The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment

The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment

by Kelly Joan Whitmer


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Founded around 1700 by a group of German Lutherans known as Pietists, the Halle Orphanage became the institutional headquarters of a universal seminar that still stands largely intact today.  It was the base of an educational, charitable, and scientific community and consisted of an elite school for the sons of noblemen; schools for the sons of artisans, soldiers, and preachers; a hospital; an apothecary; a bookshop; a botanical garden; and a cabinet of curiosity containing architectural models, naturalia, and scientific instruments. Yet, its reputation as a Pietist enclave inhabited largely by young people has prevented the organization from being taken seriously as a kind of scientific academy—even though, Kelly Joan Whitmer shows, this is precisely what it was. 

The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community calls into question a long-standing tendency to view German Pietists as anti-science and anti-Enlightenment, arguing that these tendencies have drawn attention away from what was actually going on inside the orphanage. Whitmer shows how the orphanage’s identity as a scientific community hinged on its promotion of philosophical eclecticism as a tool for assimilating perspectives and observations and working to perfect one’s abilities to observe methodically. Because of the link between eclecticism and observation, Whitmer reveals, those teaching and training in Halle’s Orphanage contributed to the transformation of scientific observation and its related activities in this period.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226243771
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/12/2015
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Kelly Joan Whitmer is assistant professor of history at Sewanee: The University of the South.

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The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community

Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment

By Kelly Joan Whitmer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-24380-1


Introducing the Orphanage

In the middle of the 1690s, a group of German Lutherans known as Pietists founded an orphanage in the Prussian city of Halle (an der Saale). The building (fig. 1) in which it was initially housed, known simply as "the Halle Orphanage" (das hallesche Waisenhaus), was actually the first in a series of buildings that became a much larger suburban institutional facility. Over time Halle's Orphanage came to function as a "showplace" (Schauplatz), a place worth contemplating and observing. It was the headquarters of an educational, charitable, and scientific community comprising an elite school, or Pädagogium, for the sons of noblemen; schools for the sons of artisans, soldiers, and clergy; a hospital; an apothecary; a bookshop; a botanical garden; and a gallery of architectural models, naturalia, and scientific instruments. The entire facility, including the curious objects it housed, attracted thousands of visitors such as those shown in figure 2 in front of the main building. Standing mostly with their backs to us so that we cannot see the expressions on their faces, their postures suggest that they are captivated by what they are seeing. Two of the figures stand with their hands on their hips, lingering for a while to take everything in. Another figure, clearly engaged in conversation, gestures at the building with his cane.

Many reported being profoundly inspired upon seeing the Halle Orphanage (hereafter referred to as the Orphanage) for the first time. When he first observed it upon assuming the throne of Brandenburg-Prussia in 1713, Friedrich Wilhelm I, reported he had marveled at its enormous size. Others indicated that the effect of observing the Orphanage had been so intense that it inspired them to found similar institutions in their own hometowns. And indeed, many did build replica orphanages in east Brandenburg (Neumark) and in Saxony, Bavaria, Denmark, Siberia, southern India, and even North America.

Because of its size and scale, the Orphanage has long held a prominent place in histories of Pietism, Brandenburg-Prussia, and early modern central Europe. It was a site of innovation in medicine, including the preparation of pharmaceuticals, and served as the headquarters of the world's first Protestant mission to India. Scholars have long recognized that there was a great deal going on inside this space, as well as in the city of Halle and its university by 1700. However, because of its reputation as a Pietist enclave inhabited largely by young people, hardly the gentleman savants associated with the period's scientific academies and societies, the Orphanage has not been taken seriously as a scientific community. Yet this is precisely what it was. Inside this institutional ensemble and spaces modeled after it, student teachers, their pupils, pastors, and professors worked together to interrogate natural processes through tests and by refining a range of observational procedures.

Inside the Orphanage

The first director of the Halle Orphanage was a controversial professor of Greek, oriental languages, and, later, theology at the University of Halle named August Hermann Francke. In 1701, he published a report detailing his plans titled "Project for a universal seminar or the creation of a garden, in which one anticipates the real improvement of all social orders both in and outside of Germany, indeed in Europe and in all other parts of the world." In another description of the project from 1711, Francke explained that from the very beginning, the Orphanage was to be closely connected to the University of Halle (founded 1694). "The purpose," he wrote, "is to build a universal facility [eine Universal-Einrichtung] near the university for the use of Christendom and the entire world."

The facility was to comprise nine institutions, "some of which have been realized," he continued, "some of which have not yet been founded." These institutions included

1. The Orphanage [das Waisenhaus], inside of which approximately 100 young boys and girls can be found and which is made up of two apartments, a big one and a small one, and a special part of the house for girls younger than two years old.

2. The schools of the Orphanage, in which at last count there were 1,333 pupils (including 133 orphan children) and 80 teachers, who work daily with the youth.

3. An advanced boarding school [Pädagogium] for children of people who are well off and of a certain status, now 70 scholars—most of whom are foreigners—and 12 teachers....

4. A seminar for teachers [Seminarium Praeceptorum]

5. An institution for women: 1) for adult noble and bourgeois women who live in their own foundation partly from their own funds and partly from bequests; 2) for the young daughters of noble and bourgeois people, who are raised here and instructed in different kinds of feminine work ... at their own cost; 3) for poor widows. This three-part institution exists and is divided into three apartments that are entirely separate from each other; and it is good that they remain so divided....

6. An infirmary or institution for sick and weak people

7. A workhouse

8. A college of oriental studies [Collegium orientale]

9. A seminar of nations [Seminarium Nationum]

The purpose of the Collegium orientale, founded in 1702, was to offer instruction in the Chaldean, Syriac, Arabic, and Ethiopian languages; in Rabbinic or Talmudic writings; and in ancient Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and, when possible, Armenian, Persian, Chinese, Turkish, Greek, Polish, Slavonic, and Russian.

The "seminar of nations" did not yet exist in 1711, but Francke noted he was looking for ways to inspire several "foreign nations" to send their children to Halle to be raised and educated. As early as 1701, he had taken in four boys from Silesia, one from Prague, and one from Holland; international contacts continued to send young people to be educated in Halle from as far away as Moscow, Sweden, and Denmark. Four thirteen-year-old boys arrived from London on December 12, 1706. They learned alongside young men who had traveled to the "universal facility" from virtually every city in the Holy Roman Empire: Leipzig, Dresden, Berlin, Magdeburg, Hamburg, Heidelberg, Frankfurt am Main, Gotha, Erfurt, Weimar, Zörbig, and more. When Francke died in 1727, there were 2,200 children attending school at the Orphanage; of these 100 were orphan boys and 34 were orphan girls, and 170 student teachers were living and working in the community.

Now let us take a tour of the facilities alongside King Friedrich Wilhelm I, who arrived for a visit on October 4, 1720. Francke met him in front of the main building (fig. 3), led him up the steps and inside, where he showed the king the apothecary, the bookstore, and sleeping quarters. These were housed in the upstairs apartment, which later became the site of the Orphanage's museum. After climbing to the top floor and looking around, Francke and the king walked down the steps and exited through the back of the building. They turned right and walked across the covered part of the inner courtyard, where they entered an adjacent building (fig. 4). It contained an auditorium and a cafeteria; the tables are visible in the model.

After discussing the costs of feeding boarders and touring the kitchen, Francke and the king returned to the courtyard, where they stood in front of the row of buildings immediately across from them, parallel to the wing they had just visited. The king reportedly asked, "Who lives in here?" and Francke told him that these apartments housed the inspector of the Pädagogium and other schools in the complex. They also housed students from the University of Halle, many of whom taught in the schools in exchange for their rooms, and candidates for the Lutheran ministry. There were also several rooms where eighteen to twenty male pupils of the Orphanage's schools lived with a teacher as part of a small household. Those who could paid for their room and board; those without means were not expected to pay.

The king then inquired about the community's schools and learned that there were 14 classes of pupils (621 in total) who attended the vernacular or "German school." The more talented pupils had been grouped into eight classes and were taught by thirty student teachers in the Latin school. Pupils in the Latin school were instructed in theology, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, history, geography, geometry, writing, and arithmetic. Those attending the German school "received free paper and books" and learned the catechism, reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, and some Latin.

As they continued to talk about the schools of the Orphanage, the two men slowly walked up a small hill to the opposite side of the campus to the Pädagogium Regium (fig. 5). The king asked if and how the Pädagogium differed from the other facilities. Francke explained that it had its own school and living quarters for young men from wealthy and titled families. They toured the building, including the mechanical room, where there were ten wood-turning stations (Drechselbanke) in which three pupils per station took turns showing the king their "exercises." According to a future Pädagogium director's description of these exercises, they involved "crafting wooden models" using a variety of woodworking instruments. "The purpose of these exercises," Hieronymous Freyer wrote, "was not to produce a variety of finished products but to generate motion and knowledge [Wissenschaft]." After letting him observe the exercises, several teachers and pupils performed an experiment with the air pump, which the king "observed with great contentment."

Next Francke took the king back into the inner courtyard between the main Orphanage building and the Pädagogium, where all the community's young people had gathered and were standing in rows. The king wandered among these children and talked "especially to those whose clothing indicated that they were the sons of soldiers." These children had to step forward and tell the king the name of their father and their father's company. The king then asked what else there was to see. Francke replied that a mechanical room had recently been built inside the main building, and after his experience in the Pädagogium, the king insisted upon seeing it. On his way there, the king was taken to the Orphanage's library, which had not yet been moved to its own building. Next to the library, the king saw a wooden model of the Holy Land and asked how one knew that it had really looked that way in the past. Someone answered that the model "had been built using the best descriptions and maps available." Among the other curiosities he saw once back inside was an instrument for measuring longitude, which he was told had been invented by a local preacher and mathematician named Christoph Semler, who had allowed it to be carried to England. By this time it was getting dark; the king made his way back out the main entrance, thanked Francke, and took his leave.

Pietism, Philanthropy, Enlightenment

Francke was well known in his own day not only as the director of Halle's Orphanage but also as the leader of a spiritual renewal movement called Pietism. Scholars still debate whether to define Pietism as a response to a general crisis of piety affecting Protestants and Catholics alike in the seventeenth century or as mainly a response to Lutheran orthodoxy. Exploring strategies for generating love and communal solidarity and for renewing and intensifying expressions of religious feeling became one of the most important activities of Pietist groups, including "Halle Pietists" and the communities of "radical Pietists" that fall outside the scope of this study. So in many ways it makes sense to apply the term broadly and even loosely. At the same time, there were very specific circumstances surrounding the original use of the term that are particularly important to keep in mind, especially when focusing on the Halle Pietists. When orthodox theologians first began using the word Pietist in Leipzig in the 1680s and 1690s, they did so in order to single out, even to insult, those who adopted an antagonistic position toward the orthodox Lutheran establishment. Pietists were considered dangerous because they asked too many questions, disrespected authorities, and seemed to be heading in the direction of religious enthusiasm.

In his youth, Francke acquired a reputation as a pot-stirrer in Leipzig, so it is little wonder that his critics later associated him and other Pietists with enthusiasm. This is a term that could mean many things too: many of those labeled enthusiasts, or Schwärmer, claimed to receive divine messages they said encouraged them to challenge the existing sociopolitical order. Their critics were quick to label them as antisocial and irrational. Francke did not directly challenge the social order, but he questioned the relevance of philosophy and logic for the study of theology. Since he was working with theology students at the University of Leipzig, orthodox theologians there feared he was undermining their authority; they conducted an official investigation and prohibited him from lecturing. To make matters worse, when Francke left Leipzig and moved to Erfurt, he made it known that he had visited and approved of some local female prophets and their epiphanies; he was eventually deemed too radical by civic authorities and forced out.

Once his mentor, Philipp Jakob Spener, moved to Berlin and got Francke involved in state-mandated efforts to start a new university in Halle, both men realized that Francke was going to have to be less outspoken. If the Orphanage was to be heavily subsidized by and associated with Prussian leaders, then it could not be a source of disorderly forms of behavior. Instead its founding marked an opportunity to study enthusiasm, especially the interplay among affect, intelligence, and moments of inspiration, which were much less disruptive (and easier to regulate) than spontaneous outpourings of emotion. Throughout his tenure as director, Francke preferred to avoid using the term Pietist altogether—it was too politically loaded. Those involved with the Orphanage usually referred to themselves as Hallenser. I have generally followed their lead in this, preferring to discuss specific practices, objects, and contributions by individuals associated with the Orphanage rather than using the term Pietist when it does not appear in my sources.

Clearly, the Orphanage's affiliation with the Prussian state is key to understanding how it functioned as a community, and the work of Klaus Depperman and Carl Hinrichs made it clear long ago that this relationship was worth a closer look. Since then, several historians have viewed the Halle Orphanage as a place to learn more about the modernizing strategies used by heads of territorial states, who were trying to consolidate political boundaries—and their own power—in this period. My study of the Orphanage is indebted to these efforts, including the work of Anthony La Vopa, who has written about the professionalization of "poor students" during this period of state expansion and consolidation. Thanks largely to the support of patrons such as Francke who were helping territorial leaders construct a meritocracy, young men who might not have been able to attend university could do so in exchange for their service as teachers. Their status as poor yet gifted students was important for cultivating the Orphanage's identity as a philanthropic organization. And these mostly nameless young men played crucial, yet hitherto unexamined, roles in ongoing efforts to create forms of scientific community in central Europe and beyond.


Excerpted from The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community by Kelly Joan Whitmer. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1 Introducing the Orphanage
2 Building a Scientific Community
3 Negotiating the Irenical Turn
4 Models and Conciliatory Seeing
5 An Observator and His Instrument
6 Extending the Orphanage

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