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Sunrise Clouds

Who were the Blumhardts?

Vernard Eller

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The two Blumhardts, Johann Christoph (1805-80) and Christoph Friedrich (1842-1919), were father and son. Their careers – much more pastoral than theological in character – focused upon the son’s succeeding his father as leader of what might be called a Christian retreat center that the father had established at Bad Boll in southwestern Germany. The thought of the two men shows enough continuity and agreement that it can be treated as one “theology.”

“So why haven’t we heard about the Blumhardts before?” Partly because so little material is available In English; and because what is available has come from small, private presses. “But why have other publishers failed to pick up on the Blumhardts?” My best guess in that regard is that, because the Blumhardt impact naturally came with the younger Blumhardt’s maturity, death, and the generation of thinkers who continued the tradition from that point, and because that point itself coincided with the First World War, the war itself prevented the Blumhardt reputation from jumping either the English Channel or the Atlantic Ocean at the time it normally would have. Then, later was too late: why publish the works of the Blumhardts when no one knows who the Blumhardts are? Who would buy? Now we will attempt to rectify that ignorance.

The elder Blumhardt, Johann Christoph (1805-80), was educated for the Reformed ministry and, after a brief term as executive for a missionary society, became pastor in Möttlingen, an obscure village of Württemberg, southern Germany. His career was uneventful until, in 1842, he had to deal with one of his parishioners, a young woman, Gottlieben Dittus, who suffered some sort of severe nervous disorder and whose household was visited with strange psychic phenomena. Blumhardt concluded that the case was of a kind with those reported in the New Testament as demon possession. After two months of pastoral care and reverent hesitation, discovering that he had no wisdom or power that could help, he and the girl prayed together: “Lord Jesus, help us. We have watched long enough what the devil does; now we want to see what the Lord Jesus can do.” This prayer-battle continued for almost two years without change – the situation deteriorating, if anything.

Finally came the moment of crisis. At a point when Blumhardt’s prayer and the girl’s trouble were at a pitch, Gottlieben’s sister (who had recently come under demonic attack herself) in a strange voice suddenly uttered the cry, “Jesus Is Victor!” —and it was all over. Gottlieben later became a servant in the Blumhardt household and lived there the rest of her life; but she was never troubled again. Blumhardt understood the voice to be that of the demons who had just been conquered and expelled. There is much in this story at which modern readers inevitably will look askance (as in the story to follow as well); but it must be said that both of the Blumhardts were solid, unflappable characters with nothing of the fanatic about them.

In fact, rather than doing anything to encourage sensationalism or a personality cult centering in themselves, they regularly took deliberate steps to dampen such tendencies. Even so, very strange and wonderful things did take place. Jesus’ victory in the demented girl immediately triggered an in-breaking of kingdom power that transformed the entire village of Möttlingen and attracted people from miles around. The congregation experienced revival to a degree quite beyond even the dreams – let alone the actual accomplishments – of modern programs of church growth and renewal. There were many healings, conversions of some of the church’s most determined opponents, and radical transformations of life and character. Marriages were saved, enemies were reconciled, there was an outpouring of evangelistic zeal and missionary fervor – all under the conviction that, because Jesus is victor, the kingdom of God has become a real possibility for life here and now.

As might be expected, this sort of goings-on at Möttlingen aroused the criticism of many of the church authorities. Blumhardt’s vision of Christianity was larger than the church institution could manage. Thus, after a few more years at Möttlingen, the pressures toward churchly conformity became so constrictive that Blumhardt gave up his pastorate and, for all intents and purposes, formal connection with the Reformed Church. He moved a short distance away to Bad Boll, where he purchased a vacant resort hotel and made it into something of a retreat center, a place to which people could have recourse for periods of rest, meditation, study, and pastoral counsel – and a place where Blumhardt was free to operate according to God’s leading.

He continued this ministry until his death in 1880, the testimony of his life perhaps best being summed up in a hymn with which he had been inspired at Möttlingen and which remained popular in Blumhardt circles:

Jesus is victorious Lord
Who conquers all his foes;
Jesus ’tis unto whose feet
The whole wide world soon goes;
Jesus ’tis who comes in might,
Leads us from darkness into light.

Son Christoph (Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt 1842-1919) was born at Möttlingen in 1842, at the very time his father was becoming involved in the struggle with Gottliebin’s demons. As his father had done before him, he took university training pointing toward a Reformed pastorate. However, he became disillusioned with the church and theology and so decided simply to return home to Bad Boll and act as a helper there. Upon his father’s death, then, he took over as housefather and continued the work until his own death in 1919.

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (the son)

In time, the younger Blumhardt became quite renowned as a mass evangelist and faith healer. But after a very successful “crusade” in Berlin in 1888, he drastically cut back both activities, saying,

"I do not want to suggest that it is of little importance for God to heal the sick; actually, it now is happening more and more often—although very much in quiet. However, things should not be promoted as though God’s kingdom consists in the healing of sick people. To be cleansed is more important than to be healed. It is more important to have a heart for God’s cause, not to be chained to the world but be able to move for the kingdom of God."

Blumhardt’s interest gradually took what could be called “a turn to the world,” namely, a focus upon the great socioeconomic issues of the day. Under the impetus of this concern Blumhardt chose, in a public and conspicuous way, to cast his lot with Democratic Socialism, the much maligned workers’ movement that then was fighting tooth and nail for the right of the working class. Although it brought upon his head the wrath of both the civil and ecclesiastical establishments, he addressed protest rallies, ran for office on the party slate, and was elected to a six-year term in the Württemberg legislature. He was asked to resign his ministerial status in the church. Blumhardt began as a very active and energetic legislator, but as time passed he greatly curtailed this activity and bluntly declined to stand for a second term of office. Clearly, the pattern was of a piece with his earlier retreat from mass evangelism and faith healing.

Blumhardt’s disillusionment with Democratic Socialism – i.e., with the party politics, not with the movement’s purposes and ideals – and the even greater disillusionment which came toward the close of his life with the dark years of World War I – these brought him to a final position expressed in the dialectical motto: Wait and Hasten. His understanding was that the call of the Christian is still for him to give himself completely to the cause of the kingdom. To do everything in his power to help the world toward that goal. Yet, at the same time, a Christian must remain calm and patient, unperturbed even if his efforts show no signs of success, willing to wait for the Lord to bring the kingdom at his own pace and in his own way. And, according to Blumhardt, far from being inactivity, this sort of waiting is itself a very strong and creative action in the very hastening of the kingdom. Blumhardt suffered a stroke in 1917 and died a peaceful death on August 2, 1919.


From the introduction to Thy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader.

Johann Christoph Blumhardt Johann Christoph Blumhardt (the father)
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