By the mid-1600s most Anabaptist groups identified themselves as "Mennists" after Menno Simons. This name has since been modified to "Mennonites" as a result of contact with English-speaking neighbours.
Throughout their history, Mennonites have been very mobile. Often as a result of political and religious pressure, they have moved from place to place. Much of Mennonite history recounts when, why, and how Mennonite people have migrated from one area to another. One of the most common reasons for moving has been the demand for Mennonite youth to enter the army wherever they lived.
Although direct persecution in Switzerland and Southern Germany ended around the 1670s, Mennonites were still having a rough time in Europe. Their religious views were still not accepted by governmental authorities, and they were frequently subjected to extra taxation, evicted from land, and experienced other forms of discrimination. Also, as countries began to develop bigger military forces, Mennonites were pressured to enter their children into the army.
During this time there was quite a buzz about the "New World," as colonies were forming in North America. One of these possibilities was particularly attractive. A Quaker named William Penn had received a large plot of land from the British crown and was looking for settlers to join him in what would come to be called "Penn's Woods" (Pennsylvania). The Quakers had also been persecuted in Europe, and so Penn invited settlers to join him in creating a "new society" which was more tolerant of different religious views. When the Mennonites in Switzerland and South Germany heard of William Penn's idea, it sounded promising. Although it would be difficult, this new land offered the chance to practice their religion freely, to escape military expectations, and to get farmland. A small number decided to go for it, made the 10 1/2 week trip over the Atlantic, and arrived in the "New World" on October 6, 1683.
This group created the first lasting Mennonite settlement in North America at Germantown, Pennsylvania. Soon afterwards others arrived from Southern Germany, swelling the community to about 200 people by 1708, when they built the first Mennonite meeting house in North America. This log structure was replaced by a stone meetinghouse in 1770, which continues to be used today. From this period of early settlement until 1824 almost all Mennonites moving from Europe to North America settled in eastern Pennsylvania.
After escaping military service in Europe, the Mennonites in Pennsylvania found themselves surrounded by a revolution. As the result of an armed struggle, the United States of America broke away from Great Britain and came under local control in 1776. Once again the Mennonites' future seemed uncertain. They had been encouraged to come by the British, and didn't know how things would change. This and the fact that their growing families needed more land were enough to push many to pick up and move once again.
One option was to move north, past the Niagara River, and into British "Upper Canada."
Like their southern counterparts, the Mennonites of Northern Germany and Holland did a lot of moving. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Europe was not yet organized into "countries" or "nations." Rather, princes or other rulers were in charge of smaller areas of land, and made decisions as to how the place would function. Some princes wanted all of their people to practice one religion, while others were not as strict. Over the years many Mennonites moved to more tolerant areas, and a large number settled in Prussia (in what are now areas of Poland and Russia).
At about the same time that the first Swiss Mennonites were moving to "Upper Canada," Catherine the Great (II) of Russia invited Mennonites from Prussia to settle in her land. The Mennonites were recognized as excellent farmers, and the Russian tsarina (queen) needed people to occupy land which had been seized from the Turkish army. Two people were sent to scout out the land and return with a report. They returned after a year, having seen the land and met with Catherine herself. The Mennonites were officially promised that they would never have to serve in the military and would be allowed to practice their religion freely forever. Also, during this period the Russian government did not want their citizens to mix with those of other countries. The Mennonites liked this policy, since it allowed them to speak their native German, live and worship as they wanted to, and make decisions about their own communities.
The first group of eight families (about 50 people) left Prussia by wagon train on March 22, 1788. By the time land had been arranged and the new colony began in 1789, there were 400 Mennonite families. This settlement, located on the Chortitza River, has since been called either Chortitza or the Old Colony. Life was hard; disease was widespread, and promised government assistance did not come. Nonetheless, by 1800 these families had created 15 villages and were farming approximately 89,100 acres of land.
Despite the many hardships involved, other families in Prussia decided to move to Russia as well. Like the Swiss Mennonites, these groups tended to have large families and make a living through farming. This soon meant that more and more land was needed. To solve this problem, the colonies bought land and began to create "daughter colonies" in 1835. Over the next 100 years another 45 colonies emerged, some as far away as Siberia.
By 1859 Prussian Mennonite settlers had established 4 colonies in Russia, and numbered about 34,500 people. Although the first years were extremely difficult, the colonies began to enjoy great prosperity. Although the majority of Mennonites continued to be directly involved in agriculture, some were involved in industry and other activities. This advertisement, for example, promotes the A.J. Koop factories which produced farm implements. In addition, more and more people became educated, and increased effort was put into music, literature, and painting.
Created 1998 by Derek Suderman