The Lower Rhine (Niederrhein), is the section of the Rhine River from Cologne to its mouth in the North Sea, 117 miles (190 km) of which lie in Germany. In Mennonite history this section of the river and the area extending as far as Andernach played an important role. It was a part of the route which connected Switzerland, the cradle of the Anabaptist movement, to Holland, the home of Menno Simons.
Even before the Reformation the division of the country into many small religious and political regions facilitated the rise of separatist groups. Of lasting influence on circles of practical Christianity were "Master" Johannes Eckhart, who died in 1327 while he was on trial for heresy before the Court of Inquisition under the Archbishop of Cologne, and Thomas a Kempis, the author of the devotional book De imitatione Christi. Thus the soil in the region of the Lower Rhine was well prepared for the reception of the Upper German Anabaptists.
As in the Netherlands, the Anabaptists were until the middle of the 16th century the only Reformation party in this region. Contributory to the spread of the movement, in addition to the urge to proclaim the Gospel, was also the wretched spiritual care of the people, which caused frequent complaint on the part of the Catholic populace. A church inspection ordered by the duke in 1533 revealed that many of the clergy "administered the sacraments only in return for payment, and many had subsidiary businesses, such as the sale of intoxicating beverages," with a train of evil consequences, as the criminal records of the time show. The revelations of the inspectors concerning the educational level of the clergy were quite shocking. Real theologians were the exception. "No wonder that the clergy and with them the church fell into popular disrepute and that the itinerant preachers of the new doctrine found favorable soil" (Scheibler, 13).
Furthermore, the Jülich Declaration of 8 April 1533, admits that there had always been things in the Catholic Church which should have been corrected, but which had been tolerated and overlooked for the sake of peace. The chaplains and priests were conspicuous for their immorality. In Jülich all moral laws seemed "to have been dissolved in the communities in which Anabaptist congregations were later formed" (Rembert, 52, 60).
Thus the Anabaptists found entry all along the Lower Rhine, especially in the largest state, the duchies of Cleves-Mark and Jülich-Berg, which were united in 1521, but had separate jurisdiction, also in the county of Mörs, in the archbishopric of Cologne, as well as in the imperial cities of Aachen and Cologne. Because of the mandates issued against them they conducted their meetings in secret.
On the origin and development of Mennonite congregations little is known. Congregations arose at first in the Jülich districts of Wassenberg, Heinsberg, Millen, and Born, from which numerous martyrs are reported. The first martyr in the duchy of Jülich was Vit to Pilgrams, who died at München-Gladbach in 1537 (not as Martyrs Mirror says in 1532). Congregations were also formed in Aachen in 1533, in Cologne in 1531, which had over 100 members in 1562, and in München-Gladbach in 1532, where the congregation numbered 151 families in 1622, most of them weavers (names in Keller, II: 224-229; a register of 1654 with 114 names is given by Walter Risler in Beiträge, 97-107). In 1534 there was also a congregation in Emmerich, which soon after the one in Kleve (1895) expired in the early 20th century. In the second half of the 16th century other congregations were formed, the period 1589-1609 being remarkable in "that the laity here kept the leadership in religious matters in their own hands" (Keller, 6). Anabaptists were also found at many places in the duchies of Cleves, Jülich, and Berg.
The growth of the Anabaptist movement in the region of the Lower Rhine gave the governments cause for a second church inspection in 1550. In Jülich it was hoped that this church inspection would bring about an improvement in this respect, so that complaints about evil conditions would cease (Rembert, 425). Church reforms could, however, be carried out only gradually (Keller, 10). On 9 March 1560, Duke William III issued an edict to the officials of Cleves and Mark, ordering that "Sacramentists and Anabaptists" should be instructed by orthodox preachers and an attempt be made to bring them back to the Catholic Church.
In 1563 the Catholic priest Georg Cassander was assigned to convert to Catholicism the Anabaptist teacher Johannes Campanus, who had for years been a prisoner; but he was not successful. Later Protestant preachers were also called to convert arrested Anabaptists. In the districts of Blankenberg and Bensberg in the duchy of Berg, where the Anabaptists were numerous, William arrested many participants in nocturnal worship services in the open fields; with these prisoners Peter Lo (Lohe), the Protestant parson of Elberfeld, disputed in the presence of several councilors on 13-24 June 1565, in the castle of Blankenberg on the Sieg, and 28 June-2 July 1565, in Bensberg, principally on questions which had been discussed at the disputation of Frankenthal. Several of the prisoners joined the Protestant Church; the others persisted in their opinion or escaped further oppression by flight. Lo was rewarded for his efforts by honorable recognition by the duke (Bockmühl, 296-301).
On 23 January 1565, William issued a further order to eliminate abuses in worship. But at the same time he demanded that "Anabaptists, Sacramentists, followers of David Joris, Menno Simons, and others" should be reported, so that orthodox pastors could convert them; in case they refused to become Catholic, their goods should be confiscated (Keller, I: 114). A mandate of 1 October 1585, against religious groups not included in the religious peace of 1555 gave the officials orders to extirpate the Anabaptists (Keller, I: 75 f.).
In spite of this sharp measure the Anabaptists spread along the Lower Rhine. Some Protestants also joined the Anabaptist groups. The pastors were to prevent this. A decision of the third Reformed synod of Berg, at Elberfeld on 3 January 1590, required the preachers to explain to the people the "coarse and great error" by personal admonition, intercession, and prayer in the churches (Keller, II: 102, 180; Rembert, 439).
The seriousness of the Anabaptist profession of faith is shown in the agreements they made in Cologne on 1 May 1591, with the Mennonites on the Upper Rhine and in Holland under the name of the "Concept of Cologne," which formed a unifying bond between widely scattered Anabaptists (Hege, 149-152). The document was signed by several congregations in the Lower Rhine region: Cologne, Flammersheim, Odenkirchen, Rees, and Lieber, and also by all the congregations in the duchy of Berg, at Millen, and on the Maas (Rembert, 618).
Under Johann Sigismund, Elector of Brandenburg, and Wolfgang, Count Palatine of Neuburg, an era of tolerance dawned in 1610; the old restrictions which limited the religious faiths in the country to the three recognized by the Empire were over. But when Wolfgang's successor adopted the Catholic faith in 1614, new persecutions began in Jülich-Berg (in 1619). Persons caught at Anabaptist religious services were to be punished (Rembert, 445). On 1 September 1619, all officials and clergymen received orders to exterminate the Anabaptists (Keller, III: 257). But this decree was not radically carried out.
After 1652 the pressure increased, when an edict was issued by Philip William ordering compulsory conversion or exile, so that the Mennonites began to emigrate from Jülich and Berg to Krefeld, where the Mennonites had been preaching in public since 1634 and considered themselves an independent congregation. From Gladbach 70 families moved to Krefeld after emigrations to Nijmegen had already taken place. In 1653 the Elector of Cologne expelled the Mennonites, 70 families finding reception in and around Krefeld (Nieper, 18 and 30).
With the emigration of Mennonites from Krefeld to America in 1683 the old imperial law against the Anabaptists was silently abandoned. It had been passed in 1529 by the Diet of Speyer, and brought unspeakable woe to the Anabaptists. Since none of the treaties recognized the Mennonites as a body to be tolerated, the old imperial law was invoked again and again. As late as 1694 Elector John William of the Palatinate, the regent of Jülich and Berg, had 40 Mennonites at Rheydt arrested at night, and rejected a petition of the Dutch government on their behalf on the ground that he would have to bear the wrath of the entire empire if he should release the prisoners; but for a consideration of 8,000 Talers he would be willing to release them. William III of England and Emperor Leopold I also intervened on their behalf. Finally after three years they were released, their property restored, and they were permitted to live in peace and pursue their trades (Nieper, 24-36). Since that time no German government has based a decision on the imperial law against the Mennonites.
In economics the later Mennonites in the region of the Lower Rhine occupy a special place. To them Krefeld owed its rapid development and Germany owed a new means of income, namely, the velvet and silk industry, which has its center in Krefeld.
See Krefeld and Jülich.
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Cite This Article
Hege, Christian. "Lower Rhine (Germany)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 25 Apr 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lower_Rhine_(Germany)&oldid=92477.
Hege, Christian. (1957). Lower Rhine (Germany). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 25 April 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Lower_Rhine_(Germany)&oldid=92477.
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