The Religious Context of the First Decade of Mennonites in Manitoba

by Adolf Ens, Winnipeg

By the end of 1876 shipping season, most of the Mennonite immigrants (6156) had arrived in Manitoba and settled in three communities: the East Reserve, Scratching River, and the West Reserve. That included all the Bergthal Colony (2,833) and Kleine Gemeinde (696) emigrants as well as about 2,627 from Chortitza (Old) Colony and its newer daughter colonies. The latter settled in the western part of the West Reserve. The 784 arrivals in the next four years were smaller groups, almost exclusively from the Chortitza family of colonies.

The major upheaval – leaving behind their homes and their country of birth – was now behind them, but seeking to create new communities and a new home in this ‘foreign’ place brought new challenges. Each of the three groups encountered factors pulling them apart or hampering their coalescing.

The Kleine Gemeinde

The Kleine Gemeinde which originated in Russia about 1812, had only very recently (1865) consolidated itself geographically in Borosenko, a new daughter colony in Russia. But its cohesion as a church community was still fragile as a result of the not yet fully healed effects of a division.

In Manitoba the majority settled on the East Reserve but a significant number settled in two villages on the Scratching River, creating once more a geographically divided community.1 Bishop Peter Toews was soon in touch with John Holdeman, a Swiss Mennonite who had recently (1859) separated from his Mennonite church community in Ohio to found a new Gemeinde, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Correspondence between Toews and Holdeman began in 1876, and three years later Holdeman was preaching in Kleine Gemeinde congregations in Manitoba. This led to the “conversion” and separation of Toews and about a third of his followers to join the Holdeman church in the winter of 1881-1882.

In addition, Marcus Seiler, Holdeman’s co-evangelist, introduced the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg and the Church of the New Jerusalem into the Manitoba Mennonite settlements a few years later. This led to a group of Swedenborgian adherents forming in the Scratching River settlement.2

The Bergthal Gemeinde

The Bergthal Gemeinde came to Manitoba almost in its entirety, led by Bishop Gerhard Wiebe and a roster of ministers. The five villages of Bergthal Colony in Russia now became at least three dozen, scattered over a large area of the East Reserve, many of them on land unsuitable for farming. Cohesion was difficult to achieve in those circumstances. When a second reserve, west of the Red River, was opened in 1875, the opportunity to relocate there became increasingly attractive, especially as grasshoppers, early frosts, and successive wet years stalled progress on the East Reserve. By 1878 about half of the Bergthal settlers had indicated their intention to move. To serve the now widely scattered Bergthal community, Minister David Stoesz was elected in 1879 to serve as Assistant to Bishop Gerhard Wiebe.

Johann Funk with his third wife Louise and their foster daughter Justina Klassen, ca 1890. Funk was more open to the evangelists who came to the West Reserve in the 1880s than many of his parishioners, precipitating a split in his church that gave rise to the larger Sommerfelder and smaller Bergthaler Gemeinden.   Photo Credit: Gameo, original at the Mennonite Heritage Centre: 205.1

Johann Funk with his third wife Louise and their foster daughter Justina Klassen, ca 1890. Funk was more open to the evangelists who came to the West Reserve in the 1880s than many of his parishioners, precipitating a split in his church that gave rise to the larger Sommerfelder and smaller Bergthaler Gemeinden. Photo Credit: Gameo, original at the Mennonite Heritage Centre: 205.1

When Wiebe abruptly “resigned” as bishop in March 1882, it became immediately clear that Bishop David Stoesz would need to lead elections for a new bishop for Bergthal Church members on the West Reserve. Accordingly, Johann Funk of Altbergthal village was ordained in 1882.

Funk soon found out that the Gemeinde at West Lynne, which he was to lead, included many Mennonites who were not from Bergthal Colony. The new village of Edenburg, for example, included nine families from Borosenko and Molotchna colonies, and did not naturally fit into the Bergthal Gemeinde.3

Farther west, the “Old Colony” village of Hoffnungsfeld practiced a kind of religious piety which led the majority of its residents to seek affiliation with the (West Lynne) Bergthal Gemeinde.4

The ‘Old Colony’

The ‘Old Colony’ settlers on the western portion of the West Reserve came from Chortitza, the oldest colony, and from Fürstenland and a number of other Old Colony daughter colonies. All were part of the large Flemish Gemeinde in Russia. Under the leadership of Bishop Gerhard Dyck, this Gemeinde formally agreed to accept the compromises conceded by the Tsar and not to emigrate. Deeply disappointed by this decision, his assistant bishop, Johann Wiebe of Fürstenland Colony, requested that the Bergthal deputies to America in 1873 look for land for his people as well.  It was therefore natural that Johann Wiebe was seen as the spiritual leader of immigrants from Fürstenland, Chortitza, and other ‘old colony’ settlements.

Wiebe homesteaded in the village of Rosengart. In 1876 the first house of worship was erected in the neighbouring village of Reinland, which was already the administrative centre of the ‘Old Colony’ settlement.

The first church built by the Reinländer Mennonite Gemeinde (Old Colony) in 1876 in the village of Reinland. This photo was taken in the 1930s. Photo Credit: Plett Foundation collection, origin unknown.

The first church built by the Reinländer Mennonite Gemeinde (Old Colony) in 1876 in the village of Reinland. This photo was taken in the 1930s. Photo Credit: Plett Foundation collection, origin unknown.

However, attempts to encompass all ‘Old Colony’ members in ‘Wiebe’s Gemeinde’ met with increasing resistance. Accordingly, the church decided in October 1880 to have a voluntary “signing in” of all who committed themselves to the Reinländer Gemeinde. About 23 percent opted not to do so. Most of these dissidents chose instead to identify with the West Lynne (Bergthal) Gemeinde led by Bishop Johann Funk.5

The Bergthal settlers who relocated to the West Reserve founded new villages east of the ‘Old Colony’ settlement. A degree of geographic separation thus remained between the two Gemeinden on the West Reserve. But most of the new ‘Bergthal’ members remained in their Old Colony villages and were consequently scattered throughout the West Reserve. That made it difficult for Bishop Stoesz and his ministerial colleagues to serve them adequately. In villages where different religious practices were tolerated or encouraged, local ‘Bergthal’ congregations developed. Bishop Stoesz supported and encouraged these groups by ordaining ministerial leadership (in Hoffnungsfeld) and encouraged them in erecting their own church buildings (in Reinland and Hoffnungsfeld) later in the 1880s.

Thus, all three original immigrant groups struggled for internal cohesion in the midst of rapid changes taking place around and within them. External factors provided another agenda.

For example, how should they respond to the Manitoba government’s offer of financial support for their schools in 1877? Would this compromise the right to operate their own schools, a right granted in the Privilegium of 1873? The Kleine Gemeinde and Bergthal groups initially opted for such “public schools,” but the latter withdrew in a couple of years.

Additional governmental assistance became an option in 1880 with the invitation to organize local municipalities on the Reserves. How would that local government, part of the provincial government structures, change the close relationship that had developed between the church and the Gebietsamt? The Bergthal community on the East Reserve accepted the municipal structure and the Kleine Gemeinde went along with it. The Reinländer (Old Colony) on the West Reserve resisted it, since they did not want to become ‘unequally yoked’ with outsiders.

The involvement of United States Mennonites in the Kleine Gemeinde with the work of Holdeman has been noted above. In the Bergthal settlement, especially those who had relocated to the West Reserve, General Conference home mission ministers arrived about 1880 and evangelized in their villages. Bishop Funk was generally open to this General Conference ministry although some tensions arose. 

The General Conference Home Missions evangelist John B. Baer preached in West Reserve Bergthaler churches in the 1880s. He is picture here with his wife Jennie Roberts. Photo Credit: Reinland: An Experience in Community, 206.

The General Conference Home Missions evangelist John B. Baer preached in West Reserve Bergthaler churches in the 1880s. He is picture here with his wife Jennie Roberts. Photo Credit: Reinland: An Experience in Community, 206.

 A considerable majority of his parishioners, however, felt that Funk was too open to the General Conference teaching and program, leading to a division by the end of the 1880s. Those opposing Funk’s group persuaded Bishop Stoesz of the East Reserve to ordain a new bishop for them in the early 1890s, giving rise to the Sommerfeld Mennonite church. In the Hoffnungsfeld area Mennonite Brethren missionaries from Minnesota were well received, leading to the formation of an Mennonite Brethren congregation in the 1880s.

The three bishops who led the emigration had hoped that the new context in Manitoba would lead to greater unity. Bishop Toews looked for a healing of the fractures in the Kleine Gemeinde. The two bishops Wiebe, Gerhard and Johann, believed that the Bergthal and Fürstenland Gemeinden who had elected them, could form one inclusive church in Manitoba. Instead, the Kleine Gemeinde split in two with the Holdemann revival. The Bergthal group did not manage to reunite with their Flemish ‘Old Colony’ brethren, but became Chortitzer on the East Reserve, Sommerfelder and Bergthaler on the West Reserve. And while the Fürstenland Gemeinde managed to absorb the majority of the old colony immigrants, others formed the Mennonite Brethren church or joined one or another of the Bergthal factions. It was not until the “outside” pressures of World War I that a united unhyphenated common “Mennonite” approach to the government would emerge.

Endnotes

  1.  A dissident portion of the Kleine Gemeinde chose to settle in Nebraska, leaving the Manitoba group with fewer than 700 persons.
  2.  A second “intervention” by USA Mennonites in the later 1880s gave rise to the Bruderthaler Gemeinde (later Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church). This offered families in mixed marriages (Kleine Gemeinde with Bergthaler), and Mennonites who did not feel comfortable in either the Kleine Gemeinde or the Bergthaler mainline churches a place to go.
  3.  John Dyck, “Edenburg 1879–1947 ,” in Adolf Ens, Jacob E. Peters and Otto Hamm, eds. Church, Family and Village: Essays on Mennonite Life on the West Reserve, Winnipeg, Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 2001, chapter 21.
  4.  John Dyck, “Hoffningsfeld: Community and Phenomenon,” ibid., chapter 16.
  5.  Calculations based on John Dyck and William Harms, eds., 1880 Village Census of the Mennonite West Reserve (Winnipeg: Manitoba Mennonite Historical Society, 1998). The highest percentage of dissenters included villages near the north-western part of the Reserve (Hoffnungsfeld, Burwalde, Waldheim) and the south-eastern (the strongly Pukhtin villages of Neuanlage and Silberfeld), although Reinland (the administrative and church centre of the settlement) also had a large number.

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