Iwould be impressed if you knew anything at all about Ernst Cromwell. I’d be impressed if a Bonhoeffer specialist knew much about Ernst Cromwell. Until now, his story has been hidden from everyone but his friends and family, known only to the rest of us through a footnote in the London volume of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. But something a little unusual happened a number of months ago. Ninety year old Ernst Cromwell was putting his affairs in order, when he and his family discovered, in the attic, twelve unpublished letters to him from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They were written to Mr. Cromwell when he was a fourteen year old confirmand, while Bonhoeffer was his pastor in London. The letters passed into the hands of Stephen Plant, the dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, who organised a twenty-four hour seminar to read and study them. This past January, 2012, Bonhoeffer scholars, a handful of students, Cromwell’s granddaughter and daughter-in-law—fifteen of us altogether—read the letters for the first time.
There was a number of things that arose as we read them, and taken together, they say something important to us about life together in the church.
Firstly, Ernst never wrote back. Bonhoeffer asks Ernst a number of times for a response that he never gets.
Secondly, Bonhoeffer wrote theologically to Ernst. Evidently, Bonhoeffer expected his young confirmand to either understand, or grow into, important ideas that were neither simplistic nor childish.
Thirdly, Bonhoeffer spent time with Ernst, not only teaching, but also hiking in Scotland. His pastoral relationship with Ernst included things that Bonhoeffer himself loved to do.
Next, Bonhoeffer let the New Testament teach. When Mr Cromwell was interviewed about his confirmation classes, he said that Bonhoeffer “would read the New Testament and that was it. He introduced me to the New Testament, you see, and that was it really. The New Testament did the trick for him . . . we would just read the Bible.”
Finally, and most importantly, Ernst’s life was changed.
Bonhoeffer would never know the impact he had on his young confirmand. Shortly after his last letter, Bonhoeffer went back to Germany and was never in touch with Ernst again. But through very simple acts, like writing letters, hiking, and letting the New Testament teach itself, the life of a fourteen year old was changed.
Bonhoeffer’s role was quite limited in this change, though not negligible. We cannot discount the fact that he showed genuine interest in young Ernst. And it is important to note that Bonhoeffer did what he did without a fancy program, without dumbing down, and with very little evidence, at the time, of any impact on Ernst. In the end, however, Ernst doesn’t point to Bonhoeffer, but to the Jesus of the New Testament—the Jesus who performed miracles, who preached the sermon on the mount, and who suffered the passion—as the one who spoke to him. “Not Bonhoeffer,” says Mr. Cromwell, “but the New Testament. It is a turning point in my life . . . the meaning of the New Testament in my mind was established by that [relationship] and the whole of my outlook on life.“
Now we know what Bonhoeffer didn’t. Mr. Cromwell, in a way, confirms the hope that our work is not in vain, and that conversion is sometimes hidden. Lives don’t always change by programs and big events, though sometimes they do. Lives can change in simpler ways, when we expect great things from people (even fourteen-year-olds!), when we show interest in a young person making decisions about how to live the rest of their life, and most importantly when step aside and let the Bible speak of Jesus.
Reprinted from the Rupert’s Land News, and used with permission
Preston Parsons is a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, currently pursuing studies at Cambridge. He often shows up for the liturgy at saint benedict’s table during his visits back to Winnipeg.