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  • The New Heathens: A Pandemic of Heresy in Late Eighteenth-Century Prussia
  • Jonathan Blake Fine (bio)

On September 15, 1785, the conservative civil servant Johann Christoph Woellner delivered a treatise concerning the proper governmental regulation of religion to the Prussian crown prince, who would soon ascend the throne as Friedrich Wilhelm II. In response to Friedrich II’s declining health, Woellner had spent the previous year grooming the presumptive monarch for his imminent assumption of power with a series of lectures concerning practical matters such as rural serfdom and the kingdom’s fiscal affairs. This “Abhandlung über die Religion” delivered by Woellner on that September day, however, was far more ambitious.1 Indeed, it should be read as the Counter-Enlightenment pendant to the seminal debate on the meaning of the Enlightenment that had played out publicly only a year beforehand in the pages of the Berlinische Monatsschrift.2

However, Woellner’s definition of the Enlightenment was purposefully bereft of the nuances seen in the contributions to that prior debate by such paragons of the moderate Enlightenment as Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn. According to Woellner, the Enlightenment was neither an escape from self-incurred immaturity nor less politically suspect through division into civic and humanistic components.3 Instead, it became clear in the treatise that, for Woellner, the Enlightenment fundamentally entailed the seditious propagation of blasphemy to a populace incapable of properly [End Page 229] evaluating complex thought let alone wading through the vagaries of biblical hermeneutics. When Woellner looked back at the preceding decade, he saw scant evidence of an Aufklärung divided into an enlightened public sphere for intellectual discourse via print on the one hand and, on the other hand, the private use of reason that could be practiced by civil officials so as to ensure societal order.4 In other words—and to avail myself of the helpful, albeit slightly reductive triangular heuristic developed by Jonathan Israel in his trilogy on the European Enlightenment—the leading figure of the Prussian Counter-Enlightenment did not see the preceding decade as the maturation of the moderate Enlightenment with its support for a measured and highly circumspect pedagogical approach to dealing with the common people.5 Instead, he saw in the last decade of Friedrich II’s reign the eruption of the Radical Enlightenment out of the sequestered domain of academics and clerics and into the nascent, bourgeois public sphere. Radical ideas had been unscrupulously injected into this public sphere in order to bring about public Enlightenment with undue haste. The absence of strong, centralized leadership in the kingdom’s religious affairs, which should have been provided by Karl Abraham von Zedlitz, the chief of the kingdom’s department of spiritual affairs, had allowed numerous radical, self-ordained Aufklärer to peddle sacrilegious, printed wares, the consumption of which had contributed to the successful transformation of Prussia into the most irreligious land in Europe. A chief aim of the revanchist project that Woellner would lead was ensuring that the faith of the common people was no longer undermined by contact with blasphemy delivered under the guise of educating people via involvement in the momentous religious debates that used to occur behind closed doors.

Woellner had good reason to be wary of religious debates. Since there was, in comparison to England, little space for true political dissent in the Prussian public sphere, theological polemic often served as an ersatz method to debate the prerogatives of the state. Indeed, such hybrid religiouspolitical debates had long been a key feature of the German offshoot of the république des lettres.6 This had not necessarily been dangerous at a time when the majority of scholarly discourse was conducted in Latin; however, over the course of the eighteenth century, the linguistic barrier that had kept these occasionally heretical debates from infecting the masses broke down. The earliest phases of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth century had featured the circulation of clandestine manuscripts written in Latin or occasionally French amongst members of the philosophical underground, as Martin Mulsow has shown.7 But as the eighteenth century drew to a close, religious debates increasingly took place both in print and in the vernacular, a...


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