Hymnology of the Mennonites of West and East Prussia, Danzig, and Russia

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In an article entitled "Die Entwicklung des Gemeindegesanges in unsern westpreussischen Gemeinden" (Menn. Bl., April 1931) Abraham Driedger quotes a Danzig Mennonite chronicle for 1780, "In our meetings especially during the past century (17th) there was no singing." Although there were reasons in the days of the "hidden church" for not being too vocal in praising God in order not to attract too much attention to forbidden meetings, the above statement is obviously an exaggeration. The same article states that Hartwich is given credit for the information that the "fine" Mennonites did not sing in their meetings around 1700, while the "coarse" sang "Psalms and other Lutheran songs." This could indicate that the more conservative had some objections to singing in worship. It is also possible that the silence imposed earlier had become a sort of principle.

The same article, however, says that the Mennonites of the Vistula area used Carel van Mander's songbook, entitled De Gulden Harpe, published in 1626, which had as an appendix Bethlehem, Dat is het Broodhuys.... It is possible that this book was in use even before this time. It appeared in Holland first in 1599. Another source takes us even further back. In the list of Georg Hansen's Danzig Mennonite elders and ministers appended to the Danzig Mennonite Church Record, 1667-1836, there is a note in connection with one of its first elders, Giesbrecht Franssen, which reports that he died in 1607 "as it is stated in a hymn written in his memory which appears on page 139 of the Jacob Jacobsz Liedeboek and page 116 in the second part." This indicates that Dutch Mennonite hymnbooks were in use in the Danzig Mennonite Church around 1600.

This is very likely the same Liedt-boeck referred to by Hansen which he names the Jacob Jacobsz Liedeboek, which likely was printed in Danzig or for the Danzig congregation. Jacob Jacobsz was elected deacon of the Danzig Mennonite Church in 1606, minister in 1611, and elder in 1640, and died in 1648. In his article Gesangbucher (ML II, 88), Neff speaks of three editions of the Pruys Liedt-boeck. The first one, dated Alkmaer, 1604, by J. J., could be the edition quoted above; the second appeared at Alkmaer in 1607 by S. H., and the third one by H. v.D. (Danzig) without date. Unfortunately Neff does not give his source of information.

6th edition of the Marienwerder hymnbook.
Source: Conrad Grebel University College Library

In his book, Das Siedlungswerk Niederländischer Mennoniten im Weichseltal (Marburg, 1952), Herbert Wiebe reproduces the title page of Sommigh Leerachtige Gheestelijcke Liedekens published at Haarlem by Hans Passchiers van Wesbusch in 1638. A copy of this book was present at Montau. Further investigation, although most of the sources have been destroyed or are not accessible, would doubtless produce further evidence that the Prussian Mennonites used the hymnbooks of their Dutch home congregations from the early days of their settlement along the Vistula until the end of the 18th century. A thorough investigation of the hymnology and the role which singing played among the early Prussian Mennonites has never been made.

In 1724 the Prussian Mennonites ordered a print of Veelderhande Schriftuurlijke Liedekens Gemaakt uyt het Oude en Nieuwe Testament, zoo als voor desen in Druk (in verscheyde Boeken) geweest zyn. Beneffens nog eenige, die voor deen nooit in Druk geweest zyn. Nu weer op een nieuw te samen gestelt, om in de vergaderinge der Gelovigen te zingen (Amsterdam, 1724). In the preface the publishers state: "The reason which caused us to print this book is not that we do not have enough hymnbooks, but it is because of the convenience. Since various books had to be used it was inconvenient to carry them in a pocket." This would indicate that the Mennonites of Prussia at that time were using several hymnbooks and that they solved this problem and arrived at a unification by selecting from the various books those most frequently used, which they compiled in Veelderhande Schriftuurlijke Liedekens. Under this title (without the "Schriftuurlijke") Nicolaas Biestkens had published a hymnbook in 1560, numerous editions of which appeared in the century and a half following. In 1700 this hymnbook was published at Groningen by Berent Taeitsma, reduced to pocket size, many hymns having been dropped, while others never printed before were added. Some lines were adjusted to the music. The Prussian edition of 1724, printed at Amsterdam, was a reprint of this revised edition of 1700. A second edition was published at Amsterdam in 1752 for the Prussian Mennonites. The editors and publishers state in the preface that the edition of 1724 had been printed in haste, omitting the melody for a number of hymns, and that it was now exhausted. In the new edition they added some melodies in use in their surrounding German communities, omitted some hymns because the melodies were little known, and included other hymns in use, adding an appendix of 14 or 15 hymns. The hymns were arranged, not alphabetically as formerly, but according to topics. The edition consisted of 3,000 copies.

At the middle of the 18th century the change from the Dutch to the German language among the Danzig and Prussian Mennonites was nearly completed. The Dutch Biestkens Bible imported from Holland was replaced by the German Lutheran translation. In the Danzig Mennonite Church Record, 1667-1836, the change from the Dutch to the German language occurs in all entries consistently in 1784. The first German sermon was preached in the Danzig Mennonite Church in 1762, and by 1777 the change was almost complete (Mannhardt, 107). At this time the Dutch hymnbook was replaced by a German hymnal entitled Geistreiches Gesangbuch, zur öffentlichen und besonderen Erbauung der Mennoniten Gemeinde in und vor der Stadt Danzig (Marienwerder, 1780). In the preface the elders, ministers, and deacons state that the book was to a large extent the work of the late Elder Hans van Steen, assisted by Peter Tiessen, Jacob de Veer, and Hans Momber, the latter two furnishing a considerable number of hymns which they had written. Few of the hymns of the Dutch hymnbooks in use, if any, were translated. The editors selected from non-Mennonite hymnals "songs which in doctrine agreed with our faith and if this was not the case they were altered or abbreviated" (Foreword, p. 3). The book consisted of 620 songs and index, an appendix with prayers and another appendix of hymns. J. J. Kanter, Marienwerder, printed 2,000 copies.

In 1851 the Danzig Mennonite Church decided to publish a new hymnbook, prepared by a commission of eight assisting the pastor J. Mannhardt and his ministerial assistant, H. A. Neufeldt. It appeared in 1854 printed by Edwin Greening, Danzig, entitled Gesangbuch zur kirchlichen und häuslichen Erbauung. Für Mennoniten Gemeinden, containing 703 hymns, an appendix of prayers, biographical sketches of the hymn writers, an index of the hymns, and selected Scripture passages. In 1908 a revised edition was prepared by the pastor of the congregation, H. G. Mannhardt, who reduced the number of hymns from 703 to 445, of which approximately 100 were new. It appeared under the same title in 1908 at A. W. Kafemann, Danzig, and again in 1926. The appendix contained prayers and an index.

Even before the Danzig Mennonites published the German hymnal, the Prussian Mennonite congregations changed from Dutch to German, replacing the Pruys Lied-Boeck of 1752 by introducing the German Geistreiches Gesangbuch, worinn eine Sammlung aus denen 150 Psalmen Davids, und auserlesenen alten und neuen Liedern zu finden ist, zur allgemeinen Erbauung und zum Lobe Gottes herausgegeben, printed at Königsberg in 1767 (reprints 1775, 1784, 1794, 1803, 1819, 1829, 1835, 1838, 1843, and 1844, 1845, 1864). The fact that the Heubuden Mennonite Church in 1945 still had copies of the Dutch hymnal of 1752 indicates that the change from Dutch to German came so rapidly that they did not even wait until the old hymnbooks were worn out. In the preface to the German hymnal the editors state, "In order to satisfy the longing [for High German hymns] we have decided to publish the 150 Psalms in a well-known German version, as well as 500 spiritual songs. In this collection there are not only many known Dutch hymns translated into the German, but also many from the Halle, Stargard, Quandt, and Rogall hymnbooks, to which have been added some never printed before." The book contains 505 hymns and 150 Psalms.

Under the influence of the Dutch Reformed tradition the Mennonites of Holland and Prussia used rhymed Psalms for worship purposes. Hartwich (Menn. Bl., April 1931, p. 31) reports that at the turn of the century Psalms were in use among the Mennonites of Prussia. They were Dutch in the version of Dathenus, which were later replaced by the Lobwasser German version of the Psalms. However, the use of the Psalms gradually disappeared, likely under the influences of the surrounding Lutheran population. The second edition of the above hymnal carried only those Psalms which were actually used at that time, but the editor still felt it necessary to apologize for not including all of them. This edition had a preface by G. W. and was printed by D. Chr. Kanter, Königsberg, 1775. The fifth edition (Marienwerder, 1803) has the changed title, Gesangbuch worinn eine Sammlung alter und neuer Lieder zum gottesdienstlichen Gebrauch und zur allgemeinen Erbauung herausgegeben. The editor, signing himself P. S., states that the remaining 58 Psalms had been dropped and that a third appendix of hymns was added, making a total of 545. The sixth edition (Marienwerder, 1819), with the preface signed by J. A., containing 550 hymns, adds another part (Zweiter Theil), making a total of 725 hymns. In the preface to the seventh edition (Elbing, 1829) J. W. states that the second part had been omitted (there are copies with it). In 1835 appeared a "Neue Auflage mit der Siebenten übereinstimmend," printed by Lohde at Thorn and Culm without preface, which also contains the Zweiter Theil. The eighth edition (Marienburg, 1838) reprints the preface to the first edition with a brief additional statement that this was requested, and omits the second part. The ninth edition (Elbing, 1843) retains the first preface, but adds again the Zweiter Theil, while a Graudenz edition of 1845, called "Achte Auflage," reprints the preface of the sixth edition without the Zweiter Theil. In 1864 the tenth edition appeared in Danzig printed by Edwin Groening, with a special preface stating that there was a plan under way to publish a new hymnbook, but since it was not ready and there was a need for some copies an edition of 1,000 was being printed. This was the last Prussian edition of the Gesangbuch which since 1818 (sixth ed.) carried the title, Gesangbuch worin eine Sammlung geistreicher Lieder befindlich.

Gesangbuch, 4th Odessa edition.
Source: Conrad Grebel University College Library

The Mennonites of Russia had been using this Gesangbuch since their settlement in the Ukraine. In 1844 they reprinted it in Odessa, calling it the tenth edition and the first in Russia. They added the Zweiter Theil, reprinted the preface of the sixth and added their own, signed by B. F. It consisted of 3,000 copies. In 1854 a second edition appeared and in 1859 a third, both printed in Odessa. The preface of the latter states that a total of 15,400 copies bad been printed in Russia since 1844. The fourth edition (Odessa, 1867) had a dedicatory poem instead of a special preface. It was followed by undated fifth and sixth editions printed in Leipzig, while the seventh, also undated and printed in Leipzig, was distributed by Jacob Lötkemann, Halbstadt.

At the time when the Mennonites of Russia were about ready to prepare another hymnal the immigrants of 1874 ff. from Russia to the prairie states and Manitoba took with them the old Gesangbuch which had originated in Prussia. The first American edition appeared in 1880 under the following title: Gesangbuch worin eine Sammlung geistlicher Lieder zur Allgemeinen Erbauung und zum Lobe Gottes., being marked as "Erste Arnerikanische Ausgabe." It was followed by a second in 1884, a third (1889, when "worin" was dropped from the title), and further editions (1895, 1903, 1907, 1912, and 1918), all published by the Mennonitisches Verlagshandlung at Elkhart, Indiana. Editions were published in 1926 and 1937 (durchgesehene amerikanische Ausgabe) by the Mennonite Publishing House at Scottdale, Pennsylvania. When the Old Colony Mennonites went to Mexico in 1922 they took this book along as their hymnbook, and there at Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua published two editions (1940, 1943). Three further editions for Mexico appeared at Scottdale (1944, 1949, 1954). The five editions published in Scottdale resulted in a total printing of 32,000 copies. This book is still the hymnal of the Old Colony and Sommerfelder groups in Canada and Mexico.

The bibliographical history of the Geistreiches Gesangbuch, tracing it back to its first appearance in the German form and its Dutch predecessor as Veelherhande Liedekens to the Reformation in Holland, has been sketched in the preceding paragraphs; however, the extent to which the content of the hymns and its theology and spirit were retained has not been investigated. It is apparent that the Gesangbuch deserves as much attention along these lines as the Ausbund of the Swiss tradition.

A special hymnbook commission of the General Conference of Mennonite congregations in Russia prepared a new book which appeared under the title Gesangbuch zum gottesdienstlichen und häuslichen Gebrauch in den Mennoniten-Gemeinden Russlands, printed by P. Neufeld, Neu-Halbstadt, 1892. The editors state that they have printed many of the hymns from the former Gesangbuch, but have added a considerable number. The total of hymns was 725. The next edition was printed in Odessa in 1896 and distributed by David Epp, Chortitza. The fourth edition was printed and published with a brief additional preface by Peter Neufeld, Halbstadt 1903, in a smaller format, and by H. Braun, Neu-Halbstadt 1904, in a larger format. The fifth edition appeared in 1914, published by A. J. Unruh, Tiege; H. Braun, Halbstadt; and H. Born, Chortitza, in an edition of a smaller format with a special preface. The Mennonites migrating to Canada after World War I reprinted the songbook in 1929 in Germany, without a preface, stating that this was the fifth edition.

By 1865 the Prussian Mennonites felt that their old Gesangbuch was not quite meeting the needs of the day. A special commission was charged with the responsibility of preparing a new hymnbook, which appeared at Danzig in 1869 under the title Gesangbuch für Mennoniten-Gemeinden in Kirche und Haus. The second edition (Danzig, 1873) followed without change. The book consisted of 700 hymns with the traditional collection of prayers and an index of hymns and melodies. The fourth edition (1901) with the special preface contained 35 additional religious folk songs and Psalms from the Prussian Mennonite Choralbuch which had been published in 1898. Forty new melodies were added in the enlarged edition. Its preface shows that the new Gesangbuch had not only found acceptance among the Mennonites of Prussia, but that it was also used in Russia and America. The first three editions consisted of 8,000 copies, the fourth and fifth (Elbing, 1922) of 6,000.

The chief compilers and distributors of Mennonite hymnbooks in Danzig, Prussia, Poland, and Russia were originally the congregation of Danzig and the congregations of West Prussia, the hymnal of the latter being the most widely used. The Mennonites of Poland and Austria seem never to have printed their own hymnal, but relied on the Prussian hymnbook, as the Mennonites of Russia had in the early days. The Mennonites of the Samara and Trakt settlements in Russia probably used either the Prussian or the Russian songbook; although there exists a collection of hymns under the title, 120 Kirchenlieder zum Gebrauch in mennonitischen Schulen (Köppenthal, 1876), with ciphers, for use by the Mennonites of the Trakt settlement. As early as 1859 Elder David Hamm had a Choral-Buch für den Kirchen-Gesang der Mennoniten-Gemeinde an der Wolga printed in Danzig with ciphers, to be used in their congregational singing.

One of the best-known religious poets of the Mennonites of Russia was Bernhard Harder, whose Geistliche Lieder und Gelegenheitsgedichte were edited by Heinrich Franz, Sr., and published in 1880 (1,208 pp.), from which Peter Harder, a son of the author, selected some songs for a publication entitled Kleines Liederbuch. Geistliche Gelegenheitslieder, published by J. Friesen (Tiege, 1902.)

The Mennonite Brethren of Russia originally used T. Köbner's Glaubensstimme, the German Baptist hymnal. Since 1890 they also used Heimatklänge, and also Frohe Botschaft and Evangeliumslieder, both by E. Gebhardt, as well as the Zionslieder and others. Heimatklänge, first published in Russia for the Mennonites by Isaak Born at Halbstadt, was taken over in 1903 by the Raduga Publishing House of Halbstadt. Seven editions appeared in Russia, after which A. Kroeker published the eighth revised edition in America, in the year 1924, which was followed by a second one (1939?) with notes. In Russia as well as in Canada the three hymnals, Heimatklänge, Glaubensstimme, and Frohe Botshalt, were often bound together in one volume, mostly without notes. J. Ewert transcribed the notes of the melodies to Gebhardt's Frohe Botschaft into ciphers, which were published in Die Melodien der Frohen Botschaft (Gnadenfeld, 1884). Born published a monthly periodical with songs with notes for use in Mennonite homes and congregations.

Example of cipher musical notation (ziffersystem) in Liederperlen, published by Isaak Born, 1903
Source: CGC Library

In addition to the regular hymnals, from time to time other aids for singing have been in use in Mennonite congregations, homes, and communities. The Choralbuch (first edition 1898 in West Prussia, reprinted in 1935) was in use in various forms by the Mennonites of Prussia, Russia, and America. The Bethel College Historical Library has many dozens of handwritten songbooks with ciphers which were used by the Mennonites of Russia and in the early days in America. Interestingly a little booklet of hymn texts was printed to accompany the appendix to the West Prussian Choralbuch of 1898, and was reprinted three times, 1903, 1922, 1929, with the title Texte der geistlichen Volkslieder und Chorgesänge im Anhange des Mennonitischen Choralbuchs, with hymn texts numbered 703 to 742. Wilhelm Neufeld (and K.W.) edited Choralbuch, dem neuen mennonitischen Gesangbuche entsprechend, zum Gebrauch in Kirche, Schule und Haus (Neuhalbstadt, 1897).

In the days of persecution and martyrdom the experiences, faith, steadfastness, and suffering of the Anabaptists were recorded in the form of poems and found their way into early hymnals. This practice of recording the life, work, and faith of outstanding leaders was continued even in more peaceful times. Such a poem written at the close of a life would sometimes be sung as a hymn at the funeral. It has already been pointed out that the life of Giesbrecht Franssen was narrated in a song which was printed in the Jacob Jacobsz Liedeboek. This practice was continued among the Mennonites of Prussia. For example, when Hans van Steen, a well-known elder, died, his life and activities were commemorated in a song written for the occasion. Poems were sung to known melodies and were written for various anniversaries such as silver weddings, anniversaries of ministers, etc. Later in many cases familiar hymns were printed for the occasion. Numerous copies have been preserved in the Bethel College Historical Library. The West Prussian Mennonite congregations also had smaller songbooks for special occasions, for example: Einige Trauungs- und Begräbniss-Gesänge von alten und neuen Liedern, die von mehreren Autoren zusammengesetzt und auf verchiedene Fälle zu einem gottgeheiligten Singen gewidmet sind (Elbing, 1842), with 43 hymns; Christliche Trauungs- und Begräbniss-Gesänge nebst Tisch und andern geistlichen Liedern. Zum Gebrauch in Mennoniten-gemeinden besonders derer in Preussen und Russland. Vermehrte und veränderte Auflage (Danzig, 1888), with 83 hymns; Lieder zum Gebrauch für Missionsgottesdienste (Heubuden, 1896), with 85 hymns; Sammlung christlicher Verlobungs- Trauungs-, Jubliäumsund Begräbnis-Gesänge (Elbing, 1908); and Vierundneunzig Lieder für Missionsgottesdienste. It is possible that many of them were in general use and not always specifically printed for the Mennonite congregations. They evidently were needed to fill in gaps in the standard hymnals. No comparable Mennonite publications appeared in America, but Der Sänger am Grabe (Philadelphia) was popular among the Franconia Mennonites through the second half of the 19th century.

"A frequency list of hymns in Mennonite hymn books" compiled by Walter H. Hohmann shows that the following hymns appear in at least 15 Mennonite hymnbooks out of 24 including all German hymnals in Europe and North America. This gives us an indication as to which of the hymns have been most commonly used among the Mennonites in various countries in a period of over two centuries. They are "Ach bleib' mit Deiner Gnade"; "Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr'"; "Aus tiefer Not schrei' ich zu Dir"; "Befiehl du deine Wege"; "Es ist gewisslich an der Zeit"; "Gott des Himmels und der Erden"; "Herr Jesu Christ, Dich zu uns wend'"; "Komm, o komm, Du Geist"; "Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier"; "Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König"; "Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit"; "Mir nach, spricht Christus, unser Held"; "Nun danket alle Gott"; "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme"; "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan"; "Werde munter, mein Gemüte"; "Wie schon leucht't uns der Morgenstern" (Outlines in Hymnology, 53 ff.).

The hymnbooks of the Prusso-Russian tradition were originally mostly without notes or ciphers and the melodies were transmitted from generation to generation by tradition. The introduction of notes and ciphers came at the beginning of the 19th century when individuals and groups began to copy melody books for use in home and choir singing. This led to the publishing of special choralbooks for use in school, at home, and in congregational singing. In Prussia the tunes were transcribed by means of the commonly used notes, while in Russia a certain cipher system was in use. The origin of both and their relationship in Mennonite use have not been investigated.

Four-part singing in Mennonite congregations is also of a rather recent date. It started with the introduction of handcopied collections of songs with notes and ciphers and the publication of the choralbooks. Four-part singing in congregations was gradually introduced through choirs, which were first school or community choirs and gradually found their place in the congregational worship. just as in the case of the use of the musical instruments in Mennonite worship this innovation was not accepted without resistance. Now four-part congregational singing is accepted in all Mennonite congregations except the older conservative groups such as the Old Colony Mennonites.

This is a brief summary of the hymnbooks that have been compiled and used by the Mennonites in Prussia and Russia. No study has been made of the selective process when a new hymnal was to be produced or of the change in the spiritual and theological content of the hymns that has taken place through the centuries. There is possibly no other record that would lend itself as well to a study of the theological influences which the Mennonites have undergone and the views which they have held as the hymnals collected in our historical libraries. They reflect accurately, second only to the devotional books used, the source of their spiritual nourishment. Another valuable research project would be the effect of the change from one language to another upon the spiritual life of the Mennonites as it took place in Prussia and later in America.

See also Church Music; Hymnology of the Anabaptists; Hymnology of the Mennonites in the Netherlands; Hymnology (1989); Hymnology of the North American Mennonites; Hymnology of the Swiss, French, and South German Mennonites


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Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Date Published 1956

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MLA style

Krahn, Cornelius. "Hymnology of the Mennonites of West and East Prussia, Danzig, and Russia." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 19 Jun 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hymnology_of_the_Mennonites_of_West_and_East_Prussia,_Danzig,_and_Russia&oldid=177516.

APA style

Krahn, Cornelius. (1956). Hymnology of the Mennonites of West and East Prussia, Danzig, and Russia. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hymnology_of_the_Mennonites_of_West_and_East_Prussia,_Danzig,_and_Russia&oldid=177516.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 875-879. All rights reserved.

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