1834 – 1889
The older women spoke gravely one to another on January 16, 1834, the day Jörg Waldners had their baby. Little ones, in the dead of winter, brought as much worry as joy. Would the baby live? Would its mother, in the small drafty house, regain her strength? Would there be food?
The older women did not lack reasons to worry. Bad days had come upon the Hutterian Brother’s Community in central Russia—that is, if one could still call it a community at all. The beautiful buildings where all had lived and worked together in peace along the Desna River had burned down. Older men who once directed the community had died. Most families, like the Waldners, had taken to wooded hills above Novgorod-Sieverskoi where they built little houses in the clearings. There they had struggled, everyone on his own, to make a living on little plots of cleared land. Some worked as smiths. Some made furniture, cloth, or pottery. But most of the men earned miserable wages working from dawn to dusk among the serfs on surrounding estates. Cutting hay or chopping firewood all day, they had no time left to teach their children. A growing generation had not learned to read. Meetings for worship dwindled as wickedness among the young people increased.
No, the 1830s were not good years for the Brothers’ Community. And by the time the Waldner’s little boy—Michel they called him—turned eight, those left at Radicheva moved south to the Molochna River.
Seventy-eight families travelled in five groups, each led by an older man. They arrived, penniless, in Mennonite villages along the Molochna in the fall of 1842. Even after selling all they owned they did not have enough to pay for their trip so the Mennonites helped them build sod shelters—one shelter for every two families—and gave them food. Thanks to God, the winter was a mild one, and by early spring they could begin to plow the land.
It did not take Michel long, even as an eight-year-old, to comprehend how much their situation had improved. On rolling grasslands along the Tashchenak Creek, shining green with yellow and purple flowers, the newcomers raised sheep. They planted wheat and fattened pigs. By the fall of 1845 they lived in two villages of brick houses like their Mennonite neighbours, and a school with ninety-one students opened its doors.
The childrens’ excitement, learning to read, caught on. Within a short time their mothers and fathers began slipping into the classroom to learn as well. Old Bibles and books came out of chests, and with much joy the Brothers’ Community rediscovered what miracles God had done for them in the past.
Michel’s father, Jörg Waldner, was a leader among the Brothers. His grandfather had been a leader too, and a godly man. Now Jörg felt guilty. “We have moved south and the Lord has prospered us,” he told the congregation. “We have food, houses, and lands. But how does it stand with us spiritually? What has happened with the love of Christ and godliness among us? Is it not true that we have filled our bellies but neglected to fill our hearts?”
Jörg Waldner was not the only brother with concerns. By the time Michel was twenty-two years old the Waldners with a number of other families moved to a new settlement near Orekhov in the Russian province of Yekaterinoslav. They hoped to build a Christian community there, patterned after those of their ancestors in Transylvania and Austria. But not everything turned out as planned.
Some of the brothers who moved to Orekhov disagreed on how to work together. They made it impossible for Jörg Waldner to lead the group effectively. Then Michel turned sick.
Already as a boy, Michel Waldner had begun to work in the village blacksmith shop. Now he was too sick to work. In his sickness he lost consciousness and stopped breathing. His family and friends stood around him crying, thinking he had died. But Michel had not died. In a strange state where unseen things becomes real and what is visible fades away he saw paradise and destruction, the home of the righteous and of the condemned. Deeply troubled and wondering to which of the places he would go, a voice came to him, “Were any saved in the time of the flood, except those in the ark?”
The ark! When Michel returned to consciousness the significance of Noah’s ark became clear to him. Like the ark saved Noah and his family from the flood, the ark of Christ’s body in which all believers are members, saves them from the world. Michel resolved to cast his lot with Christ and his body forever. Then his father died.
Only one year after the beginning of the new settlement at Orekhov, Jörg Waldner’s death left the struggling settlement on the brink of collapse. But they chose three men, young Michel Waldner among them, as teachers and leaders in his place.
Newly married, and with their first child, Michel and Sara Waldner took their responsibility seriously. At home in the evenings, after his work in the blacksmith shop, Michel read the Scriptures. He read songs and carefully handwritten books his father and grandfather had copied from sources three hundred years old. When another young couple, Jakob and Elisabeth Hofer moved to Orekhov from the Molochna River, the Waldners met with them to study and pray.
Michel told Jakob about his dream and of his inner call to restore the ark of brotherly community in Russia. Jakob Hofer sensed the same call and in a time of prayer they committed themselves to Christ and one another. They found a property at a place called Sheromet, sixteen kilometres away, where they built living quarters, a windmill, a brickyard, a wash house and a large tile-roofed barn. They planted crops and fruit trees. Jakob travelled long distances on foot, inviting others to come and live with them, and the Lord blessed the community with new children and families every year.
Everything pointed to peace and ongoing prosperity until 1870 when Tsar Aleksandr II signed a new decree for Russia. He ordered all children to attend Russian-language schools and young men to serve in the army.
The Brothers at Sheromet prayed for wisdom. Committed to Christ and his Sermon on the Mount they would not think of having their young men take up arms or do military training. In July 1873 two of them travelled, with a group of Mennonites, to look for a new home in America. The following year they sold Sheromet and left Russia by train.
Departing from Aleksandrovsk station on June 7, 1874, the group of 109 people included Michel and Sara Waldner with their children Michel (age 15), Johannes (9), Zacharius (8), Jakob (6), Sara (4), and twins Elisabeth and Rachel, ten months old. Five days on the train with all their belongings in bags, brought them through Kharkov, Orel and Smolensk to Vilna in Lithuania. At Vershbolovo they crossed the border into East Prussia. That evening the train stopped and the entire group gathered to sing and pray in a park near the station at Eydtkuhnen. From there the journey continued through Königsberg and Berlin to Hamburg.
At Hamburg the emigrant group boarded a steam ship, the Harmonia. Then, sixteen days after touching port at Le Havre in France, they pulled into the United States port of entry at Ellis Island, New York. For the first time in their lives the Waldners, Hofers, Wollmans, Deckers, Kleinsassers, Wipfs, Tschetters and Stahls heard the English language. Taking a ferry to New York City they bought tickets and left, just before sunset on July 6’th, to travel four days on a train through Detroit and Chicago to Lincoln, Nebraska.
The men found a large wooden house to rent. After they covered its earthen cellar floor with boards, all 109 of them had space to sleep.
In the rough town of Lincoln some of the brothers found work as day labourers. The rest went to look for land but returned, day after day, with nothing suitable. All the children turned sick and within a few weeks thirty-six of them, with one older brother, Darius Stahl, had died.
In August the group moved to Yankton in Dakota Territory where land was said to be available at reasonable prices. Once more they rented a large house and there, just in time to dig out sod houses for the winter, they bought a tract on the Missouri River, eighteen miles west of town. People knew it as Bon Homme.
The first winter in Dakota Territory was severe. Blizzards howled across the treeless plains. The men found firewood in stands of poplar along the river, while the women melted snow to drink and wash, cooking on open fires in low, damp, kitchens, and took care of the sick.
Through it all, Michel Waldner did not waver in his commitment to Christ and his body of believers. Every evening, if possible, he called the brothers and sisters together for prayer. He read to them from the Scriptures and they sang together.
With the coming of spring the community at Bon Homme breathed deeply of new life on the greening prairie. They built houses and planted grain. That summer they built a mill, and by the end of the year Michel’s enthusiasm for the newly established work in America compelled him to travel back to Russia and tell others to come.
After a laborious journey he returned to Dakota Territory with fourteen more families and a number of young people in June, 1876. That fall he left for Europe again.
Travelling once more by way of Hamburg through Lithuania, Michel neared Melitopol on the Molochna before it got dark. Close to the village where he had lived as a child, he asked the engineer to slow down the train. He took his bundle and coat and jumped out. But things did not go as planned. He tripped and hit his head on a rock.
In a daze, Michel lay by the side of the railroad as the train rumbled off. When he opened his eyes his father Jörg Waldner stood looking at him. “Why are you lying here, Michel?” his father asked. “Stand up. Come with me and I will take you home.”
Michel saw his father pick up his coat. With his hand in his father’s he walked across the fields to the village. Still as if in a dream, they entered the house of one of his relatives. “Where are we, in Russia, or America?” Michel asked out loud. But no one answered. His father was gone, and his relatives who heard him from another room came in great fright to see him covered with blood.
“Where do you come from? What happened to you?” they all wanted to know at once. The bag Michel carried in his hand was covered with blood, but his coat, lying on a chair, had not a drop on it.
After his unusual arrival, always attributed by Michel to the loving grace of God, he stayed in Russia two months. More families returned with him to America and other communities took shape in Dakota Territory and Canada.
Age never diminished Michel Waldner’s zeal for Christ. By the mid-1880s he was living at Economy, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, attempting to organise a community among what was left of the Old Harmonists’ settlement. Wherever he travelled, his vision was to see believers united in true surrender to Christ. From Pennsylvania he wrote a letter to his old friend Jakob Hofer:
The peace of God be with you, Jakob Hofer, servant of the Lord and brother. How do you find yourself with God? Do you still have hunger and thirst to seek the lost sheep? . . . The law was given to us through Moses, but the gift of grace and truth came through Christ. From him we take grace after grace and if we miss it we will be left to lament it forever.
The Lord chose us for his people, not for material but for spiritual reasons. He wants us to proclaim his Gospel to all, and with the net of his Word, he wants us to fish his chosen ones from the sea of this world.
True gain is to save a soul from destruction and bring him to the Lord, and for this we shall not stay without reward. James says, “Dear brothers, if anyone among you strays from the truth, and someone converts him, let it be known that whoever converts a sinner from his ways has snatched a soul from death and covered a multitude of sins.” This is the apostles’ teaching we build on.
At the same time, we know that as long as some enter the fold, others will go out. Both happen to encourage the faithful. When new members come in the faithful rejoice that more can be added to the church. When other members fall away the faithful wake up and take note of dangers surrounding them. In the end, it is God who protects us, and he lets everything work out for the good of his chosen ones.
Dear brothers, I am not writing you things you do not know. But we are responsible to blow the horn while it is called today.
So much, my dear brother, I wanted to write you from my weak understanding. May our Father, in his love and mercy, bless you from his abundant supply. . . . Greet the poor widows especially. Visit them faithfully and comfort them.
On October 13, 1889, surrounded by those who belonged to Christ whom he loved, Michel Waldner died at Bon Homme in South Dakota. His daughter Anna married Michael Wurtz whose many descendants live in Anabaptist communities of Canada, the American Midwest, and at Rocky Cape in Tasmania.
Main source: Zieglschmid, A.J.F. (editor), Das Klein-Geschichtsbuch der Hutterischen Brüder, Philadelphia PA, 1947