The Luneburg Heath
The railway from Hanover to Harburg runs through a dull, uniform level, where a look from a carriage window reveals the same scenery: fields of thin grass, clumps of trees, sandy soil ploughed lightly in narrow furrows, and occasional tracts of moor and down.
However, railway judgment is here manifestly in error, for many a choice bit of landscape lies a few miles off on either side, and about two hours from Hanover there is a wide range of country known as The Luneburg Heath. It is not like the English heath, nor moor, nor down. Sometimes the rich purple bloom rolls away unbroken for miles in long swelling lines; sometimes the path leads through a wood, and then- again the wood opens to let in reaches of bright green meadow, or the Heath sinks down suddenly into a quiet valley with meadows and patches of timber, and a clear stream winding through it, or it stops at the edge of a rocky path, or the ground rises rapidly to an eminence crowned with huge, knotty oaks, and then the Heath stretches on again, fold after fold of purple, glorious with light and shadow from the broad sky above. There is not a sound, yet it is not lonely, but solemn and still; with a sense of almost personal companionship, and a touch of the joy and mystery of nature, which the broad, free, silent spaces bring.
The country is thinly peopled, and almost entirely by small farmers and peasants. They live for the most part in scattered hamlets that are perched upon the hilly parts, and clustered around by trees overlooking the tillage grounds, which extend for some distance from them into the Heath.
Sometimes instead of these clearings, upon which the stranger comes with suddenness and surprise, and which are exceedingly picturesque, there is a little village lying in the valley, with woods and water and meadow so charmingly disposed about it as to make one imagine it had been done for effect.
The people are as characteristic as their country. They retain more of the old Saxon element than will perhaps be found elsewhere in Germany. They have a sturdy, independent, self-reliant spirit, much of the primitive English strength and honesty, and a local attachment as powerful as that of Highlander or Swiss.
One of these villages, called Hermannsburg, may be taken as a picture of the rest. It consists of one irregular street of pretty cottages, divided into two parts by the little river Oerze, well sheltered by noble trees, and crowned by the wooden spire of the church.
The cottages lie far apart, with gardens between, and paths running from one to another. Every house has the galloping horse of the old Saxons, or at least his head perched upon the gable, and within there is that roominess and comfort, that undefinable homeliness which is so rare out of Great Britain. In this particular village there are none of those miserable hovels at the outskirts which offend the eye elsewhere. There are no beggars, no rough or vagrant loungers about the streets, nor ragged children toddling out of doorways to hunt up the stranger. So far, it is exceptional, and owes its immunity to a more powerful agent than local character.
In the year 1844 a new clergyman came to the parish, and it is since then that people have begun to talk of the Luneburg Heath. He is a son of the former pastor, and his name is George Louis Detlef Theodore Harms. Bred upon the Heath, it seems to have had the same influence upon him as upon others, his character having all the sturdiness, freedom, and power of self-containment of the district, as well as other traits. Many things are told of his independence when a student, and the difficulties he got into with the professors and ecclesiastical boards by his bold, and, to him, necessary self-assertion. He was an attentive reader, an honest, steady thinker, a man to succeed and to be held in esteem, and to whom university life must have been dear, but as he said, “I am a Luneburger, body and mind; there is not a country in the world I would put before the Luneburg Heath; and next to being a Luneburger, I am a Hermannsburger, and I hold that Hermannsburg is the best and prettiest village on the Heath."
A book-worm by nature, his delight is to root out the moth-eaten parchments of some village church, poring through them for hints of the old days of the parish, or any parish in the district. His church is as dear and sacred to him as his mother; he lives for its order and purity; be loves to restore its ancient usages, such as currende, or singing boys, who are trained in the village school, and go around the neighborhood chanting Christmas and Easter hymns at every house.
A scholar, and a man of courtesy and refinement, he also considers himself one of the people; never raises himself above their capacity, speaks with them, and even preaches in their own dialect, and lives among them as a father and brother. He is an original thinker and an eloquent speaker; eloquent in saying true things in the right phrases and with proper feeling, not by words so much as by simplicity and truth. He has also a healthy, overflowing humor that is irresistible, delightfully quaint, naive, and shrewd.
These things are mentioned because they help one to a better understanding of his work, of the self-sacrifice and qualifications it required. But that which more than all qualified him in any great sense is his exceeding faith in God. The nearness and perfect confidence of his relation to God; the character of his spiritual intercourse, which is a perpetual and deep communing with Jesus; the profoundness and humility of his spiritual knowledge; the utter earnestness and consecration of the man; and the real strength and beauty of his life. Like any other child of God, he has become a power in the world, by giving himself up to the power of God; for in proportion as Christ is in the believer, so is He the power of God in him.
He found Hermannsburg and the neighborhood very different from what they are now. There was always considerable orthodoxy in Hanover, but it was orthodoxy of the church and not of the Spirit. It was quite as powerless for good, and quite as hurtful to the people as rationalism, which prevailed elsewhere. It was only one phase of the common death which had overspread Germany. When the ministry is frigid and careless, it is natural that the people will be the same, and live without much thought but how to make the best of the world that lies next to them. There is but little Christian life in Hanover even now [written in 1860]; it may be imagined what it was at that time.
Like a true pastor, Louis Harms recognized that his first duty lay in his own parish, and it was there he sought for Christian reform. That it was his native parish is not so great a hindrance in Germany as elsewhere. There, pastorates that remain in one family as many as four or five generations are not uncommon, it being regarded as strengthening the respect and affections of the people.
In 1849, when the community was rejoicing in their spiritual life under his ministry, a mission to the heathen was suggested; a mission-house was founded and twelve young men took a four years' course of instruction; and after a year or two had passed, two sailors of the German fleet sought admission to the Hermannsburg emigration, by which an entirely new element was introduced—that of colonization. Peasants who had no missionary gift pleaded to be taken out as settlers; and out of sixty who offered, eight were chosen. "Without these sailors," wrote Pastor Harms, “we would never have been colonists; for we stupid Heath people would never have dreamed of sending any but real missionaries." They all knew something of agriculture, and by profession there were two smiths, a tailor, a butcher, a dyer, and three laborers.
As for the spirit in which the candidates were to study, a sentence from Pastor Harms is very clear: "Be diligent, but also remember Luther's saying: 'Well prayed is more than half learned.' I do not mean your common prayer alone, but pray diligently in your own rooms daily, daily for the Holy Spirit.” The four years of study over, the mission pupils had to pass the examination before being ordained by the Consistory. There were only eight now, two having died and two proved unworthy, a scandal which has never been reproduced. The others passed with credit and compliments from the dignified Board of Examiners.
They were ready, but how were they to be sent? Where was the money to come from? "Then I knocked diligently on the great God in prayer," said Pastor Harms, "and since the praying-man dare not sit with his hands in his lap, I sought among the shipping agents, but came no speed.” He wrote to many missionaries, tried many plans, but all were of no avail, when two sailors who were pupils at the mission-house suggested the building of a ship. "That was a time of great conflict," said Pastor Harms, “and I wrestled with God. For no one encouraged me, but the reverse; and even the truest friends and brethren hinted that I was not quite in my senses. I had knocked at men's doors and found them shut; and yet the idea was manifestly good and for the glory of God. I prayed fervently to the Lord, laid the matter in His hand, and as I arose from my knees at midnight, I said in a voice that almost startled me in the quiet room: 'Forward now, in God's name!' From that moment there was never a doubt in my mind."
In his pure, tranquil, faithful soul, this purpose became his life purpose, to be carried out with all the intensity of his heart and the inflexibility of his will; the way to it once revealed through struggle, was never lost.
Arrangements were speedily made for building a brig at Harburg; it was well and quickly done, and there was only one mishap, which in the end proved harmless; it cost more than 2000 crowns above the estimate. With a landman's ignorance, Pastor Harms did not recognize the difference between copper fastened and copper sheathed until the bill brought it prominently before him.
But all passed off well, and one bright autumn day a special train carried Pastor Harms and some hundreds of his parishioners to Harburg, where they found the shipping dressed with flags in honor of the new vessel, and, having held a simple service on board, the Candace was dedicated to the service of carrying the gospel to the Gallas, of whom they themselves said, “We Gallas are men, it is true, but we are not human.” At length all was ready, the crew and cargo were on board, and the Candace was ready to take the gospel to the Ethiopians. The time for departure from Hermannsburg came, a service was held in the church, people poured in from the neighborhood and thronged outside, the pastor preached a farewell sermon, and the sixteen stood up and sang Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.
Leave-taking, like everything else in Hermannsburg, is peculiar, and it was a pious thought to part with such a song. There is no music so arousing and sublime as that masterpiece of Luther, sung in the proper four parts and at firm marching step; it is a very hero psalm, and there is something noble in these humble men setting their faces toward the savages of Africa, flinging back their lofty music out of composed, brave hearts.
The next day they went to Hamburg, where services were held on board—a novelty which took by surprise the irreligious folk of that city. In this service Pastor Harms insisted upon two rules—the reading of the Word and prayer. “I beg you with my whole heart that every morning you will pray, you have such great reason to thank the Lord who kept you through the night, who can keep and bless you through the day. And every evening pray; you would be the most ungrateful of men if you did not thank the Lord for all the benefits He has shown you. You must pray every evening for the forgiveness of sins, for there is not a day without sin, and where there is no forgiveness there is no blessing. Begin all your work with prayer; and when the storm wind rises, pray; when sin comes, pray; when the devil tempts you, pray, for so long as you pray it will go well with you, body and soul."
When services were over the anchor was lifted, and the Candace floated down to Cuxhaven, and on October 28th, 1853, set sail for Africa.
It was not long after this that the Hermannsburg Missionary Magazine was begun as a means of communicating missionary intelligence from the African colonists to the surrounding districts and the more distant friends of the undertaking. It was begun in obscurity among peasants, in a part of the world where there is little spiritual life, and in five years attained a circulation of fourteen thousand, the largest except two of any publications of Germany, bringing in 2000 crowns profit, though it cost less than a penny a number.
As fast as one set of pupils were gone another filled the mission-house, and Pastor Harms would mention all by name to his congregation, and add, “Now pray for them all!"
Then came a report that the Candace was lost, and it was asked of him what was to be done, to which he replied, "Humble ourselves, confess our sins, pray for forgiveness, and build a new ship." But, fortunately, the report was not correct, and by midsummer of 1859 a fourth voyage was made to Africa.
During that year Pastor Harms added to his work the providing, in connection with the mission, a refuge for discharged convicts from prisons, in order that they might be encouraged not to return to their evil ways.
The question must long have been in one's mind where did he get the money for all these things? The ship cost 15,000 crowns and 4000 more to fit it out, and the colonists landed in Africa with 3000 crowns. The printing press and house cost 3600 crowns, the Refuge farm cost 4000. Africa needed in one year 7000 and in another 21,000, and the annual home expenses were about 6,000. He was a foe to begging, and beyond the barest outline of accounts he excluded money matters from his magazine, having found the straightforward asking of God abundantly sufficient. He had one or two pretty sure sources of income. Each of the eleven thousand annual communicants laid a gift upon the communion table, as is the custom. Then they had the mission collections, the congregation was liberal, plain yeomen handing him 500 crowns; there were persons who robbed themselves to give, and it was God who moved their hearts to liberality. Before his magazine was established, Pastor Harms put a brief report of it in two of the country newspapers. The unlikelihood of that report reaching very far was self-evident, but there came almost at the same time contributions from New Orleans, Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Odessa, and he had no doubt that God had put it into men's minds.
"When the question of the printing office was debated there was no money to bear the expenses; but we cried to the Lord, 'Grant it to us,' and we immediately received 2000 crowns, although the thought had not been made known to anyone; we had only to take and be thankful. A short time ago I had to pay a merchant 550 crowns, and when the day was near I had only 400. I prayed to the Lord to supply the deficiency, and on the day before three letters were brought me: one from Schwerin with twenty crowns, one from Bucksburg with twenty-five, and one from Berlin with 100. The donors were anonymous. On that evening a laborer brought me ten crowns, so that I had enough and five crowns over. When the Refuge for discharged criminals was projected the great obstacle was want of money. After prayer a pious farmer met me and asked me in what way he could assist in good work. I took it as a sign from the Lord, and told him what was in my heart. He sent me 500 crowns. Some time afterward a merchant sent me ten, a pastor 100, and then came 100 anonymously; meanwhile I had not made my wants known. In 1857 I needed for the missions 15,000 crowns; the Lord gave me that and sixty over; the next year I needed double, and the Lord gave me double and 140 over."
They have now many mission stations in Africa, and preachers have also gone from the mission-house at Hermannsburg to the East Indies and to the Western States of America.