Sympathy, Solidarity, and Silence: Three European Baptist Responses to the Holocaust (Book excerpt)
In 1837, Julius Köbner, the Danish son of a rabbi, and J. G. Oncken began composing a confession of faith for the emerging Baptist movement, and in 1847 it was in final form. In 1848 it was approved as the “Foundation” of the German Baptist Union, with the expectation that it would be “adopted by all the churches which enter this Union.” [i] This confession had a widespread influence throughout Europe. The Danish Jew’s unique imprint on the foundational declaration of faith can be discerned throughout this remarkable document—the 1847 Confession exhibits the greatest degree of Jewish influence of any confession created by the Baptist movement throughout its entire history.
Köbner’s Jewish heritage is reflected in the startling opening article of the Confession of Faith [ii] concerning the “Word of God.” The Old Testament is not only to be revered as God’s revelation, but every one of its books is scripture and thus must be taken seriously by Baptists.
Köbner’s affirmation stands in contrast to other mid-nineteenth-century confessions, such as the 1833 New Hampshire Confession, which do not explicitly name each individual book of the Old Testament. [iii] Article 4 of the 1847 Confession positively highlighted Jesus’ relationship to the Jewish law, affirming that “there was never any sin either in the heart of Jesus or in his life, so he rendered an active obedience in that he fulfilled for the whole divine law, and a passive obedience in that he laid down his body and his soul as an offering for us.” [iv]
Julius Köbner’s distinguished place in the history of the German Baptist movement raises an interesting question: How could a movement that was founded in part by the son of a rabbi, reconcile its Jewish-influenced heritage with its hopes to thrive in an antisemitic Third Reich?
Forgetting Jewish Existence
Nazism made a solemn declaration:
“None of the Jewish Book, nor of its translation.”
Watching the Book burn, the robot crowd
Stomped, and laughed, long and loud. [v]
The Nazi determination to “create a world without Jews” by destroying the Jewish communities of Europe was not limited to their physical existence. It also involved, as Alon Confino contends, eliminating Jewish intellectual, literary, spiritual, and cultural achievements and contributions to create a new Germany and Christianity, divorced from its Jewish roots: “Jewish civilization had to be removed. Germany’s historical origins needed to be purified down to the Jews’ shared past with Christianity via the canonical text.” [vi] For the Nazis, this morphed into a spiritual and political obsession, for “the Jews and their historical roots, real or invented, from the Bible down to the modern period, must be eliminated at all costs and whatever the consequences.” [vii] Following Kristallnacht, Friedrich Werner, representing the northern regional German Supreme Evangelical Church Council, had “ordered that the name ‘Jehova’ and the names of the Jewish prophets must be erased wherever displayed in Protestant churches. The order followed Nazi threats that Christian churches permitting such names to remain would be set afire as were Jewish synagogues recently.” [viii]
How could a movement that was founded in part by the son of a rabbi, reconcile its Jewish-influenced heritage with its hopes to thrive in an antisemitic Third Reich?
A similar “German Christian” effort to transform the Protestant hymnbook was noted by both the Baptist Times and the Watchman-Examiner in 1942. The former observed that “references to the Old Testament should be excluded: ‘The words Hallelujah and Jehovah, and even the words Psalter, psalm, and temple, are altered’; the Covenant of God and God’s promise may not he mentioned.… A ‘baptismal’ hymn opens with ‘O tender child of German blood.’” [x] The American paper quoted another line from the baptismal poem: “We baptize you to service and bravery for devotion and loyalty to the nation in the new age.” [xi]
German Baptists were no doubt aware of the Nazi campaign to excise Judaism and Jews from Christian historical memory, liturgical practice, and theology. In 1948 Eberhard Schroeder recalled that the Baptist Publishing House was cognizant of the Nazi pressure to eradicate Jewish elements from the restricted set of publications they were still permitted to offer. [xii] The German Baptist Publishing House succumbed to Nazi pressure and censorship of Jewish-related themes, which naturally impacted how they referred to the Jewish Scriptures.
The 1944 Confession of Faith
G. Keith Parker observes that the 1847 German Baptist Confession “remained basically the same through several revisions until the New Federation when, in 1943–1944, Erich Sauer (for the Brethren) and Hans Luckey (for the Baptists) made a total revision.” [xiii] Similarly, W. L. Lumpkin ties the 1944 revision to the original confession: “A thorough revision of the Baptist Confession of 1847 was made. Two articles on the Word of God were greatly condensed, and the article on ‘Election to Salvation’ was omitted. The new Confession was considerably shorter than the old.” [xiv]
The 1944 Confession was a radical departure from the 1847 original, both in spirit and theology, and cannot be considered a revision undertaken primarily for brevity’s sake. The new document attempted to adjust the doctrinal position of German Baptists by forsaking its Jewish influences, in conformity with Nazi anti-Semitism and that movement’s aim to divorce Christianity from its Jewish roots. This was accomplished by the rearrangement of the confession’s structure, the deletion of specific original texts, and the addition of novel language that introduced Nazi perspectives.
The most significant revisions that excised Jewish influence from the 1944 Confession were made to articles 1, 4, 5, and 9.
Article 1: The Elimination of the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament)
The 1944 Confession omitted all mention of the Old Testament as binding on the church and instead substituted a new article. “On God and His Revelation” may be technically theologically orthodox, but its generic reference to “Holy Scripture” eliminated all specific references to the Old Testament and its individual books. The de-Judaization of the article was furthered by its treatment of the Trinity. God the Father was Creator and Lord of the world but was not credited with having a special relationship with Israel as his chosen covenant people. Jesus was “the Son of the living God, who died for us all” (all humanity), but there was no acknowledgment that Jesus was Jewish or Israel’s Messiah.
Articles 4 and 5: Jesus’ Messianic Identity
The 1847 Confession and its successors honored Jesus’ Jewish context and connection by declaring that through sinless “obedience,” Jesus “fulfilled for us the whole divine law.” [xv] In the revision, [xvi] Jesus was no longer tethered to the Jewish people or Judaism but was generically the Savior of all people. He did not fulfill a prior Mosaic covenant but brought salvation to humanity because “God wills that all men be saved.” [xvii]
Article 9: Natural Orders of Creation
Luckey and Sauer consolidated several articles (12–14) into one new section—“Concerning the Natural Orders” [xviii] (the new article 9). It contained four concessions to the Nazi viewpoint: the promotion of “natural orders” in place of “divine law,” the recognition of Sunday as a day of rest provided by “the Creator” without acknowledging the prior Jewish Sabbath, the acceptance of Volk as divinely sanctioned, and the duty of Christians to swear allegiance even to a totalitarian state.
Marriage, Family, and Volk. A common German word, Volk, took on a much darker meaning under the sway of Nazi ideology. Solberg explains: “Das Volk, or ‘the people,’ is a perfectly ordinary German term. The nazified meaning excluded everyone and everything the Nazis considered ‘un-German,’ especially the Jews. In Nazi-German, Volk could mean ‘race’ or ‘nation.’” [xx] One German Christian characterized Volk as “the divinely willed community of German people based on the created orders of race, blood, and soil.” The church’s mission “must be directed to the community that is the German Volk.” [xxi]
Paul Althaus, a prominent German theologian, affirmed a “twofold revelation of God: in Jesus Christ, and in the divine orders (family, state and Volk).” [xxii] Like German Baptist leaders, he enthusiastically praised the beginning of the Nazi era “as a gift and miracle of God,” while embracing the premise that Volk was an “order of creation.” [xxiii] Volk was tied to both family and state through the glorification of the Aryan race.
Subservience to the State. The Nazi ideal was of a racially pure people, propagated through families of Aryan ancestry (separated from inferior races, especially Jews), who lived under a totalitarian regime enjoying the absolute loyalty of all its citizens. Althaus maintained that the church should submit voluntarily to totalitarian authority and serve it wholeheartedly: “We Christians know ourselves bound by God’s will to the promotion of National Socialism, so that all members and ranks of the Volk will be ready for service and sacrifice to one another.” [xxiv]
The final section of article 9 of the 1944 Confession concludes with a discussion of the church’s obligation to the political state. The fusion of state and Volk is indistinguishable from Nazi teaching. No Baptist would have had problems with an assertion that service to humanity is akin to serving God, but an exclusivist understanding supporting nationalistic or racist allegiance as implied by Volk, in the context of the Nazi period, would not have gained any support from the wider Baptist movement.
The Question of Heresy
The 1944 Confession of German Baptist faith and practice was not an innocently crafted edit of the 1847 Confession, nor was it simply a friendly attempt to produce a general confession to reconcile differences between Baptists and their partners in the Alliance of the Evangelical Free Churches. Rather, the document constituted a radical challenge to a century-long tradition that was supported and undergirded by God’s historical interaction with the Jewish people.
The 1944 Confession was a systematic repudiation of this heritage, in harmony with what was happening in Germany during the Nazi period. Article after article of the original Baptist Confession underwent a literary and theological cleansing of its Jewish roots, with the aim of appeasing the Nazi anti-Semitic desire to eliminate all vestiges of Jewish heritage from German religious life. The new Confession was a sophisticated and intentional theological and ecclesiastical capitulation to Nazism.
Respected Holocaust scholar Franklin Littell claimed that the Protestant leadership of Germany “made no effort even to preserve the Jewish foundations of the faith, let alone to show concern for the fate of living Jews.” [xxvi] Sadly, the same may be said of German Baptist leaders. Littell further asserted that “Christians cannot establish a self-identity except in relation to the Jewish people—past and present, and whenever the Christians have attempted to do so, they have fallen into grievous heresy and sin.” [xxvii] Köbner’s confession of 1847 was a fine example of Baptists acknowledging the Jewish foundation of their faith and practice. Luckey’s 1944 revision erased the connection between Baptist spirituality and its Jewish roots while embracing Nazi-inspired concepts that were alien to historic Baptist doctrine. For these two reasons, it may be rightly judged as heretical, in Littell’s sense: “Deference to political authority rather than obedience to the (admittedly imperfect) creeds and confessions was heretical.” [xxviii]
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[ii] The 1847 Confession in German can be found at http://www.reformedreader.org/ccc/germanbaptist.htm.
[iii] The New Hampshire Confession states, “We believe [that] the Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired, and is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction; that it has God as its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” William L. Lumpkin, ed., Baptist Confessions of Faith (1959; repr., Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1974), 361–62.
[iv] McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 336.
[v] “We Shall Not Die: The Jew’s Answer to Hitler,” in Philip M. Raskin, The Collected Poems of Philip M. Raskin 1878–1944 (New York: Bloch, 1951), 20.
[vi] Alon Confino, A World without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 5.
[vii] Confino, 15.
[viii] “More Men and Things,” Watchman-Examiner, January 26, 1939, 104.andace Smith, “Met the Pastors Who Supported Trump”, ABCNews.com, April 14, 2016.
[ix] “More Men and Things,” Watchman-Examiner, August 29, 1940, 924–25.
[x] “Table Talk,” Baptist Times, July 23, 1942, 365.
[xi] “More Men and Things,” Watchman-Examiner, September 10, 1942, 893.
[xii] Eberhard Schroeder, “The Baptist Publishing House at Kassel,” Baptist Herald, February 15, 1948, 9.
[xiii] G. Keith Parker, Baptists in Europe: History & Confessions of Faith (Nashville: Broadman, 1982), 56.
[xiv] Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 402.
[xv] McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 336.
[xvi] “Election to Salvation” (1847) / ”Concerning Regeneration and Sanctification” (1944).
[xvii] Article 5, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, ed. Lumpkin, 404.
[xviii] “Article 9, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, ed. Lumpkin, 406–7.
[xix] Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 406
[xx] Solberg, Church Undone, 33.
[xxi] Solberg, 402.
[xxii] Matthew D. Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 25.
[xxiii] Solberg, Church Undone, 40; Robert P. Erickson and Susannah Heschel, eds. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 23.
[xxiv] Erickson and Heschel, Betrayal, 24.
[xxv] German Text of 1944 Confession, in Steubing, Bekenntnisse der Kirche, 284: “Und wir leisten dem Oberhaupt des Staates den Treueid, …”
[xxvi] Franklin H. Littell, The Crucifixion of the Jews: The Failure of Christians to Understand the Jewish Experience (1975; repr., Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986, 1996), 52.
[xxvii] Littell, 66.
[xxviii] Littell, 76.