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2015, vol. 69

Towards a Common Religious History of the Gnadenau Settlement: 1874-1920

by Benjamin Schmidt

Benjamin Schmidt is a student at Tabor College in Hillsboro, KS.

I. Introduction

In the world of the late 1800s, Eastern Europe and Russia experienced a change in leadership, which would cause a small, religious group, the Mennonites, to immigrate and found a village in the United States. These German speaking Mennonites settled in South Russia by the invitation of Catherine the Great. Immigrations, due to their religious conviction, became a motif amongst the Mennonites, who moved from central Europe, to South Russia, to the United States and Canada. The Mennonites, being against violence and warfare, refused to participate in any military roles. This refusal to fight raised questions about the their loyalty and courage, making military exemption very difficult to obtain. This repeated problem of finding exemption caused the Mennonites to seek a home away from Russia. The first group of the Mennonites to immigrate, the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, left in 1874. They brought their cultural customs with them from Russia. They also brought their faith. This faith defined them, permeating their daily lives and guiding how they treated others and how they worked. This everyday common religion centered on the gemeinde. This term generally refers to the Church, but carries far deeper connotations. The concept contains ideas of community, brotherhood, and faith. The gemeinde did not simply appear for Sunday morning worship services, but provided the framework and goal of all of cultural practice and society.

II. Literature Review

Popular religious history as a genre arises from the larger genre of popular history.1 This genre, popularized by Marxist historians in the 1960s, looks at the lives of everyday people. This contrasts most of the histories before this time, which historians wrote of the great men. E.P. Thompson wrote History from Below, becoming an early advocate of popular history. This essay supported the writing of history about men who seemed relatively unimportant for their time.

Thompson suggested a new angle of historical analysis, which historians quickly picked up. Within ten years of Thompson’s article, S. Ahistrom had applied this angle to the study of religious history.2 Ahistrom claims of American religious history, that, An account of its religious development thus requires a constant concern for men, movements, and ideas whose origins are very remote in both time and space.3 This focus on men, movements, and ideas shows the popular aspect of this religious history. At the beginning of this book, Ahistrom identifies four guidelines for studying religious history. These guidelines suggest a popular religious history in the narrative. They include placing American religious history in context, including secular movements, observing diversity, and remembering the social context.4 Looking at the diversity and context, both religious and secular, requires a deeper look into more than just the important men of history.

This concept of popular religious history is carried further by David Hall in his book, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England. As Hall’s subtitle suggests he examines what popular religion looked like in early Puritans. Hall shows the book to be a popular history by claiming that, Above all, my story is of people who had power to select among a range of meanings…5 He also expands on the idea of popular religion to be the belief of the lay people as opposed to the clergy. He argues, …that lay people sometimes distanced themselves from the message of the clergy.6 This further defines the idea of popular religious history. Not only does Hall further define popular religion, he also expands the scope of its perspective,

Whatever the eventual significance of these propositions, I offer them to demonstrate that a history of popular religion in seventeenth-century New England is inevitably a history, not of certain parts or fragments, but of culture as a whole—that is, of how structures of meaning emerge, circulate, and are put to use7

Here, Hall overtly claims that popular religion, at least in the early New England setting, presents a history of the entire culture. This expands the idea of popular religion to include popular history.

In the same year, 1990, Michael Candelaria discussed the alienating and liberating aspects of popular religion. Candelaria claims that, Popular religiosity…will be alienating or liberating depending on the role the popular sector plays in specific historical situations.8 In this, he argues that the affect of popular religion depends on the situation. In this book, Candelaria, compares the role of popular religion and liberation theology.

Zayarnyuk and Himka initially provide a simple definition in their 2006 history, Letters from Heaven: Popular Religion in Russia and Ukraine. They define it as …the religion of ordinary people9 This definition agrees with Thompson’s idea of history from below and Hall’s definition of popular religion. They go on to define it in more detail as,

…the religion of rural and peasant society, folk religion, the religion of the laity in the contrast to that of the clergy (where the clergy is the bearer of a learned tradition…), the religion of a subclass or minority group in a culture, the religion of the masses as opposed to the religion of the sophisticated, discriminated, and learned within society.10

This further defining gives more clarity to the idea of popular religion. It also separates them from Hall, who only considered that religion that contrasted between the laity and the clergy. Further separating themselves from Hall’s definition, they say, …the term popular religion does not necessarily imply that there is a unified whole (popular religion), juxtaposing itself against another such whole (official religion).11 This opposes Hall’s assertion about popular American religious history being the history of the whole culture. It instead suggests that popular religion contains a diversity of ideas. Finally, Zaryarnyuk and Himmka tie popular religion to Thompson, saying, ’Popular’ also continues to maintain its connections with the lower classes and history from below.12 This references the terminology used by Thompson.

In 2009 Michele Hanson continued to emphasize the importance of popular religion. Hanson writes, Studying the experiences of ordinary people in the early years of the Reformation era provides a valuable perspective for understanding the impact that theological divisions had on the way people identified their religious beliefs and interacted with each other.13 Hanson promotes the study of popular religion with the goal of finding the influence of theological division on religious identity. …This study examines how and to what extent people formed religious identities in the first four decades of the Reformation and how those identities had an impact on their relationships with other people, particularly their families, friends, and neighbors.14 Studying ordinary people, for Hanson, shows how religion and religious identities influence people relationships.

The present study of Gnadenau also looks at the influence of religion on people. In the tradition of Thompson, this study looks at the everyday people in the Gnadenau settlement. The differences between clergy and laity seem too insignificant, in this case, to follow in the tradition of Hall. Rather, this study looks at how religion influenced the daily lives of settlers in Gnadenau. It could also be considered folk, rural, or minority religion as defined by Zaryarnyuk and Himka. Most simply put, this study looks at religion in the lives of ordinary people.

III. A Short History

Starting in 1789, Mennonites began settling in South Russia after Catherine the Great offered them many incentives, including …free land, transportation, financial support, tax exemption for a limited time, exclusion from serving in the military and certain civil obligations, religious toleration and liberty to establish their own schools and local political institutions.15 According to these stipulations the Mennonites agreed to move to South Russia and lived there peacefully for nearly a decade.

During this time, various subgroups splintered from the main Mennonite immigrants, each attempting to return to the Bible and personal piety. One of these groups, the Kleine Gemeinde, or little church, made up a small portion of the Mennonites as a whole. Royden Loewen writes, The Kleine Gemeine had begun in 1812, during the Mennonites’ first generation in Russia…Religion was seen as an earnest, all-encompassing corporate activity; hence both religious complacency and an individualistic, subjective religiosity were spurned.16 This type of revivalistic separatist group became common as many saw the main Mennonite Church growing increasingly complacent.

From the Kleine Gemeinde came the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church, from this point on referred to as the KMB. They desired to live a pious life separate of the world.17 Esther Jost, in the story of Justina Wiebe, the wife of Elder Jacob Wiebe, writes, The members of the new Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church practiced simplicity and nonconformity to the world in lifestyle. They felt that formerly there had been too few differences between people of the church and those of the world and too much rivalry in the display of fine clothes and jewelry.18 To help them in living this type of life, they laid down four articles as statements of belief:

  1. They would accept the whole Word of God, written by God’s servants endowed by the Holy Spirit.
  2. They would wholeheartedly submit to God’s Word according to Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7, which included living peacefully with God and man, not using the oath, assisting in alleviating suffering, keeping the marriage sacred and practicing nonresistance.
  3. They would support home and foreign missions in order to save the lost in sin.
  4. They would practice discipline according to Matthew 18.19

When Czar Alexander II revoked Mennonite military exemption in 1870, the KMB left among the first groups. It took them four years to decide to sell their land and prepare for the voyage to the United States. They landed in New York on July 15, 1874.20 From there they traveled to Elkhart, Indiana, and remained there until they decided on a place to live.21 They appointed Elder Jacob A. Wiebe for this task. He decided on …twelve alternate sections, 7,680 acres of Risley township Santa Fe land.22 This terrain provided similar land to what the Mennonites farmed in the Crimea. The rest of the congregation arrived at Peabody, Kansas on August 16, 1874. Settling in Risley township, they formed a village that they called Gnadenau, translated Grace Meadow, …a name which expressed their spiritual and physical needs and ideals.23 The name of the new settlement revealed the KMB’s desire that their village bring grace to those who lived there and those who visited. It also suggests a hope that this meadow, by God’s favor, could provide a livelihood for the settlers.

Gnadenau soon took on the form and appearance of a village. The settlers erected A -framed structures called a saraj.24 To build these …the rafters [were] placed on the ground and roofed with little bundles made from the long slue grass that grew in the low places of the prairie.25 Others built sod houses and a few raised framed structures. The village that arose amongst these buildings carried a unique culture, which fit into the framework of the gemeinde. Cornelius Janzen argues similarly that …among the Mennonites the Church is the center around which the whole community clusters.26 Rather than the community, clustering around the Church, the church and the community synonymously combined in the gemeinde. Jacob A. Wiebe discusses the gemeinde in a letter, Menno taught so seriously about the new birth, and that a Gemeinde shall consist of sincere children of God who know their filial relationship to God (Romans 5:1-5).27 This filial relationship to God translated to familial relationship amongst members of the community. The gemeinde included the Church, home, and work. The church service and other events of the Lord’s day create the most obvious signs of the gemeinde, but it is also seen in farming, in regards to health, and at weddings and anniversaries.

The Kleine Gemeinde, who shared similar beliefs and experienced a similar immigration, provide a suitable comparison both culturally and religiously. Loewen asserts, On the community level these families were tied together by the lay-oriented church congregation; it encouraged a deep piety, ordered social relationships, and defined social boundaries.28 Like the KMB, the church congregation held the center of community life. Loewen also includes the family and market as separate factors in Kleine Gemeinde society. The factors of family, church, and market thus worked together to ensure a measure of continuity in a changing environment.29 In the KMB, these elements, at least in the early years, seemed to gather into the all-encompassing concept of gemeinde. Within the Kleine Gemeinde, Households often dictated the timing of emigration, the place of initial settlement, the nature of secondary migrations and the very social dynamic of village life.30 The KMB, on the other hand, had a more centralized society. In 1874 they migrated as a whole congregation. The gemeinde at its most basic level shows the influence of religion on every area of life in the Gnadenau settlement.

IV. Culture and Religion in Gnadenau

The Church service, while not the end in defining gemeinde, does give a start and a foundation to the concept. Church services provided a gathering of the community to learn through teaching and to unite in a common faith. Generally a service included the following: singing of several songs led by a vorsaenger or song leader, an invocation and prayer, two sermons, a closing prayer and a benediction.31 The Krimmer Mennonite Brethren held three ordinances of the church: baptism, communion, and footwashing. The KMB’s mode of baptism required the baptismal candidate to kneel and be submersed facing forward. They saw this as imitative of Christ praying in the garden of Gethsemane and dying on the cross.32 Communion service was always considered a very sacred act… As the congregation partook of the bread and wine, The brethren and sisters sat in separate section.33 Foot-washing ceremonies included several members washing each other’s feet while the rest of the congregation sang hymns and shared testimonies.34 These ordinances, not only marked the participant as a member of the church, but also as a member of the greater community.

The service also provided a form of social control for the community. The fourth article of the KMB holds them to practice church discipline as taught in Matthew 18. This passage teaches personal confrontation for sin, followed by group confrontation, and then the entire church. If the member remained unrepentant at this point, the KMB followed the instruction of Matthew 18: And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.35 Excommunication removed sinning members from the church with the hope that they repented and returned to the congregation. This shunning separated sinning members from the gemeinde. Essentially, excommunication and shunning ostracized them from the entire community. Those who did not belong, could not participate in any of the social or economic aspects of the community. Jacob A. Wiebe writes in one letter, …it is very sad for they have given themselves over to the world, and they have entered upon the wide road, and it seems like they are quite happy.36 Not only did the KMB keep strict rules in regard to presumptuous sins, but also to cultural practices, which they found sinful. The KMB’s dressed simply; they punished young people if they became …a little freer with their clothing.37 They also opposed bicycles, photographs, and musical instruments as worldly.38 The church, in the case of the KMB, controlled society. As Janzen says, …religion is the great molding power of the Mennonites…39 Everything in KMB society related in some way to the the church, which composed the community and declared who was in and who was out.

One event that related to the Church, gathering the gemeinde, were weddings. These occurred in the homes, officiated by a minister or elder, leaders of the gemeinde. William Harms writes of the Springfield KMB Church, a daughter church of Gnadenau, that the KMB required an engagement period before the wedding could be announced in the church. When this period ended, the bride’s parents invited everyone over …to the bride’s home where the ministers, deacon and immediate relatives had gathered for a short service. The performing minister asked the couple a few questions in regard to their anticipated marriage and the [engagement] was completed. This practice was performed as late as 1909.40 This custom included friends, family members, and leaders of the church. Events, such as weddings, caused the public gathering of the gemeinde.

Anniversary celebrations provided another reason for the public gathering of the gemeinde. A large service held for Jacob and Justine Wiebe’s 50th wedding anniversary drew more people than most because of the elder’s esteemed status as founder and first elder of the Gnadenau church. However, this does not exclude it from the general patterns of anniversary celebrations. The Industrial Home Journal reports that several elders and ministers shared short messages on various passages of scripture.41 One man shared some original poetry, one sang a song, others shared good wishes and words of appreciation. The service ended with a prayer and a benediction. This common, although enlarged, celebration shows the gemeinde celebrating an important aspect of their society.

The KMB worked hard and spent a majority of their time farming. The first village had twenty or a few more farmers, each had a narrow strip of land a mile long and a similar strip on two other sections.42 This arrangement matched that of the villages of South Russia. On their way to Gnadenau, Peter M. Barkman kept a journal, in which he writes about an opportunity to farm. …I was able to help with the threshing of both wheat and oats, which I enjoyed except for the profanity used by some of the workers which made me feel sad.43 The Mennonites had a love affair with the soil.44 The gemeinde influenced even this seemingly secular area of community life. The gemeinde’s influence of farming came through the KMB’s trust in God’s providence for their crops. Jacob A. Wiebe writes, The dear heavenly father has a watchful eye, and has looked down on us with favor, we have had several good crops…45 Trusting in God did not mean slacking off on work though. A visitor to the Gnadenau settlement in 1882 writes, …there was an appearance of resolution and patience about them, taken with the fact that all, men, women, and children were at work…46 The Gnadenau pioneers diligence soon created productive, lucrative farms, for which the KMB thanked God.

The settlers also trusted God for their health. On the trip across the Atlantic, Johann Harder, a teacher and minister, prayed, Praise God, I was able to experience some emptying of the body this morning…where upon my vitality returned once again and hope for life returned.47 The KMB saw God at work in restoring their health. Later Harder writes, Today, July 10, my wife is painfully ill…may the Lord soon giver her some relief! The scarcity of doctors, especially in the early years, required others to learn medical skills. Jacob A. Wiebe acquired the ability to set bones and several women acted as obstetricians.49 Often when someone needed medical assistance, the Elder of the church or another member of the gemeinde came to their aid. This, no doubt, aided the cohesion of the gemeinde as a community.

V. Conclusion

All of these areas of everyday life among the KMB in Gnadenau played a part in the gemeinde. The church and official religion of Gnadenau did not leave any portion of society untouched. The gemeinde included the church, but it incorporated more than that. It defined the community as a whole, giving it a framework and guiding its customs. The gemeinde gained its unity of beliefs, ritual, and social control from the church, but it also encompassed work in the fields, marriage, and health. The gemeinde provided a means of social restraint and agenda setting for society. It united the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren into a close-knit community. They celebrated weddings and anniversaries together. They worked hard and trusted in the providence of God for their health and in their farming year in and year out. This idea of gemeinde and its effect on the daily lives of the KMB deserves greater attention. This study is merely an introduction of this idea, which so greatly affected the villagers of Gnadenau.


  1. Hall, David D. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), 20
  2. Ibid., 20.
  3. Ibid., 245.
  4. Candelaria, Michael. Popular Religion and Liberation: The Dilemma of Liberation Theology. (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1990., 8.
  5. Zayarnyuk, Andriy, and John-Paul Himka. Letters from Heaven: Popular Religion in Russia and Ukraine. (Tornto: University of Toronto Press, 2006., 5.
  6. Ibid., 6.
  7. Zaryarnyuk, Letters from Heaven, 8.
  8. Ibid., 8.
  9. Hanson, Michele Zelinsky. Religious Identity in an Early Reformation Community Augsburg, 1517 to 1555. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2009., 2.
  10. Ibid., 7.
  11. Johnson, William J. Faith & Courage: A History of the Parkview Church (formerly Gnadenau). (Hillsboro, Kan.: Johnson Publishing, 2003), 9.
  12. Loewen, Royden. Family, Church, and Market: A Mennonite Community in the Old and the New Worlds, 1850-1930. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993), 10.
  13. Johnson, Faith & Courage, 14.
  14. Wiebe, Katie Funk, ed. Women Among the Brethren: Stories of Fifteen Mennonite Brethren and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Women. (Hillsboro, Kansas: The Board of Christian Literature of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1979), 46-47.
  15. Ibid, 16.
  16. Wiebe, David V. Grace Meadow; the Story of Gnadenau and Its First Elder, Marion County, Kansas. (Hillsboro, Kan.: Mennonite Brethren Pub. House, 1967), 37.
  17. Wiebe , Grace Meadow, 37.
  18. Ibid, 39.
  19. Wiebe, 1979. Women Among the Brethren, 49.
  20. Johnson, Faith & Courage, 30.
  21. Wiebe, Jacob Z. Gnadenau, Marion CO., Kansas, n.d. Jacob Z. Wiebe Personal Box. Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies. Accessed March 3, 2015.
  22. Janzen, Cornelius Cicero. Americanization of the German-Russian Mennonites in Central Kansas. (Thesis, University of Kansas, 1914., 74.
  23. Wiebe, Jacob A. Letter 9, August 1, 1869. (Jacob A. Wiebe Personal Box. Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.), 11.
  24. Loewen, Family, Church, and Market, X.
  25. Ibid, X
  26. Ibid, 92.
  27. Harms, W.W. History of the Springfield Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church. (Hillsboro, Kansas, 1973), 5.
  28. Wiebe, Jacob Z. History of Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, n.d. Jacob Z. Wiebe Personal Box. Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies. Accessed March 3, 2015.
  29. Harms, History, 12.
  30. Ibid,12.
  31. Blue Letter Bible :: Gospel of Matthew Chapter 18:17b - English Standard Version. Blue Letter Bible. Accessed March 7, 2015.
  32. Wiebe, Letter 9, 3
  33. Janzen, Americanization, 75.
  34. Ibid, 75-76.
  35. Ibid, 74.
  36. Harms, History, 6-7.
  37. 50th Wedding Anniversary. The Industrial Home Journal. May 1907, Vol. 2 No. 5 edition. Jacob A. Wiebe Personal Box. Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.
  38. Wiebe, Jacob Z. Reminiscenses of the Settling of the Village Gnadenau, (n.d. Jacob Z. Wiebe Personal Box. Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies. Accessed March 3, 2015).
  39. Barkman, Peter M. Travelogue. (Translated by Esther Wiebe, n.d. Jacob G. Barkman Personal Box. Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies. Accessed March 5, 2015), 4.
  40. Goertzen, Peggy. KMB Gnadenau. Interview by Benjamin Schmidt. Notes, February 2015.
  41. Waters, L.L. Steel Trails to Santa Fe, n.d. Jacob A. Wiebe Personal Box. Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies. Accessed March 4, 2015.
  42. Prentis, Noble Lovely. A Day with the Mennonites. Kansas Miscellanies. (Kansas Publishing House, 1889), 174.
  43. Harder, Johann. From Annenfeld to Kansas in 1874, n.d. 19
  44. Ibid, From Annenfeld to Kansas, 20.
  45. Wiebe, Jacob Z. Some More Memories of Gnadenau, n.d. Jacob Z. Wiebe Personal Box. Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies. Accessed March 3, 2015.