A book written 100 years ago by a German Baptist minister provides insight into the relationship among Mennonite Brethren and German Baptist churches in German communities in what is now Ukraine.
Through the translating efforts of a retired educator, Walter Regehr of Winnipeg, Johann E. Pritzkau’s book, German Baptists in South Russia, is now available in English.
“I feel humbly grateful that I have been able to do something for my Mennonite community to make this material available,” said Regehr at a book launch in November hosted by the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies (CMBS) in Winnipeg.
Also present at the book launch was Albert Wardin, a Nashville, Tennessee Baptist scholar who has a special interest in the relationship between German Baptists and Mennonite Brethren in the late 19th century.
Wardin told the gathering of about 45 people that religious persecution did not stop Baptists, Mennonites and others from starting a spiritual renewal movement among German speaking people who had been invited by Catherine the Great to settle in South Russia.
Jon Isaak, CMBS director, says the book offers insight into the challenges and opportunities for the German colonists of South Russia to work together.
“Over 100 years ago, MBs worked together with other Christian groups,” says Isaak. “This is important because MBs have not always done so. Recently MBs have once again realized that we can always do more together than by ourselves, even partnering with those with whom we differ as we participate together in God’s mission in this world.”
However, he adds, Pritzkau’s account of the early history of Baptist churches also points out “embarrassing aspects” of early MB missionary activity in South Russia.
In the book, Pritzkau states membership in a state-recognized church was important to establish national identity, as the local church submitted the certificates of death, birth, baptism and marriages to the Russian government.
Although MB churches nurtured and baptised new converts, Pritzkau says they did not grant membership status to new converts from German Catholic and Lutheran villages. The reason given in the book was fear that the MB church would lose its privilege of military exemption given to Mennonites and their descendants.
In his account about the Baptist church at Kronental, Pritzkau says the first members had been baptised by MB evangelists. But without formal membership in a recognized church the new converts were considered stateless and suspect.
Pritzkau says, “For remedy from their difficulty, the distressed brothers turned to our (German Baptist) Association with the request that they be accepted into the Union, in order that they could be granted the statutory rights enjoyed by the (Russian) Baptists in the rest of Russia.”
While it is a Baptist history book, the MB influence in Russia is seen throughout the book. “We can learn from the successes and failures of that early MB mission, especially as we learn how to work together with other Christian groups in the post-denominational reality that is emerging,” says Isaak.
Gladys Terichow is the staff writer for the Canadian Conference of MB Churches