The Quest for a Mennonite Seminary in Russia, 1883-1926: Signs of a Changing Mennonite World

By Dueck, Abe | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Quest for a Mennonite Seminary in Russia, 1883-1926: Signs of a Changing Mennonite World


Dueck, Abe, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: This essay analyzes developments in the training of pastors among the Mennonites in Russia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The issue of leadership selection and leadership training was a major concern and evoked heated debate about the nature and function of leadership. But the debates also shed light on the profound changes in the social, cultural and religious life of the Mennonite community in Russia by the early decades of this century. The quest for a seminary, and the debates surrounding this quest, offer an illuminating perspective on the struggle for identity, continuity and cohesion among the Mennonites of Russia during a period of rapid change and fragmentation.

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Je jeleada, je fetjeada. The more learned, the more perverted. This Low German proverb is familiar to many Mennonites of Russian background. Although Mennonites do not have a monopoly on suspicion Of higher education, their Anabaptists forebears--and the groups descended from them--were often very suspicious of the learned doctors of theology who, they believed, led their followers astray with their sophistry. (1) Sixteenth-century Anabaptists were also critical of a system that guaranteed the financial support of the clergy without making them accountable to the people; and they tended to value the moral purity of the leaders far more than the formal requirements of education and ordination. (2)

To be sure, many of the early Anabaptist leaders were themselves well educated men who had been schooled in the Catholic monasteries and in the prominent humanist universities of Europe. Intense persecution, the absence of religious freedom, and a history of frequent migration, however, meant that subsequent generations of Anabaptists had relatively few well-educated ministers. Since they valued the biblical literacy of all members of the congregation, Anabaptist groups tended not to promote specialized education for their pastors, bishops and elders. Their more radical application of the priesthood of all believers meant that a clear separation of the clergy and the laity--with the attendant special education and remuneration of the clergy--generally did not become the norm among the Anabaptists as it did in the established churches.

The development of church leadership patterns among Mennonites in later centuries varied with the circumstances. (3) In Northern Europe a two-fold ministry developed. Some ministers were only allowed to preach (Diener am Wort, Leeraar, Prediger, etc.), whereas others (elders, bishops) were authorized to perform all functions, including ordination, baptism and communion. Although Dutch Mennonites established a rudimentary seminary in Amsterdam as early as 1735--the foundation for the official Dutch Mennonite seminary established in 1811--ministers in the early years did not receive a formal education and had no fixed salary. Not until 1826 did Mennonites in Danzig elect a preacher who had formal training as a theologian in Danzig. (4) And no provision for the formal training of Mennonite ministers ever developed within the regions of Northern Germany, Prussia or Poland. Despite their lack of formal training, ministers (Aeltestern and Lehrer) in both Prussia and Russia did evolve into an estate with defined status and privileges; they were often among the wealthiest land owners and held tremendous ecclesiastical and political power. (5) Nevertheless, when Mennonites began their migration to Russia at the end of the eighteenth century, there was no expectation that training institutions for ministers would be established.

Catherine the Great's Manifesto of 1763 which invited foreign settlers into Russia explicitly stated that the immigrants were permitted to build churches and have "as many Parsons and Clergy-men as will be needful," but it forbade "building up Monasteries." (6) This could be interpreted as prohibiting clergy-training institutions, but it was obviously not an issue for the Mennonites at the time. …

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