Pastor Harms of Hermannsburg

To the north-east of the kingdom of Hanover, there extends a plain of more than twenty leagues in length, the monotony of which is scarcely broken by some little hills and villages, -whose inhabitants have, with difficulty, won the soil they cultivate from the sands, the heaths, and the briars, which cover this dreary region. These are the Landes of Lüneburg (Lünburger-Haide). Amongst these solitary villages, there is one containing barely 500 inhabitants, the name of which twenty years ago had certainly never passed the limits of this desert, yet which has now acquired celebrity amongst the religious men of the whole world. This is Hermannsburg. Thither, for several years, have flocked, every Sunday, numerous visitors, both from the neighbourhood and distant parts. Especially at certain periods of the year-at the missionary festivals-hundreds of friends, of both sexes, of all ranks and of all ages, arrived on foot, on horseback, or in carriages, with the eagerness of delight beaming from every countenance.

On the 17th November of last year, a multitude more numerous than had ever before been seen there (from four to five thousand persons) thronged the streets of Hermannsburg. But mourning in the place of joy was in every face; a deep silence prevailed throughout the crowd; tears were in their eyes, and sorrow in their hearts. A distinguished servant of God, he who had been the soul of all this religious movement, had just departed from this animated scene. Pastor Harms was dead, and this vast assemblage had met to pay him the last tribute of affection by attending his funeral-by accompanying his mortal remains to the cemetery of his humble village. His own brother, Pastor Theodore Harms, his successor in the superintendence of the Missionary Institutions of Hermannsburg, in accordance with the desire of the deceased, delivered the principal address at this funeral ceremony, let us follow him a moment in taking a retrospect of the life (so full of Christian activity) of his brother; let us aim to portray his likeness, borrowing some features from other sources, yet without quitting this great assemblage of the bereaved, in whose serious emotions we would wish, on this occasion, to participate.

Early Years, Göttingen, Rationalism, Conversion

Harms, whose labours and success astonish the mind, had attained only the age of fifty-seven years, and all the great things which God had accomplished by him for the advancement of His own kingdom were comprised within the sixteen years of his pastorate at Hermannsburg. Born in 1808, at Walsrode, where his father was pastor, he was only nine years old when he came, with his family, to Hermannsburg, where his father had just been called to exercise his ministry. His early training in the paternal home was affectionate, but marked by great firmness. Like many other eminent men, it was to his mother that he owed the deepest impressions of his childhood j and in years full of danger, her memory was to him a blessed safeguard. He soon evinced talents of no ordinary kind, which, thanks to careful instruction and vigorous application, subsequently became brilliant. At the age of sixteen he was placed in the Gymnasium of Celle, where, on examination, he was immediately admitted to the first class. Two years later, he obtained his certificate of competency for academical studies. It was at Gottingen, the University of his native land, that he studied theology, from 1827 to 1830. That old Rationalism, which elsewhere was expiring under the reviving breath of a new learning, was then in the ascendant at this University. Our young student-still himself without faith, but possessed of manly, straightforward sense-was repelled by the false wisdom of his tutors, opened a path for himself, and resolved to conquer the whole domain of science, hoping to satisfy his thirst for knowledge, and to fill the void in his own heart. Philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, natural history, besides theology, became in turn, or altogether, the objects of his labours. Endowed with an extraordinary memory, he easily made himself master of all the languages which could aid him in the acquisition of these sciences. In addition to the three ancient tongues which divinity students learn so thoroughly in the German gymnasia, he studied Sanscrit, Syriac, and Chaldee, and, amongst modern languages, Italian and Spanish. But in all these pursuits, to which he devoted himself with the ardour and perseverance of an iron will, the supreme truth yet more and more escaped him. His doubts were transformed into absolute disbelief. At the same time, the great defects attendant on his great qualities became more and more conspicuous. Violent, passionate, and inflexible, he was, on the showing of his own brother, the terror of the younger members of the family. But his outward morality was maintained, through his horror of the base lusts which are the snare of so many young men. This elevated sentiment, aided by the absolute ascendancy which he possessed over his fellow-students, enabled him one day, whilst yet at the Gymnasium of Celle, to dissuade the whole class from attending the performances of a company of comedians who had just arrived in that city. But it will be obvious that in proportion as the religious sentiment decayed within him, this rigidity of manners became a stoical pride, rather than the obedience of conscience to a sense of duty.

Meanwhile the solemn moment was approaching which was to decide the character of his life by giving to it an entirely new impulse and direction. He was still at the University. Inwardly unhappy in the midst of all his scientific pursuits, he incessantly asked himself, with anguish, the question, What is the truth 1 What is the end of life ? One night, the whole of which he had passed in work, wearied and sad, he opened the Gospel of St. John, and read the 17th chapter, the last and solemn prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was the reply to his questions; or rather, to use the language of his brother, " light arose in his soul: the prayer of our great High Priest and Sacrifice, Jesus Christ, touched and melted his heart." In such a character, this crisis was decisive and absolute. From that moment his life was devoted to Him who had made himself its Lord.

Early Lay Ministry

After obtaining high honours at the examinations, he quitted Gottingen, and, too young to occupy a post in the Church of his country, he accepted the place of tutor in a family at Lauenburg. The years thus spent were not lost, either for his own development or for those who felt the influence of his Christian life. " I yet remember," said a dignitary of the Church of Hanover, standing near his coffin, "how many were won over to the truth by his testimony when he was only a candidate for orders in Lauenburg. When his calm, clear, and penetrating gaze rested on a friend, you at once saw that he had read the depths of your heart, and were compelled to open it to him. And when, from his own experience, he spoke of the only true aid, the true Saviour, he carried conviction to the soul. You read in his countenance the traces of rude internal conflicts, of great sufferings experienced: yet his whole being was, so to speak, inundated by a peace which shone forth in his manner of speaking and of acting."

Taking Over From His Father

In 1843 Harms returned to Hermannsburg, whither his aged father had called him as his assistant; and it was not till 1848, after the death of his father, that he became the actual pastor of this parish. What his pastorate was, both for the parish itself and for the thousands of souls who resorted thither to seek from this servant of God-from his preaching or his private conversation-counsel, light, edification, and consolation, it is not possible, in these few sentences, to describe; nor will it ever be known, until that great day when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed.

His Personal Spirituality

Harms gave himself absolutely, wholly, to his work, devoting the day to his ministry, and a great part of the night to the labours of the study; consumed with zeal, he denied himself family enjoyments, probably that nothing in his life might distract or divert him from his daily task. When his friends spoke to him of marriage, he replied, with a smile, "I have not the time to take a wife." In reality, his betrothed, his true love, was Hermannsburg. He exerted, over the whole of his parish, over each family, whom he often visited, and more or less over each individual, an all-pervading and absolute influence-one is tempted to say too absolute: the force of his character, seconded, moreover, by his Lutheran views on the authority of the ministry, had made him the living rule of all; but it must be added that if greater room for the spontaneity of others might have been desirable, the immense ascendancy of the pastor was sanctified by the Christian life which was so abundant in him.

Harms the Preacher

It was, in like manner, that ever-springing source of religious life, which explains the potent and extensive influence of Harms as a preacher. That life, both for himself and others, he drew from these two sources: the Bible and prayer. He was a man of the Bible and a man of prayer. "He had made the Scriptures," said one of his friends, "his own property. He believed, preached, loved, and received them. His earnest conscientiousness, the clearness of his understanding, the power of his memory, the energy of his will, the constant and indomitable firmness of his character were all permeated and sanctified by the spirit of the Holy Scriptures." This was the secret of his power in the pulpit. He moreover possessed nothing of that which makes the orator, which constitutes eloquence, in the ordinary sense of those terms. But he possessed what was much better. I will quote the language in which a Christian, very impartial in his judgments, conveys the impression made on his own mind by the religious services of the Sunday. "Long before the hour of worship, the crowd of parishioners and visitors pressed silently into the church, which was always too small to receive them. The most profound attention prevailed amongst these masses from the moment in which the preacher made his appearance. It was by no means his words only that exerted so great a power; but his whole person, his deportment, his look, his manner of reading the liturgy-in a word, his whole being-seemed the visible personification of Christian piety, of Evangelical faith, of deep repentance, of intimate confidence in God, of a holy adoration in the presence of the Lord and Saviour of souls. In his prayers there was a mysterious power which elevated with him the whole assembly to the very throne of God. He commenced speaking in a low voice; his discourse, simple, without pretension, without ornament, soon flowed like a river. There was no pathos, no rhetoric, no false enthusiasm. But the whole man became one with the word of the Scripture, with the divine truth with which he sought to penetrate men's souls. A fire from above [burned] in his heart and kindled in his eyes. The man disappeared completely. He was the first to forget himself. It was in preaching repentance that Harms showed himself a master. We have already said that his whole being seemed to personify the deep seriousness of the Christian penitent. His pale, thin countenance, his searching look, his experience of human misery, his burning zeal, his life of self renunciation, his indefatigable labours-all combined to produce, in his presence, and beneath his words, a thorough sense of shame, of repentance, and of grief for the consciousness of sin. But then the grand consolations of the Gospel were not wanting. The more thoroughly had the field been ploughed, the more deeply did the gentle rain from heaven, and the vivifying rays of the love of Jesus penetrate the soil. When this earnest preacher of rejientance proclaimed the mercy of God, and depicted Jesus, with open arms, waiting to receive the sinner, his testimony clothed itself with invincible power." 

What was a Sunday at Hermannsburg, occupied by such a preacher? This was the order of proceeding: The morning service began by the reading and the exposition of Scripture from the altar, which was followed by baptisms, always accompanied by an address. The sermon occupied the chief place; and the service concluded by the celebration of the Lord's Supper, always preceded by serious exhortation. This service lasted three or four hours, that is to say, until nearly midday, or one o'clock. At three o'clock the church was again open, and filled; and in the hours devoted to the religious instruction of the young, the pastor, like a father in the midst of his family, moving to and fro throughout the church, interrogating young and old, and often engaging in lengthened conversations, abundantly watered the divine seed which he had sown in the morning. The second service had hardly terminated, when a crowd of villagers, parishioners, and people of the neighbourhood, assembled on the green-sward or in an outbuilding, and Harms, a child of the country, delivered a simple and impressive meditation in patois, or Low German, which these good country people especially affect. In the evening, the parsonage was full of visitors anxious to see the Pastor of Hermannsburg nearer, and to hear the language he would address to this more private gathering. Finally, towards the close of the evening, Harms conducted domestic worship, to which he admitted all who desired it. Let us add that the short intervals between these five services were not devoted by Harms to repose, but to private conversations with strangers who came to solicit his advice.

The Mission Program

Is not one tempted to say that this was too much-too much for the hearers, too much especially for the pastor, whose life must infallibly be soon worn out with such labour? "We abstain from pronouncing an opinion. But is not one overwhelmed with astonishment when remembering that this arduous ministerial work was but a part of the labours of Harms? In fact, we have as yet said nothing of his immense exertions in the field of missions. This work, to which we must refer, and to which he devoted all his powerful energy, commenced (far beyond all his anticipations) by means of a school, which he had himself founded and directed, with the sole object of continuing the instruction of the young people of his parish, in order that their parents might not be obliged to send them to other establishments, far from his own supervision. When he afterwards began to hold missionary meetings, several of these young men requested to be trained for the work of proclaiming the Gospel to the poor heathen. Harms was not the man to remit this matter to other hands than his own. He himself commenced the instruction of these young persons. Thus originated in 1848-that is to say, the first year of his official pastorate-a Missionary College. A young proprietor of the parish made over to the mission his house and grounds, without any conditions except that he himself should have the privilege of admission, and of preaching the Gospel to the heathen. An uninterrupted succession of acts of like generosity caused the work speedily to develop with marvellous rapidity. When Harms saw that these first eight young people were sufficiently prepared for their mission, he asked himself, What shall we do? There were not wanting in the Christian world prudent persons, who said, How can a poor village pastor establish by himself a mission to the heathen? Harms consulted only his conscience and his God; and after having deeply reflected on the subject, he said to himself: I will send these young men directly to their field of labour; to this end I will build for them a vessel, which, under the conduct of Christian sailors, shall go to and fro across the waters, and be a permanent bond between the mission and the fatherland. The 19,000 thalers needful for this enterprise were promptly raised, and in 1853 the ship Candace was ready to set sail. The young messengers of peace whom it bore departed to found upon the eastern coast of Africa a missionary colony, a new Hermannsburg, and since then, the Candace has continually conveyed fresh groups of labourers to this distant land, plying constantly between Africa and Hamburg. Whilst the work grew and increased in Africa, in the midst of inevitable difficulties, it also grew at Hermannsburg. Harms, at his death, left two noble mission-houses, with two directors and nearly fifty pupils. The expenditure for this work now reaches more than 40,000 thalers. In sixteen years Harms received for his mission 300,000 thalers, without having ever asked any one directly to contribute, or instituted any sort of collections. This was his principle. And this principle we strongly recommend to the study of the promoters of all Christian undertakings.

The Asylum for Liberated Prisoners

Harms still further founded in his parish an Asylum for Liberated Prisoners, an institution which has hitherto been signally successful. We have already mentioned that, after working all the day, this indefatigable labourer prolonged his vigils through the night till nearly two or three in the morning, studying, and preparing for the press his missionary magazine, first published in 1854, and the circulation of which throughout Germany has now reached 16,000 copies.

Numbered Days

For some years it was the opinion of all who saw Harms that his days were numbered. When they beheld him enter his beloved church, pale and thin, with tottering step, they perceived that his strength was undermined, and that he was sustained only by his indomitable energy of will; they feared, in a word, that he carried within him the seeds of consumption. That, however, was not the malady by which he was to be removed. In 1864 the smallpox was prevalent in Hermannsburg. Disregarding his weak state, Harms was incessant in his attendance upon the sick, until he was himself attacked. His illness left him with a dropsical affection, the tendency of which was constantly to increase, and to cause him much suffering. The sad intelligence quickly spread far and near, and drew to Hermannsburg, last summer, a larger host of friends than ever, all wishing to see and hear again him from whom they had received so much good. Being no longer able to walk, Harms caused himself to be taken to church in a little carriage, which his dear missionary students drew beside the altar and to the foot of the pulpit, from which spot, being no longer able to stand, he spoke seated. "O, Lord Jesus," he sighed, when delivering his last sermon, on the 5th November, “if I can no longer preach, take me from this earth! Of what good should I be, if I could no longer speak of Thee to my brethren?" But he was to pay his full tribute to human misery. Amidst the oppression caused by the dropsy, his sufferings became so fearful, that he might often be heard crying aloud to his God. All was prayer around him and in his own soul. As the supreme moment approached, which was to put an end to the struggle, the friends by whom he was surrounded were brought to regard it as a mercy from Heaven. " Lord Jesus, come quickly!" such was the last word, the last sigh, of this faithful servant of God.

A Day of Tributes

We have indicated, in our first lines, the scene of mourning which took place at Hermannsburg on November 17. All who were present were filled with the deepest, the most serious emotion. Harms's entire parish,-the thousands of friends who had hastened thither to bid him a last adieu,-the students of the Missionary Institutions,-the Church of Hanover, represented by some of the highest dignitaries, and by thirty of its pastors,-all, all were there, with but one heart and mind to weep and pray. The Royal Family was desirous of associating itself with this general mourning. A member of the Supreme Consistory of Hanover, by whom it was represented, and who was the first to utter words of touching import beside the mortal remains of Harms, deposited upon his bier five palms and five floral crowns, the last souvenir of the King, the Queen, and their three children. If the sorrow of all was deep,-all, too, found consolation and inspiring hope in the addresses, full of faith, which were delivered; in those magnificent hymns on death and eternal life* which arose from the depths of thousands of souls; and, above all, in the assurance that God, in calling to Him His servants, does not abandon His work. That work, as it relates to the missionary establishments, has been confided by Harms himself to the direction of his brother, who, for several years past, has devoted to it his time and strength.

Final Thoughts

It is with pain if, after having endeavoured to sketch the picture of Harms and his laborious life, we have the courage to say a last word upon his opinions on questions of the day. What matters if, on points of secondary importance, views which we deem erroneous were held by a man of such faith, such piety, such a life? It is not, therefore, by way of judging him, but as a simple historical fact, that we say that Harms attached himself, with all the energy of his character, to the most pronounced Lutheran party,-we add, with regret, the most exclusive party that rules in some divisions of the Protestant Church of Germany;-that is to say, that he saw in the ecclesiastical revolution which is taking place in the various National Churches of this country,-and which has especially agitated, for some years past, Hanover, his native land,-a work of destruction and darkness. In a letter, written a short time before his death, he expressed the idea that this movement will result in the dissolution of the Churches, as they now exist, and the creation, by the power of God, of a new and living Church. For that future we wish with all our hearts, and to its preparation no one has contributed more than Harms. " Given a dozen more men like Harms," said an ardent member of the party hostile to the Gospel in Hanover," and we are lost!" That saying also claims a place in the funeral oration of this valiant soldier of Jesus Christ.

Evangelical Christendom, February 1, 1866