Keller, Ludwig, and the Mennonites

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Ludwig Keller Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1903): 151

Ludwig Keller had significant relations with the German Mennonites and certain Mennonite scholars, and exerted a tangible influence upon them. Around 1880 the Mennonites in Germany were not very historically minded, and took the attitude more of the "Stillen im Lande" (Quiet in the Land) than feeling a mission to the society around them. In this situation Keller's book, Ein Apostel der Wiedertäufer, appeared in 1882, centering attention upon Hans Denck. It was a real eye opener for Mennonites, and many were willing to accept Hans Denck (the "spiritual reformer") as the finest and most original expression of the "Anabaptist" genius. (Subsequent scholarship has learned to make a distinction between the spiritualists such as Denck, and the regular Anabaptists.) Between 1882 and 1892 (when Keller founded the Comenius-Gesellschaft) Keller sought closer contacts with Mennonites and tried to promote his idea of the "old evangelical brotherhood" among them. He began to publish articles of this nature in the Mennonitische Blätter beginning in 1883, and in the Gemeindeblatt in 1885. He also had personal contacts with German and Dutch Mennonite preachers whom he wanted to win over to his vision. From 1885-1893 a lively correspondence developed between Keller and John Horsch—after 1887 in America—and from 1885-1891 between Keller and Christian Neff, as well as with other men of influence in the Mennonite church.

Keller's letters reveal much about his intentions. He claimed that "the best and purest tradition of Anabaptism" goes back to the period of 1517-1534. Since there was no Anabaptist in the strict sense before 1525, this contention needs explanation. Keller equated the teachings of mystics and spiritual reformers with those of Anabaptists proper. Thus he included in his list of "early Anabaptists" men like Johann von Staupitz (Luther's superior in the monastery at Erfurt), Sigmund Salminger, Jacob Dachser, Christian Entfelder, and above all Hans Denck. They all taught a free semimystical and individualistic interpretation of the Scriptures (over against Luther's solid Biblicism and ecclesiasticism), but they had little to do with the essential idea of Anabaptism. Keller urged his Mennonite friends to study Denck, the Theologia Deutsch, also Tauler and other mystics. It is known that in those years the father of John Horsch published the Deutsche Theologie together with comments by Denck (1886), and John Horsch published Denck's Von der Wahren Liebe at Elkhart, 1888. The Mennonitische Blätter and the Gemeindeblatt published long excerpts from these authors, and so did the Herold der Wahrheit (1888-1891) and the Kirche unterm Kreuz (1885-1889) in America. W. Molenaar, a leader of the Berlin Mennonites, wrote to Keller in 1886, "We are definitely espousing your program but believe that the moment has not yet come for general action," which meant for the promotion of the idea that the Mennonite congregations should reconstitute themselves as an aggressive "old evangelical brotherhood."

Keller's letters to John Horsch are particularly revealing. Horsch was a young man full of enthusiasm and willing to risk money and more for the propagation of such ideas. At first the Gottesfreunde (among them the Theologia Deutsch had originated in the 15th century) attracted both Keller and Horsch more than the Anabaptists, but soon also the latter moved into the focus. In 1883 Joseph Beck had published his Geschichts-Bücher der Wiedertäufer in Österreich und Ungarn, which provided rich material for the student of Anabaptism. Keller also called attention indiscriminately to Sebastian Franck and Caspar Schwenckfeld. In spreading the ideas of all these men he saw the "German mission" of the Mennonites. Its goal should be the overcoming of prejudices among the Lutherans against Anabaptism, a goal eventually reached, to a large extent thanks to Keller's efforts.

When in 1887 young Horsch moved to Elkhart, Indiana, the correspondence became even more intense. Keller hoped that Horsch could perhaps help in reshaping also the Mennonite church in America according to his ideas, but he warned Horsch to proceed slowly, with circumspection and greatest care. The Herold der Wahrheit of these years (1887-1891) abounds in reprints of the above-named authors, together with reprints from Johannes Arndt, Matthias Claudius, Michael Hahn, and—at long last—also some genuine Anabaptists, taken from newly discovered Hutterite sources. Strangely enough, Menno Simons is somewhat neglected and his authority even opposed. (Keller: "By cleaving to Menno Simons the goal of the brotherhood has been narrowed down too much.") In 1891 John Horsch published his Kurzgefasste Geschichte der Mennoniten, quite in line with Keller's ideas; Hans Denck appears here as the most important early spiritual leader of Anabaptism.

But then, all of a sudden this trend came to an end. Keller lost interest in making the Mennonite church the mouthpiece for his ideas, and turned to other pursuits (Christian humanism and Free masonry).  And so the correspondence stopped. The same was true in Germany: the Keller period was definitely over by 1893.

Looking back we may say that it is easier to understand the issues today than it was in the 1880's. Keller had been thinking of the Mennonites as an open society of inspired Christians, while the Mennonites understood themselves as a closed brotherhood with strict discipline. Keller, who was always a staunch individualist with some inclination toward mysticism, had very little appreciation for this type of church life, and his association with the Mennonites inevitably had to come to an end. And yet his idea of "old evangelical brotherhoods" was widely accepted even long after the 1880's. The Langnau-Emmental Swiss congregation accepted this name for their church and on the title page of P. M. Friesen's book on the Mennonites in Russia (1911) we meet this term again. It is still used now and then in Mennonite writings, and has, no doubt, also a grain of historic truth in it. (See Altevangelische Wehrlose Taufgesinnten-Gemeinden for a discussion of Keller's influence on the use of this term by Mennonites.) The Keller letters to John Horsch are preserved in the Goshen College Library. His letters to Christian Neff are preserved at the Weierhof.


Bender, Elizabeth H. "The Letters of Ludwig Keller to John Horsch, 1885-1893,"Mennonite Quarterly Review 21 (July 1947):175-204.

Friedmann, Robert. "John Horsch and Ludwig Keller," Mennonite Quarterly Review 21 (July 1947): 160 ff.

Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite piety through the centuries : its genius and its literature. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949: 257.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 480.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1957

Cite This Article

MLA style

Friedmann, Robert. "Keller, Ludwig, and the Mennonites." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 15 Jun 2024.,_Ludwig,_and_the_Mennonites&oldid=145561.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert. (1957). Keller, Ludwig, and the Mennonites. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 15 June 2024, from,_Ludwig,_and_the_Mennonites&oldid=145561.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 163-164. All rights reserved.

©1996-2024 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.