1577 in 1947

My dissertation focuses on the early modern period and addresses the economic experiences of nonconformists in the northwestern Holy Roman Empire. One piece of twentieth-century evidence, however, demonstrates how economic strength became a rhetorical pose necessary for later Mennonites—a pattern familiar to any minority group that must justify its continued existence to a wider community. This short nineteen-page pamphlet, The Cultural Achievements of the Mennonites in East Frisia and the Münsterland, written and published by Pastor Abraham Fast of Emden in 1947, began by explaining the common experience of Mennonites in what was now northwestern Germany: “In East Frisia and the Münsterland the Mennonites were, from the beginning, much less a segregated non-resident settlement community than later in the eastern part of the Empire or further in Russia.”1 This ‘integration’ was made easier by what Fast described as “blood and language,” common membership in a so-called “Saxon-Frankish-Friesian tribe” as those in the East Frisian and Westphalian communities to which they immigrated.

Predictably, in a publication dedicated to an elder of the Mennonite community in Gronau, Fast was effusive about the positive role Mennonites had played. This was both genuinely celebratory and an expedient means of justification; Fast argued that Mennonites had a small but nonetheless integral role as “economically and spiritually a good leaven for this region.” He dug into the archives to evidence this claim, pulling sources from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before turning to his main concern: the “most recent 150 years” of Mennonite history in the area (indeed, Fast gives quite a detailed industrial history of a number of textile firms). 2

My concern, of course, is his use of evidence from the early modern period. Fast highlighted the irony of sixteenth-century economic toleration: “This fact is simply appealing when one observes how the sharpest memories of the edicts against the Mennonites fade, while at the same time [they were] negotiating with these forbidden heretics over leases, money borrowing or even gifts for the princely court.”3 This ironic use of ‘heretic’ (‘Ketzer’) is striking. Most importantly for Fast, however, was the clear economic advantage to business dealings with Mennonites even as they were singled-out for religious nonconformity. Fast went on to argue that authorities recognized this advantage early on, and sought to bring Mennonites into these territories despite religious difference.

Fast, remarkably, harkened back to the same 1577 letter from the Emden council about which I wrote about a few months ago, and quoted from the complaint by Emden authorities that Anabaptists were taking up the most prominent houses and prominent roles in the wider business and merchant community. It is notable that Fast was here comfortable quoting from a letter that only ever referred this group as Anabaptists (Wiedertäufer) – and one in which their social position was made explicitly analogous to that of Jews. Fast went on to quote from a protection letter from 1688, in which authorities warned that the expiration of Mennonite protections would have a significant financial strain on the area, and to quote extensively from a 1708 petition by a governmental official in Norden who expounds upon the necessity of Mennonites for the larger community there – and especially for the poor.4

In his sparse use of early modern evidence, Fast meant only to set the stage for the more impressive economic achievements of Mennonites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, the addition of the letter from 1577 does two unique things. First, it uses a hostile account as evidence for prosperity—the latter two pieces of early modern evidence appear to be neutral if not complimentary, while the 1577 letter was clearly pejorative. And secondly, it naturalizes the economic strength of the Mennonite community; it has always been so, and the community’s industriousness has paved the way for its inclusion.

Similarly, Fast listed a number of western Münsterland industrial concerns begun by Mennonites – most of which had been founded only during the nineteenth century, but which had grown out of a tradition of Mennonite weaving and cloth-trading that began in the early modern period.5 The relative wealth of Mennonites compared to wider society was a commonality amongst Mennonites in both East Frisia and the Münsterland, evidenced by the saying “only rich people belong to the Mennonites.”6 This pride in the relative wealth of the community is certainly a prominent theme of Fast’s pamphlet, and he noted that Mennonites gave generously to the poor of other confessions, as well as contributed significantly more to school taxes.

But Fast acknowledged some differences between the two communities, in a striking paragraph that closed his pamphlet:

“Worth mentioning, however, are the following peculiarities. In contrast to the families from Emden and Norden, the Münsterlanders did not appear on the political stage. But they built up all the more zealously as entrepreneurs that which gives public life its basis and its freedom of movement: the economy. On the other hand they revered, as did the East Frisian Mennonites, a religious inwardness and the free cosmopolitanism associated with it, as had always belonged to the tradition of these communities. Most of the above-mentioned, significant business founders in East Frisia and the Münsterland and their successes have put their forces at the service of local communities as church councilors and as deputies in the service of the Association of the German Mennonites, where the community in Emden shaped the spiritual center of the whole group and still shapes it until today.”7

But if Mennonites would eventually find themselves wealthy, and protected by that wealth – however reliable this ebullient pamphlet was – it took round and rounds of negotiation in the early modern period to establish their homes in communities such as Emden, Norden and Leer.

  1. Abraham Fast, Die Kulturleistungen der Mennoniten in Ostfriesland und Münsterland (1947), 3. An editorial note on the inside of the front cover indicated that the text had been prepared in 1939 but its publication had been delayed by the Second World War.
  2. That same editorial note indicated that he used a number of well-known nineteenth century works to gather this evidence, particularly J.P. Müller, Die Mennoniten in Ostfriesland.
  3. Ibid., 3-4.
  4. Ibid., 4-5.
  5. Ibid., 13.
  6. Ibid., 7-8.
  7. Ibid., 18-19.