Sunday, March 14, 2010

Flemish Origins of American Mennonites

In keeping with my occasional insertion of third-party source material underscoring the ‘unrecognized’ Flemings among us – and their contribution to the settlement and discovery of America – let us turn our gaze a bit further east than usual. In several of my earlier postings I recounted the Flemish link to Anabaptists and their less-controversial fellow-travelers, the Mennonites. These Mennonites were hard-working with a strong sense of communalism that perhaps sprang from their agricultural vocations.

The changing regimes and the ebb and flow of violent oppression ultimately forced these rural "German" pacifists eastward. First, to Prussian, then Polish and finally Russian territory. By 1942 despite waves of emigration to the Great Plains of North America that began in the 1870s, they numbered as many as 3 million in cloistered communities from the Crimea to Vladivostok.

Despite 400 plus years of migration and discrimination across several continents many Mennonites recognize their Flemish roots. While not counted by census takers (and therefore understating yet another facet of the Flemish diaspora in North America), they are an active and important link in the settlement of this continent.

Below is an excerpt from “Preservings”, which bills itself as “the Magazine/Journal of the Flemish Mennonite Historical Society” (No. 22, June 2003).

A people who have not the pride to record their own history will not long have the virtues to make their history worth recording; and no people who are indifferent to their past need hope to make their future great.” – Jan Gleysteen

Notwithstanding the most severe persection of the Reformation, the Mennonite Church survived in Flanders from 1530 until 1650. Three-quarters of the 1,204 martyrs in the Spanish Netherlands [modern day Belgium] were Mennonites (almost half of them women) as opposed to the Reformed (Calvinist) faith. As many as seventy percent of the martyrs in Ghent [Gent], Bruges [Brugge], and Courtrai [Kortrijk] were Mennonites.

Two-thirds of the martyrs from the Lowlands [Netherlands] documented in T. J. van Braght’s 1660 Martyr’s Mirror were Flemish. “For the Flemish followers of Menno Simons it was a ‘century of struggle,’” writes historian A.L.E. Verheyden. Where the brotherhood of the Northern Netherlands soon divided under the individualism of elders, “…the severe repression in the South [Flanders] saw the Mennonites rallying anxiously around the church and expecting from it the greatest blessing. “ [Anabaptism in Flanders, (Scottsdale, PA: 1961), p. 9].

During this time a steady stream of refugees left Flanders and Brabant fleeing to Holland and Friesland with many eventually settling in the Vistula Delta where they were known as the “Clerken” (clear, pure or “Reine”). Some 40 to 60 percent of the genetic heritage of the Polish-Prussian Mennonites (and hence of the Russian Mennonites) can be traced to the Flemish lands of modern Belgium.

The diaspora carried with it the spirit of medieval monasticism and the core teachings of the Catholic faith which gave it birth. It was the Flemish Mennonites who successfully transplanted their Christo-centric communities from Flanders, Brabant, Holland, and Friesland, to the Vistula Delta starting in 1530, and in 1789 to southern Russia. It was the Flemish Mennonites, as opposed to the Friesians, who – after the division of 1567 [religious division between Mennonites] – were predominant in the Vistula Delta and in Imperial Russia. The “Rein” [pure] Flemish (the Grosse Gemeinde), constituted 80 percent of the Molotschna Colony [one of the most important Mennonite settlements in Russia] during the 1860s.

In Chortitza the Flemish influence was even more prominent, clearly dominating spiritual and cultural life of the ‘old’ Colony until the demise of the Mennonite commonwealth in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Even in 1920, the Flemish-based Kirchliche congregations included 80 percent of the 100,000 Mennonites in Russia. The three denominations immigrating to Manitoba in 1874 to 1878 – the Kleine Gemeinde, Bergthaler, and Old Colonists – were all of the Flemish Ordnung.

Through the Martyr’s Mirror our Flemish Mennonite ancestors left a ringing testimony of their faith and theology. Although constantly under attack by Satanic forces, many of their best traits have been carried forward for almost 500 years and are still practiced in hundreds of traditionalist (Kirchliche) and conservative communities in North and South America. Their profound ethical, moral and spiritual values and Christo-centric Biblicism continue to be reflected in the day-to-day lives of modern Mennonites and other descendants, totaling some 600-700,000 souls.

Copyright 2010 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted without my express written permission.


  1. Thank you so much, David !

    Again some excellent information about our flemish ancestors and their fight and outcome to remain a small nation in this big, big world.

    You did a great job, David !
    Thank you so much, bro !

  2. Hi David,

    I am your new follower, I hope to see you among my followers:)

    Nice to hear that you like my maps, I am afraid that I am not advanced into graphic and many of my maps could be better. I will learn from you. You have many nice maps.

  3. Very nice. Thank you for helping to place the Mennonite tradition within the larger ethnic community. Many secular Mennonites are now turning towards other definitions such as "Dutch-American" or "Flemish-American" to describe their new or post-religious identity, and while this still seems a bit strange to the tongue, it is good to see that we are and will be welcomed.

    Neu Bruderthaler

  4. Thank you very much Neu Bruderthaler (intriguing moniker). Self-identity is likely an evolving thing and the melting pot certainly modifies identities. I wonder whether my children's children will still claim the cloak of Flemish American or have melted into the wider pot. But I certainly welcome with a hearty handshake any of our Mennonite fellow travelers willing to reach back into their past and connect with their Flemish roots.

  5. My husband grew up in the Mennonite tradition, attending a Mennonite church in MN. We have always heard of the family history coming through Prussia and the Ukraine, and more recently have become aware of the Flemish roots of some of the members of their community. This is very interesting to us since we have been living and ministering in Flanders, Belgium since 1999. Any suggestions as to how we could further investigate our family history here? Thanks, Penny Unruh