A church’s struggle to survive dark times

The New Apostolic Church in the Nazi era: recent research refutes previous misconceptions and standard platitudes. So say proven experts who have critically monitored the Church for quite some time. Four reactions to two current publications follow.

The prime example derives from the southern hemisphere, of all places: starting in 1933, Heinrich Franz Schlaphoff worked as Assistant Chief Apostle responsible for everything from Australia to Southern Africa to South America. Letters that he sent directly to Germany sound rather flattering to the Nazi regime—but that was because the censors were reading right along. On the other hand, mail that was sent unofficially via Switzerland sounded quite different..

This has been documented by Karl-Peter Krauss, who has a PhD history. For many years, he worked at a non-university research institution, and has also served for a number of years as the chairman of the Work Group “History of the New Apostolic Church”. He has written two books that have left quite an impression in professional circles.

Accurate and factual

“Die Mitgliederentwicklung der Neuapostolischen Kirche in der NS-Zeit: Decodierung einer Meistererzählung?” [Membership development in the New Apostolic Church during the Nazi era: decoding a master narrative?]—So reads the title of a rather narrow volume published in the year 2017.

“The result of this work, which has been created with great accuracy and historical craftsmanship, refutes the previously unanimous view of the flourishing and growth of the New Apostolic Church in the Third Reich,” explains Kai Funkschmidt, a doctor of theology, from the EKD Institute for Research on Religious and Ideological Issues in Berlin.

Older investigations not only suffered on account of problematic sources, but also from one-sided interpretations for the purposes of either accusation or defence, he writes in his book review in Materialdienst [Material service {magazine}], issue 06/2018. The new book is completely different: “The factual and objective tone is pleasant”—“A very good historical work.”

One of the first pieces of the puzzle

In issue 06/2018 of the Materialdienst des Konfessionskundlichen Instituts Bensheim [Material service {magazine} of the Bensheim denominational institute], Daniel Lenski (ThD) also makes reference to the book’s “carefully researched study” and “extensive source research”. He likewise observes that the historical assertion “of a church growing under National Socialism” is now a proven misconception.

His review regards the book as “an important piece of the puzzle in coming to terms with New Apostolic history”—which should nevertheless be followed by others.

The whole picture

And indeed, Karl-Peter Krauss presented another, much more comprehensive work in the year 2020: Inszenierte Loyalitäten? Die Neuapostolische Kirche in der NS-Zeit (Staged loyalties? The New Apostolic Church in the Nazi era). The book is distinguished by a “variety of research methods and its presentation of results”, “a wide range of archival materials consulted from state, municipal, and church archives”, as well as the “large volume of aspects it treats”. This is the assessment of Lothar Weiß, a doctor of history, in the Yearbook 2020 of the Verein für Freikirchenforschung [Association for Free Church Research], Münster, Westphalia.

His conclusion: this work “could help people avoid falling into standard clichés about the NAC in future publications”.

No getting around this book

The “astonishing abundance of material” is “interpreted carefully and discerningly,” supplements Andreas Fincke (ThD) in the Journal of religion and worldviews, issue 2-2021: the author presents us with “a picture of a small church with a strong sense of imminent expectation [of the Lord], and that is—or at least, desires to be—apolitical at its core. Thus it is not at all—or not very well—prepared to handle the challenges posed by the totalitarian state. Like other churches, it attempts to survive the dark times through adaptation, careful manoeuvrings, and staged loyalties.”

“The present publication closes a large gap,” the review goes on to say: “Apart from a few smaller publications, there has not yet been a convincing study on the history of the New Apostolic Church (NAC) during the Nazi era.” But now there is: “For a long time to come, no portrayal of the NAC will be able to get around this book.”

On the internet, people are fond of pointing out—rather aggressively—that the author bears a ministry in the New Apostolic Church and leads its “History” working group. But for Andreas Fincke it is clear: “This does nothing to change the situation. The scholarly discussion of historical events unfolds on the basis of arguments, and not with reference to the beliefs of a particular author.”

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Andreas Rother