Quakers in Germany 1657–1918
In 1657, William Ames and other Quaker missionaries from Britain visited Holland, and parts of what was to become Germany. They found fertile soil amongst the Mennonite communities there, and established meetings in Hamburg, Emden and Friedrichstadt. The Mennonites were followers of John Menno, and their ideas had much in common with Quakers.
In 1677 George Fox and other Quakers, including William Penn, visited Germany. Fox and several others went to visit the meetings established twenty years earlier, but Penn visited the Rhine valley. There he met another community of Mennonites, many of whom became Quakers after hearing him preach. Mennonites were frequently persecuted, as Quakers were in Britain, and Penn invited them to join the Holy Experiment he was planning to establish in the future Pennsylvania. In 1682 thirteen families from the Rhine valley sailed to North America to join him. They founded Germantown, the first significant German settlement in North America. Other Mennonites followed, some of whom became known as Pennsylvanian Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch, i.e. German).
In 1688 the Quakers of Germantown, Pennsylvania, sent a minute to their Monthly Meeting in Philadelphia, which lit a very slow burning fuse. They had condemned slavery as immoral, the first public anti-slavery statement by Quakers. Eventually, the fuse they had lit exploded into the anti –slavery campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic.
Back in Europe, and early in the 18th century, the word ‘Quaker’ entered the vocabulary of a number of European languages. It had a wider meaning than in English and included any who were seeking communion with God without the use of clergy. In the German states, most of these ‘Quakers’ were suppressed by persecution or emigrated. However some of them made contact with British Quakers in the second half of the century and meetings were established in a number of places. These included Osnabruck, Minden, Hanover, Herford, Bielefeld and Bad Pyrmont.
Bad Pyrmont in Saxony was to prove the longest lasting and most influential of these groups. In 1788 three brothers, Ludwig, Friedrich and Dietrich Seebohm had been granted a piece of land there, which they called Friedensthal (Vale of Peace). They established a settlement, with 20 or so others, and held regular and often silent meetings. In 1790 British Quaker Sarah Grubb (daughter of William Tuke, of York), American Quaker George Dillwyn, and others, visited, and links with British and American Quakers began.
George Dillwyn came back in 1795, and helped start several small businesses. American John Pemberton visited that same year, and died there, becoming the first person to be buried in its Burial Ground. British Quakers supported a new school and in 1800 financed a Meeting House. Ludwig Seebohm was the first teacher in the school, and put many new educational ideas into practice. Both the settlement and the school attracted visitors, including the poet Goethe, who had strong Quaker sympathies.
The Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century caused great suffering in many German states, especially among civilians. British Quakers, led by Luke Howard, raised £7,000, which they sent out as aid with volunteers. This provided a catalyst for a much bigger effort, including £100.000 voted by the British Parliament, and further donations, amounting to £300,000 in all. All the funds raised through this ecumenical effort were entrusted to the care of the Quakers to use as they saw fit to relieve the sufferings in Germany. They focussed their work in Saxony, which had been at the heart of the conflict, providing much support for immediate needs. They also helped to rebuild the shattered communities through the provision of new tools.
Quakers had provided small but speedy and vital help, and had helped stimulate much larger efforts by others. This pattern is very characteristic of Quaker work in relief and rehabilitation.
When War broke out again between Prussia and France in 1870 the Germans were the overwhelming victors. The bulk of Quaker relief therefore went to France, with only a small amount to Germany.
However by that time most of the German Quakers had emigrated, though some small groups remained. The last meeting at Bad Pyrmont for sixty years was held in 1870.
At the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, small pockets of Quakers were still in evidence, and they rebuilt German Quakerism after the war.