Christian conservatives generally subscribe to two strongly held propositions: that a return to Christian values is necessary if the moral confusion of our time is to be overcome, and that the Enlightenment is to blame for much of the confusion.
Looked at empirically, these two propositions undoubtedly have merit. It is historically accurate to say that the morality of Western Civilization has its roots in Christianity and farther back in Judaism, and it is at least plausible to say that convinced Christians are less confused about their values than people with more shaky religious convictions. Moreover, it is safe to ascribe to the Enlightenment the origins of a process of debunking every sort of certitude that has led to the moral relativism of our present moment.
Yet things are a bit more complicated. One complication turns up as soon as one asks just which period of history and which part of the world one wants to hold up as an example of a society in which Christian values were reasonably dominant. Presumably it would have to be a place and a period where the effects of the Enlightenment were not, or not yet, in evidence. How about central Europe in the seventeenth century?
I was made to think about this on a recent visit, my second, to a monastery of Loccum in northern Germany. It is located near Hannover, though that sizable city seems far away from the rustic tranquillity of Loccum. The monastery was founded in 1163 by a group of young Cistercians (one historian has referred to this order, in its early years, as a kind of youth movement). Like many medieval monasteries, Loccum soon acquired extensive stretches of land, including several villages, and it was also given political and legal jurisdiction over the surrounding territory. When most of northern Germany became Protestant, Loccum (along with some other places in the region) held on as a Catholic enclave, then very quietly became Protestant around 1600. It is highly unusual though not unique that there continued to be monks in residence for some time (Lutheran monks, that is) and that, when these finally disappeared, Loccum retained its status as a monastic establishment under the authority of the Landes-kirche of Hannover—with an abbot and a chapter functioning under the old charter, though the individuals carrying on these functions were now no longer Cisterian monks but Lutheran church officials.
This status has remained intact up to the present time. The oldest part of the complex of buildings (the magnificent Romanesque church in the center dates from the thirteenth century) now serves as the seminary of the Landeskirche (where about-to-be-ordained pastors spend a year of practical training after completing their theological studies at a university). Clustered around it are other church institutions, including the Evangelical Academy of Loccum, one of the three most active Protestant think tanks founded after World War II. Hanns Lilje, one of the most impressive figures in the church resistance against the Nazi regime, was both Landesbischof and “abbot” of Loccum; he is buried there, beside all his predecessors, a line stretching back to the High Middle Ages.
On my recent visit I was again struck by the peaceful atmosphere of the place, itself a tangible sign of an unbroken history of Christian piety and thought. It was not even broken by the great chasm of the Reformation, not only in the sense that the monastery became Protestant without any sharp conflicts, but because it subsequently tried to serve as a mediator between the two religious parties. Toward the end of the seventeenth century its Abbot Molanus initiated a number of theological negotiations between Protestants and Catholics that attracted wide attention (the philosopher Leibnitz was one of the participants). Theologically, Loccum stood for a mellow ecumenism in an era when this was hardly widespread. As my host, Landesbischof Horst Hirschler, showed me around, I felt soothed by the genius loci and I could well imagine how a young person spending a year in Loccum would be strongly shaped by the experience.
This tranquil mood ended abruptly. The Landesbischof showed me various old manuscripts in the monastery library, then took one out with particular care. It was a brittle-looking volume that he had accidentally come upon some years ago. The volume contained the full record of a trial for witchcraft. Bishop Hirschler was evidently moved by this discovery. He sat down and read parts of the document to me (I could not have deciphered the archaic German script by myself). Subsequently I read an account of the episode in a history of Loccum, which also contained extracts from the juridical record. But it was in handling and poring over the old book that these long-ago events seemed to come alive. It is not a pretty story.
The case was that of one Gese Koellars, a widow with several children, of the village of Wiedensahl, which was within the jurisdiction of the monastery. The case was begun in October 1659, a good half century after Loccum became Protestant. Koellars was accused by the mayor and several villagers of being a witch and of having harmed the animals of some neighbors by witchcraft. She was arrested and brought before the monastic court. She indignantly denied the accusations, pointing out (relevantly, one would think) that one of her accusers was a neighbor whose advances she had rejected. When the court (which throughout the entire trial tried, within the limits of its preconceptions, to be fair to the accused) expressed doubts about the accusations, Koellars’ fellow-villagers came up with more serious allegations—that she had been responsible for the supernatural apparition of a black man, that she had hexed a child who then died, that she had kept the communion host in her mouth in order to give it to the devil. The court then asked the advice of the law faculty of the nearby university of Rinteln as to whether Koellars should now be questioned under torture. The law professors advised that this would be premature, that she should be further interrogated to see if inconsistencies appeared. None did. The next advice was to begin with the lowest form of torture, the so-called ligatura or painful shackling. This was done by a professional torturer, who was specially imported for this purpose from one of the nearby towns.
The record gives a clear impression of a feisty, even belligerent woman. Koellars did not break under these ministrations; instead, she asked to be subjected to the “water ordeal” in order to prove her innocence. That, alas, was a fatal mistake. She was thrown into a pond three times, and three times, despite all her efforts, failed to sink. The record now shows shock and uncertainty in her responses. She admitted that she had failed the test, but still maintained her innocence. Surprisingly, the court, again upon advice of the law faculty, stated that there was strong suspicion but no conclusive proof of witchcraft in this case, and considered a sentence of banishment from the region. But the villagers of Wiedensahl brought forth even more accusations. Koellars was subjected to more severe torture (the application of screws to the legs).
And now the record shows that she finally broke. She confessed that she was indeed a witch, even named her diabolical lover (whom she called “bushman”). The court pronounced her guilty. The sentence was imposed by the nearest secular authority, the Count of Schaumburg, who, as an act of mercy, ordered Koellars to be beheaded rather than burned at the stake. The sentence was carried out in June 1660.
Between 1628 and 1660, thirty-two women and three men were executed for witchcraft at Loccum. Not all the records of these trials have survived, but all the names are known.
There was opposition to those trials from within both churches in Germany in the seventeenth century. The Jesuit Friedrich von Spee, who had been a prison chaplain to many accused witches, did not doubt the reality of witchcraft but denounced the trial methods in a book published in 1632. The Protestant Christian Thomasius published a more comprehensive attack on the whole practice in 1701.
But it was the Enlightenment that put an end to witchcraft trials. Enlightened rulers prohibited such trials. They also stopped the practice of judicial torture and, in some countries, abolished the death penalty.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.