Delivering 300-year-old mail

Transatlantic project preserves letters of Dutch aid to Swiss immigrants

This print by Jan Luyken (best known for his art in Martyrs Mirror), illustrating Jesus’ command in Matthew 25:35 to feed the hungry, points to the motivation behind Dutch Mennonites’ aid to the Swiss Anabaptists. — Anabaptist World This print by Jan Luyken (best known for his art in Martyrs Mirror), illustrating Jesus’ command in Matthew 25:35 to feed the hungry, points to the motivation behind Dutch Mennonites’ aid to the Swiss Anabaptists. — Anabaptist World

Swiss-German Mennonites did not pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they came to North America.

Many 18th-century families had help from the Dutch Mennonites, who financed early immigration to Pennsylvania.

Mennonites in Amsterdam also sent aid to poor and persecuted Anabaptist families in Switzerland and the Palatine region of Germany.

Their descendants — especially those in Plain Anabaptist communities — don’t want this legacy of mutual aid to be forgotten.

Believing the story should be told in the words of the people who lived it, they decided Anabaptists today should have access to the letters, some more than 300 years old, that bear witness to their ancestors’ generosity and faithfulness during persecution.

After 26 years, they’ve completed the monumental task of publishing a three-volume, 3,200-page history, compiling original sources.

Documents of Brotherly Love: Dutch Mennonite Aid to Swiss Anabaptists, Vol. III, 1712-1874 (Ohio Amish Library, 2023) contains 236 English translations of documents, much of it correspondence between the Committee for Foreign Needs and Swiss-German Anabaptist individuals, ministers and advocates.

Documents of Brotherly Love
Documents of Brotherly Love

The significance of this 1,105-page volume is found not only in its historical information but also in its concept and scope.

In 1997, a group of Conservative Mennonites, Old Order Amish, Old Order Mennonites and non-Plain Mennonites set a goal of making 17th- and 18th-century Anabaptist documents in archival facilities in Switzerland and the Netherlands available to the public.

The committee saw that “the story told in these documents was part of their own story — that they shared a faith with the generations that went before them,” wrote committee member Edsel Burdge Jr. in the preface.

Had they known the project would take 26 years, said committee member John L. Ruth in the introduction to Volume III, they would not have started.

The group hired several translators over the years, beginning with the committee’s own James Lowry. The project was funded mostly by Plain community support. Many of the founding committee members, including Lowry, died by the time this volume was published in April.

Each letter or document appears in its original language with an English translation on the opposite page. In Volume III, we learn of the difficulties of Swiss Anabaptists, who did not enjoy religious toleration as their Dutch counterparts did. The Canton of Bern decreed that Anabaptists had to leave.

The Bern Council, feeling it had been more than patient with the Anabaptists, was furious when some returned. The council jailed the Anabaptists and sentenced five men to hard labor as galley slaves in Italy.

Dutch Mennonites wrote to officials in the Netherlands to intervene. Some considered galley slavery a worse punishment than death. Despite a letter from the States General in Netherlands, the Bern Council persisted. The prisoners had to walk, chained hand and foot, to Italy. The king of Sicily later released the prisoners.

Anabaptists in the Palatinate had difficulties, too. Anabaptists there had negotiated a concession with previous Catholic electors. Carl Theodore, the new elector, made some changes in 1744. Anabaptists continued to pay protection money (likely in exchange for exemption from military service), but children needed to leave the area after they grew up and got married.

The new elector also limited the number of Anabaptist households in his region to 200. This meant 44 Anabaptist households needed to move. Then things got worse: the French invaded and forced the Anabaptists to house them, depleting their provisions and resources. Then cattle started dying, and a bad winter ruined the grape harvest.

The Committee for Foreign Needs ­financed Swiss-German immigration to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s. Some families paid their own way, but others did not. At one point, the committee was so overwhelmed with requests for help to go to America that it decided no longer to pay for immigration.

By 1744, the committee would only help people who had fallen on hard times. In 1758, a request came to the committee from America: Mennonites who had fled Virginia because of Native American raids needed financial help.

Documents in this volume reveal not only the generosity of the Dutch and other advocates but also their exasperation. Swiss Anabaptists commonly returned to areas from which they were exiled (possibly to instruct those new in the faith) and were promptly arrested.

Johannes Runckel, a diplomat and ambassador who interceded on their behalf, expressed frustration that the Swiss Anabaptists did not “fear the wrath and fury of their natural government.” It put Runckel in a difficult position as he negotiated with the Bern Council for the release of the prisoners sentenced to the galleys.

The Committee for Foreign Needs encountered one known scam. In 1728, Rudolf Egli sent a letter supposedly signed by ministers of the Amish congregation in Hohenwettersbach. The request was for needy people in the congregation, so the committee provided the funds. Egli then made two more requests over the course of a year, which surprised the committee.

Upon direct inquiry, the committee learned that the ministers had never requested any funds. Egli had written the letters, forged signatures, pocketed the money and squandered it, much to the embarrassment of his family and the rest of the church. The congregation revoked Egli’s membership and removed him from office as a minister.

Documents of Brotherly Love reflects a spiritual legacy. This is a record of Anabaptists who endeavored to be faithful during persecution and difficulty. It is also a record of Anabaptists helping other Anabaptists. The letter writers often quote the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

This spiritual legacy raises questions in the present. What difficulties are we willing to face in our efforts to be faithful? Who are the persecuted and needy among us? Who, like the Dutch Mennonites, has the power to help? Documents of Brotherly Love offers a glimpse of a faith story that is living and powerful.

Eileen Kinch

Eileen Kinch is digital editor at Anabaptist World. She lives near Tylersport, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two cats. She Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

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