A Call To Faithfulness:
Dutch Mennonites Facing The Storm In 1940
by Gerlof D. Homan
On May 10, 1940, Nazi legions invaded
the Netherlands, a nation that remained unscathed during the
First World War and hoped it could also escape the ravages of
the new conflict that descended upon Europe in September 1939
when Hitler attacked Poland. The Dutch resisted the German invasion,
but the struggle against overwhelming odds was short-lived, and
on May 15 the Dutch military capitulated. At that time few Dutch
citizens realized what horrors lay in store for them in the next
five years of Nazi terror.
Dutch Mennonites would share in the general agony and pain as
they and other citizens were subjected to many humiliating and
cruel measures. Many of them would lose their lives, suffer mentally
and economically, and in a few instances see the destruction
of their houses of worship. How well were they prepared to face
In 1940 Dutch Mennonites numbered about 30,000 members and 130
congregations, some of which were very small and others quite
large. They were not like their famous 16th- and 17th-century
ancestors; they embraced rather liberal theological beliefs even
discarding the idea of conscientious objection to war.1 In the years before the outbreak of war
in 1940 some successful efforts had been made to breathe new
life into Dutch Mennonitism. But many congregations were not
very much affected by it. Congregations were autonomous and received
little leadership from their national organization, the Algemene
Doopsgezinde Societeit (ADS).
The Algemene Doopsgezinde Societeit, or General Mennonite Conference,
was established in 1811 in an effort to unify various factions
and groups. But it had never emerged, or was not allowed to emerge,
as a strong national organization. That would change during the
war when special times called for different leadership. An example
of this new kind of leadership was the ADS call in September
1940 to all Doopsgezinde congregations to face the current storm.
It was drafted by F. Dijkema, one of the pastors of the large
Mennonite congregation in Amsterdam and member of the executive
committee of ADS, and slightly edited by its chairman, F.H. Pasma.2 Below is a translation of this call:
Central Mennonite Conference
Amsterdam, September 1940
To all church boards of Mennonite Congregations
Brothers and Sisters!
The Executive Committee of ADS feels itself called to direct
itself to you in connection with the difficult time in which
we are currently living.
We hope that you feel with us that we must, with God's help,
do everything that is in our power to bring the ship of the Brotherhood
through the turbulent waters to a safe haven. Our fathers did
that too in times that were equal in difficulties and dangers,
yes, which in that regard, in many ways, even surpassed them.
Thinking back to those stirring times of our Brotherhood, here
and elsewhere, we can look up to that cloud of witnesses who
"kept what they had," and we must do that with thankfulness
towards those faithful, and with the humble prayer that the Almighty
God will strengthen us as He did them. Prof. Knappert 4 has in his evaluation of our oldest martyrs'
book, Het Offer des Heeren,5 reminded
us of the word Noblesse Oblige. Let us take this to heart
what was said by this non-Mennonite brother. For four centuries
our Brotherhood has resisted the undermining and destructive
powers of the world. Ours task is to extend the burning torch,
given to us by the ancestors.
Are we all well aware of the responsibility that rests upon us
especially in this time? Certainly not. The material and spiritual
condition of many of our congregations show clearly that they
are not borne by the love and affection by those who belong to
them. And yet, we must deeply and earnestly realize that what
our Brotherhood possesses as a call requires and is worthy of
everyone's support, because it 6 is
a Christian Brotherhood. The treasures given by God in Christ
to the world are also entrusted to it. As its share, it has fulfilled,
with human imperfection, but also with and for us often embarrassing
power and sacrifice, the task given to the Christian church,
to wit, the glorification and worship of God, the heralding of
God's redeeming love as revealed in Christ, the preaching of
the Good News commanded by Christ, and in so doing given to individuals
and the world an eternal blessing. It has done this according
to the light given to it by the revelation of God, and thereby
stressed the unbreakable connection between faith and life, so
that faith has to reveal itself in life, personal faith, and
the biblical foundation on which one can only build with hope.
And thus it has gained and kept so far its own place amidst Christian
churches and communities, to which it must feel itself otherwise
bound through the same origin and the same goal.
He who knows history will feel compelled to thank God for His
preservation of our Brotherhood through all times, but also will
think back with respect to those who looked forward to the completion
of the Kingdom of God, prayed in His power, fought and worked
to prepare the way of the Lord.
Our time calls all of us with a loud warning voice to place ourselves
in their ranks. No one knows how the world will emerge from the
present chaos. But it will certainly be a world that needs for
its preservation the Gospel, as a strength from God, and men
and women who stand in that power and present a living witness
of what God gives them in Christ. It will also be a world which
cannot do without the foci whence streams which glow with the
light which is the life with God, the true eternal life. Such
foci are also our congregations. How small they often are at
the place where they are established; they are God's ambassadors
to the world.
If the world does not want to impoverish itself hopelessly they
must be preserved, and if we -- and the offspring that come after
us and asks us what we have done with what was entrusted to us
-- want to keep our faith strong and alive. Therefore, Brothers
and Sisters, love the Brotherhood and love our congregations
to which you have once tied yourselves with your promises upon
which you received baptism. Seek her and support her so that
the Brotherhood will remain strong and strengthen you in your
The Master is here and He calls you! God is faithful, be faithful
With God's Speed and brotherly greetings
Executive Committee of ADS
P.S. Inform the members of the congregations of the contents
of this piece.7
The language of this statement is
not very stirring and many sentences are a bit long if not convoluted,
posing an interesting challenge to the translator. But it tells
us much about the history and state of Dutch Mennonitism in 1940.
Especially important is the lament over the congregations' spiritual
malaise and the reminder of the shining and inspiring faith of
famous Mennonite ancestors. One is also struck by the call's
theology; it did not reflect the kind of liberalism or modernism
one would expect. On the contrary; it contained very little with
which American Mennonites, who had often decried their Dutch
brothers' and sisters' embrace of modernism, could disagree.
In general, ADS's call is very cautious and did not openly denounce
National Socialism, the new ideology whose principal tenets were
totally incompatible with Christian values. Nor did it refuse
cooperation with the new authorities. Especially in the post-war
era this caution or neutral attitude would provoke much criticism.
It was felt that ADS should have displayed more courage to speak
boldly against various occupation policies.8 Yet, about one month later, in October 1940,
ADS did join other churches in denouncing the beginning of Nazi
persecution of the Jews. It would do so again on several other
occasions during the war when it protested against various occupation
Perhaps ADS hoped that Mennonites might remain faithful by reminding
them of the splendid testimony of their famous ancestors, and
by admonishing congregations to remain "ambassadors of God."
Let us hope ADS assumed Mennonites clearly understood they could
only do so by rejecting the Nazi call to paganism. Most Dutch
Mennonites would reject Nazi ideology. Unfortunately, some, including
a few ministers, embraced it.
--Gerlof D. Homan, born in the Netherlands, teaches history
at Illinois State University.
On a Dutch view of Dutch Mennonitism prior to World War II see
the author's "Early Twentieth-Century Dutch-American Mennonite
Contacts," Mennonite Historical Bulletin 53 (April
F. H. Pasma, "ADS - voorzitter in oorlogstijd," Stemmen
uit de Doopsgezinde Boederschap 12 (1963): 13. Interesting
also is an editorial by W. Koekebakker, editor of De Zondagsbode,
the official ADS organ, on September 29, 1940. In it he lamented
the "iron times" Mennonites and others were now experiencing.
But he also felt this was a blessed time for those who wanted
to "think and act." The glow that bent the iron of
our times and melted it in the mold provided by God, he wrote,
purified our souls in a crucible. Strong people were needed to
bend the iron on the paths God walks, he believed, but stronger
men were needed to walk on God's paths and to be "messengers
of His love, not in word but in the fire and glow of the Holy
Spirit." (p. 1).
A copy of this document is in the ADS Archives which have been
deposited in the Gemeente Archief [County Archive] of Amsterdam.
Its archival number is 843.79. It was also published in De
Zondagsbode, September 22, 1940, p. 1
Laurentius Knappert (1863-1943) was professor of church history
at the University of Leiden who appreciated Mennonites and wrote
a few articles about their history. He was especially impressed
with early Dutch Mennonites who, he felt, had been persecuted
more than any other religious groups. In his book, Van der
vaderen lijdensmoed [About the fathers' courage to suffer]
(Amsterdam: J. H. de Bussey, 1927] Knappert wrote: "And
although the writer of these lines does not belong to the Mennonites,
he can nevertheless imagine that those who do, read with pride
about their fathers' courage to suffer and will repeat for themselves
the old saying, Noblesse oblige" (16). It is interesting
to note that Knappert, unlike Dijkma in his call, did not use
the French noblesse oblige but the Dutch, adeldom verplicht.
Het Offer des Heeren [The Sacrifice to the Lord]
was the first of Dutch Mennonite martyr books. The first edition
appeared in 1562 to be followed by ten more in the next forty
years. It contains several accounts of the suffering of Dutch
Mennonite martyrs and provides us with much information on the
persecution of 16th century Anabaptists in the Netherlands. Het
Offer des Heeren became the foundation of Tieleman Jansz
van Braght's famous Het Bloedig Toneel der Doops-gesinde en
Weereloose Christenen . . . [The bloody theater of Mennonites
and defenseless Christians. . .] more commonly known in Dutch
as the Martelaersspiegel or Martyr's Mirror the
first edition of which appeared in 1660. For a critical study
of Het offer des Heeren see S. Kramer, Het Offer des
Heeren: De oudste verzameling Doopsgezinde martelaarsbrieven
en offerliederen (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1904).
At this time Dutch spelling and grammar had been modernized and
simplified and only in very obvious cases still used gender designations.
However, ADS continued to refer to the Mennonite Brotherhood
as a female entity. In this translation I have not used the pronoun
"she." Yet, to me a female brotherhood in this time
of gender consciousness may seems to be an interesting albeit,
accidental linguistic solution and compromise.
For further reading on the Dutch Mennonite experience in World
War II see the author's articles "We Must . . . and Can
Stand Firmly: Dutch Mennonites in World War II." The
Mennonite Quarterly Review, 69 (1) (Jan. 1995): 7-36 and
"Nederlandse Doopsgezinden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog."
Doopsgezinde Bijdragen. New Series, 21 (1996): 165-196.
See Elisabeth I.T. Brussee-van der Zee, "De Doopsgezinde
Broederschap en het Nationaal Socialisme in de jaren 1933-1945"
(Doctoraalscriptie, University of Amsterdam, 1985).
L. de Jong, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog
(The Hague: Staatsuitgeverij, 1972), 2: 719; H.C. Touw, Het
verzet der Hervormde Kerk (The Hague: Boekencentrum, 1946),
1 and 2: passim.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October,