Book: Zahn. The Influence of the Reformed Church on Prussia’s Greatness

This is a pamphlet I discovered at the WTS library containing a speech by one Adolf Zahn to the evangelical faculty of the Royal and Imperial University in Vienna in around 1871. It is interesting for two reasons.

First, it is fascinating to discover an intellectually vigorous Reformed movement still active in the southern provinces of Germania in mid-19th century. Zahn (1834-1900) was from Pomerania (NE of Berlin) but filled pastorates in Swabia in the South. By the time of this speech, the evangelical faculty in popish Austria was in its fiftieth year, and appears to have had at least sympathies if not solidarity with the Reformed. There is so much more we need to learn. Another day.

Second, the subject of the speech outlines the reformed influence on the rise of Prussia. Prussia in turn is of interest because of its rapid rise as a European power in the late 17th and 18th century, its role in stabilizing Protestantism in Europe, and, a couple centuries later, spearheading the unification forces that led, for the first time, to the consolidated nation known as “Germany.”

I for one had no idea the extent of the Reformed in stamping Prussia with its characteristic features.

First, a bit of orientation that may be helpful in following Zahn’s remarks.


Brandenburg is the area surrounding Berlin. Originally, it was a “mark” or buffer zone between neighboring kingdoms, and Berlin was not much more than a village. By the time of our story, it was one of the duchies comprising the Holy Roman Empire. Its head was therefore known as an Elector: technically the Emperor was in position by consent of the Electors, though what would have happened if they had voted against the Habsburgs is anyone’s guess.

Here is a list of the Brandenburg Electors (of the family Hohenzollern) during the period of interest. The date of assuming power is shown. It may be helpful since the same names, in combination or not, with or without various suffixes, keep reappearing. I have listed approximately coincident events of interest in the Anglo-Saxon world to help locate the period intuitively.

Date Electors of Brandenburg Corresponding event
1608 Johann Sigismund Jamestown, Virginia
1619 Georg Wilhelm King James’ Book of Sports
1640 Friedrich Wilhelm Great Elector Westminster Assembly
1688 Friedrich I Glorious Revolution
1713 Friedrich-Wilhelm I Addison’s play Cato

Sigismund converted to the Reformed faith. All the others in the line that are shown above retained a Reformed commitment, though some more nominally than others, as we shall see.

The territory of Prussia proper was far to the east, around the city of Königsberg. On a modern map, look for a province owned by Russia (though not contiguous with the main Russian land), with the city now known as Kaliningrad. (How Russia ended up with this chunk of territory is one of the ironies of history we may discuss later.) After the Hohenzollerns gained the crown of Prussia, the name became used more generically to include the entire area to Brandenburg, including Pomerania. Today, much of this territory, besides the part now occupied by Russia, is in the territory known as Poland.

Now to Zahn’s story. The story begins with the third entry in the table; I showed the father and grandfather to give a broader context.

Friedrich Wilhelm the Great Elector (hereafter: FWGE).

FWGE spent part of his youth training in the Netherlands, where his fathers’ religious persuasion was reinforced by the glories of that reformed kingdom. There he developed a deep gratitude to God, a sense of Providence, and a notion of the calling of a ruler, who, subordinate to God, is consequently called to give himself in service of his people.

His period included the time of Louis 14, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and other sources of persecution and discomfiture of the Reformed throughout Europe. These were welcomed with open arms to Brandenburg: Waldensians, Swiss, French, Hungarians, Bohemians, and Palatinates. This influx changed the character of the towns throughout the region.

Tensions were also created, in that the indigenous population clung tenaciously to its Lutheranism, and resented it when the reformed immigrants were given high positions of state.

At the same time, however, FWGE was broadly catholic with all fellow Protestants, giving far more freedom to the Lutheran church than was wont to be seen in reverse in the Lutheran duchies; and was downright self-sacrificing in aid of Protestants in Silesia, Hungary, and Poland where the threat of the common popish enemy was at hand. He saw himself as one of a “coalition of the three Reformed powers,” England, Holland, and Brandenburg, and was a military part in various wars, including resistance to Louis 14’s encroachments and a role in the ascendancy of William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

On the other hand, his relation to the Habsburgs included a weighing of each situation according to its just merits, contrary to the advice that Cromwell had given him, to oppose at every point because of the popery.

Zahn sees FWGE’s long-lasting contribution to be that of stamping Prussia with an idealism, that remained and was merged with the Realpolitik that his later descendents adopted.

A quick trivia: FWGE’s first wife was a grand-daughter of huguenot Admiral Coligny, slaughtered in the Bartholomew Day massacre.

Friedrich I

Friedrich’s suffix started off as the III, but due to machinations that need not distract us here, he became a full-fledged King of Prussia in 1703 by grant from Poland, and thus became “the first” in terms of kingship. This can be yet another source of confusion in reading the literature.

Friedrich I maintained the Reformed confession, and Brandenburg continued to be a haven for French and Palatinates, and the gradual transformation of the ethos of the region continued. Toland remarked on the clean and industrious towns.

He also intervened in behalf of the persecuted Reformed; in a petition to Frankfurt, he pleaded for more toleration, pointing out that more favor was shown there toward the Jews, “who do more harm than good to the city.”

Friedrich I also became more actively promotional of the Lutheran side of Protestantism [perhaps because of his offense at the regions persecuting Reformed, anxious to set a better example?]; though particularly of the Pietist school. During his reign, Spener was installed in Berlin and the University of Halle was founded under the pietist control of Francke. More on this angle in a future post: Zahn does not dwell on it.

Despite his greatness in many ways, Friedrich I also suffered from a love of pomp and regal glory. The court gradually became luxuriant, fat, effete.

Friedrich-Wilhelm I (hereafter: FW)

FW, like his grandfather, spent much time in his youth being educated in the Netherlands. He was bold and dashing, but under tutelage and conviction became stamped with order and discipline; indeed, he was later referred to as the “Brandenburg Puritan.” Like his grandfather, he became imbued with the notion of the ruler as called to serve the good of his people.

He was no theoretician, seeing no real difference between Calvinism and Lutheranism in their best forms. On the one hand, he was something of an iconoclast; on the other, was doubtful about “fatalism” and sometimes sided with the Lutherans against the “French moralistic preaching.”

Instead, he appropriated the Reformed character in a more practical way: the link to doctrine was partly conscious, partly unconscious. He had strong instincts, and brushed aside flattery and intrigue. The court was ruthlessly turned into a paragon of thrift; in management of the state, FW watched over every detail like hawk. “The character stamped on Calvin’s church was applied to the state.”

Zahn concludes (recall: during the time of the swift rise of Prussia to new heights), “May Prussia continue as the great Protestant protector!”


A few reactions

The story of the Hohenzollerns looks like a fertile area for us English-speaking Reformed-types to investigate. It is exciting to see such a prominent historical position of the Reformed in addition to what we already knew about in Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, England and the US. Moreover, many of the issues that are worked out one way in this period of history have continued urgency in our own time and place. A few that I would highlight:

1. The question of immigration. Prussia became stamped by the character of immigrants; under what circumstances is this wise or legitimate?

2. Protestant ecumenicism, especially vis-a-vis Rome.

3. The role of faith and alliances. The Great Elector did not allow himself to be baited into a one-sided position on this by his friend Cromwell. In contrast, has the Christian Right allowed itself to be painted into a corner on the question of relations with Islamic countries?

4. The whole question of nation-shepherding is raised in a manner that might foster objective discussion. Somehow, when the King of Prussia implemented mercantilistic policies, it has a more benign and propitious feel to it then when one Party in a democracy does so. We need to unpack this. Have some of our criticisms of the German notion of the State been one-sided?


Full title info: Adolf Zahn. Der Einfluss der Reformierten Kirche auf Preussens Größe. (Halle 1871). Lib. of Congress # BX 9464 .Z33

10 thoughts on “Book: Zahn. The Influence of the Reformed Church on Prussia’s Greatness

  1. History is interesting. A lot of it is rewritten. Sometimes even backdated. History is written by the victors and thier friends. History is also one of the greatest forms of propaganda. A lot of this was rewritten by Presbyterians and Catholics combined in places like Oxford and Cambridge. I know this because I am related to all of the Hohenzollerns. Lutheranism was nothing more than a small sect blown all out of proportion by the Catholic church. In this way they could claim to be the one true church. All else was broken off of them in some way. This is absolutely false. This had a purpose to it. There was a church that was far more prevalent than what history records.

    They claim such great men as Charlemagne as Catholic. He never was. I am related to him also. Although for the sake of peace and commerce was involved he did try to get along with them. They turned this into something else altogether different. Only five Hohenzollerns were Catholic. Only one of those was a King. Absolutely none were Lutheran. They disliked the reformed greatly.

  2. I like to simply. When I teach I simplify. I try to reach a common denominator so all can understand. The reasoning involved would be this. It is not your family. It is mine.

  3. Ah yes, but the Reformed are my family, my brethren, which is a closer relationship than grandcestor. If that is a valid epistemology, I would seem to have a better epistemological position.


  4. Well as the believers of WMD and the government story on the WTC, fair elections of the electronic sort go. I percieve you to be a great believer in whatever is written. Again the victors write the history. (snip…)

    I suppose your forebearers were pig farmers I do not really know. I am sure a descendant of pig farmers or whatever they were who can now read and use a computer would think himself quite advanced. If you had any sophistication at all. You would realize that history can be revised and backdated to suit ones ends. (snip…)

    I will no longer bother you on your little pig farm.

  5. I will append a little more if I may. Something else that I did not realize when I started writing is that you are reformed. That in itself would explain why you would write something like this. Also why you would back such a thing up and censor the people who write here. The reformed are the devils of the earth.  (snip…)

    So now that I understand you are reformed I see your purpose in all of this. To make the Hohenzollern family look like fools. I will discuss some of your comments with my family. Rest assured. If you have my attention you also have theirs.

  6. I didn’t know insane asylums had internet access!

    Quick George, look through the peep-hole. I think King Hohenzollern is coming to rescue you at this very moment!

  7. Let’s give Boy George his due. Yes, it is true that we started First Word to make the Hohenzollern’s look like fools. But that is only the half of it. The other reason was to make those who pretend to be related to the Hohenzollern’s look like fools. I’m not sure how we’re doing on the first goal, but the second is coming off nicely.

  8. Yeah, it kind of reminds me of Woltz in Godfather: “then along comes Johnny Fontaine, with his guinea charm, and takes her away. She threw it all away just to make me look ridiculous. And a man in my position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous.”

    Of course, neither Johnny nor the girl did it to make Woltz look ridiculous. But this is an insightful scene as to how a megalomaniac thinks.

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