The Danzig Mennonite Church: Its Origin and History from 1569–1919
Hermann Gottlieb Mannhardt. Trans. Victor G. Doerksen; ed. Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen. North Newton, KS; Kitchener, ON: Bethel College; Pandora Press, 2007. 286 pages.
This congregational history was written nearly ninety years ago, but has now been translated and published in book form for an English-speaking audience by Victor G. Doerksen. Hermann Gottlieb Mannhardt had a vested interest in this particular history. His uncle, Jacob Mannhardt, served as preacher and elder of the Danzig Mennonite Church, and later H. G. Mannhardt himself was ordained as co-elder of the same church. In a real sense, this history is also his story. A student of both Protestant theology and history, Mannhardt presented this detailed narrative at the centennial of the dedication of the Danzig Mennonite Church building, and the 350th anniversary of its founding.
This account, containing thirteen chapters, is not merely an isolated piece of local or congregational history, but rather a chronology of spiritual and historical events, providing a spiritual lineage for the Danzig Mennonite community in the Vistula Delta spanning five hundred years.
Beginning with the Anabaptists, “Rebaptizers,” and moving on to Menno Simons, that “tired soldier of God,” and his colleague Dirk Philips, Mannhardt provided a positive view of those espousing this faith commitment, making a case for Mennonites as a people “not belonging to any nation or territory,” but “bound together by their religion.” As such a people, Mannhardt described Mennonites, not as revolutionaries and fanatics, but rather as quiet, sober, industrious, hard-working, peace-loving people, seeking to live out their faith despite intense opposition.
Mannhardt presented considerable documentation for the instability of the situation in which Mennonites found themselves. Continually threatened by taxation, confiscation, pillage and expulsion, Mennonites in Danzig lived as “non-citizens” and “foreigners” without rights, yet they were (remarkably) allowed to remain in the district. Some even became wealthy and were granted permission to move from outside the city walls to residence within. The dominant characteristic of Mennonites highlighted by Mannhardt was patience in suffering injustice, an extension of the long-held belief in the principle of nonresistance and nonretaliation. As long as the Mennonites maintained both this position of nonresistance and refusal to swear an oath, citizenship with its accompanying rights of inheritance, buying and selling, and full engagement in business was denied them.
It is curious that Mannhardt grouped Mennonites with other “rebellious elements of society,” including Socinians, Sacramentarians, Arians, and Quakers, those who were reportedly injurious to society and deserving of banishment. The Socinians and Arians, in particular, did not hold to the orthodox belief in the Trinity, in stark contrast to Mennonites.
Other issues are surprisingly relevant. The issue of a fixed salary for the pastor was negotiated in 1824-1825. In fact, this “novelty of a paid preacher” was cause for the separation of the church’s city branch from its rural branch. The decision to call a pastor and offer a fixed salary was followed by the unexpected gift of a parsonage by the oldest member of the congregation, a “Madam Fluge,” aged eighty-eight, who felt that a preacher should not have to be bound by the necessity of other employment and should have the liberty of dedicating himself wholly to preaching, teaching, and pastoral work. Mennonite Brethren in the United States were still struggling with this issue in the mid-1950s.
The issue of “mixed marriages” and “mixed business dealings” was also prominent in the church history, as the Danzig church took a strict point of view, excommunicating those who married Lutherans, Reformed, or Catholics, while the sister congregation at Elbing was more lenient. (Mennonite Brethren in the United States were still excommunicating or “putting out” those who married “outside the church” in the 1940s.) The issue of Mennonites living in cities rather than in farming villages seemed a natural outgrowth of the struggle for the rights of citizenship in Danzig: the privileges, the good life, were for those who resided within the city walls. Meanwhile, the distrust and fear of city culture delayed urban ministry efforts for Mennonite Brethren in the United States until 1910 when the first city mission was established in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Towards the end of the narrative, Mennonite acculturation and movement into public society resulted in a loss of some former convictions; it became more difficult to maintain the “simplicity of their customs and outward appearance.” Mennonites in Danzig were permitted to serve as representatives on the city district councils and as members of the poor commission and other charitable organizations, and were granted involvement in larger-scale business efforts.
Mennonite scholarship has recently focused on the Russian experience, with considerable research made possible by the availability and acquisition of archival records from depositories now in the Ukraine. The scarcity of primary sources in Poland—in this case, the church records for both the rural and the city branches of the Mennonite community in Danzig (the Flemish and the Frisian)—makes Mannhardt’s account even more significant and valuable, as do the universality of themes and commonality of issues. The struggle for identity, adaptation to culture and society, and efforts to maintain traditional convictions all make this historical narrative amazingly relevant to the life of our churches today.