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Society of Protestant Friends

Society of Protestant Friends A religious movement during the pre-revolutionary period that encompassed all of Protestant Germany. In the vigor of its opposition to dogma, in its belief in lay and local control, and in its bold action and popular, though brief, success, it became an important part of the reformist and dissenting environment of the 1840s in the German states.

In 1841 Leberecht Uhlich, a pastor from the Magdeburg area called together other pastors to respond to W. F. Sintenis' official censure of an article he had written denouncing certain orthodox religious practices. When the group called a second meeting later that year in Halle, its number had grown substantially; it was drawn from a broader geographic area, included both lay and clerical people, and received public notice.

The goals of the group were reformist, not separatist. They believed the state churches should define dogma and practice broadly enough to include various points of view. Having no formal constitution, meetings were held twice a year. By 1843 the group had grown from 16 to approximately 400 with over 5000 subscribers to the newspaper.

In 1844 circumstances turned the society away from reform and toward dissent. Gustav Adolf Wislicenus' keynote address of their convention in that year identified radical Hegelianism with the ideas of the society, thereby ending the silence of the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung, the major orthodox journal, which had strong ties to the Prussian court. The church suspended Wislicenus, and many clergy and bureaucrats, who had heretofore been uninvolved with the society, demanded the end of conservative control of the church and development of a church constitution that would include all contending parties. The society grew dramatically as a result of the Wislicenus affair, but identification with radical Hegelianism led the Prussian and other German governments to attempt suppression of the society, and the original goal of reform became impossible.

In 1845 nearly all the German states where the society had been active introduced measures against the creation of local branches and against large meetings of the society. This repression was successful everywhere but Prussia where individuals from the society disobeyed the rules of established liturgy and polity. When disciplinary measures were taken against dissenting rectors, some were suspended and in some cases their congregations followed them to become independent congregations.

In response the Prussian government issued a patent, or edict, of toleration giving limited rights to certain religious groups to secede from the state church. Since civil rights and public record-keeping so frequently were tied to such religious responsibilities as baptism and marriage, a necessary part of this patent was the sanctioning of the functions in dissenting congregations. Though this right was not new, the government's patent was a significant acknowledgement that it had failed to eliminate dissent.

The patent did not solve the problem of dissenting congregations, most of whom refused to take the steps necessary to secure official permission to leave the state church. The patent itself became a political issue among liberals, who argued against the requirement that civil or political rights be tied to religious belief.

Free congregations remained active until 1848, failing to recreate any unity among themselves or any effective alliance with other disaffected religious groups. Individual leaders worked in support of liberal reform of church governance, most especially in the Prussian general synod of 1846, where bureaucratic and clerical reformers of the state church attempted unsuccessfully to create a new and somewhat more participatory church constitution with a less dogmatic creed.

The dissenters were active in the events of 1848 and 1849, but they had neither a unified point of view on ecclesiastical policy nor a common political conviction. The number of dissenting congregations increased substantially during the revolution, but during the reactionary government forcibly closed the remaining free congregations and tightened censorship until the continuation of their publications was impossible.
Gwendolyn Jensen


Prelinger, Catherine Magill Holden. "A Decade of Dissent in Germany: An Historical Study of The Society of Protestant Friends and the German-catholic Church, 1840-48." Ph.D.diss., Yale University, 1954.

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