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Mennonite Migration to Cottonwood County

Cottonwood County Historical Society
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Black and white photograph of the Wiens family homestead, ca. 1950s

The Wiens family homestead, site of the Bible studies meetings that led to the formation of Bingham Lake Mennonite Brethren Church. Photograph by Mountain Lake Studio, ca. 1950s.

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.

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.

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Centennial Committee. 100 Mountain Lake, 1886–1986. Gary Richter, M.L.C.B.C., G.P.A.R., cons. and comp. Unpublished manuscript, 1986. Personal collection of the author.

Friesen, J. John. Seventy-Five years in Minnesota, 1874–1949: Mennonite Churches in Mountain Lake Community. Mountain Lake, MN: N.p., 1950.

Friesen, Peter M. The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia, 1789–1910. Translated and edited by J. B. Toews, Abraham Friesen, Peter J. Klassen, and Harry Loewen. Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1978.

Hiebert, Clarence. Brothers in Deed to Brothers in Need: A Scrapbook about Mennonite Immigrants from Russia, 1870–1885. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1974.

Horsch, John. Mennonites in Europe. Vol. I. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1942.

Jungas, John P. History of Mountain Lake. Unpublished manuscript, ca. 1970. Personal collection of the author.

Kroeker, Elaine Ewert. A Culture of Call: The Story of the Carson Mennonite Brethren Church. Hillsboro, KS: Free Press Books, 2014.

Rempel, John P. Jubilee Celebration: In Remembrance of the 50 Year Existence of the Mennonite Settlement in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, 1875–1925. Orlando B. Harder, trans. Mountain Lake, MN: N.p., 2000.

Seeger, William. Report on Russo-German Immigration. [St. Paul]: N.p., [1873?].

Toews, Paul, and Kevin Rempel. For Everything a Season: Mennonite Brethren in North America: An Informal History. Winnipeg: Kindred Productions, 2002.

Wiens, Henry E., and P. W. Balzer. Eightieth Anniversary, 1877–1957: The Mennonite Brethren Churches of Delft and Mt. Lake, Minnesota. N.p.: The Churches, 1957.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of the Wiens family homestead, ca. 1950s
Black and white photograph of the Wiens family homestead, ca. 1950s
Black and white photograph of Bingham Lake Mennonite Brethren Church (1885–1949); date unknown.
Black and white photograph of Bingham Lake Mennonite Brethren Church (1885–1949); date unknown.
Map of the homesteads of members of the Carson Mennonite Brethren Church.
Map of the homesteads of members of the Carson Mennonite Brethren Church.
Color image of Carson Mennonite Brethren Church, Delft, Minnesota (1949–2005). Photograph ca. 2000s.
Color image of Carson Mennonite Brethren Church, Delft, Minnesota (1949–2005). Photograph ca. 2000s.

Turning Point

In 1871, the threat of new laws requiring Mennonites to fight in the Russian army restricts religious liberty for the pacifist Mennonites and leads them to seek refuge in other lands, including America.



Followers of Menno Simons, called Mennonites, flee Western Europe for the Vistula Delta area of Prussia.


Fredrick William II, King of Prussia, revokes privileges for Mennonites, requiring them to participate in military service.


Mennonites accept Catherine the Great’s invitation to settle land in Russia with promise of permanent military exemption for their young men.


Eighteen Mennonite men sign a document of severance from the Mennonite church and establish the Mennonite Brethren Conference.


Czar Alexander II begins an inquiry into terminating Mennonite exemption from military service.


Mennonites from Molotschna Colony, Russia, settle in Cottonwood County, Minnesota. They form a Bible-study group that develops into the Bingham Lake Mennonite Brethren Church, later known as the Carson Mennonite Brethren Church.


The Mennonites’ Bible-study group officially affiliates with the Mennonite Brethren Conference on February 11.


A meetinghouse is built in the center of Carson Township 4.5 miles north of Bingham Lake. It is called Bingham Lake Mennonite Brethren Church.


The congregation relocates to Delft and takes the name Carson Mennonite Brethren Church.


Carson Mennonite Brethren Church closes after 130 years of ministry.