Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/April 1878/The Marpingen Miracles


THE recent debate in the Lower House of the Prussian Parliament on the Marpingen miracles is in many ways remarkable. That the Ultramontane party should have had the courage themselves to force on the discussion is rather surprising, though it is true that all the speakers on that side were careful to deprecate the notion of attaching any religious importance to the question, and to treat it purely as one of law and equity, while they studiously avoided committing themselves to any belief in the alleged supernatural occurrences. Before, however, speaking of the debate, we may recall to the memory of our readers the circumstances which gave rise to it, and which occurred a year and a half ago in the month of July, 1876. And in doing so it may be well to repeat what we have before now had occasion to observe in dealing with narratives of this kind, that there is no need to enter on any general discussion of the existence or credibility of miraculous agency. There is certainly, to use Mr. Lecky's words, "no contradiction involved in the belief that spiritual beings of power and wisdom immeasurably transcending our own exist, or that, existing, they might, by the normal exercise of their powers, perform feats as far surpassing the understanding of the most gifted of mankind as the electric telegraph and the prediction of an eclipse surpass the faculties of a savage." Thus much would indeed be contended for by every Christian apologist, nor is it consistent to maintain the truth of the New Testament miracles and deny on a priori grounds the possibility or actual occurrence of any subsequent phenomena of the kind. That is a question of evidence, and, as Mr. Lecky goes on to observe, "very few of the minor facts of history are authenticated by as much evidence as" some of those later miracles which he specifies, to one of which, by no means a favorite with Ultramontanes, we may have occasion to refer presently. But there are few subjects on which ordinary persons, even educated persons, have such loose notions as on the true nature of evidence, or where the wish, whether it be an innate feeling of sympathy or of antipathy, is so apt to become father to the thought. And now we may proceed without further preface to reproduce the main details of the marvelous tale brought from Marpingen, a village in Rhenish Prussia, in July, 1876, and which formed the text of a long debate in the Prussian Parliament a fortnight aero.

It appears that on two successive days, July 3d and 4th, three little girls of the village of Marpingen announced that they had seen the Virgin with her infant Son, sitting on the ground in a neighboring wood, and on the second of these days she replied to their questions, "I am she who was conceived without sin, and you should pray and pray forever." On the third day the apparition was again visible and discoursed to the children for some time, while a crowd, who had followed them from the village kept apart reverentially from the hallowed spot, the apparition being visible and audible to the three little girls only. It was explained that this peculiar privilege was vouchsafed to them because they were "the only innocent persons in the wood," and the apparition expressly declined to see any of the neighboring priests, but ordered a chapel to be built on the spot from the proceeds of a public subscription. She finally, at their request, permitted an invalid to be brought by the children to touch her feet, though he also never saw her, and he was instantly cured. After this crowds came to spend the night praying and singing in the wood, two or three of whom declared that they saw the Virgin amid the trees, and the children were kept constantly employed in laying the hands of the sick on the feet of the invisible figure. They apparently, however, found this burden too great for them, for a few days later they announced that the water of a neighboring spring had been endowed with miraculous properties, and might be conveyed to those who were unable to come themselves, and thenceforth the concourse of pilgrims increased. Hereupon the civil authorities interfered, whether on account of disturbances caused by the multitudes who congregated in the forest, or from a fear that the miracle was intended to be utilized for purposes of agitation against the Government. On July 13th, ten days after the first apparition, the Burgomaster of Marpingen ordered the people to leave the wood, and on their refusal had it cleared by the military; from that time it was guarded by police and soldiers quartered in the village, where the inhabitants complain that forced requisitions were made on them, and the place treated as though occupied by a hostile army. It was a formal motion for the repayment to the commune of the 4,000 marks (about £200) said to have been thus levied on it, and for the reprimand of the local magistrates for harsh and arbitrary conduct, that led to the debate in the Prussian Parliament. It should be added that the three little girls and a priest of the district were arrested on suspicion of religious fraud, but eventually released for lack of sufficient evidence, the girls stoutly denying that they had been inspired by either priest or parent. Entrance to the wood is still prohibited, but processions take place to the miraculous spring.

Now, the first observation that would occur to any one on reading this strange story is the conspicuous absence of anything like evidence of the alleged apparition, even putting aside the suspicion of deliberate fraud. The Madonna is visible to three little girls only, of about seven years of age, whose religious imagination might easily be excited, especially if they had heard of former apparitions of the same kind, as is more than probable. And when once they had committed themselves to the story—whether in simple piety or under some external influence—fear of consequences would alone secure their adhesion to it. But this leads us on to another and more important comment, which will already have occurred to many of our readers, especially if they have taken note of the passages in the tale which we have italicized. The close resemblance in all its leading features to several former tales of miraculous apparition, and, above all, to the apparition at Lourdes, is too obvious and too minute to be considered accidental. Whether we suppose the whole affair to be an imposture pure and simple, as is likely enough, or whether we adopt the more charitable hypothesis of hallucination, there can hardly be a doubt that the Lourdes miracle suggested the incidents of the Marpingen one. In both cases, as before at La Salette, young children are the sole witnesses of the marvel; in both cases it is the Virgin who appears, and, while at Lourdes she oddly describes herself as being "the Immaculate Conception," at Marpingen the more grammatical formula is adopted, "I am she who was conceived without sin;" in both cases multitudes follow the children, but are obliged to take on faith what to them, and to them alone, is matter of sight and hearing; in both cases, and this is significant, the Madonna expressly directs a chapel to be built on the spot, and that indeed appears to be the chief object of the apparition; and, lastly, in both cases a miraculous spring is either created or disclosed. On this last point we have another word to say. It is of course argued by the defenders of these miracles, and is in fact the only plausible argument left to them, that whatever becomes of the evidence of the children for the original tale—even though they should turn out afterward as the boy and girl at La Salette did turn out—there is no getting over the evidence of the miraculous cures. The reply is not far to seek. There might be, and indeed are, examples of seemingly supernatural cures—we will mention one directly—attested by very strong evidence, but these are certainly not among them. Putting aside innumerable instances of failure and some of detected imposture which have been heard of in connection with Lourdes—it is too early yet to apply that test to Marpingen—it must never be forgotten how almost incalculable is the power of imagination over every kind especially of nervous disorder. There are unquestionably many persons of whom it may be said, in a different sense from that of the words as originally used, that "their faith has made them whole;" or, on the contrary, has made them ill. A ready instance comes to hand in connection with the recent hydrophobia scare. There can be no doubt that tetanus, which so closely simulates hydrophobia as often to be indistinguishable from it to all but adepts, may be and is produced by fear; and thus nervous persons who assume that a dog which bites them must be mad—though the chances are always really at least ten to one the other way—may easily give themselves a fatal disease without any external cause. On the other hand, a case was reported the other day from Italy, of a woman who was raving, as was supposed, from hydrophobia, but who promptly recovered on a miraculous relic being applied to her. The same explanation will cover innumerable cases, whether at Lourdes or elsewhere, of alleged miraculous cures. But we observed just now that there are examples on record of miraculous cures, the direct evidence of which is very striking. The late Sir James Stephen mentions one of them in these words: "The greatest genius, the most profound scholar, and the most eminent advocate of that age (the seventeenth century), all possessing the most ample means of knowledge, all carefully investigated, all admitted, and all defended with their pens, the miracle of the Holy Thorn. Europe at that time produced no three men more profoundly conversant with the laws of the material world, with the laws of the human mind, and with the municipal law, than Pascal, Arnauld, and Le Mâitre; and they were all sincere and earnest believers." Mr. Lecky similarly observes that few historical facts are so well authenticated as "the miracles of the Holy Thorn, or at the tomb of the Abbé Paris," which last, we may add, were attested among others by Voltaire. Be it so, but these are "Jansenist" miracles which Ultramontanes have always and scornfully refused to admit. The manifestations at the tomb of the Abbé Paris were actually suppressed by authority, ecclesiastical and civil, which suggested the famous epigram:

"De par le roi, défense à Dieu
De faire miracle en ce lieu."

Those who reject the far stronger evidence of these miracles must find some better argument than the alleged cures if they would have us accept the miraculous portents of Lourdes and Marpingen.

The debate in the Prussian Chamber was opened by Herr Bachem, who insisted that the conduct of the authorities had been very reprehensible; even assuming the alleged miracles to be illusory or fraudulent, the sincere belief of the multitude ought to have been respected. Dr. Friedenthal, acting Minister of the Interior, replied:

"He was prepared to defend the action of the police, there being plenty of prima-facie evidence to show that the Marpingen miracle was a fraud. The alleged miracle happened in a district strongly infected by the Ultramontane movement, and previously productive of similar apparitions that had attracted the notice of the law. Early in 1875 a woman began to work miracles at Eppelborn, close to Marpingen, under the patronage of the local priest. She was convicted of fraud and sentenced to imprisonment. The same woman and the local priest who assisted her were subsequently again convicted of fraud, false pretenses, and gross immorality. The Marpingen miracle was no sooner bruited about than a school-girl at Groning, also near Marpingen, stated that she had had an audience of the Virgin. The girl was severely reprimanded by her father, when the visions ceased. At Berschweiler, likewise near Marpingen, no less than five persons between eleven and nineteen years of age, in 1876, professed to be in daily intercourse with the Virgin. A profitable trade in exorcisms, salvations from purgatory, and the like, having been opened by them, the authorities interfered. The police court eventually sent the whole gang to prison. At Gappenach a married couple were convicted of fraud for stating that they had seen the Virgin conversing with the three little girls in a bottle of Marpingen water. At Münchwies, district of Ottweiler, a couple of school-girls pretended to have interviews with the Virgin, until the parish priest objected to the story, when the apparitions ceased. Considering this excited condition of the province in which Marpingen is situate, and taking into account the peculiar character the Ultramontane movement had recently assumed in Germany, the authorities were perfectly justified in putting a stop to the Marpingen revival. There were 8,000 persons in the hallowed wood when the military were called in. Though there was some show of resistance, nobody was wounded. Subsequently the police appointed to watch the wood were fired at in the dark. With reference to the legal proceedings instituted by the crown, he, the minister, was in a position to say that a formal accusation would be preferred against certain persons supposed to be implicated in the Marpingen affair, when the character of the miracle would be fully investigated in open court."

To this statement Herr Lipke added that the three little girls, when first examined by the magistrate, professed to have seen not only the Virgin but the devil also, whom they described as "black and white"—the German national colors. He said that many Catholic priests with whom he had conversed on "the Marpingen swindle" agreed with him in disapproving it, and he thought the Ultramontanes had not benefited their cause by bringing the subject pefore Parliament. Another speaker on the same side, Judge Sello, admitted that some excesses had been committed by the troops, but the burgomaster who ordered them to clear the wood had been tried and fined in consequence. The debate was closed by Dr. Windthorst, the leader of the Ultramontane party, who declined to commit himself to the reality of the miracles, but complained that, as long as the Government kept the see of Treves vacant, no proper investigation, as directed by the Council of Trent, could take place. Perhaps the legal investigation which is promised by Dr. Friedenthal may prove more efficacious in bringing the real facts to light. Meanwhile, it may be feared that belief in the Marpingen apparition will become a test question of Catholic orthodoxy in Germany, as belief in Lourdes and La Salette has long been a criterion for discriminating the bien pensants in France, in spite of the manly protests of some high authorities, such as Dupanloup, against this morbid craving for predictions and portents. We have never denied that German Catholics have a substantial grievance in the matter of the Falk laws, but they certainly will not improve their position with thinking men of any creed by adopting devices which can only escape graver censure if they are regarded as too silly to be dishonest.—Saturday Review.