Mennonite Stories

This takes us to the time of the Anabaptist movement which had its beginning in the 1520's in Switzerland as part of the Reformation. People, after studying the Bible individually and carefully, found that the practice of the Church was inconsistent with what they understood the Scriptures to say. They interpreted the Scriptures literally, especially the Sermon on the Mount and other portions of the New Testament. From their study of the Bible they understood that only adults were to be baptized, and that on the confession of their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. They were not to be "born" into the church by infant baptism. The people that came to this faith were all baptized as adults, even though they had all been baptized as infants. Thus they were called "Anabaptist", being baptized again. Furthermore, the Anabaptists believed in the lay ministry, every believer a priest; in the separation of Church and State; in affirming an oath instead of swearing, and in the principle of peace and non-resistance. Many different factions of this movement developed, some practicing the ban and avoidance.

As a result of many people believing in this interpretation of the Scriptures, the Anabaptists were being persecuted by the State Church. This persecution was in the extreme unto annihilation; people were banned, put to death at the stake, burned, torn asunder, buried alive and drowned. Especially was this true of the leaders and the women. A Catholic priest, Menno Simon living in northern Holland, after studying the Scriptures himself and observing the suffering of the faithful believers of this new movement, became convinced of the correctness of their interpretation of the Bible.

He renounced his priesthood and joined the movement and became one of its staunch leaders. Soon he had quite a large following who at first were called "Minists" in East Friesland in 1544. Later they were called "Mennonites", followers of Menno, and thus were distinguished from other sects of the Anabaptist movement. Severe persecution followed for many decades with the result that believers were dispersed to different countries, first to southern Germany and Austria, then to northern Germany, Holland, Prussia, Poland, England and eventually America. Wherever they went in Europe, the noblemen and. landowners liked them as farmers, for they found them to be hard-working, conscientious people, desirous to make a living and to live peaceably in the country.

Most of the Mennonites during their early migrations were of the poorer agricultural people trying to make a living off the land as they were forced to move from place to place, except some of those from Holland which included successful businessmen, and medical and scientific people of high cultural position. The first anabaptists to arrive in West Prussia from the Netherlands came near the middle of the sixteenth century, according to Unruh. That some Dutch had settled there earlier is indicated by the agreement made between Claesz and Lorenz with an Albrecht, as noted earlier. These new immigrants to the Vistula delta area, in West Prussia were highly welcome because of their experience in canal-building and dike-making. Their expertise in draining the swampland and converting the wasteland into rich agricultural and grasslands was valued very much by the rich noblemen of the area who owned the land. Soon a number of flourishing Mennonite villages were established along the Vistula River. The result, however, was that the ordinary native inhabitants became very envious of the prosperity of the newcomers. Soon these natives brought pressure through the State Church on these prosperous new settlers. They were taxed to support the State Church, and. their own church weddings were not recognized by the State; later they could not buy additional land for their growing families according to an edict of 1789. In 1780, the Mennonites had to pay 5000 Rtla. annually, which, however, freed them from military service. And when they wanted to emigrate to Russia toward the end of the 18th century they could not sell their property, especially to other Mennonites.

The mother tongue of these settlers from the lowlands of northern Germany and Holland was Low German (Plautdietsch) and Dutch, which was used at home and in church. Even though the area in West Prussia where they settled. was largely German, the German language was not picked up by the Mennonites until much later, and then only reluctantly. The first German song book appeared in the Kdnigsberg Mennonite Church in 1767 and the First German sermon was preached in the Danzig church in 1771. P. M. Friesen says that in 1890, they had still preached in Dutch (hollandish) in the Danzig Mennonite Church. Migration to South Russia began in 1788-89, more than two hundred years after the first Mennonites had settled in Prussia, litany of the churches in the Chortitza area, where the first immigrants to Russia settled, retained the Low German for their church services all the while they lived there, even retaining this language when they moved to Canada nearly a century later. The more progressive churches, most of which settled in the new colony along the Molotschna River, the Molotschna colony, used the High German in the schools and the church services. The Low German was used primarily in the home, a custom brought to America during the latter half of the 19th century. Many other customs characterizing the Mennonites here in America date back to Russia, Prussia, and even to the low lands of Germany and. the Netherlands.


As already indicated, Mennonites have their origin largely in the low lands of Germany and Holland. From there many vent eastward to Prussia largely as a result of persecution. Here noblemen first granted the Mennonites full religious freedom and other rights, which was a very welcome respite from the severe persecution many had endured. in the Dutch low lands. The Mennonites were a people of deep religious convictions with a faith in the Bible and in God. which they used in their daily living for guidelines. They had been thrust onto the soil for a living.

Many of the Mennonites originally had been artisans and professional people, especially in Holland, but in their new home they were unable to find employment in their specialty, many were forced to take up agriculture. Here they were deeply involved in making a living, and soon many became very prosperous. The result was that the Prussian neighbors became Jealous and persuaded the State Church and government to place restrictions and prohibitions on them. Taxes levied to support the State Church and restrictions on buying and selling land, etc, were to harass and subdue the Mennonites. The Mennonite population increased rapidly because of large families, and this called for additional land and the establishment of new villages. Because of the govern mental restrictions and curtailments, pressures mounted into real anxiety and concern for the brotherhood. Soon many were without land and without work, and thus became very poor, a burden almost unbearable.

Catherine II, the czarina of Russia who was of German origin, had extended an invitation to German farmers and citizens in 1762 and 1763 to come to Russia and convert the large tracts of unsettled land into fertile agricultural fields. She knew the Germans to be very industrious and religiously very devout. Many had followed her invitation and had settled around St. Petersburg and along the Volga River in the Saratov region. But these were not Mennonites. Later Russia acquired some very fertile lands in the Ukraine and around the Black Sea in a war from Turkey. Catherine II sent another invitation in 1786 especially to the Mennonites in Prussia, knowing of their accomplishments in converting swampy lands into fertile fields as well as their persecution by the Prussian government. She extended this invitation through H. George Trappe, her counselor, who addressed the Mennonites as friends. He had three requests, if and when they would accept the invitation to come to Russia: that they were 1) to provide good teachers and spiritual leaders to lead their people in such a way that they would be a good light for others (Russians) and they would than see their good works and. praise their Father in heaven; 2) to prevent those from entering into Russia with them who would be harmful to the good name of the Mennonites, such as drunkards, etc.; 3) to continue to give their love and full confidence to Mr. Trappe as he will see to it that they will receive his full consideration and help in their new settlement. The Czarina offered them complete freedom in religious matters and from military services for a hundred years as well as the use of the German language in their own controlled government, schools and church.

Upon H. Trappe's request the Mennonites sent Jacob Hoppner and Johann Bartsch as their deputies to St. Petersburg to make arrangements. It took almost eight weeks, and then only oral agreements had been made. These freedoms were later (1800) spelled out in a declaration known as the "100-year Privilegium" and signed by Czar Paul I, which also included tax exemption for a number of years as well as financial help in moving and in building their homes.

The first Mennonites to follow this invitation left Prussia late in 1788, even before Hoppner and Bartsch had returned from Petersburg. They arrived in the Chortitza River area where it Joins the Dnieper River in 1769. This was not a good farming area, being somewhat rocky and hilly, and so the first settlers were very disappointed. Besides, these first immigrants were of the very poor, and the Russian government had not come across with the help they had promised. So the Chortitza colony had great difficulty in becoming established and prosperous. In spite of these difficulties eventually 228 families settled in this area in 18 villages (1789-1833). A second wave of Mennonite immigrants from Prussia started in late 1803, settling along the Molotschna River about a hundred miles southeast of the "Old Colony", as the Chortitza settlement became known. The soil here was more fertile, the land more level and a much larger area available for settlement, which eventually counted 67 villages. A third mother colony was established on the Volga River, Government Samara, in 1855 resulting in 18 villages. A number of daughter colonies were established through the years, but most of these came from one of the "mother" colonies. The Mennonite population in Russia doubled every 20 years. By the time of the second migration from Prussia in the early 18th century, restrictions about selling land and leaving the country had eased a great deal so that many of these immigrants were former land, owners and experienced farmers. This "New Colony" on the Molotschna developed rapidly and became prosperous almost from the start. Many immigrants had brought considerable cash, farm equipment and live stock with them, traveling the BOO-900 miles in six or more weeks. Schools and churches were established, trees planted, on the steppes so that the new villages with their well-kept homes and orchards took on a progressive and prosperous look. Men like Johann Cornies became great leaders in the developing colony. Carnies's farm became a model place which attracted Czar Alexander I to visit the colony and his farm, recognizing Cornies contributions with special honors.

With a growing material prosperity came a deterioration of spiritual life in the colony. The government had permitted the immigrants to establish their own breweries. Drunkenness and rowdiness became a real problem. Spiritual renewals swept through the colonies at different times. The Kleine Gemeinde, "Little Church", had its beginning in 1812-14 as a result of one of these movements. Members of this church later settled in localities in Kansas, Nebraska, and Canada. During the middle of the century a widespread revival resulted in the organization of the Mennonite Brethren Church (1860), and other groups. Many of those who did not unite with these churches became members of the General Conference Mennonites which had its beginning in the United States at the same time.

It was in this setting of development of the Mennonite villages, first in Prussia and later in Russia, that our forebears, the Lohrentzes, were established and became honorable citizens. They contributed their share to the life and. the fabric of the villages and the church. Peter Lohrentz married a Maria Dyck in 1812 and migrated with his family from Grossweide, Prussia to Grossweide, Molotschna colony, Russia, in 1819. It was here in the Molotschna colony that the family resided until in the early 1870's when the government announced a program of Russianizing all aliens, which included the Mennonites. With this program the promises contained in the "100-year Privilegium" would all be negated. This meant military service for the young men and the use of the Russian language in schools and churches, and other changes. As a result deputations were sent to St. Petersburg, the capital, to negotiate with the government, if possible, some modifications of this edict, especially the one affecting the Mennonite stance on peace and non-resistance. At the same time a delegation was sent to America to evaluate lands available for settlement and to feel out the government relative to military service for the young men. This delegation brought back a favorable report. Immediately (1874) emigration plans were set in motion in many of the villages, and by 1885 something like 18,000 immigrants had settled in Kansas alone. The Peter Lohrentz family was in this first wave of immigrants, leaving Russia in the summer of 1874, coming via Hamburg and arriving in New York on September 3, 1874 on the S. S. Teutonia. They were one family in a group of over 900 on this one ship alone that came to America.

Here in America the family has proliferated and. disseminated. to all parts of the country and into many different professions, arts and trades. As a whole members of the family have made some outstanding contributions to the well being of the communities that have been touched by their lives. Some of these will be mentioned more specifically in the personal description of family members in the following pages. These immigrants from Russia, and their descendants, have become pretty well Americanized and assimilated in culture and business with other immigrant groups that comprise the populations of the United States and Canada. Many distinctives of our Mennonite background, however, are still evident and are highly cherished.

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