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    Mottlingen around the year 1850

    One Pastor’s Battle with Demons

    Johann Christoph Blumhardt had no interest in demonic possession, but compassion for his parishioner compelled him to get involved.


    August 3, 2022

    From The Awakening by Friedrich Zündel. Zündel was a close friend, confidant, and biographer of Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805–1880).

    On July 31, 1838, the people of Möttlingen, a small town in southern Germany, turned out to welcome their new pastor. A zealous thirty-three-year-old, Johann Christoph Blumhardt had spent years preparing for such a position, and was looking forward to serving his new flock as a minister, teacher, and counselor. Now, finally, he and his fiancée, Doris Köllner, could marry, settle down, and raise a family. Blumhardt could never have anticipated the events he was about to be thrust into. …

    Near the edge of the village of Möttlingen stands a ramshackle house, recognizable now just as it was then by a window shutter bearing this weather-worn inscription:

    Man, think on eternity,
    And do not mock the time of grace,
    For judgment is not far off.

    In the spring of 1840 a poor family by the name of Dittus, consisting of two brothers and three sisters, moved into the ground floor apartment of this house. The eldest, Andreas, later became a village councilor. Then came Johann Georg, half blind and known as Hans. After him came three girls: Katharina, Anna Maria, and Gottliebin. Their parents, both devout Christians, had died young.

    Gottliebin, who was born on October 13, 1815, was spiritually precocious and a favorite pupil of Pastor Barth, Blumhardt’s predecessor. Adept at composing verse, she later wrote many fine songs. Yet from childhood on she experienced uncanny things and contracted one strange illness after the next, which more than once forced her to give up a good job. Though no one was certain of the cause of these afflictions, they were presumed to spring from her involvement in the magic practices rampant in villages throughout the region. Barth used his connections to consult eminent physicians on her behalf, and she recovered fairly well from her last ailment, a kidney disease.

    Gottliebin felt as attracted to Blumhardt as she felt repelled by him. At his first sermon she had to fight a desire to scratch his eyes out. On the other hand, Blumhardt could be sure of seeing her wherever she had a chance of hearing an uplifting word from him. For instance, she attended his service at the remote parish branch of Haugstett every week, even though one of her legs was shorter than the other, and it was difficult for her to walk long distances. Gottliebin had a marked, dejected sort of shyness, which, when broken, revealed a defensive reserve. She made a downright unpleasant impression on Blumhardt and on others as well.

    Mottlingen around the year 1850

    Möttlingen around the year 1850

    No sooner had the Dittuses moved into their new apartment than Gottliebin reported seeing and hearing strange things in the house. Other family members noticed them too. On the first day, as Andreas said grace at table, Gottliebin fell unconscious to the floor at the words “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.” Then in the bedroom, sitting room, and kitchen her siblings heard recurring bangs and shuffles, which terrified them and upset the people living upstairs.

    Other peculiar things happened too. At night, for instance, Gottliebin felt her hands being forcibly placed one above the other. She had visions of figures, small lights, and other things and her behavior became gradually more repulsive and inexplicable. Yet because no one was greatly concerned about the “poor orphan family,” and because Gottliebin kept quiet about her experiences, most people ignored it. Blumhardt heard rumors about the matter, but he took no notice of them.

    Finally, in the fall of 1841, when her nightly torments became unbearable, Gottliebin came to Blumhardt in his rectory. Voluntarily confessing various things from her past, she seemed to hope that confession would relieve her, yet she spoke in such general terms that Blumhardt could not say much to help her.

    From December 1841 through the following February Gottliebin suffered from a dangerous facial infection and lay deathly ill. Blumhardt did not visit her often, however, as he was annoyed by her behavior. As soon as she caught sight of him, she would look to one side. When he greeted her, she would not reply. When he prayed, she would separate her previously folded hands. Though before and after his visits she acted fine, she paid no attention to his words and seemed almost unconscious when he was there. At the time, Blumhardt regarded her as self-willed and spiritually proud, and he decided to stay away rather than expose himself to embarrassment. Gottliebin did have a faithful friend and adviser in her physician, Dr. Späth, and she poured out everything to him.

    Not until April 1842, after the mysterious happenings had gone on for more than two years, did Blumhardt learn more details from the tormented woman’s relatives, who came to him for advice. They were desperate, for the banging noises that echoed through the house at night had become so loud that they could be heard all over the neighborhood. Furthermore, Gottliebin had begun to receive visits from an apparition. This figure resembled a woman who had died two years before, and she carried a dead child in her arms. Gottliebin claimed that the woman (whose name she only divulged later) always stood at a certain spot before her bed. At times the ghost would move toward her and say repeatedly, “I just want to find rest,” or, “Give me a paper, and I won’t come again,” or something of the sort. As Blumhardt reported:

    The Dittus family asked me if it would be all right to find out more by questioning the apparition. My advice was that Gottliebin should on no account enter into conversation with it; there was no knowing how much might be her self-deception. I was certain, I said, that people can be sucked into a bottomless quagmire when they become involved with spiritualism. Gottliebin should pray earnestly and trustingly; then the whole thing would peter out of its own accord. …

    Wishing to quell the general hubbub, which was now getting out of hand, Blumhardt found new accommodations for Gottliebin. He advised Gottliebin not to enter her own house for the time being, and she agreed – in fact, she did not move back there until the following year. He also tried to prevent further commotion by advising her brother Hans not to visit her:

    I had a particular dread of manifestations of clairvoyance, which are often unpleasantly sensational. A mysterious and dangerous field had opened up before me, and I could only commit the matter to the Lord in my personal prayers, asking him to protect me in every situation that might arise. Whenever the matter took a more serious turn, the mayor, Mose, and I would meet in my study to pray and talk, which kept us all in a sober frame of mind.

    I shall never forget the fervent prayers for wisdom, strength, and help that those men sent up to God. Together we searched through the Bible, determined not to go any further than Scripture led us. It never entered our minds to perform miracles, but it grieved us deeply to realize how much power the devil still has over humankind. Our heartfelt compassion went out not only to the poor woman whose misery we saw before us, but also to the millions who have turned away from God and become entangled in the secret snares of darkness. We cried to God, asking that at least in this case he would give us the victory and trample Satan underfoot.

    It took weeks for the uproar in the area to die down. Complete strangers came and wanted to visit the house, some even wanting to spend a night in it to convince themselves that the rumors were true. But Blumhardt resolutely refused all such requests, including one made by three Catholic priests from nearby Baden, who wanted to spend several hours in the house at night. The house was placed under the watchful custody of the village policeman, who happened to live opposite it.

    Gradually things quieted down, and most people in the village remained unaware of what followed, though occasionally this or that came to somebody’s notice. As for his own congregation, Blumhardt later said, “Generally speaking, I met with earnest, reverent, and expectant sympathy throughout the fight, even if it was mostly unspoken. That made it much easier for me to hold out, while at the same time rendering it impossible for me to give up.” Meanwhile the din in the house continued unabated and only ended a full two years later.

    Before long, similar noises started in Gottliebin’s new dwelling. Whenever they were heard, she would fall into violent convulsions that could last four or five hours. Once they were so violent that the bedstead was forced out of joint. Dr. Späth, who was present, said in tears, “The way this woman is left lying here, one would think there is no one in this village to care for souls in need!” Blumhardt took up the challenge and began visiting Gottliebin more often:

    Her whole body shook; every muscle of her head and arms burned and trembled, or rattled, for they were individually rigid and stiff, and she foamed at the mouth. She had been lying in this state for several hours, and the doctor, who had never seen anything like it, was at his wits’ end. Then suddenly she came to, sat up, and asked for a drink of water. One could scarcely believe it was the same person.

    One day a traveling preacher acquainted with Gottliebin visited her and dropped in at the rectory. On taking leave, he raised a forefinger at Blumhardt and admonished him, “Do not forget your pastoral duty!”

    “What am I to do?” thought Blumhardt. “I’m doing what any pastor does. What more can I do?”

    Some time later, on a Sunday evening, Blumhardt visited the sick woman again. Several of her friends were present. Sitting some distance from her bed, he silently watched as she convulsed – twisting her arms, arching her back in the most painful manner, and foaming at the mouth. Blumhardt reported:

    It was clear to me that something demonic was at work here, and I was pained that no remedy had been found for the horrible affair. As I pondered this, indignation seized me – I believe it was an inspiration from above. I walked purposefully over to Gottliebin and grasped her cramped hands. Then, trying to hold them together as best as possible (she was unconscious), I shouted into her ear, “Gottliebin, put your hands together and pray, ‘Lord Jesus, help me!’ We have seen enough of what the devil can do; now let us see what the Lord Jesus can do!” Moments later the convulsions ceased, and to the astonishment of those present, she woke up and repeated those words of prayer after me.

    This was the decisive moment, and it thrust me into the fight with irresistible force. I had acted on an impulse; it had never occurred to me what to do until then. But the impression that single impulse left on me stayed with me so clearly that later it was often my only reassurance, convincing me that what I had undertaken was not of my own choice or presumption. Of course at the time I could not possibly have imagined the horrible developments still to come.

    Blumhardt only recognized the full significance of this turning point later on. He had turned deliberately and directly to God, and God had immediately begun to guide his actions. From this point on, he was convinced that it was vital for the ultimate victory of God’s kingdom that the kingdom of darkness and its influences suffer defeat here on earth. He also recognized more clearly the role of faith in the struggle between light and darkness. The depth to which divine redemption penetrates into human lives in this struggle, he saw, ultimately depends on the faith and expectation of its fighters.

    Contributed By placeholder Friedrich Zündel

    Friedrich Zündel (1827–1891), a Swiss pastor, author, and essayist, is best known for his landmark biography of Johann Christoph Blumhardt, whom he knew well.

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