Gerhard (or Gerrit) Roosen (1612-1711) was a Mennonite bishop in northern Germany. He is famous today mostly for the catechism he published when he was 90 years old, the Christliches Gemütsgespräch or “Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith and the Acknowledging of the Truth Which Is After Godliness in Hope of Eternal Life (Titus 1:1, 2), in Questions and Answers for the Rising Youth, by Which They May Be Incited and Encouraged to a Wholesome Practice of Life.” The common English title is simply Roosen’s Catechism.
Gerrit Roosen, a man of deep moderate views, was quite a revered, and respected Mennonite of his time. There’s little information about Roosen, though the few letters that have survived the 400 years are primary filled with Roosen’s over 700 sermons, defending his congregation against controversies and attacks, and letters that speaks boldly towards Jakob Amman’s outrageous demands, as he put forth.
In earlier life, Roosen was primarily known as a whaler, and became a wealthy businessman; one of the industries in which he was dominant was whaling in the waters of Greenland. Born in Altona, he lived on Blömken Street in Hamburg, marrying in 1640 to Maria (Mayken) Amoury, the daughter of the Mennonite deacon and merchant Hans Amoury.
Throughout Roosen’s life, devotion, and money for the Mennonite congregation of Hamburg-Altona, he was chosen as deacon in 1649 and as preacher in 1660. For over 50 years he served as preacher and from 1664 as elder, delivering over 700 sermons. Roosen began a church record of Hamburg-Altona in 1650 and continued it until he was 88 years old — besides caring for his own congregation, he gave much attention to the brotherhood in general, traveling through Holstein and the Netherlands.
Through Roosen preached in the Dutch language, he gave his catechetical instruction in German. He published a catechism, Christliches Gemüths-Gespräch von dem geistlichen und seligmachenden Glauben (1st edition 1702; it went through at least 22 editions, from 1857 also in English; see Christliches Gemütsgespräch). This was much used in the congregations of Germany as late as the 19th century regularly. He also published a defense of Mennonitism, which had erroneously been accused of Münsterite tenets.
Roosen on Jakob Amman
According to a Melvin Gingerich writing in 1970, his catechism “is still being read by the Amish today”. The use of Roosen’s catechism by the Amish is somewhat curious, given that Roosen was not Amish, and what is more, that he strongly critiqued some practices by the Amish.
It is this critique by Roosen of some Amish rules that I’d like to share, however, we must remember that behind Roosen’s letters is the trusted leader who wrote Roosen’s catechism. As with Bercot and his words, the life behind the words makes the words more compelling.
Melvin Gingerich’s introduction to Roosen’s letter
For the time before Jacob Ammann, leader of the conservative schism which appeared in Switzerland in 1693, no [Anabaptist] documents have been found prescribing a definite form of dress, although a degree of uniformity of style was achieved in some groups by forbidding certain styles and colors of costume. In 1697 a deeply respected and very influential leader and an elder of the North German Mennonites, Gerhard Roosen, wrote a letter to the Alsatian brethren protesting against the strict rules on clothing that had been made by Jacob Ammann.
Roosen’s letter when he was 85 years old, notably critiquing Amman
I am sincerely grieved that you have been so disturbed by those who think highly of themselves, and make laws of things which are not upheld in the Gospel. Had it been specified in the apostolic letters how or wherewith a believer should be clothed, or whether he should go in this or that country and this were disobeyed, then these had something of which to speak; but it is more contrary to the Gospel to affix one’s conscience to a pattern of the hats, clothes, stockings, shoes, or the hair of the head (Colossians 2:14-18), or make a distinction in which country one lives; and then, for one to undertake the enforcement of such regulations by punishing with the ban, all who will not accept them, and to expel from the church, as a leaven; those who do not wish to avoid those thus punished, though neither the Lord Jesus in His Gospel or His holy apostles have bound us to external things, nor have deemed it expedient to provide such regulations and laws. I agree with what the Apostle Paul says in Colossians 2 (verse 16), that the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is not obtained “in meat or in drink,” nor in this or that, in the form or pattern of clothing; to which external things our dear Saviour does not oblige use.
Wherefore then does our friend, Jacob Ammann, undertake to make laws of such things for the people, and to expel from the church those who will not obey him? If he considers himself a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and advocates a literal administration of the law, then he must not wear two coats, nor carry money in his purse, or shoes on his feet. [Matthew 10:10.] If he does not adhere to the letter of his Lord, how dare he insist on obedience form his fellow men, in regulations he has not received from his lawmaker? Oh, that he might do as the Apostle Paul has done, in the fear of the Lord; showing meekness to all men. [Titus 3:2.] The apostle’s advice is: that the “strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak” [Romans 15:1-7].
In all of Paul’s letters we do not find one word in which he has given believers regulations concerning the forms of clothing they should have, but in all things he instructed them to “condescend to men of low estate” [Romans 12:16] according to all decency and modesty. [See 1 Timothy 2:9.] I hold that it is becoming to adapt the manner of dress to the current customs of one’s environments; but it is reasonable that we abstain from luxuries, pride, and carnal worldly lusts [1 John 2:16-17], not immediately adopting the latest styles of fashionable clothing; which is certainly something to be reproved, but when it has come into common usage then it is honorable to follow in such common apparel, and to walk in humility. But, thanks be to God, I do not want showy array or worldly lusts, and have always continued wearing nearly the same pattern of clothes; but if I had dressed in modern fashion, should I then, for this reason, be excommunicated? This would be an injustice, and contrary to the Scriptures. The Lord has, indeed, made regulations in the church of God, for punishment of the contentious, and those conducting themselves contrary to the ordinances of God, as set forth in the Gospel. Herein it must be determined whether the things we wish to bind are also bound there, or are commanded to be bound.
The Holy Scriptures must be our ruling standard; to this we must yield, not running before it, but following, and that not untimely, but with care, fear, and regret; for it is a dangerous venture to step into the judgment of God and bind that which is not bound in heaven.
So much written in love and truth for your service and instruction in things worth while. I can hardly leave off writing to you. The beloved heavenly Father and God of consolation sustain and strengthen you in all oppressions, and bless you in body and soul, to His honor and to your salvation. Amen. From me, your brother, Gerhart Roosen of Hamburg.
It’s quite evident that Roosen perhaps overstates his case just a tiny bit. It’s perhaps not strictly true that “in all of Paul’s letters we do not find one word in which he has given believers regulations concerning the forms of clothing they should have.” Rooseven would have done well to acknowledge Paul’s prohibitions 1 Timothy 2:8-10:
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.
He could also have mentioned 1 Peter 3:3-5:
Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands…
These apostolic exhortations match what we generally find in the earliest Anabaptist writings—general admonitions to a humble modesty of dress, a few specific examples of the kinds of adornment to avoid, and a focus on developing a Christ-like spirit and character, but an absence of regulation attire or long lists of clothing rules. Roosen’s letter could have been strengthened by mentioning these passages, for their emphasis matches his very well. But, to be fair, we should acknowledge that when Roosen claimed Paul gave no “regulations concerning the forms of clothing,” by forms Roosen quite likely meant specific clothing designs or styles (cut of coat, etc.), not merely clothing adornments. If that is what he meant, then Roosen was fully correct in his claim.
The question of clothing rules is more complex than two or three testimonies or letters. (If you want to read more of this history, I recommend Melvin Gingerich’s book Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries as one very helpful place to continue.) History is littered with countless numbers who have affirmed words such as Roosen’s and then abused grace as a license for vain and sensual living. And the cultural pressures we face today regarding clothing are not the same as the ones the Anabaptists faced in Roosen’s day.
That said, the Scriptures have not changed, and the gospel has not changed. True regeneration of heart and lifestyle happens the same way today as it did in Roosen’s day, which is the same way it happened in the time of Jesus and his apostles: by grace. J.S. Coffman realized this as well as Roosen did, and he said similar things near the end of his life.
Roosen ultimately retired in 1708, presenting a manuscript at the age of 98 to his relatives and the ministers of Hamburg-Altona Mennonite congregation, a kind of spiritual testament, in which he rendered an account of his church leadership. Unable to write because of poor vision, he dictated it to a friend. The writing was also reproduced by Schijn-Maatschoen, Geschiedenis III. Roosen made several liberal endowments to the congregation, but he did not forget his home town, partly financing, for example, the tower of St. Michael’s church (Lutheran) at Hamburg.