History: The first non-Western Mennonites

Jan 21, 2019 by

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Mennonites today are found on every continent of the world (save for Antarctica, of course). But in the mid-19th century, the original Anabaptists’ spiritual descendants lived only in North America and Europe. It was a lily-white church.

That changed on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1854, when Dutch Mennonite missionary Pieter Jansz baptized five indigenous people on the Indonesian island of Java. Three years earlier, ­Jansz and his wife, Jacoba Wilhelmina Frederica Schmilau, had become the first Mennonite overseas mission workers when they were sent by the Dutch Mennonite mission association DZV (Doopsgezinde Zendings Vereeniging). Their converts were the first non-Western Mennonites.

Pieter Jansz and a Javanese associate working on a translation of the Bible. Jansz and his wife, Wilhelmina, were the first Mennonite overseas mission workers. — Wikipedia

Pieter Jansz and a Javanese associate working on a translation of the Bible. Jansz and his wife, Wilhelmina, were the first Mennonite overseas mission workers. — Wikipedia

It was an event some 50 years in the making. Starting in the early 1800s, Dutch Mennonites supported a predominantly Dutch Reformed mission organization and the English Baptist Missionary Society. That led to the DZV’s founding in 1847. Many early leaders were part of a Dutch Christian revival movement.

Indonesia — or the Dutch East Indies, as it was called then — was the obvious mission field. The Netherlands had a long history with the Pacific archipelago. Starting in the late 16th century, Dutch traders started importing spices from Indonesia, making great profits in the process. These merchants joined efforts to create the Dutch East Indies Co. in 1602 and made the Dutch East Indies their colony. Mennonites in the Netherlands were initial participants in the venture.

(The Dutch East Indies Co. had another Mennonite connection. In the late 17th century, Bern, Switzerland, had embarked on a campaign of expelling Mennonites and requested the company take them to Indonesia, from where the exiles presumably couldn’t return. The Dutch East Indies Co. denied the request.)

The Dutch East Indies came under Dutch governmental control in 1800 after the collapse of the Dutch East Indies Co. The Japanese took control of the region during World War II, and Indonesia became an independent nation after the war.

Jansz, who was born in Amsterdam in 1820, applied to the DZV in 1848. Earlier that year, his father and his wife both died, prompting Jansz to re-evaluate his life. He received private tutoring in Javanese languages, culture and geography and also studied the Bible and theology at the Mennonite seminary in Amsterdam.

During his missions training, Jansz met Wilhelmina, a member of the Reformed Church. They married on June 5, 1851, and set sail for Java two months later. They would never return to the Netherlands.

On Java, Pieter secured work as a teacher. The DZV did not want to send full-time missionaries, since it believed evangelism was a responsibility for every Christian. Rather, the organization wanted to support individuals who lacked the means to devote their lives to spreading the gospel.

Additionally, going as a teacher rather than a missionary meant Jansz would not be bound to the colonial government’s regulations on mission work. But he later devoted himself full time to missions.

Jansz retired due to health concerns in 1881, 30 years after arriving on Java. His son Pieter Anthonies Jansz assumed responsibility for the work on Java. The elder Jansz died in 1904, and Wilhelmina died in 1909.

Their greatest legacy is the Evangelical Javanese Church, or Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa (GITJ), which grew out of their work. The GITJ is the largest of Indonesia’s three Mennonite denominations, with an estimated 45,000 members in more than 300 congregations. Pieter Jansz also translated the Bible into the Javanese language, for which he was later knighted.

In 2005, international visitors tour the “holy stadium,” a church seating 12,000 then under construction by Mennonites in Semarang, Indo­nesia. — Javier Soler/EMM

In 2005, international visitors tour the “holy stadium,” a church seating 12,000 then under construction by Mennonites in Semarang, Indo­nesia. — Javier Soler/EMM

“In all translating, the most important thing is that the people for whom somebody translates get acquainted with the ideas, not the words, which the writer expressed in the original text,” he wrote.

Early Dutch evangelization efforts were hampered by Indonesia’s overwhelming Muslim presence. Jansz proposed that Christians form col­onies for support and protection. His son later applied the idea on a limited basis.

The DZV, meanwhile, became the de facto mission board of Russian Mennonites. Between 1870 and World War I, 14 Russian Mennonites served with the DZV on Java and the neighboring island of Sumatra. In the United States, the General Conference Mennonite Church financially supported the DZV and even explored starting a joint mission program in Indonesia.

The work in Indonesia by the DZV — renamed the Doopsge­zinde Zendings Raad in 1957 — gave birth to the global Mennonite church. Today Indonesia has about 103,000 members, while the worldwide totals are 2.1 million members in 86 countries, according to Mennonite World Conference.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. He is working on a history of Woodlawn Amish Mennonite Church.


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