Halle Pietism: Religious Compromise and Prussian Social Transformation


    The century between 1640 and 1740 was a critical period in the development of the Prussian authoritarian state and, more importantly, for the formation of the social values that typified the Prussian national character. Duty, obedience, and absolute loyalty to the state were the direct, albeit initially unintended, result of the Calvinist Hohenzollerns' attempt to reconcile their interests with those of the Lutheran nobility and populace.

    Religious intoleration between the Reformed Church, as the Calvinists were known, and the longer established Lutheran Church resulted in acrimonious exchanges from the pulpits and among the citizenry. Although the Reformed church was willing to co-exist with the Lutheran church, Orthodox Lutherans condemned the Reformed theology as heresy and resisted any introduction of the Calvinist church into Lutheran communities. The Lutheran Church in Prussia preached the Lutheran doctrine of obedience to authority. However, this "authority" was that of the nobles, the patrons of the church throughout the Hohenzollern lands.

    This attempt to integrate crown interests with a unified populace changed during the reigns of three Hohenzollern rulers. The Great Elector Frederick William tried to numerically balance Lutherans and Reformed Churchmen by "importing" Calvinists from other countries. Frederick William offered monetary enticements as well as asylum to Huguenot refugees and Calvinists from other European nations. Elector Frederick III, later King Frederick I of Prussia, sought a religious compromise first through the introduction of the Anglican liturgy and later by fostering the growth of Halle Pietism, a Lutheran reformist movement led by August Hermann Francke and his mentor Philip Jakob Spener. These "Pietists," through their successful welfare-educational complex at the University of Halle, inspired King Frederick William I to institute a "State Pietism" that integrated the Pietist teachings of duty, obedience, and discipline into the Prussian national character. Although the zealous Frederick William I was originally attracted to the doctrines of Pietism as a means to unite Calvinist and Lutheran interests, during his reign he incorporated its teachings into the secular world of Prussia's military, education, and welfare systems.

    In 1613, dissatisfied with Luther's theological and political compromises with the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor, Elector John Sigismund of Brandenburg publicly adopted the Calvinist faith. The elector promptly entered an alliance with the Dutch Republic to solidify his power in Brandenburg and to counter a reinvigoration of Catholicism within the Hapsburg lands. Whether it was for personal or political reason, Johann Sigismund's conversion established Calvinism as the faith of the Hohenzollerns.(1) Because the majority of the Brandenburg population remained staunchly Lutheran, the elector formally relinquished the right of cuius regio, eius religio thereby granting his subjects freedom of religion.(2) Johann Sigismund's son, the Elector George William, married a princess from the Palatinate, the leading Reformed territory in the Empire, and further tied the Hohenzollerns to Calvinism. Lutheranism remained, however, the dominant faith in Brandenburg.

    At the time of Frederick William's ascension to the electorate in 1640, the only Calvinist institutions in Brandenburg were the court, the cathedral in Berlin, and the University of Frankfurt an der Oder which had been Reformed since 1610. During his reign, he strengthened the state-sponsored Reformed church institutionally through the distribution of Calvinist clerics (Hofprediger), who staffed local parishes and who trained teachers of Calvinist schools.(3)

The "Great Elector" Frederick William solidified the Calvinist presence in Brandenburg by fostering cultural and political ties with the Netherlands. He spent his formative years in the Dutch Republic during which he studied at the University at Leiden and frequented the military camps of Prince Maurice of Orange. Frederick William's marriage to the devout Princess Luise Henriette of Orange and his reliance on several Dutch-educated advisors further connected the Hohenzollerns with Dutch Calvinists.(4) Despite the sometimes vehement Lutheran opposition to the Calvinists, the Great Elector mandated religious toleration. In 1664 he warned both Calvinist and Lutheran ministers to cease attacking each other from the pulpit; those who refused to submit to his ruling risked losing their appointments.(5)

Another challenge to the Lutheran majority in Prussia was the influx of Calvinist refugees from France and other European countries. Three weeks after Louis XIV's October 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Frederick William issued the Potsdam Decree offering any refugees safe and free asylum in Hohenzollern lands. This was more than just an open invitation; the Great Elector sought to increase the Calvinist population by encouraging the influx of Calvinist immigrants into Brandenburg-Prussia. Because most of the wealthy refugees preferred to settle in England or the Netherlands, Frederick William offered numerous inducements such as tax relief, partial self-government, and separate judicial systems for reformed communities, often at his own expense. More than one-third of the entire state budget was allocated to this cause. (6) The Great Elector brought in Calvinists from Holland, Switzerland, Piedmont, and the Palatinate to populate the domains and farmlands still deserted thirty years after the Peace of Westphaelia.(7) The Huguenots, however, preferred living in urban areas. By the end of the 1690s, one out of every five Berliners was a Frenchman.(8)

    Because many of the new arrivals were skilled artisans and tradesmen who enjoyed some state support, Lutheran natives expressed some discontent for the immigrants' relative success. Economic differences soon transferred to religious intoleration. By the time of Frederick William's death in 1688, Prussia's Protestants remained divided. The continued criticism of Calvinism from Lutheran pulpits coupled with the Huguenots' monetary successes increased hostility among Brandenburg natives. Clearly, the infusion of Calvinists into Brandenburg had the unintended effect of exacerbating the problem. Intent on finding a satisfactory solution, Frederick William's son, Elector Frederick III (later king Frederick I) believed that a religious compromise would unify the two faiths.

    Although the new king was a dedicated Calvinist, Frederick did not believe that the theological differences between the two faiths were significant enough to rule out a common liturgy. With the assistance of his court preacher Jablonski, the king promoted a new confession modeled after the Anglican Church that would be neither Lutheran nor Reformed but "evangelical." With this in mind, he had the Anglican Book of Common Prayer translated into German in 1704. Seven years later, Frederick attempted to establish an endowment at Oxford and Cambridge to enable Prussian theological students to train in the Anglican tradition. These negotiations ultimately broke down because of deteriorating diplomatic relations between England and Prussia and the lack of interest of Frederick I's successor.(9) Many Prussians, furthermore, were not comfortable with the imposition of a foreign tradition into their churches. Within this climate, Frederick I turned to a group of German reformers, the "Pietists," whom he hoped would bridge the gap between the Calvinist and Lutheran faiths.

    Pietism was a religious and educational movement that sought to rekindle the Reformation through the mystical and spiritual rebirth of its followers. The followers of Pietism believed that Christians should work for the betterment of mankind instead of leading a contemplative life.(10) Whereas the Protestant churches were intent on ridding themselves of "Popish" remnants, the Pietists focused on shaping the lives of their parishioners through preaching, discussion, and pastoral work. Although the term "Pietism" is usually associated with the Lutheran reformist theologians, most the Reformation churches of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries experienced some elements of this movement. The Puritans in England and the later Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce were part of a greater emphasis on piety. Pietism in Prussia, however, spread under unique circumstances.(11) Within twenty-five years of its introduction into Northern Germany, Pietism enjoyed the protection of the emerging Prussian state through its establishment at the influential University of Halle.

    Philip Jakob Spener is generally considered the father-figure of Pietism. A native of Alsace, he studied at Strasbourg where foreign literature, especially works by the English Puritans and theologian Johann Arndt, were readily available. As a minister in Frankfurt, Spener headed several religious discussion groups called conventicles and published his seminal work Pia Desideria (Pious Wishes) in 1675 as a theologically based program for the reform and rejuvenation of the Lutheran church. Many Orthodox Lutherans were alarmed by the rapid spread of Pia Desideria throughout Lutheran Germany.(12)

    Heavily influenced by both the Dutch Reformed church and English Puritanism, Spener re-interpreted Luther's writings and focused upon the personal practice of piety in all aspects of everyday life through preaching, Bible reading, discussion, and charitable activity.(13) Furthermore, Spener believed that it was the Christian's duty to attempt to bring about God's kingdom on earth through the transformation of the earthly world.(14) While in Frankfurt in the 1670s, Spener convinced the civic authorities to establish an orphanage-workhouse for the dual purpose of poor relief and catechismal instruction. Several other cities including Augsburg, Darmstadt, Leipzig, and Hanover copied Frankfurt's example by following Spener's detailed instructions. These institutions provided both the setting for the application of Pietist principles and jobs for young clergymen while ministering to the poor regardless of confessional differences.(15)

    Spener quickly attracted a large Lutheran following including a number of correspondents. August Hermann Francke, then a student at the Orthodox Lutheran University of Leipzig, became aware of Spener's ideas through the collegium philobiblicum , an institution interested in the devotional study of the scriptures. In 1688 Franke stayed with Spener for several months during which time he became imbued with Spener's Pietistic ideals. After Franke returned to Leipzig, he began to lecture at the collegium philobiblicum and quickly became the intellectual leader of Pietism in central and northern Germany.(16)

    Within his lectures, Francke completely broke with the orthodox methods of theological instruction by emphasizing the application of Biblical teachings to everyday concerns. Although the theology faculty promptly prohibited Francke from leading any collegia on biblical topics, his students continued to meet to hear Pietist preachers. The University of Leipzig was further scandalized to learn that one of Francke's colleagues permitted townswomen to attend his collegium probably inspiring several important female spiritualist visionaries in northern Germany in the early 1690s.(17)

    In 1690 the elector of Saxony exiled Francke and Spener, prohibited student conventicle meetings, and denied scholarships to Pietist students thereby effectively crushing the Pietist movement in Saxony. Brandenburg-Prussia welcomed the exiled Pietists and established a forum in the guise of the University of Halle from which they propagated their teachings for the next half century. Within a few years of its establishment, the university at Halle became a conduit of Hohenzollern religious policy. Frederick I forbade the orthodox pastors of Brandenburg to preach against Francke and his teachings. Furthermore, any differences of theological opinion were to be submitted to the king who would, in turn rely upon the judgment of Spener whom he had installed in Berlin.

    The University of Halle was one of many institutions founded between 1692 and the 1740s. Under Francke's charismatic leadership, its intellectual enthusiasm and relative academic freedom attracted large numbers of students within a relatively short span of time. After only twenty-five years, Halle had acquired over 1200 students and was considered the most prestigious university in Germany.(18)

    Although Francke's lectures attracted hundreds of theology students to the new university, his most noted achievement was his establishment of a remarkable institution whose main purpose was to educate and indoctrinate the children of Halle's poor. Part of Francke's ambitious social plans involved the founding of a school-cum-orphanage complex (Armenschule , Paedagogium, and Anstalten) to educate children under the principles of Pietism.(19) He believed that every child should be given the opportunity to progress according to his God-given ability regardless of birth or wealth. In addition to teaching the children useful trades, those orphans who displayed talent and industry were encouraged to prepare for the university. Special funds were set aside to provide scholarships for those who could not afford higher education. In order to save money, most of the teachers were theological students from the university who taught in exchange for free meals. In addition to a broad theological curriculum, the students were exposed to several academic subjects including astronomy, history, physics, and geography. All were required to follow and enforce a rigorous code of behavior that was designed to both break the will and foster self-control.(20)

    This stringent curriculum proved attractive to parents across Prussia. The "poor school" Francke founded in 1695 with four Thalers and nine students had become by the 1720s a complex of several buildings including a hospital, an 18,000 volume library and a center for Pietist missionary work. Many graduates of continued their studies at the University of Halle and went on to become religious and social leaders. Discipline, faith, and devotion were the hallmarks of the Halle Anstalten.(21)

    In order for his ambitious plans to succeed, Francke needed state assistance. Around 1700, he began to articulate his strategy for "world reform" in a series of proposals that involved a Pietist-Hohenzollern collaboration. He hoped the political authorities would assist in the saving work of "reborn" clergy by maintaining order and suppressing any opposition to Pietism. Furthermore, Francke planned for the establishment of a general commission chaired by a member of the privy council that would supervise visitations to each province within the kingdom and would eventually reconstitute itself as a Kirchenkollegium with supervisory powers over the Lutheran churches. Foremost on the council-kollegium's agenda was the increased state support for the theology program at the University of Halle and the foundation of institutions similar to the Halle Anstalten in other cities. Frederick I, however, was pursuing his plan to unite the Lutheran and Reformed churches through the Anglican liturgy instigated during the last years of his reign. Spener, Francke, and their followers were skeptical of this external unity of confessions, believing instead that spiritual rebirth of all parties was necessary before any union could be accomplished. Spener's ultimate refusal to participate in any negotiations further undermined the Pietists' support within the court.

    In the last decade of Frederick I's reign, the Pietists suffered several setbacks. In 1706, after several staunch advocates had died, Spener himself succumbed to old age. Francke further alienated the king when in 1709 he tried to win over the king's mentally unstable bride, the Lutheran Princess Sophie Louise of Mecklenburg, to the Pietist camp. As her mental condition worsened, so too did Francke's relationship with the king.(22) However, after 1710, Frederick I's son, Crown Prince Frederick William, began to take over some of his father's duties and to assert some influence in the Berlin court.

    King Frederick I's death in 1713 ushered in a new age for Prussia. Whereas Frederick had tempered his Calvinist religion with a delight in worldly things, his son Frederick William I shunned ceremony and showy expenditure as part of his parsimonious nature. After giving his father a state funeral, the new king stripped the court of its formalities and streamlined expenditures in favor of his army. Aptly dubbed "The Soldier King," Frederick William demanded the same unquestioned obedience and rigid discipline from his family, court, and nation as he did from his prized troops and himself.

    As king, Frederick William assumed total responsibility for his subject's welfare. Like the Halle Pietists, he believed he was fulfilling a divine mandate to act for the good of others. In return, however, Frederick William demanded his subjects subordinate their individual desires to the greater good of the state. Frederick William was determined to persuade his subjects to identify their self-worth with the positive growth of the Prussia. Not only did Pietist institutions strive to inculcate this ethos, but the movement's teachings were in accord with the king's own spirituality.

    Frederick William faced internal religious and personal conflicts throughout his life. Overindulged by his parents, he became an ill-tempered and badly behaved child. The young prince's Calvinist tutor persuaded Frederick William that his aggressive and malicious acts indicated that he was predestined for damnation.(23) This fear caused him much anxiety during his formative years and served to inculcate a lifelong fear of the Almighty. Frederick William's God was an avenging Jehovah from the Old Testament. The knowledge that he would have to account for his actions was the great motivating factor of his life. Following the death of his first born son when Frederick William was twenty years old, he experienced a religious conversion in which he realized that despite his sinfulness, God would forgive him. He emerged with a sense of obligation towards the God who had rescued him from damnation and instilled with the concept that his performance as king had a direct and immediate connection to his personal salvation. He became an "administrator for God." Thereafter, he devoted himself to Bible study, daily household prayers, and the frequent partaking of communion. Frederick William matured into a choleric and abstemious young man.(24) He applied himself to his religion with the same zeal and duty that he had hitherto exhibited with his troops.

    Francke's successes with the Halle Anstalten and the Pietists' disciplined methods of teaching attracted the attention of Frederick William. Believing that the Pietist credo of study, faith, and duty to society would benefit his subjects, Frederick William funded the establishment of several schools to be directed by Francke himself. In 1717 the king published an edict mandating compulsory elementary education for all children who lived in the vicinity of a school. Many children were taught by their local minister who, by the 1720s, may well have been a Halle graduate or at least influenced by the Pietists. Although this decree was not uniformly enforced, it did create an environment that encouraged the founding of new schools. The king's concern for education had little to do with a desire to enlighten his subjects. Frederick William was far more interested in their spiritual welfare and their obedience to the state.(25)

Pietist institutions experienced a remarkable expansion not only in education but also in missionary work under the patronage of Frederick William I. With state assistance, Halle-trained Pietist clergy took up posts in Lutheran churches across Prussia and in foreign countries. Missionaries brought Pietist Christianity to peoples as far away as southern Africa and India.(26) Pietist clergy reached out to several generations from the pulpit, through Bible study, and in the classroom. Through this broad based exposure, Pietist ideals would continue within the Prussian people long after Halle Pietism waned in influence. Frederick William was determined to indoctrinate his subjects further by deploying Pietists in the institution over which he had complete power: the army.

    After the demands of state were met, Frederick William devoted the remainder of his time and energy to the building, training, and improvement of his army. Strict rules and harsh penalties maintained order among troops often resentful toward the military authorities. When volunteers failed to fill the ranks, impressment gangs roamed the countryside kidnapping eligible soldiers regardless of national origin.(27) Despite this harsh discipline, Frederick William was determined to create a spirit of voluntary obedience and a Pietist acceptance of hard work among his troops. To achieve these goals, he appointed Halle Pietist Lampertus Gedicke director of the military church.

    The Frederick William gave Gedicke control over the chaplain selection process; by 1736, over half of the approximately one-hundred army chaplains had matriculated with the theology faculty of the University of Halle. During Gedicke's tenure, the military church undertook the responsibility of educating the soldier's children who could not be accommodated in the local schools. These regimental schools, supervised by regimental chaplains, stressed discipline, the catechism, and basic reading skills. Many of these Halle-trained chaplains started special schools to teach the soldiers and their wives reading and writing and the catechism. Everyone was required to attend church; officers were ordered to march their soldiers into the garrison churches on Sundays and post sentries at the door.

    The officers were also indoctrinated with Pietist principles. Frederick William extended the application of "State Pietism" within the military through the foundation of the Berlin cadet corps (Kadettenanstalt). This institution's primary purpose was to teach young noblemen the diligent execution of orders through the subordination of the will. In addition to a full schedule of classes and endless military drill, the cadets were required to attend daily prayer sessions, hymn singing, and Bible study. After graduation, these officers were required to adhere to a strict code of behavior that prohibited them from playing cards, accruing debts, or drinking excessively.(28) Their leadership continued the Pietist tradition through the reign of Frederick the Great after Pietism as a religious movement had lost momentum.

    Just as Francke realized his plans of institutionalizing Halle Pietism within the Prussian state, the movement began to experience a decline. Historian Richard Gawthrop in his study of Halle Pietist institutions believes that the movement's followers experienced a "reform-saturation" within that tightly-controlled ideological environment. This led to a "protective inner passivity" in which the students outwardly conformed to the external demands of the program while withholding inner commitment. Francke claimed, in later years, that the students were no longer sincere in their conversions for they had not undergone a "true repentance." (29) Furthermore, although many able individuals assumed leadership roles in the movement, no one possessed Francke's combination of ambition and foresight nor maintained as successful a rapport with the king.

    During the century between 1640 and 1740, the Calvinist rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia searched for a religious compromise that would unite their interests with those of the Lutheran populace and Junker nobility. The infusion of secular, authoritarian Pietism was an unintended consequence of the attempt to reconcile the Lutheranism of the populace with the Calvinism of the crown. The Hohenzollerns were attracted to Pietism because this Lutheran reform movement advocated, as did Calvinism, the uplifting of society through the religious awakening of individuals. All hoped to create God's kingdom on earth through charity, discipline, and education. More than any other group, however, the Pietists developed the structure, and appealed to the Calvinist rulers for the means, to enact this transformation. The result was not the unification of Protestant interests as initially desired by the Hohenzollerns, but the infusion of these ideals through "State Pietism." From Lutheran pulpits, community schools, and parade grounds, Halle trained ministers, teachers, and Kadettenanstalt, disseminated the Pietistic principles of duty, obedience, and obligation towards God and the state.


1. The future Frederick William I was convinced by his Calvinist tutor, Count Christoph von Dohna, that the successes of the House of Hohenzollern were the result of the moral and religious lives of his ancestors following the pious Calvinist conversion of Johann Sigismund. Frederick William remained devout throughout his life. (Otto Hintze, "Calvinism and Raison d'Etat in Early Seventeenth-Century Brandenburg," in The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze, edited by Felix Gilbert [New York: Oxford University Press, 1975], pp. 107-8, 120-121.

2. Linda Frey and Marsha Frey, Frederick I: The Man and His Times (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p.9.

3. Richard L. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.45.

4. Gerhard Oestreich, Neostoicism and the Early Modern State, Edited by Brigitta Oestreich and H.G. Koenigsberger, Translated by David McLintock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 120-122.

5. Frey and Frey, Frederick I, p. 21.

6. Frey and Frey, Frederick I, p. 123.

7. F.L. Carsten, The Origins of Prussia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), pp. 268-69.

8. Frey and Frey, Frederick I, p. 122.

9. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia, pp. 62-63.

10. Rudolf Vierhaus, Germany in the Age of Absolutism, translated by Jonathan B. Knudsen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 76.

11. F. Ernest Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1965) pp 4-7.

12. Spener believed that the seventeenth century Lutheran church was blocked by a lack of piety. Therefore, Luther's reformation was not complete. Spener also had difficulty with the tendency of the clergy to overemphasize the justification of faith as a substitute for a holy life; he feared that his associates were distorting the Gospel. Spener considered himself a good Lutheran. Unlike many of the theologians of his day, however, he did not believe Luther to be inerrant. Spener taught that Luther's writings are a summary of Biblical truth best left to the individual for ultimate interpretation. (F. Ernest Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism [Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1965], pp. 135-36.)

13. Spener downplayed the confessional differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism by emphasizing subjective faith (fides qua creditor) over objective faith (fides qua creditor). For instance, rather than dwelling upon the differences in the two faiths' understanding of the Lord's Supper, Spener focused upon the shared belief that Christ is present in the sacrament. Instead, Spener suggested that the two Protestant churches cooper ate against Rome. (Theodore G. Tappert, forward to Pia Desideria by Philip Jakob Spener [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964], p. 26.)

14. Mary Fulbrook, Piety and Politics: Religion and the Rise of Absolutism in England, Württemberg and Prussia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p.25.

15. Richard L. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 115.

16. F. Ernst Stoeffler, German Pietism During the Eighteenth Century (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1973), pp. 5-6.

17. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia, p. 118.

18. Frey and Frey, Frederick I, pp. 117-8.

19. C.B.A. Behrens, Society, Government, and the Enlightenment: The Experiences of Eighteenth-Century Prussia (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 59.

20. Stoeffler, German Pietism During the Eighteenth-Century, p. 35.

21. Stoeffler, German Pietism in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 26-27.

22. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia, pp. 200-201.

23. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia, pp. 204-205.

24. Frederick William was an unusual man. Never at ease around women, he avoided them whenever possible. At state balls, if the queen was not present, he would dance with his generals. Frederick William was also fanatical about cleanliness to an extreme that might today be described as obsessive-compulsive. In an age when most people could count the number of baths annually on one hand, Frederick William washed himself every few hours and changed all of his clothes daily. (Ergang, Potsdam Führer, pp. 26-36)

25. Robert Ergang, The Potsdam Führer: Frederick William I, Father of Prussian Militarism (New York: Octagon Books, 1972), pp 142-147.

26. Vierhaus, Germany in the Age of Absolutism , pp. 78-79.

27. Gordon Craig, The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945 (London: Oxford University Press, 1955.

28. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia, pp. 234-36.

29. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia, pp. 194-96.


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