Obedient Heretics: Mennonite Identities in Lutheran Hamburg and Altona during the Confessional Age.

Reviewed by Werner O. Packull

The Conrad Grebel Review 21, no. 2 (Spring 2003)

Michael D. Driedger. Obedient Heretics: Mennonite Identities in Lutheran
Hamburg and Altona during the Confessional Age
. Burlington, VT:
Ashgate, 2002.

Michael Driedger’s work concentrates on Mennonites in the Hamburg-Altona region of Germany during the second half of the seventeenth century. These Mennonites had become “ethno-confessional,” consisting “almost entirely” of people born into the “Flemish” Mennonite community of Hamburg-Altona. Since Hamburg was officially Lutheran, Mennonites were barred from participation in its political life and forbidden to build churches. A more tolerant attitude prevailed in the adjacent Danish enclave of Altona. Although here, too, religious non-conformity meant a “precarious legal existence,” the economic contribution of Mennonites was welcome and they were permitted to meet for worship in Altona. Some entered the lucrative whaling market and prospered, controlling for a time 50 per cent of its proceeds. In 1675 the first church was built in Altona. The cemetery which followed suggested a new permanency and, according to Driedger, set a new benchmark in the “institutional history” of the Altona congregation, which by the late seventeenth century claimed a membership of 250 baptized adults. Congregational governance permitted all baptized males to participate in the election of the leadership. Ordained elders performed marriages and baptisms, and presided during the Lord’s Supper.

The book’s second chapter delves into the mid-seventeenth century Dompelaar schism. Seventeen members left the Altona congregation, insisting that baptism should be by immersion, and that the Lord’s Supper be held in the evening with unleavened bread and only after a foot washing ceremony. While attempts to resolve the dispute failed, immersionists eventually underwent a metamorphosis into non-denominational pietists and dissolved.

The third chapter deals with the “confessionalist strategy” of Altona’s church leaders caught in the “war of the lambs” between Zonists and Lambists. The Zonists advocated a stricter confessionalism and had Thielemann Jansz van Braght, compiler of the Martyrs Mirror, on their side. In addition to the Apostolic Creed, van Braght included three confessions approved at the Synod of Leiden, chaired by him, in the Martyrs Mirror. While van Braght insisted on confessional orthodoxy, the eloquent representative of the Lambists, Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan, sought to retain a less dogmatic ethical piety. The Altona church was drawn into the Zonist confessionalist network, thanks in part to its influential preacher, Geeritt Roosen. Nevertheless, Abrahamsz was permitted to preach in the Altona congregation. Driedger implies that confessionalism constituted a qualified accommodation to mainstream trends while permitting the preservation of unique Mennonite identities; hence the numerous Mennonite confessions during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Chapter 4 initiates readers into the growing historiography of confessionalism which Driedger has mastered. He describes the paradigmatic shift from “absolutism” to “confessionalism,” and how this shift broadens the historical investigation to “the linkages between religion, society, politics, economics and culture” (77). Viewed in this larger context, Mennonites maintained religious nonconformity but became increasingly part of the established order, accepting its legal norms, including their own “subordinate position” (81). In this view, “self-directed . . . preemptive social discipline” exercised by the Mennonites served those interested in obedient subjects and in the maintenance of the existing political-social order.

The last three chapters deal with nonresistance, oath swearing, and mixed marriages. Driedger notes that activist peacemaking would have seemed absurd to early modern Mennonites; “non-resistance” remained the ideal, but it was undermined by economics. Mennonite merchants and ship owners required armed protection against pirates. If they did not outfit their own ships with cannons, they accepted the protection of armed convoys. Some were involved in the arms trade (122). Others, like the Roosens, prominent members of the Altona church, had for generations produced gun powder. Thus economics led to strange bedfellows. The issue of oath swearing, personalized by the story of Hans Plus, illustrates additional difficulties. Plus came to the attention of Hamburg’s authorities because he refused to swear the common oath. His case became politicized when the city of Hamburg was accused of harboring Anabaptists. At the trial before Germany’s High Court, Hamburg’s lawyers argued that Mennonites were not Anabaptists (sic!) and that Plus had sworn an alternative oath, “by the truth of men” (Mannen Wahrheit), in a ritual with all the trappings of a normal oath swearing ceremony. The trial petered out when Plus moved to Russia.

Driedger documents that relations between Hamburg’s administrators and Mennonites continued on a relatively cordial trajectory and that increasing tolerance led to increased interaction with outsiders. “Mixed marriages,” initially perceived as a threat to the religious-ethnic purity of the community, increased. Interestingly, the most stubborn resistance against intermarriage came from Mennonite oligarchs primarily interested in protecting family businesses. Leaders who sought to prevent mixed marriages on purely religious grounds faced an increasingly difficult task.

Driedger’s study captures the dynamics of Mennonite interaction within the larger context. His study suggests that collective identity and ethno-religious purity are more likely to be maintained under persecution. Readers will find a mine of information in Obedient Heretics. Appendices provide the names of preachers and deacons, and offer information on marriages, on conversions (in or out), and on discipline administered. Driedger’s book invites discussion and debate. His meticulous scholarship and even-handed interpretation reveal him to be a scholar par excellence. Mennonites are fortunate to have such talent and dedication interested in their history.