Conference Report: “Religious Revivals in 19th and 20th century Germany”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 4 (December 2017)

Conference Report: “Religious Revivals in 19th and 20th century Germany,” German Studies Association, 2017

By Mark Edward Ruff, Saint Louis University

Thirteen historians, religious studies scholars and literary specialists gathered at the Annual Meeting of the German Studies Association from October 6-8 in Atlanta to examine the impact of religious revivals in Germany in the 19th and 20th century. The seminar analyzed phenomenon as distinct as the early-to-mid 19th Century revivals, Marian apparitions, the youth, liturgical and bible movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, the political religions of the 1920s and 1930s, and the cults, sects and lifestyle movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the Federal Republic. In different ways, all of these different events and movements challenged understandings of confessional orthodoxy, hierarchy and authority.

Convened by Thomas Großbölting of the Wilhelm-Westfälische-Universität in Münster and Mark Edward Ruff of Saint Louis University, the seminar analyzed the circumstances under which these movements emerged as well as their impact. Why did the Protestant and Catholic churches contest, at least initially, all of these revival movements, sects and cults, some emerging from inside the church walls but most from outside? Why did some remain on the margins, while others were appropriated by the major church bodies? Answering these questions led the participants to grapple with definitions of religion and to examine those put forward, explicitly or implicitly, by churchmen in the past. All forced churchmen to engage with societal currents with which most would have preferred not to engage. Most unfolded against a backdrop of fear—of secularization, societal unrest, state persecution.

The first day’s discussion focused on highly contested conceptions of “secularization,” “modernization” and “resacralization.” They focused on the conflicting interpretative frameworks put forward by Steve Bruce, a proponent of traditional secularization paradigms, and Grace Davie, who has championed the notion of “believing without belonging.” Bruce’s and Davie’s works from the 1990s and 2000sprimarily discussed religious changes in the post-1945 era, but the definitions they put forward are easily applicable to the religious revivals and transformations of the long 19th century because of their conflicting understandings of religious “cults” and “sects.” Seminar participants subsequently discussed excerpts from David Blackbourn’s now classic work, Marpingen, which analyzed Marian apparitions in a small Saar village. Though popular pressure mounted to have the Marpingen apparitions officially recognized by the church, church leaders refused to do so, even amid the atmosphere of fear and violence generated by the Kulturkampf and stationing of troops in this village in the borderlands.

For the second day, the seminar discussed a chapter from the Marist College scholar Michael O’Sullivan’s forthcoming book with the University of Toronto Press, Disruptive Power: Catholic Women, Miracles, and Politics in Modern Germany, 1918-1965. Participants compared his analytical analysis of the miracles associated with Terese Neumann with that of Blackbourn. Since the miracles associated with her and her circle took place in the 1930s (and later), they also took up two seemingly timeless question: To what extent did National Socialism represent a “political religion” and to what extent did movements like the German Christians represent the flourishing of a sect?

The third day brought forward some of the most intense discussions. Did the 1960s represent an era of “secularization” or of “religious revival?” What meanings and significance can be ascribed to New Age movements, occultism and esoterica? Were these movements indicative of a fundamental transformation in religion or were they in the tradition of movements and cults from earlier decades and centuries? What distinguished those movements that were incorporated into the churches from those that remained outside? The seminar closed with a discussion of a controversial document, the final report of the Enquete-Kommission from 1998 detailing the role of sects and “psycho-groups” within the landscape of the Federal Republic. The controversies engulfing Scientology in Germany were repeatedly raised as an example of a new group challenging definitions of what constituted religion.