Where is this last gathering place of the true church? The answer: It is to be in the desert. But where? Perhaps, yes very likely in one of the lands of the rising sun. Thither God will rescue the little company of his own, the little flock for the times of the last judgments. (81)
So wrote Martin Klaassen, a Mennonite schoolteacher in the Trakt colony, in his book, History of the Defenceless Baptism-Minded Community from the Time of the Apostles to the Present. This polemic, written in 1873, was immensely popular among Mennonites. Millennialist expectations were running high. A century earlier, a German writer, Johann Jung-Stilling, had predicted that the End Times were near, and some German Pietists had moved into Russia, where they believed God would provide them a Place of Refuge from the Antichrist. Numerous Mennonites were infected with these apocalyptic hopes.
Claas Epp, also living in the Trakt settlement, emerged as a leader among these millennialists. Napoleon, he wrote, was the Antichrist, and the Catholic Church was Christendom’s greatest enemy. Epp turned to the Book of Revelation for answers. Those few who live in pure faith, who practise nonresistance, who cling to the hope of the imminent return of Christ, were the Church of Philadelphia as described in Revelation. Epp implied, in fact, that he was one of the Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 who would prophesy to the world during the tribulations of the Last Times. When war and plague swept the globe, Epp wrote, the Lord would return to reclaim his chosen ones. And Christ would return in a specific place, at a specific time, somewhere in Central Asia. Epp proposed a trek of the faithful to this Place of Refuge. God would demonstrate to his pilgrims exactly where that place was.
In his book, Pilgrims on the Silk Road, Walter Ratliff vividly brings the story of the Mennonite Great Trek to life. The narrative ranges widely, leaping backwards and forwards in time, as well as simultaneously focussing on peoples and individuals far removed from each other. The story is also told within the context of great wars between western empires and Islamic civilizations. This clustering of various histories can sometimes be bewildering – the reader might ask at certain points, what does this all have to do with the Great Trek? – but Ratliff’s superb storytelling eventually demonstrates the fundamental connections between differing times and places.
In 1880 the first wagon train left the Trakt colony, bound for a point yet unknown, somewhere in Central Asia, where Christ would return to collect his faithful. In all, three wagon trains would make the journey, a migration
marked by tribal hostilities, hunger, thirst, desert deprivations, dysentery, and child deaths. To the surprise of these Mennonite pilgrims, Claas Epp accompanied the third wagon train. It had been expected that he, as one of the Two Witnesses, would travel to Jerusalem to await the Second Coming. The first migrants were met by the Russian general Kaufman, who had waged war with Muslim khanates in Central Asia, and who had encouraged Mennonites to settle somewhere in the region, promising them exemption from military service. He soon died, however, and the migrants were suddenly faced with the possibility of conscription into the Russian army.
For Claas Epp, this was a divine signal that his flock should leave the Russian Empire and cross over into Muslim-ruled territory. “Defencelessness” was absolutely essential for the chosen few. The pilgrimage was a troubled one. Some of the Mennonite migrants left Aulie Ata, located within the boundaries of Russia, and built the village of Ebenezer in the Khanate of Bukhara, but it was soon demolished by hostile Bukharan authorities. The Mennonites found a temporary refuge in Serabulak, Turkestan, and then moved on to a wilderness settlement in Lausan, located in the Khanate of Khiva. Their time here was plagued by robbery and murder at the hands of local tribesmen, who found these non-resistors to be easy targets. The young, tempted to take up arms in defence of family and home, were strongly repudiated by their elders, who were even reluctant to ask for help from Khivan authorities.
It was consequently a time of great struggle. The misery only ended when the Khan of Khiva, now aware of the ongoing difficulties, invited the Mennonites to settle in a protected walled garden called Ak Metchet – named after a nearby white mosque. The Khan had also discovered that these Mennonites were superb craftsmen, and he hired them to build a parquet floor in his palace.
There had been dissension among the trekkers from the start. In part, this was due to Claas Epp’s insistence on lay leadership and communal decision making. The majority went on to Ak Metchet, but at this point a substantial minority emigrated to the United States. Epp’s authority was slowly crumbling. In 1889 he prophesied that he would be raised to heaven, but a long day’s wait did not see the anticipated transfiguration. Eventually he was even prohibited from preaching. His own son moved to America.
In 1894, on the day of Pentecost, Epp proclaimed that he now sat on the left hand of God, and that the congregation would hereafter baptize in the name of the Father, the sons – a designation that included Epp – and the Holy Spirit. The shock of this proclamation was too much for some, and Epp’s personal following dwindled to a very few. In 1913 both he and his wife died.
Meanwhile, however, the Mennonites of Ak Metchet were settling in, for the most part living amicably with the local Muslim population. They introduced sewing machines to the local textile economy, built carriages, worked on royal projects such as hospitals, imported high yield cotton seed from America, and even promoted photography.
Hard times followed, as secularists battled with Islamic traditionalists in Khiva, and then as Bolsheviks usurped power after the Communist Revolution of 1917. Even so, the Mennonite community of Ak Metchet survived, and even thrived. Because of the village’s extreme geographical isolation, it was largely ignored by Moscow, and eventually became the last functioning Mennonite community in the Soviet Union, with its own ethnic school and church. Ak Metchet had finally become a true refuge, although not in the terms predicted by Claas Epp. In 1934 the fiftieth anniversary of Ak Metchet was celebrated. For the occasion, Gustav Toews wrote a long Jubilee Poem in the style of local Muslim literature. In it, he described the Mennonite trekkers as the Lord’s defenceless:
Often wandering, outcast, they followed
As a poor pilgrim through the world.
Like their Lord, the Great Divine,
They had no shelter and no tent.
But they sang wonderful songs.
The cottages were filled with harmony.
Enemies dropped their weapons
When the sound penetrated their hearts. (244)
But this peaceful existence could not last. Communist authorities were eventually informed of the uncooperative Mennonites, and in 1935, after an attempt to arrest the males of Ak Metchet failed due to physical resistance by women of the village, the entire community was deported to Tajikistan. Even here, however, the Mennonites eventually thrived on the vast collective farms, and a few in fact survived to move to Germany during the last days of the Soviet empire.
In 2007 several descendants of Claas Epp visited Ak Metchet. They were delighted to learn that Mennonites are still remembered with fondness by local Muslims; and they were stunned to discover that villagers pray annually to Mennonite spirits for a good harvest. To western Mennonites, “the Great Trek of Mennonites to Central Asia is often taught as a cautionary tale against End Times fanaticism”
Claas Epp has been regarded as an aberration and a historical embarrassment. But Epp was not a paranoid leader in the stereotypical sense: his vision of community was based on defencelessness and on communal leadership. He once remarked that the Mennonites of Ak Metchet did not bother with a “national nor our own civil government, but always treated each other with the same love and courtesy central to the Christian faith” (185).
In a sense, Walter Ratliff’s fascinating book is a welcoming back of Claas Epp into the Mennonite fold. Pilgrims on the Silk Road urges understanding across the Muslim-Christian divide. It also asks us, as broken human beings, to practise love and tolerance for those at the fringes of culture.