Documents of Brotherly Love: Dutch Mennonite Aid to Swiss Anabaptists, Volume II, 1710-1711.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a surge of transnational activism motivated by a sense of religious solidarity with coreligionists in other lands. In the Dutch Republic, Reformed ministers lobbied authorities, raised money, and sent material comfort to Reformed minorities who were being persecuted in Savoy and France. Dutch Mennonite congregations (the Doopsgezinden) contributed to these activities and, perhaps inspired by the activism of their Reformed neighbors, undertook a series of remarkable relief efforts of their own on the behalf of Anabaptists living in Poland, the Swiss Confederation, and the Palatinate.
This book's 220 sources document the efforts of the Doopsgezinden to aid suffering and persecuted Bernese Anabaptists. Commissioned by several North American Amish and Mennonite groups, including the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society and the Eastern Mennonite Associated Libraries and Archives, this volume is the third in a series of primary sources regarding Anabaptist activism that James Lowry has transcribed, translated, and annotated. The first book contained correspondence relating to the execution of Swiss Brethren leader Hans Landis in 1614. The second book, and first volume in the series "Dutch Mennonite Aid to Swiss Anabaptists," spanned the years 1635-1709, when the Doopsgezinden began the Fonds voor Buitenlandsche Nooden (Funds for Foreign Needs) to provide material, financial, and political support for Anabaptists in other lands. While the current volume covers only the years 1710-1711, it is the largest volume yet. The organizing committee commissioned this massive undertaking as a "spiritual offering," but English-language scholars who are interested in Mennonite migration and the development of a transnational "Anabaptist" identity will welcome the collection of this material.
The majority of the original material is housed in Amsterdam's municipal archives (collection 565), which is organized according to the Dutch historian J.G. de Hoop Scheffer's nineteenth-century inventory. There are also several entries from Rotterdam archives, as well as the elders' minutes of the Amsterdam Zonist and Lamist congregations. Like the first two volumes, the book places transcriptions of the original documents on the left-hand side and translations on the facing pages, making it easy for the reader to compare the original with its translation. The well-annotated footnotes direct the reader to Mennonite Encyclopedia articles on individuals or resources for further research.
The story that comes to light in these documents is not always one of high drama, but it is nonetheless an important product of a shared religious identity that united Anabaptists who differed in history, theology, culture, and socioeconomic status. It was perhaps due to the intermingling of Swiss, German, and Dutch stories in seventeenth-century martyrologies that persuaded the Doopsgezinden to spend their considerable financial and political capital on the Swiss Anabaptists. The collection begins with reports that Bernese authorities had imprisoned up to 300 Anabaptist men and women for their faith. The Bernese magistrates had charged them with the refusal to swear oaths, serve in the military, or serve as magistrates. The Swiss authorities worried that their enemies would "destroy lands and woefully murder, imprison, and scatter persons" (49) if the Anabaptists continued to flourish in the canton. A letter from Swiss elders dated June 33, 1709, suggested that it was the Amish critique of the government that sparked the intensification of the suppression. With a clear sense of urgency, the Dutch committee worked with the diplomat Johann Ludwig Runckel to free the prisoners and find somewhere to resettle the Bernese dissenters as quickly as possible.
The Doopsgezinden's international efforts required the blessing of their country's authorities, through whom they reached out to Bernese officials. The correspondence shows that the Doopsgezinden's lobbying was often face-to-face--meeting with a mayor or personally contacting deputies in the States of Holland or the States General, the supreme authority in the Dutch Republic. The Martyrs Mirror presented all European "defenseless Christians" as part of the same movement, but it was not always clear to the authorities or the Anabaptists themselves how the different groups were related to one another. Runckel proposed to authorities in Groningen that that the Swiss were most like the Old Frisian Mennonites "in doctrine and in life." In their appeals, the Dutch referred to the Swiss as "Mennonites" in order to connect them with their own obedient reputation in the northern republic. Sometimes the Swiss Anabaptists' own actions worked against Runckel's efforts to secure the good will of the local authorities. When exiled Anabaptists surreptitiously returned to their families despite their promises never to do so, they confirmed the accusations regarding Anabaptists' disobedient and even criminal character. An exasperated Runckel had two Swiss exiles arrested for breaking their promise never to return.
After Runckel threatened to call off the stalled negotiations, the Bernese authorities agreed on February 11, 1711, to free the imprisoned Anabaptists. Despite the opportunity to assemble and depart without the fear of arrest, many Bernese did not take advantage of the offer. Through Runckel, the Dutch tried to convince the Swiss Anabaptists that leaving served their interests, despite the danger of publicly assembling to leave and the trauma of selling their homes and farms. Ultimately, it was primarily the Amish who took advantage of the opportunity to leave, while the Reistians remained hidden. On July 15, over 300 men, women, and children departed Basel and sailed down the Rhine toward the Dutch Republic with the assumption that they would later emigrate to another country, such as Prussia. Soon after the Swiss arrived in Amsterdam, the Doopsgezinden agreed to resettle them near the Dutch cities of Kampen, Deventer, Harlingen, and Groningen rather than accept the King of Prussia's generous offer to resettle the refugees in parts of his country that had recently been depopulated by the plague. The Swiss were confident in their ability to eke out an existence in the Republic, because "we have something of an advantage, which consists of this, that many of the farmers here are accustomed to run up unnecessary expenses in eating and drinking, clothing, and superfluous tobacco smoking, which among some is very popular" (1211).
The translations are careful and judiciously-considered; Lowry always mentions when the original meaning of a phrase was unclear. One might question whether it is appropriate to always translate Doopsgezinden as Mennonites; for the Dutch, the terms were not always interchangeable. (When Runckel uses the German "Taiiffsgesinten," it is translated as "baptism-minded.") Anabaptist authors would have been circumspect in choosing how they referred to themselves, especially when writing to political authorities who suspected Anabaptists of being disloyal subjects. In addition, those who are interested in researching the period further should note that the archives of the Amsterdam congregations (except for those of the Zonists) are held in collection 1120 of Amsterdam's municipal archives, not 1122 as it states in the footnotes.
These documents challenge the perception among some North American authors that there is a fissiparous spirit inherent to Anabaptism, or, at a minimum, they must take care not to overstate the animosity engendered by divisions. United within the imagined community of Anabaptists, Zonist, Lamist, and Frisian congregations in the Dutch Republic worked together to aid Amish and Reistians whom they had never met. Scholars owe Lowry and his supporting committee a debt of gratitude for undertaking the epic task of translating and annotating these records. In their desire to make these documents available to others, the committee demonstrates that the spirit of transnational confessional solidarity continues to live today.
Troy Osborne Conrad Grebel University College