The Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite Worshiping Community: Scripture, Laity and God
Like most grandchildren, I cherish the memories of my grandparents, Dan P. and Viola Kaufman. In their home, it was obvious they were dedicated to the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite tradition. Their faith manifested itself in many ways as seen in their excellence in baking, gardening, quilting, family and worship at Eden Mennonite Church, Moundridge, Kansas. Their life was simple, intentional and quiet. Now, 20 years away from my childhood and from spending time in their home, I have become more and more interested in my grandparents’ story, specifically their worship practices. My curiosity about my ancestors, the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites, and their practices has been overwhelming since my wife and I started having children of our own. I have been asking myself: Why do I do the things I do? I am very interested in the practices and habits of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite community, especially those associated with worship. I desire to pass along the rich practices of my ancestors, along with the stories of our heritage, to the next generation. I want to answer Why are we the way we are? before our children are old enough to ask us those same questions. Further, I want to see the important worship practices of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite community continue in local worshiping contexts and churches of the Great Plains.
Exploring the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite community of south-central Kansas could, in fact, be the next historian’s great book. Since this is not a book, I will be looking specifically at the worship of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite community during their time in Russia, in what is now modern-day Ukraine. I am making the case that these worship practices, which migrated from Russia to south-central Kansas, have strong roots in the history of the Christian faith and important implications for church communities of the Great Plains, specifically the small towns of south-central Kansas.
I have divided this document into three parts. I will first present a bird’s-eye view of the history of Christian worship through the eyes of the laity, the availability of Scripture and theological constructs of God as they pertain to worship. When looking at the latter, I will explore the spectrum of the transcendence of God – that which stands beyond the limits of creation and human experience – and the immanence of God, that is, God being present in creation and human experience. These three things – laity in worship, Scripture and theology – are all-important foundations historically, and will provide structure when exploring the Swiss-Volhynian worship tradition.
Second, I will provide a historical overview of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite community. More specifically, I will explore the worshiping community, Scripture, theology and weekly worship services. I will also spend a considerable amount of time comparing my personal working definition of worship to the worship practices and the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite community rituals experienced in Russia prior to the journey to America.
Third, I will engage with the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite community’s worship traditions that were nurtured in Russia and then practiced early on in America. I will continue the conversation around the topics of Scripture, laity and the transcendence and immanence of God. I will expound on the complexities of the transition from different countries in light of consumerism and individualism, and how the worship practices birthed in Russia might contribute to local worshiping communities in south-central Kansas.
My intention in writing this article is to provide the reader with a better understanding of the historical makeup of the worshiping community of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites who traveled from Russia to America. It is not a modern critique of the contemporary Mennonite tradition, but instead an investigation of the historical worship tradition of the Swiss-Volhynian community. In addition, it is a charge for all local churches of the Christian tradition in the Great Plains and beyond. The worship practices of local communities shape generations. I want to make sure my family does not forget what “tribe” we come from. I want to see my local church engaging in healthy practices. I believe the Swiss-Volhynian worshiping community founded in Russia has some important practices that need to be voiced. In an age when metanarratives are easily lost, I am concerned that we make our associations with our historical roots instead of consumerism and individualism, two driving worldviews invading our local stories. I want to make sure families embrace their historical roots. And finally, I want my heritage to shape who we are becoming, be it my family or the local church. I hope the pages below provide inspiration and clarity for those in the Great Plains and, hopefully, inspire readers to explore their own worship heritage.
Below I have provided the reader with a basic overview of the history of Christian worship, focusing specifically on the laity, Scripture and the people’s perception of God (transcendence and immanence), all of which the Swiss-Volhynian community greatly emphasized.
New Testament/Early Church (1-325): Paul is very clear when teaching and admonishing the early church in Corinth that all followers of Christ are equal (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). The impact of this new concept was to transform participation by church laity. The new Christ-followers welcomed all and participated communally in meals, election of church leaders and prayer, as well as in sharing bread and wine (Communion).
The unity found among the participating Christ-followers was crucial as they continued to interpret the prophets’ and apostles’ writing in community to create practical theology. Statements of faith were used during baptisms and became essential, not only to defend from false theologies, but also to confirm immanent interaction between God and the world. Corresponding letters from leaders were sent from church to church, helping Christ-followers develop a solid practical theology despite living in a polytheistic context. As these conversations continued, the church moved from a unified participatory style of worship to a more elaborate order of worship developed by a select few.
Christendom (325-600): The conversion of Constantine in AD 311 sparked a discourse across the Roman Empire that would slowly provide a public place for Christian worship to be embraced on a national level. Church and state inevitably gave high honor to the clergy, and as a result diminished the role of the laity. The importance of geographical space, relics, martyrs and holy people spearheaded practice for the next thousand years.
As leadership drifted from the laity to a hierarchal direction, the Scriptures also drifted out of the hands of the laity and became the clergy’s responsibility. Christendom also brought about a shift from the immanent God found in community to worship of a transcendent, mysterious God. The worshiping community found itself in a transitional state of mind as it converted from a pagan view of God to a Trinitarian God. The clergy took great measures to understand the complexity of the Trinity. They finally came to a consensus at the Council at Nicaea in 325, reflected in the Nicene Creed. In the meantime, the laity continued to slowly experience “Christianization,” the slow process of Christian theology taking the place of pagan traditions. As churches became more organized and central to government life, the focus of worship, which looked to the heavens to encounter God and to relics for proof of the immanent Christ, became specific to particular locations. God became more and more transcendent as time went on. The dichotomy of sacred and secular started to separate.
The East and the West (600-1500): As East and West continued their schism over church leadership, politics, icons and worship styles, the worshiping laity had less of a voice compared to the rising clergy’s power. As monastic orders were created, the laity played no part in any discourse, be it through language or tradition. They instead were given visual images – icons or sculpture or stained glass – to create theologies and celebrate worship. The clergy experienced the sacred mysteries of God, while the laity, still able to participate in the Lord’s Supper and baptism, was most often considered mundane and secular.
Throughout the history of the church, Scripture was the most absent to the laity during the Middle Ages. The laity in the East continued to worship the holy and mysterious transcendence of God; their goal was to use the icons to gaze into the mystery of the distant and holy. The proclamation of the Word and the sacramental offering took place in large dome-shaped buildings that displayed the heavenly mysteries as the people awaited Christ’s return. As the Western church grew and church and state became closely linked, theology of God among the laity also became mysterious, as the transcendent God seemed to speak to the church authorities and only became immanent through the relics or other objects set apart by church leadership.
Reform, Reason and Revival (1500-1800): Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses shook the Western world to its core. The authority and finances that once went to Rome were now being dispersed to local congregations and leaders throughout the West. De-monasticizing and de-clericalizing defined the transformation that happened during the Reformation. Circles of Christ-followers started to rebuild a theology. They celebrated laity participation and used Scriptures that spoke of such things as the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:4-12) and the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) to back up their theology. Worship services were now done in the vernacular and the laity could explore their faith and traditions in their native tongue. Right-wing groups, such as the Quakers and Anabaptists, had looser ties with strict liturgy. Clergy from Anglican and Lutheran communities still used high liturgy and leaned more on the clergy for the activities of the church. Methodists and Reformed found themselves in the middle.
Scripture came alive to the laity through translators and transcribers such as Martin Luther, William Tyndale, Jacques Lefebvre d’Etaples and Antonio Brucioli, and because of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. Just as God spoke to the prophets and apostles, so now God was speaking to the local church, both clergy and laity, through the vernacular Scriptures.
Congruent with this shift was the transition from a theology based on the transcendent, distant God, to one that recognized an immanent God who worked through his people of faith, the local church as the body of Christ. With this theological mindset in place, the worship spectrum of participatory laity stretched from the traditional left-wing Anglicans and Lutherans to the center as seen by the Reformed and Methodists to the right-wing Anabaptists (Mennonites) and radical Quakers.
Modernization to Globalization (1800-2010): As the Industrial Revolution brought new life into urban areas, Protestant churches moved quickly into the growing cities. Church services most often kept to the traditions of their founders until the late 20th century. Churches explored every possibility: house churches with no clergy; Pentecostalism that celebrated freedom in the Holy Spirit; renewal of the high-church traditions of the Roman Catholics and Orthodox. As laity became more educated, there was more freedom of choice among denominations. Changes continued to happen in the cities of Europe and New England, stretching across the Great Plains to eventually extend to the whole United States. As globalization continued, the church embraced different cultures and communities, so that laity had to balance the rituals and liturgies created by earlier denominations with relatively indigenous acts.
As information became more abundant, so did the amount of Bibles and literature related to Scripture for laity to read. Despite the vast store of biblical resources, biblical literacy in the West decreased, while those outside Western culture seem to be celebrating Scripture and experiencing renewal and revival. Also, with the continuing emphasis placed on the individual in the West, the immanence of God in the theology of Christian worship was much more emotional. Camp meetings calling laity to repent spread throughout the frontier, sparking great emotional response within the worship service. Pentecostalism also took root, strongly emphasizing the Holy Spirit’s power to speak during worship events. Hymnody became more emotional and organic, with hymns composed by laity and growing opportunity for folk worship around the globe. As the world developed, worship services became congruent with their local metanarratives, and the makeup of each denomination told a story of the rich heritage. When all these stories combined, one was able to see the complexity and unity of the global church.
This outline of different time periods in Christian history has provided a framework for the story of the laity regarding their interaction with the Scriptures and theological understanding of God. Now, as we explore the Swiss-Volhynian worshiping community, we can see the context for the birth of and modifications to worship practices in Russia and, later, America.
I will now explore the laity of the Swiss-Volhynian community and theological undercurrents of their worship in relation to Scripture, laity and the transcendence/immanence of God. I will also explore how their worship praxis paralleled my working definition of worship.
Brief History of Swiss-Volhynian Mennonite: On Jan. 18, 1525, the Radical Reformers lost an important debate with Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich over the issues of separation of church and state and theological approach to infant vs. believer’s baptism. These Radical Reformers were extremely intentional in living out their religion. Instead of systemizing their faith, they chose to live simply, holding fast to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and embracing community with the understanding that Christ can only be followed in this context.
In 1709, after many progressing hardships, many of the Radical Reformers, now known as the Amish, left Bern, Switzerland, for Montbeliard, France. After about 80 years there, more troubles came. Soon a group migrated to Volhynia in Russia, where the Swiss dialect was lost, replaced by Low German. This group broke off from the more traditional Amish, becoming a more moderate community that still embraced the Mennonite tradition.
With the rise of nationalism, Czar Alexander II required all Russian citizens to use the Russian language, demanded that all males participate in the military and pushed Orthodox Christianity as the religious tradition of the land. The Mennonite community rejected all these mandates. On Jan. 12, 1874, with financial help from Mennonites in the United States, permission from the U.S. Senate and with land provided by the Homestead Act, the Swiss-Volhynians migrated to America locating in south-central Kansas.
Swiss-Volhynian Worship in Russia: The initial goal of the Anabaptists was to get back to the simple life of the early church as they saw it in the Scriptures, specifically in the book of Acts. The relational church of the Mennonites recognized the importance of “the brotherhood.” God was experienced in the context of community, uniquely exhibited early on by the holy kiss and footwashing. These two practices, along with the inward peace found in “The Regenerating Word (which) must first be heard and believed with a Sincere heart,” seemed to address the whole spiritual human. Further, their faith brought a quiet aspect to their daily lives, now defined as “quietism” in many theological circles and reflected in their worship. Church polity was developed so the community could represent the visible church. In summary, community was the focus of the laity and worship took place in this context of the whole, self-sacrificing, church community.
Being people who longed for Scripture to mold their theology, the Swiss-Volhynians embraced a strong worshiping community. The body of Christ – their local church – required simple living and holy people. In Snyder’s words, “their radical perceptions of themselves as participants in the immanent Kingdom of God and their spiritual warfare with the kingdom of this world” gave proof to their individual decisions to be Christ-followers, requiring them to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Communal living was not only necessary for survival, but became one of the most important tenets of their theology of worship. God was immanently among the community as they worshiped together.
Gemeinde, the Sunday group meeting, could last up to two to three hours, and was filled with singing led by the Vorsanger, Scripture reading, sermons, Communion and testimonies. Sermons were saturated in the Scriptures and focused on practical life, often on the following topics: inward quietness; building up the body of believers; and the dangers of pride. Great spiritual and religious expectations were put on the elders, so much so that on Sundays they were in charge of building up the spiritual life of the people. All business issues and questions on correct living were brought before the elders. Worship spaces were either in homes or, later, in small, square buildings, simple in nature. But no matter where worship took place, the Bible was the true witness of the transcendent and immanent God.
Biblical Theology of Worship: It is now important to explore a biblical theology of worship. The following is my working definition, with a comparison with the Russian Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites. My definition revolves around three theological conversations: Trinitarian worship; Christian cultural acts; and transforming lives. I believe this definition corresponds well to the biblical and historical tradition of Christian worship.
First, I have concluded that true Trinitarian worship is proclaiming glory to the Father, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. Swiss-Volhynian worship placed great emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the belief that one had to encounter and be submissive to the Holy Spirit to truly understand Scripture. Great education was not a prerequisite to experiencing God. As one submitted to God, he or she could then use Christ’s life as a measuring stick for both spiritual claims and holy living. Emphases on the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer in worship and in teaching give evidence that Trinitarian doctrine was embraced and used throughout the worship experiences. Questions did arise for the local community regarding the Holy Spirit’s work in two specific areas: in what ways the Holy Spirit works beyond the inner transformation of the heart, and in how salvation extends to all creation (Romans 8:18-26).
Second, my definition says Christian worship should practice intentional, relevant and cultural acts. Emphasis on the body of believers entering into cultural acts, such as Sunday services, suggests that a great amount of energy was placed on communal worship. As mentioned, song, Scripture reading, sermons and testimonies became the liturgical norm for Sunday services. Furthermore, the Gemeinde became the social construct for the community where social gatherings, weddings and baptisms took place. Food was always a part of community activities, celebrating the plenty the Lord provided. Though some suggest that relevant worship may have been difficult for the Swiss-Volhynian community because of their isolation and tendency to put tradition above true encounter with the Trinity, it always proves difficult to measure communal spirituality. Further, since quietism and pious living was celebrated in the lives of the Mennonites, spiritual matters were often pondered in the hearts of the people and manifested through their actions. Undoubtedly, cultural acts were experienced continually since the people relied on one another for survival.
The third and final part of my definition says the relational church experiences recapitulation, causing transformation in the lives of individuals and communities, which in turn brings glory to the Holy Trinity.Above are multiple accounts of the importance of the person in the local community in Russia making a decision to be a Christ-follower, a place where the immanent God brings new life to the individual. A person chooses a Christ-like life and the mysterious Holy Spirit recapitulates Christ inside that person. When transformation happens, it will be seen in the context of community, which is the fruit of faith (Romans 7:12). Here, the body of Christ is strengthened and others are drawn to the hope of Christ inside and outside the walls of the Gemeinde. Worship will be experienced holistically, as people consider what the Lord has for them in the context of a service. Further, the community would bear one another’s burdens and take care of one another outside the service.
The Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites understood the importance of the laity working together. Their unity made them strong. My current context in McPherson, Kansas, makes community very difficult. I believe this to be an overarching problem for all churches in the Great Plains. It is interesting that Schrag reprimands his Mennonite ancestors for losing their sense of community after coming to the United States. Families embraced private property, creating a community of individuals. This same problem, lack of intentional community, has occurred in many, if not most, local church contexts.
I am arguing that most churches here in small-town south-central Kansas, throughout the Great Plains and even the entire Western world, have difficulty with the theological implications of Scripture referring to the body of Christ – the believers unified, manifesting and held together by something bigger than themselves, namely Christ. Individualism and materialism stunt the reality that worship is holistic and requires true servant-like love for one another, as seen with the worshiping community of the Swiss-Volhynians. It goes beyond servant-like actions. It is an inner conviction, a heart issue, where laity has beliefs and practices that prove their responsibility for one another. Servant-like actions are a vital part of historical Christian worship – to nurture and care for those in one’s local worshiping community.
Looking closer, this responsibility for one another in the local church is a stumbling point for many local churches in small-town Kansas, as seen in the lack of interaction in the weekly activities and Sunday service. As the leadership tries to emphasize the need to serve, care and embrace community, the laity seems to look for “convenient” ways to interact with others instead of embracing one another. Community is often seen as charity. There is often simply a lack of commitment. After exploring the worship practices of the Swiss-Volhynian community, these questions arise for Christ-following communities: Are we willing to wash one another’s feet? Do we have meals together? Do we confess our sins to one another and hold each other accountable? Do we embrace or isolate when we worship? Do we celebrate those things that the Swiss Volhynians celebrated? I believe the Swiss Volhynians understood and embraced the Scripture’s teachings on community, the need for a unified congregation of worshipers who were dedicated to the practices of worship. The immanence of God was seen in the participating worshiping community.
The exploration of the Swiss-Volhynian worshiping community has been my attempt to persuade the reader that there are important implications for the local churches regarding worship practices as modeled by the Swiss-Volhynian community that came over from Russia to the United States. I began by exploring the laity’s perception of worship in relation to the clergy, Scripture and whether their perception of God was more transcendent or immanent. I then looked specifically at the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites during their time in Russia and explored their story as it pertained to worship prior to their moving to America. After comparing and contrasting it with my theology of worship, I concluded that the Swiss-Volhynian worshiping community was intentional and self-sacrificial in serving their local communities. Local church laity in America, the Great Plains and especially small-town south-central Kansas should take note and embrace these worship acts of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites for growth and worship renewal.
The following chart gives a visual form the research in the following document. I have attempted to show how worship leadership (laity and clergy), Scripture and perception of God can be compared throughout church history.
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