Modern history



On Christmas Day 1613, Elector John Sigismund took communion according to the Calvinist rite in Berlin Cathedral. The candles and crucifix that usually adorned the altar for Lutheran worship had been removed. There was no kneeling or genuflection before the Eucharist and no communion wafer, just a long piece of bread that was broken and distributed among the worshippers. For the Elector, the occasion was the public culmination of a private journey. His doubts about Lutheranism dated back to his teenage years, when he came under the influence of the Rhenish Calvinists circulating at his father’s court; it is thought that he embraced the Reformed faith in 1606 during a visit to Heidelberg, capital city of the Palatinate, the powerhouse of early seventeenth-century German Calvinism.

John Sigismund’s conversion placed the House of Hohenzollern on a new trajectory. It reinforced the dynasty’s association with the combative Calvinist interest in early seventeenth-century imperial politics. It augmented the status of the Calvinist officials who were beginning to play an influential role in the central government. Yet there is no reason to suppose that political calculations were decisive, for the conversion brought more risks than benefits. It placed the Elector in a religious camp for which no provision had been made in the Peace of Augsburg. Not until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 would the right of the Calvinists to toleration within the confessional patchwork of the Holy Roman Empire be enshrined in a binding treaty. The conversion of the monarch also drove a deep confessional trench between dynasty and people. Inasmuch as there existed a sense of territorial ‘identity’ in late sixteenth-century Brandenburg, this was intimately bound up with the Lutheran church, whose clergy spanned the length and breadth of the Mark. It is no coincidence that the earliest historical chronicles of Brandenburg were the work of Lutheran parochial clergymen. Andreas Engel, a pastor from Strausberg in the Mittelmark, opened his Annales Marchiae Brandenburgicae of 1598 with a long disquisition on the virtue and naturalness of love for one’s fatherland.1 After 1613, the dynasty ceased to be a beneficiary of this embryonic territorial patriotism. A ruling family that had succeeded, during the middle decades of the sixteenth century, in shepherding its subjects with great circumspection through one of the most gradual, moderate and peaceful Reformations in Europe now cut itself off in one fell swoop from the bulk of the population, and this at a moment in European history when confessional tensions could ignite revolutions and overturn thrones.


Bizarrely enough, the Elector and his advisers failed to foresee the difficulties his conversion would create. John Sigismund believed that his own conversion would give the signal for a generalized – and largely voluntary –‘second Reformation’ in Brandenburg. In February 1614, the Elector’s Calvinist officials and advisers even drew up a proposal outlining the steps by which Brandenburg could be transformed into a Calvinist territory. The universities were to be stocked with Calvinist appointees so that they could serve as centres for the Calvinization of clergy and officialdom. Liturgical and other religious usages were to be purged from Lutheran services through a stepped process of reform. A Calvinist Church Council would oversee and coordinate all reforming measures.2 An edict issued in the same month ordered that the clergy of the Mark Brandenburg were henceforth to preach the word of God ‘pure and undefiled, [… ] without any distortion and without the self-devised glosses and doctrinal formulae of certain idle, ingenious and presumptuous theologians’. The list of authoritative texts that followed omitted the Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord, the two foundational documents of Brandenburg Lutheranism. Pastors who found it impossible to comply with these injunctions, the edict declared, were free to leave the country. The Elector and his advisers assumed that the inherent superiority and clarity of Calvinist doctrine, when cogently and accessibly presented, would suffice to recommend it to the great majority of subjects.

They could hardly have been more mistaken. The tampering of the Calvinists with the traditional Lutheran church settlement of Brandenburg aroused resistance at every level of society. The most serious single confessional tumult took place in the residential city of Cölln (sister-city of Berlin across the river Spree) in April 1615. The Elector happened to be away in Königsberg seeing to the future handover arrangements for Ducal Prussia, and Cölln-Berlin was under the authority of his Calvinist brother, Margrave John George of Brandenburg-Jägerndorf. It was the margrave who triggered unrest when he ordered the removal of ‘idolatrous’ images and liturgical paraphernalia from the ornately decorated Berlin Cathedral. On 30 March 1615, the altars, baptismal font, a large wooden crucifix and numerous artworks, including a celebrated sequence of panels on the passion of Christ whose foundation drawings were the work of Lucas Cranach the Younger, were stripped from the cathedral. To add insult to injury, the Calvinist court preacher Martin Füssel used the occasion of his Palm Sunday sermon in the cathedral a few days later to thank God ‘for cleansing His house of worship of the dirt of papal idolatry’.

Within hours of this address (which was given at nine o’clock in the morning), the Lutheran deacon of the nearby church of St Peter’s was delivering a furious counter-volley from the pulpit, in which he charged that ‘the Calvinists call our place of worship a whorehouse [… ]; they strip our churches of pictures and now wish to tear the Lord Jesus Christ from us as well.’ So stirring was the effect of his oratory that an assembly of more than one hundred Berlin burghers met on the same evening to pledge that they would ‘strangle the Reformed priests and all other Calvinists’. On the following day, a Monday, a full-scale riot broke out in the city, in the course of which shots were fired and a crowd of over 700 people raged through the town centre, sacking the houses of two prominent Calvinist preachers, including Füssel, who was forced to escape by climbing over a neighbour’s roof in his underwear.3 At one point, the Elector’s brother was caught up in a confrontation with the crowd and only narrowly escaped serious injury. A chain of similar (if generally less spectacular) conflicts broke out in other towns across the Mark. So serious was the sense of emergency that a number of the Calvinist councillors in Berlin considered leaving the territory. At the end of the year, as he made to retire to his estates in the county of Jägerndorf (in Silesia), Margrave John George lugubriously advised his brother the Elector to expand his bodyguard.

In addition to this pressure from the street, John Sigismund faced concerted resistance from the Estates. Dominated by the Lutheran provincial nobilities, the Estates exploited their control over taxation to extract concessions from the deeply indebted Elector. In January 1615, they informed him that the approval of further funds would be dependent upon his granting certain religious guarantees. The status of the Lutheran church establishment must be confirmed; the church patronage rights that placed the power of clerical appointment in the hands of local elites must be respected, and the Elector must promise not to use his own patronage rights to appoint teachers or clergymen who appeared suspect in the eyes of the Lutheran populace. John Sigismund responded with outraged blustering – he would rather shed the last drop of his blood, he declared, than yield to such blackmail. But he backed down. In an edict of 5 February 1615 he conceded that subjects who were attached to the doctrine of Luther and the key texts of the Lutheran tradition were entitled to remain so and must not be in any way pressed or compelled to relinquish them. ‘For His Electoral Highness,’ the edict continued, ‘in no way arrogates to himself dominion over consciences and therefore does not wish to impose any suspect or unwelcome preachers on anyone, even in places where he enjoys the right of patronage…’4 This was a serious setback. At this point, at the very latest, it must have dawned on the Elector that the ‘second Reformation’ might have to be postponed or even deferred indefinitely.

What exactly was at stake in these struggles? Clearly there was a power-political dimension. Even before 1613, the Electors’ use of ‘foreign’ Calvinist officials had been controversial, not just on religious grounds but also because it contravened the ‘ius indigenatus’ by which appointments to senior offices were reserved to the native-born elites. There was also, as we have seen, a widespread reluctance to accept the costs incurred by a Calvinist foreign policy. Townsfolk clearly resented Calvinist officials and clergy as intruders into an urban space whose key cultic monuments were also focal points of urban identity. But it would be wrong to reduce the Calvinist-Lutheran quarrels to a ‘politics of interest’, in which denunciations and complaints are seen as encoded bids for advantage.5 For on both sides in the confrontation, powerful emotions were engaged. At the heart of the most committed forms of Calvinism was a fastidious shudder of disgust at the strands of papalism that survived within Lutheran observance.

This was in part an aesthetic issue: to the colourful extravagance of a Lutheran church interior, with its candles and images graven and painted glowing with reflected fire, the Calvinists opposed the white space of a purified church, suffused with natural light. There was also an authentic apprehension that Catholicism remained a latent force within Lutheranism. A particular focus of concern was the Lutheran communion rite; Elector John Sigismund objected to Luther’s doctrine of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper, calling it a ‘false, divisive and highly controversial teaching’. In the words of the Calvinist theologian Simon Pistoris, author of a controversial tract published in Berlin in 1613, Luther ‘derived his views from the darkness of papacy, and thus inherited the errors and false opinions of transubstantiation, whereby the bread is changed into the body of Christ’. As a consequence, the Lutheran faith had become ‘a pillar and a prop to the papacy’.6 In other words, the Reformation remained incomplete. If a complete break with the darkness of the Catholic past were not accomplished, then the danger of re-Catholicization loomed. The Calvinists felt implicitly that the forward progress of time itself was at stake: if the confessional accomplishments of the recent past were not consolidated and expanded, they would be reversed and expunged from history.

The Lutherans, for their part, were motivated by a powerful attachment to their festal ceremonies and the paraphernalia, visual and liturgical, of their worship. There was a rich historical irony here. It was the achievement of the sixteenth-century Hohenzollern Electors of Brandenburg to have slowed and moderated the spread of reform within Brandenburg, with the result that the territory’s Lutheran Reformation was one of the most conservative in the Empire. Brandenburg Lutheranism was marked by doctrinal orthodoxy and a powerful attachment to traditional ceremony, tendencies that were reinforced by the Electoral administration throughout the last decades of the sixteenth century. A widespread fear of Calvinism and sporadic bursts of anti-Calvinist polemic towards the end of the century helped to focus Lutheran allegiances on the foundational documents of the territorial church, such as the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Formula of Concord of 1577, which defined its doctrinal substance. It could thus be argued that the dynasty itself had helped to create a brand of Lutheranism uniquely resistant to the Calvinist appeal.

The strength of this resistance forced the Elector and his Calvinist advisers to abandon their hopes of a Second Brandenburg Reformation. They settled instead for a ‘court reformation’ (Hofreformation), whose religious energies petered out on the fringes of the political elite.7 Yet even within the confines of court society Calvinism did not enjoy unchallenged hegemony. John Sigismund’s wife, the redoubtable Anna of Prussia, upon whose blood lines depended the claims to Ducal Prussia and the Jülich succession, remained a staunch Lutheran and continued to oppose the new order. The fact that Lutheran services were held for her in the palace chapel provided an encouragement and a focal point for popular resistance. She also maintained close contacts with neighbouring Saxony, the chief engine-house of Lutheran orthodoxy and the source of unending Lutheran polemics against the godless Calvinists in Berlin. In 1619, when John Sigismund died, she invited a prominent Saxon Lutheran controversialist, Balthasar Meisner, to Berlin to offer her spiritual consolation. Meisner, whose sermons in the palace chapel were open to the public, used the opportunity to stir up Lutheran passions against the Calvinists. The mood in Berlin became so tense that the viceroy of Brandenburg made an official complaint to Anna and insisted that he leave the country. But Meisner continued in his efforts (as he himself put it) to ‘blow away the Calvinist locusts’. In a pointed symbolic gesture, Anna had the corpse of her husband laid out in the Lutheran style with a crucifix in one hand, a detail that predictably lent credibility to rumours that the Elector had repudiated Calvinism and undergone a deathbed reconversion to Lutheranism.8 Only with Anna’s death in 1625 did the Electoral family achieve a measure of confessional harmony. Born in 1620, Frederick William (the future Great Elector) became the first Hohenzollern prince to grow up within an entirely Calvinist nuclear family.

It took a long time for the emotion to drain out of the Lutheran-Calvinist confrontation. Tension levels fluctuated with the ebb and flow of confessional polemic. During the years 1614–17, the controversy over John Sigismund’s conversion generated no fewer than 200 books and pamphlets circulating in Berlin, and the dissemination of Lutheran tracts condemning Calvinism remained a problem throughout the century.9Care had to be taken to ensure that the dynastic ceremonies were designed to accommodate the expectations of both faiths. In terms of its public ceremony and symbolism, Brandenburg-Prussia evolved into a bi-confessional state.

The new Elector’s view of these matters was equivocal. On the one hand, he repeatedly assured his Lutheran subjects that he had no intention of forcing the conscience of any subject.10 On the other hand, he appears to have cherished the hope that the two camps would set aside their differences once they developed a fuller and truer understanding of each other’s positions (by which he really meant: if only the Lutherans could be brought to a fuller understanding of the Calvinist position). Frederick William hoped that a bi-confessional conference would facilitate ‘friendly and peaceful discussion’. The Lutherans were sceptical. They saw discussions of this kind as opening the door to a godless syncretism. ‘Spiritual war and conflict’, the Lutheran clergy of Königsberg observed sullenly in a joint letter of April 1642, were preferable to ‘a union of true doctrine with error and unbelief’.11 Predictably enough, a conference of Lutheran and Calvinist theologians which did actually meet at the Electoral palace in Berlin in 1663 merely sharpened the differences between the two camps and led to a new wave of mutual denunciations.

Throughout the reign, and especially from the early 1660s, the Electoral administration sought to keep the peace by forbidding theological polemic. Under an ‘edict of tolerance’ issued in September 1664, Calvinist and Lutheran clergymen were ordered to abstain from mutual disparagements; all preachers were required to signal their acceptance of this order by signing and returning a pre-circulated reply. In Berlin, two preachers who refused to do so were summarily dismissed from their livings; conversely, one preacher who did comply encountered such ill-will from his parishioners that his sermons remained unattended until his death shortly thereafter. Among those who were suspended for refusing to sign was Paul Gerhardt, greatest of the Lutheran hymnists.12 The most spectacular single incident was the arrest and incarceration of David Gigas, a Lutheran preacher at the Church of St Nikolai in Berlin. Gigas initially signed and returned the government questionnaire. Faced with a mutiny by his own parishioners, however, he reneged on his compliance and gave a rousing sermon on New Year’s Day 1667, in which he warned that religious coercion provoked ‘rebellions and unhappy wars’. Gigas was arrested and carted off to the fortress at Spandau.13

If the confessional divide remained a live issue in the Hohenzollern lands, this was in part because it became entwined with the political struggle between the central administration and the holders of provincial power. In his battle against entrenched local privilege, the sovereign found himself face to face with Lutheran elites jealous of their rights and hostile to the unfamiliar confessional culture of the central government. Under these conditions Lutheranism, sustained institutionally by the network of local church patronage, became the ideology of provincial autonomy and resistance to central power. The Elector, for his part, never gave up working to reinforce the position of the Calvinist minority in the Hohenzollern lands – the great majority of around 18,000 Protestant immigrants who entered the Hohenzollern lands from France, the Palatinate and the Swiss cantons were adherents of the Reformed faith. Their presence helped to spread the influence of the Elector’s religion beyond the narrow confines of the court, but also provoked protests and complaints from the Lutheran elites. The conflict between centre and periphery that we associate with the ‘age of absolutism’ thus acquired a distinctive confessional flavour in Brandenburg-Prussia.

It has often been observed that the minority status of the dynasty and its Calvinist agents forced the political authorities in the Electorate to adopt a policy of tolerance in religious affairs. Tolerance was thereby ‘objectively’ built into the practice of government.14 It was also imposed as a principle of governance, where this was possible, on the provincial authorities. In 1668, for example, five years after the Estates of Ducal Prussia had formally accepted his sovereignty in the territory, Frederick William at last succeeded in forcing the three cities of Königsberg to allow Calvinists to acquire property and become citizens.15 This was tolerance in a very narrow sense, of course. It was more a matter of historical contingency and practical politics than of principle. Since it had nothing to do with the notion of minority rights in a present-day sense, it was not necessarily transferable to other minorities. Frederick William was opposed, for example, to the toleration of Catholics in the core territories of Brandenburg and Eastern Pomerania, but he accepted it in Ducal Prussia and the Hohenzollern territories of the Rhineland, where Catholics enjoyed the protection of historic treaties. The famous Edict of Potsdam (1685), by which Frederick William threw open the doors of his lands to Huguenot (Calvinist) refugees fleeing from France, struck a blow for tolerance against persecution. But the same edict also included an article forbidding Brandenburg Catholics to attend mass in the chapels of the French and imperial ambassadors’ homes. In 1641, when Margrave Ernest, viceroy of Brandenburg, proposed that Frederick William might consider readmitting the Jews (expelled from the Electorate in 1571) as a means of alleviating the financial strains of the war, the latter replied that it was best to leave well enough alone – his ancestors must have had ‘sure and weighty reasons for extirpating the Jews from our Electorate’.16

Yet there are signs that the peculiar confessional geography of his lands did gradually propel the Elector towards a more principled commitment to tolerance. He repeatedly renounced any intention of compelling the consciences of his subjects and enjoined his successor in the Political Testament of 1667 to love all his subjects equally, regardless of their religion. He supported the admission into Ducal Prussia of nonconformist Protestant sectaries fleeing from persecution in neighbouring Catholic Poland and was prepared to tolerate the private practice of their religion. He even, in later years, encouraged the immigration of Jews. There was a small Jewish community in the territories of Kleve and Mark, but the Jews were prohibited from settling in Brandenburg or Prussia. In 1671, when Emperor Leopold expelled the Jews from most of the Habsburg lands, Frederick William offered the fifty wealthiest families a domicile in Brandenburg. Over the following years, he supported them against the bitter complaints of the Estates and other local interests.

This policy was of course motivated by economic calculation, but the Elector’s justification for it also reveals a striking absence of prejudice. ‘It is known that cheating in trade takes place among Christians as well as Jews and with more impunity,’ he told a group of delegates from the district of Havelland who had demanded that the Jews be expelled.17 In 1669, when a Christian mob destroyed the synagogue in Halberstadt, he admonished the local Estates and ordered his officials to pay for its reconstruction.18 It is difficult to know precisely why the Elector adopted these untypical views, but plausible to suppose that they may date back to his upbringing in the Dutch Republic, home to a flourishing and respected Jewish community. A letter he had drafted by his secretary in 1686 suggests that he may also in his own mind have connected the imperative of tolerance with the remembered strife of the Thirty Years War. ‘Differences between religious communities certainly produce violent hatreds,’ he wrote. ‘But older and holier is the law of nature, which obliges men to support, tolerate and help one another.’19


On 21 March 1691, Philipp Jakob Spener, the Lutheran Head Chaplain to the Saxon court in Dresden, took up a senior church post in Berlin. It was a provocative appointment, to say the least: Spener was already well known as one of the leading lights in a highly controversial movement for religious reform. In 1675, he had achieved instant notoriety with the publication of a short tract called Pious Hopes that decried various deficiencies in contemporary Lutheran religious life. The orthodox ecclesiastical establishment, he argued, had become so absorbed in the defence of doctrinal correctness that it was neglecting the pastoral needs of ordinary Christians. The religious life of the Lutheran parish had become desiccated and stale. In a pithy and accessible German, Spener proposed various remedies. Christians might try revitalizing the spiritual life of their communities by founding groups for pious discussion – Spener called them ‘colleges of piety’ (collegia pietatis). The spiritual intensity of these intimate circles, he suggested, would transform nominal believers into reborn Christians with a powerful sense of God’s agency in their lives. The idea proved enormously appealing and colleges of piety began to pop up across the parishes of the Lutheran states. The Lutheran establishment responded with alarm to what they saw as a subversive campaign to dilute the spiritual authority of the ordained pastorate.

By 1690, the Spenerite reformers – dubbed ‘Pietists’ by their detractors – were under attack from the orthodox authorities at the Lutheran universities. August Hermann Francke, a graduate student in theology at the University of Leipzig and a follower of Spener, caused a huge stir in 1689 when he encouraged the formation of colleges of piety under student supervision, and denounced the traditional Lutheran theological curriculum, prompting some students to burn their textbooks and lecture notes.20 The academic authorities soon found themselves faced with a formidable student movement, and the Saxon government intervened in March 1690 to prohibit all ‘conventicles’ (a term widely used by contemporaries for non-official religious gatherings) and to stipulate that ‘Pietist’ students – it was in the course of this conflict that the term entered general usage – be excluded from admission to clerical office. Francke himself was hounded out of the university and subsequently took up a minor clerical post in Erfurt. Wherever recognizable Pietist groups emerged there were bitter – sometimes violent – conflicts with the Lutherans.21

Pietism was controversial because it represented a critical counterculture within German Lutheranism. It was one of that broad palette of seventeenth-century European religious movements that challenged the authority of ecclesiastical establishments by calling for a more intense, committed and practical form of Christian observance than was usual within the formal church structures. Pietism was about living to the full Luther’s ‘priesthood of all believers’; Pietists cherished the experience of faith; they developed a refined vocabulary to describe the extreme psychic states that attended the transition from a merely nominal to a truly heartfelt belief in redemption through reconciliation with God. Perhaps because it was driven by such explosive emotions, Pietism was also dynamic and unstable. Once elements of the movement began to distance themselves from the established Lutheran churches, it proved difficult to arrest the process of disintegration. In many places, newly formed conventicles spiralled out of control, falling under the influence of radicals who ultimately severed themselves entirely from the established churches.22 Spener himself had never intended the conventicles to function as vehicles for separatism.23 He was a devout Lutheran who respected the institutional structures of the official church; he insisted that religious meetings take place under clerical supervision and be disbanded with good grace if they incurred the disapproval of the church authorities.24

The movement developed a momentum of its own. In Dresden, where Spener had occupied the position of Senior Court Chaplain since 1686, the escalating conflict with the Orthodox Lutherans – exacerbated by the reformer’s stern rantings against the moral laxity of the Saxon court – soured relations with his employer, Elector John George. In March 1691, the Elector, whose own sexual morality was rather relaxed, ran out of patience and asked his privy councillors to ‘have Spener quit his post without further ado, since we do not want to see nor hear this man any more’.25 In the following year, the Lutheran theological faculty at the University of Wittenberg officially confirmed Spener’s heterodoxy, identifying no fewer than 284 doctrinal ‘errors’ in his writings.26

Help was at hand. Just as Spener wore out his welcome in Dresden, Frederick III of Brandenburg offered him a senior ecclesiastical and pastoral post in Berlin. Frederick also allowed him to recruit numerous beleaguered Pietist activists to clerical and academic offices in Brandenburg-Prussia. One of these was August Hermann Francke, who, having left Leipzig, had been forced only one year later to leave his post as deacon in Erfurt. In 1692, Francke was appointed to a vicarage in Glaucha, a satellite town of Halle, and professor of Oriental languages at the new University of Halle. The theologian Joachim Justus Breithaupt, who had fallen from favour in Erfurt for defending Francke against the Orthodox, became the University’s first professor of theology in 1691. A further veteran of the Leipzig quarrels, Paul Anton, was also appointed to a professorship. At the same time, Spener gathered and instructed a new generation of Pietist leaders in a college of piety that met twice weekly in Berlin.27 This deliberate state sponsorship of the movement was at variance with the policies adopted in most other territories and it represented an important point of departure, both in the history of the Pietist movement and in the cultural history of the Brandenburg-Prussian polity.

The reason for Brandenburg’s co-option of Pietism lay in the peculiar confessional predicament of the Calvinist ruling house. Repeated efforts to stifle Lutheran polemic had failed utterly and the prospect of a voluntary union of the two confessions remained as remote as ever. Spener’s outspoken condemnations of inter-confessional squabbling were therefore music to the ears of the Elector and his family. The fourth of the six proposals in Pious Hopes was that theological polemics should be curtailed: it was ‘the holy love of God’ rather than disputation, Spener argued, that anchored the truth in each individual; exchanges with those whose beliefs differed from one’s own should therefore be undertaken in a pastoral, not a polemical, spirit.28 Throughout Spener’s theological and pastoral writing dogmatic issues were marginalized by an overwhelming concern for the practical, experiential dimension of faith and observance. Christians were urged to practise ‘spiritual priesthood’ in their own lives by tending actively to the well-being of their fellows, observing, edifying and ‘converting’ them.29‘If we awaken in our Christians an ardent love, for each other in the first instance and thereafter for all mankind [… ] then we have achieved virtually everything we desire.’30

Spener always remained respectful of the established Protestant churches and their liturgical and doctrinal traditions, and he was never a supporter of unionist projects.31 Nevertheless, it was possible to see in his writings – as in the individualized, experience-oriented devotional culture of the Pietist movement as a whole – the outlines of a confessionally impartial Christianity that transcended the boundaries between Calvinist and Lutheran Protestantism. By playing down the significance of dogma and the sacraments, and by emphasizing the indivisibility of the apostolic true church, pietism promised to cement the ‘inner basis’ for the Prussian monarchy’s claim to supreme episcopacy over the two Protestant confessions.32

There were also good reasons why the Elector should have chosen Halle as the place in which to furnish the Pietist movement with a provincial stronghold. Halle was one of the largest cities in the Duchy of Magdeburg. Brandenburg had acquired the inheritance rights to Magdeburg as part of the peace settlement of 1648, but the territory changed hands only in 1680. Magdeburg was a bastion of Lutheran orthodoxy, where the Lutheran Estates had traditionally ruled without hindrance from the nominal sovereign, the archbishop of Magdeburg. Until 1680, Calvinists were forbidden to own land in the duchy and possessed no civil rights. The takeover was followed by a period of tense confrontation between the government in Berlin and the local Estates. Against the wishes of the Lutherans, a Calvinist chancellor was installed to administer the duchy.

In this context, the significance of state support for the local Pietist movement becomes clear. The Pietists were to function as a kind of fifth column, whose task was to assist in the cultural integration of an ultra-Lutheran province. Throughout the 1690s, the Electoral government intervened to protect the Pietists against attacks and obstruction from the local Lutherans – municipal authorities, guildsmen and local landowners.33 The keystone of the government’s cultural policy in the region was the foundation of the University of Halle in 1691 as the leading university of the Hohenzollern lands. With Pietists and distinguished secular thinkers in key administrative and academic positions, the University of Halle would mellow the combative Lutheranism of the province. As a training institute for future pastors and church officials, it would offer a congenial alternative to the combative and anti-Calvinist theological faculties of neighbouring Saxony, where much of the Lutheran pastorate of Brandenburg had hitherto been educated.

The Pietists also became involved in the provision of social services. Spener had long believed that poverty and its concomitant evils, idleness, beggary and crime could and should be eliminated from Christian society by judicious reforms involving the forced or voluntary participation of the indigent in work programmes.34 In this respect, as in his conciliatory confessional outlook, he found himself in tune with the aspirations and policies of the Brandenburg state. At the Elector’s request, Spener submitted a memorandum recommending the suppression and policing of beggary in Berlin and the centralization of charitable provision for persons requiring temporary or permanent care. The necessary funds, he argued, could be raised through a combination of church poor-boxes, donations and state subsidies. The consequence was a general prohibition of beggary, the creation of a permanent Poor Commission and the establishment in Berlin of the Friedrich-Hospital for the Sick, the Elderly and Orphans (1702).35

In Halle, too, the local Pietists battled poverty and indigence. Around the charismatic figure of August Hermann Francke there was an extraordinary flowering of Christian voluntarism. In 1695, Francke opened a poor-school financed by pious donations. Such was the scale of public generosity that he was soon able to expand the school into an ‘orphanage’ offering accommodation and maintenance as well as free elementary tuition. The daily routine within this institution was structured around practical and useful tasks, and the ‘orphans’ (many of whom were in fact the children of local poor families) were regularly taken to visit the workshops of artisans, so that they might form a clear idea of their prospective professions. In the early years, Francke experimented with plans to finance the orphanage through the sale of items produced using child labour, but even after this idea had been abandoned as impracticable, skilled manual crafts remained a crucial component of the orphanage’s pedagogical programme.36 It was above all this striking combination of education, socialization through labour and charitable provision that aroused the interest and admiration of contemporaries in Brandenburg-Prussia and beyond.

With the revenues generated by the new school, Francke built the broad and graceful stone building that today still dominates the Franckeplatz in central Halle. New fee-paying schools were founded to accommodate children from specific social and occupational backgrounds, with a system of bursaries and ‘free tables’ to shield the less prosperous students from the impact of economic fluctuations.37 The Pädagogium, founded in 1695, specialized in the education of children whose parents – many of whom were of noble estate – could afford the most costly education and care. One of its alumni was Hans Hermann von Katte, the intimate of Crown Prince Frederick who would later be decapitated for his role in the prince’s attempted flight from Brandenburg. The ‘Latin School’, founded two years later, offered instruction in the ‘foundations of learning’ (fundamentis studiorum); the curriculum included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, history, geography, geometry, music and botany, all of which were taught by specialist teachers, a significant departure from contemporary educational practice. Among its distinguished alumni was the Berlin publisher Friedrich Nicolai, one of the luminaries of the Prussian enlightenment.

The Halle Pietists understood the importance of publicity. Francke supported his establishments with oceans of printed propaganda in which evangelical sermonizing blended seamlessly with appeals to the generosity of readers. The most widely known and influential publication disseminating news of the Pietist enterprises in Halle was Footsteps of the still living and reigning benevolent and true GOD / for the shaming of unbelief and the strengthening of faith, published from 1701 in numerous new editions and reprintings.38 With their exalted rhetoric and air of unshakeable self-confidence, these publications, distributed along a network of Pietist sympathizers spanning the breadth of Europe, conveyed a sense of the breathtaking ambition behind the Halle institutes. Halle Pietist publications interspersed reports on the good works and expansion of the Halle foundations with news of the flow of donations and material recycled from correspondence. They awakened a sense of immediacy and involvement among those who supported the work of the Halle foundations. Indeed, they anticipated in many respects the fund-raising development campaigns of our own day. They also created a sense of belonging that was at least partly independent of place. Lutheran networks were densely woven around specific localities; they were quickened by a sense of intimacy with a particular setting. By contrast, the Pietists created a decentred epistolary network of agents, helpers and friends that could be infinitely extended – across Central Europe into Russia and across the Atlantic to the North American colonies, where Halle Pietists made an important contribution to the evolution of new world Protestantism.39

Francke’s intention was that the entire Halle complex should ultimately be autonomous and self-funding; it should be a ‘City of God’, a microcosmic emblem of the capacity of faithful labour to achieve a comprehensive transformation of society.40 In order to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency in practice, Francke encouraged commercial operations within the orphanage. The most financially important were the publishing house and the pharmacy. In 1699, the orphanage began selling its books (printed on its own presses) at the Leipzig autumn fair. In 1702, an orphanage branch store opened in Berlin, followed by branches in Leipzig and Frankfurt/Main. Working closely with faculty staff at the University of Halle, the orphanage press secured an uninterrupted flow of saleable manuscripts, including works of religious interest and secular treatises of high quality. The house catalogue of 1717 listed 200 titles by seventy authors. Between 1717 and 1723, the orphanage printed and sold no fewer than 35,000 tracts containing sermons by Francke.

Even more lucrative was the mail order trade in pharmaceuticals (from 1702), for which the orphanage employed a sophisticated system of commissioned agents spanning central and eastern Europe. Only with the growth of this business did the commercial value of Pietism’s far-flung networks become apparent. With annual profits of around 15,000 thalers in the 1720s, the Medikamentenexpedition was to become the most substantial single contributor to the orphanage coffers. Further income accrued from brewing, newspaper and trading operations run from within the Halle complex. By 1710, the original orphanage building had become the centrepiece of a large self-contained compound of commercial and pedagogical establishments stretching southwards into the vacant land away from the centre of the city.

Success on this scale would have been unthinkable without the concerted support of the government in Berlin and its servants in the province.41 Francke was acutely aware of the movement’s dependence on the patronage of its powerful friends and he was as assiduous as Spener had been in cultivating court and government contacts, a task to which he brought all the charisma and intense sincerity that had moved his student audiences at the University of Leipzig. After a meeting with Francke in 1711, Frederick granted the orphanage a privilege that placed it directly under the authority of the new Prussian Crown. Further privileges followed, securing revenues from a variety of official sources.


11. The Orphanage complex in Halle. A portrait of its founder, August Hermann Francke, is borne aloft by a Prussian eagle, with the assistance of cherubs.

The accession of Frederick William I, whom Francke had cultivated as crown prince, inaugurated an era of even deeper cooperation. The new monarch was a restless, driven, unstable personality prone to bouts of extreme melancholy and mental anguish. At the age of twenty, after the death of his first son, he had passed through a ‘conversion’ that introduced an intensely personal dimension to his faith. There was an affinity here with Francke, whose dynamism was powered in part by a sense of the existential fragility of faith and a desire to evade the despair and fear of meaninglessness that had tormented him before his ‘conversion’. In both men, inner conflicts were channelled outwards into ‘constant work and limitless sacrifice’, characteristics that were reflected both in the extraordinary colonizing energy of Halle Pietism and in the indefatigable zeal of the ‘soldier king’.42

The collaboration between the monarchy and the Pietist movement steadily deepened.43 The establishment of Halle-style educational foundations continued. Frederick William I employed Halle-trained Pietists to run the new military orphanage at Potsdam and the new Cadet School in Berlin. In 1717, when the king issued legislation for compulsory schooling in Brandenburg-Prussia, 2,000 schools were planned (not all of which were actually built) on the Halle model.44 By the late 1720s, training for at least two semesters at the Pietist-dominated University of Halle (four semesters from 1729 onwards) had become a prerequisite for state service in Brandenburg-Prussia.45 Pietist appointments to the University of Königsberg created a parallel power base in East Prussia; here, as in Halle, Pietist patronage networks ensured that like-minded students found their way to parishes and ecclesiastical offices.46 After 1730, the education, not only of civil servants and clergymen but also of the greater part of the Prussian officer corps, took place in schools based on the Halle model and run by Pietists.47

Field chaplains were the most important propagators of Pietist values within the Prussian military.48 In 1718, Elector Frederick William separated the administration of the military clergy from that of the orthodox-controlled civilian church and appointed a Halle graduate, Lampertus Gedike, as its director. Gedike acquired new powers over the appointment and supervision of army chaplains and used them energetically in favour of Halle candidates. Of all the army chaplains appointed to posts in Ducal Prussia between 1714 and 1736, for example, over one-half were former theology students from Halle.49 The education of cadets, war orphans destined for army service, and the children of serving soldiers also fell increasingly into Pietist hands.

How far-reaching were the effects of this impressive record? It is difficult to isolate the impact of the Pietists within the training and pastoral structure from the effects of other changes in organization and administration of the military under Frederick William I (such as better training or the introduction of the cantonal system of recruitment). Not all Pietist field chaplains managed to make a mark in the raw world of the Prussian army. One chaplain was victimized by his officers because he had preached against dancing and powdering the hair; another was reduced to tears by the mockery and abuse of his regiment. The field chaplains were not recruited through the canton system and they sometimes found it difficult to secure the respect of soldiers who regarded them as ‘foreigners’ because they hailed from a different province.50 Nevertheless, there seems little doubt that the ideals and attitudes propagated by the movement did help to shape the corporate ethos of the Prussian army. It is at least plausible that the relatively low rates of desertion – by western European standards – among the Prussian common soldiery during the three Silesian wars of 1740–42, 1744–5 and 1756–63 reflected the heightened discipline and morale instilled in generations of recruits by Pietist chaplains and instructors.51

Among the officer corps, where the Pietist movement had a number of influential friends, it is likely that the Pietists, with their moral rigour and sacralized sense of vocation, helped to discredit an older image of the officer as a swashbuckling, rakish gambler and to establish in its place a code of officerly conduct based on sobriety, self-discipline and serious dutifulness that came to be recognized as characteristically ‘Prussian’.52 With its at once worldly and sacralized concept of vocation, its focus on public needs and its emphasis on self-denial, Franckean Pietism may also have contributed to the emergence of a new ‘ethics of profession’ that helped to shape the distinctive identity and corporate ethos of the Prussian civil servant.53

The innovations in schooling introduced by Francke and his successors also had a transformative impact on pedagogical practice in Prussia. The close alliance between the Halle Pietists and the monarch contributed to the emergence of schooling as a ‘discrete object of state action’.54 It was the Pietists who introduced professional training and standardized certification procedures for teachers and general-issue elementary textbooks for pupils. The orphanage schools also created a new kind of learning environment characterized by the close psychological observation of pupils, an emphasis on self-discipline and an acute awareness of time (Francke installed hourglasses in every classroom). The day was sharply subdivided into periods of coordinated study in a range of subjects and periods of free time; in this respect, the Halle regime anticipated the polarization of work and leisure characteristic of modern industrial society. Under these conditions, the classroom became the sealed-off, purpose-dedicated space we associate with modern schooling.

The transformation of schooling in Prussia along these lines was, of course, incomplete when Frederick William I died in 1740 and the movement lost its powerful sponsor. But the Halle model remained influential; in the 1740s and 1750s, the educationalist Johann Hecker, a former teacher at the Pädagogium who had been trained at Francke’s Teachers’ College in Halle, founded a network of ‘pauper schools’ in Berlin catering to the neglected and potentially delinquent offspring of the town’s numerous soldiers. In order to ensure an adequate supply of properly trained and motivated teachers, Hecker established a teachers’ college on the Franckean model; he was one of several graduates of the Halle college to set up such institutes in Prussian cities. He also founded a Realschule in Berlin, the first to offer children of the middle and lower-middle classes tuition in a range of vocational subjects, as an alternative to the Latin-based, humanistic curriculum of the traditional secondary school. It was Hecker who popularized the practice of teaching pupils of like ability collectively, so as to maximize the efficiency of the teaching process; this was a crucial and lasting innovation.

As well as contributing to the standardization of education and public service, the Pietists directed their attention to the education of the Lithuanian and Masurian (Polish-speaking Protestant) minorities. In 1717, when the Pietist Heinrich Lysius became Inspector of Schools and Churches for East Prussia, he called for the specialized training of clergymen for missionary and teaching work among the non-German-speaking communities in the East Prussian dioceses. As a result, after some initial disagreements, Lithuanian and Polish seminars were established at the University of Königsberg.55The aim was to train Pietist aspirants for work in the Lithuanian and Masurian parishes. The Pietists also helped to establish the minority languages of the province as serious objects of study. Major dictionaries of the Lithuanian language were published in Königsberg in 1747(Ruhig) and 1800(Mielcke), both with the sponsorship of the Prussian authorities.56

The Pietists also provided support in the integration of the 20,000-odd Lutherans who entered Prussia as refugees from the archbishopric of Salzburg in 1731–2, most of whom were sent by Frederick William I to live as farmers in the depopulated region of Prussian Lithuania (see below). Pietists accompanied the Salzburgers on their trek through Prussia, organized fund-raising campaigns and financial support, supplied the new arrivals with devotional texts printed at the orphanage and provided their communities in the east with pastors.57

A further – often overlooked – area of evangelizing activity was the Pietist mission to the Jews. From 1728, there existed a Judaic Institute in the city of Halle, under the management of the Pietist theologian Johann Heinrich Callenberg, which ran a well-organized mission – the first of its kind – to the Jews of German-speaking Europe. The missionaries, who received language training in Halle at the first academic Yiddish seminar in Europe, travelled far and wide across Brandenburg-Prussia, buttonholing travelling Jews and trying without much success to persuade them that Jesus Christ was their messiah. Closely intertwined with the orphanage complex, the institute was sustained by the eschatological hope for a prophesied mass conversion of Jewry articulated in the writings of Philipp Jakob Spener. In practice, however, its missionary efforts were focused largely on the conversion and occupational retraining of impoverished itinerants known as ‘beggar Jews’ (Betteljuden) whose numbers were on the increase in early eighteenth-century Germany.58 The mission to the Jews thus embodied a characteristically Pietist blend of social awareness and evangelizing zeal. In their missionary endeavours, as in the other spheres of their activity, the Pietists earned official approval by contributing to the tasks of religious, social and cultural integration that faced the administration of the Brandenburg-Prussian state, helping to bring about the ‘domestication’, as one historian has called it, of ‘wild elements’.59

By the 1720s and 1730s, Pietism had become respectable. As often happens in such cases, it had changed in the process. It had begun as a controversial movement with a precarious foothold in the established Lutheran churches. As Pietism gathered new adherents during the 1690s and into the new century, it continued to be burdened by a reputation for excessive zeal.60 By the 1730s, however, the moderate wing of the movement enjoyed unchallenged dominance, thanks to the groundwork laid by Spener and the tireless work of Francke and his Halle collaborators in channelling the surplus spiritual energies of Lutheran nonconformism into a range of institutional projects. A variety of radical Pietisms, some of them overtly separatist, continued to flourish in the other German states, but the Prussian variant shed its embarrassing extremist fringe and became an orthodoxy in its own right. Infused with confidence, the second generation of Pietists used their positions within key institutions to silence or remove opponents, much as the Lutheran Orthodox had done in an earlier era. The Pietist movement became a patronage network in its own right.61

This position of dominance could not be sustained in the longer term. By the mid-1730s, the most influential and talented members of the founding generation of Halle theologians were dead: Francke (1727), Paul Anton (1730) and Joachim Justus Breithaupt (1732); the succeeding generation did not produce theologians of comparable quality or public profile. The movement was further weakened in the 1730s by internal controversy over a campaign launched by Frederick William I to purge ‘Catholic’ elements in Lutheran ceremonial. Some leading Pietists supported the initiative, but most remained respectful of Lutheran tradition and opposed the king’s liturgical tampering. In this, they found themselves at one with the orthodox leadership of the Lutheran church, a fact that did much to repair the damage done by decades of feuding.62

The allegiance to the state that had won the movement such prominence thus threatened to sunder it. There were signs that the traditional Pietist tolerance of confessional difference was being supplanted, from within the movement itself, by a proto-enlightened enthusiasm for confessional convergence. Then there was the problem that the policy of favouring Pietists for civil service and pastoral posts encouraged ambitious candidates to employ adaptive mimicry in the service of their careers. Many succumbed to the temptation to manufacture narratives of conversion to a truer and more heartfelt faith, or even to counterfeit the grave countenance and demeanour (one source speaks of Pietist ‘eye-rolling’) associated with the more zealous adherents of the movement. This phenomenon – a consequence of the movement’s success – was to leave the term ‘Pietist’ enduringly tainted with the connotation of religious imposture.63

After 1740, Pietism quickly declined in the theological faculties of the universities and within the clerical networks of Brandenburg Prussia. This was in part the result of a withdrawal of royal support. Frederick the Great was personally antipathetic to the ‘Protestant Jesuits’ who had enjoyed his father’s protection, and consistently favoured enlightened candidates for posts in church administration, with the consequence that Berlin became a renowned centre of the Protestant enlightenment.64 The University of Halle, once the bastion of the movement, became a leading centre of rationalism, and was to remain so well into the following century. There was a gradual fall in the number of persons attending the orphanage complex in Halle, and a corresponding decline in the circle of donors willing to support its activities. All this was reflected in the waning fortunes of the Pietist mission to the Jews in Halle, whose final annual report, published in 1790, opened with the observation that ‘if we compare the earlier days of our institute with the present, then the two are as body and shadow…’65

How far-reaching was the impact of the Pietist movement on Prussian society and institutions? Pietists valued restraint and understatement and despised courtly luxury and wastefulness. At court and in the organs of military and civilian education they systematically extolled the virtues of modesty, austerity and self-discipline. In this way they amplified the impact of the cultural change wrought by Frederick William I after 1713, when towering wigs and richly embroidered jackets became the despised trifles of a bygone era. Through their role in the cadet schools, they helped to shape attitudes and comportment within the provincial nobilities, more and more of whose sons were passing through the cadet system by the middle decades of the eighteenth century. This may in turn account for the dislike of ostentation that came to be seen as a hallmark of the Prussian Junker caste. If the fabled modesty of the Junker was in many individual cases pure affectation and posturing, this merely testifies to the power of the persona popularized by the Pietist movement.

Pietism also helped to prepare the ground for the Prussian enlightenment.66 The movement’s optimism and its future-oriented focus bore an affinity with the enlightened idea of progress, just as its preoccupation with education as a means of shaping personality ‘gave rise to that comprehensive pedagogization of human existence that was an essential characteristic of the enlightenment’.67 The development of the natural sciences at the University of Halle reveals how closely Pietism and enlightenment, despite their many differences, were intertwined; the ‘field of force’ between them shaped the assumptions guiding scientific enquiry.68 The Pietist emphasis on ethics over dogma and the commitment to tolerance in dealing with confessional difference likewise prefigured the fashions of the later eighteenth century – witness Kant’s conception of morality as the highest sphere of rationally accessible truth, and his tendency to subordinate religious to moral intuitions.69

Some of the most influential Prussian exponents of enlightened and romantic philosophy were reared within a Pietist milieu. The cult of introspection associated with the romantic movement had a Pietist antecedent in the Pietist ‘spiritual biography’, of which Francke’s own widely read narrative of his conversion became an archetype. Its secular successor, the ‘autobiography’, emerged as an influential literary genre in the mid to late eighteenth century.70 The romantic philosopher Johann Georg Hamann was educated at the Kneiphof School in Königsberg, a stronghold of moderate Pietism, and subsequently attended the city’s university, where he came under the influence of the Pietist-inspired philosophy professor Martin Knutzen; the introspective and ascetic quality of the Pietist outlook can be traced in his writings. Hamann even underwent a conversion experience of sorts, brought on by a period of close Bible-reading and penitential self-observation.71 The influence of Württemberg Pietism can be discerned in the writings of G. W. F. Hegel, who came to exercise a profound influence on the development of philosophy and political thought at the University of Berlin; Hegel’s conception of teleology as a process of self-realization was underpinned by a Christian theology of history with recognizably Pietist features.72

And what of the Brandenburg-Prussian state? Moulded on to the frieze that dominates the fac#231;ade of Francke’s orphanage building in Halle are two black Prussian eagles, their wings outspread, a vivid reminder to all who passed by of the movement’s proximity to state power. The positive contribution rendered by the Pietists to the consolidation of dynastic authority in Brandenburg-Prussia offers a striking contrast with the political neutrality of the contemporaneous Pietist movement in Württemburg and the subversive impact of Puritanism in England.73 As a fifth column within Brandenburg-Prussian Lutheranism, the Pietists were a much more effective ideological instrument than the Calvinist confessional prescriptions and censorship measures of the Electors and kings could ever have been. But the Pietists did more than merely assist the sovereign; they fed the energy from a broadly based movement of Protestant voluntarism into the public enterprise of Brandenburg-Prussia’s newly elevated dynasty. Above all, they propagated the idea that the objectives of the state might also be those of conscientious citizens, that service to the state could be motivated not just by obligation or self-interest, but also by an encompassing sense of ethical responsibility. A community of solidarity emerged that extended beyond the networks of patron–client relationships. Pietism created the beginnings of a broad-based activist constituency for the monarchical project in Brandenburg-Prussia.


Does it make sense to speak of Brandenburg-Prussia’s external relations in terms of a ‘Protestant foreign policy’? Historians of power politics and international relations have often been sceptical about such claims. Even in the era of ‘religious war’, they point out, the imperatives of territorial security overrode the demands of confessional solidarity. Catholic France supported the Protestant Union against Catholic Austria; Lutheran Saxony sided with Catholic Austria against Lutheran Sweden. Confessional allegiances were only very rarely strong enough to prevail against all other considerations – the readiness of the Calvinist Palatinate under Frederick V to risk everything for the sake of the Protestant interest in 1618 – 20 was rare, perhaps even exceptional.

Yet it would be misleading to conclude that foreign policy was formulated on the basis of an entirely secular calculus of interest or that confession was an unimportant factor. It played an important role in structuring dynastic marital alliances, for one thing, and these in turn had important consequences for external policy, not least because they often entailed new territorial claims. It is clear, moreover, that many Protestant rulers perceived themselves as members of a Protestant community of states. This was certainly true of the Great Elector, who advised his successor in the Political Testament of 1667 to work wherever possible in concert with the other Protestant territories and to be vigilant in defending Protestant liberties against the Emperor.74 Confessional factors featured prominently in policy debates within the executive. Arguing against an alliance with France in 1648, the privy councillor Sebastian Striepe pointed out that Cardinal Mazarin was hostile to the reformed faith and was likely to press forward with the Catholicization of France.75 In the 1660s, as the mistreatments of French Calvinists intensified, the Elector wrote to Louis XIV to express his concern.76In the 1670s, Frederick William switched to the anti-French coalition in order to prevent the subjugation of the Dutch Republic, the centre of northern European Calvinism. Geopolitics and the promise of subsidies drew him back to France in the early 1680s, but his return to the Brandenburg-imperial alliance of 1686 was motivated in part by disquiet over the brutal persecution of the Calvinist Huguenots in France.77

One way of demonstrating confessional solidarity without risking armed conflict was to offer asylum and other forms of assistance to persecuted co-religionists in another state. The most celebrated example of this type of gesture politics was the Edict of Potsdam of 1685, by which the Elector invited persecuted French Calvinists to settle in the lands of Brandenburg-Prussia. It was Frederick William’s answer to the French king’s quashing of the rights granted to the Huguenots under the Edict of Nantes (1598). In all, some 20,000 French Calvinist refugees settled in the lands of the Elector. They tended to come from the poorer strata of the Reformed population – the wealthiest had generally chosen economically more attractive destinations such as England and Holland. Their resettlement was supported (by contrast with Holland and Britain) with state-subsidized assistance, cheap dwellings, tax exemptions, discounted loans and so on. Since Brandenburg, whose population had still not recovered from the mortalities of the Thirty Years War, stood in sore need of skilled and industrious immigrants, this was a self-interested but highly effective gesture. It irritated Louis XIV profoundly78 (which, of course, was a part of its purpose) and earned the approbation of Protestants across the German lands. There was an intriguing disproportionality in this: of the 200,000-odd Huguenots who fled France in the face of persecution, only about one-tenth fetched up in the Prussian lands, yet it was the Elector, more than any other sovereign, who succeeded in capturing the moment for his reputation. Pitched in a lofty, universalizing moral register, the edict has (somewhat misleadingly) been celebrated ever since as one of the great monuments to the Prussian tradition of tolerance.

So successful was the ‘politics of religious rights’ inaugurated at Potsdam that it became a sort of fixture in Hohenzollern statecraft. In a proclamation of April 1704, Frederick I broadcast in similar terms his determination to assist persecuted French Calvinists in the Principality of Orange, a Protestant territorial enclave in the south of France to which the Hohenzollerns had a strong inheritance claim:79

Whereas the zeal that we harbour for the glory of God and for the good of His Church has made Us take to heart the sad state to which Our poor brothers in faith have seen themselves reduced by the rough persecution that providence allowed to rage in France some years ago, and has engaged Us to receive them charitably and at great cost in our States, Therefore We find Ourselves under an even greater obligation to exert the same charity towards Our own subjects, who have been forced to abandon Our Principality of Orange and all the goods that they possessed there [… ] so that they might find a refuge under Our protection…80

Here was a characteristic combination of high-minded rhetoric with cool self-interest. The charitable offer in the proclamation was coupled with a claim to disputed territory. In an instruction to the councillors entrusted with receiving the refugees, moreover, the king urged that they were not to be maintained in idleness but set up as quickly as possible in an appropriate occupation, ‘so that the King may profit from their establishment’.81

If the logic of confessional solidarity could occasionally provide a useful diplomatic instrument on the European scene, it was far more potent within the context of the Holy Roman Empire, for here the effect of confessional quarrels was amplified by the dualist structure of the imperial diet. The articles of the Peace of Westphalia stipulated that when confessional issues came up for debate at the diet, these must be discussed in separate session by two permanent caucuses of Protestant and Catholic representatives, the corpus evangelicorum and the corpus catholicorum. The purpose of this mechanism, known as the itio in partes or ‘going into parts’, was to ensure that potentially delicate confessional issues could be debated on both sides without unwelcome interference from the other party. Its practical effect, however, was to create a trans-territorial public forum for the airing of confessional grievances, particularly for the Protestants, who stood in greater need of corporate mobilization than the structurally dominant Catholics.

Frederick William I’s spectacular intervention in a conflict over the fate of the Protestant minority in Salzburg demonstrated how useful this mechanism could be. In 1731, the discovery that there were nearly 20,000 persons living in the steep valleys of the Pinzgau and Pongau districts of Salzburg who called themselves Protestants unsettled the Catholic authorities and revealed the profound cultural gulf that separated the city of Salzburg from its Alpine hinterland. When missionary expeditions failed to wean the farmers from their heresy, Archbishop Anton Firmian resolved to enforce their expulsion. This confrontation between a wealthy archiepiscopal administration and a semi-literate population of hardy Protestant hill-farmers caught the imagination of the Protestant caucus of the imperial diet. Pamphlets and broadsheets appeared arguing the farmers’ cause. The Catholic authorities in Salzburg responded with vehement counter-attacks. Both sides published selected documents relating to the case and the Salzburgers became a cause célèbre in the German Protestant lands.

One of the first to recognize the potential in this conflict was King Frederick William I of Prussia. He desperately needed farmers for the under-exploited terrain of Prussian Lithuania on the eastern marches of Ducal Prussia – an area that had scarcely begun to recover from the famine and pestilence of 1709–10. At the same time, he was keen to establish Brandenburg-Prussia as a universal guarantor of Protestant rights, a role that implicitly challenged the Habsburg Emperor’s claim to be the neutral ombudsman in confessional disputes between and within member states. Frederick William therefore offered to re-establish the Salzburg Protestants in his own lands.

The Elector’s plan seemed at first unlikely to succeed. The archbishop had no intention of letting his farmers go; he intended to crush the agitation in the Alps by military means – indeed he had already appealed to the Bavarians and the Emperor for troops to carry out the task. But the constitutional machinery of the Empire came once again to the Elector’s aid. Emperor Charles VI was hoping to secure the support of the Reichstag for a ‘pragmatic sanction’ that would confirm the succession of his daughter Maria Theresa to the Habsburg throne after his death. He needed the vote of the Elector in Berlin. The scene was set for a mutually beneficial transaction: in return for Frederick William’s support for the pragmatic sanction, the Emperor agreed to pressure the Archbishop of Salzburg into allowing a mass transfer of his protestant subjects to eastern Ducal Prussia.

Between April and July 1732, twenty-six columns of Salzburger families – each containing about 800 people – left for the long march through Franconia and Saxony to Prussia, exchanging the grassy slopes of their Alpine home for the flatlands of Prussian Lithuania. The emigration in itself was a sensation. The long lines of Salzburgers trudging steadfastly northward through Protestant towns and cities in their outlandish Alpine gear had an electrifying effect on spectators. Peasants and townsfolk brought food, clothes or gifts for the children, others threw coins from open windows. Many were reminded of the children of Israel on their way out of Egypt. There was a flood of confessional propaganda; books and prints depicted the expulsion, praised the obdurate faith of the emigrants and lauded the pious Prussian king whose country had become a promised land for the oppressed. Over 300 independent titles (not counting periodicals) were published in sixty-seven different German cities during the years 1732 and 1733 alone. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the legend of the emigration was endlessly recycled in sermons, pamphlets, novels and plays.


12. King Frederick William I of Prussia greets the Protestant exiles from the archbishopric of Salzburg; illustration from a contemporary pamphlet.

The emigration was thus a propaganda coup of incalculable value to the Hohenzollern dynasty and the Brandenburg-Prussia state. It marked, moreover, an important point of departure, for the Salzburgers were not Calvinists (like the Huguenots and Orange refugees), but Lutherans. The claim to trans-confessional Protestant authority that the Pietists had helped to realize within Brandenburg-Prussia now reverberated across the Empire.

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