Gottfried Alf (1831–1898) Was in and out of Polish Prisons

[To see a photograph of Gottfried F. Alf, go to]

Mentnowo, a German colony northwest of Warsaw, Poland, had no resident Lutheran minister in 1850. Pastors were scarce and had to cover wide areas. For the most part, liberal theology and formal worship had supplanted genuine faith in the region.

As schoolmaster of Mentnowo, nineteen-year-old Gottfried F. Alf (1831–1898) led his town’s church service and read a sermon. To understand the sermons, he studied the Bible. God’s word showed him he was a sinner. He saw salvation comes only by Christ’s work. In 1853, he committed himself to Christ.

He shared his insights with students. Several became practicing Christians and so did a few parents. Other parents complained that Alf was misleading their children. Alf’s pastor forbade him to hold Bible discussions and prayer meetings. When Alf persisted, the pastor charged him at the Lutheran Consistory (council). The Consistory fired him. Without an income to support his wife and child, Alf moved them to his father’s land.

Alf began making mission trips throughout the region. The gospel transformed listeners. Lutheran authorities instigated his arrest and beating. Realizing he no longer fit in the Lutheran church, he joined the Baptists. His father threw him off the farm. Alf moved to another village near Warsaw.

With help from German Baptists, Alf formed the first Baptist church in Russian-controlled Poland. However, the Lutheran Consistory and a Lutheran magistrate forbade Alf to preach.

Alf chose to preach anyway. Large crowds listened. Many joined the Baptists. Baptists suffered continual persecution not only from Lutherans but from the Russian Orthodox Church. Hostile magistrates beat and/or imprisoned Alf at least thirty times by 1866. In some prisons, chains chafed his arms until the skin bled and vermin covered him with bites. Criminals heckled, jeered, and threatened.

Sometimes he felt hopeless but he did not stop working. In addition to the many churches he founded in Poland, he founded the first Baptist churches in Ukraine.

So great were his sufferings that it is hard to select one imprisonment as the worst. Yet the second of his three arrests in 1865 gives a sense of what he endured. Here is how Albert W. Wardin jr. described it in Gottfried F. Alf: Pioneer of the Baptist Movement in Poland (pp. 49–50).

Not far from Adamowo, although he was carrying a pass, Alf was stopped by two of his enemies. They found, however, that Adamowo was not listed in his pass and took him to the magistrate in Wiszkow…. Since he carried tracts in his travel bag, he was labeled a sectarian and was thrown in prison on May 13 for four days. For the first three days he was among criminals and without food or drink; on the fourth day a German smith heard of him and brought him food. He was then transported to Pultusk, where he was imprisoned eight days. He was held here so long that his pass expired, which was further cause for punishment. He was then ordered to Przasnysz, a particularly torturous journey by foot since he was not feeling well. Fortunately brethren with a wagon came searching for him and carried him to Prasnisz, where he remained imprisoned for four days until May 28.
The authorities then sent him to Chazecharow, where on the next day the magistrate ordered him to pay ten rubles. Alf sent in the ten rubles, but that did not settle the matter.… Alf was ordered to deliver the money personally with a written declaration that he had not traveled with any evil intent and would not spread a false faith but only the pure Christian religion…. [By] June 3, Alf had endured twenty-one days of suffering and approximately 1,300 kilometers [808 miles] of tiresome travel. After four weeks he arrived home…. His wife and most of the brethren had given him up as lost and dead.