Building on Clan, Neighborhood, and Age Groups
Johannes Christiaan Hoekendijk’s doctoral dissertation Kerk en Volk in de Duitse Zending-swetenschap,  published in 1948, may be regarded in missiological circles as a definitive statement on the “organic folk unit” mission method. When Bruno Gutmann, one of the most remarkable representatives of that missiological school, passed away on December 17, 1966, a very important period in German missiology came to an end. Gutmann’s concepts need to be taken seriously, especially in the light of recent developments in the Third World.
For a tree picture of Gutmann, one must consider his family background. He says of himself, “My paternal and maternal grandparents were farmers. My father came from the Meissen plains [German Saxony], where my grandfather had a farm. My mother came from the Erzgebirge ranges, where her father, Weichelt, was a small landholder.” It is in these rural origins that we find the roots of Gutmann’s emphasis on ties to the soil, the source of his great love for animals, and his deep understanding of family relationships.
In his praise of God’s creation, Gutmann was a gifted poet. He never tired of glorifying the Creator’s greatness; nature in its manifold forms was, for him–a descendant of farmers–an ever new manifestation of God the Creator himself. Thus we find in Gutmann a theologian who regularly emphasized the first article of the Christian Creed.
Bruno Gutmann was born on July 4, 1876, in Dresden (Saxony). He says, “My youth was overshadowed by various misfortunes in the family.” His father lost part of his share of the inheritance by not finding a buyer for the house he had built on the outskirts of Dresden. His pious mother died on May 6, 1882, when Bruno was only five years of age, and he grew up with his grandparents. “Already at the age of eleven,” he writes, “I had to contribute to the family finances with earnings from employment at the local factory after school. I worked at the factory for one year and received as wages every fortnight one taler [$1.50], which I handed over to my grandmother.” So in his childhood, he experienced both mutual assistance and strong family ties. We can thus understand his appreciation of clan relationships throughout his life’s work.
Gutmann grew up at a time in which the welfare state was unknown. The family regulated its own affairs, as is still the case in agricultural societies. He encountered the same basic understandings among the African small landholders and, to a far greater extent than any European before him, he studied the origins of mutual assistance in their clan and family life and sought to make those relationships fruitful in the missionary task. To a certain extent the family as Gutmann experienced it corresponded to that described in Wilhelm Riehl’s 1854 publication, Die Familie. But, of course, as a child he had already seen the decline of family stability in western Europe and the growth of the social and economic problems of the emerging twentieth century. He continues:
After I left school at about fourteen years of age, I was apprenticed to the municipal administration in Pieschen, where I remained until I entered the seminary of the Leipzig Lutheran Mission… The incentive for my desire to serve in the mission came through my membership in the YMCA, so I began to study Latin, shorthand, and other subjects in evening classes at Dresden. It was during this time that I received many spiritual impulses from the active congregational life of those days.
From 1895 to 1901 he entered upon an intensive and methodical course of studies to prepare for the theological examination and mission work abroad. During this time the theologians of the Erlangen School of Neo-Lutheranism, who were also the leading theologians in Leipzig, had a strong influence on confessionalistic Lutheran theology. The young student was also greatly influenced by Karl Graul, director of the Leipzig Mission from 1844 to 1860.
During his years at Leipzig Gutmann came under the influence of the philosopher and psychologist Professor Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). The Christian Socialist movement led by Pastor Friedrich Nanmann and Pastor Adolf Stoecker, two men who influenced many young theologians, had an influence on Gutmann too. Throughout his lifetime, Gutmann remained faithful to Nanmann’s thoughts and was at times mistakenly accused of consenting to the “blood-and-soil theology” of National Socialism. Since it was my privilege to be associated with him during those years, I know from many conversations how remote that was from his thoughts. His beliefs and convictions were at all times based on Holy Scripture, on Luther’s Small Catechism and the other confessions of the Lutheran Church.
In 1902, following his examination and a one-year vicarage at Vohenstrauss in Bavaria, the Kitchenrat D. Theol. Bard ordained Gutmann and seven other missionaries in Leipzig, on the occasion of the Leipzig Mission’s anniversary. Gutmann, who had actually been preparing for service in India, was sent instead to East Africa.
Bruno Gutmann, Herrmann Fokken, and a medical doctor named Ploetze reached their African field on August 9, 1902. Gutmann was assigned to the Mission-Senior Althans at Mamba in the then German East Africa Colony. Following an introductory period on the eastern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, he was transferred to the western Kilimanjaro area. After two years at Machame, he was entrusted with founding a new station called Masama in the lower Machame region. Martin Küchler says of this period in Gutmann’s life:
Gutmann dedicates himself fully to this task, giving his best. He places greater emphasis on winning the hearts of the Chagga people than on raising buildings. They find him not only a keen observer of their customs, mores and character, but also a faithful and energetic advocate of their laws and rights which he defends, if necessary, against European planters and administrative officials. Weakness and self-indulgence are foreign to his nature.
For health reasons he returned to Germany in 1908, where he published his first major literary work, Dichten und Denken der Chagganeger: Beiträge zur ostafrikanischen Volkskunde (Thoughts and Endeavors of the Chagga People - Contributions to East African Ethnology).
A short time after his return to Masama he was called to take over Old Moshi station, a congregation in middle Chagga, and from then on his life’s work was closely associated with Old Moshi and its people. He stayed there, with brief interruptions, until 1938. The Moshi people still think of him as their spiritual father, missionary, and apostle. With this assignment the most creative period of this gifted missionary’s life began. He published twenty-three books, some of them more than six hundred pages in length, and 476 articles in various periodicals, annuals, collected works, and duplicated circulars. The Theological Faculty of the University of Erlangen awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Theology in 1924, and two years later the University of Würzburg granted him the Doctorate of Law in recognition of his book Chagga Law.
In August 1920 Gutmann, along with the other German missionaries, was deported in accordance with “Mission Paragraph” 418 of the Treaty of Versailles. For a time he stayed in Berlin, but he was finally able to locate a home in Ehingen, a village in Franconia, where as a “rustic” he quickly put down roots. The ensuing period of waiting for permission to return to East Africa was filled with literary work. Earlier (in 1914) he had published his Volksbuch der Wachagga (Chapbook of the Wachagga), a collection of legends, tales, fables and anecdotes that he had heard among the Chaggas. This book, including its sensitive preface and profound introduction, had attracted attention far beyond missionary circles. Martin Küchler writes:
Gutmann’s knowledge of these people has penetrated to an unusual depth. It is significant and programmatical for his subsequent scientific work when Gutmann says, “The so called primitive races are not childish organisms and easily manageable as some believe. Not only does the spirit of past generations live within them, but extinct cultures also smoulder within their souls. Would, therefore, that in addition to bringing in the disintegrating influences of our civilization, the colonial powers might come up soon, and with increasing emphasis, with constructive and considerate development programs, so that the indestructible life forces do not flare up unexpectedly like flames from a ruined structure, but that they be engaged creatively and effectively in indigenous forms for service in the total community.
For Gutmann this was not a mere abstract theory. He strove to actualize it in the daily activities of his congregational work. This is characteristic of him and a factor to be taken into consideration in an estimation of his life’s work. Whatever he advocates he practices, seeking to test its efficacy. He does not manipulate his congregation as a great performer plays his instrument to demonstrate his mastery and skill, but rather desires to make the congregation able and willing to undertake its own independent action as a serving organism. What he has found in the deep-rooted relationships of the Chaggas he seeks to utilize, in conjunction with the structures derived from the gospel for the benefit of the Christian congregation. 
Some significant publications during the enforced interim were Das Chaggaland und seine Christen (Chaggaland and Its Christians) and Gemeindeaufbau aus dem Evangelium (Congregational Nurture from the Gospel), 1925. The latter, a programmatical work on mission theory, with the subtitle “Fundamental Principles for Mission and Church at Home,” brought him recognition as an authority in the field of missiology. This book, although not easy to read, occasioned vigorous discussion in following years and led the author to defend his position in numerous articles, to clarify the questions, and to attempt to elucidate the basic principles of the book. His last book, Afrikaner-Europäer, includes a bibliography of his works published between 1905 and 1966.
Gutmann’s Anthropological Insights
The starting point for Gutmann’s theological thought is a basic consideration of people in their relationship to the world and to other human beings. He is primarily concerned with the so-called modern person, whom he sees as an individual misunderstanding himself or herself and the real purpose of one’s life.
Through his work on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, Gutmann came into contact with a people whose community life was still intact. Civilization had penetrated to a limited extent only, and had not yet begun its destructive work. This stable relationship among people, these national, organic, social, and kinship units in Africa were the point of departure of his missionary activity. They were the basis for his reflection on both secular and theological problems at home and in the overseas mission of the church. With a wealth of illustrations from such basic human structures, urtümliche Bindungen as he calls them, Gutmann’s slogan in his own practice and in all his publications was “back to the primordial ties.”
The three primordial ties Gutmann encountered in Africa–clan, neighborhood, and age group–were then in such pristine clarity that he thought he had found in them an approach for the Gospel in constructing Christian congregations. Indeed, those three relationships are still to be found everywhere in the world. Recent research has shown that even in the large cities of the Western world, with their extreme individualism, the primordial ties continue to play an important part. For Gutmann they were the absolute basis of true Christian life: in the power of God, it is the primordial ties through which people become true human beings, capable of receiving Christ. And the spiritual and ethical attitudes that bring inner unity to the human race, despite the most pronounced outward diversity, are developed in those same relationships. He was mindful in all his research of what he conceived to be the major task of mission: the struggle to preserve the values of the communal structure intact. From such ethnological perceptions he drew conclusions that made him a pioneer in missiology and enabled him to participate in the movement of culture criticism in his homeland.
Despite universal concerns, the practical issue of building up the congregation was Gutmann’s predominant effort throughout his entire stay in Africa. With forceful singlemindedness he concentrated on the one problem that was central in German missio-theological thought from the time of Karl Graul to World War II: utilizing indigenous structures in building up the national church.
All of Gutmann’s utterances rest on his basic anthropological conviction that a man is to be addressed not as an individual but as a member of an organic whole. Thus Gutmann embraces Wilhelm Wundt’s contention that individualism is to be overcome and the community, in all of its originality and independence, to be acknowledged. The individual in the community, the individual through the community, the individual for the community–this is the keynote of Gutmann’s ethnology, ecclesiology, and missionary activity. With the organic-natural relationship man is called to freedom by God. The phenomenon of conscience, as he observed it ethnologically, also points in this direction: Conscience is the organ of equilibrium of the soul, which requires only minor resiliency so long as its bearer, living in an inclusive community, is unvariedly and uniformly governed by its impulses and life rhythm.
Decisive, in his view, was the Chagga system of relationships between relatives, regulated to the last detail and assuring help and protection to the individual. The pedagogic and social duties of each member toward one’s children, nieces and nephews, parents, and siblings are defined by age-old traditions. In the examination of the bride and groom at the wedding, or in the customs surrounding baptism, for example, Gutmann sought to strengthen the existing system of relationships and put it to work for a Christian understanding of family life within the congregation.
The clan in Chagga life is a comprehensive entity, based on biological relationships, which obliges all members to maintain both internal and external solidarity. The disappearance of the chieftainship, however, threatens the entire institution with disintegration. In places where the clan organization as such has deteriorated, the neighborhood may provide the necessary substitute. “Neighborhood” is a highly important term in African culture. It is not to be understood as a merely geographical term, referring simply to people living in close proximity to one another. “Neighborhood” in African understanding is “neighborliness,” a relationship of friendship and mutual assistance. To have a neighbor is to have a helper on whom one can rely in all circumstances and with whom one enjoys fellowship. There is a reciprocity of assistance and protection. Gutmann described the organization that developed in their social order under the supervisors of the canals which, fed from the Kilimanjaro glaciers and forest region, irrigate the Chagga gardens. He attempted to employ the same kind of structure in providing for church elders in each congregational neighborhood to organize meetings and to settle matters of church discipline.
Young boys in the neighborhoods, encouraged by their elders, begin to establish bonds of mutual relationships in their games. These bonds are later sealed in tribal initiation ceremonies, when the boys are assigned places in the overall organization. The entire male Chagga population is thus organized for war and peace in easily activated age fellowships. Gutmann adapted this traditional system in baptismal and confirmation classes, relating each group of two or three young people with a young man or woman a few years older for mutual assistance throughout their lives. This Schildschaft, or Fellowship of the Shields, came to have great significance in the lives of the youth and of the congregation as a whole.
The entire life of every Chagga is based upon unhesitating recognition of his or her place in this age-old social structure of the tribe–a triple relationship according to clan, neighborhood and age group:
Two considerations regarding these ethnological observations of Gutmann are of crucial importance:
He accords them a universal validity–beyond the purely African context. The three sociological points of reference as analyzed in East Africa–blood, soil and age–shape the basic, though varying, forms of every human community.
Without this arrangement healthy human life is not possible, according to Gutmann.
It was Gutmann’s main sociological contention that a people is composed not of individuals but of the units named above, and that the dissolution of these units signifies national death. For Gutmann this was a theological as well as a sociological observation. He was concerned with religious anthropology.
The social forms recognized by Gutmann reflect the will of the Creator, hence he calls them “ties in conformity with creation, or primordial ties,” for whose absolute validity he passionately contends.
The structural pattern of all human social life, as delineated by Gutmann, now has a mortal enemy - civilization. This brings uprooting, proletarization, isolation, displacement of human by material values. Money becomes a substitute for brother and neighbor, dehumanizing and dissolving all mutual obligations.
There is only one remedy to restore the health of a people: “Return to God’s Way,” as the title of one of his books puts it. In other words, “Make a determined effort to rebuild or reactivate what remains of the basic cells of the indigenous community.” Salvation is to be found not in organization–the mere aggregation of like-minded individuals–but in the preservation of the living organism which the Creator provided.
As a young and inexperienced missionary, with imperfect knowledge of the Chagga language, I became Gutmann’s successor at Easter time in 1938. I do not know how I could have managed the task of pastor to this congregation, scattered over a large area and numbering about 5,500 souls, had it not been carefully organized down to the last Christian farmstead. About 20,000 people lived in the whole middle Chagga area. The congregation was divided into neighborhoods, each with its own elders. A district, composed of several neighborhoods, was presided over by a church elder who came to be called District Elder. He served as mediator only if a neighborhood was unable to settle its own disputes, most of which were easily regulated without his involvement. Each neighborhood recognized its obligation to care for the poor and the sick and to reclaim lost members. In such tasks as community work, road building, schools, churches, and housing for teachers and evangelists, these neighborhoods were making remarkable progress long before the government inaugurated and implemented its policy of “community services.”
Fathers and godfathers together brought their children for baptismal registration on Friday evenings, accompanied by the neighborhood elders. This provided a rich opportunity for instruction in the meaning of baptism. Matters of church discipline were regulated in the neighborhoods, where people knew one another so well that deception was hardly possible, and the missionary’s counsel was sought only in the most difficult cases. The sharing of mutual concerns between church elder and missionary pastor was a source of blessing to the congregation.
Since the effectiveness of such a system depends to some extent upon the personality and personal qualifications of the leaders, there were naturally some failures. Nevertheless, a congregation organized into neighborhoods–especially into a Volkskirche–can perform its services much better than an atomized congregation of individuals. Such neighborhood organizations help to explain the fact that the African countries are not yet, and show no signs of soon becoming, welfare states. A well-functioning neighborhood, even when its services are imperfect, helps to provide for the poor and the aged. Saint Paul’s injunction, “Bear ye one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), was not forgotten in the discussions of problems at congregational meetings.
Whatever criticisms may be made of Gutmann’s exegesis in claiming a biblical basis for his sociological observations, it cannot be maintained that the congregational structure he advocated is either unbiblical or antibiblical.
The Legacy of Gutmann
What is the significance of Bruno Gutmann’s legacy for the African indigenous church? The Chagga tribe, along with all other Africans, will find untold treasures of ethnological material about their forefathers, customs, and faith in his five hundred publications. Such superb monuments of Chagga culture as Stammeslehren der Chagga (his corpus of Chagga law or Chagga tribal precepts) witness to the extremely high standard of African tribal culture, often hopelessly underestimated because its manifestations were undivulged to white people and largely unrecorded before they fell prey to the onslaught of a new age. Gutmann’s writings can provide valuable aid in the present struggle of Africans for a new identity.
Gutmann was a master of the Chagga language and something of a poet. He produced a hymnbook for the congregation and, in 1938, a translation of the New Testament, fruits of thirty years of language study. A diligent foreigner can learn the grammar and vocabulary of a Bantu language, but few Europeans are capable of mastering its wealth of imagery. Gutmann was one who did have a command of the metaphorical nuances. I once asked Nahum Mrema, a teacher, whether the people were able to understand the Kichagga spoken by Gutmann. Nahum laughed aloud and replied, “Gutmann? He knows Kichagga better than all the rest of us put together.” My question arose from the fact that Gutmann’s German writings and lectures were phrased in a manner difficult for Germans themselves to understand, the reason so few of them have been translated.
Gutmann was a dedicated missionary. I heard him remark on several occasions, not entirely without pride, “I have never been a parish pastor, but I am thankful that I have been able to remain a missionary all my life.” Following the example of Saint Paul in I Corinthians 9:20, 22-23, he wanted to become a Mchagga (an accepted member of the Chagga tribe); and he was able to achieve it in a relatively short lifespan only because he dedicated himself so completely to the Moshi people. In this self-limitation–he did not even learn to speak Kiswahili well–lies the root of his greatness. Precisely because of his intensive involvement with a single tribe in East Africa, he was able to understand and love them as no other European did.
Gutmann’s preaching and writing were focused on presenting Christ to people of animistic faith, revealing to them that the “Lord of Heaven” in whom they unknowingly believed is the father of Jesus Christ. Among a people already in the throes of civilization’s invasion upon their traditional lifestyle, his missionary method was to utilize the ancient relationships of clan, neighborhood, and age groups as divine gifts and vehicles for the propagation of the Gospel. In the process he brought new missionary incentives to both his home church and the African church. The evidence of his effectiveness is that today the entire population of Old Moshi is baptized.
As I have already suggested, Gutmann’ s sociological insights have a contemporary significance and a wider application than we once thought. Some of his critics maintain that primordial ties reflect only a certain historical stage in the development of a people, during which they play an important role, but after which they are less relevant. Recent studies, however, affirm the continuing importance of extended-family ties in Western city life. See, for example, the North American study Kinship in Urban Setting, published by Bert N. Adams in 1968. In Mitteilungen (March 1972), a “German research fellowship” reports that in a representative cross-section of people in Hamburg, 48 percent viewed their relationship to relatives as “very important”; 41 percent saw it as “important”; and only 11 percent considered it “unimportant.” Thus the primordial ties are still significant to missionary strategy–not merely in Africa but everywhere, even though they may be more stable in a rural environment than elsewhere.
Gutmann has been criticized for the two-kingdom concept in his writing. In response to this criticism, we must insist that his theological ideas were rooted in Luther’s doctrines and catechisms, that he was trained at Leipzig University, and that he was in full accord with the leading theologians of his time. To that extent he was a product of his own day and, as such, he should not be singled out for criticism at this point.
The problem of “creation orders,” prominent in German theological discussions in the 1920s and 1930s, arose in part through Gutmann’s writings. Werner Elert includes marriage and family among such orders. He calls them Seinsgefüge, the texture of existence or structure of being. In Die Familie der Gegenwart, René König says that they are older than human culture itself, being found even among the higher animals. These relationships share the result of the fall in all humankind, and are therefore subject to abuse and sometimes destruction. Yet I agree with Gutmann’s insistence that they can be sanctified along with the whole created order in Jesus Christ, and that they are a seedbed of fertile ground for the Gospel.
Bruno Gutmann was an original thinker. We are indebted to him for initiating much of the modern interest in examining the structure of the Christian congregation and the ways in which it can, in the here and now, reflect the coming kingdom of God.
J. C. Hoekendijk, Kirche und Volk in der deutschen Missionswissenschaft, edited and adapted by Walter Pollmann (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1967).
An important work on Gutmann’s anthropology is J. C. Winter, Bruno Gutmann, 1876-1966 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979). Complete bibliography of Gutmann’s writings is in Ernst Jäschke, ed., Bruno Gutmann Afrikaner-Europäer in nächstenschaftlicher Entsprechung (Stuttgart: Ev. Verlagswerk, 1966), pp. 215ff. See also Ernst Jäschke, Bruno Gutmann: His Life, His Thoughts, His Work. An Early Attempt at a Theology in an African Context (Erlangen: Verlag der Evang.-Luth. Mission, 1985).
Gutmann’s personal notes in typescript. Erlangen, Verlag der Evang. Luth. Mission, 1965.
Wilhelm Riehl, Die Familie (Stuttgart, 1854). Cf. Max Horkheimer, Studien über Autorität und Familie (Paris, 1936), pp. 49f., where we read: “Die Familie besorgt als eine der wichtigsten erzieherischen Mächte die Reproduktion der menschlichen Charaktere, wie sic das gesellsehaftliche Leben effordert und gibt ihnen zum grossen Teil die unerlässliche Fähigkeit zu dem besonders gearteten autoritären Verhalten von dem der Bestand der bürgerlichen Ordnung in hohem Masse abhängt.”
Gutmann’s personal notes.
See “Karl Graul,” in Stephen Neill, N. P. Moritzen, and Ernst Schrupp, eds. Brockhaus Lexikon zur Weltmission (Wuppertal: Verlag R.Brockhaus; and Erlangen: Verlag Evang. Luth. Mission, 1965); J. C. Hoekendijk, Kirche und Volk, pp. 71-75,139-71; cf. Neill and Moritzen, Geschichte der christlichen Mission (Erlangen: Verlag der Evang. Luth. Mission, 1964), pp. 366ff., a translation of Christian Missions (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1964).
Wilhelm Wundt, professor of inductive philosophy at the University of Leipzig, organized his course on socially conditioned processes, or phenomena of the human psyche, chiefly in the volumes of his Psychology of Nations. Language, art, myths, religions, society, law, culture, and history, the divisions of this series, are themes that recur throughout Gutmann’s writings. A theological dictionary, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (RGG), 5: 2052, says that Wundt’s work “does not receive due attention from the theologians. This is especially true of his Ethics and the last volume of his Psychology of Nations. He is the moral philosopher of the collective will. It is he who asserted that the relationship of community to individual existence is the problem of problems, and he did not try to solve it collectivistically.”
Martin Küchler, D. Dr. Bruno Gutmann: Lebenslauf und Würdigung der Lebensarbeit D. Dr. Bruno Gutmanns (Erlangen, 1951), a pamphlet published in honor of Gutmann’s seventy-fifth birthday.
Dichten und Denken der Chagganeger: Beiträge zur ostafrikanischen Volkskunde (Leipzig: Verlag der Evang. Luth. Mission, 1909).
See bibliography in Jäschke, Bruno Gutmann, pp. 215ff.
Preface of Volksbuch der Wachagga, pp. 19f.
M. Küchler, Dr. Bruno Gutmann, p. 7.
Both books published in Leipzig.
See especially his Christusleib und Nächstenschaft (Feuchtwangen: Frankenverlag, i 931).
See Jäschke, Bruno Gutmann, bibliography.
Preface of Dichten und Denken.
Ibid., and Peter Beyerhaus, Die Selbständigkeit der jungen Kirchen als Missionarisches Problem (Wuppertal/Barmen: Verlag der Rheinischen Missions-Gesellsehaft, 1959), p. 90.
Beyerhaus, Selbständigkeit, p. 88.
Ibid., p. 89.
Ernst Jächke, unpublished manuscript, “Bruno Gutmann: His Work, His Thoughts, and His Life” (230 pages), pp. 15-16, 53-55.
Beyerhaus, Selbständigkeit, p. 90.
Walter Holsten, Das Evangelium und die Völker. Beitriige zur Geschichte und Theorie der Mission (Berlin/Friedenau: Buchhandlung der Gossnerschen Mission, 1939), essay on Bruno Gutmann’s exegesis, pp. 89ff.
René König, Die Familie der Gegenwart (Munich: Becksthe Schwarze Rethe, 1977), vol. 116, pp. 9, 13.
This article, from the Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research, Oct. 80, Vol. 4, Issue 4, p. 165-169 is reproduced, with permission, from Mission Legacies : Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, copyright© 1994, edited by G. H. Anderson, R. T. Coote, N. A. Horner, J. M. Phillips. All rights reserved.