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.