Buildings and constructions

Author: Svietlana Bobileva
Translator: Katerina Revunenko 

The Mennonite mentality is based on rationalism. Colonies consisted of villages built closely together. The settlements, connected by roads, were established close to the banks of small rivers. They were built according to officially approved plans which had been adapted to the landscape. Gradually, the colonies developed their infrastructure: craftsmen's workshops, factories, shops, churches and schools.


Well maintained and neat

The Mennonite villages were laid out along a single street, the main street, which had a hard surface. There were ditches to drain rainwater and stone paved sidewalks alongside the road. The street looked well maintained and neat. All colonies had large green spaces and gardens. Flowers grew in front gardens. A prayer house/church and a school were located in the central part of the settlement. The school was often a beautiful two-storey building with large windows, comfortable stairs and tiled floors.



There were half-timbered, adobe and brick houses. The chimneys were fixed in the attic’s floor for better heating and convection of warm air. In chimneys, Mennonites traditionally arranged a smoking place. The gables of houses were 9 metres high and made of brick. Roofs were gabled, tiled, covered with metal or with shingles. The floors were mostly painted. The housewives washed and scraped the unpainted floors. Every house had a cellar – rectangular or arched in shape. Walls and floors were tiled and made of bricks. Sometimes the Mennonites had rammed earth floors.


Arranging yards and houses

The yards were 40 metres wide and 100–120 metres long. Farmyards were separated by fences  which were bleached twice a year. The mostly one-storeyd buildings,  9 to 18 metres wide, faced the main street. All the houses had two entrances. The front door faced the yard. Another one led through a corridor to a barn and then to the second door, a few metres further from the main entrance. In some houses four rooms were located around the hearth which was in the centre of the building. Houses had four areas inside the building: communal areas and two living and cooking areas. Sliding beds (‘shlopani’), sideboards, couches, wooden sofas, hanging double-wing cabinets and  chests are among the traditional furniture.



The wells were located in the yards and in the stables. If a village didn’t have good water, the Mennonites arranged pools covered with a wooden lid which were filled with filtered rain or distilled water. Wells were also installed on the roadsides.


Anabaptist Tour of Switzerland

Author: Hanspeter Jecker

Tourists today often associate Switzerland with the Matterhorn, chocolate, watches and banks. But Switzerland offers more... Our Anabaptist tour begins in Basel, where Erasmus of Rotterdam published his Greek New Testament in 1516. This edition was the source text for Luther’s and Zwingli’s translations of the Bible, the book that gave the impetus for the entire Reformation.



 Zürich became the centre for the transformation of church and society. Theologian Ulrich Zwingli’s influence here began in 1519. Discourse quickly developed as to how extensive the reforms should be, how quickly and under whose leadership they should evolve. After 1523, Zwingli was increasingly criticised by some of his closest followers. In re-baptising adults in 1525, they broke with him definitively. In 1527 Felix Mantz was martyred by drowning in the River Limmat.


‘Anabaptist cave’

 Persecution unfolded rapidly, and the Anabaptist movement retreated to the city’s hinterland. Worship services were held in remote places like the “Anabaptist cave” near Hinwil . In the beginning the Anabaptist movement resembled a melting pot of frustrated individuals  disappointed by the Reformation. A rapid decision on which direction the movement should take was essential. For this purpose, Anabaptist leaders met in Schleitheim in 1527. Here ‘Swiss Brethren’ agreed on the principles of non-violence and voluntary church membership. In the canton of Bern the Anabaptist movement took a firm foothold. In the Emmental, the Oberaargau and the Thun region Anabaptists were quite numerous at times. Many sites still bear witness to the repression they endured, particularly the Anabaptist hiding place in Hüttengraben in Trub (with a museum) as well as Trachselwald Castle with its cells.


Jura: from refuge to ‘home’

In the midst of the early migration, the remote farms of the Jura offered suitable temporary refuge. The Jura is the site of another impressive place of worship, the ’Geisskirchli’ (‘little goat church’) cave. The temporary refuge in the Jura became home to many, however, and around 1900 numerous meetinghouses were built (e.g. Les Bulles, Moron and Jeangui, which has a permanent exhibition). Returning to Basel, we are reminded of the first Mennonite World Conference, which took place here in 1925, and of the beginnings of the European Mennonite Bible School in 1950, which is now found at the Bienenberg near Liestal.


Mennonite settlements in Poland

Author: Michał Targowski

The Mennonites who migrated to Poland from the mid-16th century were mostly peasants. Their excellent skills in farming on marshy lands allowed them to settle down in low-populated areas in the delta of the Vistula river.

Choosing to live in the countryside

Although communities of  Mennonite craftsmen and merchants existed in Elbląg (Elbing) and in the suburbs of Gdańsk, most followers of Menno Simons chose to live in the country. The first Mennonite settlements were situated in the delta and valley of the lower Vistula, only a few lived at the Baltic sea coast and on the marshes of the river Noteć. In the early 17th century the Dutch organized their colony on one of the river islands which is now within the borders of Warsaw. Further development was hindered by wars until the late 18th century, when new generations of Mennonites, born in Poland, began to migrate again and to colonize new areas upstream of the Vistula and its tributaries.


Established in demanding locations with a high possibility of floods, villages settled by Mennonites had a unique form and character - wooden cottages usually built along a dike or an edge of dry land close to the marshes, the houses spaced out evenly. Fields were divided into regular long lots, perpendicular to the dike or a road and bordered by ditches. Linear villages of that type are called ’row villages’. Their design, preserved in many locations in Poland, is one of the elements of the heritage left by these immigrants.


Integrated communities

Mennonite settlements in Poland formed local groups which allowed cooperation between smaller communities. They organized common prayers and services which were attended by inhabitants of several villages. A lot was done to protect a Mennonite’s farm from being seized by Catholics or Lutherans. This is why the Polish Mennonites formed close-knit communities which were able to preserve their identity and religion for a long time, at least till the time of Germanization in the 19th and 20th centuries, and sometimes even until their dramatic migration from Poland in 1945. These centuries-old Mennonite settlements include dozens of villages in Zulawy and the Lower Vistula Valley, such as Wielka Nieszawka (Nessau), Sosnówka (Schonsee), Przechówko (Wintersdorf), Mątawy (Montau), Grupa (Gruppe), Bratwin, Jezioro (Thiensdorf), Kazuń (Deutsch Kazun) and Wymyśle. There, as well as in many other places, one can still find traces of the Mennonite history, preserved in lowland landscapes, in old examples of wooden architecture or in silent cemeteries.


Mennonite wandering and settling in Prussia, Poland and Russia

Author: Peter Klassen

When the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement arose in 16th century, its emphasis on adult baptism and  a theology of peace soon brought severe persecution.  A haven, however, was provided in Poland, where good farmers and skilled businesspersons were welcomed. And so a number of Mennonite communities arose, especially in the Vistula delta, a region that was remarkably tolerant in an age of religious intolerance. Here the Mennonites' skills in land drainage techniques greatly increased income from lands they quickly protected through a network of canals and dikes. Other Mennonites, skilled in business techniques, settled in the outskirts of Gdansk (Danzig) and in towns in the Vistula delta. 


Heretics or true believers?

Not surprisingly, sometimes charges of heresy were brought against these nonconformists, and in one dramatic setting in Gdansk (Danzig), Mennonites were asked to disprove this assertion. In 1678, with the bishop of Wloclawek (Leslau) presiding, Mennonite leaders appeared before the bishop to be questioned on various theological issues. When the  hearings were over,  Georg Hansen, minister of the Gdansk Flemish church, noted that the churches had been freed from suspicion.  At the same time, some religious authorities let it be known that they opposed Mennonite settlement. But Poland remained remarkably tolerant.

Among other valuable skills that Mennonites brought to the Vistula delta, the ability to control flooding by constructing strategically placed dikes, stood them in good stead. Following an invitation from the local landlord  of the Nowy Dwór (Tiegenhof) area, a number of Mennonites came to settle there, and soon a number of Mennonite settlements arose in the Vistula Delta. The reputation of Mennonites as farmers who could conquer the swampy lands led to numerous open doors for new settlements.


New soul-searching

New challenges arose when Prussia gained control of the Vistula delta. The new rulers had little sympathy for Mennonite peace beliefs, and pressure to have Mennonites serve in the army led to new challenges for the Mennonite community. Some leaders urged Mennonites in West Prussia to abandon their peace position.  Gradually, a division arose, and by the end of the 18th century, several hundred Mennonite families had moved to Russia, where Catherine II promised them freedom to practice their faith. Soon another large group of Mennonites emigrated to America.  But among those who remained in the expanding German state, more and more Mennonites abandoned their peace position.  Later, with the defeat of Germany in 1945, Mennonites joined in the effort to escape to West Germany and only very few found ways to remain in their historic home.

The Great Patriotic War (1941–1945)

Author: Svietlana Bobileva
Translator: Katerina Revunenko 

Political oppression was rife in the 1930's Soviet Union. Stalin’s regime supported NKVD (political police) activity, initiated a campaign against ‘the Fascists’ – German speaking population, abolished national regions and worked out plans for the deportation of the German–Mennonite population in 1939. Arrests and physical assault on the clergy and teachers undermined the Mennonites and their spiritual, national and cultural identity. This affected the Mennonites’ attitude towards those in power.


Mennonites and the authorities

The war between Germany and the USSR broke out in June of 1941. Some  Mennonite youth representatives volunteered for the Red Army. Some just waited for the end of the struggle between the warring parties. However, it was almost impossible to stay neutral and  uninvolved. Some politicians and  Communist Party activists were exiled to the East of the Soviet Union. The law ‘About the German population in the Ukrainian SSR’ was established in August 1941. According to that law anti-Soviet elements had to be arrested and male German speaking people (16–60 years old) had to be called up to ‘build battalions’. The German–Mennonites from the Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhe, Stalin (now Donetzk), Voroshilovgrad (Lugansk) provinces and the Crimea region had to be evicted. However, the Wehrmacht army advance did not allow for fulfillment of  these plans.


Between Bolshevism and Nazism

About 163.000 Mennonites and ethnic Germans lived in Ukraine before the war. The aim of the Fascist authorities was to use the human potential of the occupied territories for their own purposes, to rely on the local German speaking population. In order to do that, they provided congregations with material support and pretended to restore the ethnic schools and religious life. At first they got some result. However, the Mennonites soon became disappointed because the collective farms, organized by Stalin, were not disbanded and  instead of Bolshevist ideas, Nazi-ideology was being taught at schools.  The Mennonites also couldn't put up with the Nazis’ racism, where the local non-German population was regarded as subhuman.


Strangers in their own land

The Nazis failed to divide the local multinational population. History has many examples of friendly relationship between the Mennonites and their Ukrainian neighbors. However, the Nazi propaganda influenced the Mennonites psychologically. During the occupation they found themselves ‘strangers in their own land’. However, their return to the Soviet Union shows that they did not feel responsible for the Nazis' atrocities.

Enthusiastic Entrepreneurs

Author: Nataly Venger

The Mennonites in Russia were not only successful farmers, but also talented  entrepreneurs. The Mennonite colonies in the Ekaterinoslav province  became the main production centers in the empire when it came to developing a machine-building industry. ‘Lepp and Wallmann’ was the most prominent Mennonite machine-building company. The factory was established in 1850 by Peter Lepp – the founder of an entrepreneurial dynasty – and was at the height of its success under the guidance of his grandson – Johann Lepp, who inherited the enterprise in 1879 and ran it till 1919.


Lepps-Wallmanns Dynasty

In 1880 Andreas Wallmann, a rich farmer, became the Lepps’ partner. After 1880 the company was called ‘Lepp and Wallmann’. In 1903 it became a joint-stock company. The shareholders were  the 11 representatives of the Lepps-Wallmanns dynasty. They ran three machine-building factories in the Ekaterinoslav province. By 1903, the  value of personal and real estate of the firm was estimated to be 1,15 million rubles. The capital of the company grew to 1,2 million rubles (1903–1913) and 2,4 million rubles (1914–1918).


Entrepreneurial Success and Awards

In the beginning the factory produced the simplest farm equipment: mowers, winnowing-machines and reapers. In 1874, it released the first ‘Lepp’s Booker’. In the 1880’s the factory started producing machines that were important for industrialization: steam engines, boilers, oil presses and equipment for sawmills. In 1860–1912 the factory participated in agricultural exhibitions and was awarded with 33 medals and diplomas.


Business and WW1

During the First World War, the company was forced to produce weapons. For the (pacifist) Mennonite-entrepreneurs this was the only way to save their property under the conditions of unity-German laws.


Importance of the Mennonite-run Factories

Lepps-Wallmanns contributed greatly to the development of the machine-building industry in the Russian Empire. Famous entrepreneurs such as A. Koop and C. Hildebrandt got their first  experience at P. Lepp’s factory. By 1900, the Mennonites from the Ekaterinoslav province had produced more than 58% of the agricultural equipment in that area. In the Taurida province every third machine-building factory belonged to the Mennonites. In 1911, every fifth agricultural machinery factory in Novo-Russia was owned by a Mennonite entrepreneur. These figures can be seen as a reflection of the entrepreneurial success of this ethnic and religious group. The Mennonite factories were always using the latest technologies and competed successfully with foreign companies, providing consumers with cheap but high quality equipment. This way they contributed to the advancement of modernization.


Photo: Rudy P. Friesen, Building on the Past: Mennonite Architecture, Landscape and Settlements in Russia/Ukraine (Winnipeg, Canada 2004).

Relying on the Holy Spirit

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

A church service in Mennonite churches seldom takes a fixed liturgical form. But that doesn't mean it has no pattern. Really, it means that the congregation relies on the work of the Holy Spirit. The life and practices of a church are as different as the people who shape it. There are both charismatic and pietistic types of communities.


Church services

There are different forms of church service, prayers and music styles. Differences in culture, tradition and personality of the church members influence the spirituality as well as the shape the church service eventually takes. But it can't be denied that  communal prayer and music making is the central part of all church gatherings. The easiest way to show the pattern of our church service is to divide it into three parts:


Fellowship with God

We come deliberately to God, to praise and to thank Him. This part is the beginning of the service: Welcoming the congregation to the service, praying and singing together, and other elements like reading a text, performing a theatre piece, or giving a testimony to bring  the congregation in the presence of God.



We listen to God and let Him speak. In this part appointed preachers (theologians and lay preachers) will expound on God's Word through a sermon.


Fellowship with one another

We take an active interest in each other and in what happens around us. We partake in the Lord's Supper together. Blessings and shared experiences about God's work in our lives belong in this part, as well as information about the church in general and about worldwide concerns. This part mostly ends the Sunday church service.


Live fellowship – grow in faith – live faith

‘Food keeps body and soul together’. This German saying is not only true for an individual but also for the living fellowship of the congregation. So in many congregations it is common to eat together. After the church service you are invited to have coffee and cake. At special events like a baptism the whole church has lunch together. It is also possible to practice fellowship in different small groups: a choir, an acting group, gatherings for the elderly and more. To grow in faith and to live that faith

is easier through sharing experiences.

Unification of German Mennonites

Authors: Corinna Schmidt, Joel Driedger
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

There are Mennonite congregations in various North German cities. Most of them are situated in or near Krefeld or Hamburg, but there are also congregations in Berlin, Neuwied, Bielefeld and various other places. Fourteen of these are united in the Union of German Mennonite Congregations established in 1886 (In German abbreviated to VDM), with around 2.100 members.


Working to establish community

The VDM brings Mennonites in northern Germany together. Pastors meet to discuss theology and their local concerns. The needs and concerns of youth are addressed by youth workers, who organise camps and special events for children, teens and young adults. There is also an organisation that addresses women’s issues. The VDM als provides training for lay members who are engaged in the church.


Cooperation with other churches

Representatives of the VDM were present at the establishment of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948. Among German Mennonites there was a strong desire to seek greater unity between the various Christian churches after the horrors of WWII To this day Mennonites are convinced of the need for Christians to seek affiliation with each other, in order to resolve conflicts nonviolently and make the world a more peaceful place. The WCC now includes nearly 350 churches with about 550 Million members. Mennonites are linked to Christians in the entire world and similarly to a wide variety of churches in Germany. Member congregations of the VDM are also members in the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK). In these dialogues Mennonites have become convinced that they can learn from other churches, and have experienced that Mennonites have an important contribution to make as well.


Faith and Peace

The VDM wishes to demonstrate that the message of Jesus Christ can be good news for everyone. Mennonites believe that our faith in Jesus Christ has a great deal to do with openness, tolerance, social commitment and peace. Faith motivates us to help others. For this reason the VDM established the Mennonite Peace Centre in Berlin, which works for peace in the neighbourhood and with the socially disadvantaged. There is room for everyone in our Mennonite congregations. We work to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner. The VDM encourages its members to think deeply about their faith and at the same time to become active in their communities.


‘Mennonite Pope’

Author: Annelies Vugts-Verbeek

These days Samuel Muller is viewed as one of the most influential seminary professors in Dutch Mennonite history. In his days he was mocked as the ‘Mennonite Pope’ or ‘Head of the Church’. His growing authority and influence created a strained relationship with the autonomous and anti-authoritarian approach of Dutch Mennonites. In that respect he was more a representative of the spirit of the 19th century than of the liberal Mennonites, who felt comfortable with the (late)18th century spirit.


From Krefeld to Amsterdam

Born in Germany, Muller came from Krefeld to Amsterdam (1801) on a scholarship to become a Mennonite minister. He picked up the finer points of the job in the small city of Zutphen (1806), followed by callings in the more prestigious Zaandam-Oostzijde (1809) and Amsterdam (1814). In 1827 he was appointed  Professor at the Seminary, where he had been a board member for several years already. Under his leadership the Dutch Mennonite Seminary became a professional institution. It would eventually be held in  the same esteem as the Dutch Reformed Seminary, which was later to become a part of (the forerunner of) Amsterdam State University.



The Dutch Mennonites became more and more educated themselves, and played major roles in Dutch society and cultural life, for instance in institutes and journals. This meant they needed well-trained ministers who could deliver educational and motivating sermons. Ministers, who like their prominent church members, participated in the (leading) cultural networks. These Mennonites felt the need to blend in with society. Their belief differed from the Reformed approach in its anti-dogmatism and the emphasis on the Bible as the ultimate authority, not man.



Muller's many pupils (for 30plus years he worked at the seminary!) were vehicles for and stimuli to this Mennonite emancipation. However, a few challenged the mainstream Mennonitism that Muller preached. Joost Hiddes Halbertsma (1789-1869) missed the old school liberalism and folklore in Mullers approach and Jan de Liefde (1814-1869) was more orthodox and more of a pietist than Muller. De Liefde left the Mennonites. Others, like part of the congregation in Balk, left the country to exercise their dearly held beliefs elsewhere.



One might say that Dutch contemporary Mennonites are more heirs to Muller than to Menno. With Muller the Dutch Mennonites entered a new era that would prepare them for late 19th century modernism – a Christian belief that challenged all set dogmas, even the belief in God itself. Muller, almost ninety years old by that time, was appalled at the new theological developments for which he unwittingly had cleared the way.


Source: Annelies Verbeek, ‘Menniste Paus’. Samuel Muller (1785-1875) en zijn netwerken, (Hilversum 2005).

Mennonites leaving the USSR for Germany

Author: Hermann Heidebrecht

Before 1987, only a few thousands Mennonites from Russia could leave the USSR for Germany. After 1987, most emigration applications were approved by German as well as by Soviet authorities. A mass exodus occurred on a scale which had never been seen before. Several reasons existed for this escape of almost all Mennonites from the former Soviet Union.

The persecution and oppression of faith lasted almost 70 years. Christians were not only put under pressure but were also regarded as backwards.


National oppression in the Soviet Union

National oppression of Russian-born Germans who were not differentiated from Hitler’s national socialists of World War II (in USSR called fascists) was also an important reason to leave the country for Mennonites and other Germans. Even though there were German schools in some regions of the Soviet Union, as well as German broadcast and German newspapers, they could not stop the gradual dissolution of the German identity in Russia.


Political and economical issues

Most Mennonites, probably, never agreed with the Soviet politics. The pain of confiscations, deportations, arrests, executions, and other sufferings of the last decades was too deep. There was hardly a Mennonite family that did not mourn over victims. The Mennonites did not trust Soviet governments and their leaders anymore. Economic conditions also played a role in emigration matters. People in cities and villages lacked almost everything. Though nobody experienced hunger, bread, butter, milk, sugar and other food often could only be obtained with big difficulties when not produced by people themselves. The same situation applied to clothing, furniture, household appliances and other articles.


Immigrant service organisations

The Mennonite emigrant service (Die Mennonitische Umsiedlerbetreuung) was  created by old Mennonite congregations in 1972 and  for many years fulfilled the function of helping the fresh arrivals with making a new start. Through the support of this organization, many locations for settlement in Germany were found, in many places regular church services could start, and new congregations could be organised. After Die Mennonitische Umsiedlerbetreuung finished its work, newly formed Mennonite congregations established their own immigrant service organization: the Aussiedler-Betreuungsdienst which took over all the aforementioned  functions. Since their foundation, both services welcomed and consulted more than 100.000 Mennonites or persons of Mennonite origin in the state border transit camps and entry points of federal states.

Goals and concrete examples

Author: Sylvia Shirk

The Relief Fund, founded in 1977, is the helping arm of the French Mennonites, reaching out to persons whose situation of temporary or more long-term distress has come to our attention.



The year 2013 was marked by a new action for Syria. In an email in September, the  MCC representative for Lebanon, thanks the French and Swiss Mennonites for their ‘marvelous and continued support, and for your prayers for the Syrian people. The kits were received and distributed by a wide variety of churches  serving displaced people forced to leave their homes...’.

Since the beginning of the conflict, more than 3.500 hygiene kits, 200 blankets and a sum of €15.000 were shipped in two containers as far as Jordan and to Syria.  In 2013, the Swiss Mennonites joined in to fill the container with buckets.  These donations come from individual gifts.  The cost of shipping the containers (about €8.500) was covered by offerings taken at the concerts of a group of young artists from one of the churches. One congregation in the North of the Alsace handled the sorting, preparation and the shipping of the French contributions.



Since its beginnings the Relief Fund has promoted a Christmas project to benefit a need that is more chronic but no less critical. This year a school project to benefit Hazara women and children of Afghanistan caught our attention.  Founded ten years ago by people who came from one of our churches, ‘Le Pelican’  created its first day center in Kabul for Hazara children in 2003.  The project grew quickly and was extended to include another hundred women and girls (literacy and sewing lessons), as well as professional training in bread making and in small restaurant business, and a class in sign language two years ago.  In 2007, the Relief Fund provided for the acquisition of equipment for the bakery.


Seven years later, the donations contributed to the creation of a centre in Bamiyan, using the same model as the one in Kabul. In November, Jacques, co-founder of ‘Le Pelican’ died. But Ariane is not giving up. Her testimony:


The Pelican’ had to position itself on this plateau where there is nothing but a poor population, without any resources:  no school, no business, no clinic, no electricity, no water ... they lack everything. So then it will be easy to help them!