Article Note: Research on German Free Churches and Sects

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 2, June 2010

Article Note: Research on German Free Churches and Sects

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia and Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University College

Andrea Strübind, “German Baptists and National Socialism,” Journal of European Baptist Studies 8 no. 3 (May 2008): 5-20.

Carl Simpson, “Jonathan Paul and the German Pentecostal Movement—the First Seven Years, 1907-1914.” JEPTA: Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association 28, no. 2 (2008): 169-182.

Andrea Strübind’s article provides the English-speaking audience with a valuable summary of her earlier findings in her book on the Baptist Church during the Nazi era, Die unfreie Freikirche: der Bund der Baptistengemeinden im “Dritten Reich” (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991). Strübind is Professor of Church History in the Protestant Faculty of Oldenburg University, and an authoritative, but not uncritical, observer of her denomination’s chequered record during the turbulent years of Nazi rule.

German Baptists were among those small groups of free churches which had to struggle throughout the nineteenth century to gain a foothold in Germany against the intolerant pressures of the established Lutheran church. By the twentieth century they had become a conditionally recognised religious community on the edges of society. They sought to encourage the ideal life of true believers, separated from the rest of sinful society and its politics. Hence abstention from all worldly associations was coupled with the demand for freedom from all state interference in church life.

Hitler’s rise to power was greeted by most Baptists as a welcome development. His stress on a healthy and purified society and his anti-communism drew much support. At the same time the Baptist leadership under the strongly nationalist and conservative Paul Schmidt adopted an emphatic affirmation of the state and took no action in support of those in the Protestant Confessing Church who recognised the dangers of Nazi totalitarianism. For instance, in 1937, German Baptists were permitted to attend the Oxford Ecumenical Conference on Life and Work, at which they spoke up loyally in favour of the Nazi regime and its seeming tolerance of Free Church activity.

Despite the increasing evidence of political repression against many of the small sects in Germany, the Baptists remained staunchly loyal to the state. At the same time, the leadership sought to concentrate on the missionary task at home, exclusively concerned with the personal salvation of its adherents.

Given such a stance, it is hardly surprising that German Baptists behaved passively towards the Nazi persecution of the Jews, all the more since there were virtually no Jewish converts in their community. By contrast Hitler’s military victories were hailed as an opportunity for new missionary endeavours. Only one Baptist is known to have become a conscientious objector and was hanged in 1943 for subversion of the armed forces. No protest on his behalf was made. In 1944, after the attempted assassination plot against Hitler, the Baptist leadership sent a congratulatory telegram to prove their unbroken loyalty to their Führer.

This attitude of uncritical support undoubtedly saved the Baptists from the repression and closure meted out to other small sects. But Strübind rightly points out that the narrow focus on such biblical precepts as Romans 13 meant that the Baptists were wholly unequipped to tackle questions of resistance to Nazi tyranny on Christian grounds. Obedience to the state was upheld even after the anti-Christian character of the regime had become terribly evident. Indifference to the political system and individual passivity were this biblically legitimised. The protection of the church’s existence and the survival of local churches were perceived to be the highest aims. And since the same leadership under Schmidt continued in office for many years after 1945, there was never any acknowledgment of these shortcomings or apologies for the enthusiastic loyalty paid to Hitler and his regime.

Like other small sects and Free Churches, German Pentecostals in the Third Reich were both more vulnerable to state repression than the large Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic churches and less likely to attract the concerted attention of police or party authorities. Indeed, judging by correspondence in the files of the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Gestapo and other state officials were often highly confused about the identity of obscure Pentecostal groups, regularly confusing them with various pseudo-Christian spiritualist movements.

But who were the German Pentecostals, and how did they get their start? This is what Carl Simpson sets out to explain as he introduces us to Jonathan Paul, the early leader of Pentecostalism in Germany. Simpson describes the dramatic conferences which led to the organization of the German Pentecostals in 1907, then outlines the early opposition from other German churches, and the creation of the Mülheimer Verband (the largest Pentecostal Association). Along the way, he argues that, while the American Azusa Street Revival was an important factor, the Pentecostal movement developed a unique and largely independent identity across Europe, with German leaders like Jonathan Paul, Emil Meyer, and Emil Humburg, and Carl Octavius Voget leading the way.

Pentecostalism arrived in Germany from Norway when German evangelist Heinrich Dallmeyer and two Norwegian sisters, Dagmar Gregersen and Agnes Thelle, held evangelistic meetings in Kassel. Conversions, healings, and experiences of speaking in tongues soon aroused a great deal of interest, scandal, and controversy, so that city officials eventually ordered the meetings ended. Within eighteen months, however, Pentecostalism had spread to at least eighteen different German communities, in part through the influence of the pietistic and revivalistic Gemeinschaftsbewegung loosely associated with Lutheran and Reformed churches. By the end of 1908, German Protestant pastor Jonathan Paul had assumed the leadership of German Pentecostals, largely through his position as editor of its official organ, the Pfingstgrüße. Paul set an independent course for his movement, affirming glossolalia as a spiritual gift but not a necessary sign of spirit-filling, asserting that a fruitful Christian life was a more important measure of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Despite Paul’s efforts to chart a moderate course, most German church leaders decisively rejected Pentecostalism, regarding the speaking in tongues as a manifestation of evil, not a divine gift. Other points of controversy were the leadership of women in the Pentecostal movement and the doctrine of Christian perfection, the holiness teaching that asserts spirit-filled Christians can be free from the taint of knowing sin (a “purity of intention,” to use a Wesleyan phrase). On September 15, 1909, this opposition reached a head, when members of the Gnadauer Verband (of the Gemeinschaftsbewegung), the Evangelical Alliance, and other German Free Churches overwhelmingly repudiated the Pentecostal Movement. In response, Pentecostals issued the Mülheim Declaration, a document carefully defining the role of glossolalia and affirming their desire to work with other evangelical movements in Germany. Soon Mülheim became the important centre for German Pentecostals, as evidenced by annual conferences and the name it gave to the association of German Pentecostal churches. By forming as an association rather than as a denomination, Pentecostals could retain membership in their Lutheran or Reformed church homes, while cultivating a more vibrant Christianity among their spirit-filled brothers and sisters in Pentecostal assemblies. Thus it was that Pentecostalism remained in an anomalous position, growing up alongside but not officially connected to other sects and Free Church associations in Germany.