Ep. 4 Mennonites don a German skin

Anabaptists, first cousins of the Mennonites, were subjected to every kind of horrible torture imaginable in the 1500s. Menno Simons saw what happened when anabaptists used force to achieve freedom in Münster and encouraged his followers never to draw the sword, lay low, work hard, better days are coming. It was more than thirty years before religious freedom was granted the Mennonites in the Netherlands, but not everyone could wait that long.

Gerhard’s Mennonites were among those that could not wait: these Mennonites couldn’t afford fancy homes on the river but they could keep their principles. They, and many other persecuted people, moved to today’s Poland where medieval style nobles controlled the land. Who were these people committed to peace at all costs, determined to die rather than resist? Why were they so detestable?

Serfs, who were the social equivalent to slaves in the 14th century, were now free and worked on their own behalf, not for the lord of the manor. They had climbed a big step up on the social ladder and now, as peasants (farmers), they owned most of the land in western Europe. In the cities, new industries arose that needed labourers. Authorities depressed prices of agricultural products to force peasants to leave the farms and work in the cities.[1] Peasants who remained on the land diversified their skills and developed cottage industries and crafts which were marketed in the cities by entrepreneurs. Raw materials imported from eastern Europe where serfdom still thrived were inexpensive and provided a significant opportunity for those still on the land.

The result was that peasants began learning many previously unknown skills, such as weaving, dyeing, wood-working, leather-working, metal-working, pottery-making etc.[2]

In the mid-16th century, the followers of Menno consisted of farmers, labourers, industrial workers and trades and transport workers.[3]

Menno’s converts were … drawn from a wide spectrum of occupations and due to their diverse occupational makeup … fleeing Mennonite groups were able to set up relatively self-sufficient communities wherever they were given shelter. That this made them very attractive to nobles desperate to find people to develop their land and the local economy is understandable.[4]


Title page of the Schleitheim Confession

Menno’s followers were a generic slice of late medieval society–farmers, crafts-men and -women, artisans, and merchants and business enthusiasts. Mennonites had free-wheeling beliefs that neither the Catholics nor the Lutherans had the courage to allow within their own congregations. For example, each member interpreted the Bible for themselves, and all members in the congregation were of equal status. Menno’s model for the church was the original church of the apostles of Jesus. Anabaptists first wrote a set of their beliefs during a convention in Schleitheim, Germany in 1527. They enumerated seven articles of faith the most important of which was adult baptism, “hereby is excluded all infant baptism, the greatest and first abomination of the pope.”[5] The second article involved circumstances under which members would be banned from the congregation. Other articles contain the rules for swearing oaths (don’t do it), serving as a magistrate (don’t do it), protecting yourself with “the sword,” (don’t do it), interactions with non-Mennonites (“they are an abomination,” don’t do it), and how to hire your local preachers.[6],[7] Within the context of the times (Münster) these articles are not that radical, although many might have taken exception to the abomination article.

* * * * *

At its height, the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth stretched across eastern Europe from the Baltic Sea to Ukraine, nearly to the Black Sea.  With the death of its last monarch, King Zygmunt II, it was up to the Polish and Lithuanian nobles to keep order in the land, so they passed a law (Warsaw Confederation Act 1573) permitting its people to believe whatever they wanted.

Religious tolerance was an important factor in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state, as the territories of the Commonwealth were inhabited by many generations of people from different ethnic backgrounds (Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Germans and Jews) and of different denominations (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and even Moslem.) This country became what Cardinal Hozjusz called ‘a place of shelter for heretics.’ It was a place where the most radical religious sects, trying to escape persecution in other countries of the Christian world, sought refuge.[8]


Another fatal baptism.

On the continuum of radical sects, remember that Anabaptists were on the far end of the scale and Mennonites were well past that. Now Poland was attracting religious renegades in alarming numbers and church officials in Danzig (today Gdansk) begged the Netherland authorities to “hold back the fleeing heretics from taking ship. The Netherlandish authorities, however, were all too glad to be rid of them while confiscating their meagre baggage.[9]

Menno himself, a hunted man, kept on the move visiting Prussian Mennonites in 1549.

During the same summer he spent some weeks with the “Elected and Children of God in the Country of Prussia,” as becomes apparent from a letter which he addressed to these believers on 7 October 1549. This indicates not only that the Anabaptists of the Low Countries had spread as far as Danzig, but also that Menno’s guidance, counsel, and authority were needed to iron out some difficulties which had risen. His co-worker Dirk Philips became the first elder of the Danzig Mennonite Church. It is possible that Menno’s visit to the Anabaptists in Danzig and Prussia was not limited to this one occasion, although definite information [is] lacking.[10]

Schutzbrief for Moses Grieden and family

An example of a Letter of Protection for Moses Greiden and his family apparently necessary because he was a Jew.

During the Middle Ages powerful nobles in Europe often provided charters of liberties or Schutzbriefe (letters of protection) to people seeking to protect their way of life. Because early Mennonites were heretics and renegades they made pacts with the devil to survive. Nevertheless, Mennonites found a home in a war torn and flooded suburb of Danzig and by 1569 there were a thousand Mennonites living there. Here they bartered away their Christian obligation to preach the gospel in return for a measure of religious tolerance.[11]

The same agreements forced them to become inconspicuous, to worship in ordinary houses so as not to attract attention and perhaps the ire of established churches, and, from time to time, to pay huge sums of protection money extorted from them by callous or overzealous rulers. Thus were the firebrands of the Reformation marginalized religiously and coerced into becoming ‘the quiet in the land.’[12]

Their missionary zeal was now transferred to farming, crafts and commerce.

In 1562, two noblemen, Simon and Hans von Loysen, the owners of large uncultivated estates in the lower delta at Tiegenhof (Nowy Dwór Gdański), water-soaked and overgrown with brush, sent the Dutch Mennonites a special invitation to settle upon their wastelands. Here [they] were promised the rights of religious worship by the Polish king, and attractive rental terms by their landlords. At first they were granted long term leases, from twenty to forty years, on easy terms which were renewed from time to time by successive owners until the Mennonites finally came into complete possession of the lands the first settlers had reclaimed. The settlements spread gradually across the swampy lands of the wide Vistula and Nogat deltas, and up the river until by the close of the century … flourishing congregations had been established in the region of Marienburg (Malbork), Schwetz (Swiecie), Graudenz (Grudziądz), Culm (Chełmno), and as far as Thorn (Toruń). By 1608 the bishop of Culm complained that the whole delta was overrun by Mennonites.[13]

Mennonite communities in West Prussia, East Prussia and Poland.

Mennonite communities in West Prussia, East Prussia and Poland.

Mennonites have always relied on their ability to negotiate privileges for themselves. Who can blame them? Here in Poland they were given land on favourable rent-to-own terms, they could practice their heretical beliefs to varying degrees depending on whether their overseers were Lutheran or Catholic and they were forever excluded from the need to provide military service.

In 1676 the prince of Pomerellen blamed the Mennonites after a great flood saying God was punishing Danzig for tolerating them and urged the king to get rid of them. But the deputy from Marienburg leapt to their defense: “One can easily tell whether a lazy drunken farmer tills the soil, or a sober industrious Mennonite; rather invite more of them than to drive out those already here.”[14] Other deputies in the Polish legislature agreed and the Mennonites were allowed to stay, although they were under many restrictions. They were not to proselytize, they were to worship quietly in private homes or in plain buildings and public burials were not permitted.

The kings of Poland and Prussia ruled the Mennonites with a flair for capriciousness. “Sometimes one king would grant a charter of liberties only to be repealed by his successor. Occasionally the same king would repeatedly reverse his own decrees.”[15] Kings did not worry about setting precedents: absolute authority has its privileges. “Numerous charters of privilege, as well as orders for exile in both Poland and Prussia were passed during the two hundred years preceding the reign of Frederick the Great. But these orders were passed merely for effect; and never meant to be carried out. Mennonites often paid little attention to them.”[16]

This failure to attend to their political and social environment  lead to disaster. Meanwhile, blissfully ignorant, Mennonites gained little new blood through the centuries of existence in Prussia and Poland by banning people from the group when they refused to follow the party line. So if you married a non-Mennonite you were out. The only real debate was whether Mennonites could help a banned Mennonite if his or her  life was in danger.

Generation after generation Mennonites married Mennonites until only 21 family names accounted for half the population.[17] By 1772, 12,032 Mennonites lived in Prussia, most of them in villages dotting the Vistula river and delta.[18]


[1] Loewen, Jacob,  Chapter 3 – Russian Mennonites Property and the Sword in Anabaptist/Mennonite Faith and Economics, Calvin Wall Redekop; Victor A Krahn; Samuel J Steiner, editors, published by Institute for Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies, Lanham, Md. : University Press of America ; Waterloo, Ont. : Conrad Grebel College, 1994, pp 44-45.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php/Schleitheim_Confession_(source)#cite_ref-50, from a translation by John H. Yoder. Accessed Feb 22, 2016

[6] Ibid.

[7] Not included in the Scheitheim Confession was the ban against dancing. Mennonites do not engage in sex standing up because it might lead to dancing.

[8] http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/register/full-list-of-registered-heritage/registered-heritage-page-8/the-confederation-of-warsaw-of-28th-of-january-1573-religious-tolerance-guaranteed/ quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Warsaw_Confederation. Accessed February 21, 2016

[9] Williams, George Huntston, The Radical Reformation, 3rd edition, Truman State University Press, 2001

[10] Krahn, Cornelius and Cornelius J. Dyck. “Menno Simons (1496-1561).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 18 Feb 2016. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Menno_Simons_(1496-1561)&oldid=131368.

[11] Friesen, Abraham, In Defense of Privilege – Russian Mennonites and the State Before and During World War One by, Historical Commission of the USA and the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Churches, Kindred Productions, Hillsboro and Winnipeg, 2006, pg 4

[12] Ibid.

[13] Smith, C. Henry, The Story of the Mennonites 3rd ed., revised and enlarged by Cornelius Krahn, 1950, General conference of Mennonites, Board of Publication, page 264.

[14] Ibid., page 267.

[15] Ibid., page 268.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., page 270.

[18] https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Vistula_delta_Mennonites.

10 thoughts on “Ep. 4 Mennonites don a German skin

  1. Eddie! This is so awesome. You have come such a long, long way from starting BC Cabinet Ministers’ speeches with the words “And” and “But.” Ricky Amazing history. And as we get older…doesn’t really seem so long ago. Sorry ‘bout “and.” As we get older.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, I love that footnote seven. Ha ha. Well done, Ed. All of it, I mean. I knew you had it in ya, and I was reading you before you added “but” and “and” to those speeches.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. While researching my “roots”, I came across your blog. This is awesome for my children & grandchildren when they get to the point where they start asking questions about my story…where was I born etc. They’re not there yet. I was 60+ years old when I started my research journey. Father had passed away and mother was still traumatized by her “flucht” during end of WW2. A kind man, friend of the family, Hans Wall constructed a coffin for my younger brother (just days old) while our family lived in Poland(West Prussia)
    A heartfelt “Thank You”


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