Konferenz der ost- und westpreussischen Mennonitengemeinden (Conference of the Mennonites of East and West Prussia). Soon after the immigration of Dutch Mennonites into the Vistula and Nogat region and of High Germans into the Culm swamps, we hear of meetings of the churches. At first the two branches, the Frisian and Flemish, held their meetings separately. About 1586 a closer union was formed among the five Frisian churches, and several years later they invited the High Germans to join this association. In bringing this about, Lubbert Gerritsz of Holland deserves much credit. With Hans de Ries he composed the confession of faith of 1581, of the united Flemish, Frisian, and High German groups. It remained in use for over three hundred years, until in 1895 a committee of four elders worked out a new one which replaced it.
In their negotiations with secular and church authorities for their hard-won privileges, the Frisians and Flemish cooperated. One of the successful spokesmen in the negotiations of 1640 was Hans Siemens, who had in 1639 been ordained as elder of the Flemish church in the Grossen Werder. The documents of the "privileges" were preserved by the Frisian churches.
Meetings were held when necessary in the homes of members. About 1740 it was customary to have the "brethren in service" of each congregation meet every Thursday. The Flemish churches decided in 1737 and 1740 to give special instruction to the young people who would want to join the church in two or three years.
Other matters of conference concern were the "prevalence of showy dress," suing at law, and especially what to do about young men who were forcibly taken as soldiers by the "Brandenburgs." In 1767 the first German hymnals were published. Through visiting preachers active communication was established between the churches. In 1778 the catechism drawn up by the elders Heinrich Donner and Gerhard Wiebe was adopted by both branches and printed. In 1785 a conference passed a resolution to apply church discipline against members who were guilty of open sin.
When Frederick the Great, after the first division of Poland, took over West Prussia without Danzig and Thorn, the collective churches decided to present him with a gift at the ceremony of homage at Marienburg on 22 September 1772 and present a petition for free exercise of religion and exemption from conscription. A state regulation was passed requiring the Mennonites to pay an annual sum of 5,000 talers for the support of the military school at Culm in return for these privileges. The amount of this fee to be paid by each congregation was decided at the beginning of each year, and later every six years. In 1775 the conference sent Elder Heinrich Donner and Peter Regier, a preacher, to Berlin with a petition for recognition of the privileges they had been receiving from the Polish government, and for exemption from the fees demanded at some places by the established churches. On 18 April 1780, the Gnadenprivilegium of 29 March 1780 was received in Marienwerder.
On 19 September 1786, Heinrich Donner (elder at Orlofferfelde) and Cornelius Warkentin (minister in Rosenort) were sent as delegates to the celebration of homage (Frederick William II) in Königsberg, in order to share in the "king's protection." In 1787 these two men were sent as delegates to Berlin on account of secret machinations against the Mennonites by the "Lutherans." They received a confirmation of the Privilegium, but with further restrictions on the acquisition of land. In consequence the emigration to Russia began in 1788, and received further impetus by the severe restrictions of the edict of 30 July 1789. The great number of meetings held indicates the natural excitement. They presented a petition complaining, "In the country which our ancestors with great difficulty and expense wrested from the sea, we have become strangers and many of us have had to leave the country with tears." Four delegates sent to Berlin received the concession on 24 November 1803, which at least guaranteed to them for the future the land they then possessed.
On 28 October 1806 the conference decided to send the king a gift of 30,000 talers as a "voluntary patriotic contribution" for the support of widows and orphans of soldiers. In 1811, the 10,000 talers loaned to the state in the previous year were given as an outright gift to the king.
Early in March 1813 six delegates were sent to Königsberg to negotiate for exemption from military service. The sum of 187,439 florins required in return was allocated among the churches. A petition sent to the king on 11 August released the Mennonites from participation in the reserve army by an order of cabinet dated 25 August 1813.
On 22 September 1814 an earnest attempt was made to have church discipline enforced. In this year it was also decided to leave to each congregation the matter of joining the Bible Society. This step resulted in religious movements which were expressed in mission work, temperance, etc.
In 1820 and the following years the Mennonites were threatened with the loss of their leased land if they refused military service. But when a petition to the king made it clear that the land in question had been in Mennonite possession for centuries and that the ancestors of the present residents had cleared it for cultivation, the contracts were renewed to 1845 and then to 1865. In the meantime a change in the laws converted this leased land into Mennonite property.
The conference held at Schönsee on 26 October 1834, was occupied with mutual encouragement in the service of the church. The conference maintained active contact with the colonies in Russia, and in 1838 sent 2,000 hymnals to the Molotschna colony.
On 29 July 1859, an important resolution was passed by the conference, eliminating the distinction between Frisian and Flemish. In 1861 special services were held to commemorate the tercentennial of the death of Menno Simons. Jakob Mannhardt of Danzig wrote a booklet for the occasion.
After 1848 the conference was again compelled to take steps to preserve military exemption. On 12 February 1849 a deputation was sent to Berlin. In April a petition was sent to the government for release from jury service; this was refused, and the Mennonites yielded. On 13 January 1862 the conference sent a petition to both houses of the Landtag with 2,047 signatures. The three deputies who presented it in Berlin were received by the king and the cabinet. In 1866 the sum assessed for the cadet school was trebled and used for the wounded. On 23 October 1867 a deputation of five elders was chosen, which was received by the cabinet, the king, and the crown prince. Thereupon the cabinet order of 3 March 1868 was passed, permitting the Mennonites to serve without bearing arms.
After 1879 records were kept of the meetings of church officers. A common treasury was opened, and a committee of six elders chosen as the executive organ. The annual meeting was held on the second Thursday after Pentecost, other meetings being called as needed. At these meetings the elders, preachers, deacons, and chairmen of the church boards took part as representatives of the churches. The churches entertained the conference in rotation, with the elder of the local church serving as moderator. Business considered covered all questions of doctrine, church life, communication with other churches, and contact with government authorities.
The conference often collected funds for needy Mennonites; in 1801 for the church at Neuwied which had suffered from war, in 1883 and 1885 for the victims of floods, in 1885 for the church at Neudorferhof, in 1889 for the church which had burned down at Obernessau, in 1892 for need in Saratov.
The conference also supported foreign missions. In 1883 it was decided to send Nikolai Wiebe of Russia to the Barmen mission school. When he returned from the mission field in 1901 he was appointed traveling preacher, serving until his death in 1924. The conference provided for the pastoral care of Obernessau after 1914. In 1884 the fund for foreign missions was established. In 1913 a sum of 9,878 marks was raised as a national gift for missions in the German colonies.
In 1898 the conference issued a book of chorales as a supplement to the hymnal of 1869; in 1935 it was revised. In 1900 the conference decided to publish a collection of sermons; it appeared in two parts, in 1906 and 1909 respectively. In 1927 the conference began to make a small annual contribution for the support of the Mennonitische Blätter, and granted funds to students of theology from the churches of East and West Prussia.
In 1892, on the occasion of the celebration of the fourth centennial of the birth of Menno Simons, a Festschrift by H. G. Mannhardt was published. On 25 January 1925 the fourth centennial of the church was celebrated at a meeting held at Heubuden on 4 June 1925.
At the suggestion of Pastor E. Göttner of Danzig the first general West-Prussian Mennonite conference, including the public, was held on 25 August 1929. At these annual sessions, the feeling of brotherhood was strengthened by talks, sermons, addresses, congregational singing and choral groups; all members participated. An outcome of this general conference was the initiation of young people's work by the conference. On 25 October 1932 the first Jugendtag of the district was held in Steegen. This youth conference also became an annual institution of East German Mennonitism.
In 1901, after an address by Mannhardt, the conference decided to exclude members who swore an oath. In 1903 it was decided to refuse to marry a divorced person; but after careful investigation the innocent party might under certain circumstances remarry. In 1914 the consecration of infants was discussed, and the decision was reached that in each case the parents should decide whether the child was to be presented in the church, though without ceremony. After the change in the state constitution in 1920 it was decided to retain the affirmation formula in place of the oath.
In the matter of the payment of taxes for the support of the established (state) church, the conference in 1924 appointed a "committee for questions of church law." Later the conference assumed the expense of two legal decisions, which canceled the obligation of Mennonites to pay taxes for the support of the Protestant church. In 1920 Mannhardt described the dire need of the Mennonite refugees from Russia, whereupon measures were undertaken to aid them. To discuss this problem a Mennonite world conference was held in Danzig from 29 August to 2 September 1930, which was supported by the conference of West Prussia.
The last regular session of the conference was held 6 June 1939. Special sessions were held later as follows: 6 October 1939; 17 January 1940; 21 February 1940. There no doubt were special sessions during the war that followed, but the official minutes which have been preserved, covering the annual and special sessions beginning 7 July 1879 (also 26 October 1834), contain nothing after 21 February 1940.
This conference, often called the Kalthof Conference, because in later years it frequently met at Kalthof near Heubuden-Marienburg, was actually a conference of ordained men, who are always referred to in German as a group by the term Lehrdienst, and the conference is frequently called Lehrdienstversammlung. Within the conference the executive committee was a group of five elders, called Aeltestenausschuss. The official sessions were limited to the Lehrdienst, whereas the "conferences" of 1929 and later were popular inspirational meetings with mass attendance.
The destruction of the entire East and West Prussian settlements in 1945 and the survival of 7,000-8,000 refugees from these settlements in Western Germany, led to the reorganization of the conference (Lehrdienstversammlung) as a West German body. The first meeting was held at Hamburg, 6-8 March 1948.
This organization, although autonomous, is closely related to the Vereinigung der deutschen Mennonitengemeinden. Except for the city congregations of Danzig and Elbing and a few in the country, the West Prussian congregations had not joined the Vereinigung until its reorganization in 1934.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 530-532.
|Harold S. Bender|
 Cite This Article
Driedger, Abraham and Harold S. Bender. "Konferenz der ost- und westpreussischen Mennonitengemeinden." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 23 Apr 2014. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Konferenz_der_ost-_und_westpreussischen_Mennonitengemeinden&oldid=106879.
Driedger, Abraham and Harold S. Bender. (1953). Konferenz der ost- und westpreussischen Mennonitengemeinden. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 April 2014, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Konferenz_der_ost-_und_westpreussischen_Mennonitengemeinden&oldid=106879.
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