Review of Mark R. Correll, Shepherds of the Empire: German Conservative Protestant Leadership 1888-1919

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 3 (September 2015)

Review of Mark R. Correll, Shepherds of the Empire: German Conservative Protestant Leadership 1888-1919 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 283pp. ISBN: 978-1-4514-7295-0

By Matthew D. Hockenos, Skidmore College

Mark Correll’s Shepherds of Empire is a study of a particular stream of conservative Protestant theology and preaching in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany. It is not, as the subtitle suggests, a book about the conservative Protestant church leadership as much as an in-depth theological study of what Correll calls “believing” Christians or Christians for whom the Scriptures remained authoritative despite the challenges of biblical criticism. In the first four chapters Correll examines how two conservative Protestant theologians, Martin Kähler (1835-1912) and Adolf Schlatter (1852-1938), and two conservative Protestant preachers, Adolf Stoecker (1835-1909) and Christoph Blumhardt (1842-1919), sought—in different ways—to make conservative theology and preaching compatible with the modern age. Kähler and Schlatter sought to create a modern conservative theology by bridging the divide between traditional Protestant doctrine and modern critical scholarship, while Stoecker and Blumhardt engaged in the social question. In two final chapters, Correll examines the theological nature of preaching in Wilhelmine Germany and during the First World War. He concludes that of the four men examined in the first four chapters only Stoecker had a significant influence on the practical Christianity of pastors in Germany. Blumhardt, Kähler, and Schlatter, however, deserve to be read, studied, and admired—not for the influence they had on practical Christianity—but for their important theological and spiritual advances in attempting to overcome the modernist-traditionalist divide that defined Protestantism in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany.

Correll-ShepherdsCorrell begins with the court preacher Adolf Stoecker (1835-1909), who created the church networks and organizations that provided believing theologians and church leaders with a community of likeminded churchmen in which they could expound their modern conservative responses to the crisis of Protestantism at the turn of the century. Although Adolf Stoecker is best known for popularizing political anti-Semitism, his conservative political vision of a triumphant Germany, united in thrown and altar, and fending off Germany’s multiple enemies —Austria, France, Catholics, Socialists, Liberals, as well as Jews—appealed to more than just anti-Semites. While he saw the defeat of Austria in 1866 and France in 1870 as the beginning of a great awakening in Germany, he became increasingly disappointed that the Prusso-German leaders failed to rally the growing working-class to participate in this national and Protestant awakening. In addition to founding the Christian Social Workers’ Party to harness the poor for his conservative Christian cause, another central concern of his was to combat the threat of liberal or critical theology in the church, which was gaining ground at the time. To this end he founded the “Positive Union,” an organization bringing together believing church leaders, theologians, and pastors, with the purpose of maintaining control of the key leadership positions within the church and thereby limiting the destructive influences of liberal theology on the pastorate. While the Positive Union was mostly a success, his conservative and anti-Semitic political party never gained any traction among workers. Nor did his idea to do away with the state church and found an ultra-nationalist—albeit independent of the state—Volkskirche, which would work side-by-side with the state to further the cause of a conservative Christian Germany.

Despite these two failures, Correll believes that Stoecker played a crucial role in not only organizing the believing community but in establishing “a template for a general nationalist sermon” in which “God blessed Germany in direct proportion to the obedience of the nation.” (43)

Adolf Stoecker’s brother-in law, the systematic theologian and Halle professor Martin Kähler, consciously identified with the collective of conservative or believing theologians and preachers assembled in Stoecker’s Positive Union. Like Stoecker, Kähler feared that the Bible was losing its centrality in church life and the life of the nation primarily due to the attacks by theological liberals and critical scholars. Over his lifetime Kähler sought to developed a theology that occupied a middle ground between the critical scholars for whom the Bible was just one of a number of ancient texts that needed to be scientifically studied and the conservative biblicists or fundamentalists for whom every word of the Bible emanated directly from God—the so-called doctrine of verbal inspiration. Kähler worried that this schism was tearing the Protestant church apart and weakening it ability to shepherd the German population and to ward off the challenges from Catholicism and modern Enlightenment thought.

At the center of Kähler’s theology was a defense of the Bible’s authority for Protestantism—an authority that he believed transcended human reason. But in contrast with the adherents of verbal inspiration, Kähler did not believe that the Bible was an infallible text. In fact, he valued the critical scholars’ study of the ancient languages and the history of the ancient Middle East for providing a more nuanced understanding of the history surrounding the Bible. For Kähler the authority of the Bible did not rest on its historical verifiability but in its efficacy to change lives. The purpose of the Bible was to inspire faith in God, to transform the life of the faithful, and to stimulate Christians to live an ethical life and to encourage others to do so as well.

Kähler’s junior colleague, Adolf Schlatter, took Kähler’s project to create a believing theology suitable to the modern world to a whole other level. To begin with, Schlatter’s dissertation and principal interest was in interpreting the texts of first-century Palestinian Judaism using the methodologies of historical criticism. By emphasizing Jesus’ Jewish heritage Schlatter both engaged the field of historical criticism and challenged the prevailing view of Jesus as a product of the first century Greek movements. For much of his life Schlatter found himself at the center of the modernist-traditionalist controversy because of his belief in the importance of the historical study of the Bible. Ultra conservative traditionalists viewed Schlatter with suspicion because of his openness to modern criticism. Liberals, such as von Harnack, found Schlatter’s conservative theology and support of Stoecker’s Positive Union mired in the past.

Correll argues that Schlatter was “the first Protestant believing scholar to set out to define conservative Protestantism wholly in modern terms.” (106) In contrast to many of his conservative colleagues who interpreted the Scriptures through the Reformation confessions or read the Scriptures as the unambiguous and unerring word of God, Schlatter recognized the temporal nature of Jesus’ revelation of God and asked the question, “What does the Scripture man for us?” Schlatter’s modern believing theology was built on the recognition that God’s revelation took temporal forms. This did not, however, stop him from maintaining at the same time that the Bible was the revealed word of God. God, Schlatter argued, chose to reveal himself through the historical narratives presented by the Bible’s authors. The authority of the Bible was evident to those who made the choice to accept it as the word of God.

Christians who read the Bible as the reveled word of God, Schlatter maintained, would be inspired to practice Christian ethics by their recognition of God’s gifts of love and mercy for his creation. In Schlatter’s ethics, Christians act ethically when they offer their gifts and services for the good of the whole community. Schlatter’s conservative nationalism was on display in his ethical system when he described the first and most important community in the life of a Christian as the ethnic community or Volk.

Whereas there were obvious similarities between the believing theologies and ethics of Kähler and Schlatter—not to mention their close political and organizational connections to Stoecker—it is much more of a reach to include Christoph Blumhardt, the social democratic preacher from Bad Boll, within this group. But Correll makes a convincing argument that Blumhardt “showed one extreme in the spectrum of possibility for conservative Christian thinkers at the turn of the century.” (142)

Blumhardt’s theological conservatism is certainly not hard to pin down. He seems to have had absolutely no interest in engaging seriously the critical scholarship of the time and was, in fact, an enthusiastic advocate of the miraculous events in the Bible and even the presence of miracles in the modern world. Although he had little patience for academic theology—critical or believing—his view of the Bible as the means by which the word of God come to believers was in line with Kähler and Schlatter. But for Blumhardt the Bible was not absolutely essential to faith. One could have faith in God by simply recognizing all the ways in which God intervened regularly in the world.

Blumhardt saw his primary calling as preaching the coming kingdom of God and the need for every Christian to work toward this end. In contrast to Kähler, Schlatter and particularly Stoecker, he harbored little if any nationalism and did not give Germany any particular role in the coming of the kingdom. He associated the kingdom of God with the struggle of the working class and the coming of God’s righteousness to earth. He defended his membership in the Social Democratic Party by claiming that socialists were doing more to establish God’s kingdom on earth than many Christians. He believed that Christianity and socialism were fully compatible in that they both wanted to change the world for the better. Socialists did this through their political actions and Christians did this through ethical behavior inspired by their relationship with God. Theologically it makes some sense to include Blumhardt in the same circle with Kähler, Schlatter, and Stoecker, but in all other respects they had little in common.

In Correll’s final two chapters he examines the nature of preaching in Germany from the 1880s through the First World War. These chapters are particularly useful for church historians interested in the theological and spiritual message of the Protestant pastorate to their congregations. Here Correll maintains that although theological liberalism reigned supreme in most of the university theology departments—Erlangen and Greifswald were the exceptions—the pastorate remained largely conservative, as did their sermons. Neither critical theologians nor believing theologians seemed to have had much impact on the practical Christianity of the clergy. Theology students were certainly introduced to the debates between modernists and traditionalists during their university training—and were likely to take the side of their mentor—but they made little effort to engage their congregation in the basic tenets of the debate. Instead their sermons were marked by “traditional Lutheran platitudes and nationalist enthusiasm,” associated with Stoecker. Central to most sermons in the decades leading up to the war was the simple notion that God bestowed on the German people blessings and curses in proportion to their obedience and faithfulness. During the war pastors told their congregations that God was on their side and that victory was inevitable. Correll argues that the failure of the church’s leaders and clergy to develop a more honest and critical assessment of the war and to offer a credible interpretation of Germany’s defeat and postwar plight led parishioners to leave the church in droves.

Correll’s study of the theological debates from the 1880s to 1918 is a heavy read—especially the chapters on Kähler, Schlatter, and Blumhardt—but in the end proves quite useful and enlightening. He introduces readers to the traditionalist-modernist debate that dominated German theology in the late nineteenth-century and provides an in-depth analysis of how a select group of theologians and preachers tried to address the theological crisis by incorporating some modernist elements into what was an otherwise very conservative theological and spiritual outlook. Correll is clearly disappointed that the theological innovations of Kähler and Schlatter failed to have much of an impact on the pastorate but his perceptive examination of the sermons from the time nevertheless provide the reader with a better understanding of how the German Protestant clergy utterly failed to prepare the populace for the coming century.