new Mennonite Life logo    June 2001     vol. 56 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Book Reviews

Delbert F. Plett, Saints and Sinners: The Kleine Gemeinde in Imperial Russia, 1812 to 1875. Steinbach, Man.: Crossway Publications, 1999. Pp. 352. ISBN 0-9694504-0-5. Reviewed by Kevin Enns-Rempel.

Marlene Epp, Women without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. 261. ($55.00) ISBN 0802044913 Reviewed by Kimberly D. Schmidt.

Delbert F. Plett, Saints and Sinners: The Kleine Gemeinde in Imperial Russia, 1812 to 1875. Steinbach, Man.: Crossway Publications, 1999. Pp. 352. ISBN 0-9694504-0-5.

The name Delbert Plett has become virtually synonymous with Kleine Gemeinde Mennonite historiography. Plett, through the publication of his seven-volume "Kleine Gemeinde Historical Series," has single-handedly lifted the Kleine Gemeinde from their previous obscurity and placed them into the mainstream of Russian Mennonite historical studies. These previous volumes were almost entirely collections of primary documents and genealogical data. Now, with Saints and Sinners, Plett provides a narrative framework to tell the story he has discovered in these documents.

Plett argues that most Mennonite historians since the nineteenth century have engaged in a calculated, systematic effort to denigrate the Kleine Gemeinde, bring them into "disrepute and disrespect," and portray them as "arch-reactionaries clinging desperately to outmoded and useless mores of the past" (p. 5). The truth, as Plett understands it, is much different. "The purpose for the founding of the Kleine Gemeinde," he claims, "was the restitution or restoration of the Apostolic Church, as rediscovered by the seminal leaders of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith in the Reformation times" (p. 9).

Chapter one, "The Anabaptist Vision," provides a brief overview of church history from the Apostolic era to the sixteenth-century Anabaptists. Plett’s purpose here is to lay the historic context for the Kleine Gemeinde, who he believes best carried on the genuine Christian tradition. As the chapter’s title suggests, Plett largely follows the interpretation of Anabaptism developed by Harold S. Bender in the first half of the twentieth century. While subsequent historiography has revealed Bender’s model to be a useful but excessively narrow interpretation of a complex socio-religious movement, Plett fails to even acknowledge the existence of this later work. As a result, he argues that the Kleine Gemeinde carried on an Anabaptist tradition that seems never to have existed in the pure form described by Bender.

Plett then goes on to describe the Prussian and Russian context for the birth of the Kleine Gemeinde. He points especially to the Flemish Mennonite tradition within Prussia, arguing that the Kleine Gemeinde largely arose from that branch of the Mennonite Church. In Russia, Plett describes the various religious and cultural conflicts that eventually caused a small group of Mennonites to separate from the larger group in 1812, which became known as the Kleine Gemeinde.

The Kleine Gemeinde, according to Plett, was a grass-roots movement led by generally well-to-do "conservative intellectuals" determined to maintain the traditional Mennonite faith. He points to their strong appreciation for historical Mennonite devotional literature such as the Martyrs Mirror and the writings of Pieter Pieters as evidence of their loyalty to that tradition. Plett further shows that the Kleine Gemeinde played an important role within the Russian Mennonite colonies, not only as a voice for conservative values but also as a peacemaker in Mennonite civil disputes.

Plett interrupts his chronological narrative to explore Kleine Gemeinde cultural and social life, the role of women within that movement, and the importance of family connections in shaping a distinctive church. Plett’s far-ranging knowledge of Kleine Gemeinde genealogy serves him well in the chapter on family linkages, as he describes in detail the intricate web of inter-relationships that characterized them.

Plett’s book is more, however, than simply a history of the Kleine Gemeinde. It also is an indictment of what he calls the "Separatist-Pietist" movement within Russian Mennonitism. Plett argues that this movement was a particularly virulent form of Württemburg Pietism, "which declared all other churches to be of the devil" and demanded "that believers needed to adopt its religious culture in order to obtain ‘salvation.’" Plett further claims that "Separatist-Pietist religious culture typically included legalistic salvation plans, deferral of the reign of Christ to a future age (dispensationalism), fabled endtimes teachings (millennialism), and the belief that they were the only ‘true’ Christians" (p. 93). In its Mennonite incarnation, Separatist-Pietism set out deliberately to "eradicate the traditional Mennonite faith in Russia" (p. 70).

Plett’s continual use of the phrase "Separatist-Pietist" is curious, since the term is unknown in Mennonite writings of the nineteenth century or in subsequent historiography. While the influence of Pietism and millennialism among Russian Mennonites is well-documented, as are the separatist tendencies of groups such as the Mennonite Brethren, the combination of all these concepts into a single unified movement seems over-stated. Plett seems more interested in creating a foil against which he may contrast the faithful Kleine Gemeinde than in actually understanding the complex religious and intellectual movements that were transforming the face of the nineteenth-century Russian Mennonite world.

In light of Plett’s contention that the Kleine Gemeinde have been unfairly caricatured by Mennonite historians, it is exceedingly ironic that so much of his book consists of attacks against the "Separatist-Pietists." Plett argues that their practices of church discipline consisted of "psychological terror" and "thought control, reminiscent of the Salem witch trials" (p. 211). They "often showed thinly veiled disdain for elders as demonstrated in numerous situations torturing grandparents on their death beds to recant the traditional faith which was ridiculed and brought into disrepute by lies and untruth" (p. 219). Their worship, according to Plett, was characterized by "blaring music, jingoistic speakers, dancing and gyrating, all calculated to create the state of frenzy necessary for such hysterical religious exercises" (p. 135). The Separatist-Pietist agenda was carried out by "hordes of fanatical missionaries prowling the steppes of Russia, seeking to break apart families and congregations" (p. 297). Finally, Plett makes the far-reaching statement that "there is no doubt that Satan frequently used Separatist-Pietists to achieve his goals of assaulting those aspiring in their weakness to follow Jesus" (p. 328).

While it certainly is true that extreme behavior occurred among those Plett calls "Separatist-Pietists," it seems unfair to impute such thoroughly malicious motives to them. His historical narrative seems not so much even-handed scholarship as the argument of a lawyer (which Plett is) on behalf of a client, in this case the Kleine Gemeinde. Not content merely to defend his client’s character, Plett attempts to undermine the credibility of those who previously opposed and criticized the Kleine Gemeinde.

Plett is especially critical of Peter M. Friesen, whose 1911 history of Mennonites in Russia he cites as the prime example of historiographical prejudice against the Kleine Gemeinde. Friesen was, according to Plett, "a fanatical pietist who disparaged anyone who did not fit into his legalistic salvation plans, separatist agenda and endtimes fantasies" (p. 69-70). He claims that Friesen "typically lauded anything ever done by an adherent of Separatist-Pietism" (p. 100), though this claim reveals a very selective and careless reading of Friesen’s history of the Mennonites in Russia. Friesen, in fact, was extremely critical of early Mennonite Brethren leaders such as Jakob Becker, Benjamin Bekker and Gerhard Wieler, all of whom seemingly would fall into Plett’s definition of Separatist-Pietism.

Plett does acknowledge that the Kleine Gemeinde sometimes fell into error, particularly in what he calls the "false-humility movement" of 1829. He manages, however, to turn even this event into an indictment of Pietism, calling the movement "a form of reverse pietism" (p. 78) that emphasized inward feelings of fear and humility. Plett further argues that the Kleine Gemeinde should not be idealized and that they were as prone to sin and error as any group of Christians. Yet despite these disclaimers, it seems fairly clear that the Kleine Gemeinde are the "saints" and the Separatist-Pietists the "sinners" in Plett’s narrative.

These criticisms aside, Saints and Sinners does make an important contribution to the literature of Mennonite history. Plett’s detailed treatment of the Kleine Gemeinde helps us better understand a small yet important reform movement within the Russian Mennonite world. We all are beneficiaries of his many years of dedicated research and writing.

Kevin Enns-Rempel
Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies
Fresno Pacific University

Marlene Epp, Women without Men: Mennonite Refugees of the Second World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. 261. ($55.00) ISBN 0802044913

Women without Men is a crucial, groundbreaking book. Any scholar attempting to understand how gender informs Mennonite history, culture, and identity must read this book. This book is also a “must read” for scholars of immigration, refugee populations, church history, and even military history. Although Women without Men encompasses many typical topics in Mennonite history, including ethno-religious persecution, war-time experiences, immigration, and building new communities in wilderness areas, Epp’s placement of women’s experiences at the heart of her study challenges mainstream Mennonite history. Her exploration of how women’s wartime and refugee experiences differed from male-centered accounts reveals disturbing gender biases in Mennonite institutions and culture. Of course, we all know that many Mennonite communities and institutions continue to promote male authority. This is not news. Epp’s analysis reveals far deeper attitudes and biases, which are much harder to tease out than are simple examinations of male versus female leadership, for example.

Epp’s research relied on the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization archival collections, local church archives and collections, interviews with survivors and their children, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) documents, letters from refugees and MCC workers, and interviews conducted by historian Cornelius Krahn during the 1950s. Epp’s story starts in the Soviet Union during World War II. Mennonite communities in the Ukraine were devastated during the war. Men were killed or trucked off by the hundreds to prison camps, never to be heard of again. The horrific persecution resulted in communities greatly affected by population disparities between men and women. In many villages only women, small boys, and elderly men were left. Women banded together to support one another, forage for food, work on collectivized farms, share childcare, and ultimately to leave during a Mennonite “Trail of Tears” trek into Germany. In Germany, with MCC help, women set up refugee camps and attempted to provide a “normal” life for their families in part by conducting religious services. Eventually, many families made their way to Canada or Paraguay and it is here that Epp’s analysis reaches deep into Mennonite practices and attitudes.

In the Paraguayan context, women refugees had precious little support from Mennonite Central Committee, which preferred to support families with males at the head. Since the male head of household was missing, the families who had survived war, famine, rape, death, and harrowing treks out of Europe were considered “weak” in MCC correspondence and memorandums. One photo of an elderly woman refugee pictures her beside a mud oven, which she built by hand and from “scratch” since bricks were not readily available in the jungle. This woman was weak?

In the Canadian context, women refugees from Russia were morally and religiously suspect. During World War II, women’s survival strategies could include forming affectionate alliances with non-Mennonite men, including Nazi soldiers who shared the German culture and language, and, frankly, had access to food. In addition, since many ministers were missing or dragged off to Siberian work camps, official marriage ceremonies were not performed. Many women never heard from their former Mennonite husbands who were taken away to prison and extermination camps. Should these women not have formed alliances with the few available men, thereby sentencing their children to even more severe hardship? Evidently, many persons in the Canadian churches were uncomfortable with these choices.

Epp carefully places the experiences of this relatively small population of Mennonite women within the broader contexts of war, immigration, and cultural accommodation in new lands. She also carefully places her work within broader scholarly frameworks. Scholars of other immigrant and refugee populations inform her analysis. Epp’s work contributes not only to Mennonite identity and historiography but also to a much larger body of knowledge. Women’s historians, those who study the Soviet Union and World War II, historians of immigrants and refugees, and church historians will all benefit from this work. Epp has entered the dialogue between Mennonite historians and historians of other groups and in so doing has served up a model for future work by Mennonite women’s historians.

While Women without Men demonstrates the value of placing the Mennonite story within a broader framework, the “insider” history represented in the book also strengthens her argument. The daughter of a Mennonite historian, one can speculate that Epp most likely grew up with an almost intuitive understanding of the Canadian church. Her in-depth examinations of the Canadian Mennonite church suggest a lengthy involvement and intimate knowledge of Canadian Mennonite cultural, religious, and social practices.

The only suggestion for improvement, should Epp’s book be re-released by the Toronto press, would be to include more quotes from her memory sources and Krahn’s interviews. The interviews provided poignant reading throughout the book and more memory material would enhance the book.

One tantalizing tidbit of information comes to us in the conclusion when Epp writes that family stories of the women without men still inform the identities of their descendants. One wonders how these identities are different from other Mennonites who are farther removed from their immigrant past. Are there identity markers these women and their families share with other World War II refugee populations? Is this the topic of Epp’s next book? Whatever topic she decides to focus on next, by insisting on the inclusion of gender, Epp and other women’s historians are transforming Mennonite understandings of their history, culture, and identity.

Kimberly D. Schmidt
Eastern Mennonite University