It was a church conflict like many others in that it had reached a moment when those members most attuned to developments knew that the train of church unity had already derailed while crossing a bridge, but it was not yet clear how deep the chasm underneath was, how long the fall would take or how bad the damage would be when the wreckage hit bottom. One group was pushing for change that would align the church with a new set of practices that they saw as providing appropriate and necessary contemporary forms to update long-standing Mennonite and Christian principles of care for the neighbor and the weak. Another group saw the shift as blessing sin within the church and as the end of faithfulness to the teachings of both Christ and the church. A third group, perhaps the largest, longed for unity and attempted to create a position that would bridge the two opposing sides. Their attempt failed, as concord shattered, conservatives left and the remaining body over the next two decades moved toward full embrace of the new forms while still allowing room for individuals who retained a moderate stance to remain.

While this description could arguably apply to current events in Mennonite Church USA, and indeed other denominations in North America, it is derived from a leading Mennonite intellectual’s account of developments in the largest Mennonite conference in German lands in 1868. Wilhelm Mannhardt wrote his “Objective Discussion” in order to name the three positions of change, compromise and tradition he saw Mennonites adopted in the conflict over how to respond to a newly imposed military draft. In conclusion, he advocated for the moderating position, although if the bridge should collapse, he made it clear he would side with those accepting military service. And the parallels extend even further. In both cases recent statistical studies showed declining membership with no agreement on causes or solutions. Bitter struggles over what we would call church polity raged on the question of who was entitled to make decisions about adopting new practices. Conservatives who dominated the leadership and thus the conference machinery insisted decisions must be taken there and disparaged the religious commitments of those holding the new position. Advocates for change simply took new steps and defied the church to do anything about it, eventually winning over, one by one, leaders and congregations who either agreed whole-heartedly, were reluctant to break fellowship, or both. Conservatives felt that those who were willing to accept some form of military service did so out of some combination of religious apathy, coziness with a fallen culture and putting the values embraced by higher education ahead of church teaching. Change advocates felt they were merely stating the truth out loud and were embarrassed that it took their church so long to get there.

Despite the many similarities, the issue of military service sets the Prussian conflict apart from the Mennonite Church USA LGBTQ-related discussions. The church in Prussia was moving to accommodate the roughly 50-year old social standard of universal military conscription, not changing its own stance in chronological tandem with a broader social shift; and military service, the new practice, was imposed from the outside. In November 1867 parliament passed a new law that explicitly required Mennonites, who had been named during the debate, to serve equally with all others. Although in March 1868, the king issued an executive order allowing Mennonites to serve in some noncombatant roles, there was no longer a legal path to not serving in one form or the other. Thus questions of how to relate to the state were in the foreground in 1868 and relationships to society more in the background, a situation that seems to be reversed in 2016 in North America.1

This issue of Mennonite Life presents a translation of Wilhelm Mannhardt’s essay that provides a snapshot of the conflict over including soldiers in Mennonite congregations. The full title is “The Resolution of November 9, 1867, by the North German Confederation Diet Concerning the Lifting of the Military Service Exemption of the Mennonites and the Current Attitudes of the Mennonites of Provincial Prussia to the Same: An Objective Discussion by a West Prussian Mennonite.” Because Mannhardt and his original editor used editorial footnotes in the original essay, its translation includes only the original footnotes with the citations switched to currently available English translations of the original German sources. Thus instead of providing contemporary editorial footnotes to his essay, background context, including political and historical considerations that would have been common knowledge to Mannhardt’s readers, is offered in this introduction.

Wilhelm Mannhardt and Nineteenth-Century Mennonites

Wilhelm Mannhardt was an important and well-connected intellectual in the Prussian Mennonite world. He was the first German Mennonite to receive a PhD and remain in the church.2 His father, Jacob Mannhardt, was pastor of the Danzig Mennonite Church and founding editor of the Mennonite Journal (Mennonitische Blätter) where Wilhelm’s “Objective Discussion” appeared anonymously in August 1868. Thus Wilhelm’s chiding of the editor at the end of his essay for not taking up this topic sooner and the editor’s footnote addressing the scolding is actually a public and one presumes, pre-arranged signal between father and son to open up for the first time public discussion of military service in the leading Mennonite periodical of the day. Since the piece was anonymous, initial readers would not necessarily have known that, making the exchange seem more genuine. Although it was probably not difficult for people who knew Wilhelm well to guess that he wrote it, official confirmation of the fact came years later from his cousin, H.G. Mannhardt.3

Wilhelm Mannhardt’s key insight was that this conflict had split Mennonites roughly into three groups that he labeled old, moderate and new. The Mennonite community in question was the largest one in German-speaking lands and lay along the Vistula River with the largest concentration in the delta region southeast of Danzig/Gdańsk. This area was administratively known as the province of Prussia in the Kingdom of Prussia, hence the use of “Provincial Prussia” in the essay’s title. Other Mennonites in German lands, including virtually all of those in the kingdom’s western provinces, had accepted military service already, some as early as the beginning of the 19th century. Thus the group Mannhardt labeled “new” would have actually existed for sometime elsewhere and so were only new in this particular geographic area. The position of the moderates, that Mennonites should serve only in noncombatant roles, was also new, since that possibility had only been created a few months after the draft was imposed. Yet it was a moderate position in rejecting full military service. This was the position Mannhardt advocated for here and later, although personally as a youth he would have liked to serve as a regular soldier but was prevented from doing so by poor physical health as at least one reason. The traditional position maintained that Mennonites who chose to accept military service ceased in that moment to be Mennonite. If no legal option remained to be both Mennonite and German, then it was time to emigrate again, as Mennonites had done often in the past. Although two of the three positions were thus quite new, Mannhardt was correct that the creation of these fissures in the Vistula Mennonite community was much older, reaching as far back as 1814 when the draft was first imposed in Prussia.

Mannhardt assumed his readers knew the history of Mennonite struggles over the past century to retain a military service exemption that had seemed to come to an unsuccessful end when he wrote in August 1868. He mentioned many of these steps in his essay. Mennonites had lived in the area under Polish rule from their arrival in the 16th century until the Partitions of Poland in 1772 and 1793. Already in 1780, Mennonites had secured a Charter of Privileges from Frederick II, King of Prussia, which promised them eternal freedom from personal military service. They were required, however, to pay a new annual collective tax, initially 5,000 Talers, which was assigned to support the rough equivalent of a military junior high school in Culm.4 However, the 23 years of warfare from 1792 to 1815 associated with the French Revolution and Napoleon radically changed Prussian society. Mennonites faced extreme pressure to join the army in 1813 and were only protected from the draft imposed in 1814 by direct intervention of the king. Mennonites in 1780 were thus not particularly unusual in having a military service exemption, but the emphasis they came to place on it made them quite exceptional by 1868 in changed political circumstances that stressed constitutional rule and equality for all before the law, where “all” meant male citizens more specifically.

Other aspects of Mennonite tradition that Mannhardt referenced include a set of beliefs as outlined in various confessions of faith. Three key confessions were those of Cornelis Ris (1766) and separate Frisian and Flemish confessions that reflected the basic division of Mennonites into those two different groups in Prussia, although that division was mostly gone by the 1860s. As Mannhardt points out, the confessions of faith most typically included a prohibition on warfare under the rubric of avoiding revenge.5 The term for non-resistant or “defenseless” Christians in German, Wehrlosigkeit, initially meant those in society who were released from military service for a wide variety of reasons. Mennonites gave the term theological significance by claiming religious belief, not social station, as the basis for their exemption from military service. By 1868, however, the state recognized hardly any social or theological exemptions from military service.6

German Politics in the 1860s

The decision to impose the draft on Mennonites in November of 1867 came at an unsettled time in German history. Some of the political entities mentioned by Mannhardt changed their names by 1871 and thus are not well known. After the Napoleonic Wars led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, by 1815 it was replaced with a German confederation of roughly 40 German states that was dominated by Austria. In the 1860s Prussia as the next largest state successfully challenged Austria for preeminence. First, in 1864, the two states fought together to remove the Danish crown from rule over the two northern most territories in the Confederation, Schleswig and Holstein. Then, in 1866, Prussia fought and defeated Austria and many of the other German states. Austria was now permanently expelled from German affairs. Prussia annexed a number of the defeated states directly into the kingdom and forced all but the three southern most remaining states to join Prussia in the short-lived North German Confederation.

In October 1867 the Diet, as the main legislative body of the Confederation is often translated from Reichstag, discussed the new military service law that had been drafted by the new Federal Council. This council functioned as a type of legislative upper house comprised of a small number of representatives appointed by the heads of the states in the Confederation. It had only limited responsibilities and veto power but had in this case also prepared this law in an effort to coordinate military service requirements between all the member states. The draft recommended exempting the Mennonites by name but the Diet rejected that. After the Confederation, joined by the three southern German states, defeated France in 1870, it changed its name to the German Empire with the King of Prussia continuing in that role and also being crowned Emperor of Germany in January 1871. This person, William I, was therefore the Ruler of the Confederation mentioned by Mannhardt. In his capacity as King of Prussia, being constrained to obey the decisions of the Confederation Diet, he issued an executive order in March 1868 that allowed Mennonites to serve as noncombatants in the Prussian Army, by far the largest and most important segment of the new Confederation Army, which after 1871 became the Imperial Army. One important aspect of this process was to extend the reach and power of a Prussian monarchy and bureaucracy that had been centralizing power since before the Partitions of Poland. To make that extension of power possible in a more democratic age, the king had been forced to share some power with the Diet, weakening his previous ability to issue executive orders, such as the one sought in vain by conservatives to exempt them from military service altogether, that upheld unequal treatment for special segments of society.

Mennonite Polity in the 1860s

During the course of a century under a centralizing Prussian government, Mennonites had in response centralized and streamlined their own hierarchy by adding a new conference level of decision-making to traditional congregational structures. Their original congregational polity consisted of a lay leadership board: deacons, teachers (preachers) and elders elected for life. The deacons were elected from the male membership and in charge of caring for the poor in the congregation. The teachers were elected from the deacons and preached on Sunday and officiated at weddings as requested. The lone elder in the congregation preached on occasion and presided over all baptism and communion services. On occasion contentious issues were brought to the membership for a vote, but the leadership decided the vast majority of church issues, especially those related to church discipline. Erring members had to accept the leadership’s decision, which is what usually happened, or face the ban, which happened occasionally. Except in the urban Danzig congregation, in 1868 all of these leadership positions were unpaid and not connected in anyway to educational status. Prior to 1772 elders and other leaders had met infrequently, informally, ad hoc and almost never as a complete group in response to particular crises in relationship to the Polish state or internal dissent.

Once the Prussia state imposed a payment of 5,000 Talers on the Mennonites and required them to be their own tax collectors, they had to strengthen their cross-congregational ties in order to raise money collectively from all the congregations to make a single quarterly payment to the Prussian state. They developed a comprehensive and effective internal tax system based on membership and property ownership and then the leadership from all the congregations met together at regular intervals to make adjustments to the congregational quotas. This system also allowed them to respond quickly and with almost complete unanimity to the immense pressure to serve during the Napoleonic Wars. By the 1860s the pattern was well established of having important decisions taken by the conference leadership, especially by the elders. Just as in congregational decisions where local members were required to abide by leadership decisions, now individual congregations were expected to abide by conference decisions.

Wilhelm Mannhardt noted the breakdown of this system as disagreements grew. He lamented that certain “dominant personalities” prevented open discussion of the military service issue at the conference level. A number of elders did indeed offer stubborn resistance to the idea that Mennonites should serve in the military. Gerhard Penner, elder of the Heubuden congregation, was the leader of this group. H.G. Mannhardt mentioned Johann Wiebe, elder of Fürstenwerder, and Johann Toews, elder of Ladekopp as additional key figures.7 Both of them soon migrated to Russia. Wilhelm Ewert, elder of the Obernessau congregation and Johann Andreas, elder of Elbing-Ellerwald, later joined Penner in migrating to America. Thus almost a third of the elders were so staunchly conservative that they chose migration over military service, a rate roughly twice as high as the 16 percent of all Mennonites who migrated then.8 Jakob Mannhardt, Wilhelm’s father, would have been at all of these meetings and was one of the most progressive. Wilhelm was therefore well informed about what went on there and incredibly frustrated that a powerful minority could block what he viewed as progress on this issue. This issue highlighted central fault lines of Mennonite polity. Could and should the meaning of the Bible or the definition of sin be decided by majority vote? Should the conference or the congregation or the individual member make key contested decisions? Is the church to name sin and help and require members to keep it at bay, be more realistic and accepting of normal human behavior or drop the label of sin altogether for some behaviors and start supporting and celebrating them, coincidentally making it easier to fit into society?

The Sequence of Events Described by Mannhardt

Wilhelm Mannhardt’s essay provided a snapshot of events from October 1867 to August 1868. In this timeframe the two most important government decisions were, of course, the imposition of the draft on Mennonites in October and the granting of noncombatant status in March. Thus Mennonites who held some version of either the new or the moderate positions could be satisfied with developments after March. Mennonites clinging to the old position could not, and they continued to agitate for change. Mannhardt mentioned several of their initiatives. He did not discuss the fact that two different delegations of elders lobbied in Berlin during this time, meeting with the king, crown prince and many cabinet ministers.

The imposition of the draft on Mennonites triggered several other legal decisions by the government. With a Mennonite edict in 1789 the Prussian government had tied Mennonites’ failure to serve to a virtual prohibition on acquiring property, the imposition of special taxes and the restriction of marriages between Mennonites and non-Mennonites. Since Mennonites were now serving, those restrictions on their civil rights could be lifted. The Ministry of the Interior, which administered the draft, issued an edict May 5, 1868, that restored Mennonites’ rights to buy property and to marry as they wished and dropped most of the extra taxes. Mannhardt noted this as one of the reasons that Mennonites should give up on getting the exemption restored. It seemed nonsensical to him to expect the government to now revoke civil rights. He also noted the decision of the War and Interior Departments to only start drafting Mennonites who were coming of age and not retroactively. Since the draft age in Prussia was 20, only those born in 1849 or later would be drafted. To moderates like Mannhardt, the government had made a significant concession here.

Mannhardt noted the petitioning activity of Mennonite leaders, and we know they sent at least seven petitions over various aspects of the imposition of the draft to the government between October 1867 and August 1868 when his essay was published. Well over a dozen additional petitions were submitted in the following three years, including three large drives mounted by old, new and moderate Mennonites that garnered roughly as many signatures as there were adult male members in the area, indicating that Mennonites had all made choices to back one position or the other during this time.9

The conclusion of this conflict was that most Mennonites stayed and served either as noncombatants or regular soldiers. Because the laws required Mennonite congregations to explicitly state that the choice was up to individual members, those few congregations that attempted to mandate noncombatant service faced government pressure to change and quickly acquiesced. Thus the new stance that serving as a regular soldier was an acceptable Christian activity that might even help protect the neighbor and the weak became the official standard that was written into a new confession of faith, although for the time being many continued to take advantage of the option to serve as noncombatants.10 By the end of WWI almost no Prussian Mennonites were taking up that option. Traditionalist Mennonites, as we have seen, left both the conference and the country since the legal requirement to serve in the army meant they could not stay in the country and retain their confession of faith.

Gerhard Penner declared there were no Mennonites left in Prussia and thus no one qualified to use the Communion set there. When he left with over a hundred members for the United States he took the Heubuden communion set along with him.11 The majority of Mennonites in Heubuden who stayed bought a new Communion set, adjusted to a set of new forms and practices that included Mennonites in military uniform fighting wars and attending church services, and carried on.