On a cold Wednesday in 1834, a giant took his final breath. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher died that day and all of Berlin came to watch his funeral procession.
Today, Schleiermacher is the bane of seminarians in theology courses. Most encounter the German theologian’s short work On Religion: Speeches to Cultured Despisers (1799). Demanding professors might require students read excerpts from Schleiermacher’s 700-page magnum opus The Christian Faith (1821-22, rev. 1830-31). In either case, his arduous sentences include dense, confounding ideas, as he works out what it means to follow Christ.
Elsewhere, a vibrant (though relatively small) group of scholars comprise the Schleiermacher Unit in the American Academy of Religion. In addition to Speeches and The Christian Faith, academics unpack Schleiermacher’s contribution to ethics, philosophy, and linguistics. His other major works include: Brief Outline for the Study of Theology (1830), Hermeneutics (1838), and Ethics (1841).
Instead of these heady, serious works, I have been reading a collection of his sermons translated into English. Servant of the Word (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987). In the introduction, the translator Dawn DeVries describes the scene on February 12, 1834. A conservative estimate counted 20,000 people lining the streets to watch Schleiermacher’s funeral procession.
If we limit our view of Schleiermacher to his impact today, most people will never have heard of him. Today, his impact is limited to theology and academia, which was tremendous. Theology was different after he lived and wrote. In the pantheon of theological discourse, he changed the world. However, his impact doesn’t matter to most people, and if he were only a brilliant theologian, thousands of people would not have mourned his death.
Schleiermacher was not just a theologian. He was the pastor of Trinity Church in Berlin from 1809 until his death in 1834. Before his call to serve Trinity, he had been preaching weekly since the 1790. He saw himself first and foremost as a preacher.
Schleiermacher was at home ministering to and delivering sermons that resonated with plumbers, homemakers, factory workers, soldiers, doctors, poets, professors, and politicians. He once told a friend, “I consider the position of the preacher as the noblest… I would never of my own will exchange it for another.”
His sermons are powerful, interesting, and edifying. I have read Speeches. I am working my way through The Christian Faith with a group of adventurous friends. I have scanned some sections of his Brief Outline. His serious works are profound and have stood the test of time. Yet, as I read his sermons, I am coming to realize the great impact he made on people in his lifetime, and I can see why so many people stood in the cold to honor a giant.