Lavater, Johann Kaspar
Lavater, Johann Kaspar a noted Swiss theologian and preacher, one of the most interesting men of the last century, was born at Zurich November 15, 1741. His father, Henry Lavater, was doctor of medicine and member of the government of Zurich. His mother, whose maiden name was Regula Escher, was a woman of marked character and extraordinary gifts. His childhood was not marked by any great signs of promise as a studelt, but he had a decided tendency to religion, and a great predilection for singing hymns and reading the Bible. It was while at school in Zurich that he conceived the idea of becoming a minister of the Gospel. In 1755 Lavater entered the college in his native city. In 1759 he began his theological studies, and in 1762 was ordained a minister. In consequence of complications in the political affairs of his country, he traveled in company with the celebrated painter Fuseli, and successively visited the universities of Leipsic and Berlin. He also visited Barth, in Pomerania, for the theological advice of the celebrated provost Spalding. In 1764 he returned to his native place, and occupied himself with the duties of the ministerial office and Biblical studies. He also wrote some poetry, inspired by the poetical productions of Bodmer and Kilopstock. In 1766 lie married Miss Anna Schinz, the daughter of a highly respectable merchant. As the result of his study of Bodmer and Klopstock, he published in 1767 his Schweitzerlieder, containing his finest poems, which wvas followed by his Aussichten in die Ewigkeit (1768-73, 3 volumes), the first of a series of works in which he maintained the perpetuity of miracles, the irresistibility of prayer, and the necessity for every person to conceive of God as manifested in Christ crucified in order to be really alive to himself. The last doctrine was called his Christomania. In 1769 Lavater was made deacon of the Orphan-house Church at Zurich, where the extraordinary effect of his sermons, his blameless life, and benevolent disposition made him the idol of his congregation, while his printed sermons sent forth his fame to distant parts. It was reserved, however, for his Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe (Leipsic, 1775-78) to extend his celebrity generally. This work, which has often been reprinted and translated (best by Dr. H. Hunter, London, 1789-98, 5 volumes, royal 4to), was the first elaborate attempt to reduce physiognomy to a science. Having in early life been acquainted with a large number of eminent men, he had observed corresponding points of resemblance in their minds as well as their features, and from a disposition to generalize he was led to adopt a fixed system, and wrote this work in the hope that it might promote greatly the welfare of mankind, an effort in which he moderately succeeded. He illustrated it with numerous engravings and vignettes, and it is superior in respect of paper and typography to any book previously issued from the German press. Lavater had remarkable powers of observation and skill in detecting character. He differed from all who had preceded him in this science. In order to form an opinion of the character from the face, he required to see the face at rest — in sleep or in an unconscious state. "The greater part of the physiognomists," he says, "speak only of the passions, or rather of the exterior signs of the passions, and the expression of them in the muscles. But these exterior signs are only transient circumstances, which are easily discoverable. It has therefore always been my object to consider the general and fundamental character of the man, from which, according to the state of his exterior circumstances and relations, all his passions arise as from a root." Lavater's "Fragmente" gave rise to considerable discussion, and occasioned general excitement. He was visited at Zurich by throngs of eminent and curious persons, whose character he usually judged with great sagacity; at a glance he recognized Necker, Mirabeau, and Mercier. In 1775 he was elevated to the pastorate of the Orphan-house; in 1778 was elected second pastor of St. Peter's Church in Ziirich, and in 1786 he was called to fill the position of chief pastor, made vacant by the death of his associate. When the French Revolution broke out Lavater was a zealous partisan of it, but the execution of Louis XVI made him turn in disgust from the Republican party, and in 1798, when the French took possession of Switzerland. he protested against their ravages in a publication addressed to the Directory, entitled "Words of a free Swiss to a great Nation," which, on account of its high-toned courage, gained the applause of all Europe. This work was addressed, under his own name, to Reubel, a member of the French government at that time, but was printed withoat his cooperation, and more than a hundred thousand copies circulated. At the same time he gave a thrilling discourse from his pulpit from the words, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God," etc. (Ro 13:1-4). This, as may be supposed, produced an indescribable excitement. The Swiss Directory at first resolved upon his banishment. Difficulties were in the way of carrying out this rigid measure, and the decree was changed to suspension from his office. This, too, was prevented by his friends, and finally he received only a gentle expression of disapproval. A few months later, however, while away from home for his health, he was seized and carried prisoner to Basle, on the charge of conspiracy against the French, but was released, after a confinement of several weeks, for want of evidence. On his return to Zurich he renewed his pastoral labors, and opposed with all his energies the oppressive measures of the French Directory. On the 26th of September, 1799, after the French had taken possession of Zurich, as Lavater was standing near his own house and trying to pacify some disorderly soldiers with money, he received a gun-shot from one of them, which, though it healed for a time, finally proved fatal. The last year of his life was one of great bodily suffering, occasioned by his wound, which he bore with Christian patience, praying for the man who had cwounded him. He desired that the culprit should not be arrested. "I would, with all my severe pain, have much more sorrow if I knew that any punishment were done to him, for he certainly knew not what he did." He at the same tme e iscribed some beautiful poetical lines to him. During the intervals of suffering his mental activity ccontinued unabated. He was never idle. When traveling or taking daily exercise, and even at his meals, he always had a pencil and paper, that he might write down any new thought that might suggest itself. He wrote, during this period of his life, several small works or poems. Among them were "Zurich at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century;" "Swan Song, or Last Thoughts of a Departing One on Jesus of Nazareth and Memorial Leaves." The latter he desired to be given after his death, as little legacies, to his friends. Lavater's relation to his flock was always of the most intimate character, as is evinced by his request, not long before his death, to be afforded one more opportunity to speak to his beloved congregation, and partake with them of the holy sacrament. He was carried to his much-loved Church, where he met a large assembly of devoted and sorrowing people. One who was present on the occasion wrote: "His face was filled with earnestness and love, by which, though death could be read in every one of his features, he seemed to be reflecting the very glory of heaven." When he was no longer able to sit up and hold his pen, he dictated to an amanuensis. On the last evening of the old year, while lying in bed, and his friends were obliged to stand very near to understand him, he dictated some lines (German hexameters) to be read the following day to his congregation. He died the 2d of January, 1801.
Lavater was one of the most remarkable men of his time. He had an original mind, and was a true philosopher. He wrote with acceptance on a great variety of subjects, and on none more effectively than on questions of theology. Among those who knew him best, he was distinguished more by his moral traits than by his intellectual gifts; by his purity of heart, his deep humility, his fervent piety, his Christian charity and zeal for mankind. A more thoroughly good man and devoted Christian the annals of literature do not exhibit. Goethe at one time said of him, "He is the best, greatest, wisest, sincerest of all mortal and immortal men that I know." He always firmly clung to his peculiar religious views, "which were a mixture of new interpretations with ancient orthodoxy, and mystical even to superstition. One leading article of his faith was a belief in the sensible manifestation of supernatural powers. His disposition to give credence to the miraculous led him to believe the strange pretensions of many individuals, such as the power to exorcise devils, to perform cures by animal magnetism, etc. Some even suspected him of Roman Catholicism. Thus, while his mystical tendency rendered him an object of ridicule to the party called the enlightened (Aufgeklirte), the favor he showed to many new institutions offended the religionists of the old school" (Enyl. Cyclop. s.v).). Yet withal, many of the religious world, even of those not immediately belonging to his congregation, regarded Lavater with great veneration, and those who were entertained by a correspondence with him found his letters the great source of their spiritual consolation. His biography by his son-in- law Gessner (Lebensbeschreibung Lavaters), by far the most complete, appeared in 1802 (3 volumes, 8vo), and an excellent selection from his works by Orelli (Zurich, 1841-44, 8 volumes, 8vo). See Appleton's New American Cyclopedia, s.v.; Hedge, Prose Writers of Germany (Philadel. 1848), pages 187-189; Anna Lavater, or Picture of Swiss Pastoral Life in the Last Century (Cincinnati. 1870); Hagenbach, History of the Church in the 18th and 19th Centuries (New York, 1869); Bodemann, Lavater (1856); Nitzsch, Lavater u. Gellert (1857); Ueber Lavater's, Herder's, und Schleiermacher's Kirchengeschichtliche Bedeutung, in the Allgem. Kirchenzeit. 1856, No. 91 sq.; and the excellent article by Schenkel, in Herzog, Real-Encyclop. 8:233 sq.