Salt and Light
Rumbling eastward, a cloud of dust rising behind them, no one could have guessed what a long train of wagons on the road from Lemberg through Zhitomir and Kiev would bring to Russia in 1835.
An old man sat beside the driver of the lead wagon. His beard was long and white. Like the rest of his companions on the wagon train he wore dark peasant clothes. But his eyes were bright, and he looked eagerly ahead to settling along the Molochna River plains.
Wilhelm Lange had not always been a Mennonite. In his youth, the idea of settling with a group of defenseless people on Europe’s far eastern frontier would have seemed absurd. Only now that he knew Christ it no longer seemed absurd. His group’s defenselessness (refusal to bear arms), in fact, was the reason for going there.
As a young Protestant in the emperor’s service, Wilhelm had arrived in a German Mennonite community. He had come to assist in a government takeover of Christian schools. But the takeover happened in reverse. The small congregation’s refusal to fight back, their simple services and congregational singing, their putting to practice of Christ’s Gospel in daily life, had so impressed him that he sought Christ himself and became converted. Now he was a Mennonite elder, and to escape forced conscription into the army he had brought his congregation to Russia.
A Field of Grace
Unlike the Mennonites who had settled in Russia earlier, Wilhelm Lange’s group found good land at once and named their village Gnadenfeld (Field of Grace). There, under Wilhelm’s far-sighted leadership and the grace of Christ, they lived up to the name they had chosen. Among all the Molochna villages, Gnadenfeld stood out for its warm spirit of love, its hospitality, and the zeal with which its inhabitants sought to follow Christ. German settlers, Spirit Christians, Russian Orthodox and Jewish neighbours--even the families of wandering Naga tribes who visited there--sensed something different. And with time, that noticeable difference in Gnadenfeld worked through the Molochna villages like the pinch of yeast its women added to their bread dough on Saturday mornings.
New Books and New Hopes
The villagers of Gnadenfeld liked to read. They set up a good school, and before long a lending library. Besides this, through close connections to the Moravian Brothers’ community at Herrnhut in Germany, they stayed up-to-date with what Christians published in other countries. Among the books they received in the mid1800s were several written by a Christian eye-doctor: Hans Heinrich Jung-Stilling.
In Hans Heinrich’s books he wrote about the last days and the Antichrist. He wrote about Christ’s reign on the earth, suggesting how it might begin in the east with a coronation ceremony at the foot of Mount Ararat. Hans Heinrich wrote gripping stories and the villagers of Gnadenfeld, even though they took some of their contents with a grain of salt, enjoyed reading them. The books turned their thoughts to Christ and his coming kingdom. . . . Then their neighbours along the Molochna River discovered them and drastic events took place.
After Hans Heinrich’s books began to circulate in Russian,1 a young Spirit Christian from the other side of the river, Anakey Ignatovich Borisov, read The Triumph of The Christian Faith and found his life transformed. “Christ is coming back!” he announced to his Molokan brothers and sisters. “And the Spirit says we should prepare to meet him in the east, at Ararat.” Anakey’s joyful message did not only grip and motivate a large number of Molokans. Many of their Old Believer and Orthodox neighbours joined them in a fast spreading Spiritual awakening.
Orthodox authorities tried to crush the awakening at once. They arrested Anakey and walked him in chains to Siberia. But he rejoiced to suffer for Christ and when his sentence expired he returned to the Molochna settlements. Convinced that his family and friends stood in need of further awakening he called them to meetings in his home where they prayed until the “Spirit fell” and humble Molokan brothers and sisters suddenly began to prophesy in unknown tongues. They began to leap and praise God. So great was the emotion that the neighbours heard and came running to see what had happened.
Then other things began to happen.
The new Molokan brothers--people called them Pryguny (jumpers) in contrast to the remaining Postoyanye (constants)--faced tremendous opposition from state authorities. Mass arrests began. Several entire villages of Pryguny had to march under armed guard to exile to Siberia. Policemen flogged the men until some remained crippled for life, or died.
But the Pryguny could not be suppressed. Their movement spread as they gathered for meetings in cellars or in the woods. They fasted and prayed much. Through prophecy they reestablished Biblical feasts: the Passover to celebrate the triumph of Christ, Pentecost to remember the coming of the Spirit, Pamyat Trub (the blowing of trumpets) in September to welcome Christ back to earth,2 and Sudniy Dyen, the day of forgiveness. On this day, every brother and sister in the congregation would approach every other member in turn, asking (while kneeling before them) whether any offence or hard feeling remained unsettled between them. Reconciliation followed and believers forgave one another in the name of Christ. At the end of the day they would hold a love feast, and for a week following—Kusha, the feast of tabernacles—they would remain together to pray and offer praise to God.
In 1842, Tsar Nikolai put a new law into effect that classed all Spirit Christians (both groups of Molokans and the Dukhobors) among “the most harmful sects.” By 1849, in a determined effort to remove them from the Molochna region, tsarist soldiers marched their leaders in chains (Anakey was in his eighties) and several thousand men, women and children on foot, east into the mountains of Armenia. It took all summer to walk a thousand miles. A large number of the children died, but hope and joy filled their hearts as every step took them eastward. Would Christ come in person to meet them there?
Whatever the case, in heaven or on earth, they longed for nothing more than to meet him.
“The Time Is Short, Oh Man Be Wise!”
The Molochna colonies, after the Spirit Christians left, became quieter. But much hidden longing to know Christ remained—especially among the Mennonites.
After Wilhelm Lange died in 1841, the villagers of Gnadenfeld continued to meet for prayer and Bible study in their homes. More and more seekers from surrounding villages joined them. As they became aware of Christ their lives changed and even though their opponents called them die Mährische (Moravians), or die Fromme (the pious ones) and “cracked horsewhips around their ears when they passed them on the street,”3 the believers increased in strength and numbers.
Tobias Voth from Gnadenfeld, a schoolteacher and the brother who organized the lending library, began to hold Bible studies for young people in his home. One of the young men who decided there to “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified”4 was Bernhard Harder.
Bernhard came from a family that drank and fought. His father died when he was twelve. But after “joyfully and eagerly” accepting the call to become a Mennonite minister he raised fourteen children while working six months every year (during the summer) and traveling six months (during the winter) to call others to repentance and new life. “With great zeal and a thundering voice,” wrote a biographer, “Bernhard Harder opposed everything he thought to be ungodly, but most of all he protested the formalism that threatened the life of the church. Moved by love for the Saviour and lost sinners, he tried to reach his hearers through their eyes and their ears. When he preached he preached with his entire being. His enthusiasm and clear convictions made his sermons particularly effective.”5
Bernhard also wrote poetry, including the words for what became one of the best-loved hymns of the Mennonites in Russia, Die Zeit ist kurz, o Mensch sei Weise:
The time is short, oh man be wise! Use every moment for gain! You will only pass here once. Leave good tracks behind you. You cannot keep one hour. Before you notice it has fled. Wisdom counsels: “Persevere!” A high reward awaits the true.
The fool wastes his time eating, drinking, telling jokes and resting. The wise man works and wins. He fills the time with doing good. Therefore, Christ, teach me how to give my years to you alone. Teach me how, from now to death, to sow what will produce in life to come!
Christ the Key
While Molokans and Mennonites found their way to Christ in the Molochna villages the Spirit began to awaken the nearby German settlement of Neuhoffnung.6 In 1845 the Neuhoffnung settlers welcomed a shy but sincere young man, Eduard Wüst, who had come from Germany to be their pastor. Little did they expect what he would tell them but his very first message, preached on the last Sunday in September, set a pattern. Eduard began by saying:
Here lies the Bible. You want me to teach you from this word, full of holy truth. A voice from heaven calls me to do so. But how shall I go about it? Where will I find the key to the Holy Scriptures?
I find it in Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins and mine.
You are not getting a well-educated pastor. But I have learned in the Holy Spirit’s school that the man without a living relationship to Christ is lost. . . . I know Jesus Christ as the one who frees sinners from the grip of Hell. I know him as the one who frees them from the wrath of Satan, who looks for them when they are lost in the world, and who gives rest and peace to the burdened down.
Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light. He is the bread of life and those who find him never go hungry. This Jesus I will speak about and I want to bring you to where you see him too. . . .
Those of you who are greedy and materialistic, I will point to Christ hanging naked on the cross for your sins. I will lead you vain ones and honour seekers to Pilate’s hall where Christ stands among soldiers, dressed with a purple robe and a crown of thorns on his head to atone for your pride. You who are sensual I will lead to Christ on the cross, dying, his blood running out, to atone for your lusts. This word of the cross I will speak to sinners so that they may stop sinning and turn to Christ. . . .
I do not come only to warn, but also to comfort. Our comfort is in Christ who was tempted in every way like we are. He emptied himself out and took on the form of a servant. He entered through suffering into the joy of his kingdom. Look at him! Follow him! And you will be more than conquerors.
Christ is our wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption. I want you to see him! I want to engrave him on your hearts with preaching and prayer. For what use is the Christ of the Bible to us, if we do not have him in our hearts? The heart is where this treasure, this gift from heaven, belongs. . . . How is your inner relationship to Christ? This is the issue—whether we have Christ living within or not.
I am an enemy of Christianity only in outward form and name. Therefore I tell you: Do more than just listen. Do what the Word says and stop deceiving yourselves!
I expect this will make trouble. A man’s enemies will be those of his own household. Christ can have no half-heartedness. Either we go with him or we do not. Cursed is the one who tries to add a third option. Every one of you is either a sheep or a goat. You are either on the narrow way or the broad. You are either for God or money, Christ or Belial, life or death, heaven or hell!
What I speak will separate you along these lines. Do not try to bridge the gap! Do not try, for the sake of comfort and respectability to find some middle road! If you want to be friends both of Christ and the world, I tell you already, you will not like what I say. But I did not come from Germany to Russia to please you. I came to preach Christ!
What Eduard predicted began to happen at once. Some of the Neuhoffnung settlers (German Pietists) had never separated themselves very far from the world. Rich and poor people lived among them. Some had grown lukewarm and careless. Others made much of religious experience but neglected obedience to Christ. When Eduard spoke clearly about these things the majority of the Neuhoffnung Pietists disowned him. But with those who did not he found warm fellowship and support among the Mennonites of Gnadenfeld.
More Seekers and Struggles
The Spirit of Christ moved among the Molochna settlers, both Russians and Germans, in the mid1800s. But Christ, merciful to all who seek him, did not limit his attention to them. Far to the north, between Chernigov and Bryansk, the small Hutterite community founded by immigrants from Austria, entered its own time of testing and renewal.
After Count Rumyantsev died his sons had threatened to take over the Hutterites’ houses and fields at Vyshenka and make them serfs. Quickly before that happened they had moved to government land at Radicheva, nearby, and rebuilt their community. A visiting tsarist official reported on that settlement before 1817:
The brotherhood’s houses are situated on a piece of land 490 feet square. It is surrounded by a fruit bush hedge with an entrance gate. They regard themselves as one family. The building where the members live and practice various handicrafts has six brick and two wooden wings of one story, built rather low. There are several small houses on the place as well. The roofs of the main building are high-pitched, and corridors have been built through the attics with small cells, or rooms, opening on either side. This is where they have their dwelling quarters, each married couple with their own room. There are no stoves. In each room there is a bed, a table, and two chairs. The couples use them only for sleeping or for short stretches of time.
Similar but larger rooms for sleep and rest are provided for the unmarried men from fifteen years old and upward, who have finished their school studies and received baptism. There are twelve to sixteen men in each room and a bed for every two of them. The older girls also have separate sleeping accommodation. In addition to the bedrooms there is still enough space in the attic to dry the laundry.
For worship services they set aside a separate room without any pictures of saints or crucifixes. Here they meet on Sundays and church holidays and also gather for prayer every evening before they go to supper. . . . During the service they sing appropriate songs, and the sisters are especially well-taught in singing.
The brothers’ way of life appears to be humble and unassuming. They are well-mannered, friendly, eager to do their duty, hospitable, and ready to help in every way.
In winter, they go to bed at nine and to work at five o’clock in the morning. In both seasons, various members in turn have the duty of telling people when it is time for bed or for work. In summer, because of the increased workload, the people get up earlier and go to bed later. Visitors to the community are guests of the whole brotherhood, in whose name the elder offers them hospitality.
In this way, the community has lived and prospered in peace from the time they settled here, honouring God and the tsar and earning for themselves an admirable reputation. Their worked land and meadows are fertile and productive. Cattle raising is done on a large scale, using good Hungarian stock. . . . The brothers keep bees too, but are mainly occupied in their own trades and crafts, including the cultivation of garden crops. . . . On the Jessman river, some sixteen kilometres from the settlement, they own a mill with three sets of millstones. Felt hats are made in the community, and carpentry, turnery, tailoring, weaving, pottery, blacksmithing and lock-making are carried on as well, to produce no small quantity of goods for sale. There is, in addition, a workshop for making winter wagons and summer wagons, harrows, ploughs, cleaning machines, spinning wheels, etc., and a tannery that provides sole and Russian leather.7
For a number of years the Hutterite community at Radicheva prospered in sunny harmony like the tsarist official described. But little disagreements eventually led to division among them, and thirty families moved to Khortitsa to live with the Mennonites in 1818. The following spring the smith at Radicheva made a large iron hoop for a barrel. Fresh out of the forge, when the hoop was still red hot he rolled it out the door. It touched the reed thatch and the smithy went up in flames. All the community buildings followed and the brothers and sisters stood with their families, penniless among the ruins.
Those who had gone to Khortitsa felt sorry for them and returned to help rebuild the houses. But peace and prosperity did not return. The community broke up and everyone began to farm scattered government lands in the Radicheva district.
Johannes Waldner, the elder, who had escaped as a boy from Kärnten in Austria through Transylvania and Walachia to Vyshenka could not shed enough tears for what happened to the community. Left to their own designs, the brothers hired themselves out as day labourers and craftsmen. Too busy to teach their children, the oncoming generation grew up like the Russian peasants around them, illiterate. They kept their Bibles and their wealth of hand-written Anabaptist books, but they could no longer read them. The hard years of Tsar Nikolai’s rule came upon them and dressed in rags, they suffered hunger and disease. Those who still lived in the communal dwellings ate poor food and for lack of space had their children sleep as many as half a dozen to a bed, no longer caring about boys and girls being mixed together.
After more than twenty years of this sad condition two Hutterite brothers, Benjamin Decker and David Hofer decided to go for help. Something had to be done! Everyone longed to return to the good ways they had known, but in Radicheva it seemed impossible. Taking a young man, Jakob Walter, with them to care for their horses and wagon, the two men set out on the long journey through Kiev and Kherson to Odessa on the Black Sea.
They asked the tsarist colonial administration for a place to settle together. But no one paid them much attention. “Go talk with the Mennonites,” they said. “They might know what to do with you.”
Desperate enough to take the suggestion, the Hutterite men turned east and found their way after days of travel through Jewish and Russian villages to the Molochna River colonies. There they found land to rent between Mennonite and Molokan villages on the eastern bank of the river. In the fall of 1842 all who remained at Radicheva followed them to this place and they called it Huttertal.
Quickly before snow fell, the Hutterites built sod houses. The following spring the Mennonites helped them make bricks and settle in neat tile-roofed buildings. They showed the Hutterites how to plant fruit trees and gardens, and how to raise the best hay and grain. In the middle of Huttertal the Mennonites built them a well-lit village school.
The Hutterites kept their old German way of dressing and speaking. They stayed with simple tastes and discouraged their young people from having too much to do with the world. But for the first time in years they worked with joy in peaceful surroundings. Their effort paid off and within two years they founded Johannesruh, another village on the Molochna even more attractive than the first.
The End of the Fuse
By the mid 1800s the Spirit of Christ had drawn all strands of a long fuse together in southern Russia. Spirit Christians (both Molokans and Dukhobors), the new Pryguny movement, awakened Mennonites, Pietists, and Hutterites, all lived among a fast growing Orthodox and Old Believer population along the Molochna River. The only thing yet missing was a spark to trigger . . .
1 Believers in the city of St. Petersburg translated them.
2 A love feast in connection with this day anticipated the “marriage supper of the Lamb.”
3 From a contemporary report: “Diese mußten es sich sogar gefallen lassen daß sie auf der Straße beim Vorbeifahren, Peitshenhiebe um die Ohren bekamen.”
4 That this Scripture (1 Cor. 2:2) became the unofficial slogan of the renewal movement in Russia may reflect the influence of Ludwig Hofacker, who had made it his personal resolve and whose sermons many colonists read.
5 Cornelius Krahn, Mennonite Encyclopedia
6 One of four villages founded near the Molochna Mennonite colony by the independent Evangelische Brüdergemeinde of Württemburg, in 1833. They had come east after reading Hans Hermann Jung-Stilling’s books and hoped to go on to Ararat to meet Christ. But tribal wars in that region had detained them.
7 The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren: Volume II (Das Klein Geschichtsbuch)