Tolerance and Freedom of Religion

Authors: Fernando Enns, Joel Driedger
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

In Germany religious groups are free to exercise their faith without state control, as long as they do not contravene the constitution. This means that Mennonites can exercise their faith without restriction and can attend their church services without fear of state repression. This was not always the case.


Mennonites under pressure

The Anabaptists of 500 years ago were highly critical of the church and its close cooperation with political power. Consequently, many Anabaptists refused to participate in wars or swear oaths. Adult baptism was a further expression of this conviction, ensuring that the only church members would be Christians of conviction. To opponents of Anabaptism these ideas posed a great danger to the cohesion of society, and the Anabaptists faced severe persecution.

Over time this opposition relaxed. Mennonites were no longer persecuted in all parts of the German Reich, although they were obliged to celebrate their church services in private rooms. They did not enjoy the same freedoms as others, and they tended to settle in those areas where they were tolerated, though with severe restrictions by political rulers.


Equal rights for all

Their own painful past experience was a crucial reason why early Mennonites called for religious tolerance and religious freedom. This liberal philosophy has remained an integral part of their congregational mindset in northern Germany. A well-known Mennonite who advocated for these values politically was Hermann von Beckerath (1801-1870), He  was elected to the parliament in the first German national assembly of 1848 in Frankfurt and served briefly as finance minister. He pleaded in favour of equal rights for Mennonites, who until that time still did not possess all the rights that other citizens had. In exchange, he asked his fellow Mennonites to accept the duty of military service. In order to guarantee full religious freedom and citizenship, he was willing to sacrifice the principle of nonresistance (conscientious objection).


Freedom without violence

After WWII it took a long time before Mennonites in northern Germany returned to their stance of nonviolence. In 2009 the Union of German Mennonite Congregations adopted the ’Declaration on Just Peace’. The freedom of religion and of conscience that Mennonites formerly demanded for themselves is now something that they acknowledge for all members of their congregations. They also speak out publically, so that this same tolerance might be exercised toward all other religions and creeds.

Zulawy – New beginnings

Author: Łukasz Kępski
Translator: Michal Targowski 

Zulawy - the fertile green lowland at the mouth of the river Vistula, with its unique traditional architecture and incredibly complex drainage system, was a home for many generations of Mennonites from the 16th to the mid-20th century.


The first Mennonites settled in Zulawy in the mid-16th century. The area, called also Werder, was then a part of Royal Prussia, one of the provinces ruled by Polish kings. In earlier centuries,  Poland had shown tolerance towards people of different religions: Jews, Roman and Orthodox Christians who lived in the Kingdom. The first half of the 16th century, a time of religious conflicts in Western Europe, brought a peaceful victory of Reformation in big Polish cities, especially in wealthy harbours like Gdansk (Danzig) and Elblag (Elbing), connected by busy sea trade routes to the Netherlands. This situation gave hope to persecuted Dutch Mennonites. Migration to Poland via Gdansk seemed a way to save their own identity.


Skillful farmers

Mennonites did not find a warmly welcome in Gdansk where local merchants and craftsmen were afraid of competition with the newcomers. However, their skills in farming on marshes enticed administrators of the marshy Vistula lowlands to invite Dutch migrants to settle in the rural, sometimes even uncultivated areas of Zulawy. The region became inhabited by Mennonites, with a developed network of settlements, canals and dikes to allow effective agricultural development of the region. Newcomers were usually given a privileged status with long-term lease contracts called emphyteusis, which protected their religious freedom, self-government and customs. From the 1540s the Mennonite population in all parts of Zulawy grew in number and area. They settled in old villages and established new ones on the lowlands between Gdansk, Elblag and Malbork.


Another migration

The peaceful existence of Mennonites in Zulawy was disturbed by Northern wars in the mid-17th century and by the annexation of the area into the Kingdom of Prussia in 1772. Restrictions of freedom and a growing demand for military service forced by new authorities caused another migration - to the Ukrainian steppes. Many Mennonites found a new home there. However, they did not forget their roots and called several new settlements after their villages left in Zulawy.  Those who stayed along the banks of Vistula had to flee from their country in World War 2, leaving behind a beautiful landscape and a cultural heritage developed during 400 years of Mennonite existence in the area.

‘Foyer Grebel’

Author: Neil Blough

Because of France’s colonial history, tens of thousands of French-speaking Africans come to study at her universities.  As a continuation of the collaboration between French and North American Mennonites in Paris, a welcoming centre for African students, the ‘Foyer Grebel’, was founded in Saint Maurice in 1977. Dutch and Swiss Mennonites soon joined the project, which became an interesting example of missionary partnership.



The Foyer offered temporary housing and assistance with looking for the stable conditions necessary to study.  Foyer staff members quickly became acquainted with the social and economic difficulties of the students.  How could such problems be solved? How could mistrust between the North and South be overcome?  The Foyer became a meeting-place of mutual learning.  Sunday evenings became a time of a shared meal and cross-cultural sharing.  New relationships, cross-cultural bridges were born from being together, mutual discussion, sharing one another’s cooking, and a common search for solutions to problems.  All of this helped those involved to learn about compassion and justice.  For many, this was the first occasion of real sharing with the “Other”: black, white, European, African.


The merciful

Many of the African students were Christians and did not always feel welcome in Parisian churches.  Some of the meetings became occasions for Bible study, singing and prayer.  New ways was of doing things were sometimes puzzling, but always a source of enrichment. Out of these meetings a multicultural congregation was born , hungering for new relationships among people of different origins.


The Gospel calls people to compassion: ‘blessed are the merciful’.  In this case, those who wanted to be ‘compassionate’ often learned what that meant from those who were to be ‘helped’.  The Foyer Grebel helped Mennonites to discover the world of foreigners in Paris.  It helped those who worked there to learn about cultural differences, colonial history and its legacy.  It was also a means to discover the global Christianity that was taking shape outside of Europe.


Multicultural heritage

An even bigger centre was built in the neighboring city of Maisons-Alfort. Temporary housing was offered until 1998, when an urban renewal project forced the closing of the project.  The Foyer Grebel nevertheless gave birth to two ‘children’ who still survive: the Foyer Grebel Christian Community, which has become the Mennonite Church of Villeneuve le Comte, and the Paris Mennonite Centre, started in the original facility in Saint Maurice when the Foyer moved to Maisons-Alfort.  The multicultural heritage of the Foyer Grebel lives on, as a constant appeal for compassion and justice among peoples.

How it began in Bavaria

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

During the Reformation many Anabaptist churches already existed in Bavaria. But the authorities disliked them and the Bavarian dukes executed many Baptists between the 16th and the 17th century. These kinds of death sentences were reserved for the Anabaptists too, which compelled many of them to emigrate. They first migrated to Moravia, where the Anabaptists continued to spread their ideas. But their persistance in  obeying the Word of God caused the same kind of persecution in Moravia.

In the late 16th century there were no more Baptist and Anabaptist activities in Bavaria, and only a few scattered Baptists remained.


The King and the Mennonite farmers

When in 1800 the Elector Maximilian IV Joseph made a law in which allowed  Protestant people to move to Bavaria, Mennonites returned too. It was mainly the  secularization of Bavaria and the specific help of the Elector that made them come back.

There was lots of land that was fit for agricultural use, and farmers to work it were needed. So the Elector, after 1806 the King of Bavaria, did his utmost to give  it to the   Mennonites, because it was known that they were good farmers with efficient work methods.


They could rent the lands of former abbeys for a good price. The king even gave estates to some families. Amish Mennonites, but also Mennonites from the Palatinate were happy to settle on those estates. Individual villages and churches were formed and with that also houses of prayer and schools with different theological outlooks. In these years there was a large wave of Mennonite families immigrating to Bavaria.

The king of Bavaria played a large part in the (re-)settlement of the Bavarian Mennonites in the 19th century.


Nonresistance or defense

Authors: Marius Romijn, Pieter Post

Dutch Mennonites can make the individual choice whether to cooperate in state sanctioned violence or not. In Menno Simons' era this was different. Since then the Mennonite attitude towards violence has changed considerably.

Münster or Menno?

Menno was opposed to the Münster Anabaptists, who had taken over the City Council in 1534. When the city of Münster was in danger of being recaptured by the Catholic bishop, some thousands of armed Dutch Anabaptists set off to defend the 'New Jerusalem'. According to the Münsterites, an Era of Revenge had begun in which the believers had to take up the sword. Christ's Kingdom of Peace would be established in the next era.


Nonviolent Mennonites sometimes supported the State

To Menno and his followers, the government had a God-given task: 'Protection of the weak, and defense of faith'. They themselves were nonresistant, but governments could use violence as part of this God-give task. In a besieged city, Mennonites would not fight, but could help by extinguishing fires or repairing damage. In 1572 Waterlander Mennonites delivered money to William of Orange for the defense against the Spaniards, and in 1672 different Mennonite denominations invested time and effort into reinforcing the Dutch army.


Separation of Church and State

In the end of the 18th century dissident and patriotic Mennonites became actively involved in the Government.  Influenced by the French Revolution they strove for equal rights. Together with the remonstrants and other enlightened theologians, they took part in the first National Parliament which had the separation of Church and State in preparation. Jacob Henrik Floh (1758-1830) was the first Mennonite pastor who took office as a secretary of State. He pleaded for equal rights, in particular for Jews who were treated as outcasts. For 19th century Mennonites the separation of Church and State (1848) was not self-evident. Some Seminary-students participated in a violent revolt which ultimately divided the United Netherlands into Belgium and the Netherlands (1830). At the same time entire congregations emigrated abroad, to escape the military draft (1853).


In the 20th century the principle of non-violence became a live issue again through the Mennonite ‘Working Group Against Military Service’ (1925). They later became the Mennonite Peace Group (1946) which supported many young men (mennonite or not) during their process of conscientious objection (CO). Since 1923 the State-Government allowed CO-ers, but in present times the military draft is postponed (1997).


Reference: Alle G. Hoekema e.a., Dagboek Cor Inja. Geen cel ketent deze dromen (Hilversum 2001). Picture: S. Groenveld e.a., Wederdopers, menisten, doopsgezinden in Nederland 1530-1980, (Zutphen 1980),174.

Mennonite Brethren Church

Author: Nataly  Venger

The Mennonite communities in the Russian Empire formed a dynamic social system.  The Russian modernization which caused social transformation in congregations led to a shift in their religious views and convinced them to update the rules of congregational life. Along with economic and social modernization, Russian Mennonite colonies underwent a 'reformation' that led to a more thoughtful understanding of justice.    



By the middle of the 19th century, about half of the Mennonite families didn't own any  land. They were deprived of participating in self-government, but had compulsory duties similar to other landowners. Among the people who did not possess land there were some who were engaged in sectors other than agriculture, and who wanted to have equal rights. Their protests led to new schism in the colonies and to the establishment of the Mennonite Brethren Church in the 1850’s. It united followers of pietism, members of young congregations and entrepreneurs (who represented the biggest part of the new church). The Mennonite Brethren Church first proclaimed its existence in January  1860 in the Molotschna settlement. The new congregation offered a new way of salvation based on criticism towards the former beliefs. Thus, the movement of Brethren Mennonites had a rebellious character.


Influence and Missionary work

The Mennonite Brethren movement soon became popular among so called new-Mennonites who were open to innovations. The first Mennonite Brethren Church conference occurred in 1872. Confession of faith was written in 1873. Their settlements were established in Kuban, Zagradovka and in Mariupol. The church conducted active missionary work and had their periodical:  ‘Friedensstimme’.


Friezen’s ‘The Mennonite Brotherhood in Russia’ (1789-1910)

In 1885 Mennonite Brethren celebrated the 25th anniversary of their church, which by then consisted of 7 settlements and 1800 members. In the anniversary year, one of the leaders of the settlement, P.M. Friezen, was assigned to write a history of the Brethren congregations. His book was published in 1911 and presented the history of Mennonite colonies as a whole. By 1917 the Mennonite Brethren movement counted 40 congregations with 7000 members.


United to save identity

History shows us that the Mennonite Brethren Church did not become a separate religious denomination. Growing Russian nationalism forced the Mennonites to unite again. Thus, we can say that Russian nationalism, which revived the ‘idea of persecution’,  brought congregations together. The formation of the Mennonite Brethren Church led to the growth of self-awareness and to the beginning of the concept of the Mennonites' mission in this world.

‘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.