The Religious History of the German-Russians in the USA

"The Religious History of the Germans-Russians in the USA." California District Council Report, Fall 2003, 6-7.

To properly assess the religious history of the Protestant German Russians in the USA, it is appropriate to start with the immigration of Germans into Russia during the middle 18th Century. Coincidental with the settlement of the German colonies along the Volga, the Moravian Brethren of Basel, Switzerland, under support of the Count Von Zinzendorf of Saxony, established the mission Sarepta, in 1765 at the bend of the Volga near Tzaritzin, present-day Volgograd. The mission was created as an installation for the Christianizing of the nomadic Khirgis and Kalmuk Moslem tribes, who inhabited the region and posed a serious and constant threat to the new German settlements.

At that point in time, adherents of the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinistic) persuasions who were being settled in communities ranging from north of Saratov and south to Kamyschin, were experiencing a meager degree of spiritual leadership. The small number of pastors accompanying the immigrating groups were physically hard put to serve the scattered clusters of settlements, leaving many of them essentially un-churched. Having limited success with their efforts in connection with the indigenous tribes, the Moravian missionaries discovered a veritable field of religious opportunity immediately to the north within the Volga German colonies and were soon able to introduce their pietistic influence. Ultimately, the movement had its positive effect on the established Lutheran and Reformed churches to the extent that it was not only supported by some of the pastors such as Bonwetsch and Stärkel, but also brought about the creation of separatist groups known as the Stundenbrüder and Brüderschaft, or “Brotherhood.” These movements were further augmented during the 1850s by the advent of the Mennonite settlements east of the Volga who were of the Anabaptist, pietistic belief.

The pietistic-separatist movements also spread southward into the Black Sea area. Under the influence of the Pastor Bonekemper and the defrocked Catholic priest, Ignaz Lindl, who inspired the so-called Landau Baptist movement and brought about a similar condition within his pietistic community at Sarata in Bessarabia, the new beliefs continued to expand. Adding to this milieu of religious revisions in Russia was the migration of a body of the earlier-established Lutherans of the Chernigov along the Dneper River north of Kiev in the 1760s to the Black Sea area in the 1820s where they came under the Molotschna Mennonite influence, with a number of this group continuing into the Crimea Peninsula in the 1850s. Also worthy of mention are the Hutterites, who had migrated eastward from Switzerland to the Czech-Slovak region during the 1500s and 1600s, and from there to the Black Sea region of Russia adjacent to the Mennonite Colonies.

All of these movements, beginning in the 1870s, managed to bring along their individual as well as new and revealing assortment of religious thoughts upon their arrival in the USA. At that time, itinerant missionaries representing principally the Congregational, the Presbyterian or Reformed and the Seventh-day Adventist religious faiths were operating in the Dakotas where farmsteads were scattered and townships only beginning to be formed. The Adventist (SDA) preachers succeeded in gaining converts from among the new arrivals out of the Crimea in South Dakota, moving on into North Dakota and Canada. Several of those converts actually revisited South Russia to spread their newfound faith in that region. Others traveled south into Kansas where another new faith, the Seventh-day Church of God, was created among Volga Germans who had been adherents of the “Brotherhood” in Russia and had since become Mennonites.

While the Reformed missionaries were enjoying relatively minor successes in South Dakota, that faith became prominent in the Sutton Nebraska region. On the other hand, the Congregationalists, by offering total autonomy to the new arrivals, were ultimately successful. This came about for two major reasons. Some Lutheran congregations established by Scandinavians were of the highly liturgical order that did not appeal to the Lutherans from Russia who had been accustomed to the less formal or Slow church order. Secondly, certain of the Lutheran Churches established by people who had come directly from Germany provided a less-than-comfortable environment for the new arrivals from Russia. It must, however, be acknowledged that many Lutheran churches in the Mid-west and Western USA did serve extensive German-Russian congregations.

Thus, as the Seventh-day Adventists were enjoying great success with their movement, many of the German Russians, choosing to keep Sunday as the day of worship, became Congregationalists. As previously stated, the very strong influence in this matter was the total autonomy afforded them by the Congregational Church in the USA. While German Congregationalism had initially been established in Illinois with pastors coming from the Chicago Seminary, the Germans from Russia readily adopted this opportunity of religious freedom and soon created their own German seminary at Redfield, South Dakota, which was later moved to Yankton, South Dakota, where it remained until that group of believers in 1964 became a part of the United Church of Christ, or in some cases chose to become non-denominational churches. It is interesting to note that where a given town contained both English and German Congregational churches, they were essentially as different as two distinct denominations. Characteristically, the Germans’ observance of the Sacraments, as well as Confirmation, was carried on in the same tradition as it had been performed in Russia.

Of the newly created denominations, the Seventh-day Adventist and German Congregational Churches became the dominant German Protestant sects in the Western United States, reaching into Western Canada and from North and South Dakota southward through Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado into Oklahoma and westward through Montana and Idaho to Washington, Oregon and south throughout California. Some communities boasted two or more churches of either faith which retained use of the German language in their services until World War II. Of lesser prominence, but certainly important in many communities, were the Evangelical, Nazarene, Pentecostal and Reformed congregations. Wherever they settled, the Mennonites and Hutterites did carry on their separate cultures in clearly defined communities more consistently than the other denominations. While today, the “German” Adventists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Reformed, Hutterites, Mennonites, et al, may reflect universal diversities in their religious affiliations, the history and culture these groups brought from Russia and developed in the United States has produced a heritage that will truly remain unique and significant.

Arthur E. Flegel, Golden State Chapter, 5 July 2003

CALIFORNIA CHURCHES followed the developmental course Arthur Flegel describes. In the Fresno area, for example, the Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church (established 1892), Zion Congregational Church (1900), and the Biola Congregational Church (1921) all affiliated with the German Congregational Church, but after 1964 Zion and Biola followed the merger toward the United Church of Christ; while the Cross Church became non-denominational.

The Central California Chapter Library possesses a substantial amount of information regarding these and other Fresno-area German-Russian churches, including St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Wartburg Church, Third Congregational Church and Salem Congregational Church in Sanger.

Regarding the architecture: if you compared the image of the church in the Volga German village of Hussenbach (below, right) with some Fresno area churches, you probably identified some common architectural features. Please note the photos, below, of the Biola Congregational Church from 1921 (left) and the Cross Church from 1914 (center). While neither completely expresses the Russian neo-classic style of our example, the traces of this style are evident, especially in the colonnaded porch at the front and elements in the tower and cupola.

Are these the only two examples in California? on the West Coast? Reader: let us hear from you!

Both these buildings are functioning churches: the United Church of Christ in Biola, and the Cross Church, with a Church of Christ congregation at the corner of Los Angeles and E Streets. You can catch a glimpse of the Cross Church tower to the east of State Highway 99 as you transverse the southern end of Fresno.

Diana Bell, Joan Kincade and Marge Zahl Williford contributed to these notes.

Our appreciation is extended to the California District Council Report for permission to print this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller