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Life Work of Louis Harms

Theodore Harms 

Chapter 2

Goes to College

Sound in body and mind, a handsome boy was Louis Harms. In the loved home, under the strict discipline of our parents, in the unsettled time, of the war for freedom, with its victories, but also its need and anxiety—endowed with unusual gifts—he had not as yet taken a decided stand upon God's side.

In the year 1817 our parents settled in Hermannsburg, and the people who helped us said to father, “You have undertaken a difficult work; the neighborhood is rough and wild.” They were right, for one of the first evidences which came under father's notice was the custom of taking liquor to church, and passing it from hand to hand. He descended from the pulpit, and grasping by the throat the man in whose hand it happened to be, said in his deep, stern voice, “Are you not ashamed to serve the devil in the house of God?" That was the last time that he had occasion to thus publicly rebuke them for that offense.

We children were overjoyed at the change from a town to the country, although Louis the very first day got stuck in a swamp which lay back of the parsonage. It is now a beautiful meadow, but Louis could never forget his experience in it. The Hermannsburg boys did not take very kindly to us city boys, and there were frequent scuffles; but after a time all became fast friends.

Father decided to increase his income by opening a private school, giving much of the instruction himself. Louis, by his great talent and industry, made rapid progress, and father was astonished at his wonderful memory. He could repeat a poem of from sixteen to twenty pages after reading it once over, and none of the other pupils could keep pace with him in his studies. Before he went to the high school he had read Tacitus, whose "Germania," in the Latin language, gave his fellow Romans the manners and customs of our forefathers with accuracy. Louis loved this book, and as God's Word had not made the impression upon him that it afterward did, the "Germania" of Tacitus was his bible in his boyish days. With it in his hand, he went though groves and forests, the whispering leaves the only sound, sorrowing because the gods of the early fathers were no longer to be worshiped. In his after years, when he had learned to know and love his Saviour, he grieved over this error of his early youth. Had our parents known it, they would not have tolerated it; but God knew it and tolerated it, for He was preparing Louis as an instrument for Christ's work. He had placed in my brother's heart a horror of untruth and a love for purity; he was therefore safe from two evils by which Satan wins the souls of men.

Owing to his great talents, his fearless courage, and zeal for learning, obstacles were only a stimulus, and the greater they were the greater his pleasure in overcoming them. And so it was in his amusements. The boys of the neighborhood frequently amused themselves by springing over a hedge, and once Louis, in springing over for the first time, caught his foot, which threw him upon his face, causing the blood to gush from his nose. "Now," thought the boys, "that is the end of his trying to leap over it;" but no, Louis declared his determination to spring over, and the next attempt was successful.

He and August worked diligently upon the land, and all their strength was given, for father permitted no trifling; yet they kept up with their studies, and therefore had not much time for recreation.

Louis had a great fondness for music, and father sent him for instruction to the old organist Dissen, and, although we had no piano, he made such rapid progress that Dissen said he never had such a pupil and could not understand the great advancement. But Louis, in default of a piano, had drawn the outline of keys upon a table, and thus played exercises mutely, learning the fingering accurately. The old man was a great admirer of Frederick of Prussia, and frequently invited Louis to play with him before a company of ladies, Dissen representing Prussia and Louis Austria; and, as a rule, Louis allowed Himself to be vanquished that the Prussians might win. Afterward he studied thorough bass, and understood the composition of it. It has always been a subject of regret to me that he, who until the last of his life was so fond of music, had so many duties that he could not cultivate it as he would like to have done.

In all bodily exercises he was master, his slender, elastic form being capable of the greatest exertion. He was a noted swimmer, and once father mentioned that some persons could tread water. Louis was impressed by this, and gave himself no rest until he could do the same. He then reported to father, “Now I can tread water,” and, as evidence, walked quite a distance into the Oerze. He could also walk long distances without weariness; but for equestrian exercise he cared but little, agreeing with Arndt, that for a German it were better to be proficient in marching than in riding.

Louis was confirmed, and was well prepared for it; but I do not remember that his confirmation made a deep impression upon him. Father's manner of preaching and teaching did not easily awaken an unconverted soul, and Louis was not awakened. He heard God's Word preached from a believing heart, but not to conversion. Father was never willing that his children should leave home until after their confirmation. He felt that nothing could take the place of family influence; for one could have but one father and one mother.

August had been established with an apothecary: but Louis, having now reached the age of seventeen, was to be sent to the high school, for it was decided that he must study; yet it seemed impossible to raise funds to educate him as they wished. But they had firm faith and trust in God, and believed their son's extraordinary gifts would be cultivated. The high school in Celle being the nearest, and Director Klopfer and Rector Neuer highly spoken of, he was sent there. In his trial exercises the teachers found him competent to go in the first class, and he was first in the class. He was there two years, and in 1827 left Celle to enter the University of Gottingen.

He had learned much in Celle, but the one thing needful he had not learned. Once, when I was in the high school in Luneburg, our old king, Earnest August, visited the school. He listened to the answers of the pupils, then turned to Director Haage and the other teachers, and said in an earnest voice: “It is good, gentlemen, to cultivate the understanding, but your most beautiful opportunity is to cultivate the hearts of these young people." Yes, to cultivate the heart, and only through God's Word is that possible, and this was not understood in Celle. Louis was first in all that was taught there. From the iniquity of the world or any great sins he was kept free by his love of truth and purity. He had confidence in his fellowmen, and placed honor before everything else; his Saviour he had not found.

The certificate given him upon leaving Celle was the very highest, and read: “George Ludwig Detlef Theodore Harms goes to the University, Easter, 1827, with the report ' thoroughly worthy.' In every respect he is a very superior scholar. A remarkable clearness of the understanding has furthered his progress in the languages and he has read the works of the best authors. His Latin style is pre-eminent, and he has thorough knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. He is frank and open in disposition, and modest and discreet in deportment. He was loved by his teachers, and his habits are blameless."

Louis went to the University of Gottingen with barely enough money for his journey and his college dues, and a gold coin; our parents could give him nothing more. The college called “Georgia Augusta," having been founded by George August—Elector of Hanover and King of England—received him, poor in purse, but rich in gifts of intellect and a firm determination to improve his time. Sound in body and mind he went there, and sound in body and mind he returned. His old acquaintances and former school companions wished to win him to join their amusements, but a dissolute student life was repulsive to him. He would not pass the time his parents had given him there in beer drinking, and his love and reverence for our dear mother would not allow him to listen to an obscene jest or song; and if any student persisted in this, either they must leave the room or he would. Once he threw six students, who persisted in this offense, one after another out of the room, and so quickly was it done that it seemed as if they ran into his hands. But strict as he was in these respects, he was not indifferent to all the amusements of college life. Once he came home on a holiday in a student's garb of blue breeches and green hunting jacket with silver-plated buttons as large as a dollar, upon which were hunting scenes. He was also very fond of fencing, and learned to defend himself in sword practice.

He had a room with a dyer named Tolle, and these good people were always held in affectionate remembrance by him. When it came time for me to go to Gottingen I went to see Meister Tolle, and found him in his shop. I asked for a room, hoping to get the one occupied by Louis. He said I could not rent a room from him, that he was tired of students. I said I was sorry for that, for I had hoped to get the one my brother had occupied for three years. “Who was your brother?" inquired he. “Louis Harms." The moment I mentioned the name he sprang up and said: “Since you are the brother of Louis Harms, you may come to-morrow," and I went. He and his daughter preserved the remembrance of my brother with true esteem.

Our parents could not allow him but $200 yearly for all his expenses while at Gottingen, and at that time the rents were double what they were during my sojourn there; but he managed to live without debt, for as debt was something he did not and would not incur, so he brought his expenses within his means, saving in every possible way. While others ate dinner he went walking, and none suspected that he was stinted. He tried for a time to live upon bread and apples, and when nature rebelled he added cheap, very cheap fare, and remained healthy.

At that time there were 1700 students in Gottingen. Louis excelled in study, but the professors taught nothing that could give peace to an immortal soul. The miserable doctrine of rationalism was taking the place of God's Word, and Louis, who had gone to the university with no fixed belief, and found nothing there to foster one, lapsed into infidelity, even doubting the existence of God. His Maker allowed him to go to the extreme limit, that he might know how thoroughly rationalism can be overpowered and overthrown by Christianity.

Thinking thus, he came home on a holiday, and declared to father he could never be a minister of the gospel, because he did not believe in God, nor in the Bible, nor in the divinity of Christ. Father had a gentle, kindly way of speaking, but when his feelings were mightily stirred his large gray eyes would flash, and his deep bass voice made us tremble. He drew himself to his great height and spoke: “My son, I have gone through much in my life, and you are but an undisciplined and inexperienced boy, although God has endowed you with great gifts. But this I have learned, and in it have steadfast belief, that the Bible is God's Word; that much therein stands which is over and above that rationalism which cannot lessen truth. Let not rationalism become master of the Scriptures. I have counted much upon you, have denied myself that you might become a minister of the gospel, and will you give up this glorious service for an error?”

Louis had imbibed much of his rationalism from books, and now resolved that the whole domain of man's knowledge upon the subject should be his so far as possible. He had made science his god, and, having no Saviour, he had no rest in his soul. Wonderful now were the researches he made. Latin was to him as his mother-tongue, and he could put into Greek what was spoken to him in Hebrew. He learned Italian that he might read Dante in the original, Spanish that he might read Cervantes, understanding the modern Greek that he might compare it with the ancient Greek, Sanskrit that he might read the early books of East India. English and French he knew. He studied botany, and the whole region was traversed by him, and the botanical gardens was his loved place of sojourn. With eager zeal he studied astronomy, and was as much at home with the stars as upon earth. With special interest he gave himself to the study of the old German, and the Nibelungenlied filled him with enthusiasm. Theology, philosophy, philology, natural science, nothing remained foreign to him, but his heart remained empty.

When he came home our parents rejoiced; he was their pride, but we children stood in awe of him, except the two younger ones—Louisa and Hermann—they were his pets. Louisa called him Leo; yes, he was indeed a lion. I was once ill of nervous fever, and when Louis came home upon a holiday, I went walking with him in the parsonage garden, though so weak I could scarcely stand. "Now run," said he, taking me by the arm. I could not run; instead I wept. Once, a long time after, I spoke to him of it, and he said: “Yes, I did you a great wrong.”

Of the $200 that our parents allowed him yearly, he saved at one time enough to come home on one of his visits on the Weser by way of Hamburg and Bremen. This was the only journey of his whole life that he had ever taken for pleasure, and it was a particularly dear remembrance.

The three years' study in Gottingen was nearly over, when one evening in his little room he read from chapter xvii. of John, "And this is life eternal; that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." These words overpowered him, as the words “The just shall live by faith” had overpowered Luther. He realized for the first time that Christ alone can give peace to the soul.

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