Farming and Settlement

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This article was written in the 1950s, and reflects the Mennonite experience at that time.

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 were long 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, were farmers, and almost universally produced outstanding achievements in agriculture. The following articles in this Encyclopedia are designed to give thorough surveys of Mennonite farming (as of the 1950s) in the various areas in which Mennonites 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 Migration.

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 was 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 two to 20 Mennonite families were able to purchase large estates and divide the land among themselves in small or medium size farmsteads of 20 to 75 acres. In Alsace and Bavaria more outright purchase of farms both large and small was 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 constituted an extra¬ordinary segment of Mennonite history in so far as their manner of settlement and agricultural achievements are 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 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 culture 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 members of the church but counting themselves as Mennonites and claiming Mennonite privileges. The method of colonization and the cultural autonomy, however, also here helped to protect the settlers from the effects of the Latin-American environment. The serious religious plight of most of the Mennonites (now almost 700) who left Paraguay to settle in scattered locations in urban Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires, is a 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 tlie 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 roads) 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, resulted 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, were 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, was justified. The readiness, or even eagerness, of the governments of Canada, Paraguay, and Brazil to secure and admit them was rewarded. The Mennonites' economic value continued 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 in the late 18th century, 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 until the 20th century 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 still are not essentially Germans but Christians with a uniquely determined ethical and cultural behavior pattern and a religio-centered group solidarity.


Correll, Ernst. Das schweizerische Täufermennonitentum, Ein soziologischer Bericht. Tübingen, 1925.

Correll, Ernst. "The Sociological and Economic Significance o£ the Mennonites as a Culture Group." Mennonite Quarterly Review 16 (1942): 161-166.

Ehrt, A. Das Mennonitentum in Russland. Langensalza, 1932.

Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1956

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. "Farming and Settlement." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 5 Aug 2021.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. (1956). Farming and Settlement. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 5 August 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 303-306. All rights reserved.

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