East Friesland (Niedersachsen, Germany)

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Flag and Emblem of East Friesland
Source: Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

East Friesland (Ostfriesland), also known as East Frisia, Germany, made a principality on 22 April 1654, became Prussian in 1744, Dutch in 1807, French in 1810, a part of Hannover in 1815, and Prussian again in 1866. It is now a region in Lower Saxony. The government seat was located at Aurich. East Friesland has played a significant role in the history of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in Northwest Europe.

The East Frisian historian Eggerick Beningha reports in his Chronyk (p. 652) that Anabaptists appeared in East Friesland in 1528 for the first time. This statement has been repeated many times, but specific information about who these Anabaptists were and where they appeared is lacking. Count Enno wrote to Philip of Hesse in 1530 that there had been unbaptized children in East Friesland for five years (Cornelius, Anteil Ostfrieslands, p. 20), and Gründlicher wahrhafftiger Bericht (p. 21) speaks of followers of Müntzer who found refuge in East Friesland. On 19 January 1530, before Melchior Hoffman baptized in Emden, the counts Enno and Johann published the Edict of Speyer banning all Anabaptists from their territory. The first Kirchenordnung presented in 1529 strongly emphasized infant baptism.

As long as specific information as to sources, contents, and proponents of these views is lacking, it is questionable whether they can be called Anabaptist. Warnings against Anabaptism may simply be an echo from Wittenberg or may refer to views held by Karlstadt, who indeed had followers in East Friesland. There is no record available to prove that believers' baptism was practiced in East Friesland prior to the coming of Melchior Hoffman from Strasbourg in 1530, where he had joined the Anabaptists. Everything preceding this must be considered as premonitory of coming Anabaptism. On the other hand, Melchior Hoffman did not bring much that was new to East Friesland and the Low Countries except the seal of the Covenant, believers' baptism.

The success of Hoffman and the rapid spread of the early Anabaptist movement in East Friesland, its survival and later cultural contribution are due to factors unique to the country and its Reformatory movement in general. Culturally and politically it had close ties with the provinces of the Low Countries, particularly Groningen. The Brethren of the Common Life and Humanism (Georg Aportanus, Johann Wessel Gansfoort, Wilhelm Gnapheus) also paved the way for the Reformation. Friesland was ready to accept the light coming from Wittenberg, was in touch with Strasbourg and Zürich, and developed a Sacramentist movement similar to that in Holland, but was in all matters quite independent in accordance with the Frisian national characteristic. The chief promoters of the Reformation here were Edzard I (1491-1528), Ulrich van Dornum, and Hicco van Oldersum. Aportanus of Zwolle, the tutor of Edzard's three sons, publicly preached "the new Gospel" in the Grosse Kirche of Emden, and Ulrich van Dornum sponsored a Catholic-Evangelical disputation at Oldersum in 1526, sheltered Karlstadt and Melchior Hoffman in 1529 (both dedicated books to him and he had his printed in Wittenberg), and was in touch with Sebastian Franck. This indicates somewhat the scope and nature of the original Reformatory movement in East Friesland. One of the most significant factors, however, of the later development was the great influx of Dutch refugees in the days of the Inquisition. Among them was Hinne Rode, who introduced the Reformation in Norden. Until the death of Edzard I the Reformatory movement of East Friesland showed little of the characteristics of "Lutheranism" and "Zwinglianism," but was rather of a Sacramentist nature, to Luther's great disgust. It was in this atmosphere that Karlstadt, Hoffman, and Franck found a hearing. In these crucial days young Enno II (leaning toward Lutheranism) saw the Spiritualist-Sacramentist forces come to the foreground which likely caused him to publish the Edict of Speyer on 19 January 1530. On 25 March 1530 he reported to Philip of Hesse that his ministers held Sacramentist views and denied its sacramental character; some advocated baptism at the age of 33, not having had their children baptized for the last five years (Cornelius, 58).

Thus when Melchior Hoffman appeared in East Friesland in May 1530, this time coming as an Anabaptist evangelist, he found the soil well prepared. Contrary to his first visit he could now appear publicly. Even the doors of the Grosse Kirche of Emden were opened to him and he is said to have baptized some 300 persons there, both "burgher and peasant, lord and servant." This bold act can be explained only by the assumption that he had followers in leading circles, including the ministry (Kochs, Reformation III, 74). That Count Enno was moved to tears by Hoffman's deliberations is likely a fable. Whether Hoffman voluntarily left East Friesland or was compelled to do so is not definitely known; in any event he went to Strasbourg in October, unfortunately leaving no able leader behind.

This was the origin not only of the Anabaptist movement in East Friesland but in Northwest Europe in general. From here it spread in all directions and to this place Anabaptist refugees returned for protection in spite of mandates issued against them. Although they did not achieve numbers and strength to compete successfully with the Lutherans and Zwinglians, they greatly benefited from the rivalry between them. From Emden Jan Volkertszoon Trypmaker took the message to the Low Countries. Thousands of Anabaptist refugees from Antwerp to Friesland, among whom were Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Leenaert Bouwens, and Hans de Ries, and even extreme mystics like David Joris and Hendrik Niclaes, found a haven there.

In 1534-1535 Enno II issued warnings against the Melchiorites, which apparently had little effect. After his death his widow, Anna of Oldenburg (1540-1562), called on John a Lasco to complete the Reformation and organize the church. Under pressure of the imperial government Anna issued decrees against the Anabaptists which through the mediation of a Lasco were applied primarily against David Joris and his following. With Menno Simons he had a public discussion in January 1544, hoping to win him. During the same year Menno left East Friesland and the following year Countess Anna stated that those "Mennisten" who were not willing to accept the instruction of her ministers were to leave the country.

The extent of the movement during the 16th century can be estimated to some degree by the number of individuals baptized by Leenaert Bouwens, who kept a record for the years 1551-1582, which lists over 600 persons baptized in East Friesland, over 400 of whom were living in Emden and vicinity. It is likely that many of them were the second generation of refugees from the Netherlands. If the other elders mentioned were only partly as successful, the total number of Anabaptists of East Friesland during the 16th century could easily have been several thousand. The fact that the ministers and church councils of the Reformation churches were so alarmed about the spread of the Mennonites is also an indication that they must have been numerous. In addition to those baptized in Friesland the Dutch Anabaptists continued to pour in throughout the 16th century. It is interesting to note that there was little change in the location of the Mennonites during the 16th century as found in Leenaert Bouwens' list of baptismal candidates and those lists compiled by the government to solicit payment (Schutzgeld) during the 17th century. They were living in Leer, along the Ems River, in Emden, in the Greetmer Amt between Emden and Norden, and in Norden and the rural area north of it. It is likely that their services as experts in draining the land were appreciated and for generations they were welcome renters on the estates of the nobility. Thus the Mennonites were mostly located in the western part of East Friesland including the area of Aurich. However, at least one settlement of Mennonites was already located in the east on the estates of Freitag at Gödens near Neustadt in the days of Leenaert Bouwens, where he baptized 20 persons.

In 1954 there was hardly a Mennonite located on a farm. Not only were they mostly urban, but their number had shrunk considerably (the total, including children, was about 500). No scholarly research had been made by the mid-20th century about the socio-economic changes and contributions of the East Friesland Mennonites similar to those of Hamburg and Krefeld, with the exception of the part played by the Mennonites in the linen industry of Leer. It can be assumed that the constant pressure, restrictions, and high payments (Schutzgeld) which were extracted from them for centuries and the decrease in vigor and vision within their ranks caused many to escape the stigma by joining the Reformed and Lutheran churches to acquire equality and full citizenship. The cultural and economic contributions of a number of prosperous families in Emden, Norden, and Leer were outstanding and have been sketched by Abram Fast (Die Kulturleistungen).

The manifold divisions among the Mennonites of the Low Countries during the 16th century were also transplanted to East Friesland, including the Flemish, the Old Flemish (Ukowallists), the Frisian, and the Waterlanders. During the 17th century the lists referred to above, however, speak only of two groups—the Mennonites and the Uckowallists. Some of the significant Anabaptist meetings of elders during the 16th century, at which far-reaching decisions were made, were held at Emden. In 1547 nearly all elders of the Low Countries met there to discuss matters pertaining to discipline, and in 1568 the Waterlanders met there to draw up 16 articles pertaining to their congregations and ministers. In 1578 the Flemish and Frisians met at Emden to discuss matters pertaining to a pending union. Nikolaas Biestkens van Diest, the well-known Mennonite publisher, here produced Bibles, New Testaments, and the songbook Het Offer des Heeren, through which he greatly helped to spread the movement. Some of the numerous disputations between the Anabaptists and the churches of the Reformation took place in East Friesland. In 1544 Menno and a Lasco held their discussion in Emden. In 1556 there was a similar discussion between the Mennonites and their opponents at Norden and in 1578 the better known disputation of 27 February-17 May took place at Emden. In addition to John a Lasco, Gellius Faber, Marten Micron, Menso Alting, all of whom tried to "win" the Mennonites, although not so vehemently as Luther and his co-workers, there were the following less known representatives: Georg Aportanus (Emden), Hermanus Aquilomontanus (Oldersum) (whose letters to Heinrich Bullinger throw significant light on the early development of the Anabaptist movement and have not yet been made use of), Johann Oldeguil (Emden), Gerhardus Nikolai (Norden), and Bernhardus Buwo (Eilsum). Nikolai translated Bullinger's Adversus anabaptistas and Buwo published a Dialogus . . . (1563) against the Anabaptists, which is, considering the age, exceptionally tolerant. Ubbo Emmius wrote against David Joris. The Reformers of Bremen and Lüneburg, i.e., Bugenhagen and Luther and their followers, and the Strasbourg Reformers, i.e., Bucer and Capito, as well as Zwingli, not to speak of the Catholic and imperial forces, tried to shape or influence the future of the Reformation in East Friesland. Had it not been for Edzard I, who refused to follow the example of many Reformation-minded rulers of his day, i.e., to reform his country from above (cujus regio, ejus religio), and who let the Reformation take its own course in East Friesland by giving it gentle and wise direction, its fate would have been different. Because of this independent attitude East Friesland became the haven of the greatest variety of factions who had fled from many places because of their convictions. Even a survivor of the Münsterite kingdom, Hinrich Krechting, became a respected citizen in Neustadt-Gödens.

The question as to what percentage of the Reformation-minded forces and the Anabaptists came from the Low Countries and other places has not been investigated. Neither is it known to what an extent East Friesland served as a temporary shelter whence they proceeded to other places. That this was the case is established. Many Anabaptists must have returned to the Netherlands after the Catholic authorities had been overthrown. Others had already gone east to Schleswig-Holstein, among them Menno, and to the Vistula region. How long this process continued and the relationship between the homeland and the daughter settlements has not been studied. The culture and language, particularly in worship, in the "church of strangers" remained Dutch until the middle of the 19th century. However, little was published after the 16th century. The congregations obtained their ministers from Holland and were members of the various Dutch Mennonite organizations, including the Algemene Doopsgezinde Sociëteit, of which they were still members in 1954. After World War I the remaining congregations—Emden, Leer, and Norden—were served by one German minister. Among the outstanding leaders of the early days were Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Leenaert Bouwens, Hans de Ries, and Uko Walles, and many others resided and worked here for longer or shorter periods. A list of elders and preachers of the Old Flemish wing from 1640 to 1750 (Doopsgezinde Bijdragen 1879, 7-8) names 7 for Emden, 5 for Leer, 7 for Neustadt-Gödens, 3 for Norden, and 1 for Oldersum. The Oldersum congregation must have died out soon after this report; the Neustadt-Gödens congregation was discontinued during the 19th century.

The successors of Edzard I, with the exception of Anna van Oldenburg, 1540-1562, did not all follow the example of their great ancestor regarding the Reformation and basic principles of tolerance. Edzard II, 1562-1599, under whom the Emden Disputation of 1578 took place, and Enno III, 1599-1625, issued severe edicts against the Mennonites. Rudolf Christian, 1625-1628, issued a Schutzbrief (guarantee of protection) for the Mennonites on 26 May 1626, granting them limited religious freedom for the payment of a certain amount per family, thereby setting the pattern for his successors until East Friesland became Prussian in 1744. At this time the Mennonite church at Emden was exempted from all special payments. Step by step the congregations had to struggle to gain full liberty and equality as citizens and congregations, a status which was not fully attained until the Revolution of 1918. The German constitution of 1919 made provision for complete equality. Meanwhile the principle of nonresistance, not the refusal to swear an oath, had been given up.

Not only did the government extract large sums annually under the pretext of granting an "intolerable" religious group a letter of protection, which was usually issued to "Jews, Mennonites, and Ukowallists," but also the ministers, particularly of the Lutheran church at Norden, joined in the extortion by demanding of the Mennonites taxes for the upkeep of their churches and fees for services such as funerals which they did not conduct. Weary of this situation, the Mennonites of Norden petitioned the government in 1821-1822 to be admitted to take part in the public affairs of the city and the country, particularly in view of the fact that though they constituted only four per cent of the population, they contributed one eighth of the revenue of the city. This was achieved only through a long struggle. Not until 1892 were they exempted from paying contributions to the state church. (A detailed account of the struggle with the state is to be found in the article "Ostfriesland," Mennonitisches Lexikon III, 319-321.)

In modern times (since 1700) there have been only four Mennonite congregations in East Friesland: Emden, Leer, and Norden, which are still in existence, and Neustadt-Goedens, which died out about the mid-19th century (in 1840 it had 10 members). The membership of the three surviving congregations has been recorded as follows: 1888 total 298 (Emden 81, Leer 52, Norden 165); 1940 total 300 (Emden 200, Leer 20, Norden 80); 1954 total 373 (Emden 218, Leer 40, Norden 115). The 1954 figures include some Danzig area refugees.

For additional information on East Friesland see the articles Aurich, Emden, Leer, Neustadt-Goedens, Norden, Oldersum, Menno Simons, Melchior Hoffman .


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Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Date Published 1955

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MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius. "East Friesland (Niedersachsen, Germany)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 30 Jul 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=East_Friesland_(Niedersachsen,_Germany)&oldid=146408.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius. (1955). East Friesland (Niedersachsen, Germany). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 30 July 2021, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=East_Friesland_(Niedersachsen,_Germany)&oldid=146408.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 119-122. All rights reserved.

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