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A Record of Fifty Years

The Story of Louis Harms and the Hermannsburg Mission

Belle Brain

Life and Details

Half a century ago [at the time this article was written], in the quaint old town of Hermannsburg, about fifty miles south of Hamburg, Pastor Harms began his ministry, and inaugurated the great work for foreign missions that resulted in the formation of the Hermannsburg Society. 

Louis Harms was one of the remarkable men of this century. His life-work, though wrought within the narrow confines of an obscure German village, extended "unto the uttermost parts of the earth." His achievements were unique, without a parallel in missionary history. To him was it given to prove to the Church, that one pastor and his congregation can accomplish great things for world-wide evangelization; that the necessary funds for m

issionary operations will be forthcoming when God, not man, is asked to supply them; and that the reflex blessing of giving the Gospel to those who have it not, is so great as to he beyond computation.

Pastor Harms was born May 5, 1808, in Walsrode, a village of the Luneburg heath, in Hanover, but at the age of nine years he removed with his parents to Hermannsburg, not far distant, where his father, a staunch and dignified Lutheran minister, was pastor of the parish. The elder Harms was noted for the severity with which he disciplined his children. His sons were trained in all manly sports, and Louis, a strong and healthy lad, with dauntless courage and great powers of endurance, became an expert athlete, far-famed for his daring exploits and feats of skill. His mind was as strong and powerful as his body, and his memory so remarkable that he could repeat long poems after merely reading them over several times. In after years, in his church at Hermannsburg, he frequently recited, with perfect accuracy, a psalm or chapter from the Bible, expounding it, verse by verse, in the most delightful manner. It is said that he committed the entire Bible to memory.

Conversion at the University

His education was thorough and complete. After a course of study at home, and two years in the high school at Celle, he went, in 1827, to Gottingen University, entering upon an extended course of study with great zest. The university was at that time permeated with the spirit of rationalism, and ere long the faith of the young student began to decline. Gradually sinking lower and lower in unbelief, he at last openly declared. ''There is no God." Not long, however, did he remain in this hopeless condition. He was a chosen vessel that must be made meet for the Master's use. One evening, as he sat alone, intending to spend the entire night in study, he was moved to read the seventeenth chapter of John's Gospel. As he came to the third verse—"And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou has sent"—the truth entered as a searchlight into his soul. “I had never feared in all my life," he says; “but when I came to a knowledge of my sin I trembled before God from top to bottom, and all my muscles shook."

A Thorn in the Flesh

His conversion was as instantaneous and complete as that (if Saul of Tarsus. Henceforth Louis Harms lived only for his newfound Master. Spiritual gifts of the highest order were bestowed upon him, but with them was given, as to the great apostle, a "thorn in the flesh." Not long after his conversion his rugged health gave way, and he was weakened and tortured by physical pain, which seldom left him. Bravely and patiently did he bear it, refusing to take opiates, and accepting it as the Lord's way of humbling. "It is true that I suffer much everyday," he said, "and more every night. I do not wish it otherwise. My Savior is my physician. I love to lie awake the entire night, because I can then commune with Him."

On leaving the university in 1830, young Harms engaged in teaching, serving nine years as a tutor in Ladenburg, and four in Luneburg. It was during this period that he first became interested in missions. Many positions of great usefulness, notably those of tutor in the Mission House at Hamburg, and pastor in New York, were open to him. All, however, were declined in accordance, as he believed, with the will of God. There was "a parish destined for him from eternity," and he was kept in waiting for it until the "fullness of time."

Appointments in Hermannsburg

In 1841 his father sent for him to come to Hermannsburg to take charge of his private school. A year later, after receiving ordination, he was appointed assistant pastor, entering upon his duties the second Sunday in Advent, 1844. The parish at that time included seven of the many villages that dot the Luneburg heath, a great expanse of thinly-peopled moorland, extending from the Weser to the Elbe. The parishioners, about 4,500 in number, were, for the most part, sturdy, self-reliant German yeomen and peasants, as ardently attached to their native heath as the Highlanders to their Scottish hills, or the Switzers to their Alpine peaks. This intense home-love young Harms, himself born and bred upon the heath, shared with them. He was an indefatigable antiquarian, poring over legends and traditions, and searching out the location of important places connected with the history of the region.

The parish sanctuary, the Peter-Paul's Church, at Hermannsburg, a (plain old stone structure, dating back to A. D. 975, was regarded with a reverent affection akin to that of the Jews for the temple at Jerusalem. Within its sacred walls the ancestors of the pastor, and many of his people, had worshiped for well on to nine hundred years. Though poorly ventilated, and totally inadequate in size, during the lifetime of Louis Harms it remained unchanged. Regarding it as a means of grace, he positively refused to allow it to be remodeled, or rebuilt.

Spiritual Conditions Improve in His Parish

The religious life of the parish, though orthodox, was cold and formal, and there was little spirituality, or Christian activity to be found. The advent of the earnest young teacher, however, introduced a new element, and a different spirit began to permeate the place. From the first day he came among them, Louis Harms began to exert that wonderful influence that continued throughout his life, and descended upon his successors. The example of his singularly devout life, fed by deep communion and unceasing prayer, raised the people to a higher spiritual level, while the deep love and warm sympathy he manifested for even the lowliest among the flock, bound them to him by the closest ties. Before many years had passed he wielded a scepter of influence well-nigh unlimited in power.

A Religious Awakening Births Missionary Endeavor

In 1849 the elder Harms died, and his son became his successor. Scarcely had he entered upon the duties of his new position when a great religious awakening took place. The spirit of self-sacrifice and devotion ran high, and the young pastor wisely endeavored to turn it into proper channels. He urged his people to undertake a mission to the heathen. The project had long been dear to his own heart, and now he succeeded in kindling fires of missionary enthusiasm throughout the parish. The first fruits of the newly awakened interest were three humble gifts: six shillings from a widow, a sixpence from a laborer, and a silver penny from a little child. Ere long men as well as money began to be offered for the work. One by one they came forward, until a little company of twelve stood ready to go wherever God would send them, asking only that it be the place of greatest need.

Preparing to Reach the Gallas

The field chosen was a district in southeastern Africa, occupied by the Gallas, a fierce and bloodthirsty tribe, to whom as yet no Gospel herald had carried the story of the Cross. The next question was one of preparation. The volunteers, though filled with the spirit of heroism and devotion, were untaught peasants, by no means ready for their work. After due deliberation, a house was purchased and fitted up as a training school. Here the prospective missionaries took up their residence, and entered upon a four years’ course under the direction of Theodore Harms, a younger brother of the pastor. Besides a daily round of manual labor the curriculum embraced Bible study, church history, exegesis, dogmatic, history of missions, etc., a formidable array of subjects for men unused to study. This, however, as all else connected with Hermannsburg, was accomplished through prayer. A year or two later an event occurred which completely changed the plans of the mission. A party of German sailors arrived in the village, asking Pastor Harms to send them to Africa under the care of his missionaries. They had recently been converted, and desired to found a colony in Africa to assist in putting down the slave trade. Harms received them gladly, and at once accepted the new idea of colonization. This set the Hcrmannsburgers ablaze with enthusiasm. No less than sixty peasants immediately came forward, asking to be sent as colonists. Eight of these were accepted and put under a suitable course of training.

Finding Wisdom Through Prayer

The project now assumed proportions far exceeding the designs of its promoter, and there were perplexing questions concerning ways and means. How was this large company to be sent to the field? After "knocking diligently on the dear Lord in prayer," Pastor Harms sought for help among the shipping agents. Failing in this, he applied to Bishop Gobat in Jerusalem, but received no answer. Then he wrote to Krapf in Africa, but the letter was lost. The way seemed effectually blocked on every side. Finally one of the sailors suggested the building of a ship so that they could send out their own missionaries. "The proposal was good," says Harms, "but the money! That was a time of great conflict, and I wrestled with God. No one encouraged me, but the reverse; and even the truest friends and brethren hinted that I was not in my senses." At length, however, while spending the night in prayer, the way became plain. "I prayed fervently to the Lord," he says, “and laid the whole matter in His hands. As I arose from my knees at midnight, I said, with a voice that almost startled me in the quiet room: 'Forward now, in God's name!'” The crisis had past. Never again did a thought of doubt enter his mind.

Contracts were at once let at Harburg for building the ship. When it was completed, pastor and people went, with great rejoicing, to the little city on the Elbe, and dedicated the beautiful new vessel to the holy work of carrying the Gospel to the Africans, christening her Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. From now on Hermannsburg was the scene of the busiest activities Women and girls sewed and knitted incessantly on the outfits of the voyagers, while men and boys gathered great stores of provisions for the vessel. Nothing was forgotten—not even a Christmas-tree planted in a great tub, ready for the festival that would be kept on the ocean. Then there was the interest and excitement attending the examination and ordination of the eight missionaries who had successfully completed the course. Of the original twelve, two had died, and two proved unworthy.

At length all was ready and the day of departure at hand. A great farewell service was held in the church, attended by people from all the surrounding country. After the sermon, preached by Theodore Harms, the sixteen volunteers—all men—stood up and sang their parting hymn: "Ein feste Berg ist unser Gott" the grand old hero psalm of Luther. Next morning a long train of wagons wound its way over the heath, followed for some distance by the villagers, singing their favorite hymns, and the first brood from the Hermannsburg nest had gone.

At Hamburg Pastor Harms conducted an open-air service on board the ship. The novel event brought together a great concourse of people, who crowded the rigging and bulwarks of the shipping in the harbor. From the deck of the Candace the pastor, at the close of his sermon, spoke earnest words of counsel to each class on board—missionaries, colonists, officers, and sailors. All were urged to "pray without ceasing," and to give diligent heed to the reading of the Word. The service over, and farewells said, the Candace weighed anchor and began her long voyage for Mombas and the Gallas country via the Cape and Port Natal. The date, Oct. 28, 1853, is a notable one in missionary history.

More Students

After the busy, excited days of preparation and departure the village seemed desolate, indeed. Not long, however, did it remain so. In three weeks' time the vacant seminary was again filled with twelve students, among them a young man named Behrens, who offered his farm as well as himself. This gift, known as the mission farm, was of great value, yielding sufficient revenue to support the students in the school.

A Missionary Publication

In 1854, feeling the need of some means of communication between the missionaries and the people, Pastor Harms, with great hesitancy, undertook the publication of a missionary magazine—the Hermannsburger Missionsblatt—which has continued to be issued monthly down to the present time [at least fifty years at the time the article was written]. From the very first it was remarkably successful. At the end of five years it became a source of revenue to the mission, having a circulation of 14,000 copies, the largest, with two exceptions, of any periodical in Germany. The publication of the magazine soon led to the establishment of a printing-house, where not only the paper, but Bibles, hymn-books, and catechisms could be printed.

The Candace’s Perilous Maiden Voyage

As the long months went by no tidings were received from the Candace. It was a time of sore anxiety, for commercial authorities had spread the report that she was worm-eaten and had been lost at sea. The pastor kept nothing back, and when the people asked, “What shall we do if she never returns?" replied: “Humble ourselves, confess our sins, pray to God, and build a new ship!" Great was the rejoicing when, in 1855, she at last arrived in such good condition that even ordinary repairs were not needed.

The voyage as far as Port Natal had been made in safety, but after leaving that point the missionaries had been "in perils in the sea and in perils by the heathen." A storm drove them far out into the Indian Ocean, and when at last, with great difficulty, they reached Mombas, the Mohammedans in power had positively refused to allow them to land! After trying in vain to reach the Gallas, they reluctantly gave up their cherished plans, and returning to Natal, settled among the Zulu tribes. Here they purchased 4,000 acres of land, calling it Perseverance Farm, and on September 19, 1834, laid the foundations of New Hermannsburg, the first station of the mission.

In 1856 the Candace returned to Africa, carrying out a second company of volunteers, among them four brides, the promised wives of missionaries in the field. In 1857 she went again, crowded to her utmost capacity by forty-four persons who left the old Hermannsburg for the new. Henceforth she made yearly trips, taking out reinforcements for the field, and returning with encouraging reports of the work.

A Report of God’s Signal Blessings on the Mission

So mightily was the mission blessed of God that in 1860, seven years after the first missionaries sailed, the congregation at Hermannsburg was able to make the following remarkable report: In the home land they owned, and had in successful operation, the mission house occupied by forty-five students; the refuge farm; an asylum for discharged convicts, occupied by twenty inmates; the mission farm, and the printing-house. In Africa they owned 40,000 acres of land, occupied by eight stations, at each of which comfortable houses and workshops had been erected. One hundred of their own number was already on the field, and fifty converts had been gathered from the African tribes. Besides all this, they owned a ship and published a missionary magazine. That such wonders should have been wrought in seven years by one pastor and his congregation of humble peasants, seems almost beyond belief.

The financial record of the mission has been called a “spiritual study in statistics." Such expensive operations demanded a large outlay of money, and neither Harms nor his people were rich in anything but faith. Though they gave with great liberality, some, like Behrens, stripping themselves of all they had, it was quite impossible for them to furnish more than a tithe of the whole amount. Where, then, did the money come from? The answer is very simple. God, who was manifestly directing the enterprise, sent it in answer to prayer. Contributions came unsought from all parts of the world. Harms himself called his mission "swimming iron," believing it to be supernaturally sustained. So bitter a foe was he to beggars that not one was tolerated in his parish. Equally hostile to religious beggars, he determined from the first, that God alone should be asked for the needed funds. Most richly was his faith rewarded. His experiences of answered prayer were as remarkable as those of the late George Muller of Bristol. It is a notable fact that, the expenditures of the mission varied greatly from year to year, the income varied in exact proportion, so that at no time was there a deficit. Each year closed with a balance in the treasury!


Life in Hermannsburg

Continual Religious Awakenings

Meanwhile the Hermannsburgers were proving by their own experience that “religion is a commodity of which the more we export, the more we have remaining." While they were so diligently engaged in sending the Gospel to the heathen, the windows of heaven opened, and showers of blessing descended upon the work at home. During the whole period of Louis Harms' pastorate there was an uninterrupted revival in Hermannsburg parish, in which it is said 10,000 souls were brought to a knowledge of the truth. Prof. Park, who spent three weeks with Pastor Harms in 1865, says:

“I supposed for a time that the parish was then in a state of special religious excitement. I asked, ‘How long has this excitement continued?’ ‘About seventeen years,’ was the reply, ‘ever since Pastor Harms came among us.’ A stranger is apt to regard the villagers as living almost altogether for the church and missions. ‘Are there not some unbelievers in the parish?’ I asked my landlord. ‘There is one, only one,’” was his reply.

A Model Pastor

Louis Harms was a model pastor. He was a profound scholar of broad culture and refinement, and his people simple-minded German peasants, yet he lived among them as a father, preaching to them in their own dialect, and concerning himself with every detail of their daily lives. Though engaged in such vast enterprises, both at home and abroad, he nevertheless found time to devote to pastoral work as well. Each day, from 10 to 12 A. M. and from 4 to 5 P. M., the parsonage was open to the people, who came in great numbers, being admitted one by one to his study for a private interview. From 10 to 11 P. M., when his family devotions were held, the parsonage was again open that all who wished might spend the hour with him in prayer and praise. It was, in reality, a daily prayer meeting. He never married, being, as he said, "too busy for such pastime" His home was presided over by his sister, a finely-educated lady of great culture.

A Spiritual Village

The religious life at Hermannsburg was so perfectly blended with the secular that there was apparently no separation between them. All was done to the glory of God. Prof. Park has given a beautiful picture of some of the quaint old customs introduced by Harms, combining religious fervor with the performance of the common duties of daily life. He says:

Over many a door in the village is printed some verse of the Bible or stanza of a hymn. At sunrise, sunset, and midday, the church-bell is tolled for a few minutes, and at its first stroke men, women, and children stop their work wherever they are—in the house, or field, or in the street —and offer a silent prayer. Once I saw a company of seventeen men on their way to a wedding at the church, when suddenly they stopped, took off their hats, and seemed to be devout in prayer until the bell ceased tolling. Often during the evening, as men walked the streets, they sang the old church hymns.

Dying in the Harness

In 1865, after a period of intense suffering, borne without a murmur, Louis Harms passed to his reward. The desire of his heart, that he might die in the harness, without reaching old age, was granted to him. The news of his death was received with peculiar sorrow by Christians everywhere, and all eyes were upon his mission. Many feared that with its great head taken away it would decline in power. But its foundations were broad and deep, and God, who ''buried his workman, carried on his work." The mantle of Louis Harms' influence descended in great measure upon his brother Theodore, who now became director of the mission, filling that office with good success for a period of twenty years. On his death in 1885 he was succeeded by his son, Egmont Harms, the present director.


Some Jubilee Year Facts 

The jubilee year of the mission finds it in good condition. In South Africa, among the Zulus and Bechuanas, there are 27 stations manned by 46 missionaries, and in India, among the Telugus, there are 9 stations and 10 missionaries. There are also 402 native assistants at work, and the whole number of communicants in the mission churches is about 24,000.

In the homeland two training schools, known respectively as the Old and New Mission House, are in active operation. The number of students is now so large that only a part of them are needed to supply the mission fields. All, however, are sent to foreign lands. Some are serving as pastors in Australia, America, and other fields remote from the fatherland. Besides these training schools, there is a boarding school for the children of missionaries in India, who are sent home to be educated. No such provision is made for children of missionaries to Africa. On account of the good climate and excellent school facilities, they remain with their parents in the field.

The historic old Peter-Paul's Church has not been used by the congregation for many years. They now worship in the Church of the Lord's Cross, a large and commodious edifice, erected when the Free Church separated from the State Church in 1878. The Candace no longer makes her yearly trips, "moving to and fro as a shuttle weaving a closer bond " between the home church and the mission field. When steamers began to ply the waters between Europe and the Tropics, it was found cheaper to send the missionaries by means of them, and the Candace was sold to a mercantile house for coasting traffic. A few years ago she was sold again, and soon after broken up. Rev. Egmont Harms is now in Africa. Early in 1896, with his wife and two youngest children, he took up his residence for a term of five years in New Hermannsburg. This removal of the director to the field is a new departure, and was undertaken in order that the conditions existing in the field might be better understood. The scheme, so far, has been productive of much good.

This year, to mark the passing of the half century milestone, a new station, to be known as "Jubilee Station," will be opened in Puttur, India, and a great effort is being made to pay off a debt of about $23,000 with which, unfortunately, the society is at present encumbered. Such has been the record of fifty years in Hermannsburg mission. Christians everywhere join in extending congratulations to these noble workers, and in expressing the hope that their labors during the coming years may continue to be crowned with blessing and success.


This article originally appeared as an article in The Missionary Review of the World, Volume 22, pp. 489-499, and was written by Belle M. Brain, Springfield, Ohio.  1899