Eberhard Arnold's Life and Work

Eberhard Arnold as a young manEberhard Arnold (1883 - 1935) is best known as the founder of the Bruderhof Communities. The following account was written by his widow Emmy and published in Eberhard Arnold: A Testimony to Church Community from his Life and Writings (Plough 1953, 1973).

Eberhard Arnold was born in Königsberg on the 26th of July 1883. He was the third child of Carl Franklin Arnold, who was a high school teacher at the time. His mother, Elizabeth Arnold, nee Voigt, came from an old family of scholars. His paternal grandfather, Franklin Luther Arnold, was a missionary of English and American descent, and pastor of a Presbyterian Church in the United States.

Eberhard had a brother and three sisters. When he was five, the family left Königsberg, since his father had been called to Breslau as professor of church history. Eberhard was full of wild ideas and boyish pranks which left him little time for school. Because of all his mischief, he was not always in the good graces of his teachers and his classmates' parents. Even as a child he objected to social inequality and made friends with the very poor and with tramps. He found more warm-heartedness and genuine humanity in them than in middle-class people. Once on vacation he was staying at his uncle's country parsonage. He was strongly impressed by the inward religious warmth of this man, particularly because he took the part of the poor and oppressed, which aroused the hostility of the rich members of his congregation. It was in his uncle's house that he first met a member of the Salvation Army. The brotherly way in which his uncle spoke with this man while Eberhard was there was a powerful impulse to him in the direction of a genuine Christian love, which shows its strength precisely in love of the very poor. So Eberhard, then sixteen years old, experienced a radical inner change. He told his parents and teachers that his life was going to take a completely different direction from then on, but they did not understand him.

In his search for people of kindred spirit, Eberhard made connection with a number of groups that had been stirred by Christ. A group of other students gathered around him, seeking through Bible study to find a deeper realization of the way of Jesus. The Salvation Army had made a great impression on him. He went with these devoted people into the darkest haunts of Breslau in the urge to free men from drink and filth. He went with one heavy drinker to and from work every morning and evening, because the way went past a bar. Profoundly shocked by the misery of the poor in Breslau's East End, he found the social life of his middle-class parents increasingly hard to endure. Thinking of the misery of the poor, he refused to attend a certain social function because he found it wrong to spend so much money in one evening to entertain the well-to-do, whereupon his father confined him to his room. His parents by no means consented to his new activities, and certainly not to his attitude on the social question.

When Eberhard had finished school, his parents insisted that he study theology, although his own opinion was that he could be of more service to men as a doctor. In Breslau, Halle, and Erlangen, he studied theology, philosophy, and educational method, concluding his years at the university with a doctoral dissertation on Early Christian and Antichristian Elements in the Development of Friederich Nietzsche. While he was in Halle he became intimately connected with the German Student Christian Movement, and worked for several years in close cooperation with Ludwig von Gerdtell. Both of them worked in the midst of the revivalist movement which was stirring so many spiritual seekers at the time.

It was during this time, in 1907, that we met. After some profound and earnest talks together about the nature of Christian discipleship, we were engaged, though we had known each other only a few days. From then on, we went our way together. We were married in 1909. During the first years of our marriage, Eberhard was much sought-after as a lecturer. He spoke in various German cities, such as Halle, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, and Hamburg about the crucial problems of the time. Some of his subjects were "Early Christianity in the Present Day," "Social Distress," "Freedom for Every Man," "The Distress and Enslavement of the Masses," "Present-Day Religious Struggles," "Jesus as He Really Was," and "Nietzsche's Criticism of Christianity."

It was then that Eberhard's conflict with the state church began, brought on chiefly by the question of baptism. Eberhard saw that the church was on the wrong foundation because of its connections with the sate and with property. This realization made a decisive difference to our lives. Eberhard was baptized and left the state church. He consequently could not accept a post in it. Stimulated by the writings of the Swiss religious-socialist pastor Hermann Kutter, he increasingly took the part of the proletariat and all other oppressed classes. His declared attitude to the working class and to the state church resulted in numerous disputes with his parents and with the church authorities.

In 1913 Eberhard contracted a serious illness of the lungs and larynx, and therefore our little family moved to the southern Tyrol, where we were able to rent a cottage near Bozen. This time gave us the opportunity for thorough meditation which led to deeper clarity. It was then that Eberhard wrote the first chapters of the book Innerland and a series of important essays, such as "Love to Christ," "Love to the Brothers," and "The Meaning and Power of Prayer Life." He also made a thorough study of Anabaptist history; and figures like Hans Denck, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Thomas Münzer made a great impression on us during these months. At this time, it became increasingly clear to us that our life had to take a more radical and active direction. From this time onward, my sister Else von Hollander lived with us, and took a very lively share in everything that concerned us. While I was very much taken up with nursing Eberhard and caring for the children, she helped him in his scholarly work as his secretary. She was one of those who began to live in community with us, and after that was of great help to Eberhard until her death in 1932.

The First World War broke out in 1914, while we were in the midst of these inner experiences. Eberhard was drafted into the army and served for several weeks as a driver in the Service Corps in eastern Germany. He was soon discharged because of his poor health. From then on he was constantly preoccupied by the military question, though it took some time for him to arrive at a clear solution.

Then we lived in Halle for a while, until 1915, when Eberhard was called to Berlin as literary director of the Furche Verlag (Furrow Publishing House). Our family stayed in Berlin until 1920. Besides its periodical, Die Furche, the publishing house issued a series of books and art-folios for the use of prisoners of war. Eberhard was severely shocked by his frequent visits to hospitals, and he grew increasingly opposed to the war spirit.

After 1919 we found a current of new life coming to us from all sides. At Whitsun that year Eberhard spoke in Marburg to members of the German Student Christian Movement. Jesus' words came alive for the people at this meeting, showing us in the Sermon on the Mount the perfectly clear solution to the problems of war and social injustice.

Erwin Wissman, in reporting on this Whitsun conference in Die Furche, wrote: "The focus of all that was said and thought was Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Eberhard Arnold burned it into our hearts with passionate spirituality, hammered it into our wills with prophetic power and the tremendous mobile force of his whole personality. This was the Sermon on the Mount in the full force of its impact, in its absolute and undiminished relevance, its unconditional absoluteness. Here there was no compromise. Whoever wants to belong to his Kingdom, must give himself wholly and go through with it to the last! To be a Christian means to live the life of Christ. We are obligated by a burning challenge: the rousing summons to love, and the ominous, 'He that takes the sword shall perish by the sword.' The beginnings of a decisive spiritual revolution depend upon us ... it is up to us to do the deeds of Jesus in his Spirit, to help men in body, in soul and spirit. This is the only way we Christians can follow today as envoys of the Kingdom of God and as the vanguard of the only politics that is possible and necessary--the politics of Christocracy."

This Marburg conference was the beginning. It was here that we saw the vision of future things. The fruits of this experience became more and more apparent, until out of the vision life itself gradually assumed a new form.

It began with discussions, when we held open house in Berlin. Often as many as eighty or a hundred came, people from the most various groupings of opinion—members of the Youth Movement, workers, students, atheists, evangelicals, anarchists, Quakers. The question burning in us all was, "What shall we do?" The discussion centered around the Sermon on the Mount. Everyone knew that life had to be changed. There had to be action at last! No more words! We want to see action!

This radical attitude led to controversy with the directors of Die Furche and the German Student Christian Movement. In various conferences like those in Bad Oeyenhausen and at Saarow, the struggle went on over crucial questions such as: "What is the Christian’s attitude to war and revolution?" and, "Can a Christian be a soldier?" Eberhard’s answer was an emphatic "No."

A report on these conferences says: "Eberhard Arnold was glad to admit the necessity of personal rebirth, but said that the ethic of Jesus should be part of every evangelization. Jesus did recognize the power of the state, but characterized the Kingdom of God as something entirely different. The Christian represents a continual corrective within the state, an arousing of conscience and a strengthening of the will of justice, a leaven that is, a foreign body in the sense of a higher value. But insofar as the state uses force, the Christian must refuse to cooperate. Hence he cannot be a soldier, executioner, or policeman. It is our duty to testify in word and action that nothing in the words of Jesus may be distorted. The demand is always absolute: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ We feel we are in the world as a corrective to the norm."

Now new ways had to be found and taken. We answered the call of the friends of the "New Work," a group of religious socialists, and the summons to the "original church" that reached us from Schlüchtern. First we and some of our friends proposed a Whitsun conference in Schlüchtern. About two hundred people, most of them young, came from all parts of Germany with the urge to find an answer to the burning question, "What shall we do?" How can we find true humanity, true freedom, and a genuinely dedicated life? Under the stimulus of a visit to the Free German Youth settlement, Habertshof, we realized that our way would have to be one of brotherly community life. We regarded private property and possessions as one of the most evil roots of war and all the wrongness of human life.

But where to begin? In the city, or in the country? What is the best way to relieve the misery of the masses? The answer our working-class friends gave us was, "Go into the country." From the start, it was clear to us that community life would have to be a life of unity in faith, and of community of property and work in voluntary poverty. Particularly the writings of Gustav Landauer turned us in this direction.

In the summer of 1920 we rented three small rooms at the back of an inn in the village of Sannerz, Kreis Schlüchtern. Nobody was thinking of starting a community with a new philosophy of life; we only wanted to put into practice, together with all who wanted to come and help, the things that had become clear to us. At the time we were only seven adults and five children. From the very outset the little group was sought out by many guests who so often arrived unexpectedly that we used to repeat the lines, "Ten were invited, twenty have come. Pour water in the soup and bid all welcome."

We had many discussions with our guests, struggling for clarity about the questions that concerned us and them. These went on far into the night, but often after lively debate a powerful experience of fellowship was granted us. What was begun in those days was not willed in human strength by individuals. It was begun and established by the Spirit, and this is the only reason it has lasted. (See "The Innermost Essence of our Growth)

In 1922 there were many changes. Many of our friends turned back to the old life. They were disillusioned: they said that people today were too individualistic to be able to give themselves up to the extent of being capable of community living. We felt the same incapability in ourselves, but we had heard the challenge of community life so distinctly that, for all our apprehension, we were determined to go through with it. Only seven ventured to begin again; all the rest went away. Objectively, the chief reason for the separation was the issue of faith versus purely economic reasoning. In a talk with some of our guests later on, Eberhard said of this time of crisis and new beginning:

"When the call first came to us, we felt that the Spirit of Jesus Christ had driven us and charged us to live in full community, in communal solidarity for all people. It was the Word of Jesus Christ, the reality of His life and the fact of His Spirit, that gave us the strength to start firmly and certainly on this way and to keep on though our steps were short and feeble. When we had traveled only a short way on this path, times came upon us that put this power to the test, hostile times of trial, when friends we knew well and whom we had grown to love deeply, suddenly reversed their position and became enemies of the way, because they had turned away from freedom and unity, because they wanted to go back again into ordinary middle-class life, to normal private life and their own pocketbook. At that time, the movement was led into bondage again through the middle-class influences of capitalism and its business and professional life.

"But though most of our friends left us, though whole groups had deserted the flag of unity and freedom, though well-meaning friends might earnestly advise us that the way of freedom and unity would lead us to a lonely and ineffectual end, that could not change anything. With our own children and those we had adopted, we had to push on toward the goal."

Materially speaking, the new beginning was just as hard as the original start two years previously. Full of gratitude and courage, though somewhat hesitant, we set to work. Now we were living in a larger house at Sannerz and the size and tasks of the community were growing slowly. An important part of our work during these years was publishing, together with the education of underprivileged children, who grew up with our own children. The farm and garden work developed gradually.

The place at Sannerz was soon too small and we looked around for something else. In 1926, with very little capital, we bought the Sparhof in the Fulda district, a very poor and worked out farm. It took some time to complete the move until we were all together again there in 1927 and could proceed to build up our communal life. It was quite different when we had a place that belonged to the community entirely. We wanted everything we did to symbolize the divine and the evolving Church. The children’s community as an integral part of the whole, the garden and farm, the building, the craftwork and publishing, as well as our work with guests and with the poor, could now be reestablished and expanded, as far as we had the ability an strength to do it.

The full responsibility for all practical and spiritual activity was borne by the brotherhood which assigned to various members certain specific aspects of the work. Eberhard’s chief task during those years was to stimulate, deepen, and clarify the life of this "socio-educational community of work," as it was called, particularly in thinking through the problems of the various departments of work. Meanwhile the community was constantly growing. Young people came and devoted themselves and all their energies to the cause and the tasks facing the whole community. It was not long before they could take over the responsibility of directing certain branches of the work.

During these years we spent at Sannerz and at the Rhön Bruderhof, Eberhard was also giving lectures in various cities in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and took an active part in conferences of the Youth Movement and of pacifist and other groups. His book Die ersten Christen nach dem Tode der Apostel ("The Early Christians After the Death of the Apostles") appeared in 1926. It was an attempt to express the power of the Sprit which had animated the early Christian Church and which had played a fundamental part in the beginning of the Bruderhof community. He dedicated the book to his parents, grateful, in spite of the many disagreements and struggles he had had with them, for the influences of his home and for the growing understanding they showed as time went on for the life we had chosen.

Eberhard took a special interest in the care and education of the children, having a profound reverence for them and a realization that adults have much to learn from them. As a teacher, he knew how to arouse a lively interest in the children for the past and present history of mankind, and in man’s hopes for the future. Both old and young took part in the work on the land, particularly in sowing and harvest time. There was plenty of work to do and the times when the whole household worked together were an important part of the communal experience, for us and for our guests. The day was spent in work and the evening in discussions in which either the whole household or only the brotherhood took part. We went on hikes together and tried to find contact with the neighboring peasant-farmers. We used to sit under the village lime tree, singing and playing folksongs. Eberhard would read a story or legend, the peasants brought us something to eat and were drawn into our common experience. Occasionally we gave plays in the neighboring villages and tried to present a simple message. Or else we took long walks by starlight and gathered in the vaulted cellar of the Steckelsburg, the ancestral castle of Ulrich von Hutten, and sat around a roaring fire while Eberhard told us of Hutten’s times: "It is a delight to be alive, the spirits are awakening! . . ." Then home again in the darkness.

Since the group kept growing we were always busy building, and mostly without enough funds. Eberhard was extremely interested in the planning of the houses. We wanted them to express the spirit that inspired us, with its characteristic simplicity. All took part in determining the way we built. Modesty and simplicity, but bright colors, like God’s creation in all its diversity—that was what we wanted in our houses.

Another thing we always laid great stress on was craftwork, especially artistic crafts. The design for every candlestick or bowl that our wood-turning shop intended to make was communally appraised and decided. Eberhard always said that precisely this kind of work, in its simplicity of form, should testify to the way we felt as a community.

We later added a printing shop to our publishing house. Eberhard emphasized the beauty of the printed page and the neat execution of setting, printing, and binding. The producing of each book or article, even of some letters, was a matter that concerned the whole community. During communal work, for instance sorting out the potatoes, manuscripts were discussed and proof sheets read. In this way the members of the community gained a thorough knowledge of the books of our "Source" series, such as The Early Christians, Francis of Assisi, Novalis, Zinzendorf, and of other publications like the book Innerland which we revised.

In the mornings we met for a silent meeting. Our common mealtimes were a symbol for us of the coming Kingdom of justice, love and peace. Our food was always simple, often poor, but we ate it from our earthenware bowls in an atmosphere of devotional fellowship in the well-lit dining room with its paneled walls, its green tables covered with red linoleum, and its seven-armed candlestick in the center.

On summer evenings we often gathered under the big beech tree on the hill overlooking the community. Here, with our guests and those who were working with us, we sought for the true inner liberation of the individual from himself, for true peace and the just society. This often developed into an earnest discussion of the kind of life that rises from the power of the love of Jesus. We repeatedly won through to a genuine experience of fellowship which led many who were there to a commitment of their whole lives.

In our meetings Eberhard stove to give us a vital appreciation of the most important spiritual movements of history. For example, we all studied the rise of Quakerism and the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century, giving special attention to the origins of the Hutterian communities in Moravia. We sensed that the same sprit that had led us together had been at work in this movement. Knowledge of the thousands of martyrs, who had sealed with their deaths the lives they had devoted to following Christ, strengthened our faith, conscious as we were that we had not yet persevered to the end. When we learned that there were still Hutterian Bruderhof communities in America, we contacted them and a lively correspondence followed. We never had any desire to be a group on our own and had always sought unity with other movements and communities which were led by the Spirit. In 1930 Eberhard went to America and stayed almost a year with the Hutterians, visiting all their communities.

In spite of the fact that the Brothers, who had lived in community for four hundred years, had different views about some things, which were then and still are a matter for discussion between us, we decided to join with them, since they were closer to the early Christian Church than any other groups known to us at that time.

When Eberhard came back from America, an intensive time of spiritual and numerical growth was given to us. Many new people from Switzerland, England, Sweden, and Germany joined us, including some from various groups which were seeking unity just as we were. During this time people from the Werkhof near Zurich and from a community not far from Eisenach came to us. During the years that followed, other similar groups joined us.

We had some sharp disputes in our discussions with the guests in those days, because the spirit of National Socialism had begun to spread through Germany. When Hitler came to pwer in 1933 the progress of our work was stopped and we saw all the more clearly how hostile the spirit of National Socialism was to ours. The government issued restrictions which made our work in Germany increasingly difficult. In November 1933 the Bruderhof was taken over by the Gestapo, the S.S., and the police, and our school was closed. We were refused permission to receive guests and our social work and the sale of our books was made practically impossible. During the raid, every member, in particular Eberhard, who was in bed with a broken leg, was exhaustively questioned. When the detachment left, they took with them a whole car full of books and papers which they confiscated.

We had been told that a state school with a Nazi teacher would be set up at the Bruderhof. We decided, therefore, to take the school children, about twenty in number, to Switzerland without delay. When the teacher came there were no children to be found. The young people over school age also went to Switzerland.

Eberhard and I went to look for a new place, which we found in the little principality of Liechtenstein next to Switzerland. Here we rented an empty summer hotel at Silum in the Alps at an elevation of nearly five thousand feet. This was a venture in faith since we had no money at all with which to fit out a new community. Help came though, just when we needed it most. In March 1934 the children and young people reached Liechtenstein by various routes. After several families had also come from the Rhön Bruderhof, we founded the Alm Bruderhof. During the months that followed, Eberhard and I made frequent trips back and forth between the two settlements, each time never knowing if we would return. Those were times of danger when many people were being arrested and thrown into concentration camps.

Germany was arming. In the spring of 1935 we were faced with the difficult question of whether the young men of the community who were eligible for military service should stay in Germany and witness against war and the spirit of militarism, or apply their energies to building up the new community in Liechtenstein. After some profound consideration by the whole Brotherhood we saw that our witness is not merely the rejection of war and injustice but to a much greater extent our life’s work is to build for peace. So the young men went to the Alm Bruderhof which soon had grown to a hundred people, children and adults. The number soon increased by an influx of new members from England. Eberhard had made a trip to Holland and England in the spring of 1935, giving talks, and, incidentally, investigating the possibility of a better location for settlement in England in case the Alm should turn out to be only a temporary home.

Only the Swiss, English, and Swedish members, with very few Germans, stayed in Germany after that, and difficulties multiplied. In the midst of this situation, when the community was living in a state of inorganic separation imposed from without by political conditions, Eberhard had to submit to a surgical operation on the advice of a medical friend. It was hoped that the operation would help his broken leg to heal. After this operation he died quite suddenly in the Elizabeth Hospital in Darmstadt on November 22, 1935. To the last he bore witness to the way and direction which must be demonstrated to the whole world, today as then: the brotherly life in peace and justice.


For more on Eberhard Arnold, read Against the Wind, written by Marcus Baum, and published by The Plough Publishing House.