Gelassenheit in the Modern Anabaptist Context
In the twenty-first century, scholars who want to know about popular uses of a particular term have a powerful tool at their fingertips: Google. Despite all the well-merited warnings about using sources found on the Internet in scholarly research, for this particular purpose, it seems an appropriate place to begin. Armed with only the knowledge that “Gelassenheit” is an important concept to the Amish, an Internet surfer can use a search engine to pull up a list of sites which discuss Gelassenheit in the context of the Amish: Gelassenheit being used to sell Amish furniture, Gelassenheit on websites promoting tours of the “simple life” in Amish country, and Gelassenheit manifest in the Amish refusal to use telephones or automobiles, among others. One web-page ties the Amish predilection for Gelassenheit to an agricultural life; the anonymous author of this site then concludes that “[c]arpentry is another [occupation] that fits well even though it requires a little more use of technology.” The reader can then follow a link to order an “Amish entertainment center” —a piece of furniture for which an Amish family would have absolutely no use!
These websites often try to define or explain the meaning of Gelassenheit. One of the most common explanations says that Gelassenheit includes “personality, symbols, structure, ritual, and values.” They commonly focus on “submission to the will of God.” In some instances, they go further; one site says, “Amish culture is based on Gelassenheit, a German word which means ‘submission to authority.’” Another recurring claim is that Gelassenheit is the foundation of the “small, close-knit” communities found among the Amish.
These attempts to define a term which has no English equivalent will likely strike a German reader as oddly inaccurate. In the high German term “Gelassenheit” there is little inherent meaning of “submission to authority.” In the Amish context, however, the term does carry the meanings which these web-sites suggest. Works with a sounder academic footing suggest this, as well. In his classic study of the Amish, the sociologist John A. Hostetler, who was uniquely qualified to speak about the Amish community because he grew up in it before pursuing a career in academia, writes:
As can be demonstrated from historical sources, the Amish stress the Anabaptist theme of Gelassenheit with its many meanings: resignation, calmness of mind, composure, staidness, conquest of selfishness, long-suffering, collectedness, silence of the soul, tranquility, inner surrender, yieldedness, equanimity, and detachment. “We must reside quietly in Christ” is an oft-repeated phrase in Anabaptist writings.
Although the term itself may now be used more frequently among the Amish than among other modern Anabaptist groups, it is a term taken—as Hostetler suggests—from the broader Anabaptist heritage predating the Amish schism in 1693. The Amish originally broke away from the Swiss Anabaptist group, and they were initially most numerous in Alsace, where many of the Swiss had settled as a result of persecution by Swiss authorities. The Anabaptist theologian Robert Friedmann suggests that Gelassenheit was also an important motif in Hutterite heritage. The Hutterite movement was centered in Moravia, where the concept of Gelassenheit acquired a unique interpretation which included full surrender of personal property to the community. An entry entitled “Gelassenheit” in the Mennonite Encyclopedia notes that Dutch devotional literature uses the Dutch equivalent “leijdzaamheid,” and that Menno Simons, for whom the Mennonites are named, incorporated the concept into his 1555 treatise on the “Cross of Christ.” The Mennonite group eventually grew to include more than just Frisian and Dutch Anabaptists, but Calvin Redekop, another sociologist with Anabaptist roots, writes that “[t]he powerful tradition of Demut (humility) and Gelassenheit (submission) that has been etched deeply into the Mennonite soul forbids one from trafficking in self-analysis or attention to the accomplishments of one’s own group.”
Like Hostetler’s list of “many meanings” and Redekop’s retention of the German term, the article in the Mennonite Encyclopedia indicates the difficulty of translating “Gelassenheit”; it notes that an article in the Mennonite Quarterly Review in 1950 suggested “about 15 possible translations, none perfectly fitting.” The difficulty of translation stems from the complexity of the term and its evolving meanings in the German language. German authors have appropriated the term for their own uses, adding significant nuances to its usage.