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    aerial view of Bad Boll

    Who Were the Blumhardts?

    Meet the father-and-son duo that profoundly influenced theological giants such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

    By Vernard Eller

    November 16, 2022
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    • Mimi

      Love the Blumhards! Thanks to Plough they are my daily companions. I introduce them to friends who don't know the Lord. Their gentle wisdom with their sensitivity is always refreshing. Mimi

    The subject of my doctoral study was Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish thinker. In the course of that research I came across Emil Brunner’s testimony to the effect that the best predecessors of Neo-Orthodoxy were “two great figures of Pietism – Chr. Blumhardt, in Boll, and Kierkegaard.” The strange pairing stuck in my mind: the name I had never heard along with the one heard all over the place. Were these two to be considered equals?

    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.”

    Emil Brunner identified Christoph Blumhardt and Kierkegaard as the two greatest predecessors of the Neo-Orthodox movement. Karl Barth also said enough to indicate that he would agree with the opinion. And, independently, both Leonhard Ragaz and Theodor Haecker had made the same pairing and showed interest in it. Brunner’s father had as much as been converted by the younger Blumhardt, which certainly made Emil’s own relationship to Blumhardt much more than a merely intellectual one.

    Eduard Thurneysen, Barth’s long-time pastor-partner, visited Bad Boll and studied under Blumhardt as early as 1904. And it was he who subsequently introduced Barth to Bad Boll and to Blumhardt. In 1926, Thurneysen published a small book Introducing Blumhardtian thought; and he quoted the Blumhardts at some length in his books on pastoral care. Over a period of thirty years, Barth wrote three different essays on the Blumhardts and gave them major notice both in Church Dogmatics and in other of his works. Barth’s chosen touchstone for his own theology, “Jesus Is Victor,” is a motto from Father Blumhardt. In Gerhard Sauter’s doctoral study of the Blumhardts (the normative scholarly analysis of their thought), there is a major section entitled, “Considerations Regarding the Relationship of Christoph Blumhardt to Karl Barth.”

    James Luther Adams has testified to Paul Tillich’s interest in what Adams calls “the religious-socialist element in Blumhardt” – although I think it would be fair to say that this social concern is about the only element of commonality between Blumhardt’s theology and Tillich’s.

    When I was a seminary student, the book that set the direction of my understanding of Scripture for time to come was Oscar Cullmann’s Christ In Time. More than a decade later, upon discovering the Blumhardts, I was convinced I had found a forerunner of the Heilgeschichte (Salvation-history) idea. When I met Cullmann, I put it to him whether he was familiar with the work of the Blumhardts and had been influenced by it. His face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,” he said.

    I had not discovered that, in his published works, Dietrich Bonhoeffer ever mentioned the Blumhardts; but I had suspicions nevertheless. When the opportunity presented itself, I asked Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s confidant and biographer. He assured me that Bonhoeffer had been well familiar with Blumhardtian thought and strongly influenced by it. This is confirmed in Gerhard Sauter’s study. Although it does not include a separate section on Bonhoeffer, that book, at a number of points in passing and in one passage of several pages, does rather conclusively demonstrate how several of Bonhoeffer’s most important concepts tie back into the Blumhardts.

    Johann Christoph Blumhardt

    Johann Christoph Blumhardt

    Even so, the fact that Gerhard Sauter is a recognized theologian in his own right and the fact that he has done this major study of the Blumhardts – these things have the effect of bringing the Blumhardtian influence directly into the present generation of German theologians with their “theology of hope,” “political theology,” and “liberation theology.”

    Karl Barth had called Blumhardt’s a “theology of hope” long before Jürgen Moltmann was even born (in 1967, Moltmann published a book of that title to launch at least something of a movement). Moltmann is aware of the connection. As editor of the sourcebook, The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology, he chose one of Barth’s Blumhardt essays for inclusion. And in personal conversation he was quick to confess his debt to the Blumhardts. There is no knowing how many more of the so-called “younger” German theologians would be ready to confess the same.

    Finally, my own “best” theologians include not only Kierkegaard and the Blumhardts but also the contemporary French maverick, Jacques Ellul. Ellul has mentioned and quoted the Blumhardts a few times in his works. There are many of his ideas that could be attributed to Blumhardtian influences – although, most often, these probably came via Barth. Yet I did do an article showing the profound likenesses and convergences between Kierkegaard, the Blumhardts, and Ellul (with Malcolm Muggeridge thrown in as fourth). Ellul himself accepted my interpretation wholeheartedly, demurring only that I had placed him “too high.”

    So the Blumhardtian heritage has been and even now is very much with us – mainly through the offices of the continental theologians with whom we have been involved. After this introduction already had been written, quite by accident I learned that the Blumhardts are better known among the Christians of Japan than among us, that there is more Blumhardt material in print in Japanese than in English. And that makes the question all the more poignant, “Why have we not heard of these Blumhardts before?”

    Particularly is this so when we learn that, in Germany, Thurneysen’s 1926 volume is circulating in a new edition; the 1887 biography of the elder Blumhardt has gone through at least twenty printings and is still available; the collected works of both Blumhardts are still in the bookstores. But on the other hand, in English, apart from a few books (such as those by Thurneysen and Barth, and a few on the history of Neo-Orthodoxy) which refer to and quote from the Blumhardts, virtually all of the Blumhardt material comes from the Plough Publishing House (The Bruderhof).

    Heading that list is R. Lejeune’s Christoph Blumhardt and His Message. Almost the first half of that book is given to Lejeune’s introduction, the remainder of the volume presenting nineteen selected talks and sermons from the younger Blumhardt. Also important is Action in Waiting, a slight volume incorporating Barth’s first essay on Blumhardt (1916) and one of Christoph Blumhardt’s crucial sermons, “Joy in the Lord.” Then there is a pocket-sized book, Evening Prayers for Every Day of the Year, compiled after his death from spontaneous prayers the younger Blumhardt used at Bad Boll. There is next a slim, thirty-one-page paperback, Now Is Eternity, something of a random sampler of very brief “sayings” from both of the Blumhardts. And finally, there has just appeared a beautiful little fifty-eight-page paperback, Thoughts on Children, compiling material from both Blumhardts on the topic.

    “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.

    Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

    Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt

    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.

    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.


    This essay is adapted from the preface and introduction to Thy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader, available as a free ebook.

    Contributed By

    Vernard Eller (1927–2007) was a Church of the Brethren minister, Christian pacifist, and author. His writings are available at The Vernard Eller Collection.

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