Devotional Literature

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1956 Article


Devotional Literature includes any religious book other than strictly doctrinal or theological works, intended to be used mainly for home devotion, that is, for meditation and prayer and also for uplift (edification). Books of this kind might further be used to strengthen the spirit in times of temptation and weakness, or to confirm one's own stand in an adverse situation, or to clarify one's faith by outline —confessions and catechisms. In short, all these books served the practice of an inner rather than an external (ecclesiastical) devotion of an earnest believer; i.e., they supported his "pious exercise of the mind," as it occasionally was termed. To this category of devotionoal literature belonged prayer books, Bible stories, books for daily meditation, allegorical writings (e.g., the pilgrimage to the eternal city) ; documents of particular experiences such as epistles, testimonies, diaries, and also chronicles, and so forth; hymnals; catechisms; and a host of small and large tracts of all kinds. Finally, also printed sermon collections must be counted among these books though often they were used not only for domestic but also for ecclesiastical purposes.

The English term "devotional literature" was wider than the corresponding German word Erbauungsliteratur (edificatory literature), which has a strong emotional tinge. The English word was more general, while Erbauung suggested a certain "pietistic" tendency. Thus Karl Holl's contention that a devotional literature did not come into full development until the time of Pietism during the second half of the 17th century, remains a controversial statement. Home devotion is as old as Christianity, and aids to it such as prayer books and books of meditation were not only well known during the Middle Ages but became a particularly popular literature with the coming of the Protestant Reformation. The Hortulus Animae (Seelengärtlein, pleasant garden of the soul) was a very old and tested type of such devotional literature, and there was no church in Christianity without printed prayer collections. The old prayer book by Habermann (1567), for instance, became a particularly well-liked manual in Lutheran Germany and soon found entrance also among Mennonite groups. It was, however, true that the entire character of home devotion changed with the centuries, and that with the rise of Pietism proper, the need for such printed aids vastly increased (books up to 2,000 pages became common) while the quality, the concreteness of the faith expressed, was clearly lowered.

Mennonites were no exception to this general trend. They produced devotional books as had their 16th-century Anabaptist forefathers. It must, however, be stressed that the entire Anabaptist-Mennonite devotional literature was rather small as compared with that of the dominant Protestant denominations (Lutheran and Reformed). The main devotional book of the Anabaptists and Mennonites was the Bible; all the rest were but auxiliary to it. Mennonite devotional literature was almost completely devoid of books for daily meditation (they later borrowed them from the Pietists), of diaries (such as the Methodists cherish), of mystical journals (like those of the Quakers G. Fox, John Woolman, etc.), and of pious novels (like those by Jung-Stilling, which were so much favored by the Mennonites later on). On the other hand, the writings of Menno Simons and Dirk Philips were in the deepest sense devotional literature. Though doctrinal, they were not systematically theological, like, e.g., Calvin's.

To secure an adequate understanding of Mennonite (and Anabaptist) devotional literature, one must organize the entire material into great periods according to the centuries which produced it. The 16th century (Anabaptist) was a time of concreteness and sternness in matters of faith, while the emotional element was given little attention. Confessions of faith, testimonies such as Rechenschaften and Verantwortungen, and martyrs' epistles including their background story, prevailed. The 17th century showed a decided change. The great spiritual upheaval, so to speak, was over, and denominations became more or less settled. Creedal orthodoxy and the adjunct systematic theology on the one side, emotional inwardness and subjectivity (the beginning of Pietism proper) on the other side, became typical for this century. Moreover, a rationalistic and ethical Christianity came more and more to the fore, likewise influencing the literature of devotion. The 18th century, finally, saw this Protestant emotionalism and subjectivism in full, even rampant flowering. The "confessional Christianity" of the beginning made room for an emotional, mystical, or ethical appreciation of the revealed truth. "Godliness" became the key word of the new piety and its literature. The individual was of greater importance than the brotherhood.

Devotional literature of the 16th century

Confessional writings (Bekenntnisschriften) stand first in this survey. Books like Menno Simons' Foundatian of Christian Doctrine (1539) or Dirk Philips' Enchiridion or Handbook (1564) were widely read in Dutch as well as in German translation by the varied groups of Mennonites in the North and Anabaptists of South Germany. The distinction between devotional and doctrinal literature was not yet as sharply drawn as in the 17th century since even outspoken doctrinal books were not yet of a systematic theology type but rather of a testimonial character. The Hutterites, likewise, had a number of Rechenschaften and other confessional writings which showed the same border quality (see Riedemann, Walpot). Next to this confessional reading material came the religious tracts which abounded in the great period of rising Anabaptism. Volumes V and VII of the Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica (1909-11) contain a fine collection of such tracts, all too little studied as yet, although the Doopsgezinde Bijdragen contains numerous studies of the earlier Dutch Mennonite literature.

Likewise Lydia Müller's Glaubenszeugnisse oberdeutscher Taufgesinnter (1938) contains tracts of this nature. J. C. Wenger has translated a number of such early tracts taken from a unique Sammelband (Mennonite Quarterly Review 1945-47). A further category of 16th-century devotional literature was the epistles of the brethren, primarily the martyrs' epistles (see Epistles, Anabaptist). They represented the devotional reading proper among the Swiss and Hutterite Brethren. There was very little emotionalism and Pietism in them but rather the expression of a concrete and practical Christianity by which they lived. They exhorted the addressees to remain steadfast in faith and to trust God's promise. Finally, the brethren loved to read and to hear about their great forerunners who suffered martyrdom for conscience' sake. Pamphlets like that which told the story of Michael Sattler or that which recorded Thomas von Imbroich's farewell circulated widely among all groups. Above all, the Hutterite great chronicle (Gross-Geschichtsbuch) was a living example of the chief interest of the Brethren. It was not only a historical record of the past, nor a mere reading for private edification, but a book intended to be studied and followed and abided by in its major truths. The codices of the Hutterites contained a great number of still another type of devotional reading not strictly deriving from their own kin. They accepted Hans Denck, Balthasar Hubmaier, Langenmantel, Salminger, and many more of the so-called "spiritual reformers" readily if their writings suited the general need. No study has yet been published regarding the immense scope of this handwritten devotional material.

Devotional literature of the 17th century

Now the picture changed to a large extent. The great tide of Anabaptism receded. In Holland and northern Germany Mennonites became an increasingly settled denomination of well-to-do middle-class people, while the rural Swiss Brethren barely maintained their existence in Switzerland or the Palatinate, lacking altogether major leaders. Formalism and Pietism could not create a devotional literature of any significance. The same was true of the Hutterites, although they had at least one outstanding man, the Vorsteher Andreas Ehrenpreis (d. 1665), who gave new impulses to their weakened faith. His tract, Ein Sendbrief . . . brüderliche Gemeinschaft, das höchste Gebot der Liebe betreffend (1652), was one of the finest products of 17th-century Anabaptism (printed edition, Scottdale, 1920). The most outstanding type of religious literature of 17th-century Mennonitism was to be found in the martyr books. Building upon the great first model, Het Offer des Heeren (1562), they were more and more developed in subsequent editions by different editors and their groups, culminating finally in the outstanding work of the 17th-century Mennonites, van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror (1660). The significance of this book for Mennonites is beyond discussion, yet in the 20th century context it is a question not easily decided whether the book served primarily as a devotional reader for private edification according to the new piety, or rather as a book of examples to be emulated, such as the 16th-century pamphlets or the Hutterite Chronicle were intended to be. After all, the old spirit of the "suffering church" in a hostile world was by no means completely dead but lingered on through the centuries.

The question was not restricted to the Martyrs' Mirror. Ludwig Keller (Joh. Staupitz ... , 395) observed that the old Anabaptist tracts and epistles which had completely disappeared in the later 16th century, suddenly experienced a revival around 1610-1620. The writings of Denck, Salminger, Entfelder, Bünderlin, etc., now found new publishers and readers, and rarely did a single edition satisfy the demand. Apparently they were now read with new eyes; what once meant a confessional testimony now became an Erbauungsschrift, a book of edification, interpreted in the spirit of the new piety (namely, without the urge to follow such a concrete and often dangerous faith). The anonymously published collections of Anabaptistica, Geistliches Blumengärtlein (Amsterdam, 1680), and Güldene Aepffel in Silbern Schalen (Basel?, 1702), gave ample evidence of this new predilection for Anabaptist literature made undynamic. Gottfried Arnold's great Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historie (1699), the outstanding link between Anabaptism and Pietism, then presented large excerpts from Anabaptist sources to its pious readers.

In the Netherlands the new type of undynamic devotional literature began earlier than with Mennonites and Anabaptists anywhere else. Pieter Pietersz 1625 and J. P. Schabalie 1635 were among the first Mennonite authors who provided their church with devotional reading material of a new style. A very popular devotional "manual" was produced by T. T. van Sittert in 1664, called Glaubensbekenntnis ... , following a Prussian Mennonite model of 1660. In Hamburg, Gerhard Roosen produced around the turn of the century a most popular catechism of the Mennonites, the Christliches Gemüthsgespräch 1702, together with other devotional reading material entitled Unschuld und Gegenbericht, 1702, pleading for the complete harmlessness of the Mennonite position.

The 17th century also saw the intrusion of a large amount of non-Mennonite literature into Mennonite homes, both in the Netherlands and in Germany. From Johannes Arndt's Wahres Christentum (1605) and Paradiesgärtlein (1612) to Gottfried Arnold's Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historie (1699), a long line of (Lutheran) devotional material became more and more the favorite reading with South German and Swiss Brethren. This type of literature then increased during the 18th century when Mennonites deviated still further from their original path, opening hearts and minds to this new kind of piety of the enjoyment of one's certain salvation after having overcome sin and reached a state of sanctification.

The late 17th and 18th centuries

The late 17th and 18th centuries were characterized by a strange antagonism of rationalism (e.g., Socinianism, Arminianism, Collegiant groups) on the one side, and emotionalism (pietism, mysticism, quietism) on the other side, both. replacing the former simple but concrete Biblicism of the Brethren. The Catalogus of the [[Amsterdam Mennonite Library (Bibliotheek en Archief van de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente te Amsterdam)|Mennonite library at Amsterdam]] has a very large section on such Stichtelijke lectuur (edificatory reading), and one of the Mennonite historical libraries in the United States has considerable collections of non-Mennonite German devotional reading material collected from Mennonite homes, once eagerly read (as many signs indicate) but in the 20th century completely unknown and ignored. Hardly any work of lasting significance was produced during this period by the Swiss or South Germans, with the exception of the Ernsthafte Christenpflicht, the Palatinate prayer book of 1739. Apparently the genius of Anabaptism did not fit into this new piety, and the lack of such tradition resulted in borrowing and adjustments to something which was essentially foreign. The great Lutheran prayer book by J. F. Starck, 1727, Madame Guyon's meditations, Carl Heinrich von Bogatzky's Güldenes Schatzkästlein der Kinder Gottes, 1718 (65th edition 1904), Jung-Stilling's mystical novels, and many more such books were now found in almost every Mennonite preacher's library, not to speak of the many bulky sermon collections, Mennonite and non-Mennonite. The most remarkable non-Mennonite book, however, adopted and assimilated into an everyday devotional book (of the Amish), was the Geistliches Lustgärtlein (originating around 1770), otherwise completely unnoticed in reference works and of uncertain background. It, too, was a kind of Hortulus Animae, with an extreme moralistic first part, the Heilsame Anweisungen und Regeln eines gottseligen Lebens. Sermon collections likewise increased in size and popularity. They were read from the pulpit but also used for home devotion. Joost Hendricxs, Tieleman van Braght, Willem Wynands, Joannes Deknatel, Jakob Denner, and many more Dutch preachers competed in this prolific production with non-Mennonite authors.

The 19th and 20th centuries

The 19th and 20th centuries of European Mennonite devotional production was rather insignificant. Ellenberger's Bilder aus dem Pilgerleben (1878-1883) and Bernhard Harder's Geistliche Lieder (1888) might deserve mention (Ellenberger was a Palatinate preacher and Harder belonged to the Molotschna Mennonite Church in Russia). The main interest shifted more readily to historical studies of a pragmatic character.

Mennonites in the United States

The Mennonites in the United States were not too creative either. Bishop Henry Funk's Spiegel der Taufe (1744) and Restitution (1763) were the only new books which came out of the 18th century, while Christian Burkholder's Anrede an die Jugend (1804) and A. Godshalk's New Creature (1838) remained for a long time the only new additions to the stock of books brought over from the old countries. Reprints of all these older books occurred in due time (mainly in Pennsylvania, later in Elkhart, Indiana), but the creative inspiration of a great past had died out completely, giving way to a traditional, often dry, formalism or to a new urge for historical appreciation of the things that once had filled the forefathers with so much faith and daring.

Surveying the entire field, certain generalizations are suggested by this array of books: while the piety of the great period of the 16th-century Anabaptists and Mennonites was dominated by the principle of the "fear of God" whose Word had to be obeyed, later periods softened this attitude, replacing it more and more by the principle of "godliness" (Gottseligkeit). The stern consciousness of obedience to God ("that He might be satisfied with us")—a challenge to the world—gradually changed into a mild enjoyment of the certainty that the faithful (or reborn) one was saved and in God's grace. That is, the content of the new and individualistic piety was no longer "Anabaptist" in character. Bekenntnis-Christentum (confessional Christianity) had given way to a conventional Christianity, and the intimate brotherhood changed into a conventicle of separate individuals. The devotional literature, however, may be regarded as the true mirror of all these transitions and as an indicator of the spiritual life of the church and its members.

Sources: Most of the material discussed can be found in the Mennonite historical libraries where it found a deposit after it was no longer used by the English-speaking churches. The present article treats neither hymnals nor catechisms are treated. The original devotional literature of the Mennonites in Russia (since 1789) seems to be rather small and secondary to non-Mennonite literature used. For that reason it was left untouched in this rapid survey; P. M. Friesen's comprehensive Brüderschaft gives little information in this field. -- Robert Friedmann

1990 Article

Martyrs Mirror title page (Dutch)

The chief devotional literature of the Mennonites over the centuries has been the Bible, especially the New Testament. Another major volume has been theMartyrs' Mirror of T. J. van Braght, 1660. Previous martyr books included Het Offer des Heern, (1562) and several 17th-century martyrologies, largely by Hans de Ries (1615, 1617, 1626, and 1631). The martyr books of the Dutch Mennonites were preceded by the Swiss Brethren hymn book, the Ausbund (Selection) of 1564. Slightly earlier was the collection of eight of the best books of Menno Simons, titled according to the first book, The Foundation (1562). The faith of the Anabaptists was strengthened by reading martyr stories over and over, and by reading meditations on Christian doctrine by Menno, Dirk Philips, and others. The Martyrs Mirror has gone through many editions. Yet one other category of devotional literature must be mentioned: the Anabaptists made much use of a prayer book, the Ernsthafte Christenpflicht. Printings have been discovered of as early as 1708, and it is possible that the book appeared in the 17th century. It is certain that the Anabaptists and early Mennonites depended on prayer, the Bible, martyr stories, martyr ballads (as found in the Ausbund), and the prayer book -- although some of the prayers seem to resemble those of Pietists

The end of all this effort is to be an enlightened child of God, to think of him much, to order one's life according to his will, to engage in fervent prayer. Repentance must become a continuous attitude, one must become like Christ, one must be nonconformed to the world. Pride must be kept far away. One must enjoy a life of submission and obedience, one must quietly enjoy the freedom of the Spirit and the sense of divine sonship, one must seek to walk as a humble and faithful child of God.

Much of the devotional literature of Christendom is Roman Catholic in origin, and indeed goes back to priests and monks, although some was written by devout nuns. Among this list are the works of Augustine (354-430), especially his Confessions. Love for God and for his creation was especially strong in Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). One of the most influential pieces of literature is the anonymous Theologie Deutsch (German Theology) of the 14th century. Martin Luther was almost ecstatic when he discovered a portion of the manuscript about 1516, and he immediately had it published. Current editions follow the text of 1497 -- and they are numberless. Perhaps even more influential has been the Imitation of Christ, often ascribed to Thomas Hemerken of Kempen (1379-1471), a canon of the monastery of Mount St. Agnes near Zwolle in The Netherlands. Book One, on Christian life and character, is especially rich. The Imitation has been translated into a hundred languages and printed in 6,000 editions.

Much of the Roman Catholic devotional literature is tinged with mysticism, and some strongly so. This is not the case with the Meditation on Psalm 25 (ca. 1537) by Menno Simons of Friesland -- a book printed in Frisian as recently as 1930. Menno's Meditation is devotional literature at its best. -- John C. Wenger


Cramer, Samuel and Fredrik Pijper. Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica, 10 vols. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1903-1914: V-VII.

Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949. Part II, deals with Mennonite devotional literature 1600-1800, covering Holland, Danzig, Hamburg-Altona, Swiss Brethren, and America, with separate treatments of Mennonite prayer books and non-Mennonite devotional literature used by Mennonites.

Friedmann, Robert. "Devotional Literature of the Swiss Brethren 1600-1800." Mennonite Quarterly Review 16 (1942): 199-220. J. C. Wenger translated from this edition a number of tracts in the Mennonite Quarterly Review 1947-48

Friedmann, Robert. "Mennonite Prayer Books." Mennonite Quarterly Review 17 (1943): 179-206.

Friedmann, Robert. "Devotional Literature ... Danzig and East Prussia." Mennonite Quarterly Review 18 (1944): 162-173.

Friedmann, Robert. "Dutch Mennonite Devotional Literature from Peter Peters to Johannes Deknatel, 1625-1753." Mennonite Quarterly Review 25 (1941): 187-207.

Keller, Ludwig Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien: in ihrem Zusammenhange dargestellt. Leipzig : S. Hirzel, 1885. Keller has thoroughly studied the little-known tracts, as have Rembert, Wappler, and Rufus M. Jones after him.

Müller, Lydia ed. Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, vol. 3: Glaubenszeugnisse oberdeutscher Taufgesinnter, vol. 1, Quellen und Forschungen zur Reformationsgeschichte, 20. Leipzig, 1938.

Wiswedel, W. Bilder und Führergestalten aus dem Taufertum. Cassel, I, 1928; II, 1930; III, 1952 and many later essays also contain good material.

Devotional literature published by and for Mennonites includes the quarterly collection of daily meditations, Rejoice! still published in 2001 (Scottdale, Pa. and Newton, Kansas, USA).

See also the informative article "Erbauungsliteratur" in Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart, 2.ed., 5 vols. Tübingen: Mohr, 1927-1932..

Additional Information

Confessions of St. Augustine

Imitation of Christby Thomas a Kempis

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
John C. Wenger
Date Published 1990

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Friedmann, Robert and John C. Wenger. "Devotional Literature." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 19 Jun 2024.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert and John C. Wenger. (1990). Devotional Literature. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 46-49; vol. 5, pp. 231-232. All rights reserved.

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