Not so Utopian? The Moral Economy of Communal Property

Martin Lutz

Thomas More’s “little, true book, not less beneficial than enjoyable, about how things should be in a state and about the new island Utopia” – more commonly known as just Utopia – imagined a society based on common property, with full equality, no poverty, and an abundance of daily necessities for all. First published in 1516, this fictitious tale outlined a seemingly perfect commonwealth, providing a stark contrast to contemporary economic inequality and social misery.1

(Utopia Thomas More (1518 November))

How could Utopia’s citizens achieve such a phenomenal economic performance leading to seemingly universal welfare? There was no idleness, for one, as everyone was expected to work and contribute to society’s well-being. As the character Raphael Hythloday explains to his puzzled listeners, “if they all were put to work—and useful work at that—you can easily see how little time would be enough and more than enough time to produce all the goods required for human needs and conveniences.”2 Moreover, Utopians did not pursue their own interest in their economic activity but tried to serve the general need. But it was especially the principle of common property that allowed the island to establish such a beneficial commonwealth. As Hythloday summarizes:

For elsewhere they always talk about the public good but they are concerned with their own private welfare; here [in Utopia], where there is no private property, everyone works seriously for the public good. And for good reason in both places, for elsewhere is there anyone who does not know that unless he looks out for his own personal interest he will die of hunger, no matter how flourishing the commonwealth may be; therefore necessity causes him to think he should watch out for his own good, not that of others, that is, of the people. On the other hand, here, where everything belongs to everyone, no one doubts that (as long as care is taken that the public storehouses are full) nothing whatever will be lacking to anyone for his own use. For the distribution of goods is not niggardly; no one is a pauper or a beggar there, and though no one has anything, all are rich.3

How utopian is such an economic world in the context of modern capitalism, an age usually associated with individual profit maximization, competitive markets, self-interest and greed? In other words, is it at all possible for the infamous homo economicus to break out from the real world to create something even vaguely similar to Thomas More’s Utopia?

A rare glimpse into the diary of a German traveler to the American and Canadian West in the years 1930-31 offers such an alternative perspective. It was in the midst of the Great Depression that hit Germany even harder then North America, inflicting political turmoil and contributing to the rise of the Nazi Party. The diary’s first entry dates from July 18, 1930, the day when German Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg dissolved the Weimar Republic’s last parliamentary government. The following election campaign was marked by ever increasing unemployment rates, strong antisemitic and anti-democratic sentiment from the extremist left and right. In the September election, the Nazi party won a landslide victory, a key milestone on Hitler’s ascent to political power that he finally achieved in January 1933.

The lone German traveler, who sympathized with Christian socialism and who was a staunch pacifist, thus had much to ponder on his journey. With his home country in turmoil and witnessing the Great Depression’s disastrous impact on America, his final destination must have appeared to him like a true Utopia. Nestled in the South Dakota plains, the visitor experienced the vision of a small-scale society based on communal property. There, all able-bodied members worked, including women and older children, contributing to the community’s overall welfare.4 In this setting, the communities produced sufficiently to sustain their membership, and it seemed to serve their commonwealth well. The traveler’s diary does not report a single issue that plighted Depression-era America: neither starvation, homelessness, unemployment, nor social deprivation.

It does probably not to come to the surprise of this blog’s readers that the communities in question were the Hutterite Bruderhöfe, scattered across the Northern Plains in the United States and Canada. The traveler was Eberhard Arnold, who had experimented with communal living in the 1920s and founded the Rhön Bruderhof in 1926. His trip to America served the purpose of connecting the newly founded community in Germany to the historical Hutterite church. Being well versed in Anabaptist history and belief, Arnold enthusiastically wrote that “[u]p till today the complete communism in production and consumption of every single Bruderhof […] and also the absolute unity of faith of all 35 Bruderhöfe is as good as completely unshaken; one can almost say is preserved absolutely pure.”5 This “purity” of the Bruderhof community was firmly based on Anabaptist-Hutterite religious principles, in particular the central tenant to forgo individual property and to “have all things common” (Acts 4:32).

The Hutterite communal economics not only provides a seemingly stark contrast to its capitalist surroundings; it also exemplifies how moral values decisively shape economic thinking, institutions and practice. This is the core of the current scholarly debate on moral economy, an interdisciplinary field of research that has grown from humble beginnings to prominence in the last decades.6

In The Moral Economists,7 intellectual historian Tim Rogan places the debate’s origin to T.H. Tawney, a British economic historian who published the influential book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in 1926. Tawney found much at fault with modern capitalism, and it is in the context of his fundamental moral critique that he referred to Thomas More’s Utopia. Tawney was no mere academic confined to his ivory tower. He engaged in workers’ education, sympathized with Christian socialism and was politically active. Likely Tawney never learned about the Hutterites; otherwise he surely would have been keenly interested in this form of Christian communism.

(Mennonite Church USA Archives @ Flickr Commons)

Other academics, however, took note of the Hutterite communal economy. One was historian Victor Peters who in the 1965 book All Things Common provided one of the first systematic analyses of the Hutterite economic way of life in the context of modern American capitalism. It is no coincidence that the book’s opener immediately refers to Thomas More’s Utopia, for Peters considered the Hutterite Bruderhof as

literally utopian, for it was Thomas More who wrote: “For what can be more rich than to live joyfully and tranquilly without any worry, not fearful for his own livelihood, nor vexed and troubled with his wife’s importunate complaints, not dreading poverty to his sons, nor anxious about his daughter’s dowry? But instead to be secure about the livelihood and happiness of their wives, children, grandchildren, and their posterity which they handsomely assume will be a long time.”8

And yet, not all seems to have been as ideal and idealistic in practice. Twenty-five years before Peters’ scholarly account, Eberhard Arnold admiringly wrote about the impressive agricultural operations he observed, including a “very large mill,” a “gigantic thresher” and “the most modern motors.” While this sophisticated (and likely quite expensive) modern equipment at first glance appeared to be highly beneficial for improving efficiency in production, a somewhat puzzled Arnold also noted a counter perspective. It was voiced by an elder at Rockport Bruderhof who did not praise the progress, but rather was worried about decay, lamenting “the no longer Hutterian school, the economic rationalization of the Bruderhöfe, the influence of the world and diminishing unity in the style of life and the waning influence of elders.”9

From Eberhard Arnold’s perspective, trying to find an escape from the troubled circumstances in Germany, his puzzlement seems understandable. At the same time, the Rockport elder’s concern is highly plausible from a more distant analytical viewpoint. By 1930, American Hutterites were far from isolated, even if their remote settlement location would appear to be. The Bruderhöfe were instead tightly connected with their environment, particularly in economic terms. Hutterites produced for the market and were in turn susceptible to volatile prices, took out loans, bought machinery, and in many other ways relied on exchange with the outside world.

It thus should not surprise us that Hutterites were confronted with beliefs, ideologies, and rationales that competed with or were in direct opposition to their own Anabaptist beliefs. How should a Hutterite discern the logic of economic growth, profit-maximization, expansion, and efficiency gains in a competitive environment? How could Hutterite moral values be compatible with the requirements of modern capitalism? And how would this eventually shape the seeming “purity” of the Bruderhof community that Arnold so greatly admired in the following decades? Answers to these questions, I am convinced, will not only enhance our understanding of Hutterites in the context of the modern world. It would also offer a viable contribution to the much wider debate on the relationship between moral values and the economy.


1. It is important to note, however, that Utopia was not without flaws, at least from a 21st century perspective. These include the institution of slavery, as well as imperial wars of aggression against the island’s neighbors. Katherine Hill recently addressed More’s Utopia in a different context in her post on this blog: https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2020/12/21/utopian-imaginations/

2. Thomas More, Utopia, with the assistance of Jerry Harp, and Clarence Miller, Second edition (New Haven, Conn, London: Yale University Press, 2014), 63.

3. More, Utopia, 129–30.

4. Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 1973, Hist Mss I-447, Box 20, Goshen Archive, 6.

5. Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 170.

6. From the extensive current literature see for example: Ute Frevert, “Moral Economies, Present and Past: Social Practices and Intellectual Controversies,” in Moral Economies, ed. Ute Frevert et al., Geschichte und Gesellschaft Heft 026 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2019); Norbert Götz, “’Moral Economy’: Its Conceptual History and Analytical Prospects,” Journal of Global Ethics 11, no. 2 (2015); Andrew Sayer, “Approaching Moral Economy,” in The Moralization of the Markets, ed. Nico Stehr, Christoph Henning and Bernd Weiler, first paperback printing (New Brunswick, NJ, London: Transaction Publishers, 2010).

7 Tim Rogan, The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).

8 Victor Peters, All Things Common: The Hutterian Way of Life (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1965), 102–3 A few years before this book, Peters had already introduced this idea in an article to the Manitoba Pageant, 7 (1961), 1: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/pageant/07/hutterites.shtml. A more recent contribution is by Thomas Nauerth in the Plough Quarterly magazine, published by Bruderhof’s Plough Publishing House, the https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/politics/finding-utopia.

9 Eberhard Arnold’s Diary, 170.

Mementos from Around the World: New Sources from A.D Wenger’s Six Months in Bible Lands

Regina Wenger

I recently pulled from my bookshelf my great-grandfather A.D. Wenger’s account of his globe-trekking journey in 1899-1900: Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months. It’d been a while since I read it, but I should have known that as a historian it was impossible for me to just read a primary source for fun. It sparked an interest to play with some digital history tools, but also to highlight some new material sources that I discovered in my extended family’s possession.

Amos Daniel (A.D) Wenger was born in 1867, just north of Harrisonburg, Virginia and under the shadow of the Civil War. After several terms of elementary school, he completed a teachers certificate at Bridgewater Normal School.1 However, rather than teaching, Wenger followed a call to preaching and farming which took the twenty-two year old out west. In addition to traveling around Mennonite communities, he trained at Moody Bible Institute, received ordination, and inaugurated an evangelistic ministry.2 Feeling a call to preach to young people, Wenger ended his western sojourn and headed to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.3 There he gained a reputation as an excellent preacher, despite his controversial tactic of holding protracted meetings.4 While in the Lancaster area, he wed Mary Hostetter of Millersville on July 1, 1897. She died suddenly of kidney disease a little over a year into their marriage. The money provided by her inheritance financed Wenger’s trip around the world.

Travelling abroad was a luxury afforded to very few at the turn of the twentieth century. In keeping a record of his travels, Wenger likely hoped to educate the Mennonite community still relatively isolated by theology and circumstance. Donald Kraybill observes that Wenger’s account of his travels carried the assumptions and perspectives of a rural American Mennonite. Each identifier—rural, American, and Mennonite—carried the power to shape his narrative.5 Race also shaped Wenger’s account as his voice vacillated between traveller, pastor, and professor. He felt the weight of “the white man’s burden.”6 Though there is a lot to unpack in his language and presuppositions, I want to spend the remainder of this post discussing new information that caught my attention in my re-reading of Six Months in Bible Lands.

The locations where Wenger traveled fascinated. So, I started to track them using Google Maps. You can view his journey here. Whenever possible, I included dates and modes of transportation. Some places—like the Holy Land—weren’t surprising stops on his journey. However, some omissions caught my attention. I wondered, why not visit Mennonite communities in the Russian Empire? In the narrative, Wenger explained that though he desired to travel there, restrictive visa practices and the threat of having papers and possessions taken stifled any appeal to travel into the realm of Tsar Nicholas II.7 Regardless of their denominational background, Wenger desired to draw his readers’ attention to missionaries and their activities around the globe.8 Not only was this interest an outgrowth of his premillennial theology, but he also sought to bring Mennonites into the missionary movement during its rapid expansion at the turn of the twentieth century. These gospel workers also served as Wenger’s most frequent companions during the various legs of his journey.9 He could continually count on them for hospitality and an assessment of a country’s conditions and indigenous peoples.10

The extent of Wenger’s travels meant that he constantly needed to exchange currencies. On a couple of occasions, he commented on money changers or the power of loose change in poor countries.11 While outside of Shanghai he and a travelling companion tried to be generous but also escape the people clamoring for money. He stated,

Just before leaving Shanghai I had gotten about ten cents worth of Chinese money called “cash” which I intended to bring home. It takes sixteen of those coins to make one cent of our money so I had about one hundred and sixty pieces of money in my pockets. Seeing no way of escape from our dilemma for a time I suddenly thought of a plan to draw them away. Running my hand into my pocket and grasping about a hundred of these cheap coins, I arose to my feet and threw them as far behind the carriage as I could.12

This passage and Wenger’s other discussions of money illustrate how he viewed foreign currencies during his travels: with a frugal nonchalance. He had the finances to respond to situations like this one with spontaneous generosity, but he liked a good price and did not appreciate attempts to extort travellers. The story from China also provides useful information about exchange rates and Wenger’s intensions for his remaining “cash.” Despite dispensing some of it, he indeed brought home coins from his travels. They are currently in my parents’ possession. I sorted them by country and marked the chronological range of the coinage.13 They provide another method of mapping Wenger’s journey around the globe. By far the greatest number of coins that returned home with him came from China. Also of note are the coins he acquired in the late Ottoman Empire. It presents a turn-of-the century geopolitical snapshot in the form of currency.

A.D. Wenger not only returned from his travels with money, but he also kept other artifacts to show Mennonite communities when he shared about his journey. Among the items are natural specimens such as whale baleen and pinecones from the cedars of Lebanon. They reveal not only his personality and interests, but practical considerations as well. Attention to flora and fauna meshed with Wenger’s farming background, but also those of his audience.14 He also kept an oil lamp from the Holy Land and scroll with either Chinese or Japanese characters. These items handled transport over long distances well. Traveling with both coins and interesting objects, however, once got him into trouble. On September 26, 1899 he attempted to depart Egypt for India. Customs officials discovered possible contraband. He recalled,

They found a piece of ore and a piece of lava that aroused their suspicion. The lava had a coin of money imbedded in it. The coin had been pressed into the molten lava when I was on Mount Vesuvius and when it cooled and hardened I carried it for a relic. They had been looking for makers of counterfeit money and now they thought they had one of them. The coin and ore pointed that way, they thought; so they held me prisoner and sent for a higher officer.15

Eventually his explanation satisfied the officer who released him and Wenger continued, though delayed, onto India. Wenger’s artifacts, supplemented by his stories, provided his audiences with tangible windows into foreign lands to which they were unlikely to travel.

His experiences abroad, plus his evangelistic ministry, provided Wenger with ample speaking opportunities upon his return to the United States in March 1900. However, contracting polio in October 1900 inhibited his mobility and left him unable to accept any preaching invitations for several months.16 Only a month before getting ill, he married Anna May Lehman after a brief courtship. The family moved to Fentress (Chesapeake), Virginia in 1907, where Wenger continued to farm while preaching and involving himself in building Mennonite education. He served as president of Eastern Mennonite School (University) beginning in 1922, a post he held until his sudden death in 1935.

The money and artifacts were in the possession of my grandfather, Chester, A.D.’s youngest son, until Grandpa’s death in 2020. The family intends to have some of the coins professionally appraised before donating them, and the other objects, to an archive. There other researchers, less close to the subject, may utilize them to examine an American Mennonite’s perspective of the peoples of the world at the turn of the twentieth century.


1. John C. Wenger and Mary W. Kratz, A.D. Wenger (Harrisonburg, VA: Park View Press, 1961), 7. Now known as Bridgewater College, the school is located in Bridgewater, Virginia.

2. Regina Wenger, “Illumination in the West: A.D. Wenger’s Theology of Revival, Dispensationalism, and Mission” (unpublished manuscript, November 7, 2013).

3. John Landis Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 724–25.

4. Mark R. Wenger, “Ripe Harvest: A. D. Wenger and the Birth of the Revival Movement in Lancaster Conference,” Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage, April 1981.

5. Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017), 3-6.

6. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands and Around the World in Fourteen Months (Doylestown, PA: Joseph B. Steiner, 1901), 480, 494-495.

7. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 53.

8. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 155, 455-483.

9. A. D. Wenger, “Unfulfilled Prophecies,” in Outlines and Notes, ed. John S. Coffman. (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Company, 1898), 52–59; Harold S. Bender, “The History of Millenial Theories,” Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library (Harrisonburg, VA), 10; George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 68; See: See for example, A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 135, 494.

10. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 153, 442.

11. See for example, A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 341-342, 528.

12. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 521.

13. A few of the coins in the image are chronological and geographic outliers Wenger’s trip. I suspect that they belonged to his daughter, Rhoda E. Wenger, who served as a missionary in East Africa during the mid-twentieth century.

14. Kraybill, 3-6.

15. A. D. Wenger, Six Months in Bible Lands, 445. The lava, though now absent of the coin, may be seen in the center of the above photograph of the objects Wenger brought back from his journey.

16. Wenger and Kratz, 20.

Disputing Dispossession

After the 1694 expulsion and dispossession of Mennonites from the city of Rheydt, negotiations were both urgent and extensive. (For the narrative of this event, as reported by Rheydt Mennonites themselves, please see my post from May 4, 2021.) The protracted aftermath – hundreds of letters, petitions, and memos sent between Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm and his commissioners, representatives of the Dutch States General, King William III of England and Stadtholder of the Netherlands, and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold III – ultimately demonstrated a small but significant rhetorical space that had been carved out through years of piecemeal economic toleration.1 Indeed, these high-level epistolary discussions often included appeals for de facto tolerance based on Mennonite economic usefulness or political obedience.

Though decisions happened primarily in these diplomatic debates, other Mennonite groups also took it upon themselves to urge intercession on behalf of the Rheydt community. These appeals often turned upon an argument for a shared Christianity, while at the same time defending against ongoing accusations of heresy – and we’ll look at one such letter today. The collective “baptism-minded” [tauffgesindt] community of the duchy of Cleve had been involved in raising funds to free the imprisoned Rheydt Mennonites in the summer of 1694, and subsequently petitioned their elector, Frederick III of Brandenburg, to plead on the Rheydt community’s behalf. They began a September 1694 letter by declaring “that those, who are of our opinion in the matter of baptism but otherwise faithful to Christian beliefs based on God’s Word” had been “attacked without warning.”2 This affront had occurred despite the community’s adherence to a faith that did “not in any way challenge the common ground of Christian religion.”3 These Mennonites were those for whom “the carrying of weapons among them was held to be prohibited, but that nothing else was sought other than to live a quiet and peaceful life under their Christian authority, to honor themselves by honest dealings, to live in Christian love and unity with their neighbors and to contribute to the common good all that appertains to a faithful subject and citizen,” and that such obvious virtues had led, “not only in England and Holland but also in various provinces of the Holy Roman Empire [to]…freedom of residence, trade and commerce like other Christian inhabitants.”4 They therefore insisted on a common Christianity, but ultimately grounded their appeal for toleration in practical, economic successes in nearby communities and territories.

This mix of theological inoffensiveness and practical economic appeal became even more clear as the Cleve community dealt with the issue of the Peace of Westphalia. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia had redefined the relationship between Christian communities, Christian authority, and the Holy Roman Empire. Calvinism now joined Lutheranism and Catholicism as legitimate official religions, and, importantly, rulers who mandated one were no longer allowed to expel dissenting believers from the other two groups. Mennonites, however, were not included in this expansion of imperial toleration. The Cleve community acknowledged that they had heard others talk about their exclusion from the treaty: “In the meantime, we hear that we, not belonging to the three religions admitted to the Roman Empire, are to be feared as heretics and therefore our property, wherever it may be, is to be confiscated.”5 The community was forced to acknowledge the invectives thrown against them, and the economic penalty that had long attended charges of heresy.6 The Cleve community therefore identified the vulnerability that their extra-Westphalian status accentuated, even as they pushed back against the conflation of non-tolerated and “heretical” groups. They stopped short, however, of making any claims on Westphalian identity: “So it should be noted that we are not looking for any rights dedicated to these three religions in the same statutes, but rather we are asking for nothing more than what we, under your Serene Elector’s Merciful protection live peacefully…so that our mere things, without some fault of our own, may not be taken.”7 This plea was underscored by the accusation that the commerce available even to “heathen, Turks and Jews” had become impossible for Mennonites – a claim that they were owed at least the same, if not more, protection than these other exogenous groups.

The Cleve Mennonites’ insistence on their common Christian status under the Peace of Westphalia is striking, especially when considered next to their still-requisite denial of any connection to the 1534/5 Kingdom of Münster. The community was unsurprisingly explicit in its denunciation, acknowledging “a certain sect of people, which one calls re-baptizers, that also committed varying severe errors, and in particular have tried to bring about turmoil and insurrection [unruhe und Emperung] in ecclesiastical and secular rule […] out of which formed in the city of Münster a terrifying example.”8 These “pernicious heretics” had been dealt with justly according to the laws of the empire, the Cleve community emphasized, with strict punishments doled out to both ringleaders and followers.9 It was moreover well known, they argued, that Menno and all peaceable Anabaptists who followed him had willingly chosen a faith and a life that distinguished themselves from their “unruly” brethren – and exonerated them, in turn, from these lingering accusations of heresy. “[Menno] does not have the slightest community with those of Münster,” they argued, and “instead they have as their first and main maxim that they do not interfere with matters of spiritual or secular rule, and prove themselves to be against all turmoil [unruhe].”10 This letter from the “baptism minded” of the duchy of Cleve was longer than most other petitions in the aftermath of the Rheydt dispossession, perhaps indicating both the gradually increasing space for, and the ongoing character of, negotiations around Anabaptist identity.

Rheydt Mennonites would be portrayed by secular authorities throughout the negotiations as either a heretical threat or an economic boon, or perhaps some mixture of the two. This malleability in their identity had proved essential to their survival thus far, but also inherent to their persecution. Although the targeting of a flourishing religious minority group was far from a unique tactic, in the case of dispossessed Rheydt Mennonites it occasioned another semi-public discussion about who was and was not a Christian – and would eventually develop into a debate over who was and was not a “Protestant.”


1. Achieved through the exchange of protection fees [Schutzgeld] for the issuance of protection letters [Schutzbriefe]. For an example of Schutzgeld payments as recorded in the registers of the city of Emden, please see my post from May 28, 2020.

2. Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz[GSPK], I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 6r.

3. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7r.

4. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7v.

5. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 8v.

6. The 1532 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina had codified laws concerning heresy, criminality, and property for application within the Holy Roman Empire. For the language of the Carolina, see “Appendix B. CONSITUTIO CRIMINALIS CAROLINA,” in Prosecuting crime in the Renaissance: England, Germany, France, edited and by John H. Langbein (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974), 259-308.

7. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 9r.

8. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 6v.

9. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7r.

10. GSPK, I. HA Rep. 34 Nr. 2112, 7r.

“Oh, that it had pleased the Lord that I might have brought you up”: Motherhood in the Martyrs’ Mirror

While I was completing my doctoral coursework, I read Steven Ozment’s When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, in which he described the magisterial reformers’ exaltation of marriage as an opportunity for women to take up their roles as mothers of the house, a position of “high authority and equal respect” to that of the patriarch.1 While Lyndal Roper and others have criticized Ozment’s rosy portrayal of Reformation-era gender relations, which failed to account for the vast gulf between the rights and privileges enjoyed by husbands and those afforded to wives, there is no doubt that many sixteenth-century Protestant writings emphasized marriage and motherhood as the primary opportunity for Christian faithfulness offered to most women.2 As wives and as mothers, they could obey the Scriptures and bring up their children in the fear of the Lord. Catechizing their own children was the primary mode of spiritual authority available to them.

At the same time, for my Radical Reformation field, I was reading Adam Darlage’s article on sixteenth-century Hutterite women, which emphasized the communal nature of child-rearing in Hutterite colonies. Hutterite mothers were not expected to be their children’s primary spiritual teachers—instead, children were housed separately from their parents as soon as they were weaned and received both spiritual and practical instruction in junior and then senior schools run by the community.3 Reading these works in parallel made me wonder whether sixteenth-century Anabaptists had qualitatively different views of motherhood than their magisterial counterparts. On the one hand, the radical reformers, like the magisterial reformers, rejected celibacy as an ideal and encouraged marriage instead. And the Swiss Brethren and the Mennonites, at least, would not have objected to mothers viewing childrearing and raising their children in the faith as an important spiritual task. But, at the same time, Anabaptist women faced a far more imminent threat of martyrdom than most other Protestant women, and so motherhood was, at best, their second-most pressing spiritual challenge. Their obedience to Christ was more likely to involve hostile interrogations and the threat of death, and to be willing to suffer death or imprisonment for Christ was of necessity to be willing to leave one’s family behind and to entrust the raising of one’s children to someone else.

Anna Jansz giving up her son Isaiah to a Rotterdam baker before her execution. Image source: https://martyrstories.org/anna-jansz/

In another life, I might have written a dissertation on sixteenth-century Anabaptist ideals and realities of motherhood. In the end I didn’t, though I think someone should! But for now, I thought I’d begin by looking at depictions of motherhood in one of the best-known early modern Anabaptist sources: the Martyrs Mirror. The first depiction of motherhood in the Martyrs Mirror that came to my mind was the iconic image of Anna Jansz, who was drowned in Rotterdam in 1539, searching the crowd for someone to raise her son Isaiah. The engraving shows the baker who finally stepped forward and agreed to raise him. He also agreed to give him a letter she had written to him, and the text of the letter became part of the Dutch martyrological tradition that culminated in the Martyrs Mirror.4 Also interspersed throughout the text are letters from five other mothers about to be martyred—Soetgen van den Houte, Maeyken Boosers, Maeyken van Deventer, Maeyken Wens, and Janneken Munsdorp—written to their children, in a last attempt to provide them with spiritual guidance. Soetgen and the three Maeykens left behind children old enough to remember them, and even to write back, so their letters reaffirmed values they had already taught their children over the years. They were deeply conscious that, after years of trying to teach their children, they were now setting the ultimate example by dying for their faith. They hoped that their children, too, would choose to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ on the narrow path that led to life. They took great comfort in the children who wrote back to them, confirming their intentions to live faithful lives. Maeyken Boosers even sent her children’s letters back to them, as a reminder of the promises they had made to her.5 The content of the children’s letters, and the faith most of their children adopted as adults, is not known, but the Martyrs’ Mirror does relay the story of Maeyken Wens’ fifteen-year-old son Adriaen, who went to witness her execution along with his youngest brother Hans (whom Maeyken, in the most touching part of her letter, had instructed Adrien to hug now and again on her behalf). He fainted when the pyre was lit, and when he came to only ashes remained. He sifted through them, found the tongue screw her torturers had used, and kept it as a memento. By the time this account was published in the mid-seventeenth century, Maeyken had several surviving grandchildren who had been named in her honor.6

Anna Jansz and Janneken Munsdorp, on the other hand, were both writing to babies so young that their letters would be their children’s only memory of them. Anna instructed Isaiah to take the fear of the Lord as his father and wisdom as his mother, a phrase that surely resonated with others as the letter circulated, since Maeyken van Deventer repeated it to her children 34 years later.7 While the rest of Anna’s letter was mostly filled with apocalyptic language about the evils of the current age and exhortations to live a righteous life, Janneken’s letter gave voice more fully to the anguish of being separated from such a young child and the deep pain she felt at not being able to live long enough to raise her. She and her husband Hans had been married less than a year when they were both apprehended, and he preceded her in death when the authorities discovered she was pregnant, since it was customary to wait until after pregnant women had delivered their children to execute them.8 She recounted how difficult it was to experience pregnancy in prison, knowing this separation was imminent. “Now that I have abided the time, and borne you under my heart with great sorrow for nine months, and given birth to you here in prison, in great pain, they have taken you from me,” she lamented.9 She held on to a sliver of hope, almost despite herself, that God might yet miraculously deliver her and return her to her daughter, but she realized that this was not the most likely outcome. “Oh, that it had pleased the Lord, that I might have brought you up; I should so gladly have done my best with respect to it; but it seems that it is not the Lord’s will.”10 Since she could not bring her daughter up in the faith herself, she hoped for one of two outcomes: “that [God] will keep you, and you grow up in His fear, or that He will take you home in your youth.”11 In a letter to her sister, she confessed to a preference for the latter outcome, so that she might be reunited with her child even sooner.12

Janneken was not the only woman in the Martyrs Mirror to give birth while imprisoned and awaiting death. Five other women gave birth under similar circumstances: Christina Haring, a woman named Lyntgen, Lijsken Dircks, Mary Joris, and the unnamed wife of Adriaen Pan. Christina, Lijsken, and Adriaen’s wife were each executed after giving birth.13 Mary Joris died in childbirth, a fact that the account of her death interpreted as deliverance, and as for Lyntgen, “the pain of delivery so affected her, that she became utterly deranged in her mind; after this she laid for a long time at Amsterdam, in a little house, in which also died.”14 There is no doubt that this experience of pregnancy in the worst possible conditions, with the certain knowledge that only death and separation from their children awaited them, was deeply traumatic for these women.15

Mothers who nursed infants at the time of their arrest were sometimes able to keep the child with them in prison, though the authorities did not hesitate to use the child to punish the mother. The Martyrs’ Mirror recalls the story of Paul Vandruynen and his wife, who had a nine-month-old child with her in prison until the authorities took the child and had it baptized. Another woman,Claudine le Vettre, suffered increasingly harsh interrogations while nursing her infant in prison, and, when these tactics failed the authorities took the child away and gave it to a wet nurse in a last attempt to coerce her into recantation. This attempt was unsuccessful, but it was “the greatest affliction she suffered during her imprisonment.”16 Mothers of slightly older children likewise found separation from their families the hardest loss to contemplate as they faced martyrdom. A woman named Claesken, who left behind two daughters and a son, became indignant when her inquisitor accused her of being confused and insufficiently familiar with the New Testament. “Do you think,” she retorted, “that we run on uncertainties? We are not ignorant of the contents of the New Testament. We forsake our dear children, whom I would not forsake for the whole world, and we stake upon it all that we have. Should we run on uncertainties yet?”17 For Claesken, the fact that she and other Anabaptists were willing to do something as impossible as leaving behind their beloved children was proof that they had been imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit.18 In addition to the mothers I have detailed so far, the Martyrs Mirror mentions three more mothers of minor children who were imprisoned: Hadewijk of Leeuwarden, Levina of Ghent, and Grietgen de Raet. Hadewijk escaped and lived out the rest of her life in Emden, but Levina and Grietgen were both executed.19 Two mothers of Anabaptist ministers, Janneken Walraven and Sijntgen Vercoilgen were also mentioned, but it seems that their sons were already adults by the time they were martyred.20 It is, of course, likely that other women in the Martyrs Mirror left behind children who simply were not mentioned in the accounts of their deaths.

Finally, the Martyrs Mirror recounts five stories of mothers who were martyred alongside one of their children: the wife and son of a man named Arent Jacobs, Neeltgen and Trijntgen of Maastricht, Lijngten Joris and her daughter, who was named either Catharina or Trijntgen, the wife and daughter of a man named Hans de Ruyter, and Anneken Botson and her daughter Janneken. While most of these accounts are cursory, the story of Neeltgen and Trijntgen describes how the two women spoke encouraging words and strengthened each other’s resolve in prison.21 The story of Lijntgen and her daughter, meanwhile, shows how the authorities attempted to pit mother and daughter against each other in order to force a recantation. On the day of their execution, they brought the daughter out of earshot of the mother and tried to tell her that her mother had recanted and she should as well. Their ploy did not work and the two women were executed together.22

The Martyrs’ Mirror, of course, self-selects for women who, however much it broke their hearts to leave their children behind, ultimately felt that martyrdom was a higher calling than motherhood. They entrusted their children to God and went bravely to their deaths. If they wavered, if they even briefly considered recanting in order to return to their families, the sources have not preserved these doubts. Overwhelmingly, it seems, they felt that their greatest task as mothers was to set a good example of faithfulness for their children. If they denied Christ in order to be restored to their children, paradoxically, they would fail at this task. It would be interesting to see what less hagiographic sources reveal about women who recanted, and how many of them cited their children as a reason for doing so.


1 Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 54.

2 See Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women, Religion, and Morals in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

3 Adam Darlage, “Double Honor: Elite Hutterite Women in the Sixteenth Century,” Church History 79:4 (2010): 769.

4 Gerald Mast, “Anna Jansz,” Bearing Witness Stories Project, published 13 November 2015, https://martyrstories.org/anna-jansz/.

5 Thieleman J. Van Braght, The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, edited and translated by Joseph F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 668.

6 Van Braght, 980-982.

7 Van Braght, 454; 979.

8 Van Braght, 985.

9 Van Braght, 984-985.

10 Van Braght, 985-986.

11 Van Braght, 984.

12 Van Braght, 988.

13 Van Braght, 441; 504; 618.

14 Van Braght, 483; 564.

15 Van Braght, 448.

16 Van Braght, 737.

17 Van Braght, 613.

18 Van Braght, 616.

19 Van Braght, 547; 549; 726.

20 Van Braght, 563; 740.

21 Van Braght, 743.

22 Van Braght, 887.

Les Frères mennonites au Québec : Le Lien, a voice for Francophone Mennonites

Les Frères mennonites (Mennonite Brethren) established a mission in Québec in 1961 when they were expelled from the Congo.1 An evangelistic fervour in the province saw a handful of congregations rapidly emerge to the north-east of Montreal, bolstering the presence of the Old Mennonites, the Fellowship Baptists and the Baptist Union churches. Using evangelistic methodology, charismatic leaders Ernie and Lydia Dyck sparked the establishment of new congregations. These new churches quickly grew to embrace several hundred young people who had converted in the evangelistic crusades that emerged in the wake of the massive cultural shifts spawned by the Quiet Revolution, Vatican II and the feminist movement.2 Historians and sociologists estimate that by 1984 there were 1000 men and women, mostly young, attending ten newly formed congregations.3

Print press became an important tool in furthering this mission. By 1980, the Mennonite Brethren Herald began to supplement their English and German bi-lingual publication with a monthly French insert, La publication françaisdu Herald.4 This journalistic enterprise gave voice to a new community. For historians, it provides a wealth of information about the development of the Mennonite church in Quebec. It is the voice of new converts who were growing into their identity as Christians and Mennonites. Initially it appears to have been an arm of the evangelism claiming Quebec, with its goal to edify and encourage new Christians. With news from the churches in Quebec, testimonies, inspirational messages and teachings for the Mennonite Christians in the province under the editorship of a young evangelistically-minded Quebecois leader Auguste Masson, it soon claimed its Quebecois identity with the name Le lien des Frères mennonites (The Mennonite Brethren Connection).5

Under new editorial leadership, Le Lien would become an important vehicle that allowed women’s voices to be heard.6 Claudette LeBlanc, who had converted under the influence of young evangelicals at the college in Ste-Therese, took the post after training at the Institute Biblique Béthel located in Sherbrooke. The mood of the paper quickly shifted as she gave opportunities for women to explore publicly what it meant to live as evangelical Christians in the fast changing culture of Quebec.7 The paper became a place where women could reflect on what it meant to be Christians in their context; it challenged readers on how they lived their lives as Christian women. Defending the increased volume of women’s voices, LeBlanc’s editorial comments in the February 1986 issue explained:

Un autre numéro sur les femmes, direz-vous! Pourquoi pas? Elles représentent souvent plus que la moitié de l’Église (53% chez nous) et leur rôle n’est pas encore clair pour tous. Il importe donc d’y rêfléchir ensemble.”
(Another issue on women, you say! Why not? They often represent more than half of the church and their role isn’t yet clear for everyone. It is necessary to reflect on this together).8

Coinciding with the naming of Annie Brosseau, another young female convert and graduate of Institute Biblique Béthel as editor, by 1988 Le lien expanded its evangelical voice to introduce the francophone constituency to the work of Mennonite Central Committee.9 The introduction of “Le MCC au Québec,” with an extensive interview of Debby Martin Koop, MCC Canada’s recently appointed representative in Quebec, set the stage for a new face for Quebec Mennonites. It was historic in its setting the stage for MCC’s relationship with the Mennonite Brethren.10 This unique relationship between MCC and the Mennonite Brethren as it involved in Quebec, notable for women’s leadership, is well worth further exploration. To conclude, I hope to develop our understanding further as I prepare for my contribution to the MCC at 100 conference coming up soon in fall 2021. I also hope that others will discover for themselves the rich potential that le Lien holds for historical inquiry.


1. Claudette LeBlanc, “’Nous louons le Seigneur!’” le lien des Frères mennonites Vol. 6, no. 2 (juillet-août 1987), 1-2.

2. For a clear outline of the developments of evangelicalism in Quebec during these years, see Richard Lougheed, “The Evangelical Revivals of the 1960s – 1980s,” in French-Speaking Protestants in Canada: Historical Essays, 191-206, edited by Jason Zuidema (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2011).

3. Ruth Dyck, “Le progrès de l’évangel dans la ‘Belle Province’” (26 september 1980), 1; see also Richard Lougheed Mennos in Quebec (Kitchener, Ontario : Pandora Press, forthcoming).

4. Ruth Dyck, “Rendez-vous à Winnipeg,” Publication français du Herald, Vol. 1, no. 1 (le 8 août 1980), 1.

5. “La tournée du trio d’IBL,” Le Lien (le 8 août 1980,), 3; (25 mars 1983), 8.

6. I have explored elsewhere the rich female culture that developed during this time. See “Le Comité des femmes inter-églises, 1978-1998: a compass for the women of l’église des frères mennonites du Québec,” Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 37 (2019), 105-18.

7. Claudette LeBlanc, “Jésus en moi,” Publication français du Herald (le 26 septembre 1980), 4.

8. Claudette LeBlanc, Le Lien (février 1986), Vol. 4, no. 8, 2.

9. Annie Brosseau, “Une Parole efficace,” Publication français du Herald (27 février 1981), 4; Le Lien Vol 9, No. 2 (juillet-août 1990), 3.

10. Claudette LeBlanc, “Le MCC au Québec, entrevue avec Debby Martin Koop,” Le Lien (May 1988), 4-5, 7.

Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch Among Hasidim and Amish

Mark L. Louden

Toward the beginning of the 1985 film directed by Peter Weir, Witness, the 8-year-old Amish protagonist, Samuel Lapp, is in a Philadelphia train station with his mother. At one point Samuel approaches a man from behind whom he believes to be Amish based on the man’s dark clothing and broad-brimmed black hat, only to discover that he is not Amish, but a Hasidic Jew.

There are obvious similarities between Hasidim, members of Orthodox Jewish sects (often described as “ultra-Orthodox”) whose strong faith infuses their daily lives, and the Amish. The spiritual descendants of a Jewish revival movement in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, Hasidim, like their Amish counterparts, marry only within their communities, have large families, and maintain a measure of distance between themselves and outsiders, a distance that is marked outwardly through distinctive practices of daily living, including how they dress and groom themselves. Aside from the fact that Hasidim are Jewish and Amish are Christian, there are many differences between the two groups. Hasidim, for example, submit to the spiritual authority of a dynastic leader, a rebbe, and observe strict, biblically based dietary laws. In Amish congregations, bishops wield much less authority and there are no restrictions on the food Amish may eat or how it is prepared. The ways in which Hasidim and Amish educate their children differ as well. Hasidic children are segregated by gender in schools, with boys receiving a mostly religious curriculum in Yiddish. Amish-run schools, which are conducted exclusively in English, do not separate girls and boys and teach secular subject matter only.1

Hasidic family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, NY
(Adam Jones, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

A presumed linguistic connection between Hasidim and Amish is depicted, this time humorously, in another Hollywood film, The Frisco Kid (1979). The film’s main character is Avram Belinski, a hapless Polish-Jewish immigrant rabbi played by Gene Wilder who is making his way from Philadelphia to San Francisco. At one point, Belinski mistakes a group of Amish people for Hasidim and addresses them in Yiddish, which the (standard) German-speaking Amish do not understand, prompting one of them to ask Belinski, “Dost thou speak English?” (Click here to see the clip of this scene.)

A notable similarity between Hasidim and Amish has to do with language. Most members of both groups speak languages that are related to German, but only distantly, Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. In what follows I will compare Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch with respect to language structure as well as how they are used.2

Amish family at Niagara Falls
(Gilabrand, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Although Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch are not mutually intelligible with German (or each other), both descend historically from varieties of southern German and diverged from German mainly through emigration. Yiddish is by far the older of the two languages. Its roots extend back to the ninth century, while Pennsylvania Dutch developed in the eighteenth century. Due to the lack of historical documentation for the oldest forms of Yiddish (the earliest written evidence for the language dates to the late thirteenth century), how it emerged as a distinct language is speculative. There is also a lack of scholarly consensus as to which southern German dialects Yiddish is most closely related to. A common view is that Yiddish developed in Jewish communities in the Central Rhine Valley, part of the West Central German dialect area, the regions marked 20 and 21 in the map below.3 Others place the Yiddish linguistic homeland farther east and south, in Bavaria (regions 33, 34, and 35), which belongs to the Upper German dialect group.

Continental West Germanic languages, not including Afrikaans, Pennsylvania Dutch, and Yiddish
(Rex Germanus, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Another complicating factor in identifying the German roots of Yiddish is the considerable variation across the varieties that were spoken historically in Central and Eastern Europe. Yiddish dialects fall into two major groups, Western and Eastern. Western Yiddish, which has been moribund for some time, was spoken mostly in German-speaking Central Europe. Eastern Yiddish, which was the native language of most Jewish immigrants to the US in the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries, including the Hasidim, was coterritorial with non-Germanic languages, mostly Slavic languages, Hungarian, Romanian, and Lithuanian. Within Eastern Yiddish there is considerable dialectal variation.4

The early history of Pennsylvania Dutch is much better understood, mainly because of its shorter time depth. The language developed through the immigration of German speakers to colonial Pennsylvania, most of whom hailed from the Palatinate, which is located partly in the Central Rhine Valley, hence there are many similarities between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch. The German dialects that Pennsylvania Dutch most closely resembles today are in the region marked 20 in the map above.

As with Yiddish, there are dialects of Pennsylvania Dutch, though the differences across them are not nearly as great as within Eastern Yiddish. Pennsylvania Dutch dialects differ from one another mostly in vocabulary; the grammar and pronunciation are remarkably uniform. The original variation within Pennsylvania Dutch was geographically determined. In the heartland of the language, the counties located in the so-called Dutch Country of southeastern Pennsylvania, the clearest differences were between the varieties in Lehigh and eastern Berks counties and those used in Lancaster and western Berks counties. Amish and Mennonite sectarians, who collectively comprised only a small minority of the Pennsylvania Dutch founder population, came to be concentrated in Lancaster County. Today, most Amish Pennsylvania Dutch speakers live in the Midwest and their form of the language differs somewhat from what their coreligionists speak in Lancaster-affiliated communities, a natural consequence of change over time, however all Amish varieties of Pennsylvania Dutch are completely mutually intelligible.5

There are no absolute criteria according to which linguistic varieties are called “languages” or “dialects” and there is often disagreement among linguists and native speakers alike as to how to label specific varieties. Coincidentally, the most famous comment on the difference between languages and dialects was popularized by the linguist Max Weinreich, whose work on the history of the Yiddish is unparalleled. The quote, which Weinreich heard from a Yiddish speaker who attended one of his lectures, is “a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot” (A language is a dialect with an army and navy). What this essentially means is that when two linguistic varieties sharing a common ancestor have become autonomous from one another (e.g., administratively), it is reasonable to classify them as separate languages. And certainly, if it is difficult for speakers of the varieties in question to understand one another due to differences in vocabulary and grammar, that would move the needle further away from calling them dialects of a common language. In the case of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, their external (sociolinguistic) and internal (structural) distance from German is clear: both are best regarded as languages separate from German, as, for example, Dutch and Luxembourgish are.6

The linguistic distance between Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch and German can be shown by comparing how the same text is rendered in all three languages. Below are translations of the first five verses of Genesis. The Yiddish version is transliterated; written Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet. The Pennsylvania Dutch version is based on the Midwestern Amish variety of the language and is written in an orthography similar to English.

German (Luther 1545)7

1Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde. Und die Erde war wüst und leer, und es war finster auf der Tiefe; und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf dem Wasser. Und Gott sprach: Es werde Licht! und es ward Licht. Und Gott sah, daß das Licht gut war. Da schied Gott das Licht von der Finsternis 5und nannte das Licht Tag und die Finsternis Nacht. Da ward aus Abend und Morgen der erste Tag.

Standard Yiddish (Solomon Blumgarten 1941)8

1in onheyb hot got bashafn dem himl un di erd. 2un di erd iz geven vist un leydik, un fintsternish iz geven oyfn gezikht fun thom, un der gayst fun got hot geshvebt oyfn gezikht fun di vasern. 3hot got gezogt: zol vern likht. un es iz gevorn likht. 4un got hot gezen dos likht az es iz gut; un got hot fanandergesheydt tsvishn dem likht un tsvishn der fintsternish. 5un got hot gerufn dos likht tog, un di fintsternish hot er gerufn nakht. un es iz geven ovnt, un es iz geven frimorgn, eyn tog.

Pennsylvania Dutch (Di Heilich Shrift 2013)9

1Am ohfang hott Gott da himmel un di eaht kshaffa. 2Nau di eaht voah gans veesht un leah. Es voah dunkel ivvah’s deef vassah, un Gott sei Geisht voah ivvah’s vassah. 3Un Gott hott ksawt, “Loss di helling gmacht sei,” un’s voah hell. 4Gott hott ksenna es di helling goot voah, un hott di helling fadayld fumm dunkla. 5Gott hott di helling “dawk” kaysa, un hott’s dunkla “nacht” kaysa. Un’s voah ohvet un meiya, da eahsht dawk.

I mentioned above that one difference between the use of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch among Hasidim and Amish is that the former language is used as a medium of instruction in Hasidic parochial schools. In the teaching of religious subject matter, which is the primary focus in the education of Hasidic boys, pupils study sacred texts in Hebrew and Aramaic but discuss their content in Yiddish. One common way that scripture is taught is by reciting the original Hebrew phrase by phrase, interspersed with literal Yiddish translations.

Below is a recording of a contemporary Hasidic man reciting the biblical passage above in Hebrew and Yiddish. The Hebrew original is given in bold, with the Yiddish in roman script.10 The differences between the Hasidic and Standard Yiddish versions here are due to dialectal variation. The standard variety commonly used when Yiddish is formally taught in non-Hasidic institutions is based largely on the Eastern dialects that were historically coterritorial with Lithuania. Most modern Hasidic varieties of Yiddish derive from dialects that used to be spoken farther south, in an area where Hungarian, among other languages, was also spoken.

Hasidic Hebrew and Yiddish

1berayshes – in unhayb, buru eloykim – hot der aybershter bashafn, es hashumaim – dem himl, veays huurets – in di erd. 2vehuurets – in di erd, hoysu – iz geveyn, soyhi – pist, vuvoyhi – in vist, vekhoyshekh – in tinkl, al pnay sehoym – hekhern upgrint; veriekh eloykim – in der gayst finem aybershtn, merakheyfes – hot geshveybt, al pnay hamoyim – hekhern vaser. 3vayoymer eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezugt, yehi oyr – es zol zaan lekhtik, vayhi oyr – in es iz gevorn lekhtik. 4vayar eloykim – in der aybershter hot gezeyn, es huoyr – di lekhtikayt, ki toyv – az zi iz git, vayavdayl eloykim – in der aybershter hot upgeshaydt, bayn huoyr – tsvishn der lekhtikayt, ibayn hakhoysekh – in tsvishn der tinklkayt. 5vayikru eloykim – in der aybershter hot gerifn, luoyr – tsi der likhtikayt, yoym – tug, velakhoyshekh – in tsi der tinklkayt, kuru – hot er gerifn, loylu – nakht, vayhi eyrev – es iz geveyn uvnt, vayhi boyker – es iz geveyn in der fri, yoym eykhud – deym ershtn tug.

In the past, both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch were once widely spoken by people not affiliated with Hasidic or traditional Anabaptist groups. So-called secular Yiddish speakers advanced the frontiers of the language during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in many ways. Yiddish became a vital vehicle for communication in several public spheres, including literature, politics, and scholarly research, and there were countless periodicals produced in Yiddish whose content in many cases was not connected to the Jewish faith. The Holocaust dealt a critical blow to the language. Perhaps as much as one-half of the world’s Yiddish-speaking population was murdered by Nazi Germany. Although Yiddish continues to be spoken by non-Hasidic Jews today, many of whom identify as Yiddishists, ardent advocates for the language and culture, the Hasidim far outnumber these more secular speakers.

The counterparts of secular Yiddish speakers in Pennsylvania Dutch–speaking society are known among scholars as “nonsectarians,” or more popularly the “Church People” or “Fancy Dutch.” Nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch are the descendants of non-Anabaptist German-speaking immigrants to rural Pennsylvania during the colonial era who had little contact with Amish or Mennonites from the early nineteenth century on. They became the main standard bearers of a rich folk culture that included several thousand texts, including literary works. But unlike Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch was always used almost exclusively by rural dwellers of modest educational background. Among those Pennsylvania Dutch people, sectarian or nonsectarian, who aspired to move “up” socially or who chose to marry non-Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking partners, the shift to speaking English only was in most cases rapid. Today, the vast majority of active speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch are members of Amish and traditional Mennonite groups, who choose to live in rural areas and set limits on the degree to which they interact with the larger society, thereby creating a social space within which their heritage language remains vital.

Despite their status today as the main speakers of Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, neither Hasidim nor Amish engage in conscious efforts to cultivate, promote, or celebrate their heritage languages. Language maintenance is a secondary phenomenon of how both groups live out their faith. For their part, Hasidim adhere to a teaching that observant Jews should avoid innovation in their names, language, and clothing, which is derived from a belief that the preservation of these cultural practices by the biblical Israelites contributed to their redemption from slavery in Egypt. The quote below is from a Hasidic man interviewed by a Yiddish-speaking linguist, Isaac Bleaman, and is included in Bleaman’s 2018 doctoral thesis comparing the sociolinguistic situations of Hasidim and Yiddishists in New York.11

The rabbis are always saying you’re not allowed to change your language. It says in Midrash [biblical commentaries] on account of three things the Jews could leave (Egypt) . . . Shem [name], lushn [language], and malbesh [clothing]. Shem is the name, they didn’t make their names goyish [non-Jewish]. Lushn and malbesh . . . So the Hasidim will interpret lushn to mean language, to mean how the way that your parents spoke. So you must continue to speak . . . if your mother speaks Yiddish, you must also speak Yiddish and if you change, then you have a problem.12

An additional important factor underlying the maintenance of Yiddish among Hasidim has to do with Hebrew. Among observant Jews generally, Hebrew, which is a Semitic language unrelated to Germanic Yiddish, has unique significance as the sacred language of scripture that has been a constant throughout the entire history of the Jewish people. Some Jewish thinkers have even declared that Hebrew was the original language of humanity: “The language created by God, which He taught Adam and placed on his tongue and in his heart, is without any doubt the most perfect and most fitted to express the things specified.”13 Most Hasidim feel that Hebrew, as the holy tongue, is unsuited for everyday communication, making Yiddish, which is still a uniquely Jewish language, an appropriate vernacular for in-group communication. Yiddish also serves as a marker of the spiritual-cultural boundary between Hasidim and outsiders, both other Jews and non-Jews.

Amish and other traditional Anabaptists do not subscribe to an explicit, scripturally based ideology that justifies the maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch, however its continued use is viewed as a tangible connection to their spiritual heritage.14 Amish people affectionately refer to Pennsylvania Dutch as their Mudderschprooch (mother tongue), which evokes that it is the language they first learn to speak at home and what their forebears spoke. The similar affection among Hasidim for Yiddish is reflected in their description of it (but not Hebrew) as their mame-loshn, which also means ‘mother tongue’. Like Yiddish, Pennsylvania Dutch performs a boundary-maintaining function for Amish and other Plain people, as it has now become a language that is effectively their own.

The meaning of Mudderschprooch is extended by the Amish to include German; the Pennsylvania Dutch word Deitsch means either ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ or ‘German’. Just as the Hasidim feel that maintaining Hebrew is essential for the practice of their faith, German has a similar status among the Amish, though the Amish do not believe that German is an inherently holy tongue. They know that German was not the original language of the Bible, yet it is at the center of their devotional life. They use Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible and prayer books and hymnals that are in an archaic form of standard German called by linguists “Amish High German” or “Pennsylvania High German.” The Amish do not proscribe the use of German for non-religious purposes, but their everyday communicative needs are met by Pennsylvania Dutch and English. As members of North American society, the Amish recognize that English is essential for their economic survival and it is the main language they read and write. For their part, Hasidim also speak, read, and write the languages of the larger communities in which they live, however their proficiency in Yiddish as a written as well as an oral medium distinguishes them from the Amish, who rarely read or write Pennsylvania Dutch.

The ideology that calls Hasidim to signal their Jewish identity overtly in names, language, and clothing has a clear parallel among the Amish and other Plain Anabaptists. Although Amish people do not have given names that are different from those of their non-Plain neighbors, their speech and dress and grooming set them apart. The reflections of an Old Order Mennonite minister are apt here, linking distinctive verbal behavior and appearance to the cardinal Anabaptist virtue of humility.

In my opinion, though the Deitsch we have is not a written language, it is enough to help keep us together as a people. God confused the languages, and it served a good purpose. Now maybe we should not strive for a unified language. I often think how an old sister counseled, soon after I had joined the church, that “children should also learn a little something about bearing their cross, with their clothing style.” I think also it is thus with the language. It is good for them to endure a little ridicule.15

Both Hasidim and Amish “endure a little ridicule” for how they live out their faith, but their demographic success – their growth rates are exponential due to large average family sizes and low attrition – is remarkable. And as the Hasidic and Amish populations increase, the futures of both Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch look bright.


1. The scholarly and popular literature about Hasidim and Amish is vast. Two book-length treatments of each group to be recommended are Hasidic People: A Place in the New World by Jerome R. Mintz (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Amish by Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

2. To date, there has been one article devoted to comparing Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch, “A Lexical Comparison of Two Sister Languages: Pennsylvania German and Yiddish,” Pennsylvania Folklife 29: 138–142, by John R. Costello (1980). Thanks to Edward E. Quinter, Allentown, PA, for bringing this article to my attention.

3. Map source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_German_languages#/media/File:Continental_West_Germanic_languages.png.

4. As is true of the scholarly and popular literature on the Hasidim, there are scores of publications on Yiddish. One recent title is Yiddish: Biography of a Language by Jeffrey Shandler (Oxford University Press, 2020).

5. For an overview of the history of Pennsylvania Dutch, including its status among Amish and other Plain people, see Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language by Mark L. Louden (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

6. See the Wikipedia entry for “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”.

7. Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Mose%201&version=LUTH1545. The source of the sound clip is accessible here.

8. Source: Torah, Nevi’im, u-Khetuvim by Solomon Blumgarten (Yehoash Farlag Gezelshaft, 1941). Blumgarten’s translation of the Book of Genesis (Breyshis, in Hebrew) is accessible here. The sound clip is excerpted from a video recording of Samuel Kassow, a native speaker of Yiddish and professor of history at Trinity College. The recording was produced by the Yiddish Book Center, based in Amherst, MA, which is a premier organization for the documentation and dissemination of Yiddish language and culture: https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/. I am grateful to Isaac Bleaman for bringing this video recording to my attention. Note that Kassow pronounces the words es iz ‘it is’ as “shi”, which is a feature of his Northeastern (Lithuanian-Belarusian) Yiddish dialect: es iz > siz > si > shi. He also pronounces oyfn ‘on the’ as “afn”.

9. Source: Di Heilich Shrift, which was produced by a committee of native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch from Ohio who were of Amish background (Wycliffe Bible Translators, 2013). The complete translation is accessible here. I produced the sound clip of this excerpt myself.

10. I am indebted here again to Isaac Bleaman, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley and a fluent Yiddish speaker (https://www.isaacbleaman.com/). An anonymous Hasidic friend of Isaac’s kindly created this sound clip for this blog post and Isaac produced the transcription.

11. “Outcomes of Minority Language Maintenance: Variation and Change in New York Yiddish” by Isaac L. Bleaman, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2018, pp. 55–61.

12. Bleaman 2018, p. 57. This quote is translated from Yiddish.

13. This quote is from The Kuzari, a seminal philosophical text by the Spanish Jewish poet and thinker Judah Halevi (d. 1141), as cited on p. 71 of “Holy Land, Holy Language: A Study of Ultraorthodox Jewish Ideology” by Lewis Glinert and Yosseph Shilhav, Language in Society 20: 59–86 (1991).

14. A thoughtful essay on the ecology of Pennsylvania Dutch, German, and English in Amish society is “What Is a Language?” (Family Life, February 1986, pp. 12–16), which was written by Benuel S. Blank, an Amish man. The essay is accessible here.

15. Amos B. Hoover, German Language: Cradle of Our Heritage, Ephrata, PA: Muddy Creek Farm Library, 2018, pp. 52–54. The original quote was in Pennsylvania Dutch. See also my post on this blog from January 20, 2021, “Humility and the Pennsylvania Dutch Language.”

History Against Hierarchy: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and Women’s Leadership in the Mennonite Church

Regina Wenger

In her new book The Making of Biblical Womanhood, historian Beth Allison Barr disassembles the concept of “biblical womanhood” popular in a portion of evangelicalism. Mixing memoir and scholarship, Barr’s text also chronicles her personal journey away from complementarian theology. Studying history, Barr states, convinced her of the fallacy of complementarianism and biblical womanhood.1 The publication of Barr’s book prompted me to return to a figure I examined for Barr’s class during my first semester of doctoral work: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus.

A twentieth-century Mennonite broadcaster and pastor, Brunk Stoltzfus had a life and ministry that encompassed dramatic shifts in the Mennonite Church’s understandings of women’s roles and leadership. In Barr’s class and a subsequent blog post, I examined the function of gender, authority, and the Holy Spirit in a sermon preached by Brunk Stoltzfus as well as a message delivered by her brother, the notable evangelist George R. Brunk II. Inspired by Barr’s declaration about the power of historical argument, I wanted to revisit Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus to see how she utilized history in making her case for women’s leadership in the Mennonite Church. Of particular interest to me was how Brunk Stoltzfus’ used Anabaptist history. Since her papers have yet to be deposited into an archive, I relied on Brunk Stoltzfus’ contributions to the Gospel Herald from 1963 to 1995 as well as her memoir, A Way Was Opened. My preliminary findings show that Brunk Stoltzfus vocalized her support for women’s leadership most ardently during the 1970s and ’80s, when the topic proved a matter of intense discussion within the Mennonite Church. Additionally, I discovered that, while she preferred arguing from Scripture, Brunk Stoltzfus did occasionally rely on historical evidence.2 Before continuing into my examination of Brunk Stoltzfus’ use of history, I want to contextualize my findings with a brief sketch of her life and ministry.

Photo: Mennonite Publishing House

Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ family and talents primed her for ministry. The eighth child of George R. Brunk Sr. and Katie (Wenger) Brunk, she was born on March 15, 1915. A fundamentalist with inclinations toward the holiness movement, George R. Brunk Sr. built a career as a Mennonite pastor and bishop in southeastern Virginia.3 Believing that “women, including his daughters, should [not] strive for incompetence because they were female,” Brunk Sr. trained his daughter in oratory and composition.4 Ruth Brunk married Grant M. Stoltzfus on June 17, 1941. While her husband edited the Mennonite Community periodical and began graduate work, Brunk Stoltzfus started the radio ministry “Heart to Heart” in 1950. She was the first Mennonite woman with a regular program.5 Initially broadcast by WCVI in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and later Mennonite Broadcasts, “Heart to Heart” addressed the topic of marriage and family. In 1958, Brunk Stoltzfus handed over control of her program, and she and Grant formed Concord Associates, a Family Service Ministry that produced literature and media on the topic.6 They crisscrossed the nation speaking about marriage and family until Grant’s sudden death in 1974. Then Brunk Stoltzfus continued to deliver workshops solo. This platform and reputation increasingly drew her into discussions around women in ministry in the Mennonite Church.7 After her stirring defense of women in ministry at the 1981 Mennonite General Assembly, Brunk Stolzfus started to receive invitations to serve as an interim pastor or on pastoral teams.8 In 1989, Virginia Mennonite Conference recognized Brunk Stoltzfus’ calling by ordaining her at age 74. As the first women to be credentialed in the conference, her ordination caused controversy in both the conference and her extended family.9 Upon her retirement in the early 1990s, Brunk Stoltzfus remained active in matters of church and family. The self-described “radical evangelical Anabaptist” died on December 2, 2008, age 93. 10

Brunk Stoltzfus used Anabaptist history to argue for women’s leadership in two distinct ways. First, she drew upon Anabaptist history to spur people toward active response in a present moment. Asked by Gospel Herald editor Daniel Hartzler in 1975 to encourage readers prior to that year’s Mennonite General Assembly, Brunk Stoltzfus appealed to readers – regardless of gender – to give their full allegiance to Christ in active discipleship.11 After urging support for conscientious objection and opposition to war, she highlighted the role of women in evangelism in Anabaptist history and the Bible:

We are little credit to our foremothers. In early Anabaptist days when men and women were baptized, it meant that they were also ordained to preach, teach, and baptize others. (It was more important to get the Gospel out than to fuss about which sex does it!) In Bible times women were wives, mothers, prophetesses, judges, managers, sheep tenders, employers, builders of cities, buyers of real estate, salespersons, teachers, deaconesses, co-laborers in the gospel [.] Jesus commended Mary, the meditative type, who put the kingdom before dishes. Isn’t it about time we stopped forcing all women into one mold?12

Brunk Stoltzfus read the baptism of early Anabaptist men and women as ordination for the work of the Christ and the Church. The commission compelled action, and she wanted her readers to feel that same urgency and allow all people to fulfill roles best suited to their gifts and callings regardless of gender.

Brunk Stoltzfus continued to find resonance between early Anabaptist baptism practices and women’s leadership. In her memoir, she recalled reflecting on a conversation she had on women in ministry with New Testament scholar Willard Swartley in the early 1980s: “[I told him] that we women leaders, like the early Anabaptists who baptized each other, should ordain each other. Willard had said, ‘But please let us men be present.’”13 For Brunk Stoltzfus, early Anabaptism’s defiance of political-ecclesial authority could provide a precedent for ordaining women in the Mennonite Church. By 1988, she faced the dilemma of whether she as an un-ordained women could baptize a college student in her congregation. Since neither were ordained, the agreement to baptize the young women with the congregation’s commissioned male pastor met with mixed reactions from Virginia Conference pastors and leaders. “Like the early Anabaptists, who baptized each other,” Brunk Stoltzfus recalled, “we served as representatives of the congregation [and thus could offer baptism].” Ultimately, she poured water in the male pastor’s hands as he performed the baptism.14 Within Anabaptist history Brunk Stoltzfus saw a freedom to follow the Spirit and encouraged others to respond to it as well.

Second, she found in twentieth-century Anabaptist history examples of women’s leadership. Brunk Stoltzfus spoke at the 1978 Women in Ministry symposium in Akron, Pennsylvania, on the topic of “Women in Ministry Among the Mennonites in my Lifetime.” Dutch Mennonites, she noted, started permitting female pastors at the beginning of the twentieth century.15 In addition, the title of her talk suggests she saw enough change and continuity in the Mennonite practice to make it a topic of interest to conference participants. Looking back in her memoir, Brunk Stoltzfus remembered, “I had an unusual audience response. It was like a good movie as we laughed and cried together…I received more affirmation than any other time in my life, and it felt good.”16 Her observations about contemporary Anabaptist history along with her personal experiences resonated with conference attendees. Brunk Stoltzfus showed that, in various eras of Anabaptist history, evidence existed to support women in ministry.

On occasion, she also relied on other religious history to make her case for women’s leadership. Rebutting some comments about the 1978 Women in Ministry conference, Brunk Stoltzfus quoted the nineteenth-century evangelist and educator Charles Finney. He stated, “No church that is acquainted with the Holy Ghost will object to the public ministry of women.”17 Such a statement meshed with Brunk Stoltzfus’ biblical and theological argument that the Holy Spirit equipped women and men to serve as church leaders or in other capacities that matched their gifts.18 Finney’s status as a revivalist lent credence to Brunk Stoltzfus’ claim that historically male leaders supported females exercising leadership in the Church.19 Precedent for women’s leadership existed outside the Mennonite Church.

My initial investigation into Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus’ use of history reveals that it influenced how she spoke and acted to advance women in ministry. In the future, I hope to further explore her conceptions of gender throughout all of her ministry to see how they shaped perceptions of family and gender in the Mennonite Church. A poem Brunk Stoltzfus’ wrote as part of her presentation at the 1978 Women in Ministry provides a fitting summary and a glimpse into how she understood gender, family, and ministry:

Who killed woman’s gift?
“I ,” said the man of terror
With his mix of truth and error.
“I’d rather not hear a word of truth
“Than to her it from a Jane or Ruth.
“I killed woman’s gift.”

Who saw her gift die?
“I,” said the woman who only knits.
“These ministering women give me fits.
Why can’t all women be of the same mold
“And just look out the window
“When they are old?
“I saw her gift die.”

Who’ll be the chief mourner?
“I,” said the freeing man
“I never favored the put-down or ban.
“Women should not wait till their 63
“To see if the church will set them free.
“I’ll be the chief mourner.”20


1. Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 9-10.

2. An excellent encapsulation of Brunk Stoltzfus’ biblical case for women’s leadership is found in “Jesus and the Role of Women,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 79, May 20, 1986, 342-43.

3. Nathan Emerson Yoder, “Mennonite Fundamentalism: Shaping an Identity for an American Context” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1999),125-43.

4. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened: A Memoir, ed. Eve MacMaster (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 41.

5. Mennonite Mission Network Staff, “Founder of Radio Ministry, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, Dies at 93,” Mennonite Mission Network, last modified December 3, 2008, https://www.mennonitemission.net/news/Founder%20of%20radio%20ministry,%20Ruth%20Brunk%20Stoltzfus, 20dies%20at%2093; Grant Stoltzfus earned an M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and later a B.D. and Th.D. from Union Seminary (VA). From 1957-1974 he taught sociology and church history at Eastern Mennonite College, where he specialized in colonial Amish and Mennonite history. John A. Lapp, “Stoltzfus, Grant Moses,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1989, accessed May 4, 2021, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Stoltzfus,_Grant_Moses_(1916-1974).

6. “Field Notes Continued: Grant and Ruth Stolzfus,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 51, April 8, 1958, 336. In her memoir, Brunk Stoltzfus said this media ministry included “radio, newspapers, conferences, and literature […such as] ‘Mother’s Pledge’ and ‘Pledge for Husband and Wife.’” Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 118.

7. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 197-98, 209, 215, 277-78.

8. From January to June 1982, she served at Bancroft (Toledo, OH) Mennonite Church, and a few months later filled the interim role at Grace Mennonite Church in Pandora, OH, until June 1983. In 1985, First Mennonite Church in Richmond, VA, called Brunk Stoltzfus to be part of their pastoral team. She served for two years.

9. Notable protest to Brunk Stoltzfus’ ordination came from her older brother, George Brunk II. He built his reputation in the 1950s as “the Mennonite Billy Graham.” In 1989, George II expressed to Virginia Conference leadership that, if they went forward with his sister’s ordination, he would withdraw his membership and credentials in protest. When leadership chose to proceed, George II departed Virginia Conference and formed his own congregation, Calvary Mennonite Fellowship.

10. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 352.

11. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 193.

12. Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, “Face Things Together,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 68, July 22, 1975, 513.

13. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 278.

14. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 320-21.

15. “Mennoscope: Women, Men, and Power,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, September 26, 1978, 744; “Women Call for Greater Involvement, Akron,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, November 14, 1978, 906. Other speakers at the conference included: Williard Swartely, who helped make the case for women in ministry using biblical studies in his 1983 book Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women; Emma Sommers Richards, the first woman ordained in the Mennonite Church (1973); and Dorothy Yoder Nyce, who in 1983 collected sermons by Mennonite women including Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and published them in Weaving Wisdom: Sermons by Mennonite Women. Dutch Mennonite congregations began having female pastors in 1911. Harold S. Bender, Nanne van der Zijpp, Cornelius Krahn, Marilyn G. Peters, Anneke Welcker and M. M. Mattijssen-Berkman, “Women” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, 1989, accessed May 4, 2021, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Women.

16. Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 209.

17. “Readers Say,” Gospel Herald, Vol. 71, December 19, 1978, 744. I have yet to determine where Brunk Stoltzfus read this quote, or from which source this statement originally appeared.

18. For example, see: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, “Gifts of the Spirit…to US,” in Weaving Wisdom: Sermons by Mennonite Women, ed. Dorothy Yoder Nyce (South Bend, IN: Womansage, 1983), 33-36.

19. As president of Oberlin College, Finney advocated for women’s public ministry and presence in theology classes, but did not support women as pastors. Andrea L. Turpin, A New Moral Vision: Gender, Religion, and the Changing Purposes of American Higher Education, 1837-1917 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 77, 79-80, 87.

20. Titled “Who Killed the Women’s Gift,” Brunk Stoltzfus modeled it on the nursery rhyme, Who Killed Cock Robin? Stoltzfus, A Way Was Opened, 209.

Medieval and Early Modern Echoes in QAnon: A Conversation with Gary Waite

Over the course of his career, Gary Waite has published widely on Dutch Anabaptism, witchcraft, Jews and Muslims in Early Modern Europe and taught courses on the same at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. In March, I had a conversation with him, excerpted below, about how he sees these topics reflected in the modern QAnon movement.

On Anti-Semitism in Premodern Europe and in QAnon

GW: As an historian of anti-Semitism and its development, I see all of these things interconnecting in QAnon. It’s not that the members of QAnon or whoever is the leader of QAnon is aware of all of these predecessors, but they’re clearly continuing to shape how these people are thinking. And some of the some of the stuff in the Q Anon is hundreds of years old and goes back to the medieval anti-Semitic tropes of a vast global conspiracy of Jews plotting the overthrow of Christendom.

CM: Now with space Laser Tech.

GW: Now with space lasers and drinking the blood of children. They’ve just made it a more modern version with this extract from children’s blood that the celebrities of Hollywood, i.e., the Jewish conspiracy group, are supposedly consuming to extend their lives.1 Jews were accused of ritual murder of Christian infants starting in the twelfth century in England and spreading from there to the continent and continuing on into the twentieth century. In case after case after case, a Christian child may go missing or someone says a child’s gone missing, it may not actually be a real child, and the Jews are rounded up and tortured into confessing that they have kidnapped his child, that they do this globally as an organized conspiracy against Christendom. They pick one place in Europe every year to kidnap a Christian child and that child stands in for Christ. And according to these Christians, that child represents Christ by virtue of its innocence, and therefore the Jews want to kill Christ over and over again. But they also want the blood of the infant for their various nefarious things, so they bleed it to ritually murder the child, and then they are almost always caught afterwards. Even the use of the of the blood is very similar to what I see in the QAnon propaganda, that fear that children are being kidnapped for their blood to extend the life of the drinker. It’s the same kind of argument made against Jews that they needed it to, not so much extend their life, but to remove the odor that they were apparently born with, to remove the horns that Jewish males were supposed to be born with and that sort of thing. Just absolutely bizarre beliefs that were taken seriously by Christians and led to the deaths of countless numbers of Jews and the destruction of Jewish communities. The expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 was based largely on ritual murder accusations. The last known ritual murder accusation in Europe was in 1948 in Poland. So it even survived the Second World War and the Holocaust.2 So that’s just one strand.

How did that get to modern America to such an extent that parents, all these adults who joined QAnon think there’s a grand conspiracy against their children, even though the children aren’t disappearing in the numbers that are alleged? Well, it’s become part of—I won’t say subconscious, but I think it’s just wrapped up into the fabric of European/North American discourse and beliefs. It’s in fairy tales and it’s also there in a lot of Christian preachers who disseminate this kind of conspiratorial thinking. It’s kept alive in the propaganda of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century, in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which still is a best seller in parts of the world. So all this stuff resides below the surface, all this anti-Semitism and all this conspiratorial thinking, and it just keeps popping up almost every generation we see a new variant, and this is just the latest one.

There’s also elements of racism in Q Anon. It arose when there was a black president in power and a lot of what’s been happening is a reaction against having a person of color in the highest office of the land. And of course—and this is one of the points I make in one of my books on Christian views of Jews and Muslims in the seventeenth century—one of the major determinants of how a population responds to others such as Jews or Muslims is the attitude and the statements made by those at the top, the political elite.3 And in the Dutch case, the Regents and magistrates of the realm said, “yeah, it’s okay to have Jews, they’re fine as long as they don’t cause any trouble, and we’ll start negotiating with Muslims” and they set a tone of acceptance of religious diversity, which included Mennonites and Catholics even to a point, and various others. Refugees started flooding into the Dutch Republic because of this and the magistrates said: “we will treat everyone equally, even though they are not all citizens, we will treat them as if they are.” And they said that about Jews. Jews could not be citizens, “but we will treat them as if they are,” and that really set a tone. So when I went through all of the propaganda and pamphlets and the news sheets and so on of the period, I found very little of the kind of anti-Semitism that you can see from the English side or the German side, and it’s the leadership at the top. And when you get a guy like Trump who believes in conspiracy theories, who’s got a racist, white supremacist streak through him, who loves to cater to the worst of American fears and anxieties, then of course you’re going to get all of these conspirators, white supremacists, racism suddenly coming back up to the surface where it had been suppressed beforehand. It’s people’s desire to know the future, to have someone to lead them in a way that they can feel confident in the future.

And the pandemic…Disease outbreaks almost invariably lead to targeting of others, typically the Jews. I just lectured this week on the Jews being targeted as responsible for disease outbreak in southern France in 1321, and the King of France used that to get money from the Jews. Then when the plague strikes in 1347, 1348, suddenly it’s the people who are saying the Jews are responsible and without any kind of organization they go to the Jewish communities and they burn them down. So this notion that others are to blame whenever there’s an epidemic of any kind is still with us, and I think that has really exacerbated everything. And it’s interesting, it’s nerve wracking to be an historian watching this stuff happening on the news every night. It is really, really strange. I like to study the past. I don’t want to live the same kind of stuff that I study though.

Anderson Cooper interviews a former QAnon supporter.
Image source: https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2021/01/30/anderson-cooper-former-qanon-supporter-special-report-sot-ac360-vpx.cnn

On QAnon and Early Modern Fears of the Devil and Witches

GW: I think Q Anon comes out of that particular form of American evangelicalism, which emphasizes the literal interpretation of prophecies and the Scriptures themselves, and especially the devil, or Satan…I know most modern people don’t believe the devil is real, but I think a lot of people still fear that there is this malign figure. And as Elaine Pagels wrote years ago in her book, The Origin of Satan, the devil was created by Christians in the way that we know him—there was Lucifer and Satan before in the Old Testament—but the devil that the Christians developed and that really became big in the later Middle Ages and in the early modern period is a creation of the need of Christians to target another group, the Jews, to prove to the Romans that it’s the Jews that deserve to be punished in AD 70 because of their father, the devil, and that Christians are distinct from it.4 And the devil plays that role. The devil allows one group to create a self identity that we are of the good, we are of God, you are of the devil. There seems to be a need for people to have these binary opposites so that we’re good and they’re evil, and so the groups that emphasize the reality of the devil—if you believe that the devil is real, as I said before, just about anything can be possible.

CM: And it allows you to say, if you have, you know family members or people you really love on the other side, it allows you to say “it’s not that they’re fundamentally evil. They’re taken over. It’s not them, it’s Satan.” And you need to try to rescue them.

GW: There were, even in the early modern period, as you know with the witch hunts, they identified two sets of victims of the devil—there were several, but two relating to witchcraft. One were witches who made a voluntary pact with the devil and therefore didn’t deserve any mercy. But there were those who were possessed by demons involuntarily, and therefore they were treated differently. So there were a lot of times when the jurists and the preachers and the medical personnel were trying to distinguish, is this person possessed by demons, and therefore we treat them with an exorcism? Or is this a person who’s made a pact with the devil? And we would like to think we don’t ask those questions anymore, but we do. In the Atlantic magazine just recently there was a long article on the rise of demonic possession and how the demand for exorcism in the United States is on the increase.5 And then this pandemic has simply escalated those anxieties that there is some malign thing out there that is causing this and we need to do something to protect ourselves and our children. And QAnon—every time I see all their signs saying that there are pedophiles who are drinking the blood of children I say here we go again, because in the witch hunts it was fears of what was happening to children, mysterious deaths of children, kidnapping of children, that led to parents and the authorities taking this very, very seriously, when otherwise they wouldn’t take these accusations seriously. I mean, these are learned people who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries actually came to believe that women were getting on broomsticks—I know this is part of the stereotype, but this is this is in court records and learned discourse—and flying to a distant Sabbath meeting (there’s the Jews again) to worship the devil and to cause harm to children.6 It is such a powerful force, this parental drive to protect children, that all you have to do is say “they are kidnapping your children, we need to do something and you can get people involved who would not normally believe this stuff because their children are at risk. You saw that with the ritual murder panics of the 1980s and 90s.7 It was like the witch hunts had come back, that there were these groups of Satan worshippers who were kidnapping children and ritually murdering them in front of other children and worshipping the devil. And you would say nobody would believe that, except dozens, hundreds of social workers, prosecutors, police, and so on did believe it. Because of the fear that this is involving children. So using leading questions they got children to answer in the right way that yes, they saw a child being ritually murdered and people were arrested and put on trial and jailed, including Canadians—Richard Klassen out in Saskatchewan about fifteen years ago won a wrongful prosecution suit against the government of Saskatchewan based on the testimony of children.8 And so when I look at that and then I look at the early modern witch hunts and the role of children in making confessions, it’s like we haven’t changed. The dynamic remains that if our children are threatened, it doesn’t matter if there’s any truth to the matter, we will go and defend them.

And in all the cases in the Satanic ritual abuse cases, in the investigation reports after the fact…they could not find any evidence that any of the children had actually gone missing. There’s no correspondence between missing children and the alleged events, no evidence that any children were being killed. And the same thing was happening in many cases in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My favourite example is the Spanish Inquisition’s one and only witch panic, started around 1610 when two of the three Spanish inquisitors got involved in listening to women who were saying that they had been to a witches’ Sabbath just across the border in France. And that snowballed as these two inquisitors took seriously the testimony not just of adults but increasingly of children. And they would interrogate the children in such a way, ask them leading questions. Of course the children are going to respond to that. And so they ended up with hundreds of children as part of this ongoing investigation, and everybody is concerned that their children are being taken to the witches’ Sabbath to be sacrificed to the devil. The third inquisitor, Alonso de Salazar Frías, joins them finally. This team was supposed to always be three inquisitors in a local investigation, and so he finally joins. At the start he was supporting it and then he began to rethink and said “wait a minute, what is the evidence here?” And the Spanish Inquisition, to its credit, emphasized hard evidence. If you’re going to convict someone of a crime like witchcraft, you need evidence. What kind of evidence do you have? A confession in your own words is it. Eyewitnesses? Well, the only eyewitnesses to someone going to a witches’ Sabbath would be somebody already at the witches Sabbath, therefore you’re a witch, therefore your testimony does not count. So there’s always a problem. So he said, “no, I’m going to conduct my own investigation.” He went back to the facts, he reinvestigated thousands of confessions and depositions, he went and he talked to all of the children, but without the leading questions, and he finally wrote up a report that he sent to the Suprema, the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, saying “there’s not a single shred of evidence that there’s been any act of witchcraft or any abuse of children in all of this, I recommend we put a halt to it.” The Suprema agreed, and in 1614 it said release all the prisoners. There were about two thousand people waiting trial and burning on these charges and because this one guy had doubts about it and pushed against his fellows at great personal risk he saved them all.9 And that’s one of the things that I’m afraid has gone by the board with the whole fake news business and this whole not trusting experts and not trusting the media. How do you say “show us the evidence”? I’ve watched reporters asking QAnoners: “Where’s your evidence for all this?” Well, their answer is: “is there evidence that it’s not happening?” And this is how they work. So no, your belief in a conspiracy is not evidence, and yet, we’ve lost the ability to say we need hard facts, because facts are no longer taken at face value like they used to be just two years ago, four years ago, before Trump. So that’s a real problem.

On Connections Between QAnon, Apocalyptic Movements, and Early Anabaptism

GW: Another element [of QAnon] is this belief in prophecy. Q keeps making these prophecies as to when Trump will be revealed and there will be a great reckoning and each time it fails. As a scholar of sixteenth century Anabaptism that, of course, resonates with me because you’ve got all these Anabaptists who were caught up in this belief that Christ was coming any moment and they picked the dates and they set the location and they all waited and it didn’t happen. And so some of the members left—such seems to have happened with QAnon—and others remained and just revised the interpretations and the prophecies. And so these kinds of prophetic moments when you’ve got these expectations that build up and people devote themselves to it to such an extent, they can’t just walk away. It is very hard for someone who says “I believe in all this stuff: that Q is real, that Trump is the Messiah-President, that he’s going to be returned to power, and they invest in it so much that they go marching. They go to Congress, they invade the buildings, they do violence. And then to just say, “oh whoops, I was wrong . . . ”? The same thing happened with the Anabaptists. Psychologically it’s very difficult.

CM: I think there’s a real family relationship element to it as well. If you’ve torpedoed your marriage for this, or if your kids aren’t speaking to you anymore because of this, if it’s caused a real rift in your family, then that’s another dimension where it’s much too hard to say “I was wrong” and try to get back.

GW: That certainly happened with the Anabaptists. It divided families and you make these decisions to join and to follow, and then whoops, and you’ve lost your family, you’ve lost your livelihood, you’ve lost your property, you’re in jail or you’re running from the authorities. You see that for example in the group that was around David Koresh, the compound in Waco, Texas, there are still people who believe that he was the Messiah. And so one of my thoughts as I’m watching QAnon is I think we’re watching the rise of a new religious movement. It’s got all the same kinds of expectations and hopes and dreams, zeal, everything that you need and a Messiah-like figure and a Prophet who’s behind the scenes… So I’m expecting that Q will remain in some fashion as a new religious movement of some kind. The Americans are pretty good at creating these new religious movements. One of the examples that I use in teaching is the Great Disappointment in the 1840s in the States, with the Millerites. Miller was an evangelical Christian who believed that he could figure out precisely when Jesus was returning through close interpretation of Scripture. And so he got it down to a particular date and place and by the thousands the Millerites came out to watch for Jesus’ return. It didn’t happen. So many left, and Miller himself and others stayed and revised their interpretations. A lot of people were angry—if you look up the Great Disappointment, as this was called, you’ll see a lot of popular print stuff that was made satirizing these poor folk. Well, that Millerite movement is the foundation of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.10 And David Koresh was a member of a branch group called the Branch Davidian sect of the Seventh-day Adventists. So even with all of the failed prophecies—and you could talk about the Jehovah’s Witnesses prophecies here—people will continue to believe because, as you say, they’ve invested so much of their personal lives, so much of their identity in this group and in these beliefs. It’s very hard for people to walk away. So you’ve got the Great Disappointment in nineteenth century and then you have the David Koresh group. . . . The Mormons started as an end of the world group, the Church of the Latter Day Saints.

CM: I find myself thinking a lot about the aftermath of Münster and how the Melchiorites disperse after that, and particularly thinking of the fairly large numbers who were successfully brought back into their regional churches in part due to, in the end, the concerted efforts of Tasch and Eisenberg, who had been Melchiorites and then decided to work somewhat covertly with the regional churches to facilitate this return. And of course, Lienhard Jost also then returns to the established church in Strasbourg. And I’m curious to know, when you study new religious movements, if you can think of other examples of this sort of successful reintegration and what some elements of that look like.

GW: Well, certainly it happened. It happened in in the Dutch side too. . . . You know this is one of the frustrations as historians working the Anabaptist field. We all know that so many people disappear from the record because they’re no longer part of the group. They’ve left it and therefore they’re not being arrested anymore, and that’s good for them. I wouldn’t want to have brought them back into the courtroom just so I would have a record of their beliefs. Certainly in the Dutch scene David Joris played a major role in keeping some of the Münsterite Anabaptists within the movement, but he did so by moving them away from a sectarian or confessional identity and moving them towards spiritualism, which says religion is interior, the letter of Scripture isn’t as important as the spirit within, that sort of thing.11 But his movement was actually more long lived than we had thought even just a few years ago. There’s a new book out on the Reformation Movement in the region east of the Dutch border in Germany, where Joris was very active, and his name and his ideas are stamped throughout.12 And even with the Dutch Mennonites, who are Menno’s heirs, he kept fighting against this David Jorisism, the spiritualism, but he never succeeded, and so there’s an element of that that runs right through the Dutch Mennonites into the 17th century. There’s a sort of a two-word debate. For most people, I would say for most of these new religious movements, once there’s the crisis, once there’s the great disappointment, once there is the failure of prophecy, a lot of the followers sort of disappear from the record. We don’t know where they went. It’s those who remain within it and help shape it into something else that we know that they are there. How many of them go back to a mainstream church or two? I don’t really know.

Menno Simons worked diligently to bring these disillusioned Anabaptists into his orbit, and he succeeded. He and the other fellow preachers, Dirk Phillips, Adam Pastor and so on did get a lot of these people back into the Mennonite Church, which is the heir to the Anabaptists. But they didn’t succeed entirely. There are a lot of people who just abandon anything like Anabaptism. Ben Kaplan, for example, has shown that around 1600 in the Dutch Republic a large minority of people and in some places a majority people did not belong to any church.13 And I think this is part of this whole disillusioning experience of the real bloodshed and violence of the Reformation in the Netherlands. And not just the Anabaptist persecution and Anabaptist Münster, but also the Catholic versus Calvinist battles and the Civil War. And so there were a lot of people who just said “not joining any of them.” And this is noticed by observers who came to the Dutch Republic. The Reformed Church is the public Church of the Realm, but not a formal state church. You don’t have to join it to be a citizen, to be a resident of the realm. The result is a lot of people decided not to. And so I think that there can be several different responses. Some people are successfully reintegrated into a more mainstream kind of church, a lot of people just drop away, and some people take an intentionally distinctive approach to religion. And in the Dutch Republic that was spiritualism, which really had a powerful impact on the mentality of people after the turmoil of the Reformation and Civil War.

CM: And even the more sectarian churches that do survive like the Mennonites, it’s a form of reintegration into society in a way to have developed a symbiotic relationship with the governing authorities rather than to view them as enemies to be overcome as soon as possible.

GW: Yeah, you need to make nice with the government and the Anabaptists found that a very difficult adjustment to make. And there’s always a sense that we are the persecuted people of God. It’s still a major force among some evangelical churches and other churches today. How do you know that you are God’s chosen people? Well, if you’re being persecuted, then that’s one of the signs as Jesus said. Problem is, if you’re not being persecuted, you have to find ways in which you can say that you are being persecuted. So saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas means we are being persecuted for faith—no you’re not!

The Mennonites did very well [in the Dutch Republic].14 You couldn’t be a Mennonite and be a citizen, and that’s okay. They didn’t mind that, they were happy to be an ignored minority. But they had all the economic rights and they could take on business. Some of them became fabulously wealthy. I’ve seen some of the houses. Piet Visser has taken me on tours and it’s just incredible the wealth that these heirs of the Anabaptists achieved. They would join with the merchants of the East India Company, but their ships could not have cannons on them because they’re pacifists. But they would sail with the Dutch Reformed who had plenty of cannons on their ships. And some of them became fabulously wealthy. You’ve got artists galore, you’ve got writers of great fame in the Dutch Republic who are of this Mennonite heritage. By 1600 the Mennonites were a significant part of the population and really influencing things. Some cities, some towns in the Dutch Republic, in particular North Holland in the Waterland area are almost entirely Mennonites and the economic prosperity is just incredible. But that leads to the new problem. They then become the social equals of the elites. Why not just marry into the elites? Why not just join the elites? Why not just reconvert to the Reformed Church then you can have all the full formal memberships and citizenships and so on. And that’s what most of them did. So by 1700 the Mennonite population had really shrunk not by persecution, but by assimilation, by social, cultural, economic motivations that it’s actually nicer to just join with this side. So I imagine some of that will happen. I have no idea what’s going to happen with the QAnoners now that as far as I know all of their prophecies have failed. What are they gonna do next? Go back to your churches, I would think but I’m waiting to see is it going to continue? Are they going to start a separate or distinct quasi denomination or religion? I don’t know. This could be the beginnings of a new Mormonism or a new Seventh Day Adventism or something of that nature, that has elements of Christianity, but with this new Q conspiracy Donald Trump is Messiah thing.


1 Tarpley Hitt, “How QAnon Became Obsessed With ‘Adrenochrome,’ an Imaginary Drug Hollywood Is ‘Harvesting’ from Kids,” The Daily Beast, https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-qanon-became-obsessed-with-adrenochrome-an-imaginary-drug-hollywood-is-harvesting-from-kids, 14 August 2020.

2 For more on ritual murder accusations, see Hannah Johnson, Blood Libel: The Ritual Murder Accusation at the Limit of Jewish History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).

3 Gary Waite, Jews and Muslims in Seventeenth-Century Discourse, From Religious Enemies to Allies and Friends (London: Routledge, 2018.)

4 Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York City: Vintage Books, 1996).

5 Mike Mariani, “American Exorcism,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/12/catholic-exorcisms-on-the-rise/573943/, accessed 21 April 2021.

6 For more on early modern witch hunts, see Gary Waite, Heresy, Magic and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003); Gary Waite, Eradicating the Devil’s Minions: Anabaptists and Witches in Reformation Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).

7 See Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago: Open Court Press, 1993).

8 Oliver Moore, “Klassen wins suit over malicious prosecution,” CBC News, 30 December 2003, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/klassen-wins-suit-over-malicious-prosecution/article1170870/. The Supreme Court overturned this verdict in 2009. See The Canadian Press, “Crown not malicious in pressing Sask. abuse case: SCC,” CTV News, 6 November 2009, https://www.ctvnews.ca/crown-not-malicious-in-pressing-sask-abuse-case-scc-1.451422.

9 See Gustav Henningsen (Ed.), The Salazar Documents: Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías and others on the Basque Witch Persecution (Leiden: Brill, 2004).

10 See David L. Rowe, God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

11 On David Joris, see Gary Waite, David Joris and Dutch Anabaptism (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990); Gary Waite (Ed.), The Anabaptist Writings of David Joris, Second Edition (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019).

12 See Karin Förster, Das reformatorische Täufertum in Oldenburg und Umgebung (1535-1540): Unter des besonderen Berücksichtigung des Täufertheologen David Joris (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2019).

13 See Benjamin Kaplan, Reformation and the Practice of Toleration: Dutch Religious History in the Early Modern Era (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

14 For more on Dutch Mennonite assimilation over time see Alastair Hamilton, Piet Visser, and Sjouke Voolstra (Eds.), From Martyr to Muppy (Mennonite Urban Professionals): A Historical Introduction to Cultural Assimilation Processes of a Religious Minority in the Netherlands, the Mennonites (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1994).

“Narrating the dispossession of an early modern community”

Mennonites experienced dispossession throughout the early modern period, including a late, violent, and dramatic expropriation in 1694. The noble von Bylandt family had favored the Mennonite community in the city of Rheydt, which lay within the duchy of Jülich and was ultimately ruled over by the Elector Johann Wilhelm of the Palatinate. The situation became tenuous, however, after a fire destroyed approximately fifty houses within the city in May 1694. The Mennonite community, relatively rich and stable due to their success in the local textile industry, was accused of starting the blaze. In 1705 Johan Scheiffart, an official involved in the dispossession, was “asked if he knew that this Sect had the teaching to make secret blazes [heimliche Feuersbrünste], in such a way that it would burn the goods of their neighbors?” He was forced to concede that this had been reported to him by others in Rheydt, but could not recall why.1

The expelled Mennonites of Rheydt narrated their own story more clearly. An extraordinary document, known as the Instrumentum Publicum, was presented to a notary on the evening of February 9, 1696, in the house of Peter Janssen within the city of Krefeld.2The Mennonites had prepared the document themselves and then presented it to the imperial notary public, Herman Marthens, and some “Gentleman witnesses.”3 These men confirmed and attested to the contents of the document, a species facti that allowed Mennonites to tell their side of the story. The document covered events between July 16, 1694, and August 28, 1694, and the Mennonites began by asserting their absolute innocence and civil obedience within the city of Rheydt. Their own coexistence within Rheydt had been exemplary, which they supported with descriptive words of obedience (“peace,” “tranquility”) and evidence of their consistent payment of taxes and fees.4

According to the Instrumentum Publicum, the violence of the Elector’s commissioners broke both this peace and their longstanding economic settlement. Those explicitly in the service of Elector Johann Wilhelm were Baron van Bongart of Paffendorf, Doctor Heyden and Doctor Scheiffart; others, however, such as “Captain of Horse, Mr. Wedding” and Paulus Katz of Jüchen lent their aid to the violent dispossession despite the fact that they were not electoral agents. These leaders arrived in Rheydt with “large number of armed peasants,” clearly ready for a fight.5 The unnamed peasants interrogated the inhabitants of Rheydt about the Mennonites and where they lived. They pounded and broke down doors, and even struck a Mennonite man with a pistol: he was “so severely wounded that blood streamed over his clothing.”6 The peasants dragged Mennonite men, women and children together and left them to be “guarded” by the Commissioners’ forces, with the exception of a few nursing infants allowed to remain with servants or neighbors. While this group of Mennonites huddled together, four peasants from within Rheydt tried to shake them down for any valuables on their person or in their pockets.

Lord Doctor Scheiffart then interrogated prominent members of the community, and focused specifically on any “money or bonds” that they may have owned.7 This line of questioning went on all afternoon and into the evening, while, simultaneously, the rest of the Commissioners dealt with the issue of Rheydt Castle. Baron von Bylandt was absent but the “fortress” appeared impassable, as it was “fortified with ramparts and moats and the gates of which remained closed.”8 The commissioners convinced Herr Gangelt to appear before them, and then compelled him to lower the bridge and allow the Elector’s forces access to the area inside – access to those Mennonite homes that had been particularly protected by von Bylandt’s favor. After this chaotic day of invasion and interrogation, the commissioners split the community into two main groups. About thirty of those within the city who had been interrogated, and who had their valuables pillaged by the Commissioners and their followers, were put in restraints and marched from Rheydt to Jüchen, a distance of about ten kilometers.9 Of those within the castle compound, many of the men appear to have escaped during the delay; the women and children left were threatened by peasants and commissioners for another week or so, at which point thirteen or fourteen of them were chosen to be marched and held in Jüchen along with the others.10

Imprisonment in Jüchen lasted for two weeks. Guarded and detained, the Mennonite community was first interrogated by Scheiffart within a few days of their arrival. He accused them of possessing “an accursed and damnable faith,” and threatened them with death if they did not convert to Catholicism. Further interrogations followed, largely individually, in the Jüchen home of Paulus Katz and in the presence of multiple of the Elector’s Commissioners. Mennonites were threatened with the 1529 mandate proclaimed at Speyer which specified death by fire or, in special circumstances, by the sword. Moreover, it was not just Mennonites threatened with the outstanding imperial ban; others associated with the Rheydt Mennonite community were similarly rounded up and intimidated. Johann Floh, a local textile merchant who had possessed a special letter of protection for nearly fifty years, had married a non-Mennonite woman who had a child from a previous marriage. This child, Peter Schloter, was now 43 years old and mostly likely worked in the same bleaching business that his stepfather had fought to protect decades earlier. This association, however, gave the Elector’s forces the pretext to arrest him outside of Gladbach and bring him to be imprisoned and interrogated alongside the Rheydt Mennonites in Jüchen, despite the fact that he was “of the reformed religion.”11 Another man, Peter Tomps, was also reportedly part of the Reformed faith, but this did not spare him from either threat or interrogation.12 These interrogations were repetitive and often nakedly avaricious. In one instance commissioners questioned each member of the community, and asked on “whether they still had outstanding money, cotton thread and pieces of linen on the looms and where the weavers lived.”13

Indeed, while these ordeals played out in Jüchen agents of the Elector were hard at work converting Mennonite possessions into cash. The houses, initially pillaged on July 16 for cash and small valuables, were in the next twenty days “stripped” of all furniture and “the floors, ceilings and tiles were destroyed and the boards carried away.”14 The commissioners made detailed lists of possessions for each family, with expected values totaled. Everything of value was sold at markets in Jüchen, Rheydt and Gladbach. The loss of possessions was swift, but this was not the end of the Elector’s attempt to squeeze money out of the Mennonite community. In the course of the interrogations, the attitude of the commissioners hardened into an explicit extortionate threat: pay 12,000 imperial Thalers or face execution.15

It is unclear whether the Elector and his commissioners demanded such a sum because they believed the Mennonites to have hidden some of their own money elsewhere, or if they had prior knowledge of the communication networks that existed among Mennonites in the area – and that therefore the Rheydt Mennonites might be able appeal to the nearby the Dutch Mennonite community.16 In any event, this was an exceedingly large sum of money, even for a community whose goods and property had not just been confiscated by the same extorting power. Smaller sums were suggested by the imprisoned Mennonites (1,200 Thalers as a first offer, then 4,000) before the still exceedingly high price of 8,000 Thalers was agreed upon.17 Yet, when the Mennonites agreed to this sum they believed themselves to have been granted access to any of their own furniture or goods still remaining, and this did not come to pass. They had no personal assets at all, and a bill of 8,000 Thalers due to preserve their lives. The imprisoned Mennonites hoped to write to their Dutch co-religionists, they claimed, but before the money could be collected they were threatened again. Baron von Bongart, a commissioner involved since the beginning, returned from the Electoral seat of Düsseldorf with two orders of execution. Two men of prominent families, Jan Klaasen van Aachen and Godschalk van Elten, were to be put to death.18 This did not immediately occur, however, and instead the whole of the community was moved again on August 1, 1694. Roughly bound together, the Mennonites were marched to Paffendorf, about twenty-one kilometers away from their former place of imprisonment in Jüchen.

In Paffendorf, events turned violent. Peter Schloter was “found…dead with his head cut off; …the dead body was dragged out like a dead carcass (or carrion) to the place of execution and left under the gallows under the blue heavens until the [next] day and was kept with a guard, but was afterwards hanged like a dog with the limbs aloft on the gallows standing there.”19 This gruesome scene was used to further intimidate prominent Mennonite men; three of them were brought to the gallows, threatened with similar treatment if any of them tried to escape, and then again threatened with this punishment if they did not recant their faith or pay the 8,000 Thaler within three days. The gallows were also used to intimate Gertrude Fieten, “of the Reformed religion” and a servant who had been imprisoned in an effort to gain information on her rich Mennonite master’s property.20

The conditions in Paffendorf were dire for everyone, however, and stretched on for weeks despite the fact that both William III of England, in his capacity as the Duke of nearby Mörs, and Lord Bildebeq of the Dutch States General were petitioning forcefully throughout August.21 Yet these outside intercessions bore no immediate fruit. On August 28 the Mennonites were compelled to pay those 8,000 Thaler – plus 800 Thaler in “expenses” related to their own imprisonment – with the threat that the fee would double to 16,000, and the imprisonment conditions worsen, if this payment did not come through.22

By September of 1694, then, the Mennonites of Rheydt had lost their property, all savings and anything of value, and had been officially exiled from the territory: “the prisoners were finally set free and conducted to the frontier of the country [where] they were banished and exiled with forfeiture of person, life and property should they return.”23 Though negotiations over the property, debts associated with the property, and their restitution continued for years, the Instrumentum Publicum ends here. Many of the impoverished and exiled Mennonites ended up in the city of Krefeld, forty-eight kilometers north of their last place of imprisonment; a city where much of the money for their release had been raised, and where a group of formerly-Rheydt Mennonites would come together two years later to produce this extraordinary document. The names of these twenty-six Mennonites close out the document. Though the Mennonites now residing in Krefeld printed their side of the story in early 1696, it was not until the latter half of 1697 that they won any recompense.


1 Quoted in Karl Rembert, Die “Wiedertäufer” im Herzogtum Jülich (Berlin: R. Gaertners Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1899), 410, in a footnote beginning on 409 (fn. 2).

2 The original document was printed in Krefeld in 1696. A Dutch copy was made in 1771 by Godschalk Godschalks, and the original version was “found by an unknown person in an old library” in Krefeld and printed in 1803; Ernst Weydmann, “Über die Vertreibung der Mennoniten aus Rheydt und deren Einwanderung in Crefeld im Jahre 1694,“ in Mennonitische Blätter(1891): 21-6. All quotes here are taken from the English translation, made by N.B. Grubb, and checked against the German version printed as an addendum to Ludwig Schmitz-Kallenberg, Geschichte der Herrschaft Rheydt (1887). I use the names found in the German version, however, as the English version was translated from the Dutch and has retained names modified for a Dutch audience. N.B. Grubb, Pro Copia Instrumentum Publicum, Concerning That Which was Considered in Facti, by the Lord Commissioners of the Palatine Electoral Prince in Reference, To the Protestant Mennonites at Reijdt in the Year 1694, and what Transpired (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1909). German: Franke, “Instrumentum Publicum wegen desjenigen, was bei denen Churfl. Pfaltzischen Herren Commissarien gegen die Protestante Menoniste zu Rheydt in Anno 1694 in facta vorgenohmen und sich zugetragen,” edited by J. H. Franke; in Ludwig Schmitz (-Kallenberg), Rheydter Chronik. Geschichte der Herrschaft Rheydt, Erster Band (Rheydt: Verlag von D. Rob. Langewiesche, 1897), 265ff.

3 Grubb, 23; Franke, 275.

4 Grubb, 5; Franke, 266.

5 Grubb, 6; Franke, 266-267.

6 Grubb, 6; Franke, 267.

7 Grubb, 7; Franke, 267.

8 Grubb, 8; Franke, 268.

9 Grubb, 8; Franke, 267.

10 Grubb, 9; Franke, 268.

11 Grubb, 15; Franke, 271.

12 Grubb, 16; Franke, 271.

13 Grubb, 11; Franke, 269.

14 Grubb, 9-10; Franke, 268.

15 Grubb, 12; Franke, 269.

16 It seems probable that, as Elector Palatine, he would have been aware of the efforts of Dutch Mennonites on behalf of expelled Swiss Mennonites who settled in the Palatinate in the 1670s. For a general overview of that period, see Rosalind J. Beiler, “Dissenting Religious Communication Networks and European Migration, 1660-1710,” in Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500-1830, edited by Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 215-216.

17 Grubb, 12; Franke, 270.

18 Grubb, 13-14; Franke, 270. They were to be executed by the sword and the rope respectively. The meaning of these execution methods is unclear, but perhaps reflected differentiated status.

19 Grubb, 16; Franke, 271-272. The death of Peter Schloter is a bizarre episode that hangs in the middle of the story without much explanation. Much remains unclear, but his death was used by the commissioners to put fear into a population that they had detained for economic reasons. A report from the Elector to his commissioner Baron van Bongart of Paffendorf mentioned another Mennonite death while in prison, this time in November 1694. It was reported to be a suicide and they released the body to the family to be buried. See LNW-Rheinland, Jülich-Berg Nr. 257, 107r: “Ihr sollet den Jenigen Menschen, so Juengstens in der gefangnuschaff in seiner kranckheit sich selbsten ermordet, vnd ein Menonist zue seyn vermeinet worden, dessen bey euch derentwillen sich angebanden befreunden: oder anderen ohn verlangt außfolgen, vnd Ihne gleich wolen nach ihrem belieben begraben zulaßen”

20 Grubb, 19-21; Franke, 273-274. Her employer, Cornelius Floh, lived within the castle walls of Rheydt and had presumably been one of the men who escaped and left women and children behind. Floh was eventually compelled to pay 150 imperial Thalers to free Gertrude, who was kept in Düsseldorf for weeks longer than the rest. Floh’s account books were also part of this deal.

21 Grubb, 18; Franke, 273.

22 Grubb, 19; Franke, 273.

23 Grubb, 19; Franke, 273.