Community Is Born

June 23, 2021 by

Emmy Arnold
Emmy Arnold

This article was originally published in June, 2017. We share it in celebration of the Bruderhof’s 101st anniversary this week. 

It is midsummer, a season that reminds me of the Bruderhof’s founding in 1920. Germany had just lost the First World War, and its people were feeling depressed and hopeless. Thousands had died: the young men in battle, and women, children, and old folks from poverty and illness in the wake of war. The following essay, excerpted from an account by Eberhard Arnold’s wife Emmy, describes how God broke into the chaos in a new Pentecost.

By the end of the First World War the Fellowship Movement, which had gripped us particularly before the war, had slowly become worn. The religious words were still there for the most part, but the power to win souls hardly existed. The enthusiasm, the fervor, was gone. How could it be otherwise? We had experienced war.

Eberhard offered pastoral care in Berlin’s mili­tary hospitals. He often came home quite depressed and told us the horrible experiences of the soldiers who had been at the front. In the face of death their consciences were tormented by the murder and plunder they had taken part in. So the question within us became clearer and clearer: Can anyone who calls himself a Christian be a soldier at all? The question: “Where was God in 1914?” was raised again and again. The pas­tors had preached for the war, had blessed the weapons, had prayed for Germany’s victory. Whose prayers should God an­swer? Germany’s, England’s, or France’s? An atmosphere of death could be felt throughout our country.

Then life broke through from a completely different direc­tion. People began to reflect and seek the source of life. It was like a resurrection from death, like a new breath of spring. It swept through many circles – the question of human destiny, of life’s purpose. People wanted to become human – nothing more than human beings, brothers and sisters. They went out into nature to find God, to find themselves. They rambled in the woods, fields, and moors, with only knapsacks on their backs, dressed in simple clothing. The boys usually wore san­dals, shorts, Russian shirts, and ropes around their waists; the girls wore simple colorful dresses of coarse linen. Many people carried guitars and violins.

Meanwhile, Eberhard and I had begun to host open evenings in our home in Berlin. Stimulated people of vari­ous backgrounds came every week. There were former officers and fighters, working men and women, young people, older people, socialists, communists, and pietists. We had all met in order to seek the true purpose of life in this time when so many ideals were collapsing. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount spoke powerfully to us. We experienced it as though Christ himself was in our midst, speaking directly to us. All differences of posi­tion disappeared. “What you want others to do for you, do for them.” “If someone asks you to go one mile, go two miles.” “If anyone takes your coat, give him your jacket as well.” “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you.” “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. Anything more comes from evil.” “Do not collect treasures on earth.” These and other words of the Sermon on the Mount struck us to the heart and reshaped our whole life. How far we were from all of this! How could we put it into practice? Who could show us a new way?

We began to reorganize our life at home. Our domestic staff moved into the best rooms. Eberhard got up early before going to the publishing house to polish the shoes of everyone who lived in the house. Our neighbors were scandalized by our new, unusual lifestyle. They thought we had gone crazy and some felt sorry for us. Often in the evenings we took out our guitars and the room filled with visitors. Then we spoke and dreamed of a completely different life of true discipleship.

At Pentecost 1919 a decisive student conference took place near Marburg. Eberhard, as student secretary of the Student Christian Movement and publisher of the Furche, was invited. We sensed that Christ himself spoke to us through his Spirit – yes, that Jesus himself had been present. Some reported that Christ had spoken through Eberhard and that they were deeply challenged to a completely new life.

We stood before something unfathomable: God became human. Humans be­come God’s.

A conference in Tambach in Thuringia brought us together with the Swiss Religious Socialists. Karl Barth was the main speaker and Eberhard his co-speaker. At this conference Karl Barth represented that God is completely different from us humans; he is the totally other God whom one can hardly approach! Too often we small humans, com­parable to grains of sand, come before him too intimately with our small concerns, too much one-on-one before this inexpress­ibly great God. Karl Barth’s witness to the eternal and the transcendental spoke very much to us. We recognized God’s greatness and our smallness perhaps more than ever. Eberhard’s speech emphasized that the transcendent can break into the immanent, that again and again in human history it has broken through. No one who took part in these conferences was untouched by these questions. The testimony of the Swiss Religious Socialists and Eberhard’s testimony, that eter­nity has to change time, worked strongly among us. We stood before something unfathomable: God became human. Humans be­come God’s.

In the following winter our open evenings were primarily con­cerned with how we could structure our life. Francis of Assisi, Tolstoy, and Dosto­yevsky were guideposts to us. Francis of Assisi, the poor wan­derer with his wonderful relationship to nature, his canticle of the sun, his sermon to the birds, his love to Lady Poverty. Tol­stoy, who again and again attempted – unsuccessfully – to forsake everything. Dostoyevsky, who showed us our common guilt in the need of men, who are stretched between heaven and hell. He showed us that we are all guilty of everything, that we ourselves are completely enmeshed in the web of guilt. We all felt the suffering and sin of the world – guilt of the war, of the class struggle, of the social injustice among men. How could we find a way out? How could we begin a completely different life? These questions concerned us for weeks and months. We found an answer in the Sermon on the Mount and the first church in Jerusalem (Acts 2–4). In this way we came on the idea to start a settlement, a community, in the spirit of the first Christians.

a youth conference on a hilltop in Germany
Pentecost conference

We prepared for a conference in Schlüchtern at Pentecost, to which we invited all interested friends and acquaintances. We took the 5:00 a.m. passenger train, traveling fourth class with many young people. At the various stops, new conference participants were picked up – recognizable by their simple dress and guitars! “Off to Schlüchtern!” About 200 people came. The whole town had prepared to receive these unusual guests. Many opened their homes in hospitality. Young men and women lived in separate barns. In the morning they could be seen going to the well to get washed up. Others went to a nearby stream out­side the town. This was an unusual sight!

Meals were taken together in the abbey if we could not cook outside in the beautiful beech woods. Two stones were placed to shield the fire from the wind. A fire was built and a large cooking pot placed on the stones. Three to eight boys and girls gathered around each fire. The stew was stirred with a stick from which the bark had been pealed. Pre­paring such meals was part of all our conferences. Usually after breakfast we set off for the woods. There we first had an inner gathering. Somebody read a passage from the Bible. That would be our watchword for the day, a call to await what is to come.

What made the conference so meaningful was the experience of nature in the beautiful beech woods in the expectation of a true Pentecost. Over the whole time lay an expectancy for what is to come, the coming kingdom. We were so beggarly poor, so hungry and thirsty, so empty – and we wait­ed to be filled with the Spirit that was poured out at Pentecost. One evening we built a fire and stood around it in a big circle holding hands. “I have come to send fire to the earth – how I wish it were already burning.” We sang fire songs. One person after another stepped out of the circle and spoke from his heart: “The old must be burned up” so that like with the phoenix new life can arise from the ashes. Looking at the rising sparks and the blazing flames we experienced something of the first love. “Let us not love with words and with our lips, but with deeds and the truth.” With these words, which were spoken from the circle, we separated. Nothing more was said – we were united and deter­mined.

German  young people dancing
German youth dancing together

The rhythmic, even religious, circle dance was very much part of this conference. When we needed to refresh ourselves after difficult discussions about the very es­sence of life, or when we felt deeply and inwardly together, we joined hands and swung in step. Often we would sit on the hillside with lutes and guitars and sing folksongs. Every song, whether it was a nature song or a love song, was a deep religious experience for us. God or Christ did not need to be mentioned – but we affirmed our entire lives as given by God in his creation. An intimation passed through us of eternity en­tering time – that eternity must embrace everything – yes, that ultimately everything must be embraced by God.

During the conference we learned that a large house was available for lease in the village of Sannerz, and we went to look at it. From the outside it was certainly not what we had imagined. We would have preferred a simple farmhouse. But it was clean with nice, simple rooms. With it came a meadow with nice fruit trees, a fenced-in vegetable garden, and several acres of ar­able land. There was a barn for four cows, a pig stall, a hen house, and a stable. It all looked quite rustic.

On June 21, 1920, Eberhard and Emmy moved to the villa in Sannerz with their youngest daughter, who was sickly, followed by their other four children. They gave up their secure income and their home and began living very simply, trusting in God to provide. Emmy continues:

Everything was very primitive – but that is what we wanted. We never missed our big apartment with central heating, hot water, and all the conveniences that were customary in most middle-class homes in Berlin.

Certainly we had hoped that we would have some time to catch our breath after the strain of the last years in Berlin. But from the first day, the place was buzzing with visitors. Young men with bare legs and often bare torsos came to look at the new settlement or help in the building up. Girls came too, and almost every evening we had long discussions about socialism and com­munism, agape and eros, individualism and community. The guests were drawn into the work, which consisted primarily of hauling and splitting wood.

What thrilled us was waiting for the coming kingdom, the ex­pectation of the age of love, when suffer­ing and sin, death and injustice will be over­come.

The inner founding of our community took place in fall when we read the first letter of John together with the household and a few close friends. Eberhard read it aloud. We felt strongly the bond of love that drew us closely together. And so it came about that one of those present suggested that in this hour, when the basis of our life was brought so clearly before our eyes, we hold a simple Lord’s Supper. Eberhard asked that we separate first to think about it in silence. He appealed to all who were there only to return if they could come in the right spirit, based on a deep experience of Christ. After about an hour the whole circle gath­ered around our round table – a picture of a chain of which no link is missing. It was a holy meal of love and expectation.

Out of this experience the suggestion was made that we have an hour, either in the morning or at midnight, when the whole household would meet in silence. Close friends away from San­nerz would meet at the same time. We would listen for eternity and await the breaking in of God’s reign. We decided to meet at 6:00 in the morning. We gathered punctually in silence at this hour, which gave us strength for the whole day. Nobody missed this meeting unless he was divided within himself or from somebody else. Very often we were completely quiet. Some­times a song was suggested or Eberhard would read an im­portant passage from the New Testament or from another wit­ness. Or somebody in the circle spoke freely from his heart. We sensed that a light was burning among us, and it warmed and gladdened us.

This was the time of founding and first enthusiasm. What thrilled us was waiting together for the coming kingdom, the ex­pectation of the age of love, the age of John, when world suffer­ing and sin, social injustice and murder and death will be over­come. We expected this not in some distant future but felt it could become reality every day for this earth. So we felt urged to fashion our life on this future, that eternity become time. We felt that nothing could be separate anymore, but everything must be united in the atmosphere of Christ. And, as a budding community, we wanted to dedicate our lives to this goal of unity.


About the author

Emmy Maendel

Emmy Maendel

Emmy Maendel, an author with a particular interest in Bruderhof history, writes a regular blog post featuring timely...

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