No. 16, Summer 2001
Anna Brons: A Gift from a Woman’s Hand
Anna (nee Cremer) Brons (1820–1902) is the author of the first Mennonite history published in Germany. The book with its long title, Ursprung, Entwickelung und Schicksale der Taufgestinnten oder Mennoniten in kurzen Zuegen ubersichtlich dargestellt von Frauenband (Origin, Development and Fate of the Mennonites Briefly Presented by a Woman), appeared in 1884. This “gift from a woman’s hand” was a significant beginning in the writing of Anabaptist–Mennonite history.
Anna was born on November 23, 1810, in Norden, North-West Germany. Her father had come from Holland in 1806 and founded in Norden the famous Doornkaat distillery, whose schnapps is still sold worldwide. Her mother died at Anna’s birth, with the result that she spent her childhood and youth in the home of her uncle, S. D. Cremer of Norden.
Since there was no Mennonite school in Norden, Mennonite children attended the local Lutheran school. Being an intellectually active and curious child, Anna learned easily. She memorized the Apostles’ Creed and many biblical passages, but as she tells us, the Lutheran ideas and view of the Christian faith were not to her liking. God the father was portrayed as far removed and Jesus Christ was pictured as sitting on the right hand of God who would someday return to judge the living and the dead. The God Anna came to accept and love was the one described in Psalms 139 and 145 and presented in the Mennonite congregation. This God of her forbears was more immediate, comforting and loving. “I understood and responded to this love in my heart.”
Even though Anna grew up in a Mennonite home and attended a Mennonite congregation, she did not learn about the history of the Anabaptists there. It was through the books in her uncle’s library, especially Thieleman van Braght’s Martyr’s Mirror, a collection of stories and pictures portraying the suffering and death of Anabaptists men and women, that her interests in the Mennonite story were nurtured.
Reading the Dutch text with some difficulty, Anna was deeply moved by the faith and perseverance of the sixteenth-century Christians who would rather die than deny their Lord. This rich spiritual heritage of the Mennonites inspired Anna later to write her history. Her book was to help her people, particularly the young among them, to appreciate and by guided by their past.
Anna and Isaac Brons were married in 1830. They raised nine children and maintained a thriving business in Emden where they lived. To this day the business remains in the hands of Brons descendants who still live in Emden. Isaac Brons was politically active in the local community and was a delegate to the Frankfurt Parliament of 1848. Both Anna and Isaac worked passionately toward the unification of Germany and assumed that their political involvement was part of their active Christian faith. Making positive contributions to the larger community and society was part of their Christian obligations.
The Brons were also deeply involved in the work of their congregation and community. They served human needs in Emden and beyond wholeheartedly and sacrificially. During a difficult winter they helped the unemployed. They set up soup kitchens for the poor and donated woolens and other materials for women and children in need. Anna was especially involved in women’s societies and organizations for the assistance of wounded soldiers. Her help extended to friends and enemies alike. For both Anna and Isaac the motto of Hans Denck, an early Anabaptist, “To know Christ is to follow him in life,” meant engagement with the ills of their world. Christian discipleship required practical and visible action.
Brons and her husband also sought to strengthen their faith through study and intellectual discipline. She was convinced that “the truth lies only in the depths.” That meant that faith and reason were compatible. “Reason tells me I must believe.” This conviction motivated her efforts to understand the God-created world.
In writing the history for which she is remembered, Anna Brons was motivated by two things. First was her sense of justice, which compelled her to set straight the record of the misunderstood and misrepresented Mennonites.
Second, the Anabaptist–Mennonite story needed to inspire the young among the Mennonites to follow the faith and values of their spiritual forebears. Brons was convinced that if a congregational community was ignorant of its past, it could not survive and prosper. A community’s heritage, according to Anna, was the foundation upon which its faith and piety rested. Mennonites might be small in number, but their effectiveness had been significant. They had a tradition that was as legitimate as the Lutheran and Reformed. There was thus a pedagogical purpose to the writing of her history.
In telling the Mennonite story Anna was guided by the insight that the faith and life of a people are not static but develop and change according to times and circumstances. Anna Brons sought to make her Mennonite faith relevant to her time. We should do no less.