FREE CONGREGATIONS IN GERMANY.
The Friends of Light, or Protestant Friends (§ 1).
The Formation of Free Congregations (§ 2).
The Free Congregations Since 1858 (§ 3).
1. The Friends of Light, or Protestant Friends. The name "Free Congregations" (Germ. Freie Gemeinden) is given in Germany to certain religious bodies which have separated from the State Churches, yet are distinct from the so-called Free Churches of Germany (for which see LUTHERANS, II). In the fifth decade of the nineteenth century a movement arose in Prussian Saxony, the adherents of which were popularly named "Friends of Light" (Lichtfreunde), though they first styled themselves "Protestant Friends." The external provocation for this movement was the disciplining of Pastor W. F. Sinteris at Madgeburg, because he had characterized prayer to Christ as superstition. Certain circles, offended by this procedure on the part of the Magdeburg Consistory, found a leader and organizer in Pastor Leberecht Uhlich in 1841. The movement underwent greater extension at the hands of Pastor Gustav Adolf Wislicenus in Halle, who on occasion of the seventh convention of those who favored it, at Köthen, May 29, 1844, discussed the question whether Holy Scripture, or the living spirit indwelling within us, is to be regarded as norm of the Protestant type of religious consciousness. From ecclesiastical circles there ensued sharp and deprecatory expressions of opinion, and the Friends of Light soon came into conflict with the church authorities. The Breslau theological professor, David Schulz (q.v.), forfeited his position as consistorial councilor. But greater interest by far was aroused by the deposition of Pastor Wislicenus, on Apr. 23, 1846, "on account of gross injury to the liturgical and doctrinal ordinances in force in the Evangelical State Church." The publication of his book Die Bibel im Lichte der Bildung unserer Zeit (Magdeburg, 1853), subjected him to the penalty of a two years' imprisonment, adjudged by the court at Halle, though he escaped the same by flight to America. He returned to Europe in 1866. His later works, Die Bibel, für denkende Leser betrachtet (Leipsic, 1863; 2d ed., 1866), and Entweder--oder. Glaube oder Wissenschaft, Schrift oder Geist (1868), show that he consistently adhered to his earlier radical views. He died Oct. 14, 1875. Even before Wislicenus was compelled to leave the State Church, the schismatic pastor, Julius Rupp, in Königsberg, had been deposed on Sept. 17, 1845, "on account of repeated violation of his official obligations by reason of gross negligence." Uhlich, after prolonged proceedings, voluntarily withdrew from the State Church. He died Mar. 23, 1872. Deacon W. E. Baltzer of Delitzsch resigned his ecclesiastical office on account of his non-confirmation as pastor at Nordhausen in 1847, and Pastor Adolf Timotheus Wislicenus, the "physical and intellectual brother" of the one mentioned above, accepted the consequences of his doctrinal standpoint and withdrew from the State Church.
2. The Formation of Free Congregations. These collisions with church authorities acquired a greater significance, in that they furnished the first incentive and became the means toward establishing congregations outside the State Church. At Königsberg such a congregation had come into existence as early as Dec. 16, 1845, and had organized itself, on Jan. 19, 1846, as a "Free Evangelical Congregation." Other free congregations arose at Neumarkt in Silesia; at Halle, Nordhausen, Halberstadt, Magdeburg, Hamburg, and Marburg. The attitude of the various governments in relation to both the German Catholic (see GERMAN CATHOLICISM), and the Free Protestant movement, down to the year 1848, was not quite uniform, though evincing the same general character. In so far as the movement was regarded as a product of the revolutionary spirit, the government looked upon it with great distrust, and sought to obviate its further encroachments by the application of statutory means. Finally, the outbreak of the Revolution in Mar., 1848, afforded the "Free" religious movement the desired complete freedom, and gained for it, at the outset, a large increase. New congregations arose in the Province of Saxony, in the Province of Brandenburg, in Brunswick, in the Anhalt duchies, in the kingdom of Saxony, in Silesia, East and West Prussia, in Nassau, Hesse Darmstadt, and elsewhere; all told there were more than seventy new establishments. At their height, the total number of German Catholics and "Free Protestants" in Germany--who are not subject to separate enumeration--amounted to approximately 150,000.
But from 1850 forward, the German governments once again confronted the free religious movement in a hostile spirit. The most pronounced complaints, on the side of the Free Congregations, were proffered against the government in Prussia. A circular of the Minister of the Interior, Sept. 29, 1851, declared that the dissenting associations were not simply religious societies, but rather political unions, furthering the subversion of the civil and social order; and that by reason of insight into the proper nature of these societies, it had grown to be the peremptory duty of the State Government to oppose them with every legitimate agency. It was only when Prince William of Prussia, later King William I., assumed the regency, in Oct., 1858, that the free operation of their principles was finally secured them.
3. The Free Congregations Since 1858. On June 16 and 17, 1859, a large contingent of the German Catholic and Free Protestant congregations united in the Bund freireligiöser Gemeinden ("Federation of Free Religious Congregations"). According to the latest revision of the Constitution (1899), the fundamental principle of the Federation is "free determination of the individual in all religious affairs according to his own advancing knowledge"; its object: "advancement of religious life independently of dogma." Since 1877, a federate convention has been held biennially. At present the entire Federation comprises probably some 22,000 souls. The largest congregations are in Berlin, Mannheim, Offenbach, and Magdeburg. The contemporary Free Congregations are unanimous in disclaiming all religion cultivated by the churches as being that of a petrified dogma-creed, but unanimous only in this negation. Indeed, a positive expression of what the advocates of free religion understand by religion can hardly be attempted, since by that very process the freedom of independent determination would be invaded, and a relapse into "confessionalism" would come to pass. But the practical problems of religious instruction, preaching, propaganda, etc., tend to press the issue in the direction of set standards of procedure. In the face of this dilemma, a varying attitude is adopted. The East Prussians, the "Königsbergers," represent the right wing within the Free Congregations; they still maintain remnants of church ideas, and religious instruction is still imparted by them in connection with the Bible. The "Nuremberg tendency" represents the opposite extreme, and stands outright upon the basis of naturalism and atheism. The center is occupied by the "South German" group, which perceives in Jesus an ethical prototype. Public worship holds only a very subordinate and accessory position. Established and generally valid forms of worship are altogether wanting; in this matter the separate congregations have their hands quite free. The Lord's Supper is still solemnized at a good many places. For baptism there had been substituted even as early as the sixties the so-called Kindesweihe ("infant consecration"). Since then, however, it would appear to have gone out of observance entirely. Confirmation takes place in all congregations; that is, Jugendweihe ("consecration of youth"), which terminates the religious instruction that begins for the most part in the ninth year of age. The movement was only transiently a momentous force in the church life of Germany; nor did it owe even this transient significance at any time to great performances, but essentially to the circumstance that people imputed great things to it, and hoped or feared them.