The legacy and work of the Francke Foundations, Halle

A conversation with Thomas Müller-Bahlke

By Thomas Müller-Bahlke, Tim Frakes, and Dustin L. Smith

As part of the filming for the documentary, ”God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good,” we interviewed Dr. Thomas Müller-Bahlke, director of the historic Francke Foundations in Halle, Germany. Interview by Tim Frakes, translated by Dustin L. Smith. May 2015.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Francke Foundations?

The Francke Foundations were founded over 300 years ago here just outside the city of Halle by the Lutheran theologian and pedagogue August Hermann Francke. Even today the work of the foundations is based on his original ideas and we continue to carry out his initiatives. Francke helped in many ways to reform the societal conditions of his time and today the Francke Foundations are public institutions active in cultural, scientific, social, and educational areas.

How would you describe Pietism, and how does Francke connect with this movement?

Pietism is a reform movement that could be considered the most important “stream of thought” between the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Philipp Jacob Spener founded the movement in the seventeenth century, moving out of the Lutheran church with the primary intention to reform and bring new life to the church and move closer to the prevailing problems of the day. It quickly developed into a movement that touched on every aspect of society deep into the eighteenth century in ways that can be felt still today.

The primary question was how to involve every Christian at the individual level both in questions of belief and other religious discussions. At the community level, there was the challenge to remedy social problems and inequality and, as Christians, to actively engage in the societal discussions of the time. This was a groundbreaking moment, the introduction of the concept of “active piety.”

August Hermann Francke was one of the leading minds of the Pietist movement and this pietistic impulse led him to interact with the question of how he, as a pious Christian, could help alleviate the problems of his community. He found answers to that question that are exemplary for our work today. For instance, his method of alleviating social injustice was to combat it through education.

What was unique about Francke’s educational approach for the time?

Francke founded schools for members of every social class and made sure that every single person could have access to education regardless of their social background – this is very modern and timeless. He was successful in his efforts through a very specific and individualized educational method; he was one of the first to take the individual as such into consideration pedagogically. He considered each student individually, examined them in order to determine what level of education and understanding they had already achieved, and delivered a tailor-made education. This is also timeless and modern. Francke was interested in a whole new approach to education. Rather than focusing on the simple transmission of facts and ideas, Francke wanted to provide his students a broad, general, “liberal arts” education, but also to help form their soul. He took the whole person into consideration; their heart and their mind were part of the pedagogical plan.

How does Francke’s work relate to the Protestant Reformation?

In many ways August Hermann Francke latched on to the Reformation. Even Luther’s Reformation can be understood as an “educational crusade” and Francke very definitely invoked Luther and his reformatory plans; in many ways, he continued and in some ways completed them. Let’s take the practical example of the dissemination of the Bible. Martin Luther had already had the idea that access to the Bible and the word of God should be universal; it just simply wasn’t feasible with the technology available in the sixteenth century. Two hundred years later, however, August Hermann Francke was able to establish printing presses at the Francke Foundations. Here, for the first time, the Bible was published in a paperback format. Using inexpensive paper the price was kept low enough to be widely distributed among the people and thus a central tenet of the Reformation was brought to fulfillment.

How do the concerns of Pietists like Francke relate to ours today?

If you look at the questions the Pietists faced when they came on the scene 300 years ago, those questions are very similar to the ones we face today in relation to the church. Our primary critique of the church today is that it is still too far away from the everyday problems and challenges of today’s society. For this reason, it would be good for the church to orient itself along the essential guidelines of Pietism and take seriously the Christian responsibility to, according to foundational Christian ethics, actively work to better the community and overcome disparities.

Can you tell us about the renovated campus of the Francke Foundations here in Halle?

The Francke Foundations today are a historic campus of learning in the city of Halle, but that is just the beginning of our cultivation of tradition in regard to August Hermann Francke. As we reopened the Francke Foundations, we took it upon ourselves to bring Francke’s ideas, initiatives, and impulses to life: to carry them out of the past and into the present day.

For example, as we began the work of the Francke Foundations anew, we asked ourselves if Francke would still concern himself with the care of orphans. We came to the conclusion that this is no longer one of the primary societal problems, and that we should instead be focusing our efforts on things like shifting social demographics or “population aging.” The dynamic between old and young and the increasing “over-agedness” of today’s society, these sorts of things would concern Francke today. For this reason, rather than reestablishing an orphanage we founded one of central Germany’s first “Multigenerational Houses.” Here under one roof we have, in one of our historic buildings, a nursing home, a Montessori school, and a family center: all working according to one common concept.

In this way, we can claim, for all fifty buildings of the Francke Foundations, that they are easily recognizable from the outside in their historic form, but on the inside are again alive with Francke’s ideas. We have schools, kindergartens, social institutions for disadvantaged youth, and research institutions. We have Christian institutions as well: a Bible institute, we have a counseling seminary here along with two complete departments of the University. Our educational campus here in the middle of Halle is likely unrivaled in Europe.

August Hermann Francke was a very ecumenical man. Of course part of the theological faculty is Lutheran and part is Catholic. We live in a highly secularized state and therefore we must band together now more than ever and consider how we as Christians, no matter if Reformed, Catholic, or Lutheran, can positively influence our community.

What is the legacy of Halle in the history of world missions?

Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, August Hermann Francke and the Halle Pietists formed global relationships, reaching as far as North America. Already at the end of the seventeenth century there were Pietists who traveled to Pennsylvania with the Frankfurt Land Company to sell land for William Penn. Several years later a theologian by the name of Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg, who was heavily influenced by Halle Pietism, was sent out from here to look after the Lutheran congregations of German immigrants in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas.

Mühlenberg was especially well suited to build up the Lutheran church in North America because, as a Pietist, he was used to speaking with other Christians as social equals. This is what the Lutheran immigrants were looking for in North America; after all, they emigrated in order to be able to make religious decisions for themselves. Thus, it is no coincidence that a Halle Pietist became the patriarch of the North American Lutheran church.

Halle Pietism and August Hermann Francke’s works have been collectively summed up by researchers under the beautiful motto, “Changing the world by changing people.” This expresses the fact that Francke didn’t have just Glaucha, Halle or Brandenburg-Prussia, or Germany in mind, instead he truly wished to better the whole world. He was interested in other cultures and other language communities and began very early on to look into other cultures and religions, with the goal not only of furthering his own education, but also of helping spread his pietistic ideas throughout the entire world. He truly wanted to better the entire world.

The Francke Foundations today have almost reached a goal towards which they have been working for a very long time. Since 1998, the Foundations have been on the German recommendation list for the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If the Foundations were added, it would be the first time an orphanage, a school built in the Early Modern period, and a creation of the Halle Pietists would be represented on this very important list. This would send a clear signal that Halle Pietism was no mere local phenomenon, but rather had a lasting impact on the cultural history of Europe and beyond.