conflict between equal rights and duties for all citizens and allowing space for Mennonites’ religious convictions was not resolved by Prussian society at this time, but rather by a ruling of the king. After the kingdom was restored following Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, he ruled that the draft should be retained, but Mennonite were quietly and privately exempted. His personal interest in this ruling was to maintain in this policy and everywhere else he could manage it different laws for different social groups because he understood and feared the threat to his own power that came from the policy of equality before the law and respect for the rights of the people.6

Mennonites in Russia

To a large extent, Mennonites in Russia avoided these new social tensions during the first half of the 19th century. The settlements, as noted last time, were directly beholden to the central government’s officials for the most part. All foreign colonists were under the jurisdiction of the Guardianship Committee for Foreign Settlers that administered the laws that applied only to them. Mennonites after 1800 again had a unique Charter of Privileges granted by the tsar, but practically that was less important than the general regulations that applied to all foreign colonists. The main features of the initial arrangements were that land deeds were held in common so that only Mennonites could buy, sell or inherit land from each other in the colonies, that they had the right and duty to administer themselves, including running their own school system, and that the government gave them loans on good terms and otherwise helped them get established. When conflicts arose over whether church leaders or elected and appointed colony leaders would have authority over social and economic policies in the colonies, the Guardianship Committee saw to it that the clergy lost out. Mennonites used the opportunities available to them to negotiate good deals for themselves with the central government. For example, they paid the lowest rate on income of any group in the area.7

Tax Rates in South Russia, Early 19th Century
Type of Settlement Income (rubles) Expenses (rubles) Taxes (rubles)
Mennonites 1,100 931.07 78.69
German Colonists 1,100 935 105
Russian state peasants 400 403 77
Nogai 350 350 70

Important developments in the middle of the century exposed Mennonites in a limited way to the new currents of equality that were slow to penetrate Russia. These gestures toward equality granted Mennonites important new opportunities. In 1846, the restrictions that limited Mennonite economic activity outside of the colonies were lifted, allowing them to expand their markets for goods they produced beyond grain and wool. Fifty years later, Mennonites produced somewhere between a quarter and half of all the agricultural machinery manufactured in eastern Ukraine and milled almost a third of all the flour in the region. A handful of Mennonites became wealthy, the third that owned property were prosperous and even the majority who worked for wages were doing better economically than most Russians.

In the 1850s, Russia fought a war against France and Great Britain with most of the fighting taking place in Crimea, just to the south of the main Mennonite colony of Molotschna. Mennonites were required to assist in hauling supplies for the army and played a modest role in caring of Russian wounded. In addition to exposing Mennonites to a wider Russian world, the war also set in motion a series of reforms that culminated with the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, ending Russia’s reliance on bondage labor. The special status of all colonists, including Mennonites, was cancelled in 1871, bringing more equality to Russian society. An important goal of these reforms was realized in the 1870s with the imposition of the draft in Russia. Now both serfs and colonists could be incorporated in Russian society and the army in a more complete way.

The announcement that the draft would be implemented in 1874 produced vigorous debates among Mennonites over the trade-offs of opportunity and compromise. Mennonite dissatisfaction with the draft and an increased emphasis on using the Russian language in schools and public led about one third of them to migrate to the United States and Canada. The government modified the draft for Mennonites as a result, allowing them to serve in civilian forestry camps as an alternative to military service.

Enforcing Equality in Germany after 1848

The competing nature of liberal political principles was especially apparent in Prussia in the middle of the 19th century. In 1848, various revolutions temporarily weakened most central European monarchs and created space for an attempt to unify Germany around the political principles of equality and rule by the people. The most important of these efforts was the Frankfurt National Assembly that attempted to create a new German constitution.

That constitution attempted to balance the different conceptions of rights and equality. The special status of the nobility was revoked; all Germans were to be equal before the law. Religious discrimination against the Jews and others, including property restrictions on the Mennonites, was to end. This was codified in Article 13: The enjoyment of civic and civil rights will neither depend nor be restricted on the basis of religion. Religion must not hinder the fulfillment of national duties. Note how opportunities and nationalism as defined by the fulfillment of national duties were juxtaposed here. The draft of the constitution was clear that in such cases nationalism was to trump any and all religious commitments. As it happened, this particular constitution was never put into effect as the King of Prussia reasserted his authority and sent the National Assembly packing. Nonetheless the king had to bow to the pressure of the times and granted the Kingdom of Prussia a constitution written to preserve most of his power. That constitution adopted this phrase from the Frankfurt draft, but the king ordered the Ministry of Interior, the agency that oversaw the draft, to continue to leave Mennonites alone. This order was only one of many ways the monarch worked to undermine the constitution.8

Where traditionalist Mennonites saw peril, other Mennonites discovered opportunities. Carl Harder, who pastored Mennonite churches in Königsberg, Neuwied and Elbing over his career, wrote extensively on the possibilities of aligning democracy, modernity and Mennonite faith, a stance that put him under police surveillance for a time around 1848. Wilhelm Mannhardt became the first German Mennonite to obtain a Ph.D. degree and taught for a brief while at the University of Berlin, developing an international reputation as a researcher of German folklore, following in the footsteps of the Grimm brothers.

Wilhelm Mannhardt, 1831-1880. Mennonite Library and Archives Wilhelm Mannhardt, 1831-1880. Mennonite Library and Archives

Still others moved into new areas of the economy, opening up steam-power mills and other factories.9

From 1864 to 1871, a series of three wars initiated by Prussia against Denmark, Austria and France unified Germany as an Empire led and dominated by the Kingdom of Prussia.

German Empire, 1871. Mennonite Library and Archives.German Empire, 1871. Mennonite Library and Archives.

As part of this process, a new constitution was written in 1867 for the North German Confederation led by Prussia, a temporary political structure along the path to empire. In this context, the issue of Mennonites’ military service came up again. The initial draft law proposed by the government posited three exempt groups in German society; members of the ruling Hohenzollern family, members of recently deposed ruling families sovereign German states absorbed into Prussia, and Mennonites from the Vistula Delta. In an act symbolic of the slow and incomplete progress of Germany in the direction of equality and democracy, the constitutional convention upheld inequality and exemptions for the elites but struck down finally and irrevocably Mennonites’ exemption. Although an option for serving as noncombatants was created in 1868, a sizable minority of Mennonites left Prussia for Russia and the United States in the following decade. Those coming to this country settled mostly in and east of Newton, Kan., and around Beatrice, Neb.10 The vast majority of Prussian Mennonites, however, stayed. They joined the army mostly as noncombatants, but by World War I switched to mostly serving as regular German soldiers who were accepted and integrated into German society.

Having seen how the tension inherent in opposing political theories over the role of government in society and especially over issues of nationalism and equality, the task remains to ask where and how ideas and practices related to loyalty to nation and equality are either mostly modern social expectations, biblical injunctions or some combination of both. Should young males, for example, register for the draft in order to qualify for federal financial aid and student loans? Should Mennonite schools fly the flag or play the national anthem? Should Mennonites use a path to citizenship that goes through military service, an option that some are proposing for undocumented residents of the United States, a number of whom are Mennonite? To what extent are Mennonite debates over women in leadership, human sexuality and the role of voting in resolving church disputes actually driven in differing degrees by varying political theories on the nature of society and the role of government at least as much as they are by differing interpretations of the Bible? Does any of this matter in church debates? To what kinds of social pressure should Mennonites yield and when should they take up the role of social pariah for the sake of the gospel?

In closing, a word from Hebrews 13:9-14 that touches on the political nature of following Jesus as leader: Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.