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How Mennonites came to Cottonwood County, Minnesota

The first Mennonites from Russia to arrive in Cottonwood County came in 1873, when thirteen families immigrated to Mt. Lake from the Crimea.

After relocating to Delft, pictured here in 1984, Cottonwood’s Mennonite congregation changed its name to Carson Mennonite Brethren Church.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Believing that war and violence are inconsistent with Jesus’s teachings to love one’s enemies, a group of people from Molotschna Colony, Russia — Mennonites of Dutch descent — searched for a permanent home in the early 1870s. They found such a place, where they could follow their faith without persecution, in Minnesota’s Cottonwood County.

Menno Simon, a Dutch Catholic priest born in 1496 in Witmarsum, Friesland, Holland, was part of the Anabaptist Reformation of the sixteenth century. Simons taught nonresistance, advocated a Christ-centered lifestyle, and claimed that the teachings of Jesus held the most importance in the Bible. He also taught that baptism should follow (rather than precede) a person’s commitment to Jesus Christ. People who followed the teachings of Simons were called Mennonites.

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To escape persecution, the original Mennonites immigrated from Western Europe to Prussia in the 1600s. From there, they moved to Russia in the 1700s. By 1789, 228 Mennonite families had settled in the village of Chortiza, the first Russian Mennonite colony. Other colonies formed as Mennonites migrated to Russia to avoid persecution in Prussia. In 1810, 400 families lived in the Molotschna Colony, which was made up of sixty villages. It is from this group that the Carson Mennonite Brethren Church founders came.

Czar Alexander II reformed the Russian military after losing the Crimean War in 1856. He terminated many of the privileges given to Mennonites by Catherine the Great, including military exemption. Mennonites, believing that participating in war compromised their faith, sent delegations to explore emigrating to North America.

The first Mennonites from Russia to arrive in Cottonwood County came in 1873, when thirteen families immigrated to Mt. Lake from the Crimea. In April 1874, Minnesota senator William Windom introduced a bill (S. No. 655) in the U.S. Senate which urged the United States to establish permanent settlements for Mennonites. He emphasized their integrity, work ethic, and need for a place to live out their religious tenets peaceably.

Mennonites from Russia began migrating to southwest Minnesota as this bill, which ultimately failed in a series of very close votes, was being debated. At about the same time, the U.S. federal government gave land to railroad companies. William Seeger, Minnesota State Treasurer and Secretary of the Board of Immigration, met Mennonite delegates from Russia seeking land.

Like Windom, Seeger recognized the potential of the Mennonites as a prosperous and hard-working group. As a result, he tried to set up financial assistance programs to make Minnesota more appealing to them. Concerned that they would emigrate to Canada instead, which already offered inducements to Mennonites, Seeger took them through southern Minnesota, encouraging them to buy land near the railroads and emphasizing the quality of the farmland.

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed families and citizens older than twenty-one to qualify for 160 acres of frontier land in return for a nominal registration fee if they lived on the land for five years. This act, and the offer of land next to the railroad, attracted Mennonite immigrants to southwest Minnesota.

In 1875, Mennonite families in Cottonwood County began meeting in the home of Jacob and Anna Funk Wiens for Bible study and fellowship. Their farm was located 4.5 miles north of present-day Highway 60 on County Road 2. On February 11, 1877, they organized into a formal congregation affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren Conference. Charter members included Jacob and Anna Funk Wiens, Peter and Maria Martens, Peter and Marie Penner, Friedrich and Aganetha Strauss, Daniel and Katharina Bergthold, and Heinrich and Anna Boldt.

The congregation’s first meetinghouse, called Bingham Lake Mennonite Brethren Church, was built in 1885, four miles north of Bingham Lake in the center of Carson Township. It served them until 1949. After relocating to Delft, the congregation changed their name to Carson Mennonite Brethren Church. They continued to meet until 2005, when the church closed. The ministry had lasted 130 years.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.