1959 Article
The Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in the Low Countries and Northwest Germany has from the beginning been predominantly urban in character, and has its strongest roots in the artisan and merchant classes. Only in the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen was it predominantly rural. The Dutch Mennonites were therefore not typically farmers and have accordingly had no particular contribution to make in agriculture, although the Frisian Mennonite farmers have long been a sturdy and significant part of Dutch Mennonitism. By contrast the strong urban and artisan character of the earliest Anabaptists in Switzerland, Austria, and South and Middle Germany was soon displaced (by 1540 at the latest) by a strongly rural peasant type. In the area of East and West Prussia, except for the city congregations of Danzig, Elbing, and Königsberg, the Anabaptist-Mennonites were exclusively farmers from the beginning. Here they were, however, not peasants but occupants of larger farm units in the Vistula and Nogat delta lowlands which they made arable by skillful drainage operations, and which they were therefore allowed to purchase at a minimum price. The Hutterites were strongly agricultural, although their completely self-contained communal Bruderhofs included much more than farming in their economies.
Thus the Mennonites of history, in all places but Holland and Northwest Germany, have been farmers, and have almost universally produced outstanding achievements in agriculture. The following articles in GAMEO are designed to give thorough surveys of Mennonite farming in the various areas in which Mennonites have established permanent sizable rural settlements: Agriculture among the Mennonites of Russia, Farming Among the Mennonites in France, Farming ... in North America, Farming ... in Germany, Farming .. . in Switzerland, Farming ... in West and East Prussia; see also Migrations.
The notable achievements of Mennonite farmers in the Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg gave them a reputation which made them eagerly sought after as renters and managers of the larger estates in South and Middle Germany, Alsace, and Switzerland. Toleration and protection by the noble landowners, and even by the rulers, often against the bitter opposition of the local state church clergy, was their reward. The grant of exemption from military service was often based upon the exceptional contribution of the farmer Mennonites to the community and to the country.
The widespread settlement of the Mennonites on such estates in South Germany, often widely scattered from one another, on the one hand lifted them above the village peasant class and aided in their cultural and religious isolation from the surrounding world, while on the other hand making an organized active congregational life very difficult and throwing much weight on family religion. It also made land ownership almost impossible, since large farms or estates were seldom available for sale because of the laws of primogeniture and entailment of inheritance, even after the early restrictive laws forbidding the ownership of land by Mennonites had been annulled, and the law of jus retractus abolished.
A noteworthy development among many of these South German Mennonites was the tradition that Mennonites ought not to own land, but, as strangers and pilgrims on the earth, should remain only renters. Among the few exceptions to the almost universal practice of renting have been the small Mennonite villages in the Palatinate and adjacent regions such as Weierhof, Ibersheim, Deutschhof, Branchweilerhof, Geisberg, and Kaplaneihof, where, by various fortunate opportunities, groups of 2 to 20 Mennonite families were able to purchase large estates and divide the land among themselves in small or medium-sized farmsteads of 20 to 75 acres. In Alsace and Bavaria more outright purchase of farms both large and small were possible.
In the Vistula Delta area the farm lands were early secured in full ownership by the Mennonite occupants, usually in relatively large farmsteads, so that the Mennonite settlers here were neither peasants nor villagers for the most part, and in some cases became very large-scale master farmers. However, here the Mennonites, as nowhere else in Europe except in Russia, could settle in relatively compact blocks, with but a relatively small intermixture of non-Mennonites, since the land had been previously unoccupied. Here also the Mennonites were economically and culturally on a considerably higher level than their neighbors, and received toleration and special privileges from the landowners and the rulers because of their economic contribution. The special privilege grants (called Privilegium) issued by the Polish kings are noteworthy.
The Mennonites in Russia constitute an extraordinary segment of Mennonite history in so far as their manner of settlement and agricultural achievements is concerned. It is not correct, as has been at times assumed, that special concessions were made to Mennonites to secure their settlement in Russia. The privileges of civil and cultural autonomy, freedom from military service, free land (160 acres per family unit), etc., were available to all German settlers coming to Russia, although it is true that a special privilegium was granted to the Mennonites by the decree of the Tsar Paul in 1800. The opportunity in Russia to settle in large tracts or colonies was of unusual significance, not only at the beginning (1789-1820), but later on in the purchase of large tracts for "daughter" settlements. All these large settlements were in effect "colonies," i.e., cultural and religious islands in the vast Slavic empire. This Mennonite colonization in Russia is of fascinating interest from many points of view. Not the least interesting is the village type of settlement, which was almost exclusively the only type, except for a certain number of large estates owned by very wealthy Mennonite landowners. It was, however, not chosen by the Mennonites, who had seldom lived in villages in Prussia, but was ordered by the Russian government for purposes of governmental and social control and administration. This method of settlement, in colonies and villages, guaranteed cultural and religious isolation from the much lower Slavic environment, and thus protected the Mennonites from "the world" in a certain sense. At the same time it contributed largely to the development of a "culture Mennonitism," in which the Mennonites came to think of themselves at times, and to be thought of by others, as a racial and cultural group rather than a religious group, and in which ultimately a considerable proportion of the population never even became members of the church. Thus the believers' church concept of the Anabaptist originators of the Mennonite church was gravely impaired. The consequences of this development have continued to pursue and plague the Mennonites who left Russia between the two world wars and who settled in Paraguay (and in part in Brazil) again in closed colonies and villages with cultural and civic autonomy and exemption from military service, as it had done earlier to some extent in Manitoba (and Mexico). Here again the problem of racial and cultural Mennonitism has been serious, with one third to more than one half of the population in some settlements not being members of the church but counting themselves as Mennonites and claiming Mennonite privileges. The method of colonization and the cultural autonomy has, however, also here helped to protect the settlers from the corrosive effects of the much lower type Latin-American environment. The serious religious plight of most of the Mennonites (almost 700 in the 1950s) who left Paraguay to settle in scattered locations in urban Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, is an instructive comparison.
The relative isolation of the Mennonite settlers in Russia (and to some extent later in Manitoba, Mexico, and South America) contributed, along with other important factors, to their loss of a sense of religious mission, and a certain overemphasis on economic and cultural rather than religious achievements. There was, however, a considerable recovery from this in the later decades.
The Mennonite settlement in the United States was of an entirely different character. Since the settlers here for the first two centuries (1683-1873) came from Switzerland, South Germany, and Alsace, where there was no Mennonite village settlement and no cultural differentiation from the surrounding population, and since usually no large group settlement was possible in Pennsylvania, individual farmsteads were the prevailing settlement pattern (except Germantown, which was settled by urban weavers, not farmers), although in most cases settlement was made in fairly compact communities. Thus the early settlements, such as Franconia and Lancaster, though strongly and compactly Mennonite, had no autonomy, civil or cultural, and no isolation, and enjoyed no special Mennonite privileges granted by the government which were not available to all. The exemption from military service available in colonial Pennsylvania, and later in other colonies and states, was a constitutional privilege available to all conscientious objectors, such as the Quakers, Moravians, etc. The Mennonites were here again almost exclusively farmers, and highly successful. Their agricultural contributions in Eastern Pennsylvania have been widely recognized.
When the large movement of Russian Mennonites of 1874-1880 to the prairie states of the United States and Manitoba took place, the Russian Mennonites sought at first to reproduce their European type of settlement and autonomy in their new homes. This was impossible in the United States, both because the federal and state governments would never have countenanced any autonomous political groups, and because the interspersal of railroad reserved sections of land (most land secured by the Mennonites in Kansas and Nebraska was purchased from the large railroad companies such as the Santa Fe and Burlington railroads) made really exclusive Mennonite settlements on a universal basis impossible. This did not interfere, however, with large compact rural settlements similar to those in Eastern Pennsylvania of 100-200 years earlier. The few initial village settlements were soon abandoned. The Manitoba Mennonites by contrast did secure large compact blocks of land (East and West Reserves) and did establish closed and relatively autonomous colonies with the village type settlement, and with special privileges granted by the government. All this, however, after a generation or more ultimately had to be surrendered.
The earlier Manitoba pattern of settlement was reproduced by the emigrant groups from here who settled in Mexico in 1921 ff. and in Paraguay 1926 ff. In both cases the full Russian pattern was reproduced, with an extraordinary privilegium. The very serious effects upon the cultural and religious life of the Old Colony groups in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Mexico, and Paraguay are striking illustrations of the dangers of such a type of exclusive colony-type rural settlement and life, when long-continued isolation from the main stream of culture of the host land, and poor leadership, results in extreme introversion, regression, and degeneration. Even the agricultural effectiveness of such a group begins to decline, since the cultural isolation and extreme conservatism prevents acquisition or use of new and progressive methods, impoverishes education and personality, weakens health by poor nutrition and bad health practices, increases superstition, destroys individual initiative, and prevents any development of a sense of religious mission. Even their relatively better agricultural achievements, compared to those of the (very poor) neighbors, are bought at too heavy a price in body, soul, and spirit.
By and large, however, it can be safely asserted that the reputation of Mennonite farmers as good farmers, whether Swiss, French, Russian, American, or Paraguayan, is justified. The readiness, or even eagerness, of the governments of Canada, Paraguay, and Brazil to secure and admit them has been rewarded. The Mennonites' economic value continues to outweigh their minor threat to the unity and military strength of their host countries.
What has been the secret of Mennonite farming effectiveness? Certainly not book learning. Well could the noted Jung-Stilling, professor of agriculture at the University of Heidelberg a century and a half ago, advise his students to go to the farm of David Möllinger, the master farmer of the Palatinate, where they could learn more and better than their professor could teach them. There was reason for Klopfenstein's almanac of Belfort (1819 ff.) to call itself The Anabaptist or the Farmer by Experience. Mennonites have seldom studied farming in the schools, except in recent decades and in small numbers. Nor was it unusual Mennonite wealth which permitted large purchases of equipment and labor. Ernst Correll has sought the answer in part in their religiously based culture, and in part in the necessity resulting from persecution and the fight for survival. Frugality, simplicity, avoidance of dissipation of mind and body through indulgence in drinking and immorality, belief in the Christian virtue of work, large and well-integrated families, freedom from tradition because of their break with the state-church culture system, determination to make good agriculturally and thus countervail the condemnation of society, all of these no doubt played a role. Some of these Anabaptist-Mennonite virtues were no doubt intensified by good German traits, which were aided and carried by the German language and culture in which Mennonites had been immersed before they settled in foreign culture areas, and which they took with them. German culture-historians have long claimed Mennonite farmers and colonizers as a prize illustration of the German cultural contribution to the world, and rightly so. But they thereby overlook the fact that Mennonites have usually been and largely in the 1950s still were not essentially Germans but Christians with a uniquely determined ethical and cultural behavior pattern and a religio-centered group solidarity. -- Harold S. Bender
 1990 Update
Most Mennonites of European origin, until well into the 20th century, have assumed that the Christian life is best lived in a rural community, one composed of fellow believers, friends, and in many cases relatives, who will support one's faith and one's family as fellow Christians should. The rural community was thought to provide some protection from threatening "worldly" forces seen as pervasive and inherent in city life but less problematic and somewhat controllable from the safety of the rural community.
This rural bias was not present at the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, and is losing its grip on Mennonites in the late 20th century, as many Mennonites no longer are or want to be rural residents. Some in the church are embarrassed by the traditional Mennonite rural bias, and see it as an impediment to the growth and witness of the church in the city and the larger world today (Church Growth movement; urban church).
The first generation of Mennonites in 16th-century Switzerland and The Netherlands were largely city people and did not display any bias for rural life. (Cities in 16th-century Europe usually had no more than 20,000-50,000 residents, with a few as large as 100,000 or 200,000. They were more like 20th-century small towns than modern industrial cities.) Some Anabaptists were highly educated teachers, medical doctors, artists, and engineers, as well as pastors and evangelists. Less educated urban Mennonites were often artisans, skilled in one of the crafts common in late medieval and early modern Europe.
Intense and long-lasting persecution drove Swiss, South German, and Austrian Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites to seek refuge in isolated rural areas, often somewhat out of the reach of the city-based magistrates and state church officials who held in their hands the power of life and death, or at least banishment, for religious dissenters. Persecution, which lasted 300 years among the Swiss Mennonites and Amish and which nearly exterminated the Hutterites, drove them to find even temporary refuge wherever they could. This was often on the rural estate of a sympathetic nobleman or prince. Sometimes the offer of protection was extended in exchange for the Mennonites' and Hutterites' agreement to work the estate as farmhands and artisans.
These formerly urban people found it necessary to develop productive agricultural practices, which they passed down from one generation to the next. Crop rotation, use of legumes, manuring of crop land, and careful husbandry of livestock all proved productive, especially when practiced with Mennonite diligence. Rarely permitted and rarely wanting to own land at first, Mennonites depended on agricultural skills to keep them in the good graces of their protectors and employers. In this way Swiss-German Mennonites and Austrian Hutterites were transformed from an urban to an almost totally rural people. Agricultural and related occupations in a small, close-knit community provided a commonality and stability, to both church life and social life of Mennonites, even in the face of varying degrees of persecution and hostility.
The experience of the Dutch and North German Mennonites was markedly different. A relatively short period of intense persecution ended in 1576 with the Union of Utrecht, after which relative toleration developed. Some Mennonites, particularly those in Friesland, were, and preferred to stay, rural, but others in the Netherlands and North Germany were relatively prosperous and respected urbanites: merchants, doctors, and even artists. They were a much more cosmopolitan people than the Swiss, partly due to social acceptance and partly due to the geography and commercial development of their area. Very few of the Dutch and North German Mennonites came to North America directly, however. A notable exception were those from Krefeld who came to Germantown, Pennsylvania (1683).
Some of the Dutch and North German Mennonites, most of whom remained in Europe, were attracted by offers of land, or at least the chance to develop and farm land in Prussia in the 17th century and later in Russia and the Ukraine (18th and 19th centuries). The offer to come to Prussia was extended by Friedrich I and that to Russia by Catherine the Great. In each case the Mennonites were welcomed because of their agricultural and technical skills (water technology). In Prussia, however, they remained under certain civil and social restrictions, so some left for Russia when that invitation came.
The Privilegium (privilege) granted those who went to Russia was particularly attractive. It included complete religious freedom, exemption from military service, and the right to control their own religious, educational, and civic affairs. The Mennonites were allowed to settle in colonies separate from the native Russians. Each family was given ca. 176 acres of land. This offer was unprecedented for Mennonites. In effect they were granted not only land and precious religious freedom, but the right to have a state within a state.
Settlement was in line-villages (Straßendorfer) with narrow lots and houses along the main village street. Additional land and pasture lay farther away from the villages. The Mennonites prospered. They developed an extremely productive agriculture and accompanying agricultural industries (e.g., flour mills, creameries, farm implement factories). At one time six percent of total Russian industrial production was in the Mennonite colonies.
Elementary and secondary schools, a business school, girls' schools, and a school for the deaf were founded. Homes for the aged, orphanages, hospitals, and mental hospitals were founded. The Mennonites developed a rural society where music and cultural learning were valued. Theirs was an island of peace and prosperity in a sea of poverty and imminent revolution.
As the provisions of the Privilegium were gradually withdrawn from 1874 to 1917, the Russian Mennonites frantically tried to renegotiate their privileges, but with little success. Some 18,000 immigrated to North America in the 1870s. After pillaging, famine, and epidemics, thousands more managed to leave in the 1920s, largely to Paraguay, Brazil, and Canada. Forced collectivization, imprisonment, and exile to Siberia awaited those who had stayed. The rural Mennonite paradise in Russia had ended.
But the ideal of the nearly autonomous Mennonite rural community lived for a time in Canada among the most conservative of the 1870s Russian immigrants, the Kleine Gemeinde and the Old Colony Mennonites. They first attempted to recreate the Russian colonies on the East Reserve and West Reserve in Manitoba. In the wake of controversy over public and private schools, what became known as Old Colony Mennonites moved to Chihuahua State, Mexico, to follow the dream another step. Other Russian Mennonites have attempted to recreate the Russian colony model in Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia with some success, but nowhere matching the wealth and success of the original Russian colonies.
The Swiss Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites have also, each in their own way, tried to recreate the rural community in the New World, in Canada, the United States, and in a few new settlements in Central America, notably Belize. Lacking the Russian Mennonite experience of governing themselves in a Mennonite commonwealth, the Swiss-origin Amish and Mennonites were relatively content to be left alone, avoiding conflict wherever possible. They became the "quiet ones in the country," content to live out their lives in peaceful rural communities. (Rural Mennonite communities, whether of Swiss or Russian Mennonite origin, may have been less successful in avoiding internal conflict than they were in avoiding conflict with the non-Mennonite world around them. See, for example, Rudy Wiebe, Peace Shall Destroy Many, 1962).
The Hutterites, who had been helped in reestablishing their Bruderhof pattern in Russia by the Russian Mennonites, introduced it to the Dakotas and prairie provinces of Canada upon immigration, although with periodic harassment by state and provincial authorities and resentful neighbors, especially during and after World War I and in the 1940s in South Dakota and Alberta.
The ideal for all the Mennonite groups (Swiss-German Amish and Mennonites, Hutterites, Russian-origin Low Germans) was close to Tönnies' concept of the Gemeinschaft, a rural community based on close, intimate ties of blood, land, and kinship; a community where people respect tradition and prefer to remain and interact with kin and friends of their own group, rather than with strangers in a more urban, cosmopolitan, and less rooted community.
In North America in the period after World War II, however, progressive Mennonites, those now more open to contact with outsiders and who exercise little collective discipline any longer (Mennonite Church [MC], General Conference Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite Church), have seen many of their members leave the rural community for the opportunities of the city. Often these moves are associated with higher education and upward social mobility. In some cases members of these groups retain something of the rural ideal by maintaining a rural or semi-rural residence but an urban occupation, or by maintaining a large garden on a lot in suburbia, as, for example, the Kansas Mennonite who moved to the Washington, D.C., suburbs and grew a patch of Kansas wheat descended from the Turkey Red wheat brought to Kansas by his ancestors from Russia. His rural heritage is still precious to him and alive in his consciousness. Whether it will be for his children and grandchildren is highly questionable.
More culturally conservative Mennonite groups (Amish, Hutterites, Old Colony, Church of God in Christ Mennonite, Old Order Mennonites), who are less open to outsiders, who retain a higher degree of control over individual members, and who take pains to maintain clearer boundaries between themselves and the larger society around them, hold more firmly to tradition in general and to the ideal of maintaining the rural community, although this differs in practice from group to group. Even these groups have not been immune from the forces of urbanization and modernity, especially in Canada and the United States. But they have resisted change more vigorously than the progressive groups and have been more resourceful in meeting the challenges and threats to rural community life.
Change is present in the community life of all Mennonite groups. But the rural ideal is most strongly fixed, and will likely remain so, in the more culturally conservative groups. Whether it can be kept alive by the more progressive groups remains open to question. They are less willing to pay as high a price to preserve and maintain the rural community, and more likely to let individual members make their own individual adaptations to economic and social pressures. The net result is a weaker commitment to rural life and the rural community in the more progressive groups, some of which are now consciously putting first priority on urban mission efforts and church and community life in urban as opposed to rural areas.
Recent empirical studies (1980s) document the increasing urbanization of the progressive Mennonite groups as well as the slightly less radical move from rural farm to rural non-farm residence, which in some cases is accomplished simply by giving up farming as a livelihood but without a change in actual residence. In the Mennonite Church (MC) in Canada and the United States, the percentage of persons with rural farm residence declined from 51 to 21 percent from 1963 to 1982. Those with rural non-farm residence increased from 25 to 46 percent, and those with an urban residence increased from 24 to 33 percent in the same period.
Among the more highly urbanized Mennonite Brethren in North America the percentage living in cities of 25,000 population or more was already 36 percent in 1972 and increased further to 41 percent by 1982. And even for those North American Mennonites remaining in rural areas, the city increasingly intrudes and changes the pattern of rural life through mass communication, efficient transportation, and commercial, educational, and cultural influence.
For Mennonites in other areas of the world, firm data are unavailable, but it would appear that except for the still fairly rural ethnic Mennonites in Latin America, many Mennonites are now also urban, especially in Europe and Japan. This is perhaps less true in Africa, India, and Indonesia, where many Mennonites are found in rural areas and small towns. -- Michael L. Yoder
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Driedger, Leo and J. Howard Kauffman. "Urbanization of Mennonites: Canadian and American Comparisons." Mennonite Quarterly Review 56 (1982): 269-90.
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Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: 203ff.
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|Author(s)||Harold S. Bender|
|Michael L. Yoder|
 Cite This Article
Bender, Harold S. and Michael L. Yoder. "Rural Life." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 2 Aug 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Rural_Life&oldid=102651.
Bender, Harold S. and Michael L. Yoder. (1989). Rural Life. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 August 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Rural_Life&oldid=102651.
Herald Press website.
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