A pioneer of social ministry in an early evangelical revival: August Francke

I’m posting a few things related to that proto-evangelical movement of church reform and revival, German Pietism (17th & 18th c.). A couple of these posts (here and here) relate to one of Pietism’s most intriguing and influential figures, August Hermann Francke. So here is a biographical sketch of Francke:


I want you to note two things: First, his learnedness and commitment to education (though he asserted paradoxically that a learned man is the hardest to get into the kingdom), and second, his pursuit of social ministry (the orphanage and many related enterprises). These facts seem to contradict the common stereotype of Pietism as a movement both brainless and inward-turned.

August Francke was born in 1663 and grew up in an area of Germany that was a stronghold of the teaching of Johann Arndt [on whom, another post for another time! He was a pre-Pietist spiritual teacher whose book True Christianity inspired Pietist leaders]. Something of a child prodigy, Francke had studied, by the age of 16, philology, philosophy, Greek, logic, metaphysics, geography, history, and Hebrew. He was a linguistic genius—by his death he knew some 35 languages.

By the end of his teens, he was training under a teacher working in a church reform stream at Rostock, Germany, and at 21 he was off to Leipzig to study divinity, philology, philosophy, rabinnical literature, Italian, French, and English.

In 1686 he became leading light in the Collegium Philobiblium, an exegetical brainstorming society started by a man named Karpsov. Under Spener, this group had focused more and more on the life application of the Scriptures. Francke soaked this up under Spener, and this focus on living faith was also reinforced for him by his reading in Puritan authors. Soon he got his Masters degree, and then had what he termed his “conversion experience,” which I’d like to look at now for a moment.

Francke’s conversion

First, we should note that before this “born again” experience, Francke had been no spiritual slouch. For example, at the age of 10, he had asked his mother for a small room for study and prayer. His request had been granted, and he had gone into solitary often and prayed. In particular, he had prayed often that his whole life would be dedicated to the promotion of God’s glory.

Nonetheless, he came to feel as a young man that he had still really not been born again. He needed a complete renovation—an overhaul of the spirit. The conversion experience happened like this:

One day in 1687, when Francke was 24 years of age, this brilliant young man received an invitation to preach a sermon at Lunenburg. This was a problem for him, because he was not terribly impressed by his own spirituality. As he later described himself in his autobiography: “I had Divinity in my head, not my heart. I only troubled myself about the theory. I had read scriptures with object of increasing learning, not practice. I put everything on paper, volumes of lectures. But I didn’t write on my heart!”

By that time, under various influences, he had been asking God to change his heart, and reflecting on “how to attain godliness, how to attain learning (!!), and how to communicate usefully what he would learn!” However, although practical Godliness was dear to him, he recognized mixed motives in himself. The object of his knowledge, as he saw it, was still celebrity, money, a life of ease. He still had a dominant mindset of ‘being a success’ in the intellectual realm.

The invitation to preach was a crisis point. As he told it, “I began to come to myself, see my corrupt and depraved state, and long for deliverance. Only the grace of God brought this! I perceived that I couldn’t deceive the people, preaching to others things of which I had no heartfelt conviction. I was still habituated to sin. Notwithstanding, my heart was touched to humble myself before God, beseeching him to make me a sincere child of God.”

There was a strong Augustinian flavour to this struggle: ‘I can’t change my own heart, God please do it for me!’ he said. ‘I found my state so corrupt, so entangled by the snares which study and seeking to please the world presented me, I found myself a man sunk in the mire….’ ‘I was held back by a deeply rooted love of the world from fully entering into the temple.’

He wanted to edify his hearers at Lunenburg—to describe true and living faith over against human and imaginary belief. But he felt that the himself was devoid of that faith. He turned to dogmatic writings, practical writings, the Scriptures, but couldn’t get any benefit. The whole of his life appeared before him, with his sins numbered, and the source of all of those sins: unbelief–a mere imaginary faith, self-deception. Then, immense stress. He wept, walked up and down, called upon God saying ‘If there is really a God, have pity on me!’

Finally, he thought over turning down the invitation to preach—remember, preaching the Word was serious stuff in the Lutheran scheme of things—it was the central moment, the central sacrament of the faith.

So, as Francke later told it, ‘I again knelt, called upon the God I knew not…and the Lord heard me. His fatherly love was so great that…he answered me all at once, every doubt disappeared. I could not only call him God but father. I was animated with an overwhelming joy, with praises on my tongue.’

40 years later, Francke would say that God at the time of this “conversion experience” had dug in his heart the well of knowledge of Jesus, which he had drawn from ever since. He added that from that time, it had been easy to deny worldly lusts, and to esteem riches, glory, and fame, as nothing, and to suffer for righteousness’ sake.

His career after conversion

From his conversion until 1690 (about 1.5, 2 years), he stayed at Hambourg with followers of Spener, and then several months with Spener as house guest. From that time, he addressed Spener as Father, and Spener addressed Francke as son. (this was a kind of pietist apostolic succession)

He went back in 1690 to the university at Leipzig to teach, and the other professors were getting nervous. His lectures were becoming the main attraction, attracting crowds of as many as 300. The result was a noticeable change in the religious and intellectual atmosphere—and increasing complaints about this change. So he had to leave Leipzig.

Then he went to the university at Halle, Germany, where he became a man of affairs, a leader, probably the most widely consulted educator of his day.

So, Spener, to further his own program of improving ministerial education, had sent Francke to Halle, first as Prof of Oriental Languages, but then soon as ‘Mr. Halle.’ Francke though, was developing a much grander program than something designed simply to renew the pastorate. In Francke, as in early Enlightenment thinking (Locke, Leibniz), we see world-embracing plans of reform rooted in education. Francke considered that the royal road to social transformation was education, specifically Christian education. He argued in his brochures that ‘we’re stopping these kids from committing crimes, and making them productive citizens, and converting them to Christianity as well.’

His academic labours at the university were mostly devoted to bringing the Lutherans back from scholastic/polemics to the holy Scriptures. Francke said it was, QUOTE, “a fundamental error for anyone to assume that theology can be studied apart from the Holy Spirit–anything else is blind pharisaism–mere head understanding….There is no class of people under the sun more unfit for the kingdom than the learned. When God converts a learned man, he performs a real miracle.”

Francke was loaded with learning, but as Spener did, he repeatedly placed knowledge in second position behind piety. BUT NOTE—he was still not anti-intellectual. In Francke’s lifetime, at least, Halle could be considered the Greatest Working Model of a Christian University.

At the same time as he taught at Halle, he was involved in an array of social and pastoral labors in the nearby town of Glaucha. One biography describes the taverns of the town, and the extreme poverty, with the streets full of homeless people, runaway children, and refugees left over from the century of religious wars. Neither the material nor the moral environment was very pleasant, and to cap it all, Francke’s predecessor in the pulpit had been indicted on charges of adultery.

In addition to his pastoral duties and his teaching duties at the University of Halle, in 1694 he began to catechize the poorer people in his area—drawing them in with a free lunch. This kind of street evangelism was very rare at this point among Lutherans, with separation of the church and world spheres—Francke was beginning to build a model here of a responsibility to shape a whole town, as with Calvin at Geneva. He then established a poorbox, and once he had a moderate donation, he decided to start a school. This he did by buying a few books and engaging a student to teach.

From this time on, as he built up the school, and integrated it with an orphanage, then with many other related ministries, he affirmed the direct guidance of God. When he wrote an account of all of this, he originally titled it “Footsteps of a Living God.” He stressed in this account that he left it the Lord to provide at every step. He did that, yes, but he was also not shy about letting people know about the school’s needs, and trying to convince them of their Christian duty to support the ministry (see this post for his list of 24 reasons to give oneself in helping the poor).

By Francke’s death his institution housed an orphan house, a public school, a seminary, a printer’s, a bookseller’s, a Bible society, an apothecary, a foundation for widows, and even a group for advanced study beyond seminary, the “Paedagogium Regium.” At his death Halle housed 144 orphan kids, and 2,207 children and youth were being instructed in its various schools by 175 teachers, for many of whom the school provided board as well as beds. When John Wesley visited Halle in 1738, after having read and used Francke’s books with his Oxford group, he was particularly interested in this famous orphan-house—which at the time of his visit housed 650 children and taught 6,000.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s