representative persons

Unification of German Mennonites

Authors: Corinna Schmidt, Joel Driedger
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

There are Mennonite congregations in various North German cities. Most of them are situated in or near Krefeld or Hamburg, but there are also congregations in Berlin, Neuwied, Bielefeld and various other places. Fourteen of these are united in the Union of German Mennonite Congregations established in 1886 (In German abbreviated to VDM), with around 2.100 members.

 

Working to establish community

The VDM brings Mennonites in northern Germany together. Pastors meet to discuss theology and their local concerns. The needs and concerns of youth are addressed by youth workers, who organise camps and special events for children, teens and young adults. There is also an organisation that addresses women’s issues. The VDM als provides training for lay members who are engaged in the church.

 

Cooperation with other churches

Representatives of the VDM were present at the establishment of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948. Among German Mennonites there was a strong desire to seek greater unity between the various Christian churches after the horrors of WWII To this day Mennonites are convinced of the need for Christians to seek affiliation with each other, in order to resolve conflicts nonviolently and make the world a more peaceful place. The WCC now includes nearly 350 churches with about 550 Million members. Mennonites are linked to Christians in the entire world and similarly to a wide variety of churches in Germany. Member congregations of the VDM are also members in the Council of Christian Churches in Germany (ACK). In these dialogues Mennonites have become convinced that they can learn from other churches, and have experienced that Mennonites have an important contribution to make as well.

 

Faith and Peace

The VDM wishes to demonstrate that the message of Jesus Christ can be good news for everyone. Mennonites believe that our faith in Jesus Christ has a great deal to do with openness, tolerance, social commitment and peace. Faith motivates us to help others. For this reason the VDM established the Mennonite Peace Centre in Berlin, which works for peace in the neighbourhood and with the socially disadvantaged. There is room for everyone in our Mennonite congregations. We work to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner. The VDM encourages its members to think deeply about their faith and at the same time to become active in their communities.

 

Martyrdom

Author: Hermann Heidebrecht

Shortly after seizing the power in Russia in 1917, the Bolsheviks started fighting religion because they saw, above all, the clergy being a major obstacle in creating a new communist society. In the late 1920s this caused the strongest persecution of Christians in Europe of the 20th century.

Persecutions

The full scale of the persecutions in those days was only revealed in the 1980s . A special state commission published the following numbers: during the Soviet era, about 200.000 ministers (priests, pastors, church elder, preacher, deacons) were murdered. An additional 300.000 ministers were locked up in prisons and in labor camps. Many ordinary Christians also suffered a similar fate. About 40.000 church buildings were destroyed. From 1935 all churches in Mennonite villages were closed.  First, congregations were assigned extremely high taxes. When these could not be paid, church buildings were confiscated and turned into cinemas, granaries or workshops. Most of the church elders and preachers were arrested.

 

Imprisonment

This also happened to elder Jakob A. Rempel from Grünfeld. Due to generous financial support, from 1906 until 1912 he studied theology, philology, and philosophy at the preacher’s school and University of Basel (Switzerland). Back in Russia, Rempel became a schoolteacher and later a university professor. He rejected a call to a professor position at Moscow University because he was elected elder at his congregation in Neu-Chortitza. In the 1920s, Rempel led the Mennonite brotherhood and negotiated with the government to ensure the continuing of the congregations. In 1929, Rempel had to flee from Grünfeld, as his property was confiscated, and his family deported. In November 1929 he was arrested in Moscow and tortured for  seven months. Then he was sentenced to 10 years of labor camps.

 

Rempel’s last letter

Several years later, he managed to escape but shortly afterwards he was arrested again. He was kept in prison until September 11th 1941, when he, together with 156 other prisoners, was shot on a personal order of Stalin. In one of his last letters he wrote:

 

They can put me in chains, strike me, cut off my head, but nobody can take my faith, my knowledge, the history of my life. From a stable boy to a professor, and even higher in the work for my community, I am now at the peak of my life. I will not boast about that nor shrink from the chosen way, but I bow deeply before the one who prescribed this way to me. 

 

Itinerant preaching

Author: Johannes Dyck

Johannes Fast, a Mennonite Brethren itinerant preacher, was one of te key people in helping to re-establish congregations in new places with new people after World War II. He was born in 1886, in Mariental in the colony Alt-Samara in Russia, and died in 1981 in Dshetysai, Kazakhstan. The preacher-to-be was born into a large family. His parents, both former widowers, created a blended family of thirteen children from their previous marriages. Together they had more children in the next years and their number grew to twenty-two.

 

Vocation and theological training

After finishing the village school, Johannes started an apprenticeship with his elder brother, a carpenter. In 1908 he started a three-year term with the non-military forestry service in Gross-Anadol in South Russia. Here, on May 4th 1908 he experienced a conversion and in 1910 he delivered his first sermon. Between 1911-1913 he studied at the Bible School St. Chrischona in Switzerland. After returning home he became a preacher at the Mennonite Brethren church in Alexandertal, conducted a choir, founded a youth association in 1920 and served as an itinerant preacher. In 1913, he married Agathe Driedger. She died in 1926. In 1927, he married Wilhelmine Enns. That marriage lasted till 1976.

 

Fast’s mission tested

In March 1931, Fast and his family were deported to the Far East where he spent the next decades, until 1954. A year later he moved to Temirtau in Kazakhstan from where he visited many believers scattered around Central Asia, Siberia, and the Ural, preaching, teaching, baptizing, ordaining, and founding churches. When the oppressions became stronger in 1958, the authorities started a campaign against him, but in the end they did not put the seventy year old preacher in prison.

 

Sermons: Fast’s way of seeing

From 1967, Fast lived in Dshetysay in South Kazakhstan. Here he joined a church that consisted mostly of Germans, where he continued his work in spite of progressive blindness. In 1970, he started to write down sermons for widows, which were in turn copied by their readers. The almost blind and aged preacher continued to write, and produced two books with sermons for every day as well as a volume of sermons for different occasions. His writings are the most comprehensive collection of sermons written by a Mennonite in USSR after World War II.

 

See more about Johannes Fast in the German Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (http://www.mennlex.de/doku.php?id=art:fast_johannes). 

 

‘Equal rights for all Confessions of Faith‘

Author: Ulrich Hettinger
Translator: Jennifer Otto 

Hermann von Beckerath (1801) was born into a Mennonite family of weavers in Krefeld.  In 1815 he began training as a banker and within a few years he gained a leading role. Driven by a rigorous work ethic and ambition, he rose to the pinnacle of the Krefeld upper-class within two decades. Von Beckerath founded his own bank, sat as a member of the Krefeld city council, was president of the chamber of commerce and, after 1840, became one of the leading liberals in the Prussian Rhein territories.

 

From 1843–1845, a period of increasing political conflict between citizenry and  authorities, von Beckerath sat as a member of the Rheinland parliament.  He dealt with toll and trade issues and advocated for the legal emancipation of Jews and dissidents, and for liberal reforms within the Prussian state. He became particularly popular through his debates during the first united session of the Prussian parliament in 1847, where he vehemently supported the proposal  for a constitution for all Prussians. ‘My cradle stood on my father’s weaving stool‘:  with these famous words he confronted the Prussian nobility in parliament. Like the other representatives of Rhenish liberalism, von Beckerath stood for a liberal restructuring of the Prussian monarchy into a constitutional monarchy.

 

After the revolutionary events of March 1848, von Beckerath became a member of the Frankfurt National Assembly and also served as Finance Minister. He advocated in favour of the establishment of a German democratic republic, without Austria, under Prussian leadership. When the Prussian king finally refused the Kaiser’s crown designated for him, von Beckerath, deeply disappointed, resigned from parliament. After the revolution, he remained a member of the Prussian House of Representatives until 1852.  In later years, he withdrew from Prussian politics completely and dedicated himself to business and local politics. Hermann von Beckerath died in May 1870, shortly before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war.

 

Von Beckerath’s ideas and actions were shaped by Mennonite pietism, liberal-constitutional values and a deep-seated Patriotism  This is best reflected in his support of the Prussian monarchy and his appeal for equal rights for all Confessions of Faith, but also in his vehement support of compulsory military service, which he found an essential counterpart to liberal rights and freedoms, a position he reaffirmed even against the opposition of his ‘orthodox‘ co-religionists.

 

Reformer

Author: Marius Romijn

Menno entered priesthood in the early years of the Reformation, when the Sacramentists were also on the rise – they rejected the sacrifice of the Mass. As a curate in Pingjum, he doubted the Eucharist miracle,  and started to study the Bible more in-depth. Meanwhile the Anabaptist movement entered the Netherlands. After the beheading of Sicke Freerks, who had been re-baptized, Menno also started having doubts about infant baptism. Still, at the end of 1532 he became a priest in Witmarsum; in this period he was known as an 'evangelical preacher'.

 

The fast-growing Anabaptist movement put emphasis on the Second Coming of the Lord being at hand; the true believers had to live purely and non-violent in a congregation free of sin. An increasing group of Anabaptists, led by Jan Matthijs - later on succeeded by Jan van Leyden - tried to establish the 'New Jerusalem' in the cathedral city of Münster. They managed to overthrow the city council, and all inhabitants had to take up arms against the bishop, who would send an army to recapture the city.

 

After one year, this small Anabaptist kingdom perished in violence. Some people around Menno were involved in Anabaptist violence in Friesland. The Anabaptists where thrown into confusion, and persecution was severe. Menno still had a comfortable life, but felt like 'living in Egypt'. In 1536 he left the Catholic Church, and had to live in hiding. After much consideration and many dialogues, he was baptized.

 

In 1537 Menno accepted a request to become an elder. Gradually he became a leader of the Dutch Anabaptists, and the influence of his rival David Joris decreased. The authorities offered money for his capture. Several persons who had sheltered Menno were executed. He had started to write books and pamphlets, all considered illegal. He had to travel constantly, and finally lived as an exile in Holstein, with his wife Geertruyd and their children.

 

The pure congregation was crucial for the Anabaptists, therefore they used ban and shunning. This was meant to make sinners repent and return. In Emden the influential elder Lenaert Bouwens banned the husband of Swaan Rutgers. This mean she had to avoid all contact with him. She refused, because in doing so, she would break her marriage vows. Menno wanted to come to a settlement, but Lenaert threatened to ban him as well, and Menno yielded. This was the reason for the liberal group of the Waterlanders to branch off. On his deathbed, Menno expressed his regret about 'having been a servant of men, instead of God'.

 

Menno has been a church reformer of the second generation. He was no scholar like Luther, Zwingli or Calvin. As a practical leader, he managed to unite the peaceful Dutch Anabaptists during a stressful period. However, at the end of his life this unity fell apart.

 

Source: Piet Visser, Sporen van Menno. Het veranderende beeld van Menno Simons en de Nederlandse mennisten (in cooperation with the Netherlands, Canada, United States of America and Germany, 1996).

 

 

A modest man who helped shape the Mennonite Brotherhood

Author: Marius Romijn

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the influence of liberal protestantism decreased in the Netherlands, while orthodoxy and Catholicism remained stable. Many young liberal pastors struggled with the concepts of 'sin and forgiveness'. They were inspired by the English Quakers, especially the meetings in Woodbrooke; putting Christ and prayer at the centre. Lay people could lead in spiritual matters and in practical tasks.

 

Tjeerd Hylkema was, as a Mennonite student of theology, touched by lay piety, lay people working in the church and by the peace testimony. He contacted other Mennonites about the possibility of introducing these concepts into the Brotherhood. This became the start of the Vereniging voor Gemeentedagen ('Congregational Days Association'), a combination of national and regional meetings, working groups and gradually also conference buildings and camping barracks. Women could fulfill all the roles too, and this revived the brotherhood. Hylkema, the minister of the village of Giethoorn since 1912, was the chairman of this movement for ten years. The Central Mennonite Board ('ADS') started out feeling uneasy about the socialist, feminist, pietistic and orthodox features. The magazine of the Congregational Day Association, 'Brieven' ('letters'), was first published in 1918. Committees focused on  Bible studies, organising summer-camps for young people, pacifism, and other issues.

 

In Giethoorn, Hylkema established a training institute for basket-weaving. He also initiated aid for the Russian Mennonites, who were persecuted heavily after the Revolution of 1917. The booklet he wrote in 1920 De geschiedenis van de doopsgezinde gemeenten in Rusland in de oorlogs- en revolutiejaren 1914 tot 1920 (‘The history of Mennonite congregations in Russia during the war and the revolution 1914-1920’) was reprinted and also published in German. He was a great help during the emigration of hundreds of Russian Mennonites to North- and South-America, via Rotterdam. Help was also organised for impoverished Dutch families after the depression of 1929. During World War II, he organized a transport of Jewish children to London, and aid for refugee camps in the Netherlands.

 

After serving in Giethoorn, he became a minister in Amersfoort and Amsterdam. He served as president of the Dutch Mennonite peace-organization, and worked for the library of the Peace Palace in The Hague. He wrote for the 'Brieven', published several books, and was one of the editors of the Mennonite Hymnbook (1944). His work for the 'Gemeentedagbeweging' strengthened international relations, and helped to widen the goal of the 'ADS'  the 1924; 'enhancement of worship-services' (mainly by supporting the Seminary), was expanded with: Support of material, ethical and religious interests of Mennonites, and representation.

 

Tjeerd Hylkema was a modest man, who in spite of his poor health, could realize many of his ideals. He was a great help to the Dutch Mennonites entering the twentieth century.

 

A builder and artist

Author: Paul F. Thimm
Translator: Eliza ten Kate 

In Gdansk you'll find traces of a Mennonite family of builders and artists, the Van den Blocke family. The Hansaic city of Danzig (Gdansk) was one of the richest and most beautiful cities in Northern Europe.

Willem was the son of the sculptor François van den Blocke, from Mechelen, Belgium. Together with his brother Egidius, Willem moved to Danzig, which was looking for skilled craftsmen to translate the city's pride into buildings. His most reputable commission was the Upper Gate, which was the start of the 'Royal Route' through the inner city. He decorated it in stone, with coats of arms of Poland, Prussia and the city itself. In Oliva he built the tomb of the Kos family. In Königsberg another one of his tombs can be found.

 

Willem's son Abraham, architect and sculptor, cooperated in building the Artus Court and Neptune's fountain, and built the marble tomb for the marquis Bonifacio in the Church of the Holy Trinity. He also designed the Golden House of Mayor Speimann and the Golden Gate. Willem's other son Isaac painted pictures in St. Catherine’s Church and in the City Hall, and painted images on the altar and the pulpit in St. Mary's Church. Together with their other brother Jacob, a carpenter, they also worked on the triumphal arch for King Sigismund.

 

Newcomers to Danzig, like Egidius' and Willem's sons Abraham, Jacob and David, gained citizenship by taking the citizen's oath. This might very well be the reason they became Luterhans, since Mennonites are forbidden from taking oaths.

 

Presumably Willem and his son Isaac remained Mennonites. A sign of this is that Willem named his three sons after the patriarchs. His 'Vermeulen-Bible' also points to this, because from a textual perspective it matches the Mennonite 'Biestkens-Bible'. The Danzig merchant Krijn Vermeulen had these Bibles printed for his Dutch speaking fellow-believers. On Willem's copy his name and the date 1607 are printed.

 

Isaac requested to be able to practice his trade without having to take an oath. His Anabaptism can also be found in his painted ceiling in the City Hall. God isn't portrayed in it, but merely indicated by an arm coming from heaven and the Tetragrammaton.

 

Sources:

Horst Penner, ‘Niederländische Täufer formen als Baumeister, Bildhauer und Maler mit an Danzigs unverwechselbarem Gesicht‘, in: Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter (MGB), 26. Jg. 1969, S.12-26.

Horst Penner, ‘Kunst und Religion bei Wilhelm und Isaac von dem Block‘, in: MGB 27.Jg. 1970, S. 48-50.

Rainer Kolbe, ‘Wie mennonitisch war die Danziger Künstlerfamilie von Block?‘, in: MGB 66. Jg. 2009, S.71-84.

Rainer Kolbe, ‘Die Vermeulen-Bibel des Wilhelm von den Blocke von 1607‘, in: MGB 67. Jg. 2010, S.69-75. Nachtrag zu dem Artikel “Wie mennonitisch war die Danziger Künstlerfamilie von Block?“, in: MGB 66 (2009).

‘A man with a mission’

Author: Nataly Venger

Jacob Hoeppner was a Mennonite entrepreneur in Polish Prussia who played an active role in arranging the resettlement of the Mennonites to the Russian Empire. He was one of the first individuals who believed in the possibility and the benefit of Mennonite emigration. With his attitude he inspired other, less decisive representatives of the congregation. His determination and his support for one of the main projects of resettlement started a new age in the history of the European Mennonites.   

Hoeppner was an entrepreneur who rented a small store and tavern in Danzig. George von Trappe, the Russian government emissary who happened to be one of Hoeppner’s clients, was impressed by his business skills. He shared information about Catherine II's Manifests and about the possibilities of the Mennonites’ emigration. When living conditions for Mennonites in Polish Prussia deteriorated under the rule of Emperor Frederick II, the Danzig congregation encouraged Hoeppner and his colleague Johann Bartsch to visit Russia. The goal of the visit was to clarify the terms of emigration and to find suitable lands for settlement.    

In the fall of 1786, Hoeppner and Bartsch left for Russia. They approved a place for settlement near Beryslav. In the spring of 1787, as a result of the negotiations with statesman G. Potemkin,  'Privileges’ was written. The document was signed by Catherine II in 1788.

‘Privileges’ guaranteed the emigrants favorable living conditions. It allowed for religious expression and self-governance and encouraged the adoption of human rights and economic rationality. Mennonites were promised lands, credits and the right to run businesses. Through signing this agreement, the deputies secured their own future as well. According to the document, they themselves had the right to inherit mills that had to be built with state funding and to own stores, breweries and vinegar businesses.   

 

The first group of emigrants went to Russia in 1787–1788.  As they progressed towards Beryslav, the Russian government changed the location of the Mennonite settlement because of threats coming from the Ottoman Empire. The new Chortitza lands were not as fertile as in Beryslav and the Mennonites accused Hoeppner and Bartsch of a fraud. Hoeppner was excluded from the congregation and put into prison. But when the new emperor Alexander I came to power, Hoeppner was accepted back into the congregation. He spent his last years in the Kronsweide colony.

According to the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach (Canada) a memorial was put on Hoeppner’s grave in 1890. During the 1960-70’s it was moved from Ukraine to Canada as a remembrance to a new stage in European Mennonite history.

 

Entrepeneur and Reformer

Author: Nataly Venger

Johann Cornies – a representative widely trusted by Mennonites, who made his career by working for the Russian government. The government supported Cornies as a promoter of reforms. His values differed from the values of religious leader J. Warkentin who insisted on keeping congregations isolated and refused cooperation with the  Russian elite. The public support received by Cornies was based on his success as an entrepreneur. He was involved in trading, sheep breeding and brewing and he owned a small businesses. The profits from his agricultural business he invested in the development of industry, a determining sector for the future success of the colonies.

 

Leader of settlements and of societies

Johann Cornies started his career in 1817 when the Guardianship Committee nominated him as leader of the new Danzig settlements. He then took over the colonies of emigrants from Wittenberg. From 1825 he was working on the ‘Nogan project’ which aimed to civilize the Nogay population. Cornies demonstrated wonderful administrative skills, tolerance and an ability to match the demands of the Russian government with the needs of a traditional society.

Being a leader of ‘The Forestry Society’ (1830) and ‘The Agricultural Society’ (1836) he managed to oversee many projects concerned with economic progress. ‘The Agricultural Society’ existed until 1871.

 

Innovations and Neu-Halbstadt

During the time in which the landless population grew, Johann proposed a new plan,  which devoted small land areas in the suburbs of the colonies to members of the congregations. He donated 100.000 rubles of his personal savings to the establishment of a new colony named Neu-Halbstadt.

Cornies was a private banker who lent money to Mennonite and German entrepreneurs, Russian landlords and politicians, and who made communities supply credit to young entrepreneurs. Johann organized a program in which Mennonite craftsmen taught craft skills to Bulgarian youth. He successfully reformed the education system.

 

Future oriented

Cornies believed that the goal of the Mennonite ideology was to keep the settlement together and to establish justice within the congregation. His beliefs were influenced by his pietistic values. Even though he was an authoritarian leader, he achieved positive changes within the colony. He was certain that the future of the colonies in a modernized Russia depended upon the market developments within the settlement. Thus most of his reforms were focused on future success. The results of his projects were positive and evident in the decade that followed.

‘Mennonite Pope’

Author: Annelies Vugts-Verbeek

These days Samuel Muller is viewed as one of the most influential seminary professors in Dutch Mennonite history. In his days he was mocked as the ‘Mennonite Pope’ or ‘Head of the Church’. His growing authority and influence created a strained relationship with the autonomous and anti-authoritarian approach of Dutch Mennonites. In that respect he was more a representative of the spirit of the 19th century than of the liberal Mennonites, who felt comfortable with the (late)18th century spirit.

 

From Krefeld to Amsterdam

Born in Germany, Muller came from Krefeld to Amsterdam (1801) on a scholarship to become a Mennonite minister. He picked up the finer points of the job in the small city of Zutphen (1806), followed by callings in the more prestigious Zaandam-Oostzijde (1809) and Amsterdam (1814). In 1827 he was appointed  Professor at the Seminary, where he had been a board member for several years already. Under his leadership the Dutch Mennonite Seminary became a professional institution. It would eventually be held in  the same esteem as the Dutch Reformed Seminary, which was later to become a part of (the forerunner of) Amsterdam State University.

 

Emancipation

The Dutch Mennonites became more and more educated themselves, and played major roles in Dutch society and cultural life, for instance in institutes and journals. This meant they needed well-trained ministers who could deliver educational and motivating sermons. Ministers, who like their prominent church members, participated in the (leading) cultural networks. These Mennonites felt the need to blend in with society. Their belief differed from the Reformed approach in its anti-dogmatism and the emphasis on the Bible as the ultimate authority, not man.

 

Criticism

Muller's many pupils (for 30plus years he worked at the seminary!) were vehicles for and stimuli to this Mennonite emancipation. However, a few challenged the mainstream Mennonitism that Muller preached. Joost Hiddes Halbertsma (1789-1869) missed the old school liberalism and folklore in Mullers approach and Jan de Liefde (1814-1869) was more orthodox and more of a pietist than Muller. De Liefde left the Mennonites. Others, like part of the congregation in Balk, left the country to exercise their dearly held beliefs elsewhere.

 

Heritage

One might say that Dutch contemporary Mennonites are more heirs to Muller than to Menno. With Muller the Dutch Mennonites entered a new era that would prepare them for late 19th century modernism – a Christian belief that challenged all set dogmas, even the belief in God itself. Muller, almost ninety years old by that time, was appalled at the new theological developments for which he unwittingly had cleared the way.

 

Source: Annelies Verbeek, ‘Menniste Paus’. Samuel Muller (1785-1875) en zijn netwerken, (Hilversum 2005).