A Short History of the Mennonite Brethren in Ukraine
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
The Mennonite Brethren come from a 16th century revitalization movement that occurred in Europe known as the Anabaptists who began questioning certain teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Like Luther and Calvin, Anabaptists believed in salvation by grace alone through faith alone. They taught that baptism was an outward demonstration of an inward transformation to be performed by those who expressed faith in Jesus Christ.
These beliefs led to persecution by both Catholic and Reformed Churches. Many Anabaptist followers were drowned and burned at the stake for their faith. Pushed by persecution and compelled by evangelistic impulses the Mennonite Church expanded from Holland to the Vistula Delta of Poland near Danzig. Polish nobles welcomed the newcomers to their estates as farm laborers.
A couple hundred years later, Catherine the Great of Russia announced a land settlement policy in 1763. Russia was looking for industrious settlers for new territories acquired north of the Black Sea (Ukraine). Many Prussian Mennonites saw the announcement as providential and once again expanded outward.
Stagnation & Revival
For 250 years (1540-1790), Mennonites lived in religious and cultural isolation. The early years on the Ukrainian steppes were difficult, but the industrious Mennonites eventually established themselves and by 1860 were a population of over 30,000. However, their spiritual life stagnated as they lived a lifestyle of religious tradition and lack of missionary vision. They came to be known as “The Quiet in the Land.”
Then, a group of reformers sought a reawakening. Small prayer circles began meeting in households to pray for revival and read God's word between 1812 and 1819. Calling for a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, followers began preaching a message of repentance and grace in Jesus.
Many people gave their personal allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Savior amongst several Ukrainian villages. The “brethren” as the called themselves met regularly in households for scripture reading and prayer. These households of faith were the cradle for the birth of the Mennonite Brethren Church.
From its inception, the Russian Mennonite Brethren Church actively pursued evangelism and missions. Fulfilling the great commission was understood as fundamental to the church. Risk of imprisonment or exile did not keep people from witnessing to Russian neighbors. Evangelists distributed Bibles and witnessed to the good news.
Renewed Persecution & Spreading of the Good News to the Ends of the Earth
The peaceful life of the Eastern European colonies was shattered by the events of WW I and the Russian Revolution. Mennonites in Russia experienced harsh treatment because their culture identified them with the German military foe. Many villages suffered from the ravages of malnutrition, disease epidemics and famine.
During the time of war and anarchy, Russian Mennonites continued to experience widespread spiritual revival and engaged in unprecedented missionary outreach to their Russian neighbors. When the Communist government barred ministers from teaching in public schools, many Mennonite Brethren teachers saw it as God's sovereign hand freeing them for evangelistic ministry.
The Mennonites who were unable to escape faced the atheistic policies of the Stalinist regime. Church property was liquidated and religious freedom denied. Ministers were exiled to Siberian concentration camps or killed. Conscientious objectors to military service faced martyrdom. Nevertheless, through the persecution they continued to share the good news of Jesus Christ as they spread to other parts of Europe, Russia, North America, and South America.
Adapted from Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren, by Lynn Jost and Connie Faber. Kindred Productions 2002.
(Charts taken from Mennonite Life, 1946.)