Friedrich Schleiermacher

Portrait of Friedrich Schleiermacher

Friedrich Schleiermacher was a German Reformed theologian, biblical scholar and philosopher who was part of the Jena school of Romantics. He attempted to reconcile the criticisms of the Enlightenment with protestant theology. He was born in Wroclaw, Poland (then Breslau, part of German Prussia) on 21st November 1768 and died in Berlin on 12th February 1834 aged 65.

Major Works

On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers” (1799)
Kurze Darstellung desTheologischen Studiums” (Brief Outline of the Study of Theology) (1811)
Der Christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der Evangelischen Kirche” (The Christian Faith according to the Principles of the Evangelical Church) (1821)

Biography Timeline

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was born on 21st November 1768 in Breslau, Prussian Silesia in Germany. (now Wrocław, Poland). His father was Gottlieb Schleiermacher, a Calvinist chaplain in the Prussian army. His mother was Katharina-Maria (née Stubenrauch) who was the daughter of a clergyman. He had an elder sister, called Charlotte, and a younger brother called Carl.

1783: He attends a school of the Hernhuters Moravian Brethren at Niesky, Eastern Saxony. His learning is heavily influenced by religious teachings of Jesus as salvation. He begins a lifelong study of Latin and Greek and the classics. One of his teachers, the theologian Johann Augustus Eberhard instilled in him a love of Plato and Aristotle and he avidly studied the works of the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

1785: He attends the Moravian seminary at Barby in Saxony-Anhalt but is unimpressed by the narrowness of their study and he develops a scepticism as a student and rejects orthodox Christianity. 

1787: His father reluctantly allows him to go to the University of Halle where they taught a more rationalist approach to religion. He lives with his maternal uncle Samuel Stubenrauch who is himself a professor of theology, but continues with his study of philosophy and classical philology.

1790: He passes his theological examinations and begins work as a private tutor.

1793: His position is terminated by his employer due to their disagreements about the French Revolution which Schleiermacher supported.

1794: He takes up a position with Count zu Dohna in Schlobitten in East Prussia. His father dies. After taking his second theological examinations he becomes Assistant Pastor in Landsberg. He also preaches on ethics.

1789: His work on Kant begins with several unpublished essays the first of which is entitled “On the Highest Good”.

1790: He writes “On Freedom” which rejects some of Kant’s ideas. He takes examinations in Reformed theology gaining high marks.

1792: He writes another essay on Kant (again unpublished) entitled “On What Gives Value to Life”.

1793: He writes two essays about Baruch Spinoza under the title of “Spinozism and a Brief Presentation of the Spinozistic System”.

1794: He serves as Pastor in Landsberg for the next two years. 

1796: He moves to Berlin, where he takes up the position of chaplain at the Charite hospital, a home for the aged. He throws himself into the literary life of the city and meets the writers August Wilhelm Schlegel and his brother Friedrich Schlegel. He falls in love with Henriette Herz, a married society hostess famed for her literary salons where he meets many notables including Friedrich von Schiller and Wilhelm von Humboldt.

1797: He shares a house with Friedrich Schlegel.

1798: He begins to collaborate with the Schlegel brothers on their new Romantic Journal “Athenaeum” for the next two years. He writes “Idea for a Catechism of Reason for Noble Ladies” for the magazine. He begins a relationship with Eleonore Christiane Grunow, the wife of the clergyman August Christian Wilhelm Grunow in Berlin.

1799: He publishes “On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers” where he attempts to save religion in the eyes of some of his more sceptical Romantic friends. The book is popular and gains him national fame. He also publishes “Letters on the Occasion of the Political-Theological Task and the Open Letter of Jewish Householders” where he advocates full civil rights for Jews. He pens a short essay, “Toward a Theory of Sociable Conduct” about the art of conversation and finally an extremely critical review of Immanuel Kant’s “Anthropology”.

1800: He publishes “Monologen” (Soliloquies) in a rhythmic prose style which presents a new religious view on ethics and the importance of the actions of the self. He also defends his friend Friedrich Schlegel in his “Confidential Letters Concerning Friedrich Schlegel’s “Lucinde”. The novel was declared pornographic at the time but is today seen as only slightly racy. Together with Schlegel he begins a project to translate Plato’s “Dialogues”, however in characteristic style Schlegel left most of the work to his friend. Meanwhile Schleiermacher gives lectures on theology and philosophy. He becomes a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences and sets about promoting the idea of a Prussian Union, which sought to bring Lutheran and Calvinist churches under one umbrella.

1802: He is asked to lead a reformed congregation in Stolp in Pomerania (now Slupsk in Poland). His six-year affair with Eleonore Grunow comes to an end as she elects to remain with her husband rather than go with him.

1803: He publishes “Grundlinien einer Kritik der Bisherigen Sittenlehre” (Outlines of a Critique of the Doctrines of Morality to Date). It is a criticism of previous moral systems including those of Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte but Plato and Spinoza are singled out for praise. The book introduces Schleiermacher’s later view of “Güterlehre”, or outcomes obtained by moral action. 

1804: His translations of Plato’s “Dialogues” begin to appear (and are still in use today). He gives lectures on ethics at Halle University in the faculty of theology. At first, as a reformed theologian and a proponent of Romantic idealism, he does not feel welcome but he is soon made an ordinary professor of theology although there will still be charges of atheism, Spinozism and pietism laid against him.

1805: He begins delivering his lectures on hermeneutics which he would go on to repeat until 1833. Although he has been keeping in touch with Eleonore Grunow by letter, she finally breaks off the relationship completely. 

1806: He begins lecturing on the history of ancient philosophy. He writes his dialogue “Weihnachtsfeier” (Christmas Eve: Dialogue on the Incarnation) which explores the meaning of Christian love.

1807: The Prussians were defeated at the Battle of Jena in October 1806 and the French invasion of Prussia finally forces Schleiermacher to leave Halle and he returns to Berlin. He openly criticises the French authorities and encourages a national resistance. He also works with Wilhelm von Humboldt in plans for establishing a new university to be founded in Berlin.

1808: He publishes “Occasional Thoughts on Universities in a German Spirit, together with an Appendix on One about to be Founded” about his plans for the new university. 

1809: On 18th May Schleiermacher marries Henriette von Willich (née von Mühlenfels), the young widow of his friend Johann von Willich, by whom he will have several children in the future. He begins to preach at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Trinity Church).

1810: He is appointed Professor of Theology at the new University of Berlin and becomes secretary to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He adapts his lectures on philosophy to include more modern philosophers.

1811: He lectures on dialectics for the first time and publishes “Kurze Darstellung des Theologischen Studiums” (Brief Outline of the Study of Theology) in which he states that the function of theology is to shape the church as a religious community.

1813: He publishes an essay “On the Different Methods of Translation” and lectures on pedagogy for the first time.

1815: He lectures on the philosophy of Socrates. After the overthrow of Napoleon Bonaparte his enthusiasm is such that he is charged by the Prussian government with “demagogic agitation” along with the nationalist Ernst Moritz Arndt. 

1817: He is prominent in the reorganisation of the Prussian church, uniting Lutheran and Reformed divisions to form the Prussian Union of Churches.

1818: He lectures on psychology for the first time. 

1819: He lectures on aesthetics for the first time and begins lecturing on the life of Jesus.

1821: He publishes “Der Christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der Evangelischen Kirche” (The Christian Faith According to the Principles of the Evangelical Church) his major work of systematic theology. (Revised in 1822 and again in 1831). Its fundamental view is that religious feeling is the source of theology as is the absolute dependence on God rather than all the words of scripture.

1829: His only son Nathaniel dies aged nine which greatly affects him. He publishes two open letters in the journal “Studien und Kritiken” on the central issues of philosophy and religion which are nominally addressed to his friend the theologian Gottfried Christian Friedrich Lucke. He defends his position against the Lutheran Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg and the rationalist Daniel Georg Konrad von Cölln. He continues with his translation of Plato.

1831: He mends his relations with the Prussian King after their differences on the Prussian constitution and the relation between church and state have been resolved. At one time, with the help of his rivals, he was almost banished from the state altogether.

1834: He preaches his last sermon on 2nd February and gives his last lecture on 6th February.

Schleiermacher died of pneumonia on 12th February 1834 in Berlin, Germany. 20,000 to 30,000 people took part in his funeral procession. He was buried in the cemetery of the Dreifaltigkeitskirche in Berlin. (His writings on hermeneutics were collected together and published in 1838 as “Hermeneutik und Kritik mit Besonderer Beziehung auf das Neue Testament”).

Further Information

List of works by Schleiermacher.