Father Blumhardt's Prayerful Hotel

IN no part of Europe has the student of the religious or political condition of peoples more difficulty in making sure of his observations than in Germany. This is due in part to the want of uniformity among the people of the different sections, requiring the observer to adopt a different standard when he passes from Bavaria to Austria, or from Saxony to Prussia or the Rhineland ; but more perhaps to the extreme individuality of thought which prevails throughout Germany. In no country is the influence of public or class opinion less evident than here. The right to hold peculiar religious, philosophical, or political opinions is more generally acknowledged in all classes of society and among all religious sects than in any other country of the world.

In their waning interest in sermonizing the Germans are not much ahead of the cultivated peoples of other lands, though their manifestation of it may be a little more evident. In the cities of Germany, as in the cities elsewhere, the priest counts for little in a social way. Parochial visitation unquestionably loses its power in a dense population, where there are many more exciting matters than the visit of the minister is apt to be ; but in the rural districts of Germany the Pfarrer has still all the power that it is desirable he should have, and far more than is held by clerical official in any other Protestant country.

In 1866 I had the pleasure of visiting an old tutor of mine, — he from whom I had learned my first German lesson, — now returned to his fatherland, and Pfarrer in the hamlet of Sitzbirg, two thousand feet above the sea, on the western boundary of the canton of Zurich. I left the railway near Wyl, and went some four or five miles across the country on foot, without other guidance than my map ; for the people whom I questioned, with the perverse spirit so common among the Catholic parts of the country, did not or would not know even the names of villages just across the borders of their canton. I found my friend in charge of a small but thrifty congregation of Protestants, who tilled the summit of the arid hills separating the basin of Lake Zurich from that of Lake Constance. The relation between the Pfarrer E——and his flock seemed to be of the happiest description : he was their guide in matters temporal as well as spiritual, —not their preacher alone. He seemed to have the authority possessed by the Catholic priest, with the additional power given by his having a family which could serve as an elevated example for his parishioners, and make them feel that he was a fellow-citizen. A man of profound learning and extensive experience in the world, he had already seen that the time when the sermon could be trusted as the main agent of religious guidance had passed, and sought to replace it by the influence of example and that continual incitation which the rural clergyman can still bring to bear on his flock. By many it would perhaps have been thought that the flock of the good Pfarrer got far too little of doctrinal theology ; but if we may judge the work by its fruits, the pure lives, leading through contentment and cheerfulness to a hopeful end, surely warranted the omission. In no community which I have ever visited were the happy effects of the guidance of a spiritual teacher so clearly visible. I could wish no rural parish a happier fate than to be led in the way of life by such a Christian and philosopher, who gives his valuable life to the work of shaping the humble careers of a few hundred mountaineers.

That the spirit of the enthusiastic and blind religious devotion of this people during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is not dead I am fully convinced. Its demonstrativeness is gone, for that always disappears with intellectual culture ; and in Germany intellectual culture has affected a larger part of the social mass than in any other region. A chance experience which befell me in Suabia may give the reader a clearer idea of the religious fervor which lies dormant beneath the stolid exterior of this people than all the assertion which can be made.

I once had occasion to visit Boll, in Southern Würtemburg, a watering-place of much note in times gone by, but its springs have since dried up and all memory of their peculiar virtues is forgotten. My friend, Dr. F——of Stuttgart, in answer to my inquiry about an inn, wrote the name of Pfarrer Blumhardt in my note-book, and his own beneath it, — a simple form of introduction in vogue in Germany, — telling me at the same time that I would find the place of the good parson as interesting, perhaps, as the rocks which I went to study, but that he would tell me nothing about it, leaving me to form my own impression. My experience showed that he acted wisely in allowing me to see what I afterward saw without the prejudice which would have been given by previous description. The conveyance from Geislingen, where we left the railway, brought us, after a drive of a couple of hours, to the door of an ancient and stately edifice of great size, which was evidently the hotel of the old watering-place. We were warmly welcomed, not only by the usual throng which greets the wanderer as he descends at the gate of a German country inn, but by the motherly wife of the pastor whose name I had brought, and many of the pleasant faces of the guests of the place bade us a welcome by their looks. There was a touch of affection in these greeting which showed at once that there was something peculiar about the place, and made me half suspect that I was mistaken for some long-expected brother. We were led into the receptionroom,— a pleasant apartment, where there were on every side evidences of refined taste, though everything showed that simple comfort was the end in view. We were met at the door by the good Blumhardt himself, who welcomed us with the cordial grasp of both hands and a genial earnestness which characterizes the greeting of an old German friend. My attention was so engrossed with the personal appearance of this remarkable-looking man, that I for a while forgot to show him my brief introduction. Though years have passed since that meeting, I recollect his whole appearance with marvellous distinctness : a body rather below the average in height, but much beyond it in every other dimension, and which seemed almost absurdly round and fat in his cumbrous dressing-gown, supported a head which was also round and fat and disproportionately large. Although excessive flesh had done all it could to make its bearer appear gross and animal, there shone through it all one of the cheeriest expressions I have ever seen. The features were noble, forehead and top-head high and broad, eyes of that friendly hazel which is so often seen in Germany, traces of a fine Roman were visible in the nose, and the mouth had lost nothing of its pliant, sympathetic expression from the excess of fat. One felt that there was a handsome, vigorous fellow under the load of flesh, and longed to put him in training to bring out the buried man. The most remarkable feature was the commanding look, which the affable smile and bland musical tone did not hide. It was evident that here was a good, strong nature, a determined will, long accustomed to rule ; any doubts on this point would have been at once solved by the behavior of those about him. When he spoke, all others cut short their remarks and listened.

The reader may correct this picture by that of the leader of the German Reformation. To me the good father has always been Martin Luther, quite filling my perhaps imperfect conception of the physique of that giant. When I had, in the course of five minutes, got a satisfactory impression of my host, I recollected my introduction. I thought I detected a shade of doubt on his face when he read it, but it quickly disappeared. When I answered his question as to my profession, our welcome was reiterated, and we were escorted to our rooms in a remote part of the edifice and bidden prepare for the noonday dinner.

The fourscore or more present, assembled at the long tables of the dining-room, were on all accounts the most remarkable-looking collection of people I had seen in Germany. It was evident at first sight that a considerable part of the throng were invalids, which led me to suppose that the old springs had broken out afresh, and that after all the good father was only the keeper of a bathing-place ; this hypothesis fell through, when on inquiry I found that there was no chance to bathe, not even enough water from the springs to drink. It also seemed so well accepted that I was one of them, and in earnest sympathy with their object, whatever that might be, that I could not with propriety ask any pointblank questions. When the whole company had assembled and stood in waiting behind their chairs, Father Blumhardt appeared, and, after greeting the whole company, seated himself at his place at the table and read a chapter of the Bible ; he then gave out a hymn, which was sung by the whole company, each being provided with a book, and afterwards made a long, earnest, and well-worded prayer, which closed this rather formidable preamble to the meal. The dinner took less time than the introduction to it, as it consisted of a single course of meat and potatoes,— an abundant but rather simple repast. For dessert we had another hymn, an explication of Scripture and a blessing, which closed the performance, of which ten minutes had been given to the inner man, and one hour and fifty minutes to the religious part of the feast. It must be said, however, that the whole company seemed to care far more fora word from Father Blumhardt than for the carnal repast. There were on every side evidences of religious enthusiasm, more subdued but as intense as that which one finds in a Methodist revival-meeting.

After dinner the whole company mingled in pleasant, social conversation, and we had a chance to study the character of the people here assembled. One half could safely be set down as belonging to the rather ignorant middle class, — easy material out of which to make religious enthusiasts, and in no essential feature different from the persons whom one always finds in any scene of religious excitement ; the rest, however, were evidently above the level. There were several Lutheran clergymen, university bred, and showing marks of culture ; a number of ladies of refinement of manner, well read, not only in their own literature, but conversant with that of the English and French languages; — a better average, on the whole, than would be found in the ordinary churches of a large city. Nor was it a local gathering ; they were from many parts of Germany, Prussia, and Austria, as well as South Germany being represented. At first sight, it was evident that the good father was the source of all the life of the place ; that the greater number of those there would have at once bowed down and worshipped him, if they thought he would have allowed them to do so. The excessive devotion of the women was particularly conspicuous; it was evident that his power over them was unlimited.

In the evening, at the simple supper the religious ceremony was even longer than at dinner, lasting from seven till half past nine, and ending with the Lord’s Prayer from the boy at the foot of the table, a lad of twelve years old. It seemed to be a part of the order of the services that the day should be ended by this prayer from the boy.

I was so fortunate after the supper as to find among the guests in this strange hostelry a gentleman who could give me the key to the character of the place. Father Blumhardt was one of the religious enthusiasts of the day; a strict Lutheran in faith, he had gradually added to his creed a firm belief in the curative power of his prayers. It seemed as if this conviction had been gradually forced upon him by outside influence rather than evolved from his own mind. He was in the habit of praying at the bedside of the sick, as is the custom of clergymen of all denominations. The conviction gradually grew among his parishioners that his prayers were more often answered than those of other ministers. The fame of his cures had brought so many converts to and seekers after his aid, that he was at length compelled to open a hotel to accommodate those who came to him. Besides those who came hoping to be healed, there were many others, and they constituted the better part of his guests, who resorted to his house in order to enjoy the Christian society they found there, leaving the distractions of the outside world to live the quiet, innocent life which was to be found within the old walls of Boll Bad. A very intelligent old lady told me that she came there every year to pass a few weeks, not that she believed that Pfarrer Blumhardt’s prayers were more often answered than those of other ministers, but because she felt it did her soul good to live in the religious atmosphere she always found there. I owed most of my information concerning the place and its people, other than that my eyes and ears supplied, to a Scottish clergyman who, strangely enough, I found here attentively studying the strange phase of religion before him. He was a tall, stern-looking Scot who had passed many years in missionary labor in India, whence he had just come, his Presbyterian earnestness undiminished by ten years’ fight with all the discouragements which the zealous missionary meets. To him I could see that the cheerful, genial sort of Christianity which he now encountered was unaccustomed if not disagreeable. Father Blumhardt he believed, as every one who came in contact with him necessarily did, to be an honest man, misled and misleading by enthusiasm ; but with the better educated of those about him he seemed to have small patience. It was exceedingly interesting to see his stern, critical face as he scanned the long lines of adoring countenances eagerly dwelling on the Pfarrer’s lips. Surely there never was such a dramatic contrast between two faces, or two conceptions of Christianity as these two men afforded.

From the disciple of John Knox I learned the cause of my high favor on my first arrival, and the slight cooling which had since taken place. In answer to the question as to my profession, I had stated that I was a Geolog, thinking that the good man would the better understand why I appeared at Boll, which is one of the most famous places for the geologist in Europe. Owing to my bad pronunciation or his preconceived opinion, the good Pfarrer had understood me to say Theolog, and had welcomed me as a brother. What a triumph for the good man to have an American theologian sitting at his feet! a triumph even Luther had not had. What wonder that we got the best place at the table and in the affections of the good Pfarrer, or that when the mistake was explained I fell from grace !

The peasantry of the neighborhood were in the habit of coming to the house in the evening and on Sundays to be prayed for, in order to be healed of their bodily disorders. They came one by one to the minister, who gave them, even to the poorest, his cheery greeting, which alone was as health-giving as sunshine ; then he placed his hands upon their heads, they kneeling before him, and prayed silently, or in a low voice, for a minute or two. One could see, as the patient rose, that there had been a great mental impression made, and that he believed that healing had been done upon him. This may seem absurd in description ; but I am free to confess that religion, in the ordinary sense of the word, never seemed so attractive to me as when I saw these things. One may live a lifetime, nowadays, without hearing a prayer made in the unfaltering confidence that it is to be at once answered. But when the good father prayed, you felt that he was convinced that he spoke with the Omnipotent, and that if it was fitting the prayer should be granted, the sick one would be straightway healed. To his power to convince the crouching penitent beneath his hands that his prayer was heard by the Omnipotent may be attributed Ins singular success. I cannot convey a better idea of the strange effect of his prayers than by saying that a person the most incredulous ot the power of prayer to affect the physical world would not have been surprised to see the lame rise up and walk, or the blind made to see, under their influence, so powerfully did he appeal to the instinctive confidence in prayer which is born within us all.

On Sunday there were two services in the chapel, — once a dancing-room in the old life of the place. The pastor was not as great in the pulpit as in the more familiar intercourse with his people. It was a clear, well-composed sermon, showing no erratic views, unless his unbounded confidence in prayer in general and his own in particular can be called such ; on the whole, a more reasonable discourse than could have been expected from an enthusiast. In the afternoon, my patience being somewhat exhausted,— for I had listened to about four hours of religious exercises that day— I slipped away to have a little quiet among the hills. I was detected on my way with the end of the handle of my hammer sticking out of my pocket, and on my return the bag of fossils completed my discomfiture. Henceforth I was treated very politely, but made to feel that there was a great difference in my position. And, as on the other days of my stay it was absolutely necessary for me to “ cut ” the after breakfast and dinner performances, I soon found that I was rather out of place. That I could find the society of Ichthyosauri and Ammonites more edifying than the wisdom which dropped from Father Blumhardt’s lips was an offence not to be forgiven, though I used all the German at my command to exculpate myself.

I have never seen any place richer in studies of character. There was a poor student with disease of the eyes, which had destroyed one eye and nearly ruined the other, with no chance of the days on earth ever being brighter to him, clinging with desperation to the hope that the Pfarrer could persuade the Almighty to do a miracle upon him. There was a clergyman, with university culture, in whom the scepticism of the educated German was contending with the spirit of credulity which was naturally strong in him. Others dying with consumption and equally fatal maladies were confident that the intercession of Father Blumhardt could change their fate. Even the aged, who were on the verge of their graves, seemed to think it might be that the fountain of youth flowed from the lips of the good father. Nothing could be more pitiful than to see those who were doomed by the inevitable laws of their bodies clinging with enthusiastic desperation to the skirts of this deluded man.

Boll was a revelation to me, and I am sincerely thankful that accident and the kindness of my friend in Stuttgart led me thither. Coming to it, as I did, at the beginning of a half-year journey through Southern and Middle Germany, it enabled me to see further into the character of the people than I could otherwise have done, and led me not to mistake their carelessness of the external signs of religion for a decay of the religious feeling. There was one thing, however, which, more than all the rest, had a peculiar interest for the student of the miraculous. It was that you could see the progress of miracles from the simple origin to the inexplicable mystery. A sprained ankle which would have got well of itself in a day or two, and which recovered as quickly under the influence of prayer, was soon magnified, until it was a broken limb which had healed under the miraculous touch of the inspired Blumhardt. The peculiarly excited condition of the people at this place seemed to deprive them of all critical power. One could have obtained willing and honest testimony to the most impossible things.

Although out of sympathy with the matters of interest and belief which brought those good people together, and thus in a somewhat awkward position, I confess it was with no slight regret that I found it necessary to leave these earnest Christian people. I paid a reckoning so modest that it could hardly have covered the cost of even the simple food we had eaten, and bade good by to Boll.