- Historic Sites
The Mennonites Come To Kansas
Their religion and customs were strange, but these master farmers from the Russian steppes turned a treeless prairie into America’s granary
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
In the fall of 1874 a Russian farmer, fingering the rich, black earth of central Kansas and gazing out over virgin prairie that stretched as far as his eye could see, predicted that “in three years that ocean of grass will be transformed into an ocean of waving fields of grain.” At the same time a Kansas newspaperman wrote with prophetic insight: “Kansas will be to America what the country of the Black Sea … is now to Europe, her wheat-field.” Both men were doing more than simply peering into a crystal ball. The newspaperman was relying on the reputation of the Mennonite farmers from the steppes of South Russia; the Mennonites were relying on bags of small red kernels, winter-wheat seed they had brought from Russia. And both men were right.
For more than 400 years, the majority of the Mennonites have been people of the soil. Their almost fanatical devotion to farming can be traced back to the Reformation, when their sect was born in Holland and Switzerland as a product of the Anabaptist movement. The Mennonites were the followers of Menno Simons, a Roman Catholic priest who had left the Church. Devoted to the Bible and the doctrine of nonresistance, they became an easy target for every wave of persecution that swept Europe. Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed Protestants alike turned their antagonism toward these people; and their early history was written in the fires of thousands of martyrdoms.
In the midst of all this conflict, the Mennonites stood like an island of peace, preaching that men should turn the other cheek and resist not their enemies. Forced out of their original homes, these master farmers roamed over Europe seeking the protection of any benevolent prince who would welcome them. At first, in response to the invitation of the Polish and Prussian nobility, they settled by the thousands in the delta of the Vistula River. They seemed to work a special magic with plow and harrow; with their knowledge of dike-building and farming marshy land, they transformed the delta from a swamp to a productive region of rich farms. For 200 years, the Catholic and Lutheran nobility were willing to tolerate an economic asset as valuable as the Mennonites proved to be. But in the end, harassed by their neighbors and fearing the growing militarization of the Prussian state, the Mennonites began to search for another nation which would guarantee them the right to follow their consciences and practice their faith.
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia and the feminine dynamo who perhaps more than any other person was responsible for transforming Russia into a modern autocratic state, had a solution for the dilemma of the Mennonites. On the southwestern edge of her vast, primitive empire, in the area known as the Ukraine, lay a region of unbroken prairie. Millions of acres of fertile virgin soil lay waiting to be developed along the banks of the Dnieper and along the shores of the Sea of Azov. Around 1786, attracted by the Empress’ liberal terms—free land, religious toleration, exemption from taxes and military service—the Mennonites, along with thousands of other German-speaking immigrants from western Europe, began to settle on the Russian steppes.
They prospered there beyond all expectations. The original 6,000 who came to South Russia had by 1870 increased to 45,000. Hundreds of Mennonite villages dotted the flat tableland of the steppes, and everywhere the trees they had planted grew in profusion.
The bearded, sober Mennonite farmers became models of hard work and farming skill, leading the way in agricultural experimentation. Perhaps their greatest contribution was the development of large-scale wheat production. The traditional fields of soft summer wheat, which had wilted away under a hot sun, were replaced by hard winter wheat. New farming techniques and the expanding markets created by the glowing ports on the Black Sea made wheat the principal product of the Ukraine. Russian wheat captured the European market.
But in 1870, a shadow was suddenly cast over South Russia, when the imperial government announced a new policy regarding the German settlements. A rising wave of nationalism was threatening to inundate Europe, and Czar Alexander II now sought to assimilate these German-speaking peoples as rapidly as possible. The new policy was succinctly expressed in a single phrase: “One Czar, one religion, one language.” To the peace loving Mennonites, the worst blow of all came in 1871 with the passage of a universal military service act.
The bearded patriarchs of their churches sent a delegation of elders and prominent leaders to St. Petersburg to seek exemption. Some of the members of the commission that was drafting the new law had never heard of the doctrine of nonresistance, and expressed incredulity and skepticism that any group could be naive enough to believe and practice it.
One commissioner asked Elder Leonhard Suderman, “And what would you do if your enemy came to fight you?”
“I would approach him, extend my hand, and embrace him, but would not kill him,” replied Suderman. His answer greatly amused the cynical official.
The president of the commission brought up another point: “if everyone in Russia were like you Mennonites, how would we ever enforce law and order?”