Clement Theodore Perthes.

Memoirs of Frederick Perthes, or, Literary, religious, and political life in Germany, from 1789 to 1843 (Volume 2) online

. (page 18 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

cannot seek, outside of Protestantism, for the power that
should organize the Church."

Another friend of very different views wrote to Perthes : —
" The Protestants have no Church, and cannot have one : nor
is this a misfortune. Better no Church than lose the spirit of
Christianity. A Church (how many have there been already !)
is but an accident ; the essential is a Christian mind. No
doubt, courage is required by those who would dispense with
the outward support of a Church. Many, who insist on having
a Church, turn, in the anguish of their hearts, to a State-
Church, whose function should be to imprison the human mind


in a house of correction, as it were, and by police regulations
compel men to be godly. I fear, indeed, that the clergy and
the State, because they have need of each other, will always
take care to maintain some such institution. I confess, more-
over, that I can find no middle term that would satisfy at once
men's longing after a common faith, and the no less deeply
implanted necessity for freedom of conviction. Others are, no
doubt, as much at a loss as myself ; were it not so, the world
would have heard of their discovery. So then, nothing remains
but that we content ourselves with what we have, or rather
with what we have not."

Perthes had little expectation that the attempts of Protes-
tants to form a united Church would succeed. He thus writes :
— " Everywhere there is an obscure longing after a Church,
but what exactly is wanted, is not clearly known. All desire
freedom of belief, but most men shut their eyes to the fact
that freedom of belief within a Church is conceivable only when
that Church holds the saving truths of Christianity in so in-
tangible a shape that they can be made the subject neither of
investigation nor of dispute. Again, the civil magistrate neither
can nor should regulate the outward communion of Christians ;
who, then, is to do it ? If the Protestant Church were organ-
ized by consistories with an independent president at their
head, we should have as many colleges of cardinals, and as
many popes, as there are States. And if it were organized by
a subordination of presbyteries and synods, the power would
be in the hands of the masses. Who can point out another

Though Perthes did not recognise in Protestantism a power
capable of forming a Church, he yet maintained, in opposition


to Neander, the necessity of ecclesiastical association, and even
of a universal Christian Church. Here is one of his letters to
that effect : — " Who gives the two or three, assembled in the
Lord's name, and who are thus, according to Christ's promise,
formed into a Church, the assurance that they are so assembled ?
What makes it even possible that they should be so assembled ?
Of course, some j^'^^vious instruction. How is the outward
principle which constitutes the Church to be developed ? Of
course, only by previous training. But who is to teach the
truth, and draw men to it ? For the mass of mankind this
cannot be effected by individuals, but only through an institu-
tion, and that institution is the Church. Unhappy men, truly,
to whom the face of God must remain veiled, because some
particularly gifted persons can discern it without the aid of a
Church ! In regard to the inward Christian life, there are few
men with whose views my own more nearly coincide than with
those of the pious Neander, but, whenever he passes from the
inward to the outward, he is completely at fault. The outward
is to him a terra incognita; for he is unacquainted with men,
their circumstances, and struggles. Without taking this into
account, the obtuseness would be inconceivable, which permits
Neander to think that, with such views as his, mankind, in
this or in any age, can be effectually succoured.'' Again :
"Can Christian communion exist in virtue of the symbolical
books, or of Luther's Catechism and the Bible ? Or, purer still,
is the Bible alone sufficient to make Christians of those who
read it? If so, then let all children be taught to read, give
every one a Bible, and insist that each shall read and study it,
for the purpose of drawing conclusions for life. More than
tills, theoretical Protestantism neither requires nor permits to


be done. But if it turn out that the children are not mature
enough to draw conclusions for themselves, who is to draw con-
clusions for them ? who has the right to do so ?" A friend re-
marks thus on Perthes' notion of a universal Church : — " He
who demands a Church externally complete, the doctrine and
discipline of which must be suitable absolutely to all, not only
will not obtain what he aims at, but would render impossible
that communion of faith which is attainable. No: rather
the sj)irit without the letter, than the letter without the spirit."
Perthes answered : — " Your dictum has no meaning ; for in
man, and among men, neither is the spirit possible without the
letter, nor the letter without the spirit."

Convinced that neither Catholicism nor Protestantism had
yet given birth to the Church needed by mankind, as also that
they were of themselves unable to do so, Perthes cherished the
hope that Rome as well as Luther was an instrument in the
hand of God for bringing about, ultimately, a universal Church.
He thus writes : — " The institution charged with the preserva-
tion and diffusion of the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, and
without which Christianity can neither live in the souls of men,
nor become visible and oiDcrate externally, cannot be man's
work, but must be God's. Ho has not, however, established,
as the Catholics maintain, immediately and by one act, any
such institution, single, determinate, and absolutely true ; but
he laid the foundations of it in Jesus Christ, and, by the in-
spired Apostles, gave a general outline, according to which it
should be built up in time. The builders being men, the
o-eneral outline has often not been understood at all, or mis-
understood, and often perverted by lying and wickedness. As
the perversions of some have been rectified by others, and as,


in some cases, the building has been remodelled, and in others
begun anew in despair of the old, so a variety of Churches have
arisen ; and so far as they have been constructed on the foun-
dation laid by God, and according to the general outline given
by Him, so far do they bear the character of divine institutions.
Being all erected, however, more or less under the influence of
human error and sin, none of them exactly represent the divine
original. Pride is thus excluded, and no Church may despise
another. What would Catholicism have become but for the
Reformation, and what would Protestantism have been now,
had not the Catholic Church continued to exist ? Let each
test, strengthen, and complete itself by means of the other :
differences will thus be diminished, the Churches approxima-
ted, and finally, in the providence of God, a Catholic, i.e., a
universal Church will arise."

A friend wrote to Perthes : — " The Reformation did not set
in a clear light the idea of a Church ; for, though retaining the
Apostles' Creed, it destroyed by vague generalities the force of
the third article, in which the Church is recognised. This
is the source of the confusions and contradictions which would
have already destroyed the Evangelical Church, had not the
Church idea, lost to all appearance in the confusion and vio-
lence of theological discussion, been practically reproduced in
the public mind. Now that the schism has taken place, and
that Catholicism, overspread with obscurantism, Jesuitism, and
Romanism, is far less reconcilable with the spirit of Christi-
anity, than Protestantism even in its lowest form, nothing re-
mains but to give prominence and force to the essence of
Christianity, wliich exists and operates in both. Whatever
theologians may say, the principle of both Churches is the


same ; and the Evangelical Church could not have subsisted,
if, according to the theories of theologians, she had left faith
absolutely to individual investigation and decision, instead of
making it, as the Catholics profess to do, a matter of obedience
and subjection under a visible Church. As long as the Protes-
tant Church, no less than the Catholic, takes every infant to its
bosom, instructs and trains every child ; whilst the whole life
of the people is encompassed and moulded by its forms and
customs, filled and elevated by its spirit ; how can it be pre-
tended that independence of judgment, and an intelligent
search after truth are the conditions of pure Christianity ! As
well might it be said that physical life depends on a theoretical
acquaintance with respiration, and the other functions of life,
and that the breath of the living will be stopped by an anato-
mical error." The same party, in another letter to Perthes,
expresses his conviction that the Church forms of the Refor-
mation are effete, but that Protestants cannot do better than
remain in the Church of their fathers, and work there for the
revival of Christian principle, which may be expected to create
for itself new and more potent Church forms. He considers
that a variety of ecclesiastical constitutions may very well co-
exist on the foundation of a common faith ; and that the
establishment of this view is the mission of the age.




The Rationalism of last century was still regarded in exten-
sive circles as the only religion compatible with enlightenment.
Writing, in 1822, to a friend who had ironically congratulated
him on his establisliment in Gotha, the metropolis of Rational-
ism, Perthes thus described the state of matters : — " Saxony
was the cradle of the Reformation, and is now the easy-chair
of Rationalism ; but the rest of Germany need not point the
finger, for, excepting in a few districts where new life has
awaked, Rationalism is universal. No one, of course, gives
himself out as an atheist, or sinless, or as raised above the
common herd by intellectual superiority, but all agree simply
to make no account of God, and in worship to go through a
round of external forms. Some, with disdainful pride, consent
that Christianity should subsist for the discipline and restraint
of the masses, whilst others endeavour to enlighten them into
abandonment of their hereditary superstition. With both, the
Christian is but a pietist, and the pietist is but a hypocrite."
Neander wrote to Perthes as follows : — " What the Rationalists
call pietism is nothing but Christianity itself The corruption
of our nature would be inconceivable and inexplicable unless
there were in us naturally and apart from grace, something


divine and indestructible, some points of contact with Ilim in
whom ' we live and move and have our being ;' and, although
ignorant zealots have given some occasion for the mistake,
yet infidels misrepresent the Christian when they say that
he denies man's consciousness of natural connexion with

Rationalism proceeded on the supposition that each man, and
the race at large, was able, by virtue of inherent strength and
tendency, to make j)rogress towards perfection. On this sub-
ject Perthes wrote to Twesten in Kiel : — " It seems to me that
the progress of man, and of mankind, to perfection is the core
of the rising generation's religion and politics. And no wonder,
for, if this principle be true, then sin and grace are fictions, and
thus are removed at once the only stumbling-blocks in the way
of Rationalism. Our fathers believed that intellect, science,
and morality, were heralding in a state of perfection ; and
broader than ever is now the basis of such a hope. The powers
of nature have been subdued to the service of man ; the results
of modern investigation, comparison, discovery, and invention
are indeed extraordinary ; intercourse, commercial and intel-
lectual, between all the ends of the earth, was never so rapid
and frequent ; immense progress, in fact, has been made
towards the annihilation of time and space. But somehow
the old Adam remains as before, destroying, now as a thousand
years ago, both the works and the happiness of men."

As Rationalism got quit of redemption by the doctrine of
human perfectibility, so it excluded revelation by maintaining
the sufficiency of nature ; and, consistently enough, it sought to
evolve the secrets of divine mercy and wisdom by means of
chemistry, physics, and botany. Perthes thus discusses these

VOL. II. 21


matters in a letter: — "When I contemplate nature in its
beauty and immensity as a whole, I am filled with the sense of
God ; but when I consider its parts, the hosts of flies, the legions
of worms, the infinitude of life in the earth, and the immensity of
the stars in heaven, I doubt ; the endless multiplicity of details
confounds my consciousness of the personally Eternal, and I am
shut up to materialism or pantheism. Lalande said : ' I looked
into infinite space, but I saw no God ;' and this was both a
juster and a more profound saying than all your devout medita-
tions on the wisdom and goodness of God in nature amount to.
Nature could never have given us a personal God : only the Son
has revealed the Father ; and, had not the Son revealed God,
we must have denied llim." More at large in a letter to
Steffens, dated 1828 : — "Throughout the animal world I see a
constant process of mutual destruction ; and the natural fate of
man is misery and sorrow. Children are ever dying of the
poison distilled from parental sins ; youth is wasted in vain en-
deavours ; the prime of life is tortured by monotony, which is
not repose ; and old age bewails a scheme of life, or perhaps
many schemes of life unfulfilled. All cling to some favourite
pursuit or project ; and the few, who are not baffled, death
tears away from the enjoyment or accomplishment of their
desires. There is no doubt a well-spring of life in man, but
nature will not allow it to become clear ; he cannot but strive
after truth, 3'et, as he grows older, the darkness becomes denser
in and around him. Now, no one has portraj'od the terrors
of nature, and the cruelty of its decrees in these times, so as to
,shew that whoever would worship the God of nature must even
fall down before the devil, unless, indeed, he can cheat himself
with i^hrases. Preaching the truth scientifically to professors,


authors, pastors, and teachers is of no use ; we must address
the people, and you, SteiFens, are the very man to write a
romance that shall dissipate this dream about the goodness of
nature, and merit to be denounced by Deists and Rationalists as
godless, being indeed a horror and abomination to both. Such
a work might let many into the secret of Paul's language, wlien
he represents nature itself, corrupted with and through man, as
groaning and travailing together in pain, and waiting for the
manifestation of the sons of God."

However much irritated Perthes sometimes was by vague
generalities about the goodness of nature, and the progress of
mankind to perfection, he was yet able to estimate justly
even the Rationalists, whose views were most opposed to liis
own. He thus wrote : " Were I to consider the champions of
Rationalism apart from their antecedents, I should certainly
view them with reprobation ; but how few men have made
themselves what they are ! With few exceptions, the inward
man, like the outward position, is determined by circumstances ;
and I myself can remember the circumstances in which most of
these men grew up. Wlien I was a child, enlightenment occu-
pied the place of religion, and freemasonry that of the Church.
Men of culture knew the Bible only by hearsay, and looked
with pity on the peasant and mechanic who still read it ; even
clergymen uttered their tame jokes on Balaam's ass, and the
walls of Jericho. During the first ten years of my establish-
ment in Hamburgh, I sold not a single Bible, except to a few
bookbinders in neighbouring country towns ; and I remember
very well a good sort of man who came into my shop for a Bible,
and took great pains to assure me that it was for a person about
to be confirmed, fearing evidently lest I should suppose it was


for himself." Again : " There is something deeply affecting to
me in Schiller's ' Gods of Greece/ that mirror of the impression
made on an earnest spirit by the rigid intellectuality and dismal
unbelief of the age. You see there a man of lofty aspirations
venting his fury against routine and hireling preachers, and
painfully working his way to that living God who communicates
with men by love. He only can be unjust to Schiller who
knows not the wrathful melancholy of tlie breast which heaves
with longings for help, yet contains no nursery-memories of the
Christian faith ; he only can condemn him who is unable to
realize the feelings of a man who would fain hold intercourse
with the living God, yet finds nothing in his age but the god
of intellect, enthroned, indeed, in astronomical majesty, but
insipid and impassible withal." In another letter Perthes ex-
claims : — " How many noble men have I known, upright and
true, full of humility and love, who were not only strangers,
but even enemies to Christian doctrine ! Who dare pronounce
how they, as individuals, and in their inmost life, were related
to God ? whether, and how tliey were, after all, attracted by the
grace of God ?"

Rist's view of the preceding century may be gathered from
the following letter to Perthes : — " The endeavour of the pre-
ceding century to escape from the conditions of the finite, by
investigating and determining the infinite, is one to which all
are tempted who think of things supernal. The present age
has made us conscious of far deeper wants, undreamt of by
the mightiest spirits of tlie preceding generation. Like Spinoza,
Kant died quite happy with his categories. Old Gahler, one of
the most gifted men I ever knew, built certainly, from the eartli
upwards, the tower by which he hoped to reach the sky, and


died witli the utmost cheerfulness. Two of my dearest friends
even now, indefatigable inquirers, pure, truth-loving, genial
men, feel no need of the God revealed in Christ. What their
spirits seek they find on earth ; and they impose silence on
their hearts when guarantees are demanded additional to the
purity of their own endeavours. I cannot esteem tliese men
less highly than those who speak and write in our days. The
spirit of their time was, no doubt, less profound and earnest
than that of ours ; yet, in their shallow age, they thought pro-
foundly, whereas our present youth, notwithstanding the deep
importance of the time, sail about gaily on the surface. Were not
those men great, who wearied themselves in searching after truth,
the ideal of manhood, likeness to God ? whose chief and only
good lay in fathoming the depths of the soul, in scrutinizing
the mysterious foundations of the spirit-life ? They wanted to
find out what man is apart from the body, and thus to approach
God : but, as they went deeper, and ever deeper, so they went
farther, and ever farther, from one another ; and, as they went
farther from one another, they understood one another less, till,
at length, they ceased to hear one another's voices, and were
only able to send each his own, to the upper air. But the
treasures accumulated by the profound thinking of that age, the
mass of eternal negative truths ascertained, and the power of
self-abnegation and abstraction, displayed in research, are
claims upon our reverence, and even just grounds of pride.
These were men who dared to gaze into the depths, and report
what they saw, fearless of consequences."

To another letter, in which Rist enthusiastically recalls his
own share in researches of the above nature, Perthes answers :
" That was, indeed, a lovely time ; but why ? not because of


the employment, but because it was the season of youth ; for
the eye of youth is ever attracted by some lofty aim, and its
heart blessed by ingenuous faith in success. But when youth
passed, and the grown man wished to realize his former dreams,
the whole was found to be a gross deception. What did many
of those become who, in the Kantian period, thought themselves
the elite of mankind ? Mere red-tapists, lost in paltriness.
What did many of those become, who, in the era of mighty
genius, or in the period of Gleim, Georg, and Jacobi, seemed
to overflow with spirit and fancy ? Mere organ-grinders, a
weariness to themselves and others.''

Perthes considered that a great improvement had taken
place during his own lifetime. In 1826 he wrote to the Coun-
tess S. Stolberg : " The contemporaries of your youth were also
mine ; my recollections of the middle and lower classes run
parallel with yours of the higher, and are equally sad. But,
since the French Revolution, the rod of divine chastisement
has not been wielded in vain on our lacerated country. The
sensual, godless frivolity of last century wanders about now
only as a dusky obsolete ghost ; good seed has been sown ; and
it will bring forth by and by the genuine fruits of Cliristianity."

In many parts of Germany, endeavours were made to satisfy
the profound wants of the human soul ; but the Christian life
can neither become nor remain sound, unless Christian thought
and feeling go out into action. In carrying on Christian enter-
prises by joint effort, Protestant Germany remained far behind
England. Isolated attempts were indeed made, but they were
exclusively the work of individuals, and ever bore the stamp of
their individual origin. With some such, Perthes co-operated in
Hamburgh ; but the most remarkable of them all was com-


mcnced at Weimar, by John Falk, councillor of tlie embassy.
In the vicinity of the battle-fields of Jena, Lutzon, and Leip-
sic, there were to be found a multitude of boys, partly be-
longing- to the district, partly brought, from all parts of
Germany, by the armies that had fought there ; they had
run wild, and Falk, selecting the most destitute, determined
to make honest men of them. A native of West Prussia,
Falk had been in Weimar since 1796, had appeared on va-
rious occasions as a lyric poet and satirist, and was fre-
quently pointed to as a type of the national literature
in decay. It seemed incredible to many that such a man
should have a genuine vocation for such an enterprise.
Because, notwithstanding all Falk's labour and care, many
of his lyroteges turned out ill, some concluded that none of them
were reformed ; and others pretended that the outla}'' of zeal,
effort, and money, was in ridiculous contrast with the paucity
of results. A friend wrote to Perthes : " Falk is so impressible
and fanciful, that the dreadful destitution of the youths, and
their subsequent improvement may very well both be creatures
of his imagination. Then he is importunate in seeking sub-
scriptions, and aid of every kind : he is, in fact, a bore. He
has a few enthusiastic followers ; but, in general, he is not
liked here : people avoid him, and laugh at him behind his
back." Yet this same man, the butt of ridicvde, was the au-
thor of that movement for the reformation of children, aban-
doned in every sense of the term, which continues to this day.
In 1820 he had 800 children in his own house ; and had stirred
up Jena and Erfurt to similar efforts. Although Perthes en-
tertained some scruples about Falk himself, he yet recognised
at once the real importance of his undertaking, awakened an


interest in its behalf in Hamburgli and Holstein, and procured
for it considerable pecuniary aid.

In 1821, Falk wrote to Perthes :—" Amid the children I
find consolation and support, when I am tempted to despair ;
for this is indeed an evil time : insurrection lurks behind the
constitutions, and Sand's dagger lies concealed behind the
Gospel of St. John. Men pass like wind-bags : tliey eat and
drink, work and sleep, as if there were no such thing as an im-
mortal soul ; they do not indeed in so many words deny God,
but their whole life is practical atheism : nor will matters be
mended so long as men regard preaching and the hearing of
sermons as a Christian act, whereas Christian action is itself