Varied vernaculars and material memories: Mennonite bibles and their histories

Title page of a bible printed in Strasbourg in 1630

Kat Hill

Two editions of the Bible, one in Dutch and one in German, both printed in the early modern era. One came off presses in the Netherlands in the 1590s and is now housed in the British Library in London.1 The other was printed in Strasbourg in 1630, but resides in the Mennonite archives in Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, over 7000 kilometers away across the Atlantic.2 These thick volumes of vernacular scripture embody complicated confessional and material histories of Anabaptism and its legacies.

Title page of a bible printed in the Netherlands in the 1590s for Danzig
Mennonites, the Schottland bible

The Dutch bible, known as the Schottland bible, is a large, decorative volume filled with maps produced for Danzig Mennonites in the Vistula Delta sometime between 1595 and 1598. Mennonites were not allowed to print in Danzig itself, so these bibles were produced in the Netherlands in Haarlem, probably from the workshop of Gillis Rooman. From Haarlem, the bibles then crossed to Danzig via trade routes across the Baltic, and Quirin Vermeulen, a Mennonite Elder, distributed them from his home in Schottland, a suburb of Danzig outside its walls where Mennonites could settle which gave the bibles their name.3 The Strasbourg bible appeared from the presses of Lazarus Zetzner in 1630 in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, during which the city maintained a neutral stance and avoided devastation. Whilst it was a reprint of the Luther Bible, based on the last edition printed in Luther’s life in 1545, it had been checked and updated with commentaries provided by Daniel Cramer, a Lutheran pastor in Stettin.4

At the point of creation, then, these bibles existed in similar but also distinct Protestant worlds and represented the importance of vernacular scripture in the age of reformations.5 But there were different vernaculars and choices to be made in confessional communities. The Schottland bible represented the continued use of Dutch amongst Mennonites who had migrated to Polish Prussia. The Strasbourg bible was printed for a Lutheran vernacular audience, but it was bought by the Friesens, a Mennonite family, in Russia in 1797, who had moved from the Vistula Delta in the 1780s. These communities had spoken Dutch until the mid-eighteenth century but the seepage of German into communities meant it became the official language of worship and administration for Mennonites.6 The decision to purchase a German Bible was, therefore, not neutral but an indicator of the way in which these communities had changed, compared with the Dutch-language Schottland bible. Mennonites took German with them to Russia and later to America, where it became a linguistic reminder of their past.

Notes for sermons written on the inside cover of the Schottland bible

Both bibles had material lives too as objects which were used and read, and both bear the imprints of that use. At the front of the Schottland bible, are handwritten lists of suitable passages for sermons and a dedication. The Friesen bible was a repository for family and community memory. A folder in the Mennonite archives in Kansas contains a slip taken from the front of the Friesen Bible, a copy of the printed letter of invitation issued by the Tsarist regime in 1787 to Mennonites in Danzig when they moved from Polish Prussia to settle in Ukraine.7 It had been kept as a memento of this important moment in the family’s history. The single sheet has become separated from the bible where it was once kept, archived away from the volume, which is stored with the rare books. The slip and the bible had then had travelled all over the world from Poland, to Russia, to Paraguay, British Columbia, Minnesota, and then Kansas.8 The bibles, with their annotated pages and memorial pasted-in preface, embody the connections, memories and emotions that sustained Mennonite communities as they moved. Bibles often served this function as treasured possessions. Families might use bibles for example to paste in documents or record genealogies, taking the bible with them when they travelled. The Bachmann’s copy of the 1536 Froschauer bible, in the Mennonite Heritage Centre, Harleysville, Pennsylvania, contains the family record, sometimes composed in beautiful fracture.9

The Friesen family bible’s afterlife is much more dramatic than the volume now in the British Library, but in their own ways both bibles as material things record memory and connections across generations, revealing how Mennonite confessional identity was contained in objects as well as ideas. It is not enough to simply look at numbers of books printed or the textual content alone. These bibles were two of countless vernacular editions of the scriptures produced in the early modern era, but these volumes encapsulate the way in which books tell histories beyond the text they contain. They are individual artefacts, with their own distinct biographies and contexts, they are printed, handled, used, written on, and handed down.10 As material things, entangled with the stories of religious lives and communities, they illuminate the way in which vernacular bibles were more than vehicles for scripture and instruction but can allow us to explore histories of Mennonites and their lived experiences across chronologies and geographies.


  1. Den Bybel … uytten oirspronckelijcken Hebreuschen ende Grieckschen ghetrouwelick verduytschet, etc (Danzig: K. Vermeulen, 1598, actually printed in Haarlem). BL 3041.h.5.
  2. Biblia: Das ist Die gantze Schrifft Alten und Neuen Testaments. Verteuschet: Durch D. Martin Luther. (Strasbourg: Lazarus Zetzner), Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kansas, 220.531 B471LF.
  3. Peter J. Klassen, Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2009), 146–7; Edmund Kizik, ‘Relgious Freedom and the Limits of Social Assimilation: The History of the Mennonites in Danzg and the Vistula Delta until their Tragic End after World War II’, in Alistair Hamilton, Sjouke Voolstra and Piet Visser (eds), From Martyr to Muppy: A Historical Introduction to Cultural Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands: the Mennonites (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994), 54.
  4. Bülow, von, “Cramer, Daniel” in: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 4 (1876), S. 546-547 [Online-Version]; URL: https://www.deutsche-biographie.de/pnd119180049.html#adbcontent
  5. Andrew Pettegree, ‘Books, Pamphlets and Polemics’, in Pettegree, The Reformation World (London: Routledge), 116–32; Pettegree, Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 139
  6. Klassen, Mennonites, 159–60.
  7. Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kansas, Small Archives II-55, ‘Von Trapp Flyer to Danzig Mennonites’; James Urry, Mennonites, Politics and Peoplehood. Europe – Russia – Canada 1525-1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006), 123–4.
  8. Note written by Jacob T. Friesen to accompany the bible. Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel, Kansas, 220.531 B471LF.
  9. https://www.reynolds-lake.ca/genealogy/documents/general/BachmanFroschauerBible.php Accessed 10 November 2019. Accessed 19 November 2019. On the Froschauer Bible see also Adolf Fluri, ‘Froschauer Bibles and Testaments’, Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953.  https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Froschauer_Bibles_and_Testaments&oldid=122489. Accessed 20 November 2019.
  10. On used books see William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2008).

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