Article Note: Edward Mathieu, “Public Protestantism and Mission in Germany’s Thuringian States, 1871-1914”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 17, No. 3, September 2011

Article Note: Edward Mathieu, “Public Protestantism and Mission in Germany’s Thuringian States, 1871-1914,” Church History 79 no. 1 (March 2010): 115-143.

By Heath A. Spencer, Seattle University

In this article, Edward Mathieu examines the religious and social activism of Thuringia’s bourgeois Protestants. His conclusions are not earthshaking, but his focus on a particular region allows him to qualify some of the conventional wisdom on topics such as secularization and the interplay of theology, class, and politics.

Mathieu challenges the notion that religion was simply retreating from the public sphere by the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, Thuringia’s voluntary Protestant associations were on the rise even as church attendance declined. Rather than fading out, Protestant religiosity was taking on new forms. Mathieu also counters the argument that Lutherans were driven by their theology to leave social problems to the state and limit the church’s role to an exclusive focus on the inner, spiritual life. Rather, Thuringian Protestants demonstrated a high level of social and civic engagement. On the flip side, “secular” press organs such as the Weimarische Zeitung and associations like the Meiningen District Education Association openly expressed an interest in religious and moral questions, and one cannot help but note the “religious tone of bourgeois public discourse” (125). Finally, Mathieu points out that there was considerable overlap in membership across Protestant associations that—at least on the national level—seemed to represent different political, theological, and social-cultural milieus (for example, the Protestant League and the more “conservative” Home Mission).

Throughout the article, Mathieu’s coverage of Protestant discourse is often more descriptive than analytical. However, he does note that Thuringia’s Protestants assumed a close correspondence between Protestant Christianity and German-ness, that liberal ideology and Protestant theology drew inspiration from one another, and that Protestant and bourgeois values (duty, hard work, respect for authority, objectivity, tolerance, intellectual freedom) were often indistinguishable from one another. Like their counterparts throughout the rest of Germany, bourgeois Protestants defined themselves against Catholics on the one hand and proletarians on the other. They found it hard to imagine working-class people as anything other than socialists, delinquents, and a threat to public order—antithetical to Christianity as they imagined it. Mathieu also points to some interesting parallels between Home Mission rhetoric oriented toward working-class Germans and foreign mission pronouncements regarding “savages” in overseas colonies.

Mathieu reminds us that the story of German Protestantism during the Kaiserreich cannot be reduced to a conservative/liberal binary, nor can German religious history be reduced to a simple story of secularization and declining church attendance. Thuringia’s liberal Protestants were involved in the “conservative” Home Mission, public school teachers were affiliated with Protestant missionary societies, bourgeois associations working with delinquent youth tried to place them in “proper” Christian homes, and Protestant liberals and conservatives were members of many of the same associations and united in their opposition to Catholics and socialists.