In 1713 the newly-crowned king of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm (Frederick William) I, visited the city of Halle and toured its pioneering educational and charitable institutions. The king’s tour guide was the institutions’ founder, the Pietist pastor August Hermann Francke.
Their conversation soon turned to Friedrich Wilhelm’s central concern: the Prussian army.
FW: What do you think of war?
AHF: Your majesty is obliged to defend the country, but I am called to preach that God blesses the peaceful.
FW: This is certainly good. But does He not forbid His people from taking part in war?
AHF: Students of theology are suited, as your majesty knows, to fill positions in church and school.
FW: But does He not tell His people that if they become soldiers they will become the devil’s prey?
AHF: I know many Christian soldiers. I have more supporters among soldiers than among the clergy.
I rediscovered this interesting exchange unexpectedly while reading up on the history of military chaplains in World War I (topic of a talk I’m giving next Monday). It comes from one of the two chapters in The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Centuries (edited by Doris Bergen) to address WWI. Written by the eminent German historian Hartmut Lehmann (who was kind enough to give us a nice endorsement for our Pietist Impulse book), “In the Service of Two Kings: Protestant Military Chaplains, 1713-1918” argues that those German clergymen increasingly failed to keep Luther’s two kingdoms separate, and so to live out their complex calling as pastors for soldiers. Observing how these chaplains largely allowed themselves to become “agents of political propaganda” and “missionaries of another faith, namely, the belief in the special role of the German Volk,” Lehmann draws the following lesson:
In order to fulfill their task properly, military chaplains need to keep a distance from politics. The agenda of the two kings whom they serve cannot and should not be merged, nor should the spiritual task they are called to perform depend on anything other than the religious inspiration of their faith. (p. 135)
Given how the chapter begins, one might expect that Lehmann places some blame for this failing on Francke, whose royal conversation (just over two hundred years before the start of WWI) essentially launched the Prussian chaplains corps.
Following their 1713 talk, Francke wrote Friedrich Wilhelm a letter that offered a slightly less cagey endorsement of Christian participation in warfare, one that cited the example of pious Old Testament warriors and the apostle Paul’s warning to the Romans that “if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). So long as soldiers did not behave unjustly or with excessive violence, that particular service to the secular kingdom was open to those whose true citizenship was in the heavenly kingdom. (As Luther had argued, against the view of those, like the Swiss Brethren and other Anabaptists “of the staff,” that the sword was exclusively for non-Christians and could not be taken up by those who followed Jesus, even for the protection of life.)
So began what proved to be a fruitful relationship: by the time Francke died in 1727, Halle had provided 151 military chaplains to the increasingly professional Prussian army; when the king passed on in 1740, the total was over twice that. Lehmann argues that Halle’s “almost complete monopoly in this respect” fulfilled the expectations of both sides.
For Friedrich Wilhelm, having well-trained chaplains would conduce to better discipline and morale in his army, but it would also help detach the church from the aristocracy and attach it to the increasingly absolutist monarchy.
But why did Francke so enthusiastically join in?
Francke and his disciples hoped that God would accept the charitable and educational institutions at Halle as a first step toward His Kingdom, and that he would reward their labors in establishing these institutions on the day of the Last Judgment. As Francke told his followers, they needed no other protection so long as they firmly believed in God.
In theological terms, Francke expressed the strong eschatological convictions of the Halle Pietists. In political terms, Francke knew, of course, that if he wanted to maintain his institutions and if he wanted to expand their influence beyond Halle, he needed the support of the Prussian king. There is much proof that Francke had ambitious plans reaching far beyond Halle. He was not content to establish an orphanage, several schools, a pharmacy, and a print shop at Halle and to send some missionaries to foreign lands. Rather, he hoped to start a Generalreformation, a general reformation of all humankind as he called it, and this goal meant that he also wished to include the Prussian army in his sphere of influence. He even hoped to win the king completely for his cause. Francke would have been overjoyed if one of his disciples, serving as a military chaplain, had been able to influence the king spiritually, thus transforming the Prussian rule into a reborn Christian. (p. 127)
Lehmann adds that Francke was given the chance to preach at court and to the officers of the king’s new army and Halle’s press provided thousands of New Testaments and hymnals for the military. And while Francke himself had written a pamphlet in 1706 criticizing the army’s violent recruitment practices, he distanced himself from a follower who made a similar public critique in 1718. (The close relationship didn’t survive: Friedrich Wilhelm’s thoroughly Enlightened son and successor “openly ridiculed Pietism” and put pressure on the Pietist chaplains’ ability to serve “two kings” by initiating the wars — something his father had never done — that earned him the title Frederick the Great.)
Concludes Lehmann, “As long as Frederick William I supported Halle, and as long as the Halle Pietists wanted to transform the whole of Prussia into a cornerstone of God’s future Kingdom, Halle-trained Prussian military could believe that although they were serving two lords, they would indeed have one mission” (p. 129). And against the more explicitly nationalistic chaplains corps of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lehmann holds up Francke as a model of understanding the dual role of this unique branch of the clergy, someone who “knew exactly what the role of military chaplains should be.”
As often with Francke, I’m not sure what to think.
On the one hand, I sympathize with the assessment of Francke biographer Gary Sattler. He emphasizes (like Lehmann) that “The freedom Francke experienced because of his most-favored status with the king allowed him to exercise his plans for social reform in every aspect of society” (God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good, p. 73). And what plans they were!
Francke’s vision encompassed the world and radiated out from Halle to the local authorities, national governments, and eventually the entire planet. The earth itself would ultimately be transformed through godly men and women serving God and neighbor, proclaiming Christ and relieving poverty and oppression. If the members of the ruling class could be converted and led into the Pietist understanding of the Christian life, the kingdom of God could be manifested on earth in concern for the poor, an end to war, education for all in practical and spiritual matters, employment, joy, and the like. (p. 70)
(If nothing else, this should remind us that Reformed figures like Abraham Kuyper — “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'” — were not the only descendants of the Reformation to have a sweeping vision of how Christians might transform culture.)
At the same time… I can see why Francke is such a problematic figure for those who stand in the Radical Pietist tradition: not only did he endorse Christian participation in warfare (and not a few Radicals joined the Anabaptist stream), but Francke could be accused of allowing himself to be used by the powers of this world, perhaps making it hard to tell the difference between the Kingdom he proclaimed and the earthly kingdom he served and justified. Whatever good comes of seeking reform through the resources of the wealthy and powerful, does not working in that way only strengthen the structures of a fallen world?
So, as so often, I turn to Dale Brown, the Brethren historian of Pietism who confessed to being torn between his tradition’s Anabaptist and Pietist roots: “I would love to give priority to being faithful. At the same time I am concerned about being effective.” So ultimately, he refused
to make normative either the traditional Pietist option of working within structures or the Radical Pietist and sectarian option of working outside in possible counter-structures. The important criterion is faithfulness. In some periods of history and in some instances for each of us, faithfulness will mean that we serve within the present structures as God’s servant for renewal and reformation. In other instances it will be God’s will for us to shake the dust off our feet and leave the present structures in order to witness and serve God’s kingdom through new ones. The only justification for leaving structures is to worship God and serve in new ways. For example, if some are called to leave the present institutionalized forms of the church, the call should be to become the church in a new way. Whether inside or outside present structures, the pietist mood would have us attempt to keep in dialogue with one another. For the pietist genius, gradualism, tolerance, and reconciliation must be contributed to and corrected by a more bold prophetic stance toward the powers that be. (Understanding Pietism, revised edition, pp. 98-99)