Alsace (France)

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Upper Alsace (France)
Source: Mennonite Encyclopedia, v. 1, p. 67


Alsace is a French province (German to 1697 and 1871-1919), with a population 1,815,488 (2006) and area of 8,280 km2 (3,196.9 square miles), lying on the west bank of the Rhine between Switzerland and the German Palatinate. It consists of the two departments of Upper (Haut-Rhin) and Lower (Bas-Rhin) Alsace, and since 1945 also the territory of Belfort.


The Anabaptist movement found early entry into Alsace. Its center was Strasbourg, which offered asylum to those persecuted for their faith and in which such men as Jakob Gross, Balthasar Hubmaier, Wilhelm Reublin, Michael Sattler and Hans Denck lived for a while. Melchior Hoffman made his first contacts with the Anabaptists here, and here spent his last years in prison. Thus it was inevitable that an Anabaptist congregation should be formed here; it reached its highest development under the leadership of Pilgram Marpeck about 1530. But the reformers saw in it a threat to the new Protestant church and attacked it orally and in writing. Bucer was especially active in this conflict. The outcome was the edict of the magistrate to expel them from the city (16 February 1534). It was, however, not strictly enforced, for in 1556 there was an Anabaptist congregation of about one hundred in the city, including Peter Novesianus, a professor in the local Gymnasium, who was banished from the city. Many other members of the congregation emigrated with him. But it still remained an important center; a series of conferences was held here in 1555, 1557, 1568 and later. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the congregation was small and weak, and finally disbanded in 1875.

From Strasbourg the Anabaptist movement was transplanted into the vicinity and over a large part of Alsace. Its members met in the forests at Eckbolsheim, Lingolsheim, St. Oswald and in the region of Schnakenloch. This is the origin of the expression, "the forest church of the Anabaptists." There also were Anabaptists at Ruprechtsau, Schiltigheim, Benfeld, Schlettstadt and on the Murrhof and Gansau near Strasbourg. Under the pressure of persecution, which did not abate until 1560, they withdrew into the remote parts of the mountains or plains, where they finally earned general respect and found toleration by their simplicity of customs, industry, and cleanliness. Sebastian of Dingelen, an old basket weaver, was their leader (Vorsteher); other members whose names are known were Ott Helfenstein and Jakob Ernst.

In 1533 the citizens of Schlettstadt were forbidden upon penalty of expulsion to admit any Anabaptists. In 1538 the pastor of Rosheim wrote to a citizen of Strasbourg that 25 Anabaptists had been seized in the woods at Epfig, and that 300 Anabaptists had recently held a meeting in the woods. On the day following Easter in 1540, 69 Anabaptists were captured at one time near Illkirch.

Ensisheim, south of Strasbourg (near Mulhouse), the seat of the government of the local Austrian lands, was the scene of the bloodiest persecutions. Here alone about 600 Anabaptists were executed. Here King Ferdinand issued a severe mandate against the Anabaptists on 24 May 1529, based on the imperial law of 23 April 1529, that the authorities be on the alert for any who did not have their infants baptized or who were refugees on account of rebaptism. The mandate was repeated in sharper form on 26 May 1535 and 10 December 1544.

Nevertheless the Anabaptists maintained themselves in the country. An extraordinarily sharp mandate issued by Ferdinand on 5 July 1561 complained about the negligence and carelessness of his subordinates in pursuing and exterminating the "dangerous and offensive evil." Especially the leaders were to be apprehended and executed in accord with the edict of 1529. The authorities should be on their guard and watch those who sold their property, bring them to court and by torture if necessary examine them about their fellow members and leaders, and try to convert them. All children should be baptized early. Those who refused to have theirs baptized should be considered Anabaptists and should be treated in accord with the mandates. No Anabaptist should be lodged or fed or aided in any possible way. This mandate was to be read to the people by the pastors on several successive Sundays and holidays and also by other officials in public places, so that everybody could be informed and defend himself against such "heretical, damned sect" and avoid the ruin of his soul and body.

This mandate was proclaimed on 28 June 1561 by Count Egenolph at Rappoltstein with the further admonition that the citizens should try to convert anyone they noticed with heretical faith or practice, and in case of obstinacy, report such persons to the court for punishment. Citizens who were negligent in doing so were also to be subject to punishment.                

Nevertheless Anabaptism was able to persist for some time longer in Alsace. On 2 July 1572 a notice was proclaimed at Ingersheim near Colmar "on account of Anabaptism," which stated that of the 100 citizens in Ingersheim about 30 were infected with Anabaptism. The wealthiest of them was Valentin Mangoldt. He had been warned several times, but was obstinate. The Anabaptists were meeting at three different places: usually on Sunday in the forest above Reichenweier, at Ingersheim in the cave, and in a vineyard and a woods near Winzenheim. Three other persons also used to go there and listen to them. A man and a child were buried in a vineyard. This had been going on for thirty years.

Gradually the oppressive measures instituted by the Austrian government at Ensisheim achieved their aim. Only a few Anabaptist remnants were left. But during the Thirty Years' War their numbers were again increased by an influx from Switzerland. A Catholic priest of Ste. Marie-aux-Mines, Jean le Bachelle, wrote on 12 March 1643 to his friend Paul Ferry, the priest in Metz, that the Anabaptists had been settling in the country for some time. "They used to hold their religious meetings in a forest between Ste. Marie-aux-Mines and Schlettstadt. Now they meet in a barn. They have no priests, but one of them reads the Scripture aloud in German, and then they sing psalms according to the translation by Lobwasser. Then anyone who feels led to do so or has anything to say arises and explains the Scripture. If someone wants to be married or baptized upon confession of his faith they have somebody come from Switzerland; he is a man with the same trade as theirs; I have seen such a man; he was dressed in the Swiss manner."

During the "Swedish War" Mennonites "came into the country after Bern and Zürich had subjected their people to Zwinglianism, and France had relaxed its immigration regulations in order to have the land made arable. They settled especially in the central Vosges, and were farmers and cattle raisers. Their families were usually large, numbering eight or nine children. In the valley of Ste. Marie they were accepted as citizens by contract with the religious and secular authorities, and were exempt from military service in return for an annual fee of 45 livres.

They called themselves Mennonites or Manzites, after one of their most respected martyrs, according to the book written early in the eighteenth century by a Catholic priest of Mutzig with the title, Etat et mémoire des anabaptistes d'Alsace. Another account, L'Etat du temporale dressé par M. Äntoine Rice, prêtre deligué par le duc de Lorraine en 1802, reported that there were in Ste. Marie three branches of Anabaptists who had no communion with each other. In order to distinguish themselves from one another one group wore long beards and dressed in linen, summer and winter; and the second wore shorter beards and dressed in coarse wool cloth; while the third group looked almost like the Catholics. These Anabaptists had no churches, but met in homes. This report is obviously only partly reliable; there cannot have been more than two branches, the Amish and the "Reistish" or Mennonites. Virtually all the Mennonites of Alsace followed Ammann in 1694-1697, and thus should be considered Amish after that date.

Another interesting account of the Mennonites in Alsace is found in the work of Ph. A. Grandidier (d. 1787), Oeuvres inedites: "The Mennonites always live in the country, on the estates of large landowners, who like to take them as renters because they pay more than others, . . . by the industrious tilling of the soil and their good conduct. They are the most gentle and peace-loving of all people in their trade; they are energetic, alert, moderate, simple, benevolent. They wear beards, their shoes have no ties, their clothes no buttons. They seek to settle in the loneliest parts of the Vosges (mountains). When it is time for the harvest, mowing and threshing, the Swiss Brethren come and help, and when the work is finished they return to the places where they are tolerated or those where they are not known. If a Mennonite needs hired help he employs only members of his faith. In the villages where they live they pay the same fees to the church for marriage or burial as the Catholics, and are obliged to pay the same school fees as the Catholics, although they do not wish to have their children instructed by the schoolmasters. They do not accept infant baptism and assert that no church has the right to say that it is the only true one in contradistinction to the others. The government should be obeyed. Baptism should be imparted at a mature age; baptismal candidates must pass an examination to determine whether they are worthy of being received into the brotherhood. In baptism the elder takes water and pours it on the candidate with the words, 'I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.'  Communion is observed twice a year, usually in the home of the elder, where services are also held. First the Scripture is read in the current language, then one of the ministers preaches on the passage read, and at the close of the address the elder gives each brother some ordinary bread; each one extends his hand and receives it, while the elder recites the words of the institution of the service. The brethren hold the bread in their hands until the preacher says, 'Take, eat'; then they all eat it together. The same elder goes from row to row with the cup and the preacher says, 'Drink in the name of Jesus in commemoration of His death.' All drink from the cup and wait in reverent silence; then the elder explains the effect that this act should have." Grandidier's report was confirmed by the Mennonite preachers Jean Bachmann and Philipp Heggi of Heidolsheim.

This report is supplemented by the formulary of the ordination of an elder of the same period; it was found among some family papers: "A brief essay on how the office of elder is bestowed upon a völligen Diener. First after the general voice of the congregation is taken, the candidate is asked whether he still acknowledges his baptismal covenant as he made it on his knees; then he is asked to kneel in the presence of the regular congregation and three elders lay their hands on his uncovered head and one says: In the name of the Lord and His church I commit to you the entire care for the congregation, to instruct the baptismal candidates, and if they are ready, to administer baptism with the consent of the congregation; second, to preach the suffering of Christ and distribute the emblems of communion to those who are ready for it; third, to perform marriage ceremonies for those who are ready, according to Christian regulation, and who are one in faith; fourth, to apply the binding key against those who through vice or disobedience are under censure of the congregation and the preachers; fifth, to apply the loosing key toward those who are reconciled to God and the brotherhood, and with the consent of the brotherhood offer them a hand and receive them; sixth, to aid needy congregations by supplying preachers and elders, ordain elders by the laying on of hands according to the content of the Gospel and to help other congregations by visiting them and to correct all errors and shortcomings with the Word of God, and take with you young or angesetzte Diener; seventh, assume the care of widows and orphans, and see that widows are given their due; eighth, to eliminate from the congregation all disorder, abuse of clothing, and whatever is contrary to Scripture, and on the other hand to implant sacred Christian order into the congregation through Jesus Christ, Amen." On 4 February 1660 the Alsatian ministers signed the Dordrecht (Holland) Confession (of 1632) in Ohnenheim; later they also recognized the Flemish confession of Amsterdam of 1681.

Grandidier stated that there were 62 Anabaptist families living in 16 villages of the bishopric of Strasbourg; they met in Baldenheim, Ohnenheim, Jebsheim and Markirch. The places where the Mennonites lived were as follows: Baldenheim with eight households, Munzenheim four, Heidolsheim four, Bessenbiessen two, Ohnenheim nine, Maggenheim two, Elsenheim one, Gurzenheim one, Jebsheim seven, Artzenheim one, Kühnheim four, Dienesheim four, Weier three, Ostheim one, Illkirch eleven, and Markirch ten. In addition it was rumored that there were some Mennonites in Neu Breisach and Strohstadt. The total number was estimated at 496 persons. These figures were obviously incomplete. At the beginning of the eighteenth century there were five times that number.

To be sure, their numbers were sharply reduced by emigration to America. Repeatedly attempts were made to expel them from their homes in Alsace. About 1673 the abbot of Münster, Charles Marchand, hoped to bring about this expulsion in Ohnenheim through the count palatine of Birkenfeld, the heir of Rappoltstein. He pointed out to the prince that they had been granted permission to settle only on the express condition that they should not practice their religion; but for two years they had been holding public meetings and exercised their religion in the mill (evidently a reference to the conference of 1660). He therefore begged that the evil be eradicated with the roots and that they be expelled, but this never happened. It was the priest of Ohnenheim-Heidolsheim who had denounced the secret meetings, complaining that he had nobody in the church. It seems that the Anabaptists were more strictly dealt with after this, in order to compel them to return to the Catholic Church. In 1686 the Jesuits won an Anabaptist family with seven children in Schlettstadt, but this seems to be an isolated case.

Meanwhile more and more Anabaptists were coming from Switzerland, especially from Bern, particularly from 1671 to 1711. There must have been hundreds of them. Ernst Müller reported that a certain Beatus Fischer was interested in their case in Alsace and brought about the settlement of 1671 in Reichenweier.

On 27 February 1696, Jakob Ammann complained in the name of his brethren who had settled two years previously in the valley of Ste. Marie-aux-Mines and of Ulrich Miller, who had lived there longer, that they were compelled to take part in defensive military service and that their children were being drawn into military service. By negotiation they were released from this duty upon the annual payment of 46 French livres. But six years later the Mennonites of Markirch presented another petition to the authorities requesting release from such service, pointing out that the prince of Birkenfeld had previously exempted them from the service upon payment of fifteen talers.

This petition was apparently successful. But now the envy of their neighbors was aroused. In 1708 they raised a solemn protest against the Anabaptists who did not bear arms; it was just as right to excuse them from military service as the Anabaptists, who had settled in large numbers in the valley. This led to catastrophe for the Mennonites. An exact list of the Mennonites was demanded and presented in 1704, signed by Hans Zimmermann and Jakob Ammann. It contained 40 familiar names, such as Lugenbühl, Bachmann, [[Yoder (Ioder, Joder, Jodter, Jotter, Yoeder, Yother, Yothers, Yotter)|Joder]], Hochstettler, Zimmermann, Rupp, Maurer, Gerig, Gerber, Müller and Roth. A second list required in 1708 contained about 60 names.

The complaints against the Mennonites did not cease. Many of them had through industry and frugality acquired a little wealth, thus arousing general envy. In consequence, the intendant Pelletier de la Houssaye wrote to the court of Louis XIV inquiring what his attitude should be. He received a reply from Voisin, the secretary of the king, 13 August 1712, saying that the king was by no means inclined to tolerate the Mennonites in Alsace. They should be driven out of the country either by a general decree or by special orders of the communities where they were found, with a reference to the treaty of Münster and Osnabrück, which stipulated that only adherents of the Augsburg Confession and the "alleged" Reformed Church should be permitted to live in Alsace. At his request Voisin sent the intendant an express confirmation of the royal opinion, and on 9 September 1712 orders were issued to the officials in Alsace to expel the Mennonites from the country without exception, those who had settled there recently as well as those who had long been living there, and to forbid their settling in any other province of France.

This command no doubt evoked consternation among the Mennonites of Alsace. Many emigrated. Some settled in the principality of Montbéliard, others in Germany in Breisgau, Zweibrücken, and the Palatinate, and many moved into nearby Lorraine, which had not yet been incorporated into France and where the border came quite close to Markirch (Hang, Salm, Upper Saar Valley). Most of the emigrants received from the local authorities a certificate that they were leaving the country only on account of their religion. One of these was issued on 8 November 1715, reading as follows: "The Anabaptists Nie. Blank, H. Kipfer, Chr. and A. Kropf, David Chertzer and Mich. Maurer have until now lived in very good discipline and order, peace and harmony among the other inhabitants, without having committed anything blameworthy, to say nothing of anything criminal, and that they must leave the land only on account of their Anabaptist religion." Others, a considerable number, remained in Alsace. On 23 October 1727 a list of Mennonites living in Alsace was again required, with data on numbers, place of residence and occupation. It was forwarded to Versailles on 24 November, accompanied probably by a petition. On 7 June 1728 came the reply of the minister d'Angerillac, who had presented the matter to the king. The king accepted the petition, and would permit the Mennonites to remain, but their children, when grown, must leave the country. It is likely that the duke of Zweibrücken as baron of Rappoltstein intervened in their favor. He called the king's attention to the fact that the Mennonites had settled here more than a century before the country had been united with France, and that they had made a large part of the Rappoltstein arable, that they distinguished themselves in the improvement of stock and that during an epidemic among the cattle their medication prevented the death of many cattle, and that they had restored the valley of Ste. Marie, which had been thoroughly devastated by the Swedes, into a fertile condition; it might therefore be advisable to make permanent settlers of a certain number of Mennonites and grant them toleration. Mathiot says that complaints against the Alsatian Mennonites were received by the court again in 1744, 1766, and 1780; in consequence new reports were required concerning them. Since these reports were favorable to the Mennonites and the landowners granted them protection they were tolerated. It had been reported at one time that many Mennonites had married Calvinists in order to stay in the country. This is probably the reason why the intendant had issued the order in 1715 that only those might stay in the province who would swear to be Calvinists. "This was," says Mathiot, "a clever method of discovering the Mennonites, and a cruel method of dividing families."           

It is possible that the Mennonites were aware of the opinion of the Duke of Rappoltstein; hence, in spite of the unfriendly royal decree, they turned to the Duke de Choiseul with the request that they be treated with more toleration in Alsace, and that they be excused from the usual form of the oath in court. In his reply of 6 April 1766, the count rejected this petition in the curtest form as a shameless desire. It would be their best support to be unknown, so that no one would know who they were and that they were not included in the Peace of Westphalia. In a second letter of 9 September 1766 the Duke de Choiseul informed them that the king not only had refused their petition, but also had added that if the Mennonites were so bold as to present another petition and did not remain silent, they would absolutely be expelled.      

But the Mennonites did not allow this exchange to intimidate them. Their loyalty to their law was stronger than their submissiveness. “Their law permits them to reply only Yea to the formula of the oath and forbids them to raise a hand, because they believe they would thereby be challenging God. This they consider ungodly and are of the opinion that a man who must swear is less to be trusted than a man who does not swear." A Mennonite by the name of Jakob Frey, who refused to render the oath at court as a witness on 7 September 1769, was punished by banishment from the country for life and a fine of ten livres, besides the costs of the trial. This verdict was approved by the king and expressed his opinion that the Mennonites "could under no pretext be excused from the performance of the common laws of the land." For a time the Mennonites were apparently without any legal rights in this respect. It was not until 1812 that the legal principle was established that "members of recognized religious associations give in place of the oath a declaration in accord with their religion." Geigel says in connection with Alsace-Lorraine, "Mennonites are granted a formula of confession in place of the oath." This is confirmed by a regulation of the Oberlandesgericht at Strasbourg of 18 March 1881 and a decision of the civil chamber of the Landgericht at Colmar on 17 March 1882.

There is little information available on the further development of the Mennonites of Alsace. Their life was rather secluded; they were little in the public eye. Through family papers more is known about the Neuneich congregation (now Birkenhof) in the county of Pfirdt and its connections with other congregations. It is not a friendly picture that unfolds before our view. There were quarrels and unpleasantness between elders and preachers that disturbed the peace within the congregation. Outside preachers had to be called in to settle the difficulties, and were not always successful. Sometimes an elder or preacher had to be silenced. But at the same time we admire the great earnestness and the loyalty to the brotherhood that are everywhere evident.

A deep stir was caused by the marriage of a member of the Münsterrol congregation with his brother's widow, and also a marriage in the same congregation between cousins. The other congregations, as Markirch, Colmar, Salm, and "from the lower land," declared themselves unanimously against these marriages. A letter also came from a Swiss congregation, signed by Uli Amman, which castigated the "unbiblical" conduct of the elder: it was (1) contrary to the law of Moses, (2) contrary to the Gospel, (3) contrary to apostolic teaching, (4) contrary to the teaching of Dirk Philips, (5) contrary to the articles of our faith, (6) contrary to the Ordnungsbrief of Essingen. The elder of the Münsteroller congregation had to confess his error and express his penitence.

Not seldom were conferences of the Alsatian brethren held, in which an Ordnungsbrief was decided upon for the congregations of Alsace, which were read aloud in the congregations and accepted as the norm. Two such Ordnungsbriefe have been preserved. One was adopted in Steinselz on 28 April 1752; it says: "We preachers and elders have gathered from many lands and towns to consult with each other first, how we were standing in the faith and have found that we have agreed in articles of faith." The following resolutions were adopted: (1) Married couples who quarrel are to be put out of the congregation; if one partner is penitent and is received back into the brotherhood, but the other will not be converted, but remains in his sins, the former shall for that reason not remain outside the congregation, but shall not marry another so long as the partner lives. (2) When a brother or sister joins or marries a worldly person, but repents and desires to be readmitted into the brotherhood, he shall not be denied acceptance, but only on the condition that he bring the other partner with him; if he cannot do this, he must leave his partner, but provide him with the necessities of life and separate himself for the sake of heaven and earnestly pray that he may be converted and acknowledge the truth. (3) But if a brother or sister is guilty of adultery with a person of the world and penitently returns to the congregation, he shall not be free to marry another as long as the other lives. (4) No brother shall take the liberty of leasing a large farm or making debts, thereby burdening the brotherhood or inflicting shame on it or borrow money for wholesale trade without taking counsel. (5) No brother shall deprive another or a worldly person of a lease, deceive him or raise its cost behind his back. (6) Improper clothing (the wearing of square ties and shoes with high heels), as well as the new manners of smoking or snuffing tobacco, removing the beard with the razor and the like is forbidden and shall, if it is not stopped, be punished with excommunication.

The second Ordnungsbrief, adopted at Essingen in the Palatinate near Landau on 22 November 1779, was still more explicit. There were nineteen congregations represented here by thirty-nine preachers and elders; among them were the Alsatian congregations of Münsteroll (later Belfort and Florimont), Neuneich, Colmar, Markirch, Salm (at that time in Lorraine), Münster, Strasbourg, Strath, Froensburg, Essingen, Hochstatt. The Ordnungsbrief contained 16 points. Points one and two dealt with faith, the others with the life in the brotherhood. It said (condensed):

(1) We accept the Dordrecht Confession as in accord with the Word of God, and each should strive to observe the thirty-three articles and obey them. (2) Concerning the incarnation of Christ we should stay by the Scripture, and acknowledge Him with Paul as the Son of God, and with Peter as the son of David after the flesh, and avoid unnecessary disputation. (3) explains how the unrest caused by several brethren in rebellion against the preachers and elders shall be punished and removed. (4) and (5) describe how the congregations shall be cared for by the preachers and elders. (6) tells how the ministers and elders shall execute their offices. (7) No brother shall become involved in buying, building or other things connected with large sums of money or usury without the knowledge and counsel of the brethren or elders. (8) Marriage shall take place with the foreknowledge and consent of the preachers or elders and also of the parents in the Lord and not in the world. (9) Avoidance shall be practiced toward those who leave the truth of the Gospel and the brotherhood, whereby the name of God or the congregation may be injured, and members shall withdraw from all who have fallen away with all moderation and modesty on the basis of the apostles. (10) Brethren and sisters shall greet one another with the kiss of the Lord; but those who have not been received shall not be greeted with a kiss, but with the words, "May God come to your aid." (11) requires aid for the poor widows, and orphans. (12-14) repeat the Steinselz stipulations concerning the use of tobacco and immodest dress (the hair on top of the head shall not be cut in the indecent manner of the world). (15) Servants and maids, if they are members of the brotherhood, shall be employed before all others; nor shall they accept employment of non-members. (16) Preachers and elders shall be more careful in teaching and admonishing, in baptism and communion, in Christian discipline and punishment according to the Gospel; if a preacher cannot cope with a situation in his congregation he shall ask other congregations for assistance and this aid is promised him.

A conference of preachers and elders on the Entenfang near Strasbourg on 6 September, 1796 stipulated that "those who after fleshly error have married outside the congregation and brotherhood, if they are admitted into the congregation, shall be remarried anew, for the apostle says that this shall take place only in the Lord; and in the days of Noah those fared badly who refused to be punished by God's Spirit."

Great distress was caused the Mennonites in Alsace by the question of military service. As long as France was a republic they were released from military service and guard duty. They were treated considerately by the republican government. The national assembly of 12 June 1790 decided that all active citizens must be registered for guard duty. The Mennonites asked for exemption and were granted it, with the loss of certain rights of citizenship.

Three years later, on 18 August 1793, the division of welfare in Paris, evidently in reply to a petition of the Mennonites personally delivered by delegates sent for that purpose to Paris, reached the decision that they were to be entirely free of military duty, a part of which follows: "The Mennonites of France, citizens, have sent delegates to present to us that their worship and customs forbid their bearing arms and to request that they be used in other branches of service. We have seen in them simple hearts and have therefore thought that a good constitution should use all virtues for the common good. We therefore invite you to exercise the same kindness and gentleness toward them as is their character, and to prevent their being persecuted and to give them the kind of work they desire, such as building fortifications or roads of transportation, or even to perform their service by a monetary payment." It was signed by Couthon, Barrere, Herault, St. Just, Thuriot and Robespierre.

It was a very different matter when Napoleon became emperor of France. Now the Mennonites were all drawn into the army. A petition to the emperor was either ignored or answered in the negative. On 19 June 1808 a conference meeting at the Bildhäuserhof below Schlettstadt dealt with this matter. There were nine congregations present with twenty-two preachers or elders. It was decided to send two men to Paris who could speak French. The date 29 January 1809 was set aside as a day of prayer and fasting for the success of the mission. The men sent were Christian Gingerich of Wallenrade in Lorraine and Christian Engel of Jambrot (four miles west of Avricourt) in the Welschländer congregation.  The congregations of the Palatinate and Hesse helped to defray the expenses of this mission: Ibersheimerhof, with two hundred doubloons, Donnersberg near Mainz with sixteen, and Kaiserslautern with ten. A sum of 423 doubloons was collected. But the delegates could accomplish nothing in Paris. Therefore two additional conferences were held, one at Winting on 22 April 1811, the other at Bildhausen on 2 June 1811. Nevertheless the decision stood: "For the sake of his faith nobody may refuse service in the army."

In the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) the congregations of Wissembourg and Belfort suffered most severely. An offering was held for them, with practical results, and eased their distress.

After a long interval conference activity was resumed at the end of the nineteenth century. The first conference took place in 1896 at Munzenheim near Colmar. It was decided that the conference should convene annually, but the first regular annual conference was that which met at Pulversheim on 25 May 1907, when several brethren urged the appointment of a traveling evangelist. At the following conference, meeting at Saarburg 2 May 1908, the matter was further discussed, but the conference at Holeestrasse in Basel, 13 February 1909, decided to dispense with a traveling preacher and instead have each of the thirteen congregations in the association regularly visit all the other congregations for the purpose of pastoral care and preaching service. At the same time a fund was opened for the conference and traveling ministry. The visits in the homes and congregations were carried out and the institution was still further developed at the conference in Wolfganzen on 29 April 1911. On 1 June 1913 H. Volkmar was appointed as the first traveling minister: he was followed in 1917 by Fritz Goldschmidt of Basel. The conferences of the Mennonites of Alsace-Lorraine were attended by brethren from Baden and the Palatinate. This led to the Alsatian Mennonites' joining the Konferenz der süddeutschen Mennoniten. Two brethren from Alsace-Lorraine, Valentin Pelsy of Mückenhof, and J. Peterschmitt of Rheinfelderhof, were made members of the administrative committee of this conference. New life began to stir in all the congregations. Then World War I broke out in 1914. Again the Alsatian brethren suffered severely; and again general aid was given by their brethren. Large relief gifts came from America, and much need was alleviated.

The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 joined Alsace to France, and the union with the South German Mennonites was dissolved. On the other hand, a closer fellowship was formed with the Swiss and with the French-speaking congregations of inner France, with active cooperation in conferences. It was not until 1925, however, that the conference was again officially organized under the name, Association des Eglises Evangeliques Mennonites de France. The conference always included all the German-speaking congregations of both Alsace and Lorraine. In 1901 the congregations of inner France, those using the French language, began to hold a separate conference, which was formally incorporated in 1907. Suspended until 1927, it was reinstituted in that year, really as a sub-section of the Association of 1925. The Alsace-Lorraine Conference, continued thus until 1939, then suspended until 1946, when it again was organized as an independent conference.

In 1837 the Hochwald congregation was dissolved; the members who did not emigrate to America united with the young Protestant congregation there. One congregation has its seat in Switzerland, namely, Basel-Holeestrasse; Niederrödern und Geisberg were united with Deutschhof of the Palatinate until World War II. The other Mennonite congregations in Alsace are Birkenhof, with 51 baptized members, Altkirch 72, Basel-Holee 152 (of whom possibly 102 live in Alsace), Colmar 70, Neuf-Brisach 65, Pfastatt 202, Pulversheim 65, Hang 100, Geisberg 63. The total baptized membership in 1950 was 720, with, an additional 250 children, these making a total community of approximately 1,000. -- Neff

The Cultural Significance of the Alsatian Mennonites

The Mennonites aroused the displeasure of their neighbors, as has been said above. If the neighbors were in a favorable position with the authorities and landowners, their influence was often detrimental to the Mennonites. It was then a simple matter to use the religious differences as a shield behind which to get rid of an unwelcome competitor. But about the middle of the eighteenth century such religious and economic politics ceased. The reason for this turn of attitude was not a change of attitude toward freedom on the part of the authorities; rather, it was the influence of the prominent physiocrats, with their new economic philosophy which arose about the middle of the eighteenth century. For them the core of the economic life lay in the farming class of society, especially the renters. Only they were considered productive members of society, and with the landowners were contrasted with the sterile, unfruitful class in industry, trade, free vocations, and the servant class. It was the glorification of the feudal system shortly before its destruction by the great French Revolution.            

Alsace was the seat of important secular and spiritual lords. They had already previously learned to appreciate the industrious and dependable Mennonites as good renters. To protect the farmers, especially the renters of the large holdings, became a moral obligation and was praised as a law of reason. In 1771 the abbot Baudeau wrote concerning the lot "of those valuable people, who . . . cultivate the property of others," in his Explication du tableau economique: "All that oppresses, degrades, wrongs, robs them strikes deep wounds on society. All that elevates them, all that would contribute to their well-being, their contentment, their wealth, is a source of happiness for all classes." This was meant especially for the ears of the landowners. In this economic view, valid at the time, lie the roots of the favor enjoyed by Mennonite renters long before the influences of the French Revolution

Indeed, the interest in these physiocratic ideas and their learned and effective sponsors reached all the way to the salons of Paris. The literature of these circles was occupied with this fashion. This is seen, for instance, in a delicate duodecimo volume of informal, chatty essays, Les soirees Helvetiennes, Alsaciennes, et Fran-Comtoises (Amsterdam and Paris, 1772, which also appeared in English translation at the same time). It should not be surprising that these "Evening entertainments in Alsace" speak in long chapters about the "influence of good morals on agriculture." The book contained a section "On the Anabaptists" (pp. 40 ff.). Alexander Frederic faques Masson, Marquis de Pezay (1741-1777), also presented the salons with entertaining material on the competent Mennonites in a colorful series of comic opera, travel reports and military writings. In his youth he had been the military tutor of Louis XVI. His varied talent brought him great influence, but also foes, who finally overthrew him. He was then appointed inspector of the French coast, having previously been assigned the task of evaluating the state of the eastern border from the military and economic point of view. He thus became acquainted with the Alsatian Mennonites. He was certainly not a religious fanatic when he presented an interesting and thorough description of their life and work in both the internal and external aspects. He introduced his praise of their morality with a comparison with China's people and country, a popular comparison at the time, for to the physiocrats China seemed the model agrarian state. The fields of the Mennonites could be recognized from afar by their better care; they themselves could be recognized by their clothing without buttons and shoes without buckles. Then Pezay follows them to the remotest nooks of the Vosges where they had their straw huts, "which are as plain as they and intelligently constructed." "Ancient hospitality" was offered the traveler in all simplicity but with conspicuous cleanliness, and he lingered on his description of the charms of the daughters. The Anabaptists (he continued) were the same everywhere: gentle, kindly, industrious. He quoted the opinion expressed by the mayor of Amsterdam concerning the Dutch Mennonites. Then Pezay concluded his song of praise with the familiar story of the conscientious Mennonite farmer in Waldeck in the Seven Years' War. (This story is still found in the readers and pedagogical writings. See Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 1872, p. 94.)

The tenth "evening entertainment" was devoted to the especial skill of the Mennonites in meadow culture. It was a misfortune for France that there are so few Anabaptists in inner France and its border provinces. Pezay praised the freedom offered them in Montbeliard, where they were permitted to do much good, although the soil was very poor. They also showed their great competence in the manufacture of equipment. But their particular capability lay in their irrigation of meadows by means of skillfully planned ditches. He urgently recommended imitation of this method; the skill was certainly not a quality of their particular religion.

Then Pezay dealt in detail with a further peculiarity of Mennonite farming methods; they made the boundary ditches of their fields and woodlots in such a way that a crop could be raised there too. This led him to a detailed discussion of this method "applied to the rivers and creeks of France."

The entire eleventh "entertainment" was devoted to this subject. Again and again, especially in his reflections concerning the river police, he returned to the example of the Mennonites. Thus all the meadows of France would be watered and dams and ditches would be used and planted over the nation according to their pattern. He declared himself ready to instruct all those living along the rivers and estimates enormous gains for the kingdom, which would eclipse the yield of the tax collectors. Nothing in these four hundred pages excited him as much as this example. He remarked ironically at one place that in view of the "galloping" spirit of enterprise among high and low, there were in Paris surely two thousand persons, who, if they found out about the method of the Mennonites, would compete for the monopoly of leasing the river dams of France.

The Marquis de Pezay died young. It is not clear how much improvement resulted from his enthusiastic plans. For us it is of significance to know that he was a friend of Voltaire's. His rationalistic point of view toward universal cultural improvement led to his interest in the Mennonites. The experiences of the marquis among the Alsatian Mennonites were no doubt known to Voltaire. The writer of the foreword of the 1776 German edition of the confession of faith by Cornelis Ris (Hamburg, 1776, p. XXVII), probably a Hamburg Mennonite minister, mentioned the "simple manner of life, the industry of the Mennonite congregations in Alsace," referring to the Soirees Helvetiennes as his source.

The Alsatian Mennonite as the type of an upright man, who was capable and skilled in his work, was also presented by the Alsatian poet and teacher Gottlieb K. Pfeffel of the eighteenth century. The renter, "an intelligent Mennonite," who bravely told the truth even to his baron, was an incidental figure with Pfeffel.

The Marquis de Pezay and his Anabaptist recollections did not pass into oblivion. The feuilletonist of Le Siecle, a Paris periodical, found the volume in a secondhand bookstall, and visited the Mennonites in the Vosges before and after. He was Alfred Michiels, who wrote in a vein very similar to Pezay's, and described the Mennonites in his book, Les Anabaptistes des Vosges (1860). But his account was not as objective nor careful as that of the marquis; in many instances the book had the flavor of a novel. Nevertheless his recollections of the past should be acknowledged. The congregation and the people of Salm were brought to life for the reader in a fluent style. The visit in the home of the Elder Augsburger was the center of the narrative. Again the economic example of the Mennonites in all respects, in household and in farming, and their marriage customs and also their attitude to tobacco were broadly described. Michiels' presentation of the history of the Mennonites and their martyrs was somewhat dubious, given as it is in the jeuilleton spirit of the journalist. True to history was his confirmation of the interest of the Alsatian Mennonites in botany and medicine. Michiels reported that he found books along this line in their homes. He also knew of the Mennonites of the Palatinate, that many of them understood veterinary medicine, which explained their excellent herds of cattle. Family histories tell us that the Alsatian Mennonites in turn took progressive methods of agriculture to the Palatinate.

After Michiels there was probably no author who wrote about the Mennonites of Alsace on his own observation. Elsässische Lebensbilder by Margarete Spörlin (2 v., Basel, 1875) contained a story entitled Das Waldhaus, which described a Mennonite family during the French Revolution; it was of slight significance. Werner Wittich, the agrarian historian of Strasbourg, in his Deutsche und französische Kultur im Elsass (Strasbourg, 1900), presented a valuable picture of the contrasts in the social attitude of the various creeds in the simplified formula,"Protestant" and Catholic. -- EHC


Doornkaat Koolman, Jan ten. Die Verpflichtung der Mennoniten an Eidesstatt. Berlin : J. Guttentag, 1893: 45 ff.

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L'Etat du temporale dresse par M. Antoine Rice, pretre de'ligue par le due de Lorraine en 1802.

Frölich, A. Sectentum und Separatismus im jetzigen Kirchlichen Leben der evangelischen Bevölkerung Elsass-Lothringens. Strassburg: Heitz, 1889. It contains a section, 14-23, on the Mennonites in Alsace-Lorraine.

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Hulshoff, A. Geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinden te Straatsburg van 1525 tot 1557: Academisch proefschrift . . . . Amsterdam : J. Clausen, drukker van het Amsterdamsch studentencorps, 1905.

Mathiot, Charles. Recherches historiques sur les Anabaptistes: de l'ancienne principauté de Montbéliard, d'Alsace et des régions voisines ; avec des documents inédits et des Tableaux des principales familles anabaptistes installées au pays de Montbéliard. Belfort: Editions de la Mission Intérieure, 1922. Reprinted: Flavion : Éditions "le Phare", Librairie des Éclaireurs unionistes, 1969.

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Röhrich, T. W. Geschichte der Reformation im Elsass und besonders in Strassburg, 3 vols. Strasbourg, 1831-1833.

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Pelsy, V. and P. Sommer, "Precis d'Histoire des Eglises Mennonites" (Montbeliard, 1914 and 1937); in Almanack Menu, du Cinquaintenaire (Montbeliard, 1951).

Pezay, Alexandre Frédéric Jacques de Masson, marquis de, 1741-1777. Les soirées helvetiennes, alsaciennes, et fran-comtoises. Amsterdam, et se trouve à Paris: Chez Delalain, libraire, rue & à côté de la Comédie Françoise, 1771.

Pezay, Alexandre Frédéric Jacques de Masson, marquis de, 1741-1777. Oeuvres agre'ables et morales ou Varietes litteraires pricidies d'un discours sur la vie et les ouvrages de l'auteur, 2 v. Liege, 1792.

Author(s) Christian Neff
Ernst H. Correll
Date Published 1955

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Neff, Christian and Ernst H. Correll. "Alsace (France)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 3 Jul 2022.

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Neff, Christian and Ernst H. Correll. (1955). Alsace (France). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 3 July 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 66-75. All rights reserved.

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