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In 1920 Frederick Jackson Turner published The frontier in American history, a book which became important for the understanding of America. It asserted that "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development." And further, "The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West." Many historians do not agree with this thesis, but the "Great West" has been discussed much by scholars, has helped shape American myth (and possibly character), and remains a constant ingredient in novels, music, movies, and television.

For much of their history the AnabaptistsAnabaptism and Mennonites have also been a frontier people. They have felt some of the same pressures to which Turner refers -- the need for more land, desire for adventure, economic opportunity, "let's leave the past behind and start over" -- but the single primary factor has usually been persecution. During most of the 16th century most of the Anabaptists fled simply to save their lives or were expelled upon threat of death if they returned. The impulse to survive drove them into the wilderness, to the frontiers of their day and, strange as it may seem, even some 20th-century Mennonite migrations have been what seemed to the migrants a search for survival, now not so much physically as culturally and, they would say, spiritually.

No fewer than 167 edicts or mandates were issued against the Anabaptists and Mennonites by various authorities from 1525 to 1599, demanding suppression, exile, or death, and an additional 55 from 1601 to 1761. Thus those who survived were truly forced to become the church in the wilderness (Ezekiel 19:12-14, Hebrews 11, cf.Martyrs' Mirror). Limited tolerance came first in the Netherlands, in the North in the 1570s and in the South in the 1590s, but various dukes, counts, and nobles gave them shelter earlier also, as did Countess Anna of Friesland in 1541. Moravia proved to be a particular haven of refuge for Anabaptists as early as 1526. It is estimated that from 20,000 to 30,000 found shelter there, including leaders like Balthasar Hubmaier and Hans Hut.

Eventually the Hutterian Brethren became the largest of the groups in Moravia, continuing their "Golden Period" until about 1600. The Hutterites were not only excellent agriculturists, but also excelled in many trades and crafts like ceramics (pottery), cutlery, clocks of all sizes, weavers, tailors, agricultural tools, milling, shoemaking. A total of 39 vocations were listed in their Chronicle (Gross). A few even became barber-surgeons serving the health needs of common people and nobility alike, being called to Prague and to various castles and monasteries (Friedmann). These skills obviously made the local authorities tolerant and eager to retain the Hutterites. Yet there was, since the 15th century Hussite wars, also a long tradition of religious tolerance in the region. Some nobles also found the faith of the Anabaptists attractive. It is believed that Johann of Liechtenstein, lord of Nikolsburg, received believers baptism.

Prussia, and Poland

Because of severe persecution, Anabaptists fled from the southern Netherlands, now Belgium, to the north and along the Baltic coastline to Bremen, Hamburg, and Danzig (Gdansk) beginning in the 1530s. Some of the refugees settled in Danzig, which was a part of West Prussia as was the Vistula Delta, including Marienburg (Marbork). Most of the Mennonites, however, initially located in East Prussia in the area around Koenigsberg (Kaliningrad).

Anabaptists (Schwenckfelders?) were found in Marienburg, as early as 1526 (Penner, Ansiedlung mennonitischer Niederlaender). It is likely that they came from Moravia. By 1530 the number of Anabaptists had increased, but the largest influx came from the Netherlands. In a letter dated May 2, 1534, the city council of Danzig asked the authorities in Emden, Amsterdam and Antwerp to certify the passenger lists of ships going to Danzig to prevent Anabaptists from going there, but they went anyway, either as stowaways or overland or with the quiet connivance of ship captains.

No early evidence has been found to show that Prussian authorities seriously tried to prevent the Anabaptist immigration despite the warnings and edicts against them. The authorities of several Baltic-rim Hanseatic League cities, including Danzig, did plan to meet in Luneberg on July 1, 1535, to find ways of coping with the problem, but it is not clear whether the meeting took place. In any case, the substantial migration from the Netherlands was to continue for many years. In 1549 Menno Simons visited the region and, a year later, Dirk Philips became permanent elder until his death on a trip to Emden in 1568.

Why were they tolerated? Not least, probably, because they were quiet and peace-loving citizens, but primarily because they proved to be a powerful economic asset. The Polish-Prussian War of 1519-1521 had devastated the region. The Anabaptists, in this case the Dutch Mennonites, were not only hard workers but also knew from life in their homeland how to drain the swamps of the Vistula River delta, build windmills, and restore or establish thriving new agricultural communities. Bringing the delta lands under control was to take the better part of a century and, in fact, became a constant challenge.

Royal Hapsburg pressure eventually did force authorities to ask the Mennonites to leave (East) Prussia, but they found a ready welcome nearby in West (Polish) Prussia. Other Mennonite refugees soon took their place again in the east. Even the Roman Catholic bishop of Lesslau refused to expel them, despite repeated urging by the authorities, because he needed their economic skills (Peter Klassen). Polish nobility maintained a considerable degree of autonomy in the 16th century and were often open to new religious movements. Many "heretics" found shelter on their estates (Ratzlaff, Unruh).

We conclude from these accounts and those which follow that being an economic asset was to become a major, if not primary, reason for tolerating Mennonites in Moravia, The Netherlands, the Palatinate, Canada, the United States, and wherever they went, not least in Latin America, throughout their entire history to the late 20th century. They came to be known as self-sufficient, hardworking, frugal, and peaceful on the most difficult frontiers. There have also, however, been many examples of tolerance in principle, regardless of economics, as illustrated in Moravia and, notably in the 16th century, by Duke Philipp of Hesse (Littell) and William of Orange of The Netherlands.


Social, agricultural, and economic pressures eventually caused many Prussian Mennonites to accept the invitation of Catherine II of Russia to migrate to the Ukraine beginning in 1789. The expulsion of the Tatars and Turks from that region made it necessary to occupy and restore the land. The earliest movements brought ca. 1,550 Prussian Mennonite families to the Ukraine. A barren new frontier awaited them. Migrations from Prussia continued into the 1860s but Mennonites in Russia also moved to new frontiers within Russia, particularly through the founding of daughter colonies. By 1914 there were ca. 120,000 Mennonites in Russia. During World War II those Mennonites who survived the Stalin purges were again resettled on new frontiers in Asiatic Russia and Siberia.

While the Mennonites were only a small portion of European immigrants to Russia, they had become aware of their own unique economic power and used it as leverage to secure special privileges, a practice which had already begun partially in Prussia. A 20-point petition requesting both limited and. perpetual guarantees was submitted to the Russian authorities and largely granted, with the special consent of Catherine II (D. H. Epp). This was known as the Privilegium and set a precedent that has continued to the present in other contexts. Many of the articles applied to matters of faith and culture. If these were threatened or broken in the course of time, many Mennonites (often the more conservative?) packed up and left for a new frontier. This accounted for the 1870s migration from Russia to Canada and the United States.

Canada and the United States

A major reason for Mennonite success on hostile frontiers has been their cooperation among themselves, normally settling in colonies with a centralized economy and administration This was particularly true in Russia. The degree of Mennonite cooperation was not as intense as that of Hutterian communalism which allowed no private property, but interdependence and mutual aid often became the key to survival.

Thus the advance parties sent to investigate North America in 1873 looked for large tracts of land suitable for colony settlement. They were not disappointed in Canada, where the Secretary of Agriculture presented them with a 15-point Privilegium which included the two key guarantees of block settlement and exemption from military service (F. H. Epp). A similar request in the U. S. Congress failed, despite powerful advocacy in the Senate based on the economic asset the new settlers would become (Smith). Land distribution seemed to be the prerogative of the railroads and military recruitment and conscription were under the jurisdiction of the states. Mennonites were well-known in both countries, of course, since their settlement in Germantown in 1683, and in Upper Canada (Ontario), in 1786. The Dutch Mennonite Plockboy had even earlier established a short-lived utopian communitarian colony at Horekill on the Delaware River, 1663-64.

Because of these developments the Mennonite immigrants to Canada in the 1870s did settle on "reserves" provided especially for them, while the larger number immigrating to the United States settled in less compact communities in the Midwest. It may be that the Mennonite (sectarian) work ethic played a role in securing special privileges both in Canada and the United States. Their history as successful pioneers on difficult frontiers was well known. Yet most religious groups were tolerated on the North American frontier. Mennonites were not above the laws of the land. They too went West until the frontier was gone (1890?).

When World War I came, tolerance became one of its casualties. In Canada it led to some Mennonite emigration to Mexico and Paraguay; in the United States to harassment and suffering. While Mennonites, along with many other groups, did seek lands where they might preserve their identity in isolation, and, where they did not emigrate, language temporarily replaced geography as a boundary marker. In time they inevitably became a part of the developing Canadian mosaic of peoples and of the U.S. melting pot.

Latin America

Because many Mennonites believed the Canadian government had not held to the terms of the privilegium large numbers of Old Colony and Sommerfeld Mennonites immigrated to Paraguay and to Mexico between 1922 and 1927. In Paraguay the requested privileges were guaranteed by Decreto Ley (law) 514 in 1921 and similar guarantees were secured by presidential decree in Mexico. Nowhere did the Mennonites encounter a more difficult frontier in their entire history than in the "green hell" of the Chaco, except perhaps in Siberian slave labor communities. But in time they made the desert bloom even in the Chaco (Friesen). Pioneering in Mexico was also difficult, but climate and roads were more manageable. Still, it was a barren, windswept frontier when they came (Fretz, Redekop, Sawatzky).

New groups of Mennonites entered the Chaco and Brazil in 1930, but in the latter without the privilege of exemption from military service. (Alternative service for conscientious objectors was written into the Brazilian constitution only in 1988.) Eventually new frontiers were found in Bolivia and Belize and, in the 1980s, in Argentina. During the 1980s new Mennonite immigrants traveled from Mexico to Texas as well as to Nova Scotia and other parts of Canada. Cheese and dairy products have become a major Mennonite contribution to the economies and human welfare of their new homelands, as have many other products and services. In Paraguay the development and production of wheat suitable to that climate turned the nation from complete reliance on imports to becoming a wheat-exporting country.


The era of special privilege in return for national economic gain may be over. Laws have changed, some because of Mennonite influence, but they are assumed to apply to all people, with some exceptions in Latin America. The movement has been from persecution to toleration to special privileges (privilegium) to integration or assimilation. First-generation Anabaptists did not ask for special privilege. What they claimed to be biblically right and true for themselves they claimed for all believers. The movement has come full circle.

Geographical frontiers have largely disappeared. The frontiers of faith and witness, but also occasional cultural distinctives, have taken their place as, for example, among the Amish, Old Order and Old Colony Mennonites. The absence of background literature about Mennonite frontiers in Asia and Africa made it seem prudent not to include them here though we do have some information on Indonesia and Australia.

In its time the frontier gave Mennonites the isolation they wanted, but not always for their good. Faith and culture atrophy in isolation, of which there are examples in the Mennonite experience, but the frontier also encourages faith, driving pioneers to their spiritual roots. The frontier fosters idealism, vision, self-reliance, and a certain individualism, yet invariably also interdependence and community. It provides opportunity for growth and experimentation. The frontier allows something new to emerge in all areas of human experience. Leadership emerges. Institutions flourish. The virtues of sharing and caring are nurtured on the frontier. Life and death take on new meaning. Persecution and frontiers have been primary motifs in shaping Mennonite identity.


Harder, Leland. The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985.

Klassen, Peter James. The Economics of Anabaptism, 1525-1560. The Hague: Mouton and Co., 1964.

Taylor, George Rogers. The Turner Thesis. Boston: Heath, 1956.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1920.

Unruh, John D., Jr., The Plains Across. Urbana: U. of Illinois Press, 1979.


The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, vol. 1. Rifton, N.Y.: Plough Publishing House, 1987.

Durnbaugh, Donald F., ed., Every Need Supplied. Philadelphia: Temple U. Press, 1974.

Friedmann, Robert. Hutterite Studies. Scottdale, PA 1961.

Gross, Leonard. The Golden Years of the Hutterites. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980.

Littell, F. H. Landgraf Philip und die Toleranz. Bad Nauheim: Christian-Verlag, 1957.


Beck, Franziska. Vom Volksleben auf der Danziger Nehrung. Marburg [Lahn]: Johann Gottfried Herder-Institut, 1962.

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Maas, Walther. Zur Siedlungskunde des Warthe-Weichsellandes. Marburg [Lahn]:  Johann Gottfried Herder-Institut, 1961.

Penner,  Horst. "The Anabaptists and Mennonites of East Prussia." Mennonite Quarterly Review 22 (1948): 212-25.

Penner, Horst. "West Prussian Mennonites Through Four Centuries." Mennonite Quarterly Review 23 (1949): 232-45.

Penner, Horst. Ansiedlung Mennonitischer Niederländer im Weichselmündungsgebiet von der Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts bis zum Beginn der Preussischen Zeit. Weierhof [Pfalz]: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein, 1963.

Penner, Horst. Die ost- und westpreussischen Mennoniten, vol. 1: 1526 bis 1772. Weierhof : Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein e.V., 1978, esp. bibliography.

Ratzlaff, Erich L. Im Weichselbogen. Winnipeg : "Christian Press," 1971.

Unruh, Abe J. The Helpless Poles. Grabill, IN: Courier Printing Company, 1973.


Dyck, J. J. Am Trakt. North Kildonen, MB: Echo Verlag, 1948.

Epp, D. H. Die Chortitzer Mennoniten. Odessa: Selbstverlag, 1889.

Epp, Frank H. Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920. Toronto, ON: Macmillan of Canada, 1974.

Friesen, Peter M. Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Rußland (1789-1910). Halbstadt: Raduga Verlag, 1911.

Isaac, Franz. Die Molotschnaer Mennoniten. Halbstadt: H. J. Braun, 1908.

Schroeder, William. The Bergthal Colony. Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1974.

Toews, John B. Czars, Soviets and Mennonites. Newton, KS: Faith and Life, 1982.

Canada and the United States:

Dyck, Cornelius J., ed. An Introduction to Mennonite History. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press 1981.

Harder, Leland and Marvin Harder. Plockhoy from Zurik-zee. Newton, KS, 1952.

MacMaster, Richard K. Land, Piety, Peoplehood: the Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985.

MacMaster, Richard K. and others, eds. Conscience in Crisis. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979.

Ruth, John L. Maintaining the Right Fellowship. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984.

Smith, C. Henry. The Coming of the Russian Mennonites. Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1927.

Latin America:

Doell, Leonard. The Bergthaler Mennonite Church of Saskatchewan. Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 1987.

Fretz, J. Winfield. Mennonite Colonization in Mexico. Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 1945).

Fretz, J. Winfield. Pilgrims in Paraguay. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1953.

Friesen, Martin W. Kanadische Mennoniten bezwingen eine Wildnis: 50 Jahre Kolonie Menno, 1927-1977. Menno Colony: Verwaltung der Kolonie Menno, 1977.

Friesen, Martin W. Neue Heimat in die Chaco Wildnis. Altona, MB: D. W. Friesen, 1986.

Koop, G. S. Pionier Jahre in British Honduras (Belize). Belize City: National Printers, n.d.

Krause, Annemarie E. "Mennonite Settlement in the Paraguayan Chaco." Ph.D. thesis, U. of Chicago, 1952.

Redekop, Calvin W. The Old Colony Mennonites. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1969.

Redekop, Calvin. Strangers Become Neighbors. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980.

Regehr, Walter. 25 Jahre Kolonie Neuland Chaco Paraguay (1947-1972). Karlsruhe: Heinrich Schneider, 1972.

Regehr, Walter. Die lebensräumliche Situation der Indianer im paraguayischen Chaco. Basel: Wepf, 1979.

Sawatzky, H. Leonard. They Sought a Country: Mennonite Colonization in Mexico. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1971, cf. Sie suchten eine Heimat. Marburg: Elwert, 1986.

Author(s) Cornelius J Dyck
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

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Dyck, Cornelius J. "Frontier." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 18 Mar 2019.

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Dyck, Cornelius J. (1989). Frontier. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 March 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 314-317. All rights reserved.

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