Time: April 26-June 14, 1935
Address: Familienferienstätte Zingsthof, Gästerhäuser der Berliner Stadtmission, Landstrasse 1, 18374 Zingst, Germany
Bonhoeffer accepted the assignment of directing a seminary in 1934 while he was pastoring two congregations in London. He had gone there in late 1933 partly out of discouragement over the church situation in Germany. Thus, he was not at the Barmen or Dahlem synods that established the Confessing Church’s basic theology (Barmen) and rigorous ecclesiology (Dahlem). I believe that Bonhoeffer came home believing the Confessing Church claimed to be the true church, not a movement within the true church. He had led his London churches to affiliate with the Confessing Church with that understanding. Taking leave of the London churches meant Bonhoeffer could assume the seminary duties full-time until April 1935.
Bonhoeffer’s first seminary site was located about a hundred yards from the Baltic Sea near Zingst, a resort town. Germans have gone to Zingst for generations to breathe the healing North Sea air and for recreation, inspiration, ample meals and spectacular sunsets.
About 3-5 kilometers east of Zingst lies Zingsthof, the seminary’s intentionally temporary home. Zingsthof was then and is now a Christian retreat center. Confessing Church leaders chose Zingsthof in part because they knew that Rhineland Bible college students had retreated there. On very short notice the Zingsthof staff was able to accommodate Bonhoeffer, assistant director Wilhelm Rott and 23 students from various regions. Bonhoeffer’s students mainly came by rail. Some recalled walking from the train station to the seminary in the dark.
Today, Zingsthof’s original main building still stands. A modest Bonhoeffer Chapel has been built near where the dining hall was in 1935. The two-story dormitory the students used no longer exists, but the ministry has new facilities for families and groups to use. The director was most cordial to us.
In fact, he suggested to us that we go into Zingst to see an exhibit about the seminary and the Confessing Church at the St. Peter and Paul Church. The day before (June 2, 2019), the congregation celebrated the 84th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s sermon on Psalm 42 in that building. We went, and I was very happy we did. The church displayed some photos of the seminarians in Zingst I had never seen. I was reminded that the students helped in churches during their studies. I learned that Bonhoeffer’s students helped supplement the choir that day, which was important because Bonhoeffer had the choir sing between points of his sermon. I learned that women wept when the list of jailed pastors was read.
I also learned that after the service the police came and questioned Bonhoeffer about the service and the collection taken for the Confessing Church. Student Gerhard Vibrans recalled how calm Bonhoeffer seemed and how afraid the students had been. They no longer felt like they were on vacation by the sea. After ministering to university students in Greifswald during June 14-24, the students and their leaders traveled southeast to Finkenwalde, their new home.
These beginnings were, as Bonhoeffer wrote, “anchored in eternity.” Seeds of pastoral service, biblical fidelity, courage and joy in creation were sown in Zingst. It is fitting that the seminary’s seal always included Zingst, regardless of its location.