THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF OUR FAITH: STRATA #9
The Mennonite von Beckerath family of
musicians, artists, weavers, politicians, vintners, scholars and organ builders
The von Beckeraths were a Dutch Mennonite family of that moved to Krefeld, Germany in the early 1600s. Little is known of them, apart from their reputation as silk weavers and Mennonite leaders, until Hermann and his younger brother Rudolf step into the history books in the 1800s.
In 1815, at the age of 14, Hermann left the family weaving industry and apprenticed at the Krefeld Bank. By the time he was 25, the Krefeld Mennonite Church elected him as one of the pastors. Upon reaching the ripe age of 31, he bought the bank and renamed it the Beckerath-Heilmann bank.
In 1840, at age of 39, he was elected to the Parliament in Berlin. From that vantage point, he delivered one speech after another pleading for full German citizenship for Mennonites and Jews. His speeches on the rights of minorities were so influential that a publisher released them with the title, Reden und Redner. A line from that book has been quoted and adapted by many:
“Solange die Juden nicht frei sind, sind wir selbst nicht frei.”
“As long as the Jews are not free, we ourselves are not free either.”
Hermann became disillusioned with the slow progress in Parliament and joined the 1848 revolution to rid Germany of its dukes and princes. Many fled into self-exile. He was a popular speaker at those revolutionary gatherings in Frankfurt. Von Beckerath was influential in drafting the declaration entitled “The Basic Rights of the German People”. This treatise is now viewed as one of the foundational documents for German democracy today.
A few years after the revolution failed, Beckerath was invited by the Kaiser to Berlin as the head of a new commission on German freedoms. His work resulted in granting Jews citizenship in areas in Northern Germany where the Prussian Kaiser ruled. During all that time, Hermann remained president of his bank, the primary violinist in a chamber orchestra and pastor of the Krefeld Mennonite Church.
His brother Heinrich was also active in the church, a violinist of renown and a business leader. He purchased land along the lower Rhine River and founded the von Beckerath vineyards. The property also was home to the medieval Cracau Castle which served as a home and winery.
The von Beckerath generation that followed Hermann developed close ties with the musician Clara Schumann and sponsored many of her concerts. She introduced them to the composer Johannes Brahms who was promptly invited to the country estate of Alwin von Beckerath. On that first visit with Brahms at the piano, the von Beckerath women and men sat down with their violins, violas and cellos and the music began. After that first run through on a new composition, Brahms reportedly stated, “Donnerwetter hier muss man sich ja zusammennehmen und schön spielen.” Roughly translated it is “Holy cow, one has to be on their toes to play with this crowd!” After that first visit, Brahms was a frequent house guest at Cracau and stayed for weeks at a time. During one of those impromptu recitals, Willy von Beckerath took out his crayons and rendered the iconic portrait of Brahms at the piano.
There are many distinguished descendants among the von Beckeraths but time only allows us to mention only two.
In the late 1800s Rudolf von Beckerath established a pipe organ company in Hamburg, Germany. That firm is still flourishing and the other image is an example of their work in America.
Another descendent, Jürgen von Beckerath was a scholar who specialized in Ancient Egyptian history and hieroglyphic writing. He published more than a hundred scholarly articles and books on Egyptian Pharaohs, religious traditions and cultural developments.
Today the von Beckeraths have settled in various countries across the globe. While some are no longer Mennonites, many continue affiliation with the Mennonite Church.
Surely the Lord would say of the von Beckeraths, “Well done thou good and faithful Servants.”
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The Living Mirror: Archaeology of Our Faith