Gelassenheit, self-surrender, resignation in God's will (Gottergebenheit), yieldedness to God's will, self-abandonment, the (passive) opening to God's willing, including the readiness to suffer for the sake of God, also peace and calmness of mind, in Dutch devotional literature leijdzaamheid (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1950, 22, note 17, suggests about 15 possible translations, none perfectly fitting). Only if man relinquishes his self-will may he become an instrument of God. The main Biblical locus seems to be Revelation 13:10, "Here is the patience [RSV has `endurance'] and faith of the saints," even though Gelassenheit goes further than patience and endurance.
The mystical literature of the Middle Ages abounds in the description of this quality, deemed necessary for the contemplative life. Occasionally the mystics speak here also of the "mystical death" of the self. However, mystics understand this term primarily in a passive sense, for without such passive self-abandonment the craved union with God could not be attained.
Among the "Spiritual Reformers" of the 16th century (Spiritualists) the term Gelassenheit appears again, but now with a more active connotation, closer to the divine principle of love. Rufus M. Jones recognizes here rightly a kinship to the ideas of the Quakers. It was above all Hans Denck who became a telling witness to this more positive interpretation of Gelassenheit. "If I run in the truth, that is if I run sufferingly (leidenderweis), then my running will not be in vain" (Was geredt sey, Schwindt, 34). "If man shall become one with God, he has to suffer what God intends to work in him" (Ordnung Gottes, Schwindt, 46). "There is no other way to blessedness than to lose one's selfwill" (Was geredt sey, Jones, 23).
It was most likely Denck who made this idea popular among the Anabaptists. They had good reasons to accept it: their own teaching of obedience and discipleship almost required this attitude as the precondition of a reborn soul to walk the narrow path. The idea of martyrdom becomes bearable only on such a basis of self-surrender and joyous acceptance of God's willing. Only through Gelassenheit may suffering become the royal road to God. A beautiful example for this idea may be found in Michael Sattler's wellknown letter to the brotherhood at Horb, sent out of his prison in May 1527. "In this peril I completely surrendered myself unto the will of the Lord, and ... prepared myself even for death for His testimony. [Yet] I deemed it necessary to stir you up to follow after us in the divine warfare" (quoted from Martyrs' Mirror).
Perhaps the most outspoken representatives of Gelassenheit among early Anabaptists were the Philipite Brethren in Moravia, the rival group to the Hutterites, in the 1530's. It might even be claimed that Gelassenheit in a more passive connotation of quiet acceptance of suffering for the Lord's sake was the distinguishing doctrine of this group. Their strongest leader was most likely Michael Schneider, of whom Wolkan has this to say: "[In his hymns] he is more profound [than the other brethren] ; doctrinal questions do not concern him much, the idea of discipleship, however, seems to have influenced him most. Gelassenheit fills his mind: he is ready to suffer calmly, and even in the last hour he remembers his enemies, and he prays to God for them, for the highest virtue to him is brotherly love" (Wolkan, Lieder, 36). Gelassenheit and martyrdom belong then closely together.
Out of this Philipite group came the remarkable tract Concerning the True Soldier of Christ by Hans Haffner of about 1534. Its major idea is Gelassenheit, the victory over "world, flesh and the Devil." "The world truly accepts Christ as a gift, but does not know him at all from the point of view of suffering" (leidenderweis, the same term which Denck used a few years earlier). "When we truly realize the love of God, we will be ready to give up for love's sake even what God has given us." It is by this Gelassenheit that a true disciple is first recognized. Only by overcoming all selfishness will a community of love become possible.
In continuation of such thoughts, the Hutterites made the term Gelassenheit their own in a more earthly sense: the relinquishing of one's worldly possessions, in other words "absolute personal poverty," and subsequently the sharing of all earthly goods by the entire group. In fact, thus interpreted Gelassenheit becomes a central teaching of the Hutterite brethren. The great Article Book of about 1547 and its abbreviated version, the Five Articles . , are very outspoken in this regard; e.g., the third article is entitled, Von der wahren Gelassenheit and christlichen Gemeinschaft der Güter (Geschicht-Buch, 219). The idea is repeated in numberless tracts. Here hardly any mysticism is left; Gelassenheit is rather brought into close proximity to brotherly love which, the teaching goes, requires complete communal life. That Gelassenheit as preparedness to martyrdom was not forgotten, either, can likewise be proved from Hutterite literature. The Klein-Geschichtsbuch der Hutterischen Brüder mentions Gelassenheit at seven different places, from 1529 to 1792 (see Index). On page 16, for instance, we read, "We should expect the Lord's work and Cross daily, as we have surrendered unto His discipline (Zucht) and have agreed (verwilligt) to accept whatever He may send upon us with thanksgiving, and to bear it with patience" (1529).
Naturally also the Martyrs' Mirror of 1660 abounds in quotations indicative of this basic attitude of the Anabaptists. A particularly fine example of it is contained in a letter which the brother Hans van Overdam wrote from his prison to the authorities of Ghent in 1550. "We would rather through the grace of God suffer our temporal bodies to be burned, drowned, racked, or tortured, as it may seem good to you, or be scourged, banished, or driven away, or robbed of our goods, than to show any obedience contrary to the word of God, and we will be patient therein, committing vengeance to God, for we know that He says vengeance belongeth to me, I will recompense." Orley Swartzentruber, who quotes this passage (Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1954, 139), calls this attitude "eschatological patience," that is, a patience born of an eschatological hope and expectation. This attitude, he thinks, belongs to the eschatological idea of the kingdom of God, which is "near" both in time and in spirit.
It would not be difficult to multiply these quotations from all branches of the Anabaptist movement. Actually the entire tract of Menno Simons, "The Cross of Christ" (1555, new Eng. ed. 1946), is basically nothing but an elaborate meditation on the virtue of leijdzaamheid.
In the period of Pietism the term Gelassenheit assumes again a new meaning, somewhat nearer to the mystical concept than to the Anabaptist interpretation. J. von Lodenstein and Gerhard Tersteegen are particularly fond of the term which now means the unperturbed calmness of the soul (Seelenfrieden) in the contemplation of divine grace. This new interpretation is definitely quietistic, but as such an element of genuine piety. The "Stillen im Lande" practice Gelassenheit, that is, aloofness from the turmoil of life and strife. The world is left to itself, and all activism, i.e., the application of love to the shaping of life, becomes reduced to a mild morality. Suffering is now understood sentimentally, but a certain longing toward unity with the Divine somehow recalls the outlook of the medieval mystics. In England, the Quakers continue the line of the "Spiritual Reformers," approximating the idea of Gelassenheit with their term "opening of the mind."
Present-day Mennonitism has lost the idea of Gelassenheit nearly completely; yet with the recovery of the ideal of discipleship also Gelassenheit may be revived. R.F.
"Gelassenheit" in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart. II, 2. Aufl. Tübingen, 1927-1932: 968-70.
Friedmann, Robert. "Concerning the True Soldier of Christ." Mennonite Quarterly Review (1931): 91 ff.
Friedmann, Robert. "Anabaptism and Protestantism." Mennonite Quarterly Review (1950): 22-24.
Jones, Rufus M. Spiritual Reformers of the Sixteenth Century. London, 1914: 19-28.
Schwindt, A. M. Hans Denck. Schlachtern, c. 1922.
Wolkan, Rudolf. Die Lieder der Wiedertäufer. Berlin, 1903.
Wolkan, Rudolf. Geschicht-Buch der Hutterischen Brüder. Macleod, AB and Vienna, 1923.
Zieglschmid, A. J. F. Das Klein-Geschichtsbuch der Hutterischen Brüder. Philadelphia, 1947.
Swartzentruber, Orley. "Piety and Theology of the Anabaptist Martyrs in Van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror." Mennonite Quarterly Review (1954): 1, 2.
Cite This Article
Friedmann, Robert. "Gelassenheit." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 4 Aug 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Gelassenheit&oldid=162946.
Friedmann, Robert. (1955). Gelassenheit. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 4 August 2020, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Gelassenheit&oldid=162946.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 448-449. All rights reserved.
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