The sixteenth-century Reformers accused the Catholic Church of having adulterated the primitive purity of the Gospel by the admixture of un-Scriptural doctrines and practices; consequently they designated themselves as "Evangelicals", or followers of the pure Evangel, in contradistinction to the un-evangelical followers of Roman traditions and institutions.
Almost from the beginning the new Evangelical Church was split, first into two communions, the Lutheran and the Reformed, then into a multitude of sects which baffles the skill of statisticians. The cleavage arose through differences in the doctrine of Christ's presence in the Holy Eucharist. Luther taught the actual bodily presence of Christ in and with the elements, though denying Transubstantiation. Zwingli and the Swiss Reformers admitted only His spiritual presence. The Lutheran and the Reformed Churches form the two great branches of Evangelical Protestantism to which all the other divisions of Protestants are subordinate. The evangelical section of the Anglican Church stands midway between the High Church and the Latitudinarian Low Church. As a proper name with strictly limited meaning the designation "Evangelical Church" applies to a branch of the Protestant Church in Germany, formed in 1817 at the instance of King Frederick William III of Prussia, by a union of the Lutheran and the Reformed Churches.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century religious life in Germany was at a low ebb. The Rationalism and Illuminism of the eighteenth century, openly encouraged by King Frederick II (the Great), had told severely on the supernatural life of the country, especially among the Protestants. The "rights of man", proclaimed and ruthlessly carried out by the French Revolutionists, had found a welcome beyond the Rhine and well nigh superseded the rights of God. Luther and Calvin, whilst casting off the authority of the Church, had still bowed to that of the Bible, and their followers adhered to several "Confessions of Faith" as binding on their conscience. These formulæ were now overthrown as inimical to the rights of free inquiry, as the work of men little versed in exegesis and history, as unscientific and un-Protestant. Religious life, thus deprived of its sap, was rapidly withering away. Indifference and infidelity obliterated the differences among Protestant communities and threatened for a time to sweep away Christianity itself.
The Prussian State, owing its origin, growth, and importance to Protestantism, was not sympathetic to its Catholic subjects. The Rhine Province, Westphalia, and the Polish provinces were ever ready to manifest their affection for the Catholic rulers of Austria and even of France. The House of Hohenzollern was Calvinist, the majority of the nation was Lutheran. Frederick William III, King of Prussia (1797-1840), undertook to strengthen his rule and his country by building up a united religion together with a powerful army, efficient schools, and a flourishing trade. As early as 1798 he had expressed the hope of uniting the Reformed and the Lutheran Churches by means of a common "Agenda", or ritual. He matured the idea on his visit to England in 1814, and made the first arrangement for a union and a new liturgy in St. James's Palace in London. It was proposed to celebrate in Germany the third centennial jubilee of the Reformation, and in anticipation of this festival he issued on 27 Sept., 1817, the memorable declaration that it was the royal wish to unite the separate Lutheran and Reformed Confessions in his dominions into one Evangelical Christian Church, and that he would set an example in his own congregation at Potsdam by joining in a united celebration of the Lord's Supper at the approaching festival of the Reformation. It was not intended to fuse the Reformed Church into the Lutheran, or vice-versa, but to establish one Evangelical Church, quickened with the spirit of the Reformation. The epithet "Protestant" was avoided as too partisan; prominence was given to the vague term evangelical; Lutherans and Calvinists, whilst maintaining their own specific doctrines, were to form a single church under a single government and to present a united front to the Catholic Church.
The execution of the royal plan was entrusted to the provincial consistories, synods, and clergy generally. The Synod of Berlin and nearly all the clergy and laity of Prussia responded cordially to the decree. External union, facilitated by the prevailing religious indifference, was adopted in Nassau and in the Rhenish Palatinate (1818), in Baden (1821), in Rhenish Hesse (1822), in Würtemberg (1827). But Saxony, Hanover, and Bavaria proper were too exclusively Lutheran, while Switzerland was too exclusively Reformed to join the Evangelical Church, and the Austrian Protestants also divided their allegiance between the Helvetic and the Augsburg Confessions. Instead of the former two Protestant bodies in Germany, there were now three: the Reformed Church, the Lutheran, and the united Evangelical. The Reformed was the weakest in numbers; and in doctrine its sole distinctive tenet was the rejection of Luther's teaching concerning the Eucharist. Neither was the Lutheran flourishing; true Lutheranism existed only in the pious aspirations of a few theologians, pastors, and jurists. A union without a uniform confession and liturgy is but a loose mass, unworthy to be called a church. Frederick William, therefore, attempted to consolidate his Evangelical Church by giving it a common liturgy composed by himself with the assistance of the court chaplains and a pious layman. This "Agenda" was made obligatory by royal order for the royal chapel, the cathedral of Berlin, and for the army; its general adoption was only recommended. It met with determined opposition as a measure oppressive of evangelical freedom, antiquated, leaning to "Romanish" practices, unsettling men's consciences. None the less, by 1825 it had been adopted by 5343 churches out of 7782. The Protestant bishops Eylert and Neander in Berlin were in favour of it and of the measures taken to enforce it. In 1828-29 the "Agenda" was issued in a revised form and made binding on all Protestant churches, some concessions being granted to Silesia, Saxony, Pomerania, and other parts of the kingdom, in deference to provincial uses. The Lutherans, fearing the loss of their confessional status, offered increased resistance. But the king was inexorable. Dr. Scheibel, professor in Breslau, and others of the Lutheran clergy who had refused to accept the new liturgy, were suspended from their offices. For several years a fierce persecution raged against the "Old Lutherans", especially in Silesia and the Grand Duchy of Posen. Preacher Hahn headed the troops which were sent to subdue the recusant villagers by seizure of their goods, imprisonment, and all manner of violence. Minister von Altenstein justified these measures on the principle that it was the Government's duty to protect these blind sectarians against the consequences of their own folly. Thousands of the recusants were driven to emigrate to America and Australia. Not a voice was raised in their defence; the whole Liberal press lauded the energy of the Prussian Government. By a royal decree of 28 Feb., 1834, all Lutheran worship was declared illegal.
Frederick William III ruled his Church as summus episcopus, as a pope without a fixed deposit of faith to guard, or a hierarchy Divinely ordained to co-operate with him. The result was arbitrariness in the rule, disorganization in the ruled. The king's first royal decrees aimed at the conciliation of religion with the prevailing rationalistic philosophy, but the misfortunes of the year 1806 and the death of his beloved consort turned his mind more and more to the religion of revelation and mysteries. Considering himself the protector and leader of the Church in Germany he endeavoured to raise it from degradation by forcing unity upon it with a strong hand; unity not in dogma, for he disliked theologians "who pretend to be more Christian than Christ", but in liturgy, wherein his sincere piety found sufficient satisfaction. In 1831 he surprised Superintendent Eylert with an essay on the power of the keys and the binding and loosing power in the Church; it contained an attempt to reintroduce auricular confession and the old church discipline. All his efforts, however, only ended in greater division. At his death, in 1840, the Church of his creation was still a chaos of warring sects, irresponsive to the brooding of the royal mind and restive to the royal arm.
Frederick William IV immediately set free the imprisoned Lutheran clergy and allowed the formation of separate congregations. The Old Lutherans now founded a "separate Lutheran Church" at Breslau under the direction of the lawyer Huschke. By the "general concession" of 1845 they were recognized as Dissenters with legal status but without pecuniary support from the State. The new sect was, however, wanting in union and cohesion: Diedrich opposed Huschke and the Oberkirchencollegium (supreme ecclesiastical council); frictions among members were of frequent occurrence. But few of the discontented clergymen had left the established Evangelical Church to join the Old Lutherans; the majority remained at their posts for various reasons: within the Union they had a better opportunity for working its destruction than without; they were unwilling to sacrifice their incomes from the State and consequent independence from the financial support of their parishioners; they feared, in many cases, to be altogether abandoned by indifferent congregations. The defenders of the union argued that its disruption would produce at least five particular churches at war with one another and powerless to withstand the inroads of the Catholic Church; that the union was a Prussian achievement to be supported by all true lovers of Prussia. The theologians of the Union demanded a consensus-symbolum, "an ordination formula in which the consensus of the two Churches was to be contained without depriving the individual congregation of the right of giving a call on the ground of the particular confession" (Gardner, I, 967); others were satisfied with a confederation professing no formulated creed and resting solely on unfettered science. The trend of religious thought during this period, the middle of the nineteenth century, followed the impulse given by the king. Frederick William IV's motto was: "I and my house intend to serve the Lord". He was piously, even pietistically, inclined, hated infidelity and pantheism, cherished the Divine right of kings, and loved to dream of ancient institutions in Church and State. In a short time the Prussian universities, and in their wake the other German universities, except Giessen and Jena, became centres of positive beliefs and tendencies. The king favoured men of his own thinking and made known his dislike to transfer the arduous duties of his "supreme episcopate" to free parishes formed on the apostolic model. Theological teaching in schools and press, although starting from the same positive creeds, diverged in two different streams. On the one side there were the partisans of a via media, endeavouring to find the golden mean between the Lutheran Confession of Faith and the Rationalism of the period. On the other side stood the Neo-Lutherans. These theologians held to Luther's doctrine on justification but rejected his invisible Church and universal priesthood; they defended a Divinely ordained hierarchy, and their teaching on sacrifice, orders, and sacraments nearly approached the Roman. This current runs parallel with Puseyism in England; Hengstenberg (died 1869) was its main support.
The General Synod of Berlin (2 June-29 Aug., 1846) had given rise to great hopes for the consolidation of the Union. It was resolved that the National Evangelical Church should have no other basis than the "consensus"; that the parish councils (Gemeinde-Presbyterien) and consistories be amalgamated so that clergy and laity might work together; that a standing general synod be added to the standing supreme consistory (Oberconsistorium). The crucial task of the synod was to find an acceptable formula of consensus. Karl Immanuel Nitzsch, of Bonn, set up a profession of faith intended to take the place of the reformed formularies: it consisted of vague Biblical texts into which both Lutherans and Reformed might easily read their particular doctrines or no particular doctrine at all. The synod accepted the formula. But the country received it with scorn and contempt, and it was rejected by everyone. Hengstenberg in his "Kirchenzeitung" branded the synod as a Robber Synod, a denial of Christ; its decrees were not to be executed, because they failed to give expression to "the general Protestant consciousness". The consensus only served to increase existing dissensions. The most vital questions divided the leading minds: Was the territorial ruler by right the summus episcopus within his territory? Was it advisable to impose an evangelical church discipline, and if so, which? What part was to be conceded to laymen in the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments?
The very sterility of controversy turned some practical men from words to works: the "Inner Mission" was originated (1848) by Wicheren, the founder of the Hamburg Rauhes Haus (properly Rüge's House, from the name of its former occupant), an institution which covers almost the whole field of Christian charity. The preacher Fliedner (died 1864) instituted the order of Protestant deaconesses, an imitation of the Catholic Sisters of Charity in the main objects of their life. Court preacher Zimmermann of Darmstadt founded the Gustav-Adolfs-Verein (1841-2), a union whose avowed primary object is to support the evangelical missions in outlying districts (the Diaspora), its secondary object being to bind together all Protestants regardless of denominational differences, and to oppose a solid bulwark to the encroachments of Catholicism. The secondary object caused a split in the Union. At the general assembly in Berlin (1846) the Königsberg preacher Rupp, who had been deprived of his office for breaking away from the Protestant formularies and from the national Church, presented himself as a deputy. On the question of his admission as such the assembly disagreed: Rupp was, however, excluded by a small majority, a distinct breach of the principles of the Union. The meeting of 1847 resolved that henceforth the Union should direct its main efforts to the "conversion of the Roman Catholics", a resolution to which it has remained faithful to this day.
The short-lived movement of the "Protestant Friends", or "Friends of Light", was started in opposition to pietistic orthodoxy which threatened freedom in teaching. Article 3 of the programme which they issued from the Moravian settlement at Gnadenau, in 1841, runs: "We hold it to be our right and our duty to submit to the test of our reason whatever is set before us as religion." Ulich, a simple-minded man who had the gift of popular preaching, and Pastor Wislicenus, a downright Rationalist, were the soul of this movement. The Berlin magistrates presented to King Frederick William IV an address conceived in the spirit of the Protestant Friends. They entreated him to grant the Church a free constitution in keeping with the needs of the time, and freedom of teaching limited only by public morality and the safety of the State. The king in person received his theological municipality, who paraded in fourteen state coaches before the royal castle. His pietism was ruffled by the pretensions of the town councillors; in language not over gracious he told them to mind their own business. This happened 22 August, 1845; it marks the end of the Protestant Friends but also the beginning of the "Free Communities" (Freie Gemeinden). As formerly the right wing of the Union had seceded to form Neo-Lutheran communities, so now the left wing withdrew to form dissenting rationalistic congregations. Their meetings were prohibited, but Rupp, Ulich, and Wislicenus resisted until by royal decree of 30 March, 1847, the new dissenters were allowed to separate from the Established Church without the loss of their civil rights; yet not without many vexatious formalities and expenses. The Free Communities, wanting internal cohesion to resist the royal disfavour and the ceaseless assaults of the dominant pietist clique, came to a speedy end.
The wave of liberal aspirations which rolled over Europe in 1848 left its mark on the Churches in Prussia. Paragraph 15 of the new Constitution read: "The Evangelical, and the Roman Catholic Church, and every other religious society, orders and manages its own affairs independently (selbstständig)." The Catholics had the benefit of this law until the beginning of the Kulturkampf, but among the Protestants, the ruling orthodox pietists, led by Hengstenberg, were determined that no freedom should be given to any other party. They evaded the law by a new theory, viz, the king being the prœcipuum membrum ecclesiœ, i.e. the chief member of the Church, rules it by an inherent right which no law can take from him; in fact Par. 15 makes the territorial lord quite independent of all State interference with his management of his own Church. The king himself did not favour this extraordinary doctrine. "Do I look like a bishop?" he said, pointing to his uniform and spurs. His ideal was "the small independent Christian community managing its own affairs in the spirit of the universal Church" as in the days of the Apostles. The ideal of his minister von Raumer and of Hengstenberg was to train Prussian Unterthanenverstand, i.e. a mentality fit for people under strict authority: believe in Luther, obey the king, and ask no questions. The alliance of politics, Lutheran orthodoxy and pietism, royal cabinet-orders and counter-orders, general unsettledness and discontent, and five authorized churches instead of one — such was the result of the Union of 1817 in the fourth decade of its existence. Many attempts at a more real and more general union were made on the basis of practical charity, federation, opposition to Catholicism; church conferences were held in Berlin, Wittenberg, Eisenach, and elsewhere; the Gustav-Adolf-Verein and the Inner Mission were founded; the English Evangelical Alliance was invited to Berlin (1857). The result was greater discord and disruption.
William I, who as Regent, King of Prussia, and German Emperor reigned from 1858 to 1888, was an honest, single-minded, and industrious ruler. He had little sympathy with the Constitution and none at all with Hengstenberg's agitation for enforcing Lutheran orthodoxy. He maintained the Constitution as the law of the land. But of the orthodox party he said in an address to his newly constituted ministry: ". . .In both Churches [Catholic and Protestant] all endeavours to make religion a cloak for politics must be strenuously opposed. In the Evangelical Church — we cannot deny it — an orthodoxy has found a footing which is in contradiction with the fundamental idea of the Union, and which has hypocrites in its train. That orthodoxy has impeded the work of the Union has almost wrecked it. Now it is my will that the Union be maintained intact . . ." Until 1866, however, little was done to carry out William's programme; it was impossible and unadvisable to dismiss all the clerical office-bearers and professors appointed for their opinions during the last eighteen years. The new minister of worship, von Muehler, was dominated by Queen Augusta, a highly educated woman devoted to orthodoxy, who suggested candidates for higher positions and insisted on their appointment (Hase, Neue Kircheng., 305). By her stood Hengstenberg and Hoffman, a fanatical Swabian. Together they worked for the preservation of the old regime. The Liberal party meanwhile found a common centre and a driving power in the Protestantenverein (Protestant Union), founded in 1863 at Frankfort-on-the-Main with the object of defeating both Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy. It spread at first but slowly, as it found little support among the still faithful masses and met with open hostility among the ruling classes, in 1906 it numbered 27,000 members.
After the war with Austria (1866) the acquisition of new territories laid upon William I the task of again regulating the religious situation of his kingdom. The Hengstenberg party proposed a measure which would have dealt the death-blow to the Union, viz, to divide the Supreme Church Council into three senates: a Lutheran, a Reformed, and a United, each with circumscribed territorial jurisdiction. But the Supreme Council refused to take this step and persuaded the king to leave to the new provinces their existing church constitutions as long as they chose to maintain them. This was done. To a deputation from the Hanover Consistory William I expressed his Conviction that "the Evangelical Union was best furthered by free and unprejudiced hearts working towards unity in charity." The slight difficulties which arose locally, e.g. in Hesse, were probably due as much to political as to religious sentiments. The political unity of Germany achieved through the Franco-German War (1870-71) naturally aroused a strong desire for religious unity in the new empire. Bismarck started the Kulturkampf to bring the Catholics into line with the Protestant majority, but had to acknowledge himself vanquished in 1886. For the unification of the Protestants in the empire only one way was open: to abolish legal pressure and to allow the various religious bodies to work out their own salvation in their own way. The emperor, however, was loath to dismiss at once the ministers and officials who had so faithfully stood by him in the war; von Muehler retained his post and Empress Augusta her influence; the old system continued for a while with but slight concessions to liberty. The relation between the State and the Evangelical Church was finally fixed by the laws of 10 Sept., 1873, and 30 May, 1876. At the head of the whole organization stands the Supreme Ecclesiastical Council (Oberkirchenrat) in Berlin, consisting of twelve regular members, one ecclesiastical vice-president, and a lay president. Under this council are eight provincial consistories, Königsberg, Berlin, Stettin, Breslau, Posen, Magdeburg, Münster, and Coblenz; and under them the superintendents numbering 415. In the Evangelical State Church the two types of Protestantism are united; no distinction is made between Lutheran and Reformed either in the theological faculties or in the seminaries. Luther's Bible is in common use, the various collections of hymns have no denominational character. The emperor, or King of Prussia, is summus episcopus, which, however, is a title rather than an office. In matters of faith the royal pronouncements neither claim, nor are they credited with, infallibility; and matters of administration are left to the councils and consistories elected by the people.
The doctrinal status of the United Evangelical Church in Germany may be fitly described as Modernism in the sense of the Encyclical "Pascendi". The simple country folk, who practise more than they think, still follow the religion of older generations, but the socialist masses of the towns are either indifferent or openly hostile to all supernatural religion. Owing to the principle sanctioned in 1648 "that all the subjects must follow the religion of their ruler" the population, from a religious point of view, is less mixed in Germany than in England or America. Numerically, the two confessions are in the same proportion as they were 300 years ago: two Protestants to one Catholic. Conversions from one religion to the other almost balance with a slight excess in favour of Protestantism. This is entirely due to mixed marriages and temporal allurements. The efforts of proselytizing societies, such as the Gustav-Adolf-Verein, the Protestant and the Evangelical Unions, show but poor results. Statistics from the census of 1900 are as follows: Evangelical Church in Prussia: 8158 parishes with 17,246 churches, etc., 10,071 clergy, and 21,817,577 adherents against 12,110,229 Catholics, which gives the proportion of 5 Catholics to 9 Protestants. For the whole German Empire the proportion is 7 Catholics to 12 Protestants, i.e. 20,321,441 to 35,231,104.
No English work deals exhaustively with the subject. German sources: — FOERSTER, Die Entstehung der preussischen Landeskirche unter der Regierung Friedrich Wilhelm III, nach den Quellen (Tübingen, 1905-07); VON HASE, Gesch. der prot. Kirche im 19. Jahrh. (Leipzig, 1892), 299-308; HERGENRÖTHER, Kirchengesch. (Freiburg, 1886), III, 919 sqq.; DÖLLINGER, Kirche u. Kirchen, 422 sqq.; tr. MACCABE (London, 1862).
APA citation. (1909). Evangelical Church. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05642a.htm
MLA citation. "Evangelical Church." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05642a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.