Zionites (Germany)

An 18th-century religious sect, marked by apocalyptic visions and a departure from Christian morality.


The Zionites were a religious sect that flourished in the 18th century in Ronsdorf, Duchy of Berg, Germany. This group originated from the Philadelphian Society, a collection of Christian dissenters and mystics based in England.

History

Elberfeld

The Zionites were founded in 1726 at Elberfeld in Wuppertal, Germany, by Elias Eller and Pastor Daniel Schleiermacher. Eller, the foreman of a factory owned by a wealthy widow, was deeply influenced by the writings of ancient and modern visionaries. He developed his own apocalyptic, millenarian system of beliefs. Schleiermacher, the grandfather of the notable theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, was also swayed by Eller’s ideas.

The group had a prophetess named Anna Catharina vom Büchel, a baker’s daughter known for her “dreams and visions.” Following the death of Eller’s wife, Eller and vom Büchel married, styling themselves as the “mother and father of Zion.” They prophesied that Anna would give birth to the male savior of the world. Their first child was a daughter, but Eller managed to maintain the faith of the society. A son was conceived in 1733 but died two years later.

Ronsdorf

In 1737, the Zionites moved from Elberfeld to establish the settlement of Ronsdorf, which prospered under their influence. Eller, through his sway, elevated Ronsdorf to the rank of a city by 1745 and assumed the office of burgomaster, ruling in a reported tyrannical manner.

The group’s theological focus centered increasingly around Eller, and the initial Christian moral foundation of the Zionites was supplanted by a pursuit of coarse and sensual pleasures. The unexpected death of Anna in 1744 led to doubts within the group. Schleiermacher, then the pastor at Ronsdorf, distanced himself from Eller, confessing his errors and attempting to change Eller’s course. Despite these efforts, Eller maintained his influence until his death.

The sect continued under the leadership of pastors who succeeded Schleiermacher, including Eller’s stepson, Blockhaus. A new pastor chosen in 1768, along with his successors, gradually steered the inhabitants of Ronsdorf back to Protestantism. However, the effects of the Zionite movement were traceable into the 19th century.

The Zionites are remembered for their significant deviation from mainstream Christian doctrine, marked by apocalyptic beliefs and a shift towards more earthly and sensual practices. This group’s story highlights the complex dynamics of religious movements and the influence of charismatic leaders on the development of such sects.