Research Note: Paul Tschetter's "Chicago Fire" Hymn

By Janzen, Rod; Janzen, Jean | Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Research Note: Paul Tschetter's "Chicago Fire" Hymn


Janzen, Rod, Janzen, Jean, Mennonite Quarterly Review


In the summer of 1873, a 31-year-old Hutterite minister, Paul Tschetter, accompanied by his uncle Lohrentz, joined a delegation of ten Russian Mennonites, on a well-known four-month exploratory journey to North America. A Russian government edict (ukase), announced by Tsar Alexander I in 1870, threatened to strip away many of the political, educational and religious rights that Mennonites and Hutterites had enjoyed for almost 100 years. Particularly alarming was the retraction of agreements granting the Anabaptists (along with other German-speaking colonists and some Russian religious dissenters) exemption from military service. The Mennonites and Hutterites were also to lose full control of village and colony schools and some local government offices. In response to this new policy, the Hutterite men had come west to investigate the possibility of resettlement for thousands of Anabaptists living in the Russian Empire.

Paul Tschetter was born in 1842 at Blumenort village in the Molotschna Colony, the same year that the entire population of about 400 Hutterites relocated to the Molotschna region from their previous residence (Raditschewa) northeast of Kiev. The Hutterites were given considerable organizational and financial assistance from Johann Cornies, the Mennonite chair of the Agricultural Improvement Society. (1)

Tschetter spent most of his growing up years in the village of Hutterthal, established a few miles south of the Molotschna Colony in 1843. Here he attended school and worked on the family farm. At age 18 Tschetter married Maria Waltner and six years later (in 1866) was ordained to the Hutterite ministry. He held this position during a difficult and contentious period in Hutterite history, when a number of members resurrected a communal way of life in adherence to historic traditions that had been given up in 1821. (2) From 1868 to 1874 Tschetter served as minister at the noncommunal Hutterite church at the Neu Hutterthal village. He was chosen to represent both communal and noncommunal Hutterites in the 1873 exploration due to recognized leadership capabilities as well as an adventurous willingness to make the excursion.

During this important journey Tschetter and the other Anabaptist delegates, accompanied by Mennonite publisher John F. Funk and Northern Pacific Railroad personnel, looked at undeveloped land between Nebraska and Manitoba (some of the delegates also visited Kansas and Ontario), traveling by land, rail and steamboat. Along the way the group analyzed land prices, settlement patterns, and water and feed sources, as well as access to markets. In general, Tschetter was pleased with what he saw, especially in the Red River valley in what is now northeastern North Dakota. He loved the "rich black soil" in the Pembina area and the fact that there was forested land nearby. (3) Tschetter was concerned, however, that the United States government had not confirmed exemption from military service. For this reason, in August 1873 he, along with his uncle, Lohrentz Tschetter, and a Volhynian Mennonite minister named Tobias Unruh, secured a personal audience with President Ulysses S. Grant, before their return to Russia. (4)

Throughout his travels in 1873 Tschetter maintained a diary recording details of all aspects of his journey. (5) The diary also gives a clear indication of how Tschetter viewed "the world" and is an important window into the late-nineteenth-century Hutterian mind. Tschetter complains often, for example, about frivolous behavior. On one occasion, after seeing large groups of men and women dancing at a Hamburg eating establishment, he wrote that they should "rather be praying than dancing." (6) In the eastern United States, Tschetter was dismayed when he met Mennonites and Amish who grew and smoked tobacco. Many also owned guns and a few played musical instruments. (7) The Hutterites were opposed to these practices.

Paul Tschetter's handwritten journal is divided into three small booklets. …

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Research Note: Paul Tschetter's "Chicago Fire" Hymn
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