Our Garden Must be God's Garden

Eberhard and Emmy Arnold

This article was originally published in "Christian History" Magazine, Issue 119 in 2016.

In June of 1920 Eberhard and Emmy Arnold and their five children moved from Berlin to the village of Sannerz in Hesse. Their new home was, temporarily, a shed behind the village inn. Their goal: to put into practice the teachings of Jesus in the spirit of the first Christians, as described in the Book of Acts. Their vision: a community of goods and work, with an open door, as an embassy of God’s coming kingdom.

What compelled the Arnolds to leave their comfortable Berlin home, not to mention Eberhard’s budding career as a publisher and speaker, to embark on the path of radical community? For one, the Great War, which left Germany devastated and the masses impoverished. Eberhard Arnold saw the war as God’s judgment on a false Christianity that had been corrupted by greed and power. The established church had betrayed Jesus and his way of peace.

The Arnolds wanted to do something to address the dire social conditions in the city, but debated whether they should stay or rather establish a healthier life away from the cities to which they could invite people. With food still in short supply, even their own children suffered from poor nutrition. But it was another factor that eventually tipped the scales in favor of moving to the country. Already before the war began, growing circles of young people under the banner of the Youth Movement were searching for a new kind of life. Inspired by the itinerant Wandervӧgel (tramps calling themselves “birds of passage”), young men in shorts and loose tunics and young women in simple, bright-colored dresses would hike out into nature armed with violins and guitars in search of a more natural, genuine life. They saw through the hypocrisy of bourgeois life, with its class consciousness, cramped social relationships, and fleeting fashions. They had had enough of the big cities with their oppressive factories, stuffy etiquette, and dry, formal education. Social position, wealth, modern comforts, and religiosity no longer counted for anything. All that mattered was the essential.

This movement of freedom resonated deeply with Eberhard and Emmy Arnold, who had tired of conventional life and what they had come to feel was an insipid, otherworldly Christianity. Could they establish an organic life that was genuine and free in the major cities, where it was most needed? Could God’s kingdom come afresh on earth amidst the decadence and squalor of urban life? No, they decided, Christianity must be reborn in the pure air of nature. It must be rooted again in the fields of God’s good earth, with fresh, earthy smell on feet and hands. They responded to social anarchist Gustav Landauer’s challenge: “Land and spirit must meet; culture of the spirit has to be combined with work on the land.” Only on the land, they felt, was there hope for civilizing, humanizing work and a restructuring of life so that people could live together as brothers and sisters.

From the outset the community in Sannerz was flooded with guests, as many as two thousand a year. Fortunately, the Arnolds were soon able to rent a large villa across the road. It came with farm equipment and livestock: four cows and several goats, pigs, and chickens. The community grew slowly but steadily. People joined from all walks of life, and there was plenty of work to do, and enough youthful enthusiasm to make up for lack of experience.

Living on a shoestring, the community initially supported itself through publishing work and donations while gradually developing its farm and garden. It also took in foster children. Physical labor was considered essential to the communal experience. “We believe in a Christianity that does something,” Eberhard Arnold wrote. “Daily work with others is the best and quickest way to find out whether we are willing to live in community on the basis of real love and faith. Work is the crucial test that shows whether our faith is genuine.”*

Work, however, did not preclude lively discussions in the evenings or hikes in the open country. Gathering around a bonfire or under the trees to sing folk songs, dance, or tell legends brought together community members, visitors, and neighbors, who would often bring along something for everyone to eat.

The circle grew to fifty people by 1927. This necessitated another move, this time to a large farmstead seven miles away. It was an isolated spot with rocky soil and sharp north winds. The buildings were dilapidated and the fields neglected. Yet with many hands eager to build up a communal life, the community members took up the challenge. Three farms were amalgamated for the work in agriculture and horticulture, houses were built, and workshops were set up. The settlement became known as the Bruderhof, after the Anabaptist communes of the sixteenth century.

Everyone had to be involved in the agricultural work, regardless of their experience, education, or gifts. For one, they had no money to buy food and struggled to grow enough. But Eberhard Arnold also believed in the spiritual significance of cultivating the land in a community of practical, physical work:

We love the body because it is a consecrated dwelling place of the spirit. We love the soil because God’s spirit spoke and created the earth, and because he called it out of its uncultivated natural states so that it might be cultivated by the communal work of man. We love physical work—the work of muscle and hand—and we love the craftsman’s art, in which the spirit guides the hand. In the way spirit and hand work through each other we see the mystery of community.**

Because the soil had been neglected for so long, farming never really provided a sufficient basis for the community’s livelihood. To improve the long-term food situation, the community decided to plant windbreaks on the hill behind the houses. Hundreds of spruce and larch saplings were set out, along with cherry, plum, and apple trees. This helped, but everything was still in short supply. Garden vegetables only ripened late because of the high altitude, and the potatoes only lasted to the end of spring. Although they could grow their own wheat, it was not enough to see them through to the next harvest. At times, they would eat meal after meal of wild meadow spinach.

Despite their poverty and the long hours of toil, Eberhard and Emmy Arnold remained dedicated to building community in a spirit of joy and fellowship. Whenever possible the community, including children and guests, would gather for worship outdoors to experience the uniting power of God in nature. Their life of prayer, study, and worship was not viewed as separate or at odds with the practical work on the land. Neither was the intellectual work of their publishing house. Sometimes manuscripts were read and discussed while members sorted potatoes or took turns stirring the large jam kettle.

While they loved the way of simplicity, the members of the community were not Luddites but forward-looking in their attitude to technology. “Nothing of the mechanical and technical achievements of the last centuries should be lost!” Eberhard Arnold once wrote. “But the degrading and brutalizing of the working class clings like a blight, a curse, to the tools, factories, machines, and industry of today.”*** For him, modern factories, in which people performed soulless labor with no community of heart, were contrary to God’s order. By contrast, in a community based on faith and love, technical innovation could protect and serve the dignity of each person and the needs of the common life.

With the rise of Hitler, the Bruderhof, with its commitment to Jesus’ way of nonviolence and love for all people, would have to flee Germany. After emigrating to England and then to Paraguay, the community found itself closer to nature than it might have wished, again struggling to eke out a living in primitive conditions. The community eventually found its way to the United States in 1954.

There are now close to twenty-five Bruderhof communities on five continents. Many are rural, some urban. While most communities support themselves through light industry, the impulse to live close to the land remains. This can be seen in the Bruderhof’s commitment to growing most of its own food, its use of sustainable farming techniques and alternative energy, its conservation efforts on its lands, and its use of natural materials in the furniture and toys they produce. It is reflected in simplicity of dress and a wholesome diet, in educating the whole child with an emphasis on outdoor play and exploring nature, in meeting outdoors, in turning compost and chopping firewood and maple sapping. Even communities in city neighborhoods maintain small garden plots. In all these things, traces of Eberhard Arnold’s original vision remain:

Whatever our work, we must recognize and do the will of God in it. God—the creative Spirit—has formed nature, and he has entrusted the land to us, his sons and daughters, as an inheritance but also as a task: our garden must become his garden, and our work must further his kingdom.****

*Arnold, Eberhard. God’s Revolution (Plough Publishing House, 1997), 55.

**Arnold, Eberhard, Transcript, May 1934 (Bruderhof Historical Archive EA 34/90), translation: Jere Brunner & Kathleen Hasenberg.

***Arnold, Eberhard, undated Transcript (Bruderhof Historical Archive EA 20/21a), translation: Winifred Hildel & Kathleen Hasenberg.

****Arnold, Eberhard. Why We Live in Community (Plough Publishing House, 1995), 19-20.

About the author

Charles E. Moore

Charles E. Moore resides with his wife and daughter in Esopus, New York where he teaches Bible and Christian Thought at The Mount Academy. He taught Christian ethics and philosophy at Denver Seminary (1982-1990).

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