Although brimming with endearments and tenderness, these were no ordinary love letters. Members of a revival movement that was sweeping through Europe, Eberhard and Emmy were united first and foremost by their desire to discover what it meant to follow Christ. Emmy later recounted the day of their engagement:
On Good Friday, in the morning, my sisters and I went to the cemetery near our house, where our fourteen-year-old sister Gretchen and several acquaintances were buried. On our way home we saw Eberhard ahead of us, dressed in a formal black suit and coat, with a top hat. He was carrying flowers in white paper. We entered the house behind him and sat down in the dining room. He was already talking with my father, and I heard my father saying, “I have heard that you would like to correspond with my daughter.”
“Yes,” said Eberhard, “But not only that. I would like to be engaged to her – today.”
“That’s out of the question,” my father replied. “She tells me you have lived a clean life, that’s true, but I don’t even know your parents’ position.”
Eberhard answered, “My parents trust me to choose the one meant for me by God.” After saying this, Eberhard asked to have a private conversation with me. My parents consented.
When we were alone, Eberhard told me that God had given him the conviction that we belonged together for life. I answered that the same conviction had come to me, and we were engaged. Then Eberhard took a Bible from his pocket and we read the thirty-fourth Psalm together: “I will praise the Lord at all times.” Then we prayed together, placing our lives in the hands of God and promising to serve him and witness to him forever.
Afterward, my parents and the rest of the family came in. My brother and sisters immediately accepted their new brother-to-be, but my parents said they would only agree to our engagement when they had heard from Eberhard’s parents. Then Eberhard went out into the corridor and brought back a bouquet of dark red long-stemmed roses for me and white roses for my mother.
He came back to our house in the evening and again at midday the next day. We were alone part of the time, and partly with my brother and sisters. On Saturday he left for Breslau. I was allowed to accompany him to the station, but only in a closed cab as my parents insisted we keep the engagement secret until Eberhard completed his studies.
On Easter Monday I received my first letter from him.
En route to Breslau, March 30, 1907
Always Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Ephesians 1:13–14: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.”
How poor are words in conveying the heights of splendor as I would like to! Yet how rich are our hearts that they can feel – no, more, experience – these splendors!
How wonderful it is that even in the most contradictory surroundings we can hold fast to this precious treasure in its fullness! And how glorious that two people like us are able, despite the poverty of speech and despite all other obstacles, to share it fully with one another!
My sweet little darling! On this rattling train, among people whose aura could not contrast more with that of the last days, I am reflecting on the glorious grace God has poured over us, and rejoicing in the invigorating memory of our unforgettable time together and our unclouded happiness. Your sweet photographs give me special joy. If only I could be with you and tell you and show you how endlessly I love you!
Longing for you joyfully in Jesus,
Excuse the appearance of this letter. It comes from the jolting of the train and my shortage of writing paper. But I couldn’t help writing at least this to you. The rose is keeping beautifully. 1000 kisses! Greet everyone warmly!
Emmy wrote that same day:
Halle, March 30, 1907
My beloved Ebbo,
Just now (it is 5:30) as I sat down to write to you, it occurred to me that I don’t even have your address! But then Olga had the clever idea of ordering the Breslau address book, which I plan to go pick up myself right away.
You know, I keep thinking of what you might be doing now and whether you are thinking of me. I keep looking at your picture, the roses, and the sweet ring, and missing you dreadfully. That probably sounds awful. I really shouldn’t complain – rather, we ought to be thankful that God our Lord has led us together so wonderfully. I just keep wondering whether you will find enough substance in me, since you are much farther along than I am in the knowledge of our Savior and of the Bible. Of course, this is exactly what you must help me with, and that’s what you want to do.
Not long after you left, Olga and I went out for a walk. … A few times I stopped, thinking I saw you, but each time I was bitterly disappointed. Oh, how lovely it will be when you are here again! I am so happy thinking about it.
This evening I am going to read the last two little volumes you gave me. I love how you always place Jesus firmly in the center. I wanted to talk about it with you earlier today, but there wasn’t time. There was also something I wanted to ask you about von Gerdtell’s lectures. But that would take too long, and then my letter wouldn’t reach you tomorrow – at least that’s what I’m afraid of. So I’d better close. There is so much more I could tell you. But I’d better leave it until tomorrow. Greet your family very warmly from me and tell them we are both terribly happy.
United forever in our Lord and Savior,
your warmly loving Emmy
This letter is confused, but I know you’ll excuse it and understand.
Eberhard and Emmy’s resolve to “place Jesus firmly in the center” would cost them. Over the next two years, they both came to the conviction that the Lutheran state church to which they belonged did not follow the gospel on the question of baptism, and so they decided they could no longer remain members. Eberhard, who had been studying to become a minister, was barred from taking final exams when this decision became known. Needing a degree in order to make his engagement public and marry Emmy, he was forced to switch from theology to philosophy. It was another year before he graduated and they could finally set a wedding date.
The three years of their engagement, though, were far from wasted. Their letters – recorded in the book Love Letters, from which those above are excerpted – reveal how intensely Eberhard and Emmy used this period to lay a foundation in Jesus that would bear fruit for the rest of their lives.
From Eberhard Arnold and Emmy von Hollander, Love Letters (Rifton, NY: Plough, 2011).
Article edited for length and clarity.