BackgroundThe Allgemeine Bundeskonferenz der Mennonitengemeinden in Russland (General Conference of the Mennonite Congregations in Russia, from 1888 to 1917 called Allgemeine Konferenz . . .) was founded in 1883. In the beginning the Mennonite elders of Russia counseled together by meeting in a Kirchenkonvent similar to their colleagues in South Germany and Pennsylvania who met as an Aeltestenrat. This had also been the tradition in Prussia and Holland. The Kirchenkonvent became more official and regular in 1883 when the problems affecting all Mennonites of Russia increased and annual meetings at which minutes were kept became necessary. The founders and early promoters of the conference were the elders Johann Töws and David Hamm (Am Trakt), Abraham Goerz and Bernhard Harder (Molotschna), and Heinrich Epp (Chortitza).
Among the major problems confronting the Mennonites of Russia around 1880 was the matter of alternative service for young men of military age. On 14 June 1879 the elders of the various Mennonite settlements met in Neu-Halbstadt and decided to petition the Governor-General von Totleben to insure complete separation of the alternative service from the military machine and to allow for their own supervision of the spiritual and moral welfare of their young men. At this meeting it was also decided to delegate Andreas Voth, president of the Mennonite School Council, to Moscow to mediate in educational matters. These two questions—military conscription and the Russianization of the Mennonite schools—concerned and disturbed all Mennonites alike. On 17 November 1882 some elders met in Halbstadt and decided to organize a conference with annual meetings to bring all congregations closer together to form one body in accordance with Ephesians 2:20-22. This would provide a platform to discuss matters of common concern and to have an official representation in dealing with the government. Already at this time ministers were appointed to serve the boys in forestry camps.
The first official meeting of the conference took place on 24-25 January 1883 at Halbstadt, at which Elder David Hamm preached the conference sermon based on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15, proclaiming the conference motto: "In essentials unity; in nonessentials liberty; and in all things charity." The unity of the children of God (John 17) within and without the Mennonite fold, as well as home mission work, Sunday schools, and improved catechetical instruction were strongly emphasized. From the very beginning the founding of a theological seminary and a conference paper were on the agenda and were discussed frequently in the succeeding years. The conference operated without a constitution, although one was adopted at its last session in 1926, which never became operative.
Most of the congregations were represented at the Halbstadt session, with the exception of two small ones in Poland that never joined the conference, and most of the preachers were present, so that the conference grew in size only through the addition of new settlements and through the delegation of lay members. Regular lists of delegates were not kept until 1910, when the conference was placed under government supervision. After that the number of the delegates was about 175, and the number of participating congregations forty-five to fifty-two. The Mennonite Brethren and other smaller groups were not originally represented.
The annual conference sessions, lasting two or three days, were held in the largest churches in the provinces of Taurida, Ekaterinoslav and Kherson. Practical considerations prevented taking the conference to the remoter congregations, such as in the provinces of Samara and Orenburg, to say nothing of those across the Urals in Siberia.
The activities and problems of the conference can be divided into two periods: 1883-1910 and 1910-1926. During the first period the organization dealt predominantly with internal conference matters. During the second, emergency conditions made the conference an organization that embraced all branches of Mennonites, in some respects similar to the Mennonite Central Committee of North America.
1883-1910Some of the problems and tasks consistently confronting the conference during its first period were the following: home missions (Reisepredigt, evangelism, etc.), philanthropic work (Muntau Hospital, Tiege Institution for the Deaf, Bethania Hospital,etc.), religious education (Sunday school, catechetical instruction, supervision of religious instruction in secondary schools, etc.), foreign missions (appointment and training of missionary candidates, support of Dutch Mennonite mission work, etc.), publication (Gesangbuch, Choralbuch, uniform catechism, ministers' manual, conference paper, Mennonite history textbook, etc.), forestry service (negotiations with the government, appointment of camp directors and ministers, camp discipline, raising of funds for camps, sending visiting ministers to camps, etc.), congregational practices and discipline (ban, avoidance, election of ministers and elders, Lord's Supper, mode of baptism, nonconformity, marriage among relatives, etc.), and introduction of uniform church records. The delegates to the annual conference sessions signed the resolutions and were expected to present them to their congregations and abide by them, although every congregation maintained its independence and right to deviate where it disagreed, in harmony with the conference motto. Thus the conference was more of an advisory body attempting to find solutions to common problems than an authoritative administrative organization.
In the beginning the chairman of the conference was the elder of the congregation that served as host. Abraham Goerz and Bernhard Harder were the first chairman and secretary respectively. After 1892 a steering committee was elected for three years consisting of the chairman and three assistants, a sort of program committee, checking and arranging suggestions for the conference agenda. Beginning in 1912 the Kommission für Kirchenangelegenheiten (called KfK) was responsible for arranging the programs and obtaining permission to hold the conference. The conference committees and officers were always elected by majority vote. As in the case of the Kirchenkonvent the delegates to the conference were composed mostly of elders and ministers of congregations considering themselves members of the conference. Lay representatives began to attend the conference in connection with problems pertaining to forestry service, education, etc., being invited as specialists in their field to report about matters in which decisions had to be reached. A free, active, and equal participation of lay members came about only in the second period of the conference. From 1883 to 1909 the number of representatives varied from sixteen to thirty-eight, representing from eleven to thirty-seven congregations.
One of the most frequently presented and discussed tasks of the conference was the establishment of a theological seminary, which was never realized. Sometimes there was no unanimous feeling of need for such an institution, again no agreement was reached on how to carry it out, or government permission was not granted. At one time a plan was presented by which the seminary would have become a department of a secondary school. This was not approved by a group that felt it should be a separate institution. Thus efforts along these lines were confined to short-term Bible courses for ministers and the training of ministerial and missionary candidates in non-Mennonite schools located mostly in Germany and Switzerland. More and more it became the practice to elect ministers from among the ranks of Mennonite secondary school teachers, especially those teaching religious subjects. Another project often discussed was that of a conference organ. The Mennonites of Russia read widely the Mennonite papers of Germany and even of America until finally Der Botschafter, a privately published journal, filled their need for a time. At the end, 1925-1928, the conference had its dream fulfilled in publishing Unser Blatt. The publishing of the Mennonitisches Jahrbuch, also a conference project edited by Heinrich Dirks and David Heinrich Epp, had been realized at a much earlier date. The conference was most successful in publishing songbooks and materials for religious instruction. In 1912 the publication of D. H. Epp's history of the Mennonites for use in secondary schools and at home was approved. Apparently this project was never carried out. Doctor Theodor Ediger lectured at the conference in 1912 and 1913 on the significance and methods of teaching Mennonite history in secondary schools. As a result the conference arranged for a contest granting awards of five hundred, three hundred and two hundred rubles as prizes for the best manuscripts submitted, with the intention of publishing the most suitable for use in schools.
The greatest achievement of the conference was probably in the realm of home and foreign missions. It sent elders to newly established settlements and helped them organize congregations. Elders, missionaries and itinerant ministers did much to unify practices and beliefs among the congregations that originally had come from heterogeneous backgrounds in West Prussia and Poland. The conference was the strongest supporter of the Dutch foreign mission work in Java and Sumatra in both financial contributions and furnishing missionaries. The greatest promoter of this cause was Missionary Heinrich Dirks, who had been the first Russian Mennonite missionary to Java, and who reported annually about the mission work at the conference. In 1906 a resolution was passed requesting representation on the Dutch Mennonite mission board, which was granted.
In matters of Christian living and church discipline the conference passed many resolutions, some of which dealt with camp life in forestry service. It went on record repeatedly as favoring wholesome recreational activities for the youth and opposing dancing, card playing, drinking alcoholic beverages and the establishment of saloons in Mennonite villages. It favored the establishment of libraries, young people's meetings, song festivals, etc. The ban was considered not a means of punishment, but of reforming the sinner. Ban and avoidance were considered inseparable.
Repeatedly the matter of preparing candidates for baptism as well as the mode of baptism were discussed. According to a letter from Elder Johann Töws in 1886 the conference went on record stating that "a second baptism upon a personal confession of faith is unscriptural" and that a person who has been instructed in school, at home and by the ministers in the way of salvation and baptized upon confession of faith and then later in life, through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit realized more fully his lost condition and salvation need not be rebaptized, just as a couple is not remarried because they have come to a fuller realization of the significance and duties of married life"; and that there is no Scriptural proof that salvation depends on the outward form of baptism.
An interesting minute in 1888 records a resolution to attempt the initiation of "a general conference of all Mennonite congregations of Europe," which was probably the first official step along the lines of creating a Mennonite world conference. The same conference went on record leaving it up to the local congregations as to whether or not they wished to practice consecration of children.
1910-1926With the year 1910 great changes in the work of the conference were inaugurated. The list of delegates and the program had to be submitted to the Russian government for approval prior to receiving official permission for holding the conference, which was from then on always held in the presence of a government representative. All minutes had to be kept in the Russian language. Only with great difficulty could permission be obtained to conduct the meetings in the German language. During the war years 1914-1916 no conference sessions could be held because of the war.
Before World War I the Russian parliament (Duma) issued a new law regarding religious groups in Russia by which the Mennonites were stripped of their former privileges and treated as a "sect." This and other matters were dealt with repeatedly and necessitated some changes in the organization of the conference. In 1910 a Glaubenskommission was appointed which developed into the Kommission für Kirchenangelegenheiten and functioned as a permanent executive committee of the conference.
The new and grave problems confronting all Mennonites of Russia made it desirable for the other groups to join with the General Conference in an attempt to arrive at solutions. Thus the conference gradually included all Mennonite congregations of all branches in Russia. As early as 1906 the minutes stated that the Mennonite Brethren were to be invited to future conferences especially because of the many common interests, such as schools and forestry service. Although some individuals may have followed this invitation at once, the first conference at which the Mennonite Brethren participated officially in large numbers was that at Schönsee in 1910. From here on they were regular participants, but only of those sessions at which common problems were discussed. The conference now began to work on a constitution which was, however, not immediately completed nor ever approved by the tsarist government. The autonomous Mennonite congregations were originally quite opposed to such a constitution, fearing that the local congregations would thereby lose their freedom.
The programs of the conferences 1917-1919 still followed the traditional pattern, although new problems took much time on the agenda. The conference of 1917 reviewed the matter of education, nonresistance, the spiritual welfare of those in service, creation of Mennonite archives, etc. Addresses were also given on the reorganization of the conference and the proposed constitution. It was decided that the conference was to be a "bond of spiritual unity" for all Mennonites and that the various branches could still hold their separate conferences. Thus in 1917 the conference had actually become the over-all organization of Mennonite branches with equal rights for all groups.
The need for a civil organization parallel to the conference was recognized. Such an organization came into being at a meeting in Ohrloff in 1917 in the Allgemeiner Mennonitischer Kongress. It was also decided that the Kommission für Kirchenangelegenheiten (KfK) was to continue, consisting of four members to be elected for three years. The chairman was to devote his full time to the work of the conference with a salary of 3,600 rubles.
During 1920-1921 the conference did not meet because of the unsettled conditions in Russia. In 1922 it met in Chortitza. Again there were no meetings 1923-1924. The last two meetings took place in Moscow in 1925 and in Melitopol in 1926.
These two conferences, for which again permission had to be obtained under the greatest of difficulties, and at which Communist government representatives participated, made it clear to those present or represented that the situation had become more critical than ever before in the history of the conference. Not only were former privileges taken from the Mennonites, but they now realized that in the Soviet Union there was no place for an organized Christian conference with a program and activities to maintain and build up the religious life of the congregations. Although the programs reveal that the conference was probably more alert and active than ever before, very few of the projects were carried out, and even those already begun, like Unser Blatt, had to be discontinued. One of the great concerns was again the establishment of a Mennonite theological seminary or a Bible school, especially now that the Mennonite schools had been taken over by the government. Thus when the conference, after nearly fifty years of existence, was ready to launch large-scale projects, all its activities were forcibly discontinued. The constitution of the conference, which had been in preparation for a long time, was adopted at the last conference session in Melitopol in 1926 but very likely was never approved by the government. Most of the delegates of the last two conferences perished in exile in a few years. Thus these meetings could again be called "Martyr Synods" like the Augsburg conference during the sixteenth century. Especially significant during these crucial years was the work of the KfK, now functioning as an executive committee, and the work of many faithful ministers and lay members sacrificing in many instances their lives to help in such causes as conscientious objection to war, the freeing of ministers and churches from taxation and in other legal matters, when the confession of Christianity had become a matter of life and death.
The conference met annually until 1913 inclusive. Because of the war, the next meeting could not be held until 1917, in Halbstadt. In 1918 two conferences were held, the first regularly, in Lichtenau, the second an emergency meeting with fewer delegates at Landskrone. The 1919 (September) conference in Rudnerweide had to be closed early because of bandits in the neighborhood. The next two conferences were held by special permission from Moscow as follows: October 1922, in Chortitza; January 1925, in Moscow. The one of October 1926, in Melitopol, met as an "All-Ukrainian" conference, with permission from the Kharkov Ukrainian government and with the presence of two government representatives. In Landskrone, because of suspension of railroad travel, only forty-one delegates representing only twenty-six congregations were present. The Moscow conference in 1925 had seventy-three delegates in addition to the Kommission für Kirchenangelegenheiten with representation of all major settlements in the USSR. At Melitopol in 1926, eighty-three delegates were present representing 22,380 members.
Of the thirty-eight conference sessions, twenty-four took place in the Molotschna settlement with the town of Halbstadt the most frequent location, five in the Chortitza settlement, and one each at Zagradovka, Memrik, New York, Schönfeld, Berdyansk, Yazekovo, Moscow and Melitopol. The largest number of delegates was at the Schönsee conference in 1910 with 173 present, representing fifty-two congregations, and the next largest the Lichtenau conference in 1918, where nineteen elders, 139 ministers, and 125 lay members participated.
Ediger, Heinrich. Beschlüsse der von den geistlichen und anderen Vertretern der Mennonitengemeinden Russlands abgehaltenen Konferenzen für die Jahre 1879 bis 1913. Berdyansk, 1914.
Epp, D. H. "Zur Geschichte der Bundeskonferenz der russländischen Mennonitengemeinden." Unser Blatt (1926): No. 1, 17-19; No 2, 39-41; No. 4, 101-104.
Friesen, P. M. Konfession oder Sekte?: der Gemeinsame Konvent in Schönwiese am 7. März und die Kommission in Halbstadt am 11. u. 12. April 1914? Orlowo: P.M. Friesen, 1914.
Friesen, Peter M. Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Russland (1789-1910) im Rahmen der mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte. Halbstadt: Verlagsgesellschaft "Raduga", 1911: 527-547;
Friesen, Peter M. The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia (1789-1910), trans. J. B. Toews and others. Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature [M.B.], 1978, rev. ed. 1980.
"Protokoll der Allukrainischen Konferenz der Mennonitengemeinden . . . in Melitopol . . . 1926." Unser Blatt II, 2 (November 1926): 47-51; see also minutes of other sessions after 1913.
Smith, C. Henry. The Story of the Mennonites. Newton, Kansas, 1950: 464-468.
Cite This Article
Krahn, Cornelius. "Allgemeine Bundeskonferenz der Mennonitengemeinden in Russland." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 29 Jan 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Allgemeine_Bundeskonferenz_der_Mennonitengemeinden_in_Russland&oldid=90807.
Krahn, Cornelius. (1955). Allgemeine Bundeskonferenz der Mennonitengemeinden in Russland. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 January 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Allgemeine_Bundeskonferenz_der_Mennonitengemeinden_in_Russland&oldid=90807.
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