Chortitza Mennonite Church (Chortitza, Chortitza Mennonite Settlement, Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine)

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The Chortitza Mennonite Church was the first Mennonite congregation organized in Russia (now Ukraine) and was located in the village of Chortitza, Ukraine. The settlers were composed of members of the Flemish and Frisian congregations of the Danzig area who had been urged by the Russian government to unite and had been encouraged in the same direction by the Old Flemish Mennonite Church of Amsterdam. There were no elders and ministers among the first settlers who spent the winter in Dubrovna. Upon request the Danzig mother congregations appointed 12 ministerial candidates by letter, among whom were Jacob Wiens, Gerhard Neufeld, and Behrendt (Bernhard) Penner, representing both the Flemish and Frisians. No elder was elected. One of the main causes of the many pioneer difficulties which the new settlement endured and also a factor in the continued separation of the Flemish and Frisian Mennonites was the lack of spiritual leadership. The Frisians settled in separate villages and organized the Kronsweide Mennonite Church.

By far the largest number of settlers belonged to the Flemish group, which was expecting an elder from Prussia to come to help them organize and appoint an elder (bishop). Elder Peter Epp of Danzig, who had been appointed for this task, died before he could leave. Then at a congregational meeting at Chortitza in 1790 the minister Behrendt Penner was elected as elder and installed by letter from Danzig. The first meetings took place in an abandoned mill. Soon a meetinghouse was erected. When Penner died in 1791 Johann Wiebe and David Epp were elected as coelders and ordained by Cornelius Warkentin, who had come from Danzig with Elder Cornelius Regier for this purpose, the latter having died in Russia before he could fulfill his task.

Much disturbance was caused in the congregational life through the accusations launched against Johann Bartsch and Jacob Höppner, the original delegates who had selected the land for settlement. The securing of the promised imperial Privilegium took much time and effort, but it was finally obtained in St. Petersburg and signed by Paul I in 1800. Unrest was also caused later by a controversy between the Agricultural Association, the Gebietsamt, and the church leaders.

In the 1830s the old meetinghouse was replaced by a large two-story stone structure with a tile roof, which in its plain structural design was reminiscent of the Dutch and Prussian meetinghouses (e.g., Heubuden). This building was used until the Mennonites left Chortitza in 1943. Although the Chortitza church and village remained the center of the church, branch meetinghouses were also erected in Neuendorf, Burwalde (1862), Osterwick (1872), and Einlage. In other villages services were held in schoolhouses.

In addition to these churches, some daughter settlements also remained branches of the Chortitza mother church, viz., Fürstenland (after its elder left for America), Neu-Chortitza, Borozenko, Nikolaifeld, and others. Some of them, for example the Bergthal Mennonite Church, gradually became independent. As long as these branch congregations had no duly appointed and installed elder (bishop), the elder of the Chortitza Mennonite Church performed baptism, conducted the Lord's Supper, and was the leader. The ministerial body (Lehrdienst or Kirchenkonvent), composed of elder, ministers, and deacons, was the governing body of the large congregation. In the matters pertaining to baptism, Lord's Supper, and church discipline, the congregation followed the practice of the Flemish.

The spiritual and cultural life of the first decades was on a rather low level, as can be expected under the circumstances. Conditions improved with the overcoming of the period of strife and economic difficulties, and the raising of the educational and spiritual level through capable leadership. During the second part of the 19th century it became the practice to elect ministers from the ranks of teachers. Many of the outstanding elders and ministers had been teachers of the Chortitza Zentralschule or the preparatory school. This era introduced greater appreciation not only of the Christian-Mennonite heritage but also of the German and Russian culture. An adjustment to the new environment was gradually taking place, partly under pressure, partly voluntarily. In the 1870s this question became a matter of great concern and disturbance when the development was climaxed by the introduction of universal military conscription in Russia. The more conservative element, approximately one third of all Chortitza Mennonites, which was least willing to take any step in this direction or to accept an alternative state service, left for America. Although such leaders as Heinrich Epp, teacher and elder, were very active in preserving the principles and the rights of the Privilegium of the Mennonites, they did not advocate emigration. On the other hand, the elders of the daughter colonies of Bergthal (Gerhard Wiebe) and Fürstenland (Johann Wiebe)  not only actively promoted this cause but also succeeded almost entirely in taking their flocks with them. They were joined by many from the Chortitza village. In contrast to the Molotschna Mennonites, who settled in the United States, they went to Manitoba, where they became known as Old Colony, Bergthal, Chortitza, and Sommerfeld Mennonites.

The leadership of the Chortitza congregation also played an important role in promoting missions, publications, and other activities of the Allgemeine Mennonitische Bundeskonferenz in Russia.

In addition to the separation of the Frisian from the Flemish at the beginning of the settlement, another separation occurred during the 1860s, when the Mennonite Brethren Church was founded in 1860 and following Pietistic and Baptist influences caused a religious revival in the village of Einlage. The rigid adherence of the leaders to established religious practices without much consideration for some justifiable innovations, and the zeal of those converted to new practices and principles brought the matter to a climax just as was the case at the Molotschna. (See Einlage Mennonite Brethren Church and Mennonite Brethren.) The Allianzgemeinde, founded by Peter M. Friesen in 1905, which followed a middle road between the Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren, found some followers in the Chortitza Mennonite Church.

Evangelistic meetings, Bible study groups, prayer meetings, Sunday schools, choirs, the use of musical instruments, and other more recent means and methods of promoting religious life and activities were gradually accepted. The congregation never practiced feetwashing. In the use of alcoholic beverages and smoking, moderation  was  stressed.

With the outbreak of the Revolution in 1917 the congregation began to encounter great difficulties, although it also received substantial material aid through the relief program of the American Mennonites of 1919-1921. Its aging elder, Isaak Dyck, retired and was succeeded by Peter P. Neufeld in 1922. At that time new hope and life began to fill the hearts after years of hardships, murder, epidemics, and starvation; Bible studies, conferences, and music festivals became common.  Nevertheless, in 1922-1925 many members left for America. When the NEP period ended and antireligious propaganda and the exile of kulaks set in, most religious work was gradually stopped. The work of the ministers was confined to preaching. Religious instruction and baptism of the young people were made illegal. Ministers had to pay fines. After the death of Elder Peter P. Neufeld (1927) his successor, David H. Epp, could do his work only under the greatest difficulties until he was forced to discontinue to function as elder in 1929, after which the office of elder remained unfilled. The ministers that had not yet been exiled or given up their vocation did their work quietly as long as they could. In 1934 the minister Aron P. Töws was exiled, never to return.

Elders of the Chortitza Mennonite Church
Name Elected Minister Ordained Elder Died
Bernhard Penner 1788/89 1790 24 July 1791
Johann Wiebe 1791 1791* 31 March 1823
David Epp 1791 1792* 29 September 1802
Bernhard Bergen   1806* 8 April 1809
Jakob Dyck I   1812* 18 October 1854
Franz Wiens 1843 1851*  16 November 1853
Jakob Dyck II 1845 1854 5 March 1855
Gerhard Dyck 1848 1855* 11 May 1887
Heinrich Epp 1864 1885 11 April 1896
Isaak Dyck 1876 1896 24 August 1929
Peter P. Neufeld 1914 1922 21 January 1927
David H. Epp 1886 1927 19 October 1934
Heinrich Winter 1941  30 December 1981


Heinrich Winter was exiled in 1935, returned in 1940, and undertook the tasks of minister and elder when the Germans occupied the Ukraine. The churches had been closed for years or had been used for other purposes. The Chortitza church had been used as a cinema. In 1942 a number of ministers were elected and the first baptismal service was held, with around 300 baptized. The following year, during which the total congregation was evacuated to Germany in October, the number of baptisms was even greater. Today the surviving members of the Chortitza congregation are scattered in Canada, South America, and Siberia. Some of the Chortitza members became unfaithful in the hour of trial, but most remained steadfast, testifying for the Lord even unto death.

The Chortitza Mennonite Church was founded in 1790. In 1905 it had a membership of 1,504 at Chortitza proper, 732 at Neuenburg, 726 at Osterwick, and 601 at Burwalde, a total of 3,563. The total population, including children, was 7,860, not including the daughter settlements. In 1927 the total membership for the same group was 3,287 (6,968 including children). The decrease in membership was probably due to emigration to Canada and to increased anti-religious propaganda and persecution. Of the members of the Chortitza Mennonite Church, 542 had secondary education and 6 had university training. The congregation had 17 ministers, 10 deacons, and one elder; of these 10 had a secondary education and one theological training  (Unser Blatt,Schönsee, Russia: 1927, 176).


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Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius. "Chortitza Mennonite Church (Chortitza, Chortitza Mennonite Settlement, Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 13 Jul 2024.,_Chortitza_Mennonite_Settlement,_Zaporizhia_Oblast,_Ukraine)&oldid=164179.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius. (1953). Chortitza Mennonite Church (Chortitza, Chortitza Mennonite Settlement, Zaporizhia Oblast, Ukraine). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 13 July 2024, from,_Chortitza_Mennonite_Settlement,_Zaporizhia_Oblast,_Ukraine)&oldid=164179.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 568-569. All rights reserved.

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