Mennonite Life logo

2015, vol. 69

Review: History of the Defenceless Anabaptist Churches from the Times of the Apostles to the Present

by Mark Jantzen

Mark Jantzen is professor of history at Bethel College and author of Mennonite German Soldiers: Nation, Religion and Family in the Prussian East, 1772-1880 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010) and The Wrong Side of the Wall: An American in East Berlin during the Peaceful Revolution (1993). He is co-editor with John Thiesen of two translations, The Military Service Exemption of the Mennonites of Provincial Prussia (2013) and The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origins and History, 1569-1919 (2007). He currently serves as the North American representative on the editorial council of volume five of Mennonitisches Lexikon.

Martin Klaassen, History of the Defenceless Anabaptist Churches from the Times of the Apostles to the Present, translated by Walter Klaassen, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: Saskatchewan Mennonite Historical Society, 2013.

History of the Defenceless Anabaptist Churches from the Times of the Apostles to the Present, translated by Walter KlaassenHistory of the Defenceless Anabaptist Churches from the Times of the Apostles to the Present, translated by Walter Klaassen

My great-great-great-grandfather Abraham Jantzen bought a copy of this book, originally published in 1874, and signed his name to it, listing also his village, Hahns-Au in the Am Trakt Colony on the Volga River in Russia, just one village over from where the author, Martin Klaassen lived. Abraham’s son, Johannes, was a preacher in the Mennonite church there and took this book, protected with a book jacket constructed from the cover of a weekly Russian-language journal, Gazeta A. Gatcuka, along on the trek to Central Asia in 1880 in an attempt to leave behind the Russian Empire and its military draft. From there that copy traveled with the family to Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1884.

The book itself was in part responsible for the journey it went on. Martin Klaassen’s main thesis is that the true church has been and should always be a suffering church; that the cross will always come before the crown. The immediate cause for writing this book was the capitulation of the vast majority of Mennonites in Prussia to the military draft that was imposed on them in 1867. The church leadership in the Am Trakt colony diagnosed that the Mennonites there had fallen asleep during the long times of peace and tranquility and had thus stooped to the secularized, commonly accepted Christian position on the issue. For this reason they, along with supporters in the Neu Samara and Molotschna colonies, asked Klaassen to write a book to wake up the Mennonites of Russia to the dangers of secularization, merely accepting societal norms, and thereby rejecting suffering and above all the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The churches were to be called back to the lost consciousness of our church-historical destiny (15) to suffer persecution or risk emigration if the Gospel was threatened, including in the current manifestation the peril took, the military draft. Once Klaassen, my paternal ancestors, and others from this circle of like-minded Mennonites determined they could no longer live out the Gospel in Russia, the book itself demanded that as true suffering Christians they must leave the country, which they did, taking the book with them.

A helpful introduction by translator Walter Klaassen, noted scholar of Anabaptism, former professor at Bethel College and Conrad Grebel University College, and great-grandson of the author, lays out Martin Klaassen’s background and the sources he used. Martin was born in Prussia in 1820. He spent two formative years starting in 1850 in the Molotschna Colony in close contact with the Yushanlee estate of the late Johann Cornies where he came to the conviction to do his part to help humanity. After a brief return to Prussia, he expressed his fresh direction in life by becoming the teacher in 1855 for the newly founded Am Trakt colony, first in the village of Hahnsau, then at Koeppental. He married Marie Hamm in 1855 and the couple had five children. He helped survey the colony and was a song leader and otherwise involved at church. He created much of the teaching material he used in his school. In fact, he intended this book to serve as a textbook in Mennonite schools. He only had limited resources available to write it: The Martyrs Mirror and Gottfried Arnold’s Nonpartisan History of the Church were two main ones. German translations of books by Alexander Keith from Scotland and the American John Newton Brown were also used. In addition Walter Klaassen notes that he used other unidentified sources. I could identify two of those, Peter Froese’s relatively obscure 1850 Gentle Reminder to Fellow Mennonites Regarding the Article on Defencelessness (Liebreiche Erinnerung an die Mennonitischen Glaubens-Genossen in Hinsicht des Glaubens-Artikels von der Wehrlosigkeit) and Wilhelm Mannhardt’s well-known The Military Service Exemption of the Mennonites of Provincial Prussia. The later book was written in 1863, ostensibly with a similar aim of keeping Mennonites out of the draft, but by 1869 Mannhardt had written at length on the need for Mennonites to accept at least non-combatant military service. Klaassen’s book was among other things certainly a direct response to Mannhardt.

Klaassen built his case by breaking his book into four sections. Part one examines the emergence of a suffering church up to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Much space is devoted to covering the martyrdoms of all the apostles save John and clearly most of the material was drawn from The Martyrs Mirror. The next segment deals with some general church history and also names numerous groups that practiced or at least talked about adult baptism and suffered as heretics up to the time of Peter Waldo in the twelfth century. The third subdivision looks at problems in the medieval church and renewal efforts up to Menno Simons in the sixteenth century. This section too is heavily sprinkled with martyr accounts, underlining the continuous nature of a true church of small, suffering groups who practice nonresistance and/or adult baptism.

The final section deals specifically with Mennonite history. Menno’s life and teachings take up the first few chapters here; little is said about developments in Switzerland, which were not in any case widely known at the time. Klaassen’s list of markers of the true church include adult baptism, leaving vengeance to the Lord, not using weapons to fight, not swearing oaths, avoiding divorce, and maintaining church discipline (170). Later he adds avoiding governmental involvement (171). The story of Dirk Willems turning back to rescue his pursuer who had fallen through the ice is his final story and serves as the epitome and summation of sixteenth-century Anabaptism.

The final chapters of the book deal with developments along the Vistula River, which after the Netherlands had the largest Mennonite settlements in the world until the mid-nineteenth century. Especially after the area becomes part of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1772, Mennonites faced episodic intense pressure to serve in the military and turned repeatedly to suffering material loss and emigrating to meet the challenge. Yet after 1848 the Mennonite witness for Klaassen turned soft primarily due to the internal enemies who grew up Mennonite yet insisted on following the direction which the cultural flow of the age had taken for years, (214) namely towards greater nationalism and military service. The call for equal rights by Mennonites eager to get out from under material restrictions imposed on them by the community’s refusal to serve meant that they applauded and even petitioned the government to impose military service on them.

Perhaps it is clear by now that Klaassen did not write history as we would currently understand that task. His approach was above all theological, looking in history to find the workings and leadings of God. Especially in the final chapters he noted how the Evil One had raised up revolutions, constitutions, and the French Emperor Napoleon in order to overthrow the God-given order of the world that had kept Mennonites safe since the seventeenth century. Those who did not cling to the Word of God adopted instead bourgeois morality (222) (leeren Tugendwandel) as their guide. God would protect the faithful yet, but they might need to emigrate to stay true, perhaps even going to the borders of Asia (223), a foreshadowing of the trek the author would himself undertake, during which he would die in 1881. At the end of this section he quoted with affirmation Peter Froese’s 1850 assessment that, Even if the teaching of nonresistance cannot be squared with today’s politics of state, it does have a secure foundation in the teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles (228, page 8 in Froese).

Thus for Klaassen those who had emigrated to Russia or America and the Quakers remained the last true remnant. In the postscript he gushed with enthusiasm and gratitude for the alternative forestry service that the Tsar had accepted for the Mennonites in Russia, referring to him as one Anointed. Service for the state, now decoupled from the Ministry of War, could perhaps be conceived of as service for God as well. His admiration for the tsar is hard to square with his decision to leave the country only six years later, what happened to change his mind is a mystery for another historian to solve. Whatever was going on in the Jantzen household is also unknown, but someone took a knife to these last two pages of Tsarist panegyric in the copy I have inherited and cut them out. I had not noticed the cut before and did not even know they existed until I read this translation.

Walter Klaassen is to be commended for all the work he did on this volume. The translation is excellent: the German is occasionally unclear or archaic, but the English has reformulated sentences that are much clearer. There are only a few things I noticed that could have been improved. A typo places the important 1789 Prussian edict on Mennonites in the wrong decade (192) and the explanation of the complex origins of the geographic terms West and East Prussia is garbled (181). An index would have been helpful. Much more importantly, this book brings English readers into the debates in the Mennonite churches of Prussia and Russia as they struggled to adapt to modernity and its challenge of loyalty to the nation and military service. May it find many, many readers who are as eager to struggle with issues of modernity and faithfulness as was Martin Klaassen.