The young Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a "distressing letter" to his father to confess that he no longer affirmed Christian doctrines that his father believed were necessary to obtain salvation: namely, vicarious atonement and the deity of Jesus Christ. The distressing letter, as Schleiermacher titled it, is an icon of de-conversion, especially for atheists and those who have apostatized from Christianity. Schleiermacher didn't de-convert from Christianity or become an atheist, but he knew that if he followed his convictions, then his family would view him as an apostate or false teacher. Schleiermacher's distressing letter is in an emotional correspondence with his father, and in this post I will share the distressing letter and the correspondence that culminated in it. The distressing letter epitomizes a common experience today for anyone who has deviated from the theological commitments of their community, and then fears being rejected for it. (The full collection of these letters were published in The Life of Schleiermacher as Unfolded in His Autobiographical Letters and Texts.)
Friedrich Schleiermacher: A Biographical Sketch
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) was an enlightenment Calvinist, a German pastor, philosopher, and the father of modern Protestant theology. Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith dominated theological thought for four hundred years between Calvin's Institutes (c. 16th century) and Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (c. 20th century), and it is the most challenging theological book I've ever read. Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith (a.k.a. The Doctrine of Faith) is a juggernaut that all Christians theologians must face today, but few are able to comprehend it, yet alone answer it. Schleiermacher is sadly dismissed as a liberal Protestant in the pejorative sense. However, Schleiermacher and his Christian Faith remains a formidable challenge and influence to even the greatest theologians today, both liberals and conservatives alike. (For instance, Michael Horton recently titled his systematic theology "The Christian Faith."). Other influential books by Schleiermacher includes: On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, The Life of Jesus, and Christian Ethics.
Background to Schleiermacher's Distressing Letter
Young Friedrich Schleiermacher recognized there were problems in his Calvinist Faith at the young age of 17 (or possibly earlier) when others were struggling with puberty. His recently remarried father and supportive uncle deeply impressed Christianity on Schleiermacher, and actively corresponded with him through letters laden in pious prose. At this time in Schleiermacher's youth, while he was living among the Moravian brethren, he entered a season of doubt and skepticism of Moravian theology that he believed his Father's apologetics were unable to resolve. The Moravians were unwilling to admit there were weaknesses in their theology, or even engage the arguments of critics, and this made Schleiermacher believed the Moravians were deceptively hiding him from their critics because they were unable to answer their criticisms. Schleiermacher desired to continue studying theology, but no longer within the bounds of Moravian orthodoxy. It was a difficult time for a young genius, who had realized he had advanced beyond his father, and due to fear and respect for his father, he felt compelled to keep his doubts a secret from everyone. He knew that if he confessed his doubts then his father would view him as a false teacher or apostate, and feared his father would not allow him to continue studying theology or reject him.
Schleiermacher's Initial Cryptic Letter to his Father.
Schleiermacher decided to write his father the following cryptic letter in which he covertly confessed his concerns regarding the Moravians but he concealed his own doubts from his father. This is the first letter in the correspondence to his father that culminates in the distressing letter, I've added bold to important selections of the letters to emphasis important sections. (The following letters are available online here: The Life of Schleiermacher as Unfolded in His Autobiographical Letters and Texts.)
Thanks to moderate exercise and to a wholesome diet, which is also very wholesome for my purse, I am now, praise be to God, healthy and cheerful. With one thing only I am not content. I wish very much to study theology, and that thoroughly ; but I shall not be able to boast of having done anything of the kind when I leave this, for in my opinion we are kept within too narrow limits in point of reading. Except what we see in the scientific periodicals, we learn nothing about the objections, arguments, and discussions raised in the present day in regard to exegesis and dogmatics. Even in the lectures delivered to us sufficient mention is not made of these matters, and yet knowledge of them is absolutely necessary for a future theologian. The fact that they fear to lay them before us, awakens in many minds a suspicion that the objections of the innovators must approve them selves to the intellect and be difficult to refute. I do not, however, share this opinion; and upon the whole, the small amount of discontent I feel in regard to this subject does not as yet disturb my tranquillity, and you are the only person to whom I have mentioned it. I recommend myself to yours and mamma's[*] tender affection, and am with entire filial love and reverence.
Your most dutiful son.
[*n.b. The father had by this time married again.]
His Father's Undiscerning Response to Schleiermacher's Cryptic Letter
Schleiermacher's father responded without deciphering his cryptic message. He had hoped his father would have provided him consolation to his rejection of Moravian theology, however his father gave him no such thing. His father defends the Moravians and tells Schleiermacher to disregard the objections and criticisms of Moravian theology, and assures Schleiermacher that those infidels had a dangerous love for profundity, and that he did not wish for Schleiermacher to become a vain theologians like those innovators. His father continues to say that he had read all the so-called refutations and that they did not convince me. Since Schleiermacher had embraced the objections and criticisms with full conviction, he realized that these hard words applied to himself, and he knew now how his father would respond to him if he confessed the truth about his doubts. In despair, Schleiermacher did not respond to his father for six months, until finally his convictions drove him to confess the truth to his father in an emotional and "distressing letter".
Here is the letter Schleiermacher received from his father in response to his cryptic letter.
The Father to the Son.
My dear Son,
Anhalt, 2nd August, 1786.
I wish you and your comrade joy at having got Count Reuss for your warden ; that you, more especially, are highly pleased at it, and that you are relieved from the necessity of writing to ask for money and an increase of allowance, I see by your letter. It is certainly very good when a man can be free from pecuniary cares while he is studying. I was not so fortunate ; but my narrow circumstances proved very beneficial to me, and thus I hope that the dear Savior will graciously turn to your true good, that which may at first seem a hardship to you — such as, for instance, your delicate health. His invisible hand ever leads us along the safest path, if we do but give ourselves up to His guidance like little children. Do this as regards your studies also, dear son, and be assured that you will lose nothing by it, should even the objections and criticisms of the innovators remain unknown to you. Keep out of the way of this tree of knowledge, and of that dangerous love of profundity which would lure you towards it. I have read almost all the refutations of infidelity, but they have not convinced me ; but I have, on the contrary, learned from experience that faith is the regalia of the Deity, and can only be the work of His mercy. Besides, you do not intend to be a vain theologian, but are preparing to render yourself capable of bringing souls to the Savior, and for this purpose, you need not all that knowledge; and you cannot sufficiently thank your Savior for having brought you into the community of the Brethren, where you can so well do without it. Believe, moreover, that the Bible is an inexhaustible spring at which you may abundantly quench your thirst for knowledge. Make your self, more especially, thoroughly acquainted with the Hebrew ; for that many a treasure is still buried in this language, you may in a measure learn from the commentaries of brother B[...]. Should you wish, in addition to this, to read some thing pleasant, and at the same time edifying and likely to confirm you in your faith, you will find this in the writings of Martinot, Sander, Bonnet, and Harvey (principally of the latter), men who have endeavored to trace in material nature also the love, the wisdom, and the power of God, who died upon the cross for us godless ones. It is, undoubtedly, very elevating ; yet, when we remember and believe in the martyrdom of God, it makes us at the same time bow low in the dust, and inspires us with the deepest compunction, when in such books we learn to know not only the unfathomable depth of God's love, which has condescended to us miserable and lost sinners, but also its height, length, and breadth. Here you will find a wide field for the exercise of your love of knowledge, in which you will be secure against pride and vanity, and will, ultimately, be led back again to blessed simplicity.
The Distressing Letter
Schleiermacher did not meet in the minimum criteria of faith that his father had told him that was necessary to be saved—and so he was in a crisis. At last, Schleiermacher confessed to his father that he loved theology and wished to continue to study it, but he was in full conviction did not meet his father's minimum standard for Christian orthodoxy. It was a bold response by Schleiermacher, since he was dependent upon his father (and uncle) for financial support. The publish correspondence indicates there was a six month hiatus before Schleiermacher finally respond with this distressing letter. By that time, he had already confessed to his superiors, and was told that if he did not have a change of heart within a short period of time, that he would not be allowed to hold even the lowest office in the church.
Tenderly beloved Father,
Barby, 21st January, 1787.
Though tardily expressed, my wishes for you in the New Year are not, therefore, the less sincere or the less fervent. The older we grow, dear father, the longer we witness the course of events in the world, the more persuaded we become, that neither for ourselves nor for others ought we to wish any of those things which are generally the object of desire, lest we should in reality be wishing for evil. Everything is, under some circumstances, happiness, and under others, unhappiness, except peace, tranquility of mind, and submissiveness of heart; and this is what I wish for you, in addition to that which must be most valued by a father, well-founded joy in your children. The more I, as your son, wish you this from the bottom of my filial heart, the more it costs me, the more it pains me in the depth of my soul, that I must now announce to you something which will cause your hope, in the fulfillment of this wish, to waver.
I confessed to you, in my last letter, my dissatisfaction with the limited scope of my position here, and pointed out how easily, under such circumstances, religious doubts may, in our times, arise among young people. I thus endeavored to prepare you for the intelligence that these doubts have been awakened in me, but I did not attain my object. You believed that your answer had set me at rest; and for six whole months I most unjustifiably remained silent, because I could not find it in my heart to destroy this illusion.
Faith is the regalia of the Godhead, you say. Alas! dearest father, if you believe that, without this faith, no one can attain to salvation in the next world, nor to tranquility in this—and such, I know, is your belief—oh! then, pray to God to grant it to me, for to me it is now lost. I cannot believe that He, who called Himself the Son of Man, was the true, eternal God : I cannot believe that His death was a vicarious atonement, because He never expressly said so Himself; and I cannot believe it to have been necessary, because God, who evidently did not create men for perfection, but for the pursuit of it, cannot possibly intend to punish them eternally, because they have not attained it.
Alas! best of fathers, the deep and acute suffering which I endure while writing this letter, prevents me from giving you in detail the history of my soul as regards my opinions, or all my strong reasons for entertaining them ; but I implore you, do not look upon them as merely transient views, without deep roots. During almost a whole year they have had a hold upon me, and it is long and earnest reflection that has determined me to adopt them. I entreat you not to keep back from me your strongest counter-reasons; but I candidly confess that I do not think you will succeed in convincing me at present, for I hold firmly by my convictions. And now are told these tidings which must be so terribly startling to you ! Try to enter entirely into my feelings, and you will, perhaps, be able in some measure to understand what it must have cost me to write these lines, devoted to you as I am, my good father, with such tender filial affection, acknowledging as I do your great love for me, and being conscious that I owe everything to you; for that I entertain these feelings, I can aver with a good conscience, and I am sure that you also are persuaded of it. They have been written with trembling hand and with many tears ; but even now I would not send them forth, had not my superiors encouraged me ; and even in a manner charged me to write to you. Comfort yourself, dear father, for I know you were long in the same state that I am now. Doubts assailed you at one time as they now do me, and yet you have become what you now are. Think, hope, believe, that the same may be the case with me ; and be assured that, although I may not be of the same faith as you, I will, nevertheless, ever strive to become an honorable, upright, and useful man ; and, after all, that is the most essential thing.
I have openly laid my thoughts before my present superiors, and, upon the whole, I have been treated very kindly. They have told me that they would wait some time to see whether a happy change might not take place ; but, at the same time, they have given me frequently and distinctly to understand, which is indeed a matter of course, that I must not look forward to obtaining even the most insignificant office in the community, until my convictions have undergone this change. I know, dear father, that however great may be the pain which I am now causing you, you will not withdraw from me your fatherly love and care. You will see, without my suggesting it, that it will be necessary even in case it cannot soon be realized — which, alas ! I am convinced it cannot be — that measures should at once be taken to enable me to become a useful man beyond the limits of the community, as within it I cannot at present be so. If your circumstances will at all admit of it, pray, allow me to go to Halle, if only for two years. You must see that my success in life depends upon, this. I can hardly believe that you will give your consent to my continuing my theological studies there, for you will not be willing to add one more to the heterodox teachers of our country. However, if you can do so with a good conscience, as I would at all events probably devote myself to a scholastic career, it will suit me much the best, for I am better prepared herein than in other sciences, and my inclination also lies this way. There, also, I would be more likely to change my views than by continued study in the congregation, for I would have more opportunities of testing every diversity of opinion, and would, perhaps, learn to see that many reasons are on one side not so strong, and on the other, stronger than I at present conceive. However, I leave it entirely to you to determine what I shall study. In regard to law there is this objection, that a jurist belonging to the burgher class rarely obtains an appointment ; and in regard to medicine there is this other objection, that on account of my deficiency in preliminary knowledge, I would require two years more, while at the same time, the lectures are much more expensive. Perhaps uncle can give me free lodgings or free board in his house ; or, perhaps, I might obtain free board elsewhere, or even a small stipend. Six young members of the Brotherhood are already studying law in Halle, and these, together with my old friend W[...], from Breslau, and Mr. S[...], would be sufficient society for me ; so that from this side you would not have reason to fear the corruption of the university, besides which, my time would be fully occupied with study, and I would live quietly under the guardianship of my uncle.
If you would communicate with the Brethren in Herrnhut upon the subject, and represent the matter to them, you might, perhaps, succeed in obtaining their consent to my going to Halle, in which case should I hereafter change my convictions, I would be at liberty to return to the community. The Brethren will no doubt understand that this diversion of my thoughts to quite different subjects would be the most likely means gradually to effect the desired change. However, should this even for a time entirely separate me from the congregation, it will, nevertheless, be better than that I should remain in the community with unaltered convictions, leading an inactive and discontented life. On the other hand, should I change in Halle, it is not impossible that I might return to the Brethren.
You will perceive in reading this letter, dear father, how hard it has been to me to write it. May God give you strength to receive the intelligence without injury to your health, with out too great pain, and without suffering it to impair your fatherly love for me. He knows best what it has cost me to impart it to you.
And now, one request more only : make up your mind as quickly as possible. After Easter begin all the courses in Halle, and of what use would it be that I should remain an other half-year here, consuming a great deal of money, and yet at last have to go ?
In sorrow, dear father, I kiss your hands, and entreat you to look at everything from the most favorable side, and to consider well, and to bestow upon me in future, also, as far as it is possible, that fatherly affection which is so indescribably valued by
Your distressed and most dutiful Son.
The remaining letters that follow the distressing letter may be read online between Schleiermacher and his father and uncle. His father responds with an emotional and apologetic letter, where he provides some biblical counter arguments and encouragement. It is easy to sense the grief and shock his father experienced, and to see that Schleiermacher's confession was entirely unexpected. Schleiermacher's uncle's response in a similar fashion and is available in the correspondence too.
After writing the distressing letter, he learns from the Moravian Brotherhood that he will not be permitted to remain in their community beyond Easter, so Schleiermacher's crisis continues because he doesn't know what he will do. He had not yet received a reply from his father, so he writes a second letter asking his father for permission to study theology at the University of Halle, and asks to live with his uncle after he leaves the Moravians.
Schleiermacher's life is a fascinating life to study. He continues on to be one of the greatest Protestant theologians in the history of the Church, and writes one of the most influential theology books ever, The Christian Faith. Though there are many places I disagree with his theological conclusions, his influence cannot be ignored. As for Schleiermacher's personal faith, Karl Barth reminds us frequently that Schleiermacher requested the Lord's Super on his death bed. Although he substituted water for wine, it was a final moment of faith in the amazing life of Friedrich Schleiermacher that may not be ignored after reading the distressing letter.
- [^Header Image Background] By scanned by NobbiP (scanned by NobbiP) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Life of Schleiermacher as Unfolded in His Autobiography and Letters. Trans. Frederica Rowan. London: Smith, Elder, 1860. Print.