Ernsthafte Christenpflicht, the first complete and self-contained German prayer book for Mennonites, most likely of Palatine origin. In general, Mennonites practiced free, extemporaneous prayer at church and at home. Soon after 1600, however, Dutch Mennonites seem to have felt a need also for printed prayers, mainly for home devotions, and a few short collections of such prayers were published. Yet it was not until the early 18th century that the "Swiss" Mennonites in South Germany (Palatinate) took the decisive step of producing a complete prayer book of their own, a modest but independent publication of far-reaching influence. The full title of the 1739 edition is Die Ernsthaffte Christenpflicht, Darinnen Schöne Geistliche Gebäter, Darmit sich fromme Christen-Hertzen zu allen Zeiten und in allen Nöhten trösten können. Gedruckt im Jahr 1739, Zu finden in Kayserslautern bei dem Buchbinder (only known copy in the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen, Indiana). It is a small book of 323 pages of prayers, with appended index and the "Haslibacher-Lied." It contains a total of 36 prayers; namely, 2 prayers for every day, 5 prayers in temptation and anxiety, and 29 "general" prayers. [Between the time Robert Friedmann wrote this article and 1981, four earlier editions (1708, 1718, 1727, 1730) had been located.] Later 19th-century editions increased the number of prayers to 54, including also prayers for church services and other occasions, thus changing the character of the book. The book went through many editions; Europe saw at least 17 editions between 1708 and 1869, printed in Kaiserslautern, Saarburg, Zweybrücken, Herborn in Nassau, Reinach, Basel (Mechel pub), Regensburg, Neuwiller (Alsace); in America 32 editions, all in the German language, were produced between 1745 and 1955. The oldest American edition was printed at the Ephrata Cloister, Pa., in 1745. The book is still today in demand by the Amish congregations, who have preserved their German worship.
By 1997 there had been 88 editions or reprints worldwide; of these there were 65 German-language printings in North America in addition to six English printings. The first Canadian edition was printed in 1846; the German edition is maintained in print by Pathway Publishers of Aylmer, Ontario. A modern English translation by Leonard Gross was published in 1997 as Prayer book for earnest Christians. This edition also includes seven prayers first included in the 1846 Canadian edition.
As is the case with nearly all prayer books in existence, this one represents but a compilation of older models, Mennonite and non-Mennonite, partly rephrased and extended, and partly simply copied from other prayer books. It is an attractive task to trace all these models and forerunners, and to study their gradual changes. The main Mennonite source seems to have been a collection of 18 prayers by the well-known hymn writer Leenaerdt Clock, first published as a "formulary" in Holland in 1625. It was later reprinted by T. T. van Sittert in his church manual, Glaubensbekenntnis, etc., 1664, in a German translation. This rather modest collection (Formulier etlicher Gebete) unexpectedly became the prayer model of the Mennonites for centuries to come, much changed, of course, in form and spirit during this period of borrowing. In Switzerland one particularly extensive "general" prayer of this Formulier became strangely popular and was twice printed previous to the Christenpflicht though in paraphrased form (Reist, Sendbrief). The Christenpflicht then brings still another version of this same prayer, adjusted to the new needs and conditions, and also breaks it up into 16 shorter prayer passages, in vielen Anliegen und Nöten zu sprechen, amplifying the different paragraphs of the former prayer, without, however, adding any new thought. Worth noticing is an ever-recurring passage in all these prayers on behalf of "those goodhearted people who love us and do good unto us and prove mercy with food and drink . . . but who have little strength to come into the obedience of God." It alludes to the "Half-Anabaptists" in Switzerland who were sympathizers with the Brethren, yet never joined the brotherhood.
Among the non-Mennonite sources of the Christenpflicht, two major prayer collections could be identified from which prayers were lifted verbatim without any change: Johann Arndt's Paradies-Gärtlein (1612), from which three prayers were taken, and Caspar Schwenckfeld's Deutsches Passional, 1539 (many anonymous editions since) , from which at least five prayers were adopted, of course, without knowing that they come from a man who in his lifetime had opposed their Anabaptist forefathers. In fairness it must be said that it had always been the usage in producing new prayer books to borrow from older models. That was true with Crammer's Book of common prayers in England, and it was also true with Schwenckfeld or Arndt or with the Dutch Reformed prayer book which Clock might have used as a model for his short Formulier. In spite of all these transfers, however, the Ernsthafte Christenpflicht should be viewed as a completely new and original work, produced by and for Mennonites in the Palatinate. It was originally intended for private devotion only, not for use in church services (as the later editions might suggest). Its spirit, to be sure, is rather remote from that of the great beginning, it being nearer to the spirit of Arndt (or even of Schwenckfeld) than to that of the Ausbund or of Menno Simons. It most likely contributed to shaping the new, 18th-century pattern of Mennonite piety which came so close to that of the German pietists.
Friedmann, Robert. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, IN: Mennonite Historical Society, 1949: 189-95 (contains a detailed account of the contents and character of all the prayers).
Luthy, David. "A History of 'Die Ernsthafte Christenpflicht'." Family Life (Feb. 1981): 19-23.
Prayer Book for Earnest Christians: Die ernsthafte Christenpflicht, trans. and ed. by Leonard Gross. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1997: 11-12
Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 608.
Cite This Article
Friedmann, Robert. "Ernsthafte Christenpflicht." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 22 Jun 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ernsthafte_Christenpflicht&oldid=146414.
Friedmann, Robert. (1953). Ernsthafte Christenpflicht. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 June 2018, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ernsthafte_Christenpflicht&oldid=146414.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 244-245. All rights reserved.
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