The American Journal of Sociology/Volume 01/Number 6/The German Inner Mission


Literature. In addition to the works mentioned in a former article [1] the following may be consulted: Die innere Mission der deutschen evanglischen Kirche, eine Deukschrift an die deutsche Nation, by J. H. Wichern. Johann Hinrich Wichern; Leben und Wirken, by F. Oldenberg. Das Rauhe Haus, 1833–1883, by J. Wichern. Bismarck and State Socialism (chapter ii.), by W. H. Dawson. Die Armengesetzgebung, by Dr. E. Munsterberg. Die Arbeiterfrage, by Dr. H. Herkner, 1894, gives bibliography. A History of the Christian Church, by Dr. Charles Hase, pp. 548 ff., 591, 592. History of Doctrines, by Dr. K. R. Hagenbach, Vol. II., pp. 373 ff. Lehmann, Werke der Liebr, ss. 1–49. Die Weibliche Diakonie, by Pastor Schäfer. Deaconesses, by J. S. Howson. The Romance of Charity, by J. de Liefde. Life of Pastor Fliedner, by Catherine Winkworth. Deaconesses, Lucy Rider Meyer. Deaconesses in Europe, and Their Lessons for America, by Jane M. Bancroft, Ph.D. Vorträge, by J. H. Wichern. Der Diakonissenberuf, by Erail Wacker. Praying and Working, by W. F. Stevenson. Kaiserswerth and its Founder, by E. Kinnicutt (in Century, 51:84, November 1895). The Inner Mission, by J. B. Paton.



The immediate causes of a social movement are found in the beliefs, sentiments, sympathies, fears, hopes and aims of those who guide it. These psychical states may be considered impartially and historically without regard to the truth or falsehood of their basis. An objective description of the phenomena may be given by one who has no sympathy with the motives of the actors and who does not share their creed. The inquiry here is social and not metaphysical, not theological. But the writer does not wish to conceal his general sympathy with the essential purposes of the movement now under consideration, although he believes the facts may be allowed to carry their own witness to the truth and beneficence of the beliefs which organized and sustained the movement.

Economic and political conditions (to 1848).—As we approach the Revolution of 1848 we discover the signs of increasing social ferment. It was not merely that suffering, poverty and crime were increasing, but that the public was more sensitive to pain. The consciousness of a right to enjoy the fruits of culture and civilization was awakened in ever wider circles. The reforms of Stein and Scharnhorst were telling upon the people. Common schools were bringing peasant and artisan within the range of scholars' thoughts. Men admitted to the duty of defending their country in the army aspired to equality of opportunity under its civil shield. Proletarians and agricultural laborers began to show symptoms of that social ambition which afterwards produced social democracy.

In this period the "Great Industry" was developed. The policy fostered by Frederick the Great, broken by the Napoleonic oppression, was taken up by Prussian rulers. A system of canals was extended; postal service was rapidly improving; steamships plied between Europe and America; stories of the New World came back to kindle and inflame ambitions and hopes. In some regions, especially along the Rhine, the factory system was producing a special class of wage-laborers.[2]

This rising ambition was met, on the part of rulers, with official repression. The courts of Austria and Germany sought to quell dissent and discussion in church, state and industrial circles. But the monarchy by no means lost sight of its duty to the people. Claiming absolute rights "by the grace of God" the kings of Prussia never quite forgot their rôle as an earthly providence.

Economically Germany remained during this period a backward state, as compared with England. Machine production was not advanced. The hand-workers, organized in guilds, were still more important than the wage-workers of the factories. Trades unions of the English type were yet unknown. The proletariat was hardly possessed of a class consciousness. Indeed, in 1842, Lorenz von Stein could say that Germany had nothing to fear from socialism because the class to which it appealed did not exist in great numbers. The economic doctrines of liberalism and laissez faire seemed to conspire with political absolutism to prevent social action favorable to the lower classes.

The Revolution of 1848 which swept Europe did not leave Germany undisturbed. Berlin was for a time under the control of a mob. Riot and rebellion seemed to threaten property and government. The propertied classes were frightened. The uprising was extinguished by military force, and a period of reaction began.

Men who knew the life of the laboring classes in cities like Hamburg and Berlin were well acquainted with the wretchedness, vice, squalor, and despair of their homes. Some of them foretold the revolution and sought to avert it by healing the evil at its source. The one man who, perhaps, saw most clearly the extent and the sources of the misery was one who had been quietly and earnestly working among the fallen and distressed since his graduation from the university—J. H. Wichern, founder and director of the Rauhe Haus.

Theological currents and ecclesiastical conditions.—In the universities philosophy was unfolding the systems of Hegel and his followers, not without some influence on popular life. The organization of the Protestant churches was made more compact by the "Evangelical Union" in Prussia (1817) between Lutherans and Reformed, and this policy was fostered by Frederick William III. In the Rhine provinces, under French influences, the confessions were placed on a more even footing. Dissenters in some districts were persecuted as enemies of the state.

Biblical and historical criticism made it impossible to petrify the spirit in worship of the letter. Men discovered that vital Christianity could be manifested in spite of wide doctrinal differences. Kant and Fichte compelled theologians to become more intensely ethical. DeWette demonstrated the permanent factors in changing faiths. Schleiermacher, steeped in the devotional life of Herrnhut, translator of Plato, scholar, ethical philosopher, and theologian, "served as a bridge over which to pass from a region of barren negations to beliefs more accordant with the general faith of the church than he himself cherished" (Fisher). Neander taught the world to unite learning, religion and humanity.

The more earnest men of the state church confessed that it had lost influence with the people. The pastors waited for the poor to come to church and did not seek them. "Thousands remain without the word, without light and life." "We have no parishes, only church congregations." At the earnest request of some active men a conference was called at Wittenberg in April 1848. It was held in September, while the fright of the Revolution was fresh in all minds. Men were appalled at the brutality and fierceness of the outbreak and the bitter hostility of the people to religion. J. H. Wichern was the man for the hour. In an impassioned address he described the spiritual destitution of the homeless classes, of the proletarians of cities, and the antisocial purposes of the communists. He sketched the individual efforts already made to overtake the social need, to care for children and the poor, and to secure a regeneration in the inner life of the state, church and society. Perhaps a single sentence has been authentically reported: "May the Evangelical Church set upon this work its seal and declare : the work of the Inner Mission is mine! love belongs to me as well as faith."

A committee was appointed to formulate a plan. The conference adopted the report, and in the following January the "Central Committee for the Inner Mission of the German Evangelical Church" began its work.

It was near the close of this period, June 15, 1847, that Bismarck voiced the principle of the benevolent disposition: "I am of opinion that the idea of the Christian state is as old as the ci devant Holy Roman Empire, as old as all the European states, that it is the soil in which these states have taken root, and that a state, if it would have an assured permanence, if it would only justify its existence, when it is disputed, must stand on a religious foundation." But deep down in the heart of the nation that doctrine had been kept alive by men who lived near to the degraded and the neglected, and who toiled by deed and word to awaken the conscience and pity of the educated and ruling classes.

In 1820, Zeller opened a reform school at Bingen, and Count von der Recke-Vollmarstein in Düsselthal. In six years there were already twenty-five such institutions in Switzerland and Germany. Amalie Sieveking led the work of women for the sick and wounded from the year 1831. Her life was a large factor in the early stages of the Inner Mission. Limits of space confine this article to typical examples of the multitude of charitable efforts which grew up in that period.

J. H. Wichern was the son of a poor man of Hamburg. By his student struggles to gain an education, and by his early labors as a Sunday school teacher his mind was opened to the needs of the wandering multitude. Neander and Schleiermacher were among the great men whom he heard at the University. In 1833 he founded the Rauhe Haus, at Horn, with twelve unpromising children, some of them thieves. He sought to change the environment of neglected children. When they came to him the past was forgiven and forgotten; they were set to work; a joyous and natural life of home and religion surrounded them as an atmosphere. They were not massed in barracks but grouped in small houses, and their intercourse was made like that of the family.

Soon he saw the need of trained assistants. His board could not support this measure, and necessity turned Wichern to literary activity and travel. In order to secure funds the people must be told of the social need, and Wichern thus became the propagandist of the Inner Mission.

Deaconesses.—In another part of Germany, only a little later, Pastor Theodore Fliedner (1800–1864), the counterpart of Wichern, was working out another problem. Fliedner was not so versatile, learned and eloquent as Wichern, but he had a vigorous will and fine organizing talent. In his travels to collect funds for his poor Kaiserswerth parish he had seen the Mennonite deaconesses in Amsterdam. In England he met Elizabeth Fry. Thus he was led to found a mother-house for deaconesses at Düsseldorf, 1836. Women devoted themselves, without salary, to the service of the suffering, but the home gave them shelter and care in sickness and old age. These "sisters" were trained to be nurses, teachers of small children, matrons of women's prisons and Magdalen asylums, orphanages, rescue homes and educational institutions of a higher order. His idea of the woman diaconate was not merely the care of sick bodies, but the "participation of women in the works of love, out of a living faith."

Various other mother-houses grew out of that at Kaiserswerth, and these held conferences at intervals. Independent movements were the democratic and self-governing Strassburg institution, founded by Pastor Harter (1842), and the Bethany home in Berlin, patronized by Frederick William IV (1845–7), and conducted by women of the higher social classes. Only gradually did this movement, now regarded as indispensable, overcome the prejudices of pastors and parishes. "There was no adequate understanding of this part of the duties of the church." Fliedner had also founded the Prison Society of the Rhine and Westphalia (1826).

The Gustavus Adolphus Society, which grew rapidly in this period, resembles our Home Mission Societies, and aided poor churches with funds for houses and pastors.

All these movements arose about the same time, but independently. They moved on convergent lines toward the organization of a real church of and for the people, in which all forms of need should receive help and all gifts should be recognized and utilized.

Summary view.—Fortunately we possess in Wichern's classic "Denkschrift" a thorough presentation of the principles, purposes, scope and achievements of the Inner Mission up to the Revolution of 1848. Prepared by fifteen years of labor as editor, organizer, teacher and superintendent, no man in Germany was so well fitted for this task.

Definition of "Inner Mission."—The term was used to designate all the works of rescue which grew out of Christian faith and love in response to social need. Many voluntary fraternities had been formed, in different countries and in different branches of the church, to respond to the call of suffering. These free associations, without any outward union, had in common one foundation, faith that Christ is the Redeemer of the perishing, and one goal, to raise men out of sin, and free them from its consequences, by means of the gospel and the offer of fraternal kindness. It is only by using the exact phrases of these men that we can get their point of view. It is not the broad language of Lessing and Herder, but the intense and keen expression of men of clear conviction as to both end and means.

"The Inner Mission does not mean this or that particular work, but the sum of labor which arises from loving faith in Christ, and which seeks to renew within and without the condition of those multitudes in Christendom upon whom has fallen the power of manifold external and internal evils which spring directly or indirectly from sin, so far as they are not reached by the usual Christian offices with the means necessary for their renewal" (p. 6). No form of evil or misery is to be neglected. No class is to be ignored. No social form, family, state or church is to be left unused.

While Wichern is chiefly occupied with the labor of his own national church, his survey covers both Catholic and Protestant enterprises in Europe and America. Wichern expresses the hope that Christians divided upon creeds will find in practical efforts of benevolence a ground on which all can agree. His appreciation of others is liberal and unstinted.

Agencies.—The family is the point of departure for all discussions of the social question. Missionary laborers discover in the ruin of domestic economy, in extreme destitution, in indecent crowding, in neglect of education, culture and religion the primal spring of general decay. In relation to the state the Inner Mission assumes an attitude of independence and of interest. No particular party theory of constitution or political organization is favored. Reverence for law and government will be taught. The right of protection for voluntary associations is all that it asks of the state; and in return it promises to bring the people back to those virtues of purity, order and honesty which secure political stability.

The relation of the Inner Mission to the church is defined. The Inner Mission is not external to the church and does not seek to supplant it, but to reveal one side of its life in healing and rescuing charity. The Inner Mission is not mother nor daughter of foreign (heathen) missions, but twin sister, daughter of the same spirit. The purpose is not to convert the unbaptized, either Jews or heathen, but to bring the baptized into right living, a mode of thought characteristic of a state church leader.

Particular fields of labor.—The relation of the movement to the state was not so clearly apprehended at that time as it has come to be since. Wichern shared the common feeling of his associates in respect to the Revolution. He admits that the wealthy classes had done much to deserve and provoke violence. In the confusion of that crisis he did not see, or for some reason shrank from declaring, the guilt of the royal house and the Councillors of State. It was not yet time for a just and impartial criticism of the sins of court and camp. It was proletarian vice and violence which shocked the nation. The remedies proposed for crimes are religious influences upon criminals in prison and upon discharge, and a wholesome moral influence in the houses and neighborhoods where criminal tendencies are born and fostered.

Wichern does not conceal the formalism and heartless neglect of the church and clergy. He describes places where pastoral service was entirely inadequate; where schools were ineflficient; where the church had almost forsaken its part as inspirer and comforter and teacher. As a natural consequence immorality was rife. "Sectarianism increases alarmingly in many places and sometimes carries the best forces with it." To improve the efficiency of the church it is recommended that the methods already started should be carried much farther and organized into an efficient system, a very network covering the entire country. Associations have been coming into life without any general plan upon the impulse of earnest persons.

There are already Bible Societies and Tract Societies with colporteurs moving about from house to house; popular lending libraries; a few street preachers and evangelists; and the Gustavus Adolphus Society (after 1833) for assisting feeble churches to build meeting houses and support pastors. Suggestive beginnings of parish organization are mentioned; with a cooperation between women's charity societies, savings bank schemes, temperance societies, and deaconess visitors. The function of the Inner Mission is to extend these efforts and supply trained workers as assistants or leaders.

Special forms of moral evil must be met by special methods of spiritual work. The Inner Mission should extend the work already begun on behalf of fallen women, and imperiled girls.

To counteract depressing literature there was nothing better than the circulation of attractive and instructive books and papers. Drunkenness must be met by temperance societies under strong religious influence.

Social disorders and the Inner Mission.—All that concerns humanity has interest for this movement. The evils of domestic life are graphically drawn; the irregular sexual connections, foolish early marriages, illegitimate and deserted children, infanticide, pauperism and crime. The Inner Mission has already established schools for little children. Kindergartens, Sunday Schools, and ways of helping poor mothers with their burdens. Institutions of rescue for youth have been established. A system of relief has been sustained in a few parishes which offered a more friendly and personal method than that of cold and official state relief. In this labor the tender hand of woman was busy and their societies were growing in all directions.

Gossner had founded the Elizabeth fund at Berlin in 1833. And Fliedner's deaconess house had became "one of the most beautiful ornaments of our Evangelical Church" (1836).

Self help.—The Inner Mission was at first almost exclusively a ministry to the dependent and depraved. But Wichern urged that the free associations should be heartily adopted as an agency for promoting the welfare of the self-reliant mechanic. He saw already the power of the combinations of the Communists. It wounded him deeply to discover that the "brotherhood of laborers" already stood outside of and in antagonism to the church. He points to the example of Pastor Oberlin and of a few generous employers who had shown the way to a fraternal coöperation not based on class lines and anti-religious teachings. The socialists had already organized the workingmen in cities. Why should not the Christian people provide associations, inns, homes, and savings banks to meet the needs of special classes of laborers? To provide better homes for artisans and laborers it is urged that the Building Society of Berlin be imitated in all cities. It was many years before these suggestions of Wichern were embodied in organizations of laborers in the church, and the movement never succeeded as it was then conceived. But the ideas of a "Christian Socialism," akin to that of Maurice, Kingsley and Ludlow, were all present in the "Denkschrift" and germinated in many places.

Extent of the work.—In 1845 the number of voluntary associations of this kind was estimated at 6000 to 7000. There were more than one hundred Bible societies and many publication and tract societies. By 1849 almost all German countries outside of Austria, had established Gustavus Adolphus Societies. The associations of youth sought to come into correspondence in 1847. The "Fliegende Blätter" became the organ of the societies in 1844, and this paper has contributed to their power to this day. Hundreds of associations pursued their modest labors in obscurity and quiet, without correspondence or united organization.

Objections.—In the light of certain objections now current to the "institutional church" and other social activities, it is instructive to note that these same objections were urged in Germany to similar benevolent activity. The Inner Mission Society was said to imperil "spirituality;" to involve the ministry in "secular" affairs; to complicate church order; to undermine the authoritative position of the clergy by encouraging the laity to have a part in service. Nothing but the actual achievements disarmed such criticisms, and won all parties, liberal and conservative, to the task.

Comparison with the United States.—There are some respects in which the condition of the Inner Mission in our country at this time, resembles that of the German institutions in 1848. Thousands of Christian associations are active to relieve distress and promote social welfare. They are moved by a common spirit, and travel on converging lines. But they are pitifully inadequate, and they are weakened by isolation, separation and want of organic unity.

The National Conference of Charities and Corrections and the Evangelical Alliance are presages of a day when the beneficent agencies of this country will come into more conscious unity and and work upon a wiser plan.

We may well adopt the metaphor of the organizing soul of the Inner Mission: "We must stretch a holy net of love, whose separate threads are already spun, but which waits upon this union for a well-ordered, closely connected whole."

The University of Chicago.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).

  1. American Journal of Sociology, March 1896, p. 583.
  2. G. Schmoller, Zur Sozial- und Gewerbepolitik, ss. 18 ff.