Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

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Re-presenting the 1880 Mennonite
Great Trek to Turkistan

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Plan to attend these Historiography sessions
Sponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

November 14 evening and during the daytime November 15, 2008

At Bethany Manor Fellowship Centre,
110 LaRonge Road, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Resources will include:
With the powerful world-wide-web search engines it becomes difficult to include adequate footnotes to any general information compiled and re-presented which is what is done here without claiming original ownership of any intellectual property. If you enter only the short statement, "" you will quickly access the Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan website. Just using the phrase "Mennonite Historical Society" will bring up more than 30,000 options from which to fine-tune the search.

Within historical Anabaptism numerous variations occurred, but a comparison of Anabaptism with Protestantism highlights a consistent core of faith and practice among the Anabaptists. Walter Klaassen was perhaps the first Mennonite scholar to define a broad grouping of whom to include among the fourteenth century Anabaptists in his 1960 Oxford dissertation.

The influence of a five century old story becomes influential in grouping diverse Anabaptist leaders and communities under the name Mennonite as a third option to interfaith relations as well as state and faith communities. Google the word "interfaith" or "inter-faith", terms that weren't popularized until the 1960s and you'll come up with about five million options. Knowing this, the significance - and the example - of Mennonite-Muslim exchanges in the late nineteenth century become pronounced.

With goodwill as the commerce, this interfaith exchange raises questions for modern followers of Jesus: What kind of ambassadors are Christians sending forth, especially into Muslim regions? Will Christianity be represented by crusader-like bigots or by Christians who do not so much wear their Christianity on their sleeves as simply try to live it? This story unfolds in what two centuries ago was simply Asia. Early in the 20th century at the close of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, a Turkestan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was created, which eventually split into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

It is often observed that no one can be certain that his or her explanations are definitively right; everyone must listen to other voices. Thus the observation that histories are provisional; none will have the last word. So, how does revisiting a century-old story of an apocalyptic Mennonite community in Turkestan and now Uzbekistan engage Christians - and not just Mennonites - today? As history, it offers inspiration for Christian relationship with Muslims. As theology, it offers caution against runaway millennialism. As a tale of shame and communal repression, the retelling counters 100 years of silence.

For Muslims and Christians to show hospitality to the stranger- "the least of these" - seems, even now, radically cutting-edge. What's more, we're presented with a terrifyingly normal image: ordinary people, people we may easily emulate, confronting each other nonviolently at the frontiers of their civilizations. They managed their interaction peaceably - and in doing so, they may as well have reached into our times, saying firmly: "Here. Try this."

Walter Ratliff, Herndon, Va., works as content manager for Associated Press Television. Working on a grant from Georgetown to explore Christian-Muslim relations in central Asia, Ratliff began to connect that history with fragments of a diary that had been in his family as long as he could remember. The writer was Heinrich Jantzen and the diary mentions that Katharina Berg, Ratliff's great-great-grandmother on his mother's side, gave birth along the trail to Tashkent. This was in the fifth and last wagon train that in 1881 carried Mennonites from Ukraine and Russia into central Asia in search of a better life and perhaps the second coming of Christ.

Ratliff, "always on the hunt for a good story," started researching the work of Fred Belk (The Great Trek has just been republished and will be available), Franz Bartsch, Herman Janzen (just published in book form as Journey of Faith in a Hostile World), Martin Klaassen, Elizabeth Unruh Schultz (Autobiography is "What a Heritage"; granddaughter is Albertine Speiser), Dallas Wiebe (novel, Our Asian Journey), and others who recognized the influence of Claas Epp. It is quite likely that the Mennonite communities who journeyed to central Asia in 1880-81 would have done so without Epp's specific presence. Now, with much new material becoming available in the last two decades momentum has gathered to revisit this history and re-tell it in a new way.

An opportunity to participate in a 2007 tour led by James Juhnke yielded Ratliff's connection with Bethel graduate Jesse Nathan, Berkeley, Calif. Nathan and fellow Bethel graduate Andy Gingerich had dreamed of doing a video on the Great Trek retrace tour. Gingerich had to drop out of the project but Nathan persisted. He became Ratliff's co-producer of the one hour documentary THROUGH THE DESERT GOES OUR JOURNEY. The title of the documentary, Through the Desert Goes Our Journey, comes from a hymn that research shows was sung by the Mennonites on the Great Trek.

Walter Klassen, the great grandson of Martin Klaassen who died on the 1880 Trek will do a presentation of materials related to the Trek that have previously not been freely available. Not directly connected, he will also make available copies of a book about a man that historically modeled the Anabaptist faith in life. Pilgram Marpeck (1495-1556) was during his lifetime a transport entrepreneur, councellor and mayor of his home town Rattenberg, Austria; royally appointed mining superintendent; a convert to Anabaptism; ordained as an elder in Moravia (now the Czech Republic); city forester in Strasbourg, leader of Anabaptists and debater with the Protestant reformers there; author, theologian, and machine builder in Appenzell, Switzerland; forester, hydrologer and administrator of public services in Augsburg; pastor of a small Anabaptists church there and spending many hours and days writing letters and essays about how to be a Christian in a violent and intolerant world; trying, mostly with modest success, to unite different groups of Anabaptists because he was passionate about Christian unity, which he called a precious jewel. Marpeck, A Life of Dissent and Conformity; Walter Klaassen and William Klassen released in mid-September 2008; 423 pages published by Herald Press (ISBN 978-0836194234 Volume 44 in the Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History Series.)

Clickable web sites that relate to the 1880 Mennonite Trek to Turkestan - Asia. has an events box on the right side of the text.

Please DOWNLOAD THIS POSTER to put up in churches and public places for the above event (left-click to open, right-click to "save as...") or simply print.

"Mennonite Millennial Madness: A Case Study" by Walter Unger published in 1999: is a frequently expressed opinion of the 1880 Great Trek of Mennonites to Turkistan in Asia.

A related link on this topic is: Asienreise - Grandfather's Description of the trip to Central Asia 1880 (Martin Klaassen) 1964 - the full text of the pamphlet is there to read.

In 2007 a tour group to retrace the Trek history was undertaken. A series of articles that resulted from that tour is available: An important result of that tour:

The Silk Road tour that returned from Uzbekistan on Monday, June 9, 2008 had a blog contained at which contained Mennonite Great Trek - Bukhara .

Sojourners Magazine, July 2008, by Jesse Nathan ties the first two tours into a direction. [link dead now]

John Sharp the 2008 tour leader will guide our thoughts at the November 2008 event.

A professional semi-documentary film has begun to capture some of the reflections of the Great Trek and will be shown at the November event. It contains acted scripts from records of people who were on the Trek and later died in the greater Saskatoon region (Dalmeny, Waldheim, and Rosthern). Walter Ratliff's ancestors were on the Trek.

A good introduction to both the tours and the journalistic video as an introduction to the presentations being given at Bethel College in October of 2008. Recovering the Story filmmaker documents September 24, 2008 by Melanie Zuercher

Please DOWNLOAD THIS POSTER to put up in churches and public places for the above event (left-click to open, right-click to "save as...")

[last updated - Sep/2/2021]
Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan

Room 900 - 110 La Ronge Road,
Saskatoon, SK, S7K 7H8
Archive Hours: Monday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. Wednesday: 1:30 - 4:00 p.m. & by appointment on Wed. evening.