“Hamburg Mennonites – Are Mennonites really Anabaptists?” – November 22, 2015

Disclaimer: These are unedited notes, not a presentation.

This morning I want to trace the Mennonite influence and development in one of the most important towns in North Germany – Hamburg. Like most stories of the Mennonites, this is a rather complicated story because the church and the Mennonites were actually located in Altona. Today Altona is simply a branch of Hamburg. It is like a Highland Park, or a Preston Hollow of Dallas. The center of Hamburg to Altona is just 3 miles. And for most of Altona and Hamburgs history that have functioned as one large city. However, Hamburg was part of Germany and Altona was part of the Danish territory.


Altona always perceived itself as the unwanted sibling, the smaller city that struggled to survive. Hamburg since it was part of Germany was Lutheran. The city’s terms demanded that only Lutherans could accept public office, participate in decision-making, and worship openly in the city. The city was very hostile to Anabaptists and all other non-Lutheran minorities. If they could have, the city would have loved to have barred all non-Lutherans from entering the city’s fortress walls.


However, Altona, since it wasn’t part of Germany, wasn’t as staunchly Lutheran. And in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Altona decided to invite non-Lutheran businessmen and craftmen to settle in Altona as a way of hopefully attracting economic activity away from Hamberg. It was in 1601, that Count Ernst von Schauenburg granted privileges to a group of Mennonites in Altona. But Altona didn’t just open its walls to Mennonites, they also invited Jews, Calvinists, Catholics. It was a multi-confessional and economically dynamic environment and this is what made Hamburg perhaps the top city that I wanted to see and research on my sabbatical. All these minority groups lived close to each other. It was the perfect place for me to see how Mennonites and Jews interacted with their neighbors.


It is not a stretch to call the altona-Hamburg Mennonites as the inheritor of Menno’s church. For it was the area around Hamburg where Menno Simons sought refuge during the final years of his life. Stephanie and I were able to visit Bad Oldesloe, a small town about 30 minutes north of Hamburg by train. From here, we were able to walk and see the Mennokate. This is where we believe Menno’s printing press was located and it was here where he hid and lived. Today it has been turned into a museum, which was unfortunately closed when we were in Hamburg.


One of Menno’s friends and coworkers in the area was a man named Cord Roosen. We aren’t sure if he was ever baptized as an adult, however, he was a Mennonite and his family was to become perhaps the most prominent and influential family in the Mennonite congregation in Hamburg. We don’t really know that much about Cord Roosen, except for one of his son’s Geerlinck Roosen. He had a family farm near Lubeck. It was his youngest son, Paul, that was the first Roosen to settle in Altona. However, he didn’t arrive until 1611. So we will come back to him.


We don’t know when the first Mennonites arrived in Hamburg and Altona, but we do know that by 1597, Rinsken Quins, a Mennonite refugee from the Spanish Netherlands, opened a small store in Hamburg to help raise money to support her children after her husband died. Most Mennonites only started to trickle into the region after invited and granted privileges. And these first Mennonites tended to operate as the Count’s business agents. They supplied the Count with velvet, lace trimmings, wine, fur, salmon, and other luxury goods which they acquired in Russia or south Germany.


It wasn’t until 1622, when a new count came to power, that Mennonites were allowed the right to worship publicly. However, they were not allowed to seek Lutheran converts. They were required to keep their distance form other religious groups. And they had to act peacefully and obediently.


Just like elsewhere, different groups of Mennonites were prevalent in Altona during the early part of the 16th century. They enjoyed finding a place that was welcoming them with open arms, even granting them business privileges under the condition that they would encourage other industrials to settle in Altona. During this period a number of small, socially conservative congregations formed in Altona, but unfortunately we don’t have any records about them. The main Mennonite church in Altona belonged to the Flemish branch. The oldest membership book for this congregation dates from the 1650’s. Then there were about 200 baptized members. By the middle of the 1670’s the number had risen to about 250.


The 1670’s were an important time for the church. In 1675, they built a new building on one of Altona’s oldest streets – Grosse Freiheit. And in 1678, the Mennonites established their own cemetery. Unfortunately, the church burned down in the Great Fire of Altona in 1713. But the new church and the cemetery are signs of the growing wealth, confidence, and autonomy of the Netherlandic congregation. Most of the families who financed the church owned merchant or whaling ships. The church’s services were in Dutch at this time, not German.


What did these Mennonites do for work? They were shoemakers, textile works, tailors, bakers, brewers, doctors, millers, smiths and sugar refiners. However, the largest percentage of Mennonites worked on the sea. Some were sailors. A few were even captains. However, the most influential and important Mennonites worked as brokers, insurance agents, merchants, and shipowners.


Whaling, although dangerous and difficult, promised great profits. The Dutch were the most active of northern Europe’s Greenland fishers. During the 1670’s the Dutch and England went to war and this prevented the Dutch access to the rich fishing grounds. Few Dutch ships went to sea. However, Hamburg, since it was German was not affected and thus faced little competition. Many Mennonites used their access to Hamberg to take advantage of this opportunity.


Mennonites became very active and were extremely important to Hamburg’s whaling history. Scholars debate how active they were, but the consensus is that between 1/3 to up to 2/3rds of all whaling ships were owned by Mennonites. This is astounding given their small size. Mennonites represented less than .5% of the population of Altona-Hamburg. Mennonites continued to dominate the whaling fleet of the Hamburg through most of the 1690’s and they remained extremely active in the shipping sector throughout all the 18th century. For example, in 1798, the Mennonite firm Berend Roosen Erben owned 25 large seagoing vessels. At no point in the 18th century did any other firm own more.


Why were they so successful? Mennonites were never allowed to hold political offices in the early modern period in Altona. But there were few barriers to their full participation in economic life in Altona. Isolated from political life, Mennonites had to focus their energies on their families, church life, and work. And their connections to the Netherlands were extremely important. Whaling in the Netherlands was established much earlier than the industry in Hamburg. Many Mennonites used their family ties to gain easy access and training into this lucrative business. They had an advantage over the rest of the population and they exploited it.


Is it possible to be Mennonite and not have schisms? In Altona, a major schism began in 1648. A new group emerged – the Dompelaars. Anyone familiar with their Dutch? Dompelen in Dutch means to immerse or dunk. That should give you a good hint over why this split happened.


In 1648, 17 members of the Flemish church made known their conviction that adult baptism should be a baptism of immersion. Sprinkling was the common practice of the day for this church. The supporters of immersion also argued that communion should be celebrated in the evening with only unleavened bread and also only after the washing of feet. It is pretty clear that issues had been festering for some time over the cornerstones of this church. It had 4 in the early 16th century – husbands were lords over the wives; footwashing was a sign of christian humility, adult baptism should be practiced by sprinkling, and secular rulers were like fathers who corrected the wrongs of their disobedient sons. Anything striking about these cornerstones?


Now is probably as good as time as ever to introduce you to one of the most important individuals in the church’s history – Geeritt Roosen. He was the most prolific record keepers among Mennonites in Altona-Hamburg. He was the son of Paul Roosen, who came to Altona in 1612. The congregation met at the time at the Roosen family house for worship. He was elected as a deacon in 1649 and in 1660 was appointed as one of their preachers in 1660, which he did until he retired in 1708, when he was then 96 years old. We will come back to Geeritt in a bit, but he turned out to be a big player in this schism.


Numerous attempts to repair the schism failed, mostly because the Dutch Mennonites were heavily opposed to immersion. Immersionists were often tied to those who incited disorder. They brought back memories of Munster. And like I said, Mennonites here wanted to do everything they could to distance themselves from that debacle. By the mid 1650’s, the church had become two congregations.

In 1670, the Dompelaars were officially recognized as a church within Altona and granted the same privileges as the other minority churches. However, during this time the oldest generation of members began to die off, and the congregation also began losing members. Many who had left the Flemish church started to slowly return. Also during this time, their preacher died and interestingly during this time, they called a Lutheran preacher to be their interim minister. This ceremonial, strict church quickly was undergoing changes.

After this, the most important leader was a man named Jacob Denner. If you are a fan of art, you may know his son, Balthasar, one of the most important German painters during the 18th century. Denner is a character. He is definitely someone who I would have liked to met. He was a charismatic preacher who had a following whenever he spoke. The Flemish church in the city tried their best to steal him away, but ultimately he ended up in the Dompelaar church. And under his preaching, the church experienced a renaissance. His preaching attracted enough visitors, that the church decided that they needed to build a church, which interestingly was located just a few houses down from the other Mennonite church, on the same street. And it was members, and a deacon, of the Flemish congregation who contributed the majority of the money to build this church.

An interesting aside, the main supporter was a man named Ernst Goverts. When he died in 1728, his estate owed creditors a massive amount of money. Because he paid so much money for the church, it was actually listed among the reserves of Goverts’ estate. The only way that his creditors wouldn’t seize the church was because the Denner’s son, Balthasar, agreed to paint a portrait of the local countess ever year until her death. That is how they saved their church.


While Denner was a fantastic preacher, he was an awful administrator. Each week they had dozens of visitors, however, no effort was put into turning this visitors to members. They had only a dozen active members, the rest were just casual attenders. When Denner died, that pretty much was the end of the Dompelaars. They then folded back into the care of the Flemish church.


As a pastor, one thing that I am always interested in is Mennonite pastors and how they handled power. Roosen with his family ties to Menno, the fact that the church met in his house, and that everyone in his family always became deacons, had a lot of power. It didn’t help that in 1669, he granted land, an extremely large farm just northwest of Hamburg to the church. He allowed the church to rent the land out, and the money had to be used either to fund preachers in the future, or in emergencies. However, if the church ever decided to believe anything other than his beliefs, the land would revert back to his family. He wanted to discourage further schisms. However, this also made him and his ancestors, even more powerful. And near the end of his life, when he was 90 years old, the church was ready to move away from Gerritt Roosen and call some new preachers. However, his power and influence had a stronghold on the congregation. All in all, Roosen appears to have been a moderate, but deeply pious man who focused a large amount of his attention to the larger Mennonite church. He was extremely wealthy and was also one of the largest donors which financed the large tower of St. Michael’s church in Hamburg – a Lutheran congregation. He was so wealthy, that he was granted privilege to set up residence in the city.


There are a few things which I want to stress which became evident to me when I studied the Mennonites of Hamburg. First, is that it is a relatively new development within the Mennonite faith to promote active non-violent resistance. Something like the Peace Center which promotes active peacemaking would be completely foreign to the early Mennonites. Menno Simon’s talk of peace wasn’t really important to the generations who came after. The earliest Mennonites considered themselves to be non-resistance. However, I’m not sure that we would agree with this statement.


One example, I believe Mary Sprunger talked about briefly when she talked about Mennonites in Amsterdam. However, the issue seems to have been bigger in Altona than there. That is Mennonite merchants and guns on ships. Part of the problem was that most ships were owned by a large number of people. Businesses knew that pirates or other countries would confiscate cargo on occasion. It was too risky to put all your eggs into one ship. It was less risky to own a small portion on dozens of ships. This mitigated risk. Quite often this meant that they didn’t have to make decisions about putting guns on ships. It was made for them. However, Mennonites were majority owners of a number of ships with cannons. We know that Gerd Baker’s whaling ship had 34 cannons on it during times of war.

Mennonite pastors, elders, etc did not seem to care that their members owned ships which were armed with guns in Hamburg. Never do we find any evidence in congregational records that the issue was ever discussed during the 17th century. It was taken for granted. It does appear that there were Mennonites who decided not to arm their own ships with guns for religious reasons, though some of these hired other gun ships to protect them and fire, if needed. It was agreed though that Mennonites couldn’t use these guns. They couldn’t operate the weapons themselves. However, if they paid others to use the guns, then there was no problem.


Only in the 18th century do we find Mennonites threatening members to be banned for not activing nonviolently. But that didn’t stop the Mennonites from sailing with cannons on board. The important Mennonite merchant, Berend Salomons Roosen owned at least three ships with cannons on board while he was a deacon. Never was this seen as a real contradiction to their practicing non-resistance.


There were a number of people who were punished throughout this time for serving as mercenary soldiers. None of these cases involved use of arms on merchant ships. It was also an accepted practice that you could hirer others to use guns for you. Mennonites never thought that the world shouldn’t use violence, just that Christ was calling Christians to act non-resistantly.


It is also important to mention that the Roosen relatives made gunpowder. They knew that the gunpowder was to be used in war. However, as long as believers did not use the gunpowder themselves, it is OK. This would be something similar to Mennonites working for Haliburton, or any other defense contractor today. I think most Mennonites would argue that this is wrong. Mennonites were also merchants of weapons… etc.


This may seem odd but it also kinda correlates to the teachings of Menno. In an article on weapons signed by Menno and several other Anabaptist leaders:

On weapons. The elders cannot regard it as impure if a believer while on a journey carries a staff or a sword over his shoulder in accordance with the customs of his country. But the elders declare it impermissible to display or show weapons of war at the command of the government.


What about Mennonites and the government? I think we would partially agree and partially disagree with them. Geeritt Roosen for example wrote “it is our duty to be subservient to the authorities and also to pay tolls, excises and tributes to them.” Government authority has been founded on God’s authority. And as long as non-Mennonite government authorities were the ones using weapons to protect God-fearing citizens against enemies, then Mennonites had no right to object.

Here is a quote from their confession of faith from 1702 on this topic.

“That Government is from God and those who oppose government oppose God’s order; therefore, we require ourselves to be obedient to our rulrs for the sake of the Lord and our conscience, not because of the treat of punishment … To them we are required to pay tools and meet other requirements, while also showing them obedient respect, they being not just kings alone but also rulers of lesser orders, as well as those who have been given sovereignty over cities and territories.”


Michael Driedger has argued that early Mennonites were really conforming non-conformists. They held non-conforming principles, and yet did as much as possible to confirm while upholding these principles. Today you could argue that many Mennonites are either straying, or evolving past these beliefs. However, I don’t think you can argue that Mennonites aren’t acting within their tradition when they act in many conforming ways. Stated another way, I think it is safer to say that we are the outlier in our tradition. Not the churches in places like Oklahoma where we might question their pacifistic ways.


One last story that poses an interesting and hopefully unresolved question – are Mennonites really Anabaptists? We tend to think yes. I use the terms almost interchangeably and our biggest seminary is called Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.


But in the 1660’s in Hamburg, there was a trial against the Mennonite merchant Hans Plus. Plus was charged with being a member of the illegal sect of Anabaptists. The city was also sued for giving protection to a criminal. One of the big questions of the case – Are Mennonites, Anabaptists? Both the lawyers of Hamburg and the laywers of Plus then spent a great amount of energy to prove that Mennonite and Anabaptists are two completely distinct groups.

The case against Plus lasted for four full years. Not because the case was complicated but because Plus refused to swear an oath. The Flemish were opposed in principle to swearing oaths, and oaths were required if one was to testify. Swearing was unacceptable at the time. Finally a compromise was reached, years later.

Plus’ defense made the argument that unlike Anabaptists, Mennonites are Christians. They are obedient to the state. However, the prosecutator argued that there was no important difference between Mennonites and Anabaptists. Both groups reject child baptism. Both opposed the oath. Both laywers used different Mennonite confession of faiths to try to argue their points, that one was tied to the Anabaptists, or that they were inherently different.


All in all, the trial lasted for almost ten years. By this time, Plus had taken up residence in Russia for his business. And no decision was ever reach. The judge couldn’t determine if Mennonites were Anabaptists or not. Plus died a few years later in Moscow. And without a person to charge, the case dissipated. So are Mennonites Anabaptist? That is a question I leave with you. I’m not sure there is a good answer either way.