Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Nonconformists on the Elbe River: Pious, Rich, and Perplexed Four Hundred Years of Mennonites in Hamburg and Altona

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Nonconformists on the Elbe River: Pious, Rich, and Perplexed Four Hundred Years of Mennonites in Hamburg and Altona

Article excerpt

Abstract: After their arrival on the Elbe River in 1601 Mennonites were forced to confront a contradiction that eventually defined the very basis of their existence. On the one hand, they wished to retain their Anabaptist noncorformity; but at the same time they sought to overcome their status as a foreign minority. This dynamic transformed their piety and led them, at least in part, to great wealth. But Mennonites were ultimately unable to find a truly compelling way of synthesizing the tension between the religious principles of community and the daily exigencies of the marketplace. This led them into a deep and enduring state of confusion, both in terms of their religious heritage and in the challenge they confronted during the nineteenth century as a feudal society of estates--whose privileges Mennonites enjoyed--was transformed into a state premised on democratic principles which demanded that they relinquish those privileges.


About forty years ago I entered the ministry of the Mennonite church in Altona for the first time, and served that congregation for several years. But I soon left the position in order to dedicate myself to academic theology and eventually to the study of history. As a theologian, I would have obviously identified myself with the history of this congregation. As a historian, however, I must restrain myself. It is not my task here to reassure the congregation in the face of its inadequacies or to strengthen its religious identity by creating a warm spirit of nostalgia or by reviewing once more the much-praised cultural achievements of our ancestors. Even if the historian is very sympathetic to the subject, it is necessary to approach the story of the Mennonites in Hamburg-Altona with appropriate distance. (1)

These Mennonites were nonconformists. They refused to believe the way everybody else believed or to live the way everybody else lived. Wherever they went, they were different, unusual and strange, distinguished from their host society by their distinctive religious beliefs. However, with the Privilegium (2) of 1601, which gave them protection and security, they would become integrated into that society. As nonconformists they had liberated themselves from the restrictions of the feudal system. But with the Privilegium, which they eagerly claimed, they made themselves dependent upon the authorities who represented that very system. Yet by enmeshing themselves in the culture around them, they were able to gain their freedoms.

This was the thorn in the flesh of their history, the contradiction of their existence. This contradiction was not intermittent or temporary, but persistent. It runs throughout all of their piety; it was the foundation of their wealth, and it drove them from one perplexing situation (Ratlosigkeit) to the next. (3)

"Pious," "rich" and "perplexed" are interconnected traits that together constitute Mennonite nonconformity, a topic to which I now want to turn. This sequence--piety, wealth, perplexity--is not necessarily to be seen as chronological; however, with the passage of time the perplexity became more pronounced as the wealth of the community decreased and piety lost much of its vitality.


In a nineteenth-century biography Berend Carl Roosen describes Gerrit Roosen (1612-1711)--manufacturer, shipowner and preacher in the Mennonite congregation--with these words: "His faith and hope and love were thus Christ-like and practical, that is, humble, lively, active, but not self-righteous. These characteristics deeply permeated his whole being, but [he was also] simple and biblical, and without any hint of extrermism." (4) Gerrit Roosen was a model for the members of his congregation. In his biographer's formulation he was also a prototype for many generations after him: the "patriarch of the congregation." Though he did not have the benefit of a formal academic education, as a lay preacher Roosen was remarkably well informed about the theological issues of the day. …

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