Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Russia

The fear of some people who called themselves Mennonites

Beginning in the 16th century many Mennonites fled persecution in Friesland and Flanders and settled in the Vistula delta region of Poland. Here they gradually lost their evangelistic fervour and their faith dwindled to a mere outward conformity to some principles that they felt to be the essence of the faith. It seems they ceased to read the writings of Menno Simons and lost any concept of what it meant to be of the same faith that he upheld.

When Prussia annexed the Vistula delta region in the late 18th century, many of these people moved into southern Russia (today Ukraine). Here they could live in peace and began to feel that their peace depended upon keeping quiet about the real foundations of the Mennonite faith. When two men had Menno Simon’s writings printed for the benefit of those who called themselves Mennonites in the Russian colonies, the Mennonite church reacted strongly.

In August of 1835, all 29 elders and ministers of the Moltotschna colony signed a letter demanding that all copies of Menno’s book should be confiscated and destroyed. The pretext was that some people of other faiths, or some government officials, might read those writings and cause trouble for the so-called Mennonites.

Abram Friesen, one of those who had arranged for the printing, had a different impression of the true motive for banning the book:

“One would like to ask these men: How come do you want to put the lighted lamp under a bushel? Oh, that they might take the words of Christ in Matthew 5:13, 14, 15 to heart! They would have to call out woe upon woe for having done so foolishly. For what do these good men think of this? Menno feared neither tyranny nor persecution, neither pressure nor disfavour, hatred nor poverty, but in this book has freely professed before all men his ground and faith, and confessed the Lord Jesus Christ before men according to Matthew 10:31-39. But without imminent threat of danger these good elders and teachers are afraid without reason, for the hearts of the higher authorities are favourably inclined concerning freedom of conscience and worship and rule over the pious with great gentleness. Not only do they refrain from interfering in their faith and principles but often refer us back to them.

“On the contrary, the elders and teachers, who should be more in favour of the work consider it a great risk, and fear hatred from people of other religious persuasions. I only fear that a different matter in their own conscience aroused hatred in themselves because Menno Simon’s teaching severely reproves the Mennonites of the present and especially the ministry. Consequently they feel ashamed and reproved and therefore prefer not to have these books in their congregations.

The last two paragraphs are taken from By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them, by Peter Toews, emphasis added.

Papa Panov should be Father Martin

Le Père Martin, a Christmas story about an old shoemaker who wanted to see Jesus, appeared over 130 years ago. It was the work of Ruben Saillens, writer, musician and Baptist pastor of Marseilles. Unbeknownst to him, the tale was soon translated into English and circulated without the name of the author.

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy read the English translation of the tale, and, thinking it was an old English folk tale, made an adaptation in Russian. Tolstoy’s version quickly spread around the world, no doubt aided by the renown of his name.

When Ruben Saillens learned that his tale was circulating under the name of another, he wrote to Tolstloy, who apologized to him in 1888. Ten years later, seeing that the tale attributed to Tolstoy was still in circulation, Ruben Saillens again sent him a courteous complaint. Tolstoy replied with the following letter (written in French):

As I have written to you, in all the Russian editions of my writings, it is said that the story Where love is, there is God, has been borrowed from a translation made from French. (1) With regard to the translations that are made of this story in America or elsewhere, it is completely impossible for me to control them, especially since more than 15 years ago I surrendered all of the copyrights for all my works published after 1881 in Russia as well as abroad.
Receive, Sir, the assurance of my distinguished feelings.
Leo Tolstoy
March 20, 1899
(1) and which is none other than your story: Father Martin

Tolstoy’s story, apart from being located in Russia, seems to give less importance to the Bible. In the tale by Ruben Saillens, the old shoemaker, Father Martin has had misfortunes in his life and it seems that he has recently obtained a large Bible that he is often seen reading. In Tolstoy’s story, Papa Panov searches for the old family Bible, which he has not read for a long time. From this point, the stories are almost identical.

If anyone wants to have the story written by Ruben Saillens, the copyright is now expired and I can send it by email (text only, without illustrations). Also, because I have been unable to find this tale in English I have translated it. Send me an email at the address found under Contact Me at the top to request this story in French or English, or both.

Ruben Saillens vs Leon Tolstoy

Ruben Saillens (1855-1942) was a well-known French Baptist pastor, writer and musician. My next few posts will consist of my translation of a story written by him that was first published in France about 130 years ago. Unknown to the writer, someone translated it into English. The English version, with no name attached, then found its way to Russia where it was discovered by Leon Tolstoy. Tolstoy then proceeded to render the story into Russian, with a few minor changes including changing the setting from Marseilles to some place in Russia. When a French translation of Tolstoy’s version appeared, Ruben Saillens wrote to Tolstoy, who replied with an apology in 1888.

Ten years later, seeing that the story was being published everywhere and attributed to Tolstoy, Saillens wrote again and received the following reply:

As I wrote to you, in all the Russian editions of my writings it is said that the tale: Where there is love, God is there, is borrowed from a translation made from French (and is none other than your tale: Le Père Martin). As for the translations which are made of your tale in America and elsewhere, it is completely impossible for me to control them, inasmuch as more than fifteen years ago I surrendered all my copyrights for all my works that have appeared since 1881 in Russia as well as other countries.
With kindest regards
Leon Tolstoy
March 20, 1899

Was Tolstoy a plagiarist? He was definitely negligent if he made no attempt to discover who wrote the original tale that he then modified and sent out under his own name. However one can’t say that he deliberately plagiarized Saillens’ story; since it came to him in English, perhaps he took it to be an old English folk tale.

Most readers will be familiar with some version of the story of Papa Panov, the old Russian cobbler. I have tried to convey Saillens’ original French story as faithfully as possible. I would be interested in hearing your opinion: do you prefer Saillens’ story or Tolstoy’s?


“There was this Mennonite congregation in the town where I grew up, made up of people who came to Canada in the 1920’s. Their people had lived in Russia for generations and had built up prosperous farms. All was going well for them, until 1917. The Revolution took everything they had worked so hard to build, they were persecuted, not so much for their faith as for being German and being so much better off than others.”

I don’t know Pete outside of the coffee shop. Every once in a while we happen in at the same time and sit down and visit for maybe an hour. He is a bachelor, retired, a student of the Bible and of history and he loves to talk and tell stories.

He went on to describe how this congregation was consumed with resentment for the way they had been treated in Russia (really Ukraine, but it was part of Russia in those days). They prospered materially in Canada, but no one from that congregation ever served in a mission; they had no outreach to others.

“One Sunday,” Pete said, “there was a visiting minister. This man had seen greater hardships than the others; he had escaped from Russia by himself, hiding by day and travelling by night. He finally made his way to freedom and then to Canada. He stood behind the pulpit and said ‘Yes, the Russians treated us badly. But we deserved it. We deserved it for the way we treated them when things were going well for us.'”

You see, the Mennonites first came to Russia at the invitation of Empress Catherine. Catherine despised the Russian and Ukrainian peasants, considering them to be hopelessly ignorant and backward. She was German and she believed that the only hope of progress was to populate the Ukrainian and Russian countryside with Germans.

Twenty percent of the Germans who came at her invitation were Mennonites. Being a German in Catherine’s Russia offered many privileges and they quickly adopted Catherine’s attitude toward the Russian and Ukrainian peasants. They hired some of them to work for them in menial positions and treated them with very little respect or consideration. Then the Revolution came and they found themselves on the wrong side of the power structure.

Many of them made it to Canada as refugees. Some carried a burning resentment within them; this was not how things were supposed to turn out. The visiting minister appears to have had a more Christ-like attitude and a clearer grasp of just why things had gone bad.

A sense of entitlement is not a Christian virtue. It is foreign to the Anabaptist heritage that this congregation claimed. A sense of entitlement poisons our outlook on life and makes us unable to be thankful for kind and good things that happen to us. It causes people to keep their distance from us, it makes us unfruitful in sharing the gospel. Because we really don’t have a gospel to share when we have an attitude of entitlement.

If we consider ourselves to be strangers and pilgrims, having no continuing city here on earth, knowing that there is nothing good within us that makes us worthy of being treated with respect and generosity, then life will be full of pleasant surprises. With thankful hearts we will confess that we are treated much better than we deserve. And some people will actually believe what we have to say about the goodness of God.

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