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Baptist origins in Poland.

Baptists began in Poland when no independent Poland existed.

Through several partitions, Poland's neighbors--Russia, Prussia, and Austria--each took a share of its territory. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars and at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Russia created a Kingdom of Poland (known also as Congress Poland) with the Russian czar as its ruler. Although a number of Poles lived outside its boundaries, the kingdom, however, included the majority of the Polish people and included Warsaw, its historic capital. The kingdom was given a comparatively liberal constitution, including an assembly. (1)

In the Polish uprising of 1830-31, Russia took full control of the kingdom, destroyed its constitution, disbanded its assembly, and divided it into ten provinces or gubernias. In 1863-64, the Poles again revolted; this time the Russian regime terminated the kingdom and called it Vistula Land. Russian became the official language, even in the schools. The Baptist movement in Poland began between the first and second uprisings.

Congress Poland contained a varied population. The greatest portion consisted of Poles, approaching four million. They included over 75 percent of the inhabitants and were Roman Catholic. The Russians, comprising less than 5 percent, were primarily in the bureaucracy and army and were Russian Orthodox. The Jewish population, a large minority, comprised about 13 percent. A smaller minority, the Germans, numbered 300,000 or almost 6 percent of the population. They were primarily Protestant, mostly Lutheran, although some were Reformed, Mennonite, or Moravian. (2)

The Origin of Baptists in Poland

The Baptist movement in Germany, from its beginning in 1834 under the dynamic leadership of Johann G. Oncken, spread rapidly in Germany and neighboring countries. German Baptist churches were soon established in East Prussia, a German province to the north of Congress Poland, including churches at Memel (today Klaipeda) in 1841; Elbing (today Elblag) in 1844; and Stolzenberg in 1849, with preaching stations elsewhere. With such close proximity to the Russian Empire, not surprisingly German Baptists looked upon Russia as a mission territory with its teeming millions. In 1850, Gottfried W. Lehmann and Julius Kobner, German Baptist leaders who with Oncken became known as "the Baptist clover-leaf," attended an associational meeting in Elbing, visited the church at Memel, and then approached the Russian border. Without visas they were stopped, but on Russian soil, they with fellow believers sang a missionary hymn and prayed "that day might at length spring up in these dark regions." (3) Within a few years, through a number of unusual circumstances, the prayer of the German Baptists on the Russian border began to be answered.

The beginnings of Baptist work in Congress Poland centered on a Lutheran schoolteacher, Gottfried Alf. Born of German parents in 1831 in central Poland, Alf at the age of nineteen began his career as a teacher in Mentnowo, a new German colony northeast of Warsaw. In the absence of the pastor who found it necessary to serve a widespread parish, Alf, as the schoolteacher, was expected to lead the service, which included reading the sermon. In preparing for the services, Alf's conscience increasingly condemned him, and finally in 1853 led him simply to trust Christ and his sacrifice for salvation. No one counseled him since he had come to this experience on his own. (4)

With his newly found faith, Alf began preaching to the children, which resulted in a religious awakening that also spread to some adults. After school, he held prayer meetings for the religiously awakened. His career as a revivalist had now begun. Alf soon faced opposition from many of the parents, the pastor who forbade his religious activities, and the Lutheran Consistory, which condemned him. As a result, he lost his teaching position in 1854, and with his wife and baby son moved to a farm that his father had given him.

At his new location, Alf held devotional hours for Bible study and prayer and also engaged in mission trips three or four times a week. His revival movement spread. On one of his trips at the instigation of one of the Lutheran pastors, Alf was seized, beaten, and taken to a court of justice for three days. He now realized his own church was persecuting him and that he needed to leave it, but he was unsure about where to go.

A German settler from East Prussia, Heinrich Assmann, had recently purchased land near Alf's farm and, although at the time not a Baptist himself, Assmann told Alf about Baptists in East Prussia. Although Alf had never heard of Baptists, their faith and lifestyle as well as their revivalism greatly appealed to him except for believer's baptism by immersion. After arguing with Assmann in favor of infant baptism, Alf became convinced that believer's baptism was biblical. But in accepting Baptist principles and his willingness to be immersed as a believer, Alf faced serious consequences. Such a decision meant he was repudiating his own baptism and the legitimacy of the church into which he had been born. Alf also faced the charge of becoming an "Anabaptist," a term of great reproach. In addition, his own father repudiated him and expelled him, his wife, and children from the farm land that had been gifted to them. Alf experienced a second loss of a home and income and faced an uncertain future.

In 1858, Wilhelm Weist, pastor of the German Baptist Church in Stolzenberg in East Prussia (today in Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia), crossed the Russian border and on November 28 baptized Alf and eight others. On the following day, Weist immersed seventeen more, which was followed by eighteen more before his departure. In Adamowo, where Alf was now living, a mission of the Stolzenberg Church was established. Alf and an assistant pastor who had traveled with Weist were appointed to lead the church meetings and administer the ordinances. Except for a small church formed in 1856 in the Aland Islands between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea, this mission was the first formally organized Baptist work on Russian soil.

Alf felt he was doing more than introducing a new denomination in Poland; he was the head of a revival movement intended to reach everyone, whatever the person's religion and ethnic background. Although the population as a whole was related to some religious body, whether Christian or Jewish, Alf believed that most Christians were only nominal adherents, generally born into the church, baptized as infants, and still unregenerate. They with Jews needed to hear the gospel and through a personal experience to repent and accept Christ by faith. Even the Mennonites, who practiced believer's baptism, were not exempt. Alf felt that they were no longer the flaming evangelists and martyrs of a bygone era and needed revival. They now seemed like other state-church bodies with special privileges, generally gaining members from their own children who were automatically baptized in their teenage years.

Unlike other denominations that tended to identify with a particular ethnic group, such as the Orthodox with Russians, Roman Catholics with Poles, and Lutherans and Mennonites with Germans, the Baptist movement crossed religious and ethnic boundaries and sought to appeal to all. Although most converts at this time were German Protestants, Alf was bilingual and unlike most German Baptists preached and witnessed in both German and Polish.

Alf's preaching was pentecostal and charged with emotion. Listeners were convicted of their sinfulness and cried for mercy. In June 1860, in a great revival, Alf wrote that many became faint and hit the ground. Many people cried aloud, weeping and falling on their knees. Although the movement gained some schoolteachers, it appealed primarily to the lower classes--peasants in the villages and workers in the factory.

In 1859, Alf spent several months in Hamburg, the headquarters of the German Baptist movement where he met personally with Oncken. He was ordained on September 26 and became the first member of the Russian Empire to be ordained into the Baptist ministry.

The authorities gave Alf a pass to go to Germany, thinking he would not return and thus his movement would end. But on August 4, 1861, the mission in Adamowo became an independent congregation, claiming a membership of 332 with twenty-five mission stations. Shortly afterward, on August 25, Baptists formed a second church at Kicin.

Although Alf was the major leader of the movement, he was not a solo operator. He attracted co-workers, some of them schoolteachers, to serve as missionaries, including Mathias Kelm and Jakob Rafaski, who migrated to Volhynia in the Ukraine and served the Baptist cause there. Two other teachers, Daniel Knopf and Friedrich Rossoll, also served the mission cause. Other co-laborers were Eduard Aschendorf and Peter Ewert. As early as 1861, Alf began establishing mission schools for workers. In the spirit of Oncken's motto, "Every Baptist a missionary," the Baptist movement enlisted laypersons to help spread the faith.

Opposition to the Baptist Movement

In conjunction with the new movement, opposition and persecution paralleled its success. In December 1860, authorities seized Alf, confiscating his Bibles and tracts, but he was soon released. From 1860 until 1865, until the Russian regime recognized Baptists as a tolerated sect at least for non-Russians, Alf suffered intense oppression from authorities who wished to stop an unrecognized movement. Baptists also faced hostility from religious leaders, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jew, as well as from the general population. (5)

One of Alf's most serious ordeals occurred in 1862 when he was imprisoned for almost two and a half months in Warsaw. The prison superintendent removed all his possessions, including clothes, money, and travel bag. The prison had one narrow window. The food, which All called worse than pig's feet, consisted of course bread, sour borscht, and a small amount of cooked food. After three weeks he was moved to another cell, which he shared with about twelve Germans and to whom he was able to witness.

One of Alf's worse imprisonments took place in 1863. He brought this imprisonment on himself by disobeying restrictions on his travel and by holding a passport on which he had changed a date. The authorities forced Alf to wear prisoner's garb and threw him in with about seventy fellow prisoners, most of whom were thieves. Seventeen were women, some jailed for murder. His fellow prisoners welcomed him with ridicule and scorn. He slept on boards. His food consisted primarily of bread and water, boiled potatoes without salt, and water-gruel. On his first night in this prison, his food was stolen, and he lost his neckerchief. On the following day, the food his wife brought to him was stolen. He became despondent but by reading his Testament and returning love for evil, such as sharing his bread, he began to win the respect of the other prisoners and was able to preach to them. He distributed Polish tracts that his wife brought him and even some Testaments he was able to obtain. One of the jailers provided him with meat and bread in gratitude for a Polish Testament that Alf had initially loaned to him and another jailer but which they kept.

Besides imprisonment, Alf also faced the threat of mob attack. In early 1864, five hoodlums burst into a Baptist meeting and unexpectedly found Alf there. He fled to a cellar, but in the ensuing struggle, the assailants ripped off Alf's coat and vest and threw him into a wagon. He expected he would die, for his capturers threatened to throw him into the Vistula River, which they believed would be proper punishment for a Baptist who practiced immersion. Finally, however, they put him in a dungeon from which he was eventually freed. In the meantime, fellow Baptists paid twenty-one rubles for a ransom.

According to Gottfried Liebert, the early chronicler of Baptists in Poland, Alf endured thirty-two imprisonments and transport of 1,728 kilometers, suffering more than any of his co-laborers. One official claimed that over a period of time he had fined Alf over two hundred rubies. Other leaders were imprisoned, such as Aschendorff and Ewart. Liebert claimed that by the mid-1870s, 157 persons had endured either prison or transport. Costs, including fines, far exceeded 2,000 rubles. (6)

Besides enduring judicial penalties, many Baptists were subject to beatings and mob attacks. Sometimes meetings were broken up. In talking in the 1880s to F. Kiefer, a German-American from Texas, Alf declared that at times he preached secretly in crowded rooms. Sometimes, he conducted baptisms in the coldest winter before daybreak. Much of the persecution, however, was over by the mid-1860s, even though hostility still persisted. The government, however, continued to restrict travel passes, the legalization of churches, the building of chapels, the importation of literature, the visitation of foreign Baptists, and even holding a jubilee celebration in 1886 that had to be converted into a harvest festival.

Building a Denomination

Even though Baptist churches in Poland grew out of a revival movement, they were also a denominational body in the making. The movement gradually established independent congregations. Unlike in Sweden where groups of believers were almost immediately organized into congregations, Baptists in Poland followed the German pattern of waiting for maturity before organization. Yet at the same time, Baptists built extensive network preaching points, some of which would develop into self-sustaining congregations.

Members in Baptist congregations were under discipline as individuals and collectively. Churches expected members to live soberly, to avoid worldly pleasures, to attend services faithfully, to observe the Sabbath, and to engage in Bible reading and prayer. They opposed drinking alcoholic beverages, particularly brandy, a curse for many Poles, and unlike Baptists in Germany, Polish Baptists rejected the use of tobacco.

Baptist leaders recognized that outbursts of revival enthusiasm could lead to fanaticism and then a cooling of religious fervor. Churches admitted members only after careful examination for evidence of regeneration. Not everyone was accepted. The number of excluded members was high. Discipline weeded out the non-committed and forged a close community with common purpose. Discipline, however, was not an end in itself but a means to produce repentance and restoration.

Even with their strict standards of faith and daily living, Baptists were part of normal Polish life. Unlike many Mennonites, who set themselves off into their own ethnic enclaves, Baptists participated in the regular social and economic life of their communities. Their dress, although simple, was not distinctive. Unlike Mennonites, they accepted military service.

Baptists were orthodox in theology, accepting the principles of the Protestant Reformation. Their doctrinal basis was the German Baptist Confession of 1847. Their services were non-liturgical. Preaching was central. In prayer, worshippers kneeled. Music played an important role, and singing attracted people to the services. Churches formed singing societies and choirs, including choirs for youth. Members observed the kiss of peace.

The ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper were viewed as non-sacramental. As Baptists everywhere, baptism was administered only to believers and by immersion. Immersion was practiced by lowering the candidate into the water once backward. Alf strongly criticized some Mennonites who, although leaving their practice of pouring for immersion, baptized kneeling candidates who went face forward into the water. With regard to the Lord's Supper, close communion was practiced and only individuals of like faith were allowed to participate. Unlike Mennonites, Baptists did not observe the rite of footwashing.

Baptists observed the love feast, a time of testimony, praise, and prayer with a communal meal. They held love feasts in conjunction with other events, such as the Lord's Supper, an ordination, or at a church conference. A church with numerous stations might invite all members to a love feast for a time of fellowship, praise, divine intercession, and the presentation of reports.

As early as 1859, Alf formed a Sunday School for children at Adamowo. In 1874, the church at Kicin, including its stations, had eight Sunday Schools and almost 200 children and eleven teachers. At that time, two other congregations supported nine Sunday Schools for a total of 248 children. A few auxiliaries began to appear, such as young women's societies and small workers' societies for missions.

In the early days, revival services were held in homes, an inn, a barn, or a schoolhouse, but the formation of churches and mission stations called for permanent locations. At first, congregations met in houses, but Alf saw the need for chapels. With great difficulty, Alf finally gained permission to build in 1868 a wooden chapel at Kicin, the first for Poland. The authorities, however, restricted its height so it would not appear as a church. Other chapels followed in the 1870s.

Early Baptists in Poland were poor, and it took time for them to develop a sense of stewardship. Alf looked to Baptists abroad for financial support. Through the good offices of Oncken, Alfbegan to receive as early as 1859 support from the Bristo Place Baptist Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, a congregation that still exists today. In February 1872, Alf made an impassioned call for help from abroad. Over time, contributions not only came from the United Kingdom and Germany but also from America through the American Baptist Missionary Union, which contributed to the German Baptist Mission, which, in turn, supported missions in the Russian Empire. Contributions also came from the German Baptist Conference in the United States.

Baptists in Poland became members of regional and national Baptist organizations. The first churches were members of the Prussian Association and the German Baptist Union or Bund, which acted like a corporate body. In 1877, messengers formed the Russian Poland Association, thus separating the churches from the Prussian Association but not from the Bund. In 1887, German and Baltic Baptist congregations located in the Russian Empire formed the Union of the Baptist Churches in Russia. Russian-Ukrainian Baptists had already formed their own Russian Baptist Union in 1884. Alf was elected the first president of the new union and held the position until his death in 1898.

The Baptist movement in Poland helped to extend the Baptist witness farther into Russia proper, that is, into the Ukraine. As early as 1859, Baptist converts began to migrate to Volhynia in northwest Ukraine, 500 miles to the east. With the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, which led landlords to call for farmers to till their lands, and with the prospect of greater religious freedom, the eastward movement became a mighty stream, which also included several of Alf's co-workers. By 1863, almost all the members of the church at Adamowo had left, forcing Alf to make the church at Kicin his main headquarters. Liebert claimed that by 1874, 900 members had been lost to the migration.

Volhynia was pioneer territory, heavily wooded with poor roads and lack of schools. Alf, always ready for mission opportunities, traveled a number of times to Volhynia, even in between imprisonments. His first trip was difficult, but he finally arrived at his host's home where he found a shelter with a roof of hay and grass. With the Lutheran Church far weaker in that area and although the Orthodox were still hostile, Baptists thrived, making Volhynia a major Baptist field. Alf assisted in forming the first two Baptist churches in the area in 1864.

In spite of a strong migration of German Baptists from Russia to the United States, the Russian census of 1897 recorded that about 4,000 Baptists lived in Congress Poland and another 10,400 in Volhynia. Baptists were present in every Polish province except two. Alf claimed that up to 1883 he had baptized 3,685 persons and no doubt more after that date. Most of the converts had been German Lutherans or Mennonites, although some Czechs, a small number of Roman Catholic Poles, and a few Jews were won.


With Poland's independence in 1918 and the enlargement of borders that included former German territory, Baptist churches by 1939 had 15,700 members with 7,700 in a Slavic Union and 8,000 in a German Union. World War II was a catastrophe for the Baptist population in Poland. Germans were forced to leave, and Ukrainians were incorporated into the USSR, which left no more than 1,500 Baptists of Polish descent by 1945, but Polish Baptists rebounded and today number 4,500 in seventy-three churches.

Over a hundred years ago, the Baptist population in Poland was overwhelmingly German, but today the Baptist population, which is slightly larger, is overwhelmingly Polish--an unusual transposition of nationalities. Nevertheless, the Polish Baptist Union proudly traces its history back to Alf, a man of German descent but a native of Poland who preached the gospel to all in both German and Polish. In the late 1990s, Alf's grave was rediscovered, fortunately intact, and now maintained, enclosed by a new fence and its monument refurbished. In 1998, with my wife, I made my first visit to Alf's grave, my great-great granduncle, who gave heroic service to Christ and to the Baptist cause. In 2008, Polish Baptists are planning a special observance of the 150th anniversary of the beginning of Baptist work on Polish soil.

The development of Baptists in Poland is an excellent example of a balance between foreign support and indigenous growth on a mission field. Polish Baptists received great assistance from the example and moral support of the German Baptist Union, from visits of its pastors, from the financial contributions from abroad for support of missionaries and the building of chapels, and from the importation of literature. On the other hand, the Polish Baptist movement was indigenous and was not dependent upon foreign missionaries to bring the gospel into the territory. It quickly developed its own cadre of missionaries and institutions, including churches, Sunday Schools, and mission schools. The early foundations remain today.

(1.) For the formation of the Kingdom of Poland, see Norman Davies, God's Playground, A History of Poland, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 306ff.

(2.) For a description of social and economic conditions in Congress Poland, see Piotr S. Wandycz, The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795-1918 (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1974), 74-91, 184-86, 193-207, and Adam Zamoyski, The Polish Way (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1987; fourth printing, 1998), 309-14.

(3.) For Lehmann's report on his trip with Kobner in East Prussia, see Missionary Magazine, November 1850, 337-42.

(4.) For Alf's conversion and early ministry, see his account in Der Sendbote, June 27, 1866, 202, and the work by Gottfried Liebert, Die Geschichte der Baptisten in Russisch-Polen (Hamburg: J. G. Oncken, c. 1874), 38-42. For a full biography of Alf and the beginnings of the Baptist movement in Poland, see Albert W. Wardin, Jr., Gottfried F. Alf. Pioneer of the Baptist Movement in Poland (Brentwood, TN: Baptist History and Heritage Society, 2003).

(5.) For a description of Alf's suffering under persecution, see Wardin, Gottfried F. Alf, 41-55.

(6.) See Liebert, Die Geschichte der Baptisten in Russisch-Polen, 246-47, for a summary of the persecution of Alf and other believers.

Albert W. Wardin, Jr., is professor emeritus of history at Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee.
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Author:Wardin, Albert W., Jr.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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