Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Places of Worship in the Russian Mennonite Commonwealth: Expressions of Conformity, Contradiction and Change

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Places of Worship in the Russian Mennonite Commonwealth: Expressions of Conformity, Contradiction and Change

Article excerpt

Abstract: Places of worship in the Russian Mennonite Commonwealth (1789-1914) reflected currents of conformity, contradiction and change. This article analyzes three overlapping periods of development. During the earliest phase (1790-1840), meetinghouses were modest and utilitarian, conforming to the Prussian Bethaus model and appearing as large houses. Growing prosperity marked the transition phase (18401880) in which conformity gave way to change: modest decoration was added, windows became arched, roof shapes changed and balcony configurations evolved. During the later period (1880-1914), as the Mennonite Commonwealth continued to flourish and respond to social and religious changes, the appearance of Mennonite meetinghouses changed substantially, assuming the appearance of distinct religious buildings. The most common influence was that of the Gothic style, reflected in the window shapes, buttresses, ornate decoration, the occasional bell tower and, most significantly, the basilica plan. During all three periods, places of worship intersected with the politics of Mennonite life in Russia.

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When the first Mennonites from Prussia settled along the Dnieper River beginning in 1789 in what was then New Russia (today eastern Ukraine) they constructed not only simple homes but also modest public buildings that included places of worship. During the next 125 years, as Mennonites founded new colonies, developed an extensive network of communities and prospered, wooden buildings gave way to elaborate structures of stone and steel. During the course of the nineteenth century, Mennonites gradually abandoned a strictly utilitarian approach to construction and developed edifices that were anything but modest. The surviving built landscape bears silent witness to the development of a complex, thriving Mennonite world prior to the Russian Revolution. By 1914, the Mennonite Commonwealth included 59 colonies, hundreds of villages and approximately 100,000 people. Although scant material evidence remains, the currents of conformity, contradiction and change which coursed through these Mennonite communities and expressed themselves in the built environment are still discernable.

The buildings of the Russian Mennonite communities reflected considerable social and occupational diversity and a heavy reliance upon an agrarian and industrial economy with factories and mills. The increasing wealth of the Mennonite colonies was reflected in the construction of community institutions such as centers of higher education and welfare agencies including hospitals, old peoples' homes, a school for the deaf, a mental institution and an orphanage. (l) These institutions were often housed in impressive buildings constructed primarily in the late Imperial era. In their size, form and decoration these buildings moved beyond mere function and revealed a new sophistication and aesthetic as well as a remarkable understanding of the wider world of architectural design and decoration developing in contemporary Russia and other parts of Europe. (2)

These influences also spread to places of worship as simple meetinghouses gave way to more impressive church buildings. 'The common term for Mennonite religious buildings was Bethaus (prayer house), but here we will use the term "meetinghouse" since it seems to reflect the character of Mennonite congregational worship. Later in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth century the term Kirche (church) was used interchangeably with Bethaus. (3) These terms reflect a major shift in the vocabulary of the religious groupings; the older term Gemeinde (congregational-community) was used in conjunction with that of Kirche and was applied to both local congregations and parishes and to the larger religious conferences of Mennonites that developed in Russia after 1870. (4) In the same manner, Lehrer (lay "teaching-ministers") gave way to Prediger (educated lay preachers) with an increasing emphasis that they be trained in the ministry and even be fully paid. …

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