Hesse a country in central Germany. The name is for the first time mentioned in a letter of St. Boniface to the pope (783), and the pupils of Boniface introduced Christianity into the country. At the time of Charlemagne it belonged to the dominions of the counts of Franconia; in the 10th century, a number of Hessian nobles established their independence; in the following, all of them recognized the sovereignty of Ludwig I of Thuringia, who had married the daughter of one of the Hessian princes. This line became extinct in 1247; a long civil war ensued; the result was the confirmation of the rule of Heinrich of Brabant, the son-in-law of the; last ruler of the extinct line. His son Heinrich ("the Child of Brabant") became the ancestor of all the branches of Hessian princes. The Hessian lands, sometimes divided among several princes, were again reunited at the beginning of the 16th century under Wilhelm II. the father of Philip I the Magnanimous, who played so prominent a part in the history of the Reformation of the 16th century. Philip divided his dominions among his four sons, two of whom died childless, thus leaving only two chief lines of the Hessian dynasties, Hesse-Cassel and Hesse-Darnmstadt. The landgraves of Hesse-Cassel in 1803 received the title of elector; but in 1806, in consequence of the German war, in which the elector had taken sides against Prussia, the country was conquered by the Prussians, and annexed to Prussia. The landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1806 received the title of grand duke. From both main lines others branched off from time to time, but at the establishment of the German Confederation in 1815, only one, the land gravate of Hesse-Homburg, a branch of Hesse- Darmstadt, became a member of the Confederation. It became extinct in March 1866, fell to Hesse-Darmstadt, but in September 1866, was ceded by Hesse-Darmstadt to Prussia. Thus, in 1870, the only Hessian line retaining sovereignty was the grand duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, which was a part of the new North-German Confederation, not for the whole territory, however, but only for one of the three provinces.
The zeal of Philip the Magnanimous for the success of the Reformation made the Hessian territory one of the strongholds of German Protestantism. But the vacillation of the succeeding princes between the Lutheran and the Reformed Creeds caused considerable trouble, especially in Hesse-Cassel, the State Church of which was often left in the dark as to whether it was Lutheran or Reformed. Theological controversies on this subject have been continued up to the present day. In the grand-duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, the majority of the Protestant churches, both Lutheran and Reformed, have joined (since 1822) the "Union" or United Evangelical Church. Before the union there were in the grand duchy about 406,000 Lutherans and 173,000 Reformed. According to the census of 1885, there were in the grand duchy in that year 643,881 Evangelical Christians (67.3 per cent. of the total population), 278,440 Roman Catholics (29.1 per cent.), 26,114 Israelites (2.7 per cent.). In the class of "other Christians" were included in 1867, 2987 German Catholics, 626 Mennonites, 119 Baptists, 31 Free Religious, 24 Separatists, 22 Greek Catholics, 20 United Brethren in Christ, 6 Darbyites, 4 Pietists, 2 Orthodox Catholics.
The National Evangelical Church comprises the members of the United Evangelical Church as well as the non-united Lutherans and Reformed. The Church constitution, introduced at the time of the Reformation, with two consistories and four superintendents, was changed in 1803. The office of superintendents was abolished; the two consistories were supplanted by Church and School councils which had no consistorial jurisdiction. The new councils were subordinate to the state ministers of the Interior and of Justice, who, in the exercise of their functions, were aided by inspectors. As in other parts of Germany, the Church lost the last remnant of self- government, and became wholly subject to the state. A reorganization of the constitution took place by a decree of June 6. 1832. The administration of all the affairs of the National Evangelical Church was transferred to a Supreme Consistory (Oberconsistorium) at Darmstadt, which consists of a president (a layman), three ministerial counselors, two lay counselors, and of one or several assessors. Only in rare cases the Supreme Consistory has to report to the state ministry for a final decision. Each of the three provinces of the grand duchy has a superintendent. The superintendents are the organs through whom the Supreme Consistory exercises its functions. Subordinate to the superintendents are the deans, thirty in number, who are appointed by the Supreme Consistory for the term of five years. Ev. ery congregation has a local church council to assist in the management of the external church discipline and of the local church property. This Church council has two official members, the pastor and the burgomaster (or his representative), and from three to five extraordinary members, who are chosen by the former in union with the council of the civil community. Every parish is to receive an official "visitation" from the superintendent or a dean once within every three years. The highest dignitary of the Church is the "prelate' (pralat), who is also, by virtue of his office, a member of the First Chamber. A theological faculty is connected with the University of Giessen; besides, there is a preachers' seminary at Friedeburg. The theological faculty of Giessen has been and still is (Jan. 1870) under the control of the Rationalistic party; among its best known professors were Credner (q.v.) and Knobel (q.v.). As may therefore be expected, a considerable portion of the clergy belong likewise to the Rationalistic party; of late, however, the reaction in favor of evangelical principles has gained ground.
The Roman Catholics belong to the ancient diocese of Mentz (q.v.), which is now a suffragan see to the archbishop of Freiburg. The diocese, which, besides Hesse-Darmstadt, comprises a few parishes in the former landgraviate of Hesse-Homburg, had (1865) 158 parishes in 17 deaneries. A faculty of Roman Catholic theology was formerly connected with the University of Giessen; but in 1848 the bishop of Mentz forbade all students of theology to attend the theological lectures of the (prominently Protestant) University, and established a new theological seminary at Mentz. The theological faculty, deserted by all the students, had soon to be suppressed. Of monastic institutions, there were in 1865 houses of the Jesuits, Capuchins, Brothers of the Christian Schools, Englische Fraulein, Sisters of Charity, and other female congregations, with 244 members. At the beginning of the century, the most liberal sentiments prevailed among the majority of the clergy, including even the canons of the cathedral church, and the professor of theological faculty of the University; but since the appointment of the ultramontane bishop of Ketteler (1850), these liberal sentiments have been to a very large extent weeded out or repressed. See Herzog, Real-Encyklopädie, 6, 29; Wiggers, Kirchl. Statistik, 2, 207; Neher, Kirchl. Geographie und Statistik, 2, 311. (A. J.S.)