Who was Eberhard Arnold?
the editors of Salt and Light
Posted Thursday, October 01, 2009
This article is an excerpt from our free ebook Salt and Light.
Though little is known about him today, Eberhard Arnold (1883–1935) was widely sought after during his lifetime as a public speaker, lecturer, and publisher in his native Germany. During and after his studies at Breslau, Halle, and Erlangen (where he received his doctorate in 1909), he was active in the student revival movement then sweeping those towns and became secretary of the German Christian Student Union. In 1916 he became literary director of the Furche Publishing House in Berlin, and editor of its monthly periodical.
Like thousands of young Germans in the 1920s, Eberhard and his wife Emmy were disillusioned by the failure of the establishment – especially the churches – to provide answers to the problems of society in the turbulent years following World War I. In their seeking, they were influenced by the German Youth Movement (in which Eberhard was a nationally-known participant), the German pastor Johann Christoph Blumhardt and his son Christoph Friedrich, the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, and, most significantly, the early Christians. Eberhard has described this time of serious seeking in this way:
I would like to tell about my personal seeking. A group of young people often gathered around me, and I tried by means of Bible studies and talks to lead people to Jesus. But after a while this was no longer enough. I found myself in a very difficult situation, and I was deeply unhappy. I began to recognize the needs of people in a deeper way: the need of their bodies and souls, their material and social need, their humiliation, exploitation, and enslavement. I recognized the tremendous power of mammon, discord, hate, and violence, and saw the hard boot of the oppressor upon the neck of the oppressed. If a person has not experienced these things, he might think such words an exaggeration – but these are the facts.
Then, from 1913 to 1917, I sought painfully for a deep understanding of the truth. I recognized more and more that personal dedication to people’s souls was not all that Jesus asked – that it did not fully express the being of God. I felt that I was not fulfilling God’s will by approaching people with a purely personal Christianity and concerning myself with individuals so that they, like myself, might come to this personal Christianity. During those four years I
went through a hard struggle. I searched not only in the old writings, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and other scriptures, but I also wanted to get to know the life of the working classes – the oppressed humanity of the present social order – and to share in their life. I wanted to find a way that corresponded to the way of Jesus, of Francis of Assisi, and also the way of the prophets.
Shortly before the outbreak of the war [World War I], I wrote to a friend saying that I could not go on like this. I had interested myself in individuals, preached the gospel, and endeavored in this way to follow Jesus. But I had to find a way actually to serve humankind; I wanted a dedication that would establish a tangible reality by which men could recognize the cause for which Jesus died.
The war continued and we saw ever greater horrors. We saw the condition of the men who came back home. One young officer came home with both his legs shot off. Returning to his fiancée, he hoped to receive the loving care he so badly needed from her, but she informed him that she had become engaged to a man with a healthy body.
Then hunger came to Berlin. People ate turnips morning, noon, and night. When the people turned to the officials for money or food, they were told, “If you are hungry, eat turnips!” On the other hand, even in the middle of Berlin there were still well-to-do “Christian” families who had a cow and had milk when no one else did. Carts went through the streets bearing the bodies of children who had died. The bodies were wrapped in newspaper, for there was neither time nor money for a coffin. In 1917 I saw a horse collapse in the street: the driver was knocked aside by the starving people, who rushed to cut chunks from the warm body to bring home to their families.
...After such experiences – and those of the revolutionary times, when working people were offered huge rooms and halls with parquet floors – I realized that the whole situation was unbearable. A leader of the Student Christian Movement told me that a high government official had agreed to work with me, provided I remain silent on the social issues: the war and the terrible suffering.
In the meetings we had at our home in Berlin, where we discussed all these things with our friends, it soon became clear that Jesus’ way is a practical one: he has shown us a way of life that is more than a way of concern for the soul. It is a way that simply says, “If you have two coats, give one to him who has none; give food to the hungry, and do not turn away your neighbor when he needs to borrow from you. When you are asked for an hour’s work, give two. You must strive for His justice. If you want to found a family, see that all others who want to found a family are able to do so, too. If you wish for education, work, and satisfying activity, make these possible for other people as well. If you say it is your duty to care for your health, then accept this duty for the health of others also. Treat people in the same way that you would be treated by them. This is the law and the prophets. Enter through this narrow gate, for it is the way that leads to the kingdom of God.”
When this became clear to us, we realized that a person can go this way only when he or she becomes as poor as a beggar and takes upon himself, as Jesus did, the whole religious and moral need of mankind. Then we bear suffering, and we suffer because we see how injustice rules the world. Our hearts will be undivided only when we hunger for justice more than for water and bread. Then we will be persecuted for the sake of this justice. Only then will our righteousness be greater than that of the moralists and theologians. We will be filled with a new fire and a new spirit and warmth from the vital energy of God because we have received the Holy Spirit.
In this connection it became clear to us that the first Christian community in Jerusalem was more than a historical happening: it was here that the Sermon on the Mount came to life. We saw that it was more necessary than ever to renounce the last vestiges of privileges and rights and to let ourselves be won for this way of total love: the love that will pour itself out over the land from the breath of the Holy Spirit, the love that was born out of the first church community.
So we felt that we could not endure the life we were living any longer. We had to witness to the fact that Jesus concerned himself not only with people’s souls but with their bodies as well. He made the blind see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear. And he prophesied a kingdom, a rule of God which was to change completely the conditions and the order of the world and make them new. To acknowledge this and live according to it – this, I believe, is God’s command for the hour.
In 1920, out of a burning desire to practice the demands of the Sermon on the Mount, the Arnolds with their five children and a few other people began a communal life in the village of Sannerz. The community, which supported itself by agriculture and a small but vibrant publishing house, attracted thousands of visitors and grew quickly. By 1926 the house in Sannerz had become too small, and the next year a new Bruderhof (place of brothers) was started in the nearby Rhön hills.
The 1930s brought persecution by the National Socialist regime and expulsion from Germany. After a temporary stay in the neighboring country of Liechtenstein, the Bruderhof members fled to England, where they established a new community. Here the first major undertaking of the publishing house was the translation of several of Eberhard Arnold’s most important works, including some of the articles and talks in this volume. World War II drove the Bruderhof to Paraguay in 1940, and in 1954 the first Bruderhof was established in the United States. Now, as we stand on the brink of a new millennium, we offer you this volume, affirming with Eberhard Arnold:
We believe in this new birth – a life of light from God. We believe in a future of love and constructive fellowship. We believe in the peace of God’s kingdom, and that he will come to this earth. This faith does not mean we are imagining things only for the future – God will bring this future and give us his heart and spirit today. Christ lives in his church, which is the hidden, living seed of the future kingdom. The peace that is characteristic of the church and the love-spirit of the future have been entrusted to her. Therefore she shows herself in the present as justice, peace, and joy in this world.
This article was compiled of excerpts from the introduction to Salt and Light by Eberhard Arnold