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Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia

Peter J. Klassen

Publication Year: 2009

At a time when religious conflicts and persecution plagued early modern Europe, Poland and Prussia were havens for Mennonites and other religious minorities. Noted Anabaptist scholar Peter J. Klassen examines this extraordinary example of religious tolerance. Through extensive archival research in Poland, Germany, and the Netherlands, Klassen unearths rich material that has rarely, if ever, been studied previously. He demonstrates how the interaction of religious, political, and economic factors created a situation in Poland and Prussia that permitted a diversity of religious beliefs and practices. Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia focuses on the large Mennonite community in these countries. Klassen reveals how the Anabaptist groups were treated and explores whether the uncommon religious freedom they enjoyed gave rise to a flourishing of their faith or a falling away from its central tenets. Early modern Poland and Prussia are virtually ignored in most studies of the Reformation. Klassen brings them to light and life by focusing on an unusual oasis of tolerance in the midst of a Europe convulsed by the wars of religion.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xv

"The time is out of joint.” This phrase from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies is an apt description of Europe in the sixteenth century. Economic opportunities brought new demographic patterns. Geographical horizons expanded, presenting new vistas for adventure, colonization, and trade. Long-established practices and beliefs were questioned and often changed. In a remarkable confluence of history, giants in various ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

One of the rewards of writing a book that is based on sources found in several countries and in numerous libraries and archival collections is the opportunity to meet and work with an amazing array of competent, helpful historians, librarians, and archivists. This study would not have been written without the knowledgeable assistance and advice of an impressive ...

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CHAPTER 1. A Haven in Troubled Times

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pp. 1-25

Early in the seventeenth century, the Dutch dramatist Joost van den Vondel graphically depicted the desperate efforts of religious dissidents seeking a refuge. Van den Vondel, then the most famous person of letters in the Netherlands, wrote a drama whose deeply rooted appeal was underscored by its annual performance for centuries in Amsterdam. The drama, Gijsbrecht van Aemstel, depicts a people in great danger and...

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CHAPTER 2. A Legacy of Rivers & Dikes

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pp. 26-47

The ancient historian Herodotus succinctly described the power of a river when he wrote, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” Throughout time, rivers have shaped history: sometimes as sources of life-sustaining water, as arteries of trade and communication, and other times as release channels for excess water. So also the Vistula River shaped the ...

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CHAPTER 3. The Challenges of Urban Settings

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pp. 48-74

Early modern Danzig, proud and prosperous, exerted a powerful influence far beyond its immediate environs. This status is evident in the way Danzig’s city council dealt with requests from nations of other religious persuasions. Even after Lutheran teachings gained a dominant position in the city, strong ties with the Catholic Church continued.1 Churches of...

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CHAPTER 4. Along the Banks of Poland’s Mighty River

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pp. 75-98

From the sixteenth until the eighteenth century, the promise of religious toleration and economic opportunity up the Vistula beckoned settlers to move farther inland. Not all regional authorities were equally elastic in their religious policies, so Mennonite settlement in these areas was not uniform. However, the welcoming attitudes of a number of landowners...

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CHAPTER 5. Bridges between the Netherlands & the Vistula Delta

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pp. 99-111

Depicted on the ceiling of the Red Room in Danzig’s former city hall is a rainbow uniting Danzig and the Vistula River. The painter, Isaak van den Block, chose this image to portray the city’s close tie to the mighty river that had long served as the lifeblood of Po-land’s commerce. The Vistula, which carried a variety of products from the interior to be shipped to ports throughout the Baltic and North Seas, was at the heart of ...

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CHAPTER 6. Psalms, Sermons, & Congregations

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pp. 112-134

"Worthy brothers and sisters in the Lord, . . . the love of God admonishes its neighbor in pure love, comforts those of little faith, raises the weak, teaches the foolish, rebukes the delinquent . . . receives the destitute, clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, . . . visits the sick. Its resources are ready to serve all people.” As early as 1549, Menno Simons penned these phrases to set the tone for Mennonites living in the Vistula Delta. In a letter..

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CHAPTER 7. A House Divided

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pp. 135-157

Throughout the almost two and a half centuries that Mennonites in Royal Prussia remained under the Polish crown, questions of toleration usually centered on the relative importance of religious versus economic issues. On the one hand, Mennonites were often recognized as model water engineers and farmers and won praise from many landowners, whether they were bishops, nobles, or...

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CHAPTER 8. Conflicting Loyalties in a Progressive Society

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pp. 158-174

Mennonites who came to Royal Prussia in the early sixteenth century brought with them distinctive beliefs about the relationship between church and state, beliefs that distinguished them from those of many other faiths. Mennonite views on pacifism in particular elicited special concern. Although some of the early Anabaptists in Germany, the Netherlands, and other ...

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CHAPTER 9. A Changing Vision

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pp. 175-191

This volume has primarily been devoted to the time when Mennonites lived in Royal Prussia. From the early sixteenth until the end of the eighteenth centuries, Mennonites were able to practice their beliefs under a Polish crown. With the end of Poland as a state and the emergence of Prussia, however, Mennonites faced intensified challenges of acculturation. It was a difficult struggle that lasted a century, and ...

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pp. 192-198

The changing religious climate and new political realities in a number of European states in early nineteenth-century Europe posed challenges of accommodation for many Mennonites. In some instances, the peace position, which had been maintained since the sixteenth century, was now modified by Mennonite ministers and other leaders to permit young men to serve in the military forces. At the same time, many ...

APPENDIX 1. Selected Documents Concerning Religious Liberty

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pp. 199-204

APPENDIX 2. Key Events and Dates in Polish History

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pp. 205-209

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 211-212


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pp. 213-236


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pp. 237-250


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pp. 251-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899003
E-ISBN-10: 0801899001
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801891137
Print-ISBN-10: 0801891132

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 38 halftones, 4 line drawings, 4 maps
Publication Year: 2009