Swiss Origins

From The European History of the Swiss Mennonites from Volhynia
Schrag, Martin H 1956

The early Anabaptists were educated and urban–but the persecution drove them from the cities and towns to the remote and relatively inaccessible highlands and mountain fringes of the fertile areas of the Canton Bern. Here they hid and persisted in spite of persecution, through the centuries to the present time. Persecution, of varying intensity, was the lot of the Swiss Anabaptists (Mennonites) until the middle of the eighteenth century. During the intense periods of persecution many, perhaps most of the Anabaptists, fled to whatever havens of refuge they could find, especially in the Germanic areas to the north and northwest of modern Switzerland. The Swiss-Volhynians were among this group.

Documentation of Swiss Origin. Documentation of the Swiss origin of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites is found in families that can be traced back to Switzerland, and in early records written by or about Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites.1 Mention should be made of the fact that families of interest in this study left Switzerland in the later part of the seventeenth century and the forepart of the eighteenth.

The Krehbiel family is traceable to Switzerland genealogically. Jost Crayenbuehl,2 characterized as a leader in the church, lived at Zäziwil, Switzerland, near the River Aar.3 He was located on a large hof in the immediate vicinity of Zäziwil. Three sons were born to Jost. One of these, named Peter, states that they were reared in the fear of the Lord and with much Bible teaching. They worked their fields and were not too much concerned with matters outside their immediate context. The Anabaptists living in the area met at different places on Sunday because the congregation was scattered. Nearly all of the members were farmers, with a few weavers and carpenters. Persecution came in 1670. Jost Crayenbuehl was imprisoned and mistreated. After something of a miraculous delivery from prison, he and his family left Switzerland.4

On the basis of primary sources, as recorded by the historian Mathiot, it can be asserted that the families arriving in Volhynia from the Montbeliard community in France were of Swiss origin. Mathiot states in relation to families living in the Montbeliard community, that the Fluckiger family came from Lützelfüh and Hettiswil in Bern, the Graber family from Bern (possibly Kirchdorf), the Kauffman family from Grindelwald, Bern, and the Stuckys from Kirchdorf, Diessbach, and Diemtigen.5 This evidence relates family names found among Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites with explicit points in Switzerland.

Reinforcing the last paragraph, there is conclusive evidence that the Alsace and Montbeliard communities were almost entirely composed of Swiss Anabaptists and their descendants. A Catholic priest notes the coming of the Swiss Anabaptists to Alsace in 1643. (Earlier Swiss Anabaptists in Alsace had been virtually wiped out by persecution and war.) Primary sources attest to the fact that a large group arrived in Alsace in 1671.6 The Swiss background of the two mentioned communities is commonly accepted by historians conversant with the story.7

Further evidence of the Swiss origin of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites is to be found in early documents. In a passport issued to a group of Swiss-Volhynians (Goering, Graber, Lichti, Kaufman, and Roth) as they left Montbeliard for Poland, the group is referred to as “German-Swiss”.8 They are referred to as ethnically Swiss. A second document giving further proof is the church book begun approximately 1810 by the Galician Mennonites soon after their arrival in Galacia from the Palatinate. In this source we find that the first settlers, although coming directly from the Palatinate, originated in Switzerland (were “aus der Schweiz abstammend.9)

Lastly, mention should also be made of the fact that the Anabaptist (Mennonite) communities in Alsace, Montbeliard, and the Palatinate gained very few if any new members by the conversion of their non-Anabaptist neighbors. As a matter of fact, this was forbidden by law.10 Thus, they remained “pure” in their Swiss ethnic background.

The evidence marshalled suggests the conclusion that the ancestral core of the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites was of Swiss origin.

Swiss-Anabaptist Life. Continued persecution combined with an interpretation of Anabaptist views, especially the concept of separation from the world, resulted in significant tendencies and patterns in the religious and social life of the Swiss Anabaptists.

Robert Friedmann suggests that the initial zeal of the Anabaptist movement was spent by 1600.11 A period of declining spiritual vitality and growing institutionalism is evidenced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The aggressive spirit of early Anabaptism was changed to a quietism characterized by withdrawal from the social order, a deep loyalty to the “faith of the Fathers,” a simple Biblicism, a strong concern regarding the moral life, and an increasing inwardness of religion. These tendencies were transmitted in Mennonite communities, and influenced the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites.

Persecution and the concept of separation from the world resulted in socio-religious communities withdrawn from the world. Generating strong primary group feelings, such communities also had the effect of fostering feelings of hostility of indifference toward those outside the community. These Mennonite communities were characterized by the qualities of integrity, industry, frugality12 and simplicity in dress. Persecution drove the Anabaptists into rural areas, where farming was the chief occupation. The Mennonites continued their agricultural activities as they migrated to new communities. Some aspects of German culture was a part of the pattern since most of the Swiss Mennonites were German-Swiss. Persecution discouraged higher education and creative activity. The patterns of life became institutionalized. This community pattern was inherited and perpetuated by the Swiss-Volhynian Mennonites.13

Life was difficult in the solitary valleys and mountain slopes of the area. Much of the work was done by hand. The Anabaptists specialized in dairying, farming, and fruit raising.14 Despite many difficulties, they became outstanding farmers–pioneers in Swiss agriculture, contributing to the advancement of that science.15


1 It is interesting to note that three Swiss-Volhynian family names are found in early Anabaptist records. In a listing of early Anabaptists is found one Jan Zurcher from Schaffhausen. The year is 1535, and he is listed as a city dweller (Peachy, p. 127). A Peter Stucki from Oberiesabach attended the Anabaptist debate in Bern in March, 1538. A person by the same name, possibly the same individual, was executed in Bern on April 16, 1538 (Gratz, p. 25). In July, 1531, an Anabaptist named Fluckiger reported in court that he had been baptized the previous Easter (John C. Wenger, “Martin Keninger’s Vindication of Anabaptism, 1635,” Mennonite Quarterly Review XXII:3 July, 1948, p. 180). There is no way of knowing, however, whether these men were related to the later Swiss-Volhynian families.

2 J.J. Krehbiel, Moundridge, Kansas, states regarding the origin of the name: “The saying about the name is this. There was a hill and lots of crows, so the hill was called Crayenbuhl.” (Letter from J.J. Krehbiel, Moundridge, Kansas, to C. Henry Smith, Newton, Kansas, March 18, 1923, and now in the Historical Library of Bluffton College, Bluffton, Ohio.) Variant early spelling was Krahenbuhl. The Mennonitsche Lexikon states that the Krehbiel family came from the Kirchapiel Grosshochstettern” in the Canton of Bern (“Krehbiel,” Mennonitsche Lexikon II, p. 565).

3 See location, p. 18

4 “Nach alten Papieren und Erzaehlungen eines Grossvaters Wie die Krehbiels auf den Weierhof kamen,” 1792 (unpublished article, Bethel College Historical Library). Authenticity of information based on the fact that information in the first part of the article was recorded by Peter, the son of Jost.

5 The work by Mathiot is a scholarly written book, based on primary sources. Ch. Mathiot, Recherches Historioues gur les Anabaptistes de l’Ancienne Principaute de Montbeliard, d Alsace at des Regions voizines (Belfort: Mission Interieure, 1922), Annexe. See Location, p. 18

6 Ernst H. Correll, “Alsace,” Mennonite Encyclopedia I (1953), pp. 68-70.

7 An example of this is Gratz, pp. 38 and 87.

8 Passport issued to a group of six individuals, February 8, 1721, by the Duchy of Wuerttemberg, J.B. Mauclar, colonel. Copied by the Russian Government, March 8, 1874. Russian copy original at Bethel College Historical Library, North Newton, Kansas See p. 42 for content of passport.

9 Quotation from church book in H. Pauls, “Galizien,” Mennonitische Lexikon, ed. Christina Hege and D. Christian Neff, II (1937) pp. 29-30.

10 Will be further discussed later.

11 Robert Friedmann, Mennonite Piety through the Centuries, Its Genius and Literature (Goshen, Ind.: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949), p. 11.

12 Pannabecker, p. 68.

13 Peachy, p. 116; S.F. Pannabecker, “The Nineteenth Century Swiss Mennonite Immigrants and Their Adherence to the General Conference Mennonite Church,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XXI:2 (April, 1947), p. 64.

14 Pannabecker, p. 64.

15 Samuel Geiser, “The Mennonites of Switzerland and France,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, XI:1 (January, 1937), p. 54.