Wolfgang Sommer. Die lutherischen Hofprediger in Dresden: GrundzÃ¼ge ihrer Geschichte und VerkÃ¼ndigung im KurfÃ¼rstentum Sachsen. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006. 318 pp. EUR 42.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-515-08907-4.
Reviewed by Amy Nelson Burnett (Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Published on H-German (June, 2007)
From Watchman to Lapdog: Lutheran Preaching in the Court of Electoral Saxony
An old stereotype about the long-range political ramifications of the Reformation suggests that while Calvinists developed a justification for resistance to tyrannical rulers and thus laid the basis for modern political liberties and republican government, Lutheran clergy emphasized the duty of subjects to obey their rulers and so paved the way for authoritarian government as it developed in Germany up through Adolf Hitler. This stereotype was exploded by scholars who have shown that Calvinist resistance theory can be traced back to the Lutheran theologians who advocated resistance to the Emperor Charles V at the time of the Schmalkaldic War (1546-7). For those unfamiliar with the debates concerning the relationship between ecclesiastical and secular authority in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, though, it is easy to interpret Luther's doctrine of two kingdoms as advocating the withdrawal of the church from the political sphere and its total subordination to the territorial ruler. In his study of court preachers in Electoral Saxony, Wolfgang Sommer demonstrates that any subordination of the church to the state was not a natural outgrowth of either Luther's thought or of Lutheran Orthodoxy more generally, but developed instead in the later seventeenth century under quite different cultural and political assumptions than those of the Reformation.
Sommer's book is written as a series of lengthy vignettes, with each chapter combining a brief biography with summaries of sermons preached by one of the fourteen men who held the highest ecclesiastical position within the court in Dresden from the second half of the sixteenth century through the end of the eighteenth century. Almost all these preachers came from the middle or upper Bürgertum-, most of them studied in Wittenberg, and many held positions as theology professors in either Wittenberg or Leipzig before they were called to Dresden. Sommer does not make a point of it, but it is striking how many of the Oberhofprediger_ were linked by blood, marriage, or friendship with each other as well as with other influential Lutheran theologians.
The book opens with a brief sketch of Dresden's evolution as a cultural center from the mid-sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries and highlights the building programs that successive electors initiated as a means of enhancing their prestige. The chapter also introduces readers to the individual electors who called, listened to (or ignored), and sometimes dismissed the court preachers who are the subject of the book. Woven into each biographical chapter is a discussion of the major political developments within Electoral Saxony during the tenure of the court preacher considered. Sommer is particularly interested in how these men understood their duties as ministers of God's word within the sphere of politics, what implications for political action they drew from their religious beliefs, and how they viewed the relationship between the church and secular authority more generally. The sermons he discusses are those most likely to consider the questions of the roles and responsibilities of ministers and rulers: funeral sermons for individual electors or for court preachers themselves, sermons delivered at the coronation of a new elector or in conjunction with a Landtag, and those on texts that contain references to secular government, such as Christ's command to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's."
The court preachers of the later sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries all understood their duties within the framework of the Lutheran doctrine of the three estates: the church, the magistrate, and the household. Within this hierarchy, pastors and rulers each had their separate responsibilities and the two authorities acted as partners in overseeing the spiritual and temporal welfare of Saxony's subjects. The pastors accepted the ruler's responsibility for safeguarding true doctrine and protecting the church, and they taught the subjects' duty of obedience, but they also saw themselves as watchmen and guardians, with the right to criticize the ruler's state policies and his personal conduct if these did not accord with God's word (Nikolaus Selnecker, the first court preacher described, lost his job after publicly criticizing the elector's excessive devotion to hunting). During this period religion and politics were closely linked, and conflicts such as the emergence of "crypto-Calvinism" in the Wittenberg theology faculty during the 1570s and the government's pro-Calvinist policies during the brief reign of Christian I (1586-91) led to an anti-Calvinist reaction not only in the sermons of the court preachers but in the unwillingness of Christian I's successors to form alliances with Calvinist states before and during the Thirty Years' War. Matthias Hoe von Hoenegg, who was Oberhofprediger for most of the Thirty Years' War, was the most outspoken representative of this understanding of the relationship between magistrate and ministers. If anything, Hoe pushed the balance toward giving the preacher a more outspoken political role, as illustrated by sermons defending and justifying the policies of Elector Johann Georg I on the eve of and after the outbreak of war.
Sommer sees a significant change occurring in both the sermons and the self-understanding of the court preachers after the Thirty Years' War. Court life was increasingly dominated by the concern with representation typical of Baroque culture. The waning influence of court preachers was only accelerated by the conversion of August the Strong to Catholicism in 1697. Under the double influences of pietism and the Enlightenment, sermons of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a growing emphasis on inner piety and individual conduct without much discussion of the larger political consequences of one's beliefs. At the same time, court preachers abandoned the role of watchman and wholeheartedly adopted the outlook of enlightened absolutism, which endorsed the prince's total control over the church and accepted his exemption from any form of criticism. The preachers of this period come across as much less interesting and important than their predecessors from the period before the Thirty Years' War. It is clear that Sommer has far less sympathy for the preachers of the Dresden court during the "glory years" of August the Strong and his successors than he does for their more outspoken predecessors in the generations following the Reformation.
Sommer makes an important argument, but it is obscured by problems of presentation. For starters, as a church historian writing for other church historians, Sommer assumes that his readers are already familiar with the most influential churchmen, doctrinal developments, and religious controversies of this 250-year period. As a consequence, his book will be less accessible to other types of historians who might be interested in the political ideas expressed in the sermons preached at the Dresden court. Sommer's decision to focus on individual sermons as a way to present each preacher's understanding of the interplay between politics and religion, ecclesiastical and secular authority, can also be frustrating. He offers extensive summaries of these sermons, in some cases including fairly lengthy quotations, which has the advantage of giving readers a feel for the preaching style of each individual. The drawback, though, is that he does not provide as much analysis of the sermons as readers less interested in preaching style might want. The focus on preachers and sermons means that he includes little discussion of the impact of or reaction to the sermons from their audience, aside from that of the electors themselves. Finally, the biographical and chronological organization that Sommer has chosen limits his ability to develop a narrative description of long-term change. Each chapter introduces the reader to a preacher and his sermons and is particularly useful for those who want to know something about the career of that individual, but the fairly small differences between any two successive preachers make Sommer's discussion seem repetitive at times. It is only after one steps back and looks at broader developments that the significance of the incremental changes becomes clear.
These criticisms aside, Sommer's discussion of Dresden's court preachers incorporates much valuable material. It highlights the independence of Lutheran preachers at a time when the territorial church was taking root within the Empire, it gives a clearer picture of both the extent and the limits of power held by these men within the electoral court, and it illustrates the fallacy of making generalizations about their role that would cover the entire period from the Reformation through the Enlightenment. Sommer demonstrates the value of sermons as a way to approach questions of political thought and cultural change, and he offers a case study of the confluence of these two issues at one of the Empire's most important courts during the early modern period.
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Amy Nelson Burnett. Review of Sommer, Wolfgang, Die lutherischen Hofprediger in Dresden: GrundzÃ¼ge ihrer Geschichte und VerkÃ¼ndigung im KurfÃ¼rstentum Sachsen.
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