I became interested in the Mennonites because Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote about them in his book: The Kingdom of God Is Within You (published in 1894), as one of the Christian communities that emphasis on “Non resistance to evil” according Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.
Though Tolstoy is mostly famous for his novels e.g. War and Peace, he also wrote this non-fiction book about his Christian believe. This is a very important book e.g. because Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), cited it in his autobiography as being one of the three primary influences on his life and philosophy of non-violence, which he called “Satyagraha”. He and Tolstoy communicated by letters. Gandhi’s philosophy had great impact on Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
The followers of Menno Simons (1496-1561) became known as Mennonites. They are Protestants and Anabaptists, who are those that rejected baptism of infants because they require that a person must be able to make his own confessions of faith to be baptized. They were persecuted by the Catholic Church in the middle ages. At that time state and church were united according to the Latin formula; “Cuius regio, eius religio”, meaning the religion of the ruler dictated the religion of the ruled. Mennonites believe that the church should not be controlled by the state because Christ is the Lord of the conscience. There are now about 1.5 million Mennonites worldwide.
Mennonites came first to the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay from Canada in the 1920s; more came from the USSR in the 1930s and also after World War II. The city Filadelfia was founded in 1930 by Russian Mennonites who fled from the Soviet Union and the city is now the capital of Boquerón Department in the Gran Chaco. Plautdeutch is spoken there by the Mennonites, which is a dialect they have preserved since 16th century. Some Indians in Filadelfia have learned this language.
I went to Filadelfia 2012, because I wanted to learn more about the Mennonites. I took a bus from Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay and stayed at Hotel Florida, which I recommend.
I interviewed Mr.Gundolf Niebuhr, Mennonite historian, who works at the Fernheim Colony Archives and the local museum.
He was born 1957 in Filadelfia. His mother came 1930 to the Mennonite colonies in Chaco from refugee camps in Germany. His father came two years later as a part of the Harbiner group that fled to China from the Ukraine and central Siberia, crossing the Amur River, and then passing though France. When Gundolf was 12, the family moved to Vancouver, BC in Canada and came back after high school and worked as an electrician. He studied at the Mennonite Bible Seminary in San Lorenzo and later taught at a Bible school in a settlement of Nivaclé and Enlhet indigenous tribes. He also taught at the Teacher’s College at Yalve Sanga and today because of this school, nearly all the elementary school teachers in the native settlements are indigenous, as are many of the secondary school teachers.
He has a Master’s degree in Church History but he also studied anthropology at Notre Dame for one summer. He is active in the Historical Society of Mennonites in Paraguay and has written several articles in the Yearbook. He is married to Elizabeth Funk, musician, whose family had been refugees from the Ukraine during World War II.
The interview, about Mennonites and their history, can be seen in the video on this page.