The Hamburg-Altona Mennonite Church (Mennonitengemeinde zu Hamburg und Altona), begun in 1601, whose meetinghouse has always been in Altona, was called "Altona" until toward the middle of the 19th century, when it was called "Gemeinde zu Hamburg und Altona." The first printed use of this second name was in J. Mannhardt's Namens-Verzeichnis of 1857. This is also the name used in B. C. Roosen's Geschichte (1886-87). The modern name Hamburg-Altona appears for the first time in the Christlicher Gemeinde-Kalender for 1899. The old Dutch seal of the congregation carries the name Mennoniten-Gemeente tot Hamburg en Altona. The Dutch Naamlijst of 1731-1829 used only "Altona by Hamburg" or "Altona" alone. The first meetinghouse, destroyed by bombing in World War II in 1944, erected in 1674 and rebuilt in 1717 after the burning of the city by the Swedes in 1713, stood in the street called "Grosse Freiheit" in Altona, with an attached cemetery. The new meetinghouse (built 1915) with parsonage, is located at Mennonitenstr. 20 (Langenfelderstr. 100/102) in Altona, the cemetery at Holstenkamp 80/82 also in Altona. The baptized membership in 1953, greatly increased over that of 1941 (300, plus 38 children) because of the postwar refugees from the Danzig area, was 681, plus 236 unbaptized, total 917. The membership of the congregation at the time was scattered throughout both cities and the suburbs and more distant towns, and since the refugees had joined, still more widely scattered in a radius of 50-75 miles. In the 1950s more distant refugees were attached to the neighboring and newly organized congregations of Bremen, Friedrichstadt, Kiel, Lübeck, and Uelzen.
Hamburg and Altona, though actually one large community, were two distinct political entities for many years, with Altona much the smaller of the two. Hamburg, founded by Charlemagne in 811, became an independent Hanseatic City in the late 13th century, and has remained ever since a leading economic and cultural center of Germany. In 1600 it had a population of 40,000, in 1939, 1,143,000 in the city proper, but in the total area of the former free state, 1,682,200, of which over 80 per cent were Lutherans. The population in 2007 was 1,769,117.
Until 1864 Altona was a part of Denmark in the duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. After a war with Prussia, Denmark ceded Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia, and Altona became a part of Prussia. In 1937 Altona and several other surrounding cities were merged with the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. In the 1950s Altona was a city of 185,653 immediately adjacent to Hamburg (2006 population, 243,972).
Through the admission of Reformed, Mennonites, and others, under the rule of the Counts of Schauenburg the population of Altona increased to such an extent that the village became a market-town in 1604. After the Schauenburg line became extinct, the rule passed to the Danish crown in 1640, which held Schleswig-Holstein until 1863, when it passed to Prussia (1866). In 1664 Altona received the rights of a city and was made the first free harbor of Europe, to enable it to compete with the much larger Hamburg.
The admission of Mennonites into Altona occurred under Count Ernst in 1601. The document is no longer in existence, but the terms are known. Every Mennonite householder had to pay an annual fee of one Taler as protection money; in return the Mennonites were permitted to establish themselves in the district called "Grosse Freiheit," to carry on trades, and to bury their dead; but the services had to be conducted quietly. The successors of the Count permitted them to hold their services openly. The name "Freiheit" is derived not from freedom of religion, but from freedom of occupation, which the inhabitants enjoyed. After the transfer to Danish authority the charter had to be renewed with every change of the throne. These originals are still in the archives of the church.
The Mennonites developed home industry and trade to a high level. To the first Mennonites settled in Altona were added the remnants of the Mennonite Church at Fresenburg which was destroyed in the Thirty Years' War. From Glückstadt, where there was a church until 1800, the well-known van der Smissen family came to Altona in 1683. Home industry, that is, weaving, was engaged in especially by the de Voss family, shipping and commerce by the Goverts, Roosen, van der Smissen, and de Vlieger families. After the great fire of 1713, when the Swedish General Magnus Steenbock reduced the city to ashes, many trading-houses transferred to Hamburg, where some Dutch Mennonites had settled before 1600. At least it is known of Hans Quins (Wins?), an ancestor of the well-known preacher Gerhard Roosen, that he had fled about 1570 from Brabant or Flanders to Hamburg and died there of the plague in 1597.
It was as a consequence of the events of Münster that the strictly Lutheran city of Hamburg together with the "Wend cities" issued repeated edicts against the Anabaptists. In 1555 the authorities of Hamburg, Lüneburg, Rostock, and Wismar passed measures designed to keep Menno Simons from entering their territories (Mannhardt Jahrbuch 1883: 84). The settlement of a few families in the city by 1575 was possible only because they energetically assured the clergy that they had no connections with the Münsterite Anabaptists. Their ability as merchants also made them desirable citizens. In 1605 a formal agreement was drawn up with the 130 Dutch immigrant families (including such names as de Voss, Siemons, Stockman, Lammers, Amoury, de Buyser, Harmens, and Janssen). In return for the obligation to keep themselves quiet and to pay taxes and fees, they were to be admitted without giving an oath of citizenship. This contract was renewed for the last time in 1635, for the Lutheran clergy vigorously opposed it.
Hamburg would have had no Anabaptist movement if it had not come in from the outside. The regions most desired by the refugees from the severe persecution then raging against all non-Catholics in the Netherlands, were the Rhine region, where the Anabaptist movement had grown strong, especially in the duchy of Jülich and later the Holstein area. It is thus easy to understand that there were several Anabaptist groups of whom the Flemish were the strongest and most influential. The Noë, Quins, Goverts, and van der Smissen families were among them. From 1639 the Flemish Mennonites of Giückstadt were combined with them. The congregation of the united Mennonite groups later adopted the Olyftacxken as their confession of faith. The strict Frisians required Flemish Mennonites who united wth them to be rebaptized. By 1671 the Frisian congregation died out, chiefly through transfers of membership to the Flemish. Their meetinghouse stood in the Roosenstrasse in Altona.
Also the Huiskoper group (see Bintgens) was thus disbanded; their preacher was Jan de Buyser. The High Germans were the smallest group; Johann Peltz(er) (d. 1600) is named as their "priest." From about 1682 there was only the one united congregation in Hamburg-Altona. The Mennonites of Altona are always to be included, for they never had a congregation of their own. It was not to be expected that the Mennonites could settle and develop a congregation without a struggle; indeed the struggle with secular and religious authorities lasted a long time. In 1672 Emperor Leopold threatened the city with a lawsuit on the ground that 300-400 Mennonites were living there, contrary to the treaty of 1648. In this case, to be sure, the senate defended the Mennonites, stating that they were peaceful and also competent citizens, who had nothing to do with the Anabaptists of Münster but instead prayed for the government in their church prayers.
Several decades of peace followed, but in 1706 the Mennonites again became the objects of ecclesiastical and secular sessions. The occasion of the controversy was the greatly gifted preacher Jakob Denner, whose sermons were attended by many non-Mennonites; simple people as well as educated. Several senate decrees, issued upon the insistence of the clergy, did not succeed in preventing this. Hence the Lutheran church authorities decided to discipline its "obstinate children" on the following grounds: "running out" (to Altona) is contrary to God's command; beware of false prophets; it is contrary to city law, which forbids attendance even at Lutheran services outside the city, to say nothing of fanatical services; it leads to contempt for the office of preaching and to their own injury and false guidance. This threat of exclusion from the confessional and communion was apparently not very effective. Another circumstance that contributed to this state of affairs in 1711-12 was the warlike condition that made it impossible to attend the Mennonite church. The religious authorities suggested that the Mennonites could now attend the Protestant Church "unless they imagined themselves holier than others." The Mennonites then reminded the senate that in former disturbed times they had held their quiet worship services, if not by law, at least by tacit consent, and asked for liberty of conscience to hold their meetings in some secluded attic without singing. This was apparently done, in spite of the declaration of the church authorities that connivance in this case was contrary to conscience, and the worship contrary to the divine Word. A renewed protest in 1715 was apparently equally fruitless.
Even more dangerous to the Mennonite congregation than these threats from without were the internal conflicts. Especially the separation of the Dompelaars, who in addition to immersion required footwashing, and who celebrated communion at night and with unleavened bread. Repeated attempts to arbitrate, both from without and within, even by the Lutheran clergy, failed, although the Dompelaars, for want of suitable preachers in their own group, had to employ non-Mennonite preachers. This group experienced a time of growth at the beginning of the 18th century under Denner, whose sermons were attended even by "pious Catholics." The deacon of the main Mennonite body, Ernst Goverts, obtained royal permission in 1708 to build a Dompelaar church on the Grosse Freiheit to seat 300; he gave the beloved preacher an annual salary of 500 marks. Still it took decades with all sorts of experiences with the Moravians and other Separatists before the group dissolved by gradual return to the old church. Denner, whose collection of sermons (1630) is still to be found in many Mennonite homes, was its last preacher (see Weenighem, B. van).
According to the Naamlijst of 1743 there were at that time two congregations in Altona, one of which was Flemish. In 1731 and again in 1755 only one is mentioned. Was there a temporary split? The church was further weakened in the 1750's by the Quakers, who agreed with the Mennonites on some points, such as the rejection of warfare and the oath. Eleven members, including the minister Berend Roelofs, were lost. Also the notorious Antoinette Bourignon attracted some members to her fanaticism. In addition, there were at times differences in teaching between the preachers and the congregation, for axample, concerning the doctrine of Christ (Riewert Dirks), and among the preachers; the dissension between the Lamists and Zonists of the Netherlands (see Amsterdam) raged here, the decision finally favoring the Zonists. Jakobus Kornelius van Campen used the pulpit to attack his colleague Jan de Lanoy, who favored the less strict Lamist wing. Not until 1705 was reconciliation achieved.
Active connections with other countries were also maintained, especially with the Netherlands, from where many of the Hamburg preachers came and many guest preachers visited them. Relations with Friedrichstadt were similar, both for business and for the arbitration of church difficulties. Brethren from Fresenburg also requested help in 1656, when they were ordered by a royal mandate to leave the city within a week; the intercession of Jan de Buyser , the preacher of the Huiskoper group, was probably successful. Connections were also maintained with West Prussia, Danzig, the Palatinate, and England. In 1711 a collection of 1,470 florins was made for the persecuted Swiss Brethren, in spite of financial difficulties at home.
The organization of the church was on the presbyterial pattern. The ministers, chosen by the congregation, were "in half service," their chief function being to preach. They could function at baptismal and communion services only after a further solemn act, ordination into "full service." The minister must first have been a deacon. Hamburg also had deaconesses, though on a voluntary, unorganized basis. The church council was composed of preachers and deacons. The most prominent of the deacons and ministers of the Hamburg congregation was no doubt Gerrit Roosen, who besides preaching also wrote against such things as fashions and wigs, and against Quaker inroads. Not until the 18th century were unsalaried lay preachers gradually replaced by salaried ministers trained usually at the Mennonite seminary in Amsterdam. It was a sign of the economic strength of the Mennonites that they in 1749 could engage four well-paid ministers, with two assistants. In the service of the deacons there was also a change, in that they were appointed for one year instead of a lifetime; there were, in accord with apostolic example, seven deacons. The church council was responsible for the lay meetings of male baptized members, whose business it was to choose the ministers proposed by the church council. In the 18th century it met annually.
At that time their church services began at nine in winter and at eight in summer. Singing was led by a chorister until 1764, when an organ was installed. Midweek services, together with the Bremen hymnal, were introduced in 1786 by Reinhard Rahusen; but at the same time a Dutch hymnbook was in use. As late as 1802 a new Dutch hymnal was compiled for the congregation, entitled Christelijke Gezangen voor de openbaare Godsthenst-oeffeningen, ten dienste der Mennoniten Gemeente te Hamburg en Altona (Amsterdam, 1802). This songbook was, however, not used long, and preaching in the Dutch language was replaced by German preaching in 1817 (Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 1901, 47). Services for children were begun in 1719; they were actually a questioning of the children in the presence of the church board. Discipline was strictly observed. Marriage outside the brotherhood was punished by the ban. In 1702 this practice was discontinued, but the promise to train the children as Mennonites was required. After 1750 all discipline for "mixed marriage" was abandoned because of the rapid recession of the congregation. Military service was strictly prohibited. Shippers and whalers were required to sell their boats rather than arm them in warlike times.
Since it was illegal in Hamburg for the Mennonite ministers to perform marriages, the Mennonites went to Altona for such services. In 1753 the regulation was passed that the Mennonites must before marriage secure a state certificate for 1.50 Talers. From 1723 on, with some interruptions, they had their own school. The first teacher was a member of the congregation, who at the close of the week could look back upon 52 hours of teaching. The small salary was raised by collection. The school, which engaged four teachers, closed in 1795. For a long time the Mennonites and Reformed shared a cemetery. In 1677 Christian V granted the Mennonites permission to open a cemetery of their own; Hermann Goverts, a deacon, gave half the land for the burial ground, which was located in Altona, and which also served the Separatists. During the war the Mennonites built a cemetery in Hamburg (Oelmühlenkirchhof). The clergy saw to it that funerals were held in accord with the Peace of Westphalia, that is, without the ringing of bells or other ceremony.
The achievements of the Mennonites of Hamburg in cultural matters were significant; they would not have been possible without their financial strength, which was founded upon their economic activities. Also their skill in the various crafts is worthy of note. In the weaving of wool they were unsurpassed, and furnished the cloth needed by the Schauenburg court; thereby they were not subject to guild pressure. They established connections with the Leipzig Fair and with Russia. Imported hides were tanned in their own tanneries. Jakob Denner was a dyer; his church was therefore popularly called the "Blue-dyer Church" (Blaujärberkirche). Retail trade was also promoted. There was less opportunity to engage in agriculture; nevertheless, a number of families owned large farms. Their extensive overseas trade was very strong. The Roosen and de Vlieger families were prominent in the whaling industry, which in the face of the political uncertainty of the time, required a venturesome spirit. Equipment was built along the Elbe for working and packing the products of the whaling industry. Even if the residents of Altona surpassed those of Hamburg economically (Hinrich van der Smissen, "builder of the city," was a resident of Altona), those of Hamburg must not be underestimated.
This growth of Mennonite industry, which was of benefit to the entire city, was accompanied by improved relations with the government. In Altona all friction with the state was eliminated in the course of the 17th century. In Hamburg the secular authorities were much less biased than the Lutheran church authorities. To the great annoyance of the latter, the secular authorities disregarded the absence of recognition of Mennonites in the Peace of Westphalia by permitting them to hold services in Hamburg in times of war as far back as 1686 when the Danes were besieging the city, and also by excusing them from swearing an oath. It is significant that at the beginning of the 18th century two thirds of the congregation was living in Hamburg.
A catastrophe for the twin cities, especially Altona, and also for the Mennonites, was the war between Sweden and Denmark 1712-13. Trade became difficult; epidemics raged; fires, set by Stenbock's troops, leveled homes and breweries. The people were impoverished; the church mortgaged its property. It would have been small wonder if the congregation had disbanded.
The century following this catastrophe has a character of its own. Progressive tolerance led to civil equality; friendly relations with the state softened the old principles; internally a calmer development took place, the age of division and schism was past.
After the war the state authorities were interested in restoring economic conditions as rapidly as possible. The Mennonites took advantage of this in having their old liberties confirmed; to the right of free trade and religion was added release from taxes for the proposed new church and school, for the parsonage and the homes for the poor, and in particular, release from all future war taxes and other "extraordinary burdens." The privilegium exemtionis confirmed at the change of government in 1715 granted the Mennonites all of this. The church building was begun at once; private rebuilding was also undertaken. Hinrich van der Smissen, with his characteristic energy, rebuilt the burned breweries, some of his houses, besides new dyeing works, sawmills, smithies, forges, shipbuilding establishments, etc.; he was a member of the city building committee of Altona (the van der Smissensallee was later bought by the city).
There is a dearth of statistics of membership in the congregation. In 1716-17 the heads of 123 households took part in the building plans for the church; that would indicate a total membership of about 620; in 1809, 15 families were counted in Altona; in 1814 Hamburg had 40 members; in 1840 the combined membership was reckoned at 125. The causes of this retrogression were emigration (to Pennsylvania circa 1700), and transfer to other denominations, the most serious of which was the defection of the Goverts brothers. Severe losses were also caused by mixed marriages, which until 1800 were permitted by the state only with the promise of training the children as Lutherans; after the congregation had dwindled in size, this was no longer considered a threat to the Lutherans. The Mennonites still had to pay their fees to the Lutheran pastors—because the salaries of the latter were in part dependent on these fees, which were rated according to the number of houses in the parish. The Mennonites did not object to this fee; on the contrary, in 1750-51 they made a contribution of 5,810 Marks to the city for the restoration of the church of St. Michael.
Thus it came about that relations with the outside grew obviously more favorable. The Mennonites were now publicly recognized for their contribution to the common good, and the clergy had to discard their idea of equating them with the Münsterites. This increasing recognition of "unorthodox" creeds was due in large part to Rationalism, and reached its culmination in the 1820's. Napoleon had dictatorially introduced French laws, which declared the civic equality of all citizens of the state regardless of creed. This was the occasion in 1813 for the consideration by the Hamburg clergy of the weighty question: hitherto only "the Mennonites, who were worthy of respect," had been tolerated, whereas other non-Lutherans were usually shunted off to Altona. In 1814 a proposal was made to drop the fees required of the Mennonites; the clergy offered no objection. The mayor also wanted to include in the new statute "the quiet, responsible, outwardly excellently upright Mennonites." In October 1814 they were pronounced a recognized religious society and were given the right to hold office and to vote. Elder Isaak Goos replied for the congregation that its only wish was to have its quiet existence protected, and pointed out that their religious principles prevented them from accepting certain judicial positions or participation in war affairs. The joy in the new-found freedom was somewhat dimmed by the fear that the old principles would now be broken. Two centuries earlier the Mennonites had been regarded as a threat to church and state; now they had the same equal privileges that their brethren in Altona had enjoyed for two hundred years.
The 19th century, however, brought a period of severe conflict, caused by the growing nationalism among the nations. In 1803 a conference of elders and preachers meeting at Ibersheim had advocated strict adherence to nonresistance. After ten years of negotiation, the Altona Mennonites succeeded in maintaining this right in return for a fee and a fine of 1,600 Talers. In Hamburg too the request of the small congregation was for a long time disregarded. A lieutenant who was expelled from the congregation in 1818 was released from his military duties. New, considerable difficulties arose again by the military regulations of 1821, which made no provision for religious objection. Thus, in 1837, when the son of Elder Goos was drafted into the army, the request for his release could no longer be based on precedent; his request contained not only a willingness to pay a fee, but also a veiled threat of emigration. The Kollegium of the Hamburg clergy granted the request. But in 1845, when a young Mennonite was again called, a petition succeeded only in releasing him from personal service, not from guard duty. The Altona Mennonites had been released from military duty by the provisional government. But in Hamburg a number of men continued to be conscripted in spite of protests. Not until 1851 did a general petition, which threatened moving into adjacent Altona, make an effective impression. By abandoning a principle maintained until then (that service by a substitute is service), the Mennonites could secure the release of their young men. In 1867 the privilege was completely lost; the only way out was by serving in the medical corps or the like. But in the meantime, Mennonitism had undergone a change, especially under the influence of Wilhelm Mannhardt of Berlin, in the direction of the old principle of personal liberty.
The inner development of the congregation in the 19th century proceeded without interruption. The state saved the congregation by annulling the prohibition of mixed marriages, but numerically it declined. After 1817 there was only one preacher, now called pastor because of academic training. Berend Carl Roosen, pastor after 1845, awakened interest in the history of the congregation. His successor, Hinrich van der Smissen, was pastor 1885-1928. After 1839 the language of the services, which had been Dutch, was exclusively German. The parochial school, which was revived for 13 years, passed into private possession. Connections with Holland grew weaker; those with Friedrichstadt were maintained for some time. The Hamburg-Altona church was given an important position by being made the seat of the Vereinigung in 1885.
Until 1675 religious services were held in a rear building on Roosen land on the Grosse Freiheit (free trade); in that year a church was built, paid for by a contribution of 5 per cent of the proceeds of the whaling industry for one year. This church was burned down in 1713. On its site a new church was dedicated in 1715. The aftereffects of World War I resulted in great losses to the Mennonites of Hamburg-Altona. However, before the end of the war the congregation erected its splendid new church, parish house, and parsonage (1914-16) in Altona, Mennonitenstrasse 20. It also has a rather extensive archives; its library, which was begun in 1747 with the legacy of Pastor Rahusen's books, is the richest of all Mennonite libraries in Germany.
On several occasions the Hamburg congregation, usually in connection with the Dutch Committee of Foreign Needs, raised funds for the Mennonite refugees displaced by persecution; for example, in 1690 for those in the Palatinate, in 1710-12 for Switzerland (collection 631 guilders), in 1733-35 for those from Lithuania (collection 3,352 Dutch guilders), in 1766 for Polish Prussia. In 1710-11 the church board of Hamburg approved a plan to colonize the Swiss Mennonites in East Prussia; but this project was not carried out, both because of the aversion of the Swiss Mennonites and also because of the opposition of the Amsterdam Committee.
Hamburg-Altona suffered most severely during World War II, especially during the air raids in July 1943. One third of the Mennonites lost their homes, most lost property, and some lost their lives. The well-known van der Smissen Allee, the Dennerstrasse, the old Mennonite church in the Grosse Freiheit, the chapel in the cemetery, etc., were completely destroyed. Fortunately, the new church and the other buildings, including the valuable library, although somewhat damaged, were not destroyed. By 1946 the church could be used and by 1948 it was fully restored.
Ministers of the church since 1801 have been Isaak Goos until 1845; Berend Carl Roosen, 1845-82; Hinrich van der Smissen, 1885-1928; Otto Schowalter, 1928- .
The third old people's home of the German Mennonites, called "Abendfrieden," was established in 1952 in a suburb of Hamburg, Pinneberg-Rellingen.
Regular services are held by the Hamburg pastor in Altona, Bad Oldesloe, Trittau, and at the old people's home.
The Hamburg-Altona congregation has taken over the patronship of the Menno Simons Monument at Bad Oldesloe.
The Mennonite Central Committee with headquarters first in Kiel (1946-47) and later in Hamburg (1948-52), did much to alleviate both the physical and spiritual suffering of the Mennonite refugees from the east in the area of Schleswig-Holstein, where a total of 4,300 were resident in 1950. The MCC program of relief, with large distribution of food and clothing, ministered to many more non-Mennonites as well.
Dollinger, R. Geschichte der Mennoniten in Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg und Lübeck. Neumünster i.H., 1930.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 46 f.; v. II, 239-44.
Hoop Scheffer, Jacob Gijsbert de. Inventaris der Archiefstukken berustende bij de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente to Amsterdam, 2 vols. Amsterdam: Uitgegeven en ten geschenke aangeboden door den Kerkeraad dier Gemeente, 1883-1884: v. I, Nos. 567, 578, 797, 1058, 1062, 1108, 1114, 1155, 1177, 1186, 1271, 1319 f., 1328, 1355, 1422 f., v. II, Nos. 2788-91.
Münte, H. Das Altonaer Handlungshaus van der Smissen, 1682-1824. Altona, 1932.
Roosen, B. C. Geschichte der Mennoniten Gemeinde zu Hamburg und Altona, 2 vols. Hamburg, 1886.
Schowalter, O. "Die Mennoniten zu Hamburg." Mennonite Life V (April 1950).
Wichmann, E. Geschichte Altona's. Altona, 1865.
|H. van der Smissen|
 Cite This Article
Dollinger, Robert and H. van der Smissen. "Hamburg-Altona Mennonite Church (Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg, Germany)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 6 Jul 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hamburg-Altona_Mennonite_Church_(Freie_und_Hansestadt_Hamburg,_Germany)&oldid=125905.
Dollinger, Robert and H. van der Smissen. (1956). Hamburg-Altona Mennonite Church (Freie und Hansestadt Hamburg, Germany). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 6 July 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hamburg-Altona_Mennonite_Church_(Freie_und_Hansestadt_Hamburg,_Germany)&oldid=125905.
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