The year was 1913; the threat of war hung heavy over Europe. A small group of German Latter-day Saints gathered quietly for their weekly Bible study class in an unobtrusive garden house in Herne, a working-class town in Germany’s industrial Ruhr heartland.
The young man leading the discussion could scarcely conceal his fear. By nature shy, he had recently cast his lot with the much-maligned “Mormon sect.” A printer, Brother Krefter, who was to have led the class that summer evening, had been held over at work.
Nineteen-year-old Janos (Johann) Denndörfer had tried hard to persuade Sister Krefter to ask another brother to teach—one who had been a member longer and knew the scriptures better than he. But the good sister had prevailed. Hurried preparation was followed by faith, fasting, and fervent prayer. He would do his best.
The meeting went well. Most of the loyal flock of forty or fifty members came and felt the usual spiritual uplift and familial camaraderie that irresistibly drew them together each week. “There was never anything more important than our time together,” Johann later wrote to a friend.
Toward the end of the meeting, however, Johann’s attention was drawn by the group’s nervous murmurs and gestures toward the darkened windows. Someone outside had been listening. The closing song was sung and the prayer spoken. Johann had helped a sister turn off the lights and was closing the door when two strong hands grabbed his arms. A harsh command followed: “In the name of the law, you are under arrest.”
Despite the danger of being deported, Johann was flattered that the efficient Prussian police had mistaken him for an American missionary. Like three other families in the group—the Webers, Gassners, and Gärtners—he was a twice-transplanted German, but not a Reich citizen. Generations before, his forefathers had left Saxony for the beckoning fertile lands of Transylvania in what was then Hungary.
Now the tables were turned. Johann had followed his father and friends to the Ruhr to earn extra cash to bolster the family’s income. He worried what might happen to them if he lost his job.
As he sat in the dark jail thirty steps below street level, he pondered the radical change in his life since he had lodged with a Latter-day Saint family, the Webers, two years earlier and then joined their church. Why had he found such happiness and purpose in life among this unimpressive band of industrial workers? What had happened to his childhood fears that life did not continue past the grave? Why was he not sorrowful about the possibility of being expelled from the country?
He was overpowered by the conviction that at that moment God’s will was being done. Had one of the married “foreign” brethren with a large family to support been leading the discussion, the possibility of hardship would surely have been greater than what Johann stood to lose. Moreover, he had shared his testimony with the jailer, who had wondered how such a fine, wholesome lad had fallen into his custody. He had heard Johann’s story and then warned the other prisoners not to harm him.
The next day, after intensive interrogation, the police gave Johann their customary verdict: leave the country within forty-eight hours. He decided to go to Basel, Switzerland, to look up mission president Hyrum W. Valentine. There the Saints welcomed him and helped him find a job. That year he helped the missionaries pass out tracts and was ordained a deacon. It was, he said later, “the most wonderful time of my life.”
In June of that fateful year, the war clouds finally burst when, not far from his home, the Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo. Heeding his mother’s request, Johann returned home to Hungary, enrolled briefly in trade school, and then joined the streaming masses of enthusiastic young men marching off to World War I.
A severe injury on the Russian front in 1915 put him in a hospital in Budapest for eleven months. His stay there was cheered by regular visits from two members of the Church, Anna Kaufmann and Eva Arbics—nearly all that was left from the first, brief missionary harvest in Hungary around the turn of the century.
The turmoil of war and revolution trapped Johann in Hungary. For the next forty years, he had virtually no contact with the Church. But he was only physically separated, he said; spiritually there was no break as he continued his correspondence with member-friends in Herne and Basel, received his regular copies of Der Stern (the Church magazine in German), studied the scriptures, and, most important, maintained his direct and intimate contact with God.
Life in twentieth-century Hungary posed difficult challenges for a convinced Latter-day Saint. Before the Communists came to power in 1945, the dominant religious ideology and institutions of Hungary severely limited the opportunities to either practice or preach the faith. Hungarians, like people elsewhere, preferred to believe the lurid descriptions of polygamous Mormons found in the press rather than the humble testimony of a living, local Latter-day Saint.
After 1945 the masters changed, but the results for the Saints were the same. Christianity in any form was to be alternately ignored, repressed, or educated out of existence. And the intensity of opposition against the Church increased. Not-so-subtle pressures, like withdrawal of school privileges for children of openly professing Christian parents and loss of work, in addition to political indoctrination, effectively dried up the stream that had formerly filled Christian churches. Thereafter, churches became the curious meeting place of the pious old and the tourists. For many others besides Johann Denndörfer, religion had necessarily become a private matter.
Because of his background and training, Johann found his life’s work in Hungary’s main industry, agriculture. First as a farm manager of the extensive holdings of Count Esterhazy and then for the estates of the Catholic Church in Grosswardein, he was able to provide a good living for himself and his family. Later, he became an expert in the beef export industry.
Between the wars, Johann married Luise Lephardt, and they became parents of four children, a daughter and three sons. In order for the children to obtain a better education, the family moved to the border town of Debrecen, where Johann lived out his life. Luise Denndörfer and her children remained Catholic but were favorably impressed by the Word of Wisdom and by Johann’s devotion to both his family and faith. Part of life’s remaining challenge for this devout soul was to teach the faith to children and grandchildren.
Nowadays most young men receive the Melchizedek Priesthood at age nineteen when they enter the mission field. Johann Denndörfer was sixty-one when this new epoch in his life dawned. In 1955 President Herold L. Gregory sent Elder Richard Ranglack to interview Johann and officiate in that ordinance. Nearly two years later, Johann had an opportunity to use this new gift.
A faithful member whom he visited regularly, Sister Toth, lay deathly ill with fever. The doctors gave her no hope for recovery. Johann recounted the event:
“As I came into the apartment, her first words were: ‘Brother Denndörfer, give me a blessing. I feel very weak.’ I confronted the sister, we offered a prayer, and then I said I was not prepared to give her a blessing. I would have to get some oil, [but] I would be there the next day at that same time. It was then late afternoon. It was my first opportunity to use the power of God. Just imagine, in the scriptures it says for us to call the elders, but I was alone. From that time on I began to fast, went upon my knees, and asked the Lord for his support in my fear and trembling. …
“During the night I didn’t sleep much, but prayed a lot. … The next morning I tried to buy olive oil, but finding none, I got some cooking oil. In the afternoon when I went to visit Sister Toth again, she still had a high fever. I anointed her, then in a little while sealed the anointing on her head. I then read out of the Doctrine and Covenants about blessing the sick; when I looked at her, she had fallen asleep. I felt her hand; the fever seemed to have lessened. I asked her mother-in-law to let her sleep until she woke, and then left the apartment.
“To my amazement, I found her [two days later] out by the front gate looking into the street. I asked her how she was and she said she had been able to get out of bed the day before. She said it was very good that I had come, because she had already been in bed for over a week.”
In 1964 Johann Denndörfer welcomed a distinguished guest to his home: President J. Peter Loscher of the Austrian Mission. President Loscher was deeply moved by the bank book that Johann set before him. For years Johann had been putting aside his tithing, believing the book would be turned over to the Church when conditions were favorable for the money to go where it was intended. The letters Johann had written to correct the false image of Church members in the public press also impressed the president. Clearly, the lessons Johann had learned a half-century before had taken root and were bearing fruit.
Three years later, in 1967, Johann was bitterly disappointed when government authorities raided his apartment and confiscated his treasured Church books. Someone had turned him in for proselyting. He was arrested and interrogated twice. He was told that as an American spy, he was an enemy of Hungarian foreign policy. Johann was released, but the books—his companions and spiritual nourishment for many years—were gone.
As the years advanced, Johann felt a strong desire to go to the temple and to mingle with the Saints. Perhaps he could visit a conference of the Saints in East Germany, held each year in Dresden. In 1967 he made his first application for a passport. The request was denied. For the next seven years, like Jacob of old, he renewed his request.
Johann became both depressed and ill. A liver ailment and skin disease kept him in the hospital for more than a month. That was just before he was visited by his home teacher, Walter Krause, and his wife, Edith, in 1973. Brother Krause was a counselor in the Germany Dresden Mission and had recently been ordained a patriarch. In his patriarchal blessing, Johann was promised he would go to the temple before he passed on. It was his most fervent wish. After the blessing, Brother Krause worried about such a promise to an old man, but Brother Krause recognized that he had only been the Lord’s mouthpiece.
With new hope and determination, Johann renewed his passport application in January 1974. By June it had been approved and he was on his way to Switzerland. There in Zollikofen he received his own endowment, was sealed to his wife, and was able to do temple work for 785 of his ancestors.
Johann was renewed in body and spirit; few realized that he was eighty-one years old. He had even had his other wish fulfilled by being able to meet with the Saints in Dresden.
“In spite of everything, the many impossibilities and obstacles,” he wrote, “the gospel is still true and Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.”
Johann Denndörfer passed on soon afterward.
This modern pioneer had maintained a vibrant faith even when the full array of Church organization was not available. In his exemplary life, we discover that any limitation upon our own “imitation of Christ” is primarily from within ourselves, that even where freedom and social contact with the Saints are circumscribed, no one is ever really alone when God is with him.