An Amish Farmer and a Pietist Prince in Berleburg

Our next stop was less than an hour away by car. In Bad Berleburg, another Swiss Anabaptist migrant relative—this one named Hermann Bender—in the eighteenth century worked through a fraught relationship with Casimir, a pietist prince.

Unfortunately, we were barred from entering Berleburg Castle. It turns out that the very next day, Prince Gustav of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg was getting married to Carina Axelsson, a former model and children’s author from America. Prince Gustav, the son of Princess Benedicte and the nephew of Queen Margrethe of Denmark, is very royal. That has limited his marriage prospects. In his will, written in 1939 in the middle of the Nazi regime, the prince’s grandfather mandated that his prince-grandson could only marry a woman who was “Aryan, noble and Protestant” if he wished to inherit the Berleburg Castle.

Carina Axelsson fits none of these requirements. She has a Mexican mother, was born a Catholic, and her parents are not noble.

Thankfully, the family’s standards have changed, and they have been working for two decades with lawyers to overturn the will. Finally, the highest level of justice in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia ruled in their favor, establishing that the prince is the rightful owner of the castle. The way was paved for the marriage of the prince and Axelsson, which happened yesterday.

Less thankfully, that meant we could only go in the castle’s courtyard, not inside for a tour. Because the queen of Denmark would be on site, security was high, and security closed the gates soon after we arrived. We even saw two paparazzi waiting with their cameras.

Our visit was still meaningful. My grandfather, David I. Miller, had been in the castle’s archives decades earlier, so I was able to piece together the story that follows. And . . . not all of the story takes place at the castle. As you might guess by now, my ancestor was not the Berleburg prince. He was a farmer at nearby Homrighausen, which we were able to visit after the castle gates were closed. Somehow I think Hermann Bender, his eyes rolling, would appreciate this!


In 1738 Count Casimir, ruler of the small kingdom of Wittgenstein-Berleburg, imprisoned my great-great-great-great-uncle Hermann Bender, an Amish-Mennonite farmer. The dispute—over whether Bender could keep a dog—seems almost laughable now. But it reflects important eighteenth-century realities in an era fraught with difficulties for both Anabaptists and their rulers.

Count Casimir (1687-1741) — courtesy of Wikimedia

In a region (located in modern-day Germany) where many rulers exiled and killed Anabaptists, Casimir’s treatment of Bender was actually quite benign. In fact, the pietist-influenced prince was deeply shaped by Nicolaus von Zinzendorf and other leaders of a Protestant renewal movement that emphasized devotional spirituality and discipleship. These associations also led the prince to practice a religious toleration ahead of his time. According one 1828 book, Casimir had expressed both “confidentially and publicly that all who were persecuted either because of religion or their opinions” could take refuge in his kingdom. Bender and dissidents of many other stripes took the prince up on his offer.

Casimir’s faith, however, clashed with the demands of princely rule. As a count, he was expected to build a beautiful castle. But as an ascetic pietist, he sought to quell his interest in the splendorous arts to focus instead on spiritual things. He also worried that he might be overtaxing his subjects, something he feared God might hold against him in the final judgment.

As a count, he was expected to reign with authority. As a Christian, he felt compelled to deal patiently and compassionately with his wife and subjects. This he struggled to do. In one passage of his diary, Casimir wrote, “I am deeply troubled that I did not ward off evil, about my wrath that went unbridled towards my wife and everybody else during the noon hour . . . My behavior was cruel, let alone Christian; it was brutish . . . Oh Thou, God of peace and unity, Lord Jesus Christ, give guidance.” Casimir was a conflicted Christian count.

Homrighausen, where the Bender family lived before migrating to Hesse. These buildings date back to 1787. They didn’t quite exist yet when Bender was there.

Hermann Bender found himself caught between Casimir’s princely obligations and his desire to practice Christian compassion. The tension arose from a contract that the two men signed in 1731. Bender, grateful for safe refuge in the count’s kingdom, had agreed to manage and farm some of Casimir’s fields at Homrighausen in the forested mountains north of the castle. The problem was that these fields were located in prime hunting grounds, and the very animals that Casimir wanted to hunt were feeding on Bender’s crops.

My grandfather did research in the Bad Berleburg archives, located in the right wing of this castle.

Archival documents, discovered in the early 1980s by my grandfather David I. Miller in the Bad Berleburg castle, show that Casimir and Bender reached a compromise. Bender could use a dog to fend off the deer and wild boars, but it must “not harm the wild animals.” More specifically, the dog must be of small size and slowed by a “good tüchtiger” (club stick) that hung around the its neck and dangled between the legs to slow it down.

An example of the hunting culture that pervades Count Casimir’s castle

The bottom line: The prince was willing to grant religious freedom to persecuted dissidents, but they had better not mess with his recreation! Indeed, the importance of hunting to the rulers at Bad Berleburg is still apparent nearly three centuries later. Stuffed animals—including fish, deer, elk, bear, and boar—and drawings of hunting expeditions are on display all through the castle’s interior. In fact, the Casimir’s descendants even now are reintroducing the European bison to the region.

Five years into Bender and Casimir’s arrangement, the dog compromise was not working. The wild game continued to eat his crops. And so Bender petitioned the count to be released from the contract. But Casimir was in the middle of construction to expand the size and grandeur of his castle, and the project was stretching his resources to the limit. Needing the money, he refused to grant Bender’s request.

When the Amish farmer persisted in voicing his grievances, the count responded with anger. Casimir charged Bender with acting “aus bosem Eigensinn” (out of evil stubbornness) for threatening to abandon the land. As the months passed, he fined Bender and called him a liar. Eventually, the count imprisoned him. Only after a long stretch of confinement—and after Bender’s assurance that he would not break the contract—did Casimir release him. The relationship, however, was permanently marred, and Bender and many in the Amish-Mennonite community (minus Bender’s stepson, who remained to finish out the contract) soon migrated eastward to Hesse.

It is easy, as I just did, to narrate this dispute in black and white. In the context of the violent Reformation (in which Catholics killed Lutherans, Lutherans killed Catholics, and everyone killed the Anabaptists), clean narratives are popular. One memorable version, from William Estep’s The Anabaptist Story, reads, “In the darkness the Anabaptists shone like so many meteors against the night.” Darkness and night, of course, referring mostly to Roman Catholicism.

Using this narrative approach, Bender could easily emerge as a pure, persecuted pacifist forced into prison and finally exile. In fact, his move to Hesse was yet another stop in a series of migrations, the first having taken place from Switzerland. A third migration, as persecution and economic pressures built, would take place in the late eighteenth century when next generation moved to Pennsylvania. For other Anabaptists, the search for religious freedom and arable land would lead them to Russia, Canada, Mexico, and Paraguay. There’s no question about it: Anabaptists were treated roughly.

But Anabaptists didn’t always play nicely themselves. Bender, suggests my grandfather in an article, was an entrepreneur with “an aggressive and restless personality.” Though as an Anabaptist he was not permitted to own land, he may have been quite wealthy; he certainly felt empowered enough to conduct intense negotiations with Casimir. Other early Anabaptists appear in their writings as vituperative and self-righteous prophets. Moreover, their theological pacifism obscures a “nonviolent” culture that has sometimes taken patriarchal or coercive shape. Consider the Münster Anabaptists, the sexual predation of John Howard Yoder, and a “rape culture” in some traditionalist Anabaptist communities. Sympathetic, even hagiographic, narratives of Amish and Mennonite communities overlook Anabaptist capacities for violence. How disconcerting that those who love the idea of peace still have trouble living in peace.

Moreover, the “meteors against the night” metaphor does not fully reckon with the complex realities of their big, bad Catholic, Lutheran, and Pietist persecutors. Were many of them privileged, power-hungry guardians of empire who cared more about hunting than their leaseholders? Of course. But some, like Count Casimir, also wrestled profoundly with the dilemmas of social responsibility and nurtured a serious devotional life. Catholics too nurtured revival, and even their persecution of Anabaptists, as Brad Gregory describes in Salvation at Stake, was intended to save souls by limiting the spread of heretical ideas.

There may be much to admire about the Amish farmer’s apparent pursuit of justice. But we should be circumspect about demonizing Casimir as a tyrant or romanticizing Bender as a peace-loving, proto-democratic egalitarian.


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