FRIENDS OF GOD:
Meaning of Term. A group of German mystics of the fourteenth century. The expression "Friend of God" is taken from the Bible (John xv. 14-15). In the twelfth century it was used to denote a religious tendency which was strongly influenced by the teaching of Bernard of Clairvaux. In the next century it became commoner, but in the fourteenth in the writings of the mystics its meaning became more restricted and expressed the ideal which they strove to reach, the being raised through Christ out of a state of servitude into the divine friendship and sonship. Three stages in man's religious development were recognized by the mystics: beginning, growth, and perfection. The perfect man, the true friend of God, can put justification by faith at the beginning of his career, for God will deny none of his requests. Such friends of God Tauler called the pillars of the Church; and not only could priests and monks become friends of God, but even a devout layman. However, there were many kinds, including a more perfect class, the hidden sons of God; some even enumerated nine different grades. Heretics were sometimes called friends of God, for instance, the Waldenses. Though they differed from their fellows in their thoughts and in their withdrawal from the world, these "friends" did not form a definite sect. They had no brotherhood; but their ideal was a mystical union such as Henry of Nördlingen (q.v.) urged his penitent Margareta Ebner (q.v.) to work for with other women. Henry of Nördlingen is the only source for an account of the spread of this mysticism, whose teachers included such men as Eckhart, Tauler, Seuse, Henry of Nördlingen, Nicholas of Strasburg, and others, in the valley of the Rhine, Switzerland, Bavaria, and Franconia.
Rulman Merswin. Rulman Merswin, the chief author of the Friends of God, was born in Strasburg in 1307 and died in the cloister of the "Grüner Worth" (on an island in the Ill near Strasburg) July 18, 1382. He was, as his father had been before him, a well-to-do banker in his native city. When he was forty years old, he and his second wife renounced the world and ten years later were granted an indulgence by Pope Clement VI. In 1367 he obtained from the Benedictines the cloister of the "Grüner Worth," which four years later he gave to the Knights of St. John, retiring thither himself. He named the commander of the order as the head of the monastery, but obliged him to render a report of his administration yearly to Merswin and two others. Merswin remained the real ruler of the monastery until his death. In his lifetime he was never suspected of being a writer, but after his death many books were found written by his pen: the "Story of my Conversion"; the "Book of the Nine Rocks"; the "Little Banner Book"; the "Book of the Three Conversions and of a Holy and Learned Pastor who was the Pupil of Master Eckhart"; a selection from the "Spiritual Marriage" of Ruysbroeck; and the "Seven Works of Mercy" (these works have all been printed except the last one). All these tracts are compilations, with Merswin's own thoughts scattered here and there. The original matter is plainly the work of an ignorant, unskilful layman; its chief content is complaints of the corrupt manners of the Christian communities of the time. In the story of his conversion Merswin relates how he made the acquaintance of the "Great Friend of God from the Highlands" in 1351, who, although unknown to the rest of the world, became his secret friend. At his request he wrote the story of his own conversion and in return received a like treatise from the Great Friend. These two books were to be kept quite secret from all but themselves.
The Great Friend. The Knights of St. John told how the Great Friend entrusted to Merswin a large quantity of writings, which Merswin kept concealed for thirty years, but four years before his death showed them to the brothers of the order, first carefully erasing all the proper names. There are about fifteen separate works attributed to the Great Friend, besides a large collection of letters said to have been written by him to the monks in the "Grüner Worth." From all this material it is gathered that the Great Friend after a sudden conversion in the midst of worldly pleasures retired into solitude and formed the central point of a secret brotherhood by whom he was reverenced almost like a god. His influence extended to all classes, even to Jews and heathens, and he had correspondents in Hungary and in Italy. In 1365 he retired to a mountain in the territory of the duke of Austria, but Merswin alone knew the exact spot. Regarding the retreat of the Great Friend the Knights of St. John questioned Merswin in vain, even on his death-bed, when, however, he informed them that the secret messenger passing between him and the Great Friend had died the previous year.
Many expeditions were sent to search for the Great Friend, even as late as 1390. In later times the Great Friend was identified with Nicholas of Basel, a layman who, having spread the heresies of the Beghards (see BEGHARDS, BEGUINES) through the country around Basel, was burned at the stake in Vienna (1395); also with John of Chur, a pious hermit who lived in a cell on the Rütberg in the canton of St. Gall. In his writings everything is vague, and there are many contradictions. He has no definite doctrines and no more knowledge of theology than any other devout layman. An account of a pilgrimage to Rome in 1377 is certainly a fiction. The Great Friend must have been an invention; no one could see him or could carry on a correspondence with him except through Merswin, and when Merswin died all trace of him suddenly vanished. It is then almost certain that Merswin himself invented the whole story of the Great Friend, a conjecture that is strengthened by the close correspondence in matter and style between his own writings and those attributed to the Great Friend.