Apocalyptic Debacle or Christian-Muslim Paradigm?

For more information about the colloquium where this presentation was given, click here.


  • I am speaking this morning about the Mennonite migration to Khiva in the late 19th century. Particularly how it was seen for more than twelve decades as a dangerous debacle associated with Apocalyptic prophecies, and how a new narrative about positive Muslim-Christian relations is now challenging that view.
  • The story has three phases: the migration settlement of Mennonites in Central Asia, the prevailing narrative that emerged immediately afterward, and the new narrative that has sprung up in the past four years.
  • Background: Mennonites of Dutch-Prussian heritage had continually moved east since the Reformation, from the Netherlands to Prussia from the 16th century, and from Prussia to Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They had continually moved east to flee compulsory military service and to rule their own affairs.
    • In the 1870’s, Mennonites in South Russia began facing another crisis. The Russian government was moving toward eliminating their freedom from military service, their ability to govern themselves, and control over their own education and language.
    • Tens of thousands migrated west to the United States and Canada, many stayed home.
  • But some Mennonites from South Russia once again looked toward the East for their refuge. Those moving eastward believed Christ’s Second Coming was imminent, and Central Asia was their refuge from the Antichrist and the Great Tribulation. About 1,000 Mennonites migrated to Central Asia in the 1880’s.
  • Apocalyptic Influences: Among the key influences that convinced Mennonites of the coming apocalypse and their eastern refuge was a novel called Heimweh, or homesickness by Heinrich Jung (Stilling). Jung-Stilling was a radical German Pietist who also believed in the imminent Second Coming. Heimweh depicted its hero, Christian von Ostenheim leading his Mennonite wife and a small band of followers to a refuge called Solyma, where the band of true believers would await the Kingdom of God. Stilling placed Solyma in the Silk Road emirate of Bukhara.
  • Another was a book by the Mennonite teacher Martin Klaassen called the History of the Defenseless Baptism-Minded Community. This book depicted the nonviolent Mennonites in the line of the true followers of Jesus from the days of the early church. This was in contrast to Catholics, Protestants and other Christian groups that were allied with the State, and did not have a commitment to nonviolence. Klaassen’s popular book not only traced the past of the Mennonites, but also predicted their future:
    • He wrote, “Very likely in one of the lands of the rising sun, toward that direction God will rescue the little company of his own, the little flock for the time of the Last Judgement. There he will hide and protect them with the dome of his tabernacle, secretly hide them in his tent, and exalt them on the Rock until his wrath and holy judgments will have passed.”
  • One of the most important figures was the key prophet of the trek, Claas Epp Jr. He was a businessman and teacher from the Am Trakt colony on the Volga River. Epp outlined a detailed analysis of current events as fulfillments of biblical prophesy. Like Jung-Stilling and Klaassen, he predicted a refuge from the Tribulation would be found in Central Asia: “This place of refuge is not in the legally organized part of Russia. Russia will only assist in bringing the woman clothed with the sun. We see what is intended for the believers in the desert: First of all, to be protected from the powers of darkness; second, to await the coming of the Lord and to appear before him as the Bride. This points us to the free area of the khanates of inner Asia, and to no other place in the world.”
  • You can see the problem here – those khanates were deep in the abode of Islam. Claas Epp had an answer for that. He taught that Islam was “old and rotten” and would simply be wiped away in the coming fulfillment of prophesy. Epp set the date for the Second Coming of Christ as March 8, 1889. It was the duty of the “Bride Community,” his most loyal followers, to reach this refuge before the Tribulation, and prepare it for the influx of true believers from all of the world.
  • The Trek to Central Asia Five Mennonite wagon trains left Russia for Central Asia between 1880 and 1881. Here is the only surviving photo we know of from the trek. It was taken outside of Tashkent.
  • The hardships were severe. The Mennonites had serious struggles with the harsh climate, smallpox and poor drinking water. As I hope you can see on the map, their path took them from settlements near the Black Sea and along the Volga River to the Russian border with the Central Asian khanates, and into Bukhara and Khiva. Many died along the way, including dozens of children and elderly. A number of families abandoned the trek, and set their sights on North America.
  • One large group decided to remain within Russian Turkestan, forming a settlement in the Talas Valley (today it’s in Kyrgyzstan). A small band committed to their End Times beliefs, including Martin Klaassen and Claas Epp Jr., left Russian territory believing they would find their utopian refuge in Bukhara. They were forcibly evicted by Bukharan troops, and spent the winter of 1882 in the village of Serabulak, just inside the Russian border. I will talk more about this stay in Serabulak later.
  • That spring, the Khan of Khiva sent word that he would allow the “Bride Community” to settle in his khanate. So, Epp and the others adjusted their prophesies, and accepted the invitation to move to Khiva. The Mennonites eventually formed the village of Ak Metchet near Khiva’s capital city.
  • Settlement in Central Asia: Once in Khiva, Epp’s predictions and delusions became more outlandish: He said that he was one of the Two Witnesses found in Revelation 11. He held a ceremony in Ak Metchet where he predicted he would ascend to heaven. The final straw for many of his followers was when said he was the fourth person of the Godhead: The Father, Son, Holy Spirit and Claas Epp.
  • Gradually, his influence waned in Ak Metchet. The majority of Mennonites in the village returned to orthodox Mennnonite teaching, and remained in Khiva for 53 years. The colony was eliminated by Stalin’s collectivization program, and the Mennonites were sent to a labor camp in Tajikistan. The Talas Valley settlement remained active until the fall of the Soviet Union. Descendants of both settlements now live in Germany, the United States and Canada.
  • Prevailing Narrative: Apocalyptic Debacle – For more than a century, the focus of academic and popular attitudes about the trek have focused on the millennial expectations of the trekker, and the hardships they faced because of these erroneous beliefs. The blame for the debacle was placed on a single leader: Claas Epp Jr.
  • C. Henry Smith, Leading Mennonite Historian: “Hereby hangs a moral interest to Mennonites. Mennonites have been unusually susceptible to unwholesome influences of this sort … A number of times, undue stress upon chiliastic and apocalyptic views on the part of fanatical leaders has led to unfortunate results.”
  • Walter Unger, Fmr. President of Columbia Bible College, in Canada, said:  “Epp went the same mystic way as Muentzer, Hut, Hoffman, and others, with the same disastrous results … Contemporary prophecy teachers who read current events back into Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation are repeating Claas Epp’s error.”
  • One result of these views was that many North American Mennonites associated with the migration were often treated as second-class citizens in their communities. For more than a century, there was a sense of shame and secrecy about the experience in Central Asia. Karen Schmidt from Beatrice, Nebraska grew up experiencing some of this shame. It wasn’t until she was nearly an adult that she learned about the trek and the effect it had on her family for generations: (Video – Karen Schmidt, Trek Descendant: “Why did cousins marry?). Mennonites like Karen were very discontented with how their families were sort of branded with an apocalyptic scarlet letter – but for 125 years, there seemed to be nothing to replace the prevailing views of the trek.
  • Yet, over the past few years, a new narrative is beginning to emerge. Mennonites from North America are visiting Central Asia, and discovering a host of new stories, along with positive sentiments among Uzbeks about the Mennonites of Khiva. Scholars are also  discovering the modernizing influence the Mennonites had, particularly in Khiva. At the same time, the North American Mennonite interest in positive interfaith relationships is helping shape how this episode is being re-examined.
  • One particular story encapsulates this new narrative. You see here a picture of Wilhelm Penner, in the chair, and an Uzbek man named Khudaybergen Divanov. When Penner was a teacher at the Mennonite village in Khiva, he mentored the young Divanov in photography and filmmaking. (This was during the late 19th century). Divanov became the first indigenous photographer and documentarian in the region, and is now known as “The Father of Uzbek Photography.” His new hobby caused a controversy in the khan’s court. Muslim traditionalists said making human images was forbidden, and that included photographic portraits. However, the khan sided with Divanov, and his place in Uzbek history was secured. In Uzbek publications and films about his life, the Mennonites of Ak Metchet are always credited at the beginning of his biography. His story was virtually unknown outside of Uzbekistan until North American Mennonites traveled to Khiva for the first time in 2007.
  • Other innovations include the Mennonites’ streamlining and improvement of Khiva’s  cotton production, bringing the first electrical generators into the palace (much to the chagrin of Russian officials, the generators were from the German company AEG,). They also brought advances in western architecture, and other innovations.
  • The new narrative is accompanied by new symbols of Muslim-Christian Partnership that have an air of sacredness about them. These symbols reflect their current values related to positive interfaith relations. One of these is the Mosque at Serabulak: Between 1881 and 1882, the Muslims of Serabulak, a small village on the edge of the Russian frontier, allowed the Mennonites to stay on the grounds of the mosque, and use its building for church services on Sundays. The Mennonites performed weddings and baptisms at the mosque. Today, each Mennonite tour group stops by this mosque, holds a short service and receives a blessing from the local imam.
  • Parquet floor at the khan’s summer palace: The Mennonites first settled in Khiva far from the capital along the Amu Darya river. At this isolated site, they suffered a murder and numerous violent robberies by local Turkoman tribesmen. Their new relationship to working for the Khan, and receiving his protection and some real estate, came after he found out about these attacks, and at the same time discovered their skills in woodworking and construction. This parquet floor represents their rescue from dire circumstances and the beginning of a long-term relationship with their Muslim hosts.
  • Well at Ak Metchet: None of the original buildings of Ak Metchet remain. However, a single well dug by the Mennonites is still used by the locals. Mennonite groups making the pilgrimage to Ak Metchet hold services at the well to remember their ancestors and reconsider the legacy of the trek.
  • Here, Norman Epp, the great-grandson of Claas Epp Jr., describes how he was compelled to shed some of the bad feelings about his ancestor during one of those services at the well (Video). … The second gentleman you saw was Jim Juhnke, a Mennonite historian.
  • So far there have been four Mennonite pilgrimages to the site of Ak Metchet since the first one in 2007, and another one is planned for 2012. You might ask how the Uzbeks feel about the Mennonites. Every year at the beginning of the planting season, a local religious leader in the modern Uzbek village of Oq Machit leads a ceremony a the site of the settlement. This ceremony includes “praying to” the Mennonites for good crops. If this sounds strange for a Muslim country, local folk-religious beliefs in this area include invoking saints and ancestors. There have also been plans to construct a museum to the Mennonites inside the old city. However, the museum has literally been shelved for the time being by the Uzbek government.
  • To sum up, the new narrative about the trek to Central Asia seems to be migrating in the minds of many North American Mennonites from a shameful and disastrous episode to being an example of peaceful, long-term cooperation and friendship between Christians and Muslims.

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