Printer Friendly

The Mennonite commonwealth in Imperial Russia revisited.

Abstract: The idea of a Mennonite commonwealth in Russia was first proposed by the Austrian sociologist E. K. Francis as part of a study of Manitoba Mennonites. The idea was subsequently adopted and developed by others, including David G. Rempel and myself. Francis's intellectual arguments for a Mennonite commonwealth in Russia are reexamined through a consideration of published and unpublished sources. Subsequent research indicates a general agreement with Francis's argument but with different emphases particularly with regard to the historical development and extent of the commonwealth. The essay suggests that Francis's original argument still has merit in spite of recent criticism and that the idea is relevant an understanding not only of Mennonites in pre-revolutionary Russia but also of groups who emigrated from Russia to settle elsewhere.


It is over sixty years since E. K. Francis proposed that a "Mennonite commonwealth" emerged in Imperial Russia, aspects of which continued to influence Mennonite communities that migrated to North America from Russia from the 1870s onwards. (1) Since he introduced the term into Mennonite studies it has been widely adopted by scholars in Mennonite studies in the West to describe the distinctive Mennonite world that became established in Tsarist Russia. The choice of the English word "commonwealth," however, has not been examined as an intellectual idea or subjected to critical scrutiny. Recently, for example, questions have been raised concerning its adoption, its intellectual appropriateness and its relevance for an understanding of the prerevolutionary Russian Mennonite world. In particular, John Staples has suggested that E. K. Francis established a "paradigm" around the concept of "commonwealth" that was adopted uncritically by David G. Rempel and myself and that it has become a barrier to a proper understanding of Mennonite life in Russia. (2)

The primary purpose of this paper is to reexamine how Francis formulated the idea of a Mennonite commonwealth in Imperial Russia and how others later developed the concept. The paper will also suggest that the idea of a Mennonite commonwealth is an appropriate term, still relevant to an understanding of Mennonites in prerevolutionary Russia, and that it is also helpful in interpreting the lives of Mennonites who once lived in Russia but subsequently settled elsewhere.


E. K. Francis was a Catholic sociologist and historian, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Austrian nationality, who had come to North America before the Second World War as a refugee from the Nazis. In August 1945, the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba selected him to research and report on Mennonites in the province of Manitoba. (3) The society had decided to fund research on several non-British ethnic groups that eventually would include studies of Icelanders, Jews, Ukrainians, Poles and Hutterites, examining their contributions to the development of the province. Whereas most of the other researchers had some connection with the ethnic communities they studied, Francis began his work with little knowledge of Mennonites. That said, he was extremely thorough in his study, carrying out detailed library and archival research, visiting with Mennonites across the province and gaining the confidence of Mennonites from very different backgrounds. His extensive report was completed in 1947 and subsequently revised, but only part of it was eventually published in book form a decade after he began his research, and then not by a university press, or with the direct support of the society. (4) Instead it appeared under the aegis of the Mennonite printing concern of D. W. Friesen. (5)

Francis argued in his report and in his later writings that Mennonites in Manitoba retained a significant sense of social and cultural distinctiveness from the larger population. Far from assimilating to the dominant Anglo-British culture as some of those who had funded his research hoped, he suggested that Mennonites had instead undergone a process of "acculturation." (6) He defined acculturation as "the acceptance of culture traits" from the larger society; assimilation, by contrast, involved social issues, particularly the transference of individual members of a minority "into the host society with permanent loss to the ethnic group." (7) Acculturation, Francis argued, "may frequently be but a device by which a minority adjusts itself to the large society as a group, so that both conflict and absorption are successfully avoided" and members could "participate simultaneously" in many areas of the larger society, particularly the economy, while maintaining a distinctive "ethnic community." (8) Both aspects of the "traditional" culture and that of the larger society "form a workable combination." Although this situation remained "unstable," since their settlement in Manitoba Mennonites successfully had met a number of crises and retained their distinctiveness. (9)

Francis used the experience of his research among Mennonites to publish several important theoretical papers on the nature of social and cultural distinctiveness among minority groups in larger societies. These included studies of ethnicity, ethnic communities, the status of minority groups and the role of nationalism in modern state systems. (10) One of his earliest papers concerned with the form of ethnic groups appeared in 1947 in a leading American sociology journal. (11) In that essay Francis carefully reviewed existing scholarship in what was then a minority field and noted that while the origins of most ethnic groups could not be known, the origins and development of some could be reconstructed, particularly those "in the New World." Among these were "sectarian groups," often formed of diverse people but which in time and in spite of "numerous schisms and religious splits ... nevertheless have left untouched their identity and coherence." (12) Francis did not mention specifically his research in Manitoba, and his only reference to Mennonites occurs in a footnote on religious settler communities in Canada. (13) He ended his analysis with a series of working hypotheses that needed "further investigation." (14)

The next year, Francis published a follow-up paper in the same journal focused exclusively on what he "styled" the "Russian Mennonites." He presented Mennonites as a case study to illustrate how, given the right circumstances, a religious sect in a larger society could be transformed into an ethnic group. (15) Tracing Mennonite historical developments to Russia, Francis argued that it was only following immigration to Russia that these Mennonites became "a political, as well as a broader, cultural system" held together by a "common interest in the maintenance of rights granted by the state to all original Mennonite immigrants and their offspring."
 Within less than three generations the Mennonites in Russia had
 become a homogeneous community with all the characteristics of an
 ethnic, even a folk, group. Social behavior had become
 institutionalized. There was still agreement on basic religious
 items, although no complete uniformity was enforced. Their cultural
 pattern had achieved consistency, and most of its elements were not
 shared in common with any other social system. As the total
 institutional system in their colonies came under both secular and
 religious sanction, the Mennonites eventually came to consider all
 their institutions as sacred, whether they were concerned directly
 with religion or with matters that were in themselves secular. (16)

For reasons of space Francis limited his discussion to the Russian Mennonites who emigrated from Russia in the 1870s, leaving aside later immigrant groups. In America, because of efforts by religious leaders to limit participation in the larger society, Mennonites "have remained a distinct ethnic group":
 ... characterized by ecological concentration and segregation in
 definite areas of habitat, strict endogamy, and a body of
 differentiating traits (including folk dialect [Low German] and
 church language [High German]), certain folkways, and a
 consciousness of kind and a common descent. (17)

Francis noted, however, that in America some distinctive features such as "political, economic, and educational institutions" were "replaced by those prevailing in the countries in which they live." At the same time "the integrating power" of religion declined; some Mennonites even left their churches but remained "loyal to the Mennonite group as well as certain secular elements of Mennonite culture." (18)

Francis finally outlined the conditions by which such ethnic groups could emerge. These included basic economic self-sufficiency, a degree of political autonomy and social endogamy. Once these factors had been achieved a certain social and cultural homogeneity resulted, creating a sense of common identity and cohesion beyond religious diversity. Francis ended by stressing the importance of conceiving of such ethnic groups with a religious background not as "static" but as "dynamic" systems. (19)


Francis sought the causes of Mennonite distinctiveness in the past experiences of Manitoban Mennonites, and it is here that he felt an understanding of the Mennonite experience in Russia was critical. Nowhere in his earlier articles, however, did Francis use the term "Russian Mennonite Commonwealth." This descriptive phrase first appeared as a section to a chapter of his revised report to the Historical and Scientific Society. In 1951 Harold H. Bender, after reading Francis's manuscript and impressed by the "clarity and soundness" of his "analysis and interpretation," requested that the society permit him to publish the section on "the Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia" as an article in The Mennonite Quarterly Review. (20) As the society had earlier denied Francis the right to publish academic articles using material collected in his research, Francis was surprised that the society agreed to Bender's request. (21)

Francis argued that Mennonite society as it developed in Russia, although derived from Prussian roots and connected with ideas of a religious community dating to their origins, was something entirely new in terms of its social form. It was "secondary and indigenous ... much like the ethnic groups and subsystems which later sprang up in America." (22) In Russia, Mennonites "developed into a separate people, socially independent and distinct from both the larger Russian society and other German-speaking colonies in that country." (23) Francis identified two causes for this situation. First, Mennonites were always "subjectively" driven by a desire to create a Utopian community "without outside interference" and independent from "the 'wicked' world." (24) Second, and more "objectively," the "legal framework provided by the Russian government ... not only permitted the almost complete segregation of homogeneous groups[,] but [also] tended to increase and protect their homogeneity, closure, and self-sufficiency." (25) Of these two factors, Francis devoted most attention to the influence of the Russian state in providing an environment where Mennonites could develop complex social structures. Francis noted this process tended to reduce the religious basis of community and promote its secularization:
 [A]t the moment when a Mennonite Utopia, the community of the saints
 and saved, lay within reach of realization, it became secularized and
 void of its spiritual content, a commonwealth of ordinary people
 with the ambitions and motivations of sinners and the fallen nature
 of man. Religious convictions and interests now were one aspect of
 everyday life, perhaps a central but by no means the only
 aspect. (26)

Francis went on to point out that the sectarian nature of Mennonite life that separated Mennonites from the "world" and divided Mennonites into separate, often distinctive, congregations gave way in Russia to new religious and institutional structures. (27) These factors contributed to a new sense of Mennonite identity:
 Locally and within their colonies, they [Mennonites] constituted the
 whole of society, not just a section of it. The law recognized them
 as a corporate body charged with the satisfaction of all, or almost
 all, human needs of its members. The individual rights of
 Mennonites, particularly important property rights, were derived
 from the corporate rights of the group, membership in which was
 acquired by birth. (28)

In Russia, the "relationship between religious and non-religious interests and institutions" was redefined as sacred and secular life became "co-extensive as to territory and essentially as to personnel." (29) This involved the organization of "a new secular society" with "its own autonomous institutions" where:
 theoretically at least the Mennonite colony and village community
 with their local assemblies and elected officers, were kept apart
 from the Mennonite (church) congregation with its own assembly and
 functionaries." (30)

Francis suggested this arrangement created several "inner contradictions" between religious authority and identity and secular authority and "civil status." (31) He concluded that in Russia the Mennonites "had become a people whose conspicuous secular successes were bought at the price of institutionalization of religion and secularization of the inner life of the group." (32)

Nowhere in his writings did Francis indicate why he specifically chose to use the term "commonwealth." In a manuscript copy of his 1947 report he wrote of Mennonites in Russia attempting to achieve the "right balance between the welfare of the individual and that of the community," suggesting that individual poverty threatened to do "damage to the commonweal." He further noted that modern individualism puts the self before "the commonweal" and that in Russia the community "watched very closely over the woe and weal of all its members." (33) But he did not speak of a commonwealth. After the publication of In Search of Utopia Francis also appeared not to have used the term again in English with reference to Mennonites until 1976, when he wrote that the immigrants to Manitoba in the 1920s "were members of the same Mennonite commonwealth from which the earlier immigrants had broken away." (34)

In English usage the term commonwealth dates at least to the sixteenth century and is probably connected with the revival of humanism in the Renaissance, the rediscovery of Roman law, and critiques of society and the state. (35) Like the term commonweal, commonwealth referred to public welfare or to the general good of the whole state as against individual self-interest as Francis had suggested. The concept emerged at the moment when humanists provided justifications for the sovereign state and its autonomous control of all citizens within its territories. As such it acted as a counterbalance to the unfettered exercise of monarchical power. Thomas More's Utopia used the term in this way. Francis was undoubtedly familiar with this classic text, but we can only speculate on this connection. (36) Francis likely had the term's social more than its political meaning in mind when he chose it to refer to the distinctive world of the Russian Mennonites. (37)

In its social sense "commonwealth" can apply loosely to persons sharing common interests who identify with each other and act together with reference to these interests. By acting together, however, people become involved in political action and the institutions they create have political as well as social meaning. Francis was undoubtedly aware of the term's political meaning. In that usage, the concept of "commonwealth" connotes a collection of a people who constitute a nation, state or other form of independent community and who, as a body politic, associate together in recognition of shared interests and concerns. Originally it was an attempt to capture in an English word the Latin res publica, literally, a "thing of the people," a term derived from Roman usage and associated with ancient ideas of citizenship. It was this political and social meaning that may have attracted the historian David G. Rempel to follow Francis in his use of the term.


In 1933 Rempel submitted a Ph.D. thesis to Stanford University on the history of the Mennonite colonies in Russia, but the thesis was never published. (38) Following his retirement from teaching in the 1960s and after being allowed brief admission to the Soviet archives in the early 1970s, Rempel published a long article in two parts using the term "Russian Mennonite Commonwealth" in the title. (39) While it is obvious that Rempel was drawing on Francis's earlier publication of a similar title, nowhere does Rempel acknowledge this. (40) Perhaps he did not see his use of the term as problematic or that in adopting the term he was indicating a complete acceptance of Francis's ideas. (41) But it is clear that by using the term in his title Rempel thought it appropriate to describe the "degree of general well-being," a status that Mennonites in Russia had "attained" before 1917 unequaled by any other Mennonite group. (42)

Early in his article Rempel stated that nowhere else and at no earlier period did a Mennonite group attain "such a degree of well-being as those in Czarist Russia during the second half of the nineteenth century and up ... to 1917." (43) He then outlined how, before the Russian Revolution, the Mennonites had become an important group in terms of population, widespread distribution across Russia, degree of self-government and freedoms enjoyed, and range of institutions established:
 All this activity was carried on under an extraordinary and almost
 inconceivable degree of autonomy under one of the most centralized,
 autocratic regimes in prewar Europe. Small wonder that these
 Mennonites in Russia were prone to regard themselves as constituting,
 to all intents and purposes, a state within a state ... at times
 [viewing] themselves as a people, or volk. ... (44)

After detailing the early processes of colonization and settlement Rempel returned to this theme of Mennonite achievement, placing the ideas of a "state within a state" and of "peoplehood" in its historical context. He noted that the period of Russia's Great Reforms - roughly between 1870 and the early 1880s -"set aside all the distinctive rights and privileges" that Mennonites and other colonists had previously enjoyed and placed them, administratively, within the empirewide system of local, regional and central agencies of government. For Mennonites, however, "there were some notable exceptions to these rules which were of the greatest significance to the preservation by the different settlers of their ethnic, religious, and cultural status or identity." First and most significantly, Mennonites continued to enjoy special rights even after the reforms, the most important of which was the right not to be conscripted into the military like all other subjects of the tsar. Instead, Mennonites were permitted to render an alternative form of service in forestry. Second, as Rempel explained, "wherever an ethnic or denominational group of colonists, comprising a varying number of communities, had constituted a separate administrative district, this unit of local self-government was left intact." The name of the unit may have been changed to the Russian term volost' (canton), and official communication with the authorities was now in Russian rather than German, but its "autonomous status in regard to purely local issues concerning education, health, welfare, insurance, etc., was left largely undisturbed." (45)

Rempel then continued with a crucial statement:
 More than any other ethnic or religious group of colonists, the
 Mennonites had established, developed, and maintained their own
 educational, agricultural, economic, and a great variety of welfare
 institutions - in part because of their historic tradition and
 initiative in these fields, and in part because the central agencies
 of government, especially under Alexander I and Nicholas I
 (1801-55), ... left them alone to their own initiative and
 devices. ... For these reasons and because of the Mennonites'
 historic tradition of cohesiveness and "Absonderung"
 (avoidance) (46) from association with other peoples not of their
 faith, the Mennonite settlements in Russia constituted, to all
 intents and purposes, a state within a state, or a Mennonite
 Commonwealth. (47)

Toward the end of his paper Rempel returned to the issue of identity. He noted that the favorable treatment Mennonites received from the Russian authorities early in their settlement encouraged:
 feelings of separateness, of ethnicity, particularly considering the
 fact that they had many of the other attributes of a separate
 nationality, such as a common heritage of belief, customs and
 traditions, numerous cultural, social and economic institutions, and
 a common language. (48)

Like Francis, Rempel noted that as "a church and as a social, economic and political entity the [Mennonite] brotherhood ... had assumed most of the attributes of an ethnic subgroup, or people, and also invariably spoke of itself as das mennonitsches Volk (the Mennonite people)." (490 And Rempel concluded that "the Mennonite commonwealth in Russia ... was partly a product of heritage, of custom and tradition, and in large measure of rights and privileges once guaranteed them by the highest authority of the State." (50)

Recently Rempel's description of the Russian Mennonite world as a "state within a state" and his suggestion that Mennonites assumed a distinctive sense of identity has come under criticism. (51) Rempel, however, was talking not just about the Mennonite world itself, but also how contemporary Mennonites conceived and spoke of their world. In this he was expressing "native categories," easily confirmed by reference to the prerevolutionary and postrevolutionary writings of Mennonites and their neighbors. Indeed, Mennonites and others frequently described their community as "ein Staat im Staate" and spoke of themselves as a distinctive people, a Volk (or more often in the diminutive as a volklein) just one of many peoples in Russia's prerevolutionary multiethnic empire. (52)

Rempel's description of the development and form of the distinctive Mennonite world in Russia tracks closely to Francis's account. But Rempel emphasizes the achievements of the later commonwealth up to the Russian Revolution whereas Francis was more interested in what had already occurred before the first emigration to North America in the 1870s. While Francis mentioned the new sense of identity created among Mennonites in the early days of the commonwealth and the way Mennonites came to conceive of themselves as more than just a religious people, Rempel added a stronger political dimension to the idea. He described the commonwealth as a semistate and Mennonite sense of identity as a distinct people resembling proto-nationalism. He was not, however, suggesting that the Mennonite commonwealth at any time was actually a state. As he knew well, throughout its development the commonwealth existed within the Russian state and at all times Mennonites were subject to Russian taw and official policies. Mennonites may have developed their own institutions and a sense of a distinct identity but this did not mean that they remained separated from the larger society. Francis may have characterized the Mennonites in Russia at the time of emigration to North America as a "homogeneous, isolated peasant society" who had limited "contact and interaction with the larger Russian society," but he also wrote that in "the following 50 years" Mennonites "became more and more integrated" into Russian society. (53)

Like Francis, Rempel argued that some institutional features that characterized the Mennonite commonwealth preceded settlement in Russia. (54) Both Rempel and Francis used the term "Mennonite commonwealth" to refer to the entire period of Mennonite settlement in Russia. But in his discussions Francis emphasized developments that occurred before the Great Reforms because he clearly wished to argue that many of the distinctive social features he encountered among Manitoba Mennonites occurred prior to the first settlement of groups in the province in the 1870s. He hardly mentioned the importance of continued immigration of individuals and families from Russia up to 1914 and he only briefly dealt with the immense changes that occurred in Russian Mennonite society in the wake of the large-scale Mennonite immigration following the Russian Revolution. (55) Somewhat surprisingly in Ms book he did not use the term Mennonite commonwealth in his discussion of the dynamic changes that occurred among Mennonites in Russia after 1870, although earlier in his article he had indicated that the term covered this later period. In one place he also continued to refer to Manitoba Mennonites as possessing a "commonwealth" at the time of their migrations to Mexico and Paraguay in the 1920s. (56)

At the end of his MQR article, Rempel noted that he had sketched "the highlights of the founding of this 'Mennonite state within a state' and of its successful functioning during some 125 years." (57) But at the outset of that essay he wrote that the period of Mennonite achievement occurred between "the second half of the nineteenth century ... to 1917," and it is clear from his discussion that many of the key features of the commonwealth he identified developed in the period following the Great Reforms. (58) Rempel was somewhat dismissive of the 1870 emigrants from Russia to North America, referring to them as "politically conservative and religiously fundamentalist folk"--that is, as those groups and individuals who were unwilling to share in the possibilities offered by Russia to achieve the later, complex Mennonite commonwealth. (59) In terms of chronological emphasis, rather than sentiment about the 1870s migrants, I have been closer to Rempel than to Francis in my own writings. (60)


In my book None but Saints I argued that by the 1880s a "new sense of community was emerging" among Mennonites in Russia:
 In addition to the older congregational communities and the Russian
 created colony administration the potential for a more broadly based
 community to unite all Mennonites was apparent. A Mennonite
 commonwealth began to emerge which, as a religious and civil
 community, was representative of all Mennonites who now constituted
 a distinctive cultural and social group in Russia's ethnically
 diverse Empire. (61)

I then proceeded to discuss some of its features and implications. These included the creation of new forms of leadership and institutions to link Mennonites in different settlements, progressive educational policies, a new sense of identity and the basis for a new "political entity," that is, a "state within a state." In concluding the chapter I wrote:
 The emergent commonwealth therefore provided Mennonites with more
 than just a sense of identity and ability to respond to the changing
 social and economic conditions in Russia during the last quarter of
 the nineteenth century. It also provided a wider forum for the
 organizational bodies and the political skills that had been
 established to develop in the rapidly changing world with which all
 Mennonites were now involved. Although a full realization of the
 political nature of the commonwealth and the politicization of
 Mennonite life were only to become apparent in the following
 century, the foundations of such concerns were firmly in place by

My book, first published in 1989, examined only the first century of Mennonite settlement in Russia--the period before the foundation of more complex institutions that gave the Mennonite commonwealth its state-like appearance. But it is obvious that both Rempel and I use the term commonwealth interchangeably with that of "state within a state." When my book was translated by Elisabeth Wiens into German, I suggested that "commonwealth" be translated as "ein Staat im Staate" because I felt that in German it reflected better than the English term how Mennonites thought and spoke of their world. (63) That decision was based on my anthropological background where the use of key native categories is often preferred to translated terms. This does not indicate, however, that I do not consider the term commonwealth useful when writing in English; in this context it is more useful than the English phrase "a state within a state."

Since 1989 a number of studies on prerevolutionary Mennonite life have appeared, including my own, that directly or indirectly expand on the idea of a Mennonite commonwealth, its achievements and its contradictions. (64) Some scholars have emphasized the contradictions created by the continued development of the Mennonite commonwealth, contradictions that are more implicit in Francis's formulation than in Rempel's. For instance, the historian John B. Toews has pointed out the contradiction between religious principles and the "institutionalization" of Mennonite life in prerevolutionary Russia with particular reference to the Mennonite Brethren. (65) The institutionalization of Mennonite life in Russia, however, included religious bodies with the creation of church conferences, increased bureaucratization and moves to replace lay preachers with ministers trained in seminaries. (66)

In my own writings on the later Russian period I have also discussed several issues and contradictions created by the later Mennonite commonwealth. The gap in wealth among Mennonites, and between Mennonites and their workers and neighbors, became more pronounced in the later period. (67) The issue of identity in relation to state developments, including nationalism, made Mennonites seek identities beyond religion. (68) The financial and social costs of maintaining the commonwealth in areas such as the forestry service, education and welfare institutions put pressure on the communal ideal in a world of social and economic opportunity which drew Mennonites into the larger society. (69) An attraction to urban areas, probably reflecting a genius for commerce that extended back to their roots in Prussia and even the Dutch Republic, challenged a self-identity of being a farming people. (70) The pursuit of higher education led to increased social and physical mobility, generational discontinuity and a drift away from religion towards more secular views of society and even unbelief. (71)

External events continued to have an impact on the Mennonite commonwealth. The political reforms that followed the 1905 revolution saw the establishment of a constitution, general religious freedom and greater Mennonite involvement in Russian politics, often in an attempt to secure their privileges. (72) The new situation, however, created disagreements within the Mennonite world over religious values, evangelization and the continuance of the commonwealth as a privileged state within the Russian state. (73) In the pattern of subsequent events over the next thirty years that eventually brought an end to the Mennonite commonwealth, these contradictions implicit in its structure would play their part. (74) While they certainly did not cause events such as the Russian Revolution, the Civil War or Soviet persecutions, they were clearly relevant to how events played out at the local level, often to the disadvantage of Mennonites as a group and as individuals.

The Mennonite world underwent continued development from the time of the first settlement in Russia in 1789 to wherever one considers that the commonwealth "ended" -be that 1914, 1917, 1920/21 or 1926. (75) At no time in its history was the Mennonite commonwealth ever a monolithic whole, a finished product. It developed organically as a series of general initiatives agreed to by its leadership. Nowhere, however, was there a grand plan; internal developments and external forces shaped its forms. Mennonite worldviews obviously varied according to age, social status, education and religious affiliation. A more romantic view of the Mennonite world that existed before 1914 certainly developed among later refugees living abroad after 1917. But the reality of a complex and distinctive Mennonite world emerging before the revolution is clearly reflected in the efforts Mennonites made to reconstruct it following the revolution. This includes the strategies adopted by Mennonites during the early period of Soviet control in the 1920s and the efforts by immigrants to Canada in the 1920s (76) and to Paraguay in the 1930s to reconstruct aspects of the Mennonite commonwealth in their new homelands. (77)


The term commonwealth as proposed by Francis, adopted by Rempel and developed by others seems entirely appropriate to refer to the distinctive world Mennonites established in Imperial Russia. In applying the term, Francis was concerned primarily with issues relevant to Mennonite society in a context of ethnicity where he wished to explain why Mennonites in Manitoba, in contrast to some other ethnic groups, had not undergone rapid assimilation to the host society. He sought his answer in the distinctive structures of community created in Russia. As such he suggested that the use of the term had value beyond its Russian origins and that aspects of the distinctive world created in Russia continued in North America among immigrants of the 1870s. He also hinted that this influence continued beyond as descendants of these immigrants migrated again into Mexico, Central and South America.

In adopting the term Rempel wished to explain not just the distinctive ethnic identity of Mennonites in Russia and their sense of an almost "nation-like" community, but also to chronicle their cultural achievements while remaining skeptical about some aspects of the society that developed. In this regard he was concerned more with the years following the Great Reforms rather than with the earlier period. (78) While recognizing the appropriateness of Francis's analysis of the origins of the Mennonite commonwealth in Russia, I have built on Rempel's research while remaining somewhat more agnostic about the achievements of the Mennonite Commonwealth by stressing the contradictions its continued development created for Mennonites and their society.

The idea of a Mennonite commonwealth as conceived of by Francis and developed by others is not derived from a paradigm, disconnected from "historical reconstruction" and dependent on "theory-driven pronouncements." (79) Far from being based on the abstract academic models of one individual into which the facts of Mennonite life have been forced, the concept was informed from the outset by a study of the available records of Mennonite life in Russia. Nor are those who use the term merely repeating a model without a knowledge of or consideration of the evidence of Mennonite life in prerevolutionary Russia. Instead use of the term is based on a closer examination of the historical evidence as it has become available.

While this reconstitution of the idea of a Mennonite commonwealth seeks to clarify the origins, later use and continued appropriateness of the term, it has also revealed certain differences in focus and emphasis. This suggests further room for development of the idea, a possibility greatly enhanced by the opening of many archives in Russia and Ukraine and the emergence of a new generation of scholars. Knowledge, however, advances not just through the addition of new sources, but also through a gradual evolution in the quality of interpretation and explanation.

(1.)E K. Francis, "The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia, 1789-1914: A Sociological Interpretation," The Mennonite Quarterly Review 25 (July 1951), 173-182.

(2.) See J. Staples, "The Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm and the Dnepropetrovsk School of Ukrainian Mennonite Historiography," Voprosi Germamskoi Istorii: Nemtsi Ukraini I Rossii v Konfliktakh I Kompromissakh XIX-XX Vekov (Dnipropetrosk: Porogi, 2007), 58-68, and at Staples, in fact, used the term in his earlier book without expressing any doubts as to its value.--Cross-Cultural Encounters on the Ukrainian Steppe: Settling the Molochna Basin, 1784-1861 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 40, 46, 78, 104, 105, 164.

(3.) On Francis's research and his often troublesome dealings with the society see Mary Kinnear, "An Aboriginal Past and a Multicultural Future": Margaret McWilliams and Manitoba History," Manitoba History 24 (Autumn 1992), 2-7, available at: See also Leo Driedger, "E. K. Francis' Search for Utopia: A Tribute," Journal of Mennonite Studies 13 (1995), 89-107, and the files of the society regarding this matter at the Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg, especially MG 10, F2 -F-54 and 7/61.

(4.) Manuscript drafts from 1947-1948, 1951 and possibly "1954 are deposited in the Archives of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Emerich K. Francis, funds 7718.

(5.) E. K. Francis, In Search of Utopia: the Mennonites in Manitoba (Altona: D. W. Friesen, 1955); the book was distributed in the United States by the Free Press. A copy of the complete text was to be issued in microfilm by the University of Toronto Press but a retyped text appears never to have been completed.

(6.) Francis borrowed this term from American anthropology, where it had been coined as a research agenda to explain social and cultural change that did not imply cultural extinction and/or assimilation to the dominant society. See Robert Redfield, Ralph Linton and Melville J. Herskovits, "Memorandum on the Study of Acculturation," American Anthropologist 38 (1936), "149-152.

(7.) Francis, In Search of Utopia, 275.

(8.) Ibid., 217. Elsewhere, after mentioning Mennonites, he wrote: "Acculturation, instead of leading to assimilation and loss of individual members to the larger society, rather increases the minority group's chance of surviving as a distinct local social sub-group within the complex host society."--E. K. Francis, "Variables in the Formation of So-Called 'Minority Groups,'" American Journal of Sociology 60, no. 1 (1954), 12.

(9.) Francis, In Search of Utopia, 217.

(10.) Before leaving Europe Francis had finished a study of nationalism but it remained unpublished; see his letter of application for the fellowship to study Mennonites.--Manitoba Historical Society Papers, Archives of Manitoba, MG10 F2 [File 14], June 24,1945, with curriculum vitae.

(11.) E. K. Francis, "The Nature of the Ethnic Group," American Journal of Sociology 52, no. 5 (1947), 393-400. According to Staples this article established the theoretical base for the paradigm of the Mennonite commonwealth as Francis "sought a living laboratory to prove his case," which he "found" among the Manitoba Mennonites.--Staples, "Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 2. In fact, Francis had completed his research by the time the paper was published.

(12.) Francis, "The Nature of the Ethnic Group," 398.

(13.) Ibid., fn. 22, where he cites C. A. Dawson, Croup Settlement: Ethnic Communities in Western Canada (Toronto: Macmillan, 1936).

(14.) Francis, "The Nature of the Ethnic Group," 399. The fact that Francis merely proposed hypotheses is contrary to Staples's assertion that Francis claimed to have established a "theory" of ethnic groups.

(15.) E. K. Francis, "The Russian Mennonites; from Religious to Ethnic Group," American journal of Sociology 54, no. 2 (1948), 101-107. In his discussion of Francis's alleged "paradigm" construction, Staples does not mention this article.

(16.) Ibid., 105.

(17.) Ibid., 106.

(18.) Ibid.

(19.) Ibid., 106-107.

(20.) Bender to Professor W. L. Morton, Apr. 4, 1951, Manitoba Historical Society, Fellowship Correspondence, Archives of Manitoba, MG10, F2-7/61. Francis added the subtitle noting to the editor that he could later use the MQR text unchanged from the manuscript.--Francis to M. Gingerich, May 4, 1951, Manitoba Historical Society Papers, Fellowship Committee Ethnic Group Fellowships, Archives of Manitoba, MG10 F2 - 5/54. In the book he actually abbreviated his discussion and referred readers to the article for a fuller discussion. For this reason I will lead with his article, pointing out relevant similarities and differences in his later book.

(21.) Bender had probably met Morton on a visit to Winnipeg and this might have swayed the society's decision.--letter from Bender to Morton arranging a meeting, Apr. 29, 1949, MG 10 F2 5/54. Bender was keen to see Francis's book published in time for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Russian Mennonite migration to North America in 1949.

(22.) Francis, "Mennonite Commonwealth," 173

(23.) Ibid., 174; in his book Francis spoke of the "emergence of a closed Mennonite social system."--In Search of Utopia, 20; see also his "Anabaptism and Colonization," The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision: A Sixtieth Tribute to Harold S. Bender, ed. Guy F. Hershberger (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1957), 254, where he speaks of the "almost closed and complete world of the Mennonite commonwealth in Russia."

(24.) Francis, "Mennonite Commonwealth," 174; In Search of Utopia, 20. The issue of whether or not Mennonites have been "Utopian" in the sense suggested by Francis is open to question, even if he qualified his idea that Mennonites were in "search of Utopia."--In Search of Utopia, 5. John B. Toews, though accepting Francis's point on the early development of Mennonite distinctiveness also rejects his Utopian argument.--Czars, Soviet and Mennonites (Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1982), 185, fn. 3.

(25.) Francis, "Mennonite Commonwealth," 174-175.

(26.) Ibid., 178-179; In Search of Utopia, 23-24.

(27.) Francis acknowledged the earlier paper of Robert Kreider.--"The Anabaptist Conception of the Church in the Russian Mennonite Environment, 1789-1870," MQR 25 (Jan. 1951), 17-46, as independently coming to a similar conclusion,--"Mennonite Commonwealth," 179, fn. 8.

(28.) Francis, "Mennonite Commonwealth," 180; hi Search of Utopia, 24-25.

(29.) Francis, "Mennonite Commonwealth," 180-181.

(30.) Ibid., 181; Francis later noted that Anabaptist teachings on the separation of state and church prevented the creation of a Mennonite "theocracy."--In Search of Utopia, 25.

(31.) Francis, "Mennonite Commonwealth," 181.

(32.) Ibid., 200; In Search of Utopia, 27.

(33.) Manuscript copy of In Search of Utopia, Archives of Manitoba, MG A55, 28, p. 72. All the manuscript versions omit the section on the commonwealth but a handwritten note on one version indicates he would have used the MQR article.

(34.) E. K. Francis, Interethnic Relation: An Essay in Sociological Theory (New York: Elsevier, 1976), 178.

(35.) I am grateful to Glyn Parry, my colleague in history at Victoria University, for providing guidance on this matter. On English usage see Raymond Lurie, "Some Ideas of the Commonwealth in Early Tudor England," Reformation. Humanism, and "Revolution," ed. Gordon J. Schochet (Washington: The Folger Institute, 1990), 293-306.

(36.) Thomas More, Utopia, ed. George M. Logan and Robert M. Adams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). The subtitle of More's book is "Concerning the Best State of a Commonwealth and the New Island of Utopia." Francis explains, however, that his decision to use the term "utopia" in the title of his book was based on a comment made to him by a Mennonite.--In Search of Utopia, 5.

(37.) The other possible author Francis may have had in mind was Thomas Hobbes. In his Leviathan (1651) Hobbes's commonwealth has both a social and political meaning: "A commonwealth is said to be instituted, when a multitude of men do agree, and covenant, every one, with every one, that to whatsoever man, or assembly of men, shall be given by the major part, the right to present the person of them all, that is to say, to be their representative; every one, as well he that voted for it, as he that voted against it, shall authorize all the actions and judgements, of that man, or assembly of men, in the same manner, as if they were his own, to the end, to live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected against other men." - Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946), 113.

(38.) David G. Rempel, The Mennonite Colonies in New Russia: A Study of their Settlement and Economic Development from 1789 to 1914 (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1933). On Rempel and his contributions to Russian Mennonite studies see my "David Gerhard Rempel: An Early Academic Mennonite Historian," in Shepherds, Servants and Prophets: Leadership among the Russian Mennonites (ca. 1880-1960), ed. Harry Loewen (Kitchener Ont.: Pandora Press, 2003), 337-347.

(39.) David G. Rempel, "The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia: A Sketch of its Founding and Endurance, 1789-1919," MQR 47 (Oct. 1973), 259-308; 48 (Jan. 1974), 5-54. Staples assertion that the article is a "only a summary of his [Rempel's] 1933 dissertation" is incorrect. -"Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 60. While parts of the article follow the dissertation, it contains new material from Rempel's later research in Soviet archives and is more interpretive than the thesis.

(40.) Staples suggests that Rempel's thesis and that by Adolf Ehrt were the source of Francis's understanding of Russian Mennonite history.--Adolf Ehrt, Das Mennonitentum in Russland von seiner Einwanderung bis zur Gegenwart (Langensalza; Julius Beltz, 1932). In fact, Rempel's thesis is mentioned favorably in a footnote to Francis's article but not in his book. -"Mennonite Commonwealth," 177. Ehrt is not mentioned until page 195 of In Search of Utopia and then merely as a source for late Mennonite industrial outputs. Neither he nor Rempel are included in the list of further readings (p. 272). Readers, however, are directed to E. K. Francis, "A Bibliography on the Mennonites of Manitoba," MQR 27 (July 1953), 238-248, where both sources are listed. Staples also makes an entirely false accusation that both theses were based on "narrow, German-language" sources. Ehrt was a Baltic German, and Rempel was born in the Khortitsa colony - both were fluent readers of Russian and made extensive use of Russian-language sources in their theses.

(41.) As suggested by Staples, who notes that Rempel "does little to support the Commonwealth idea in his analysis," but then claims that by adopting the term Rempel "accepted Francis' paradigm as an accurate representation of tsarist Mennonite society, despite making no significant attempt to re-examine it through additional research."--Staples, "Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 60.

(42.) Rempel, "The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia," 260. Staples, after stressing the importance of links between Francis and Rempel, claims that the commonwealth paradigm was merely "an afterthought in Rempel's essay."--"Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 60. If this were so, why did Rempel choose to use the term in his title?

(43.) Rempel, "The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia," 270.

(44.) Ibid., 261.

(45.) Ibid., 9.

(46.) Absonderung is better translated as "separation."

(47.) Rempel, "The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia," 9-10; Staples in his criticism of Rempel does not cite this passage.

(48.) Ibid., 51.

(49.) Ibid., 50.

(50.) Ibid., 52.

(51.) Staples, "Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 60.

(52.) See Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History trans. Alfred Clayton (London: Longman, 2001).

(53.) Francis, In Search of Utopia, 194. Francis probably overemphasized the separation of Mennonites from Russian society before 1870 but this does not justify claims that this established a paradigm that "characterizes Mennonites in late Tsarist Russia as a community that self-consciously and successfully isolated itself from its neighbours."--Staples, "The Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 58.

(54.) Francis, "Mennonite Commonwealth," 179; Rempel, "The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia," 37; see also E. K. Francis, "Mennonite Institutions in Early Manitoba: A Study of their Origins," Agricultural History 22 (1948), "144-155.

(55.) Francis, In Search of Utopia, 194-202; Francis described Mennonite society in 1914 as "an integrated ... highly differentiated, heterogeneous, secularized, and to some extent, urbanized, industrialized, and capitalistic society with developed institutions of higher learning and a flourishing national literature, whose achievements in the sciences, fine arts, music, drama, ballet, and so on" (p. 194). I'm not sure about the ballet!

(56.) Francis, In Search of Utopia, 188.

(57.) Rempel, "Mennonite Commonwealth," 48.

(58.) Ibid., 260. Staples, therefore, is clearly incorrect when he asserts that Rempel did not identify the Great Reforms "as the impetus for the emergence of a more clearly defined Mennonite identity."--"Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 60. George K. Epp also used the term in his third volume of the history of Mennonites in Russia that covers the period from the Great Reforms.--Neues Leben in der Gemeinschaft: "Das Commonwealth der Mennoniten," 1871-1914 (Lage: Logos Verlag, 2003).

(59.) Rempel, "The Mennonite Commonwealth in Russia," 35. The chapter in my book entitled "The Emergent Commonwealth" clearly indicates my thinking on this matter.

(60.) I have recently suggested a number of ways of viewing Russian Mennonite history in terms of periods; see James Urry, None but Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia, I789-1889, 2nd prt. (Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2007), 41-45.

(61.) Urry, None but Saints, 251-252, with a footnote acknowledging Francis and Rempel. Staples inaccurately quotes my final sentence and omits the last five words, which are critical to my meaning.--Staples, "Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 61.

(62.) Urry, None but Saints, 264.

(63.) James Urry, Nur Heilige. Mennoniten in Russland, 1789-1889, trans. Elisabeth L. Wiens (Steinbach, Man.: Crossway Press, 2005); this source can be directly accessed at:

(64.) I have discussed some of this literature in James Urry, "The Mennonites in Russia and the Soviet Union: Recent Perspectives from English Language Sources," Forschungen zur Geschichte und Kultur der Russlanddeutschen 5 (1995), 129-145, and in the new introduction to the second printing of my None but Saints. In his criticisms of my work Staples refers only to my recent book Mennonites, Politics and. Peoplehood. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), which deals with Mennonite politics in a wider context than just Imperial Russia. Staples's own research and publication to date has concentrated on Mennonite life before the Great Reforms.

(65.) See, for instance, his Czars, Soviets and Mennonites. Although Toews does not use the term "Mennonite Commonwealth," most of the distinctive developments in Mennonite society he discusses are consistent with those identified by Francis and Rempel.

(66.) Abe Dueck, Mooing Beyond Secession; Defining Russian Mennonite Brethren Mission and Identity 1872-1921 (Winnipeg, Man.: Kindred Press, 1997); "The Quest for a Mennonite Seminary in Russia, 1883-1926: Signs of a Changing Mennonite World," MQR 74 (July 2000), 448-455.

(67.) James Urry, "Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth and the Mennonite Experience in imperial Russia," Journal of Mennonite Studies 3 (1985), 7-35; James Urry, "Prolegomena to the Study of Russian Mennonite Society 1880-1914," Journal of Mennonite Studies 8 (1990), 52-75; James Urry, "The Dutch and Russian Mennonite Experience of Wealth and Poverty," Journal of Mennonite Studies 27 (2009), 11-40; see also Al Reimer, "Peasant Aristocracy: the Mennonite Gutsbesitzertum in Russia," Journal of Mennonite Studies 8 (1990), 76-88.

(68.) "Who are the Mennonites?" Archives Europeennes Sociologie 24 (1983), 241-262; "The Russian Mennonites, Nationalism and the State 1789-1917, Canadian Mennonites and She Challenge of Nationalism, ed. Abe J. Dueck (Winnipeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1994), 21-67; a shorter version is available in Journal of Mennonite Studies 12 (1994), 65-88, and Urry, Mennonites, Politics and Peoplehood.

(69.) James Urry, "Prolegomena to the Study of Russian Mennonite Society"; James Urry, "The Cost of Community: the Funding and Economic Management of the Russian Mennonite Commonwealth before 1914," 'Journal of Mennonite Studies 10 (1992), 22-55.

(70.) James Urry, "Crowing up with Cities: the Mennonite Experience in Imperial Russia and the Early Soviet Union," Journal of Mennonite Studies 20 (2002), 123-154; on intergenerational conflict see also Al Reimer, "Sanitatsdienst and Selbstschutz: Russian-Mennonite Non-resistance in World War 1 and its Aftermath," Journal of Mennonite Studies 11 (1993), 135-148.

(71.) James Urry, "The Snares of Reason: Changing Mennonite Attitudes to Knowledge in Nineteenth Century Russia," Comparative Studies in Society and History 25, no. 2 (1983), 306-322; James Urry, "Time and Memory; Secular and Sacred Aspects of the World of the Russian Mennonites and their Descendants," The 2006 Bechtel Lectures, Conrad Grebel Review 25 (Spring 2007), 22-23. An important aspect of this involved the rise of a Mennonite intelligentsia. See Nikolai Klassen, "Mennonite intelligentsia in Russia," Mennonite Life, 24 (1969), 51-60; Harry Loewen, "Intellectual Developments Among the Mennonites of Russia: 1880-1917," Journal of Mennonite Studies 8 (1990), 89-107.

(72.) Terry Martin, The Mennonites and the Russian State Duma 1905-1914 (Seattle: University of Washington, 1996).

(73.) Urry, Mennonites, Politics and Peoplehood, chap. 5; see also John B. Toews, "Brethren and Old Church Relations in Pre-World War 1 Russia: Setting the Stage for Canada," Journal of Mennonite Studies 2 (1984), 42-59; Abe Dueck, "Mennonites, the State, and the Crisis of Brethren and Old Church Relations in Russia, 1910-1918," MQR 69 July 1995), 453-485; and Abraham Friesen, In Defense of Privilege: Russian Mennonites and the State Before and During World War I (Winnipeg, Man.: Kindred Press, 2006).

(74.) Francis, Rempel and I have never argued that the Mennonite commonwealth "contributed" to its own "downfall" as suggested by Staples, "Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 58.

(75.) See my discussion in None but Saints, 2nd prt., 44.

(76.) James Urry, "After the Rooster Crowed: Some Issues Concerning the Interpretation of Mennonite/Bolshevik Relations During the Early Soviet Period," Journal of Mennonite Studies 13 (1995), 26-50; Urry, Mennonites, Politics and Peoplehood, chaps. 6 and 8; Urry, "A Mennostaat for the Mennovolk? Mennonite Immigrant Fantasies in Canada in the 1930s," Journal of Mennonite Studies 14 (1996), 65-80.

(77.) Gerd Uwe Kliewer, "Auf dem Weg in die sudamerikanischen Gesellschaften. Die Sudamerikanischen Mennoniten und ihre Umwelt," Mennonoitsche Geschichtblatter 23 (1971), 54-55, translates Francis's "Mennonite Commonwealth" as "Mennonitische Reich" and suggests that the concept is appropriate in a Paraguayan context. See also Peter P. Klassen, The Mennonites in Paraguay. Volume 1: Kingdom of God and Kingdom of the Word (Asuncion: Buchhandlung Fernheim, 2004), 177.

(78.) This is not to suggest Rempel was uninterested in the establishment and early developments of Mennonite life but merely that his discussion of the commonwealth concentrates on the later period.

(79.) Staples, "Mennonite Commonwealth Paradigm," 65. The Mennonite sociologist Calvin Redekop adapted Francis's idea of a Mennonite commonwealth into a typological category for a model of Mennonite society but only by removing the strictly historical sense in which Francis conceived the term.--Mennonite Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 80-83.

* James Urry is reader in anthropology at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
COPYRIGHT 2010 Mennonite Historical Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Urry, James
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
Previous Article:Anabaptist hermeneutics and Theological education.
Next Article:A peace crueler than war? Just policing in a Foucauldian perspective.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |