Nicholas of Basle
Nicholas Of Basle the great lay-preacher of the Middle Ages, and a leader of the Mystics in the 14th century, the man who taught Tauler (q.v.) that God's illuminating grace was not confined to the Church of Rome or her clergy, but comes to every one of God's people directly from Jesus Christ himself, was the son of a wealthy merchant in Basle, and was born in the year 1308. He was a lad of good abilities and irreproachable conduct, and was from his early years of a decidedly religious disposition. When about fifteen years of age he became oppressed by a great consciousness of sin, and, in order to free himself from the burden under which he labored, he resolved to renounce the world and devote himself to a religious life. Even at this early stage of his career the independence of his character revealed itself, for he does not appear to have remotely contemplated entering a convent or becoming a priest; he renounced the world, but made the renunciation in his own way. For five years he labored to obtain a nearer approach to God, reading the lives of saints and practicing austerities. At length God revealed himself to him, and he found peace. Now he began to feel himself specially inspired by God, and specially taught by the Holy Spirit. Immediately after his conversion he began to study the Scriptures, and found that, although he had never received a university education, nor any instruction in theology, he was able, in the space of thirty weeks, to master and understand the Word of God as thoroughly as many learned doctors of the Church. While separating himself from the Church, and denying her claim to be the mediator between God and man in the revelation of doctrine, Nicholas did not associate himself with any heretical sects. He had no connection whatever with the Waldenses, although some of his doctrines were the same as theirs, and he was the determined opponent of the licentious Brethren of the Free Spirit, and of the pantheistic Beghards. He occupied a thoroughly independent position between the Church, on the one hand, and the different sects on the other; and the fact of his being a layman enabled him to do this with greater ease and safety than if he had been a member of any religious order. His theology was of a very simple kind, and he had not the perplexing logical mind which prevents a thinker from holding doctrines quite irreconcilable with each other. On most points of doctrine his opinions were substantially those of the old Catholic Church, but along with these he held two doctrines which, when pushed to their logical consequences, would have yielded results entirely subversive of most of the theology of the Church. These were the doctrines of self-renunciation and of private inspiration; and in the view of Nicholas they are so mutually related that when self-renunciation is complete inspiration follows. Nicholas and his followers made the dogma of self-renunciation the principal doctrine of their theology. Protestantism, it is true, teaches this doctrine too. Nicholas of Basle and his friends, however, differed radically from the reformed theology. The latter teaches simply the renunciation of one's own merit in order to gain by confidence in the merit of Jesus Christ a standing before God and peace of conscience in spite of the sense of sin; making self-renunciation simply the absolute negation of one's own individuality in order to leave all things to God, while Nicholas's doctrine of self-renunciation is the barest and most absolute Quietism (q.v.), and if logically adhered to prevents every kind of human action and exertion. He went so far as to assert that "temptations to sin should always be faced and never shirked, nor are we to pray to be delivered from them; and in the same way it is not right to pray for any alteration of circumstances, nor even for the coming of the kingdom of heaven." The highest form of the divine life in man is, according to Nicholas, "resignation to the will of God, and prayer is a means of bringing about this state of resignation; hence the believer should only pray for a right and suitable frame of mind and will- that is, a frame of mind and will resigned to whatever is sent or is to be sent by God in his providence — while to pray for a change in one's circumstances, for forgiveness of sins, for freedom from temptation, for the coming of the kingdom, is to pray that what God- sends may be made subject to us, not that we should be made to submit ourselves to it, and so tends to produce selfassertion, not self-renunciation." (Comp the fifteenth and sixteenth articles in the sentence against Martin of Mainz, one of Nicholas's followers: "15. Quod perfectns- homno non debet pro inferni liberatione ac coelestis regli collocatione deum orare, nec illi pro aliquo quod deus est non servire, sed indifferels ejns beneplaciturn expectare. 16. Quod in evangeliis et in oratione dominica non debet stare sic: 'Et ne:'nos inducas in temptationem,' quia negatio non ex Christi doctrina, sed alia quacunque negligentia.")
"When self-renunciation is complete, the soul of man having become entirely resigned to the divine will, becomes," Nicholas taught, "so entirely assimilated to the divine nature that it has continual and near fellowship with God. Thus the man who has so far triumphed over his natural inclination to self-assertion as to become wholly resigned to the ways of God, is always in familiar intercourse with the Spirit of God, who communicates to him all divine knowledge." Thus Nicholas claimed for himself and for such of his followers as had reached a state of perfection in self-renunciation a direct acquaintance with things divine. God revealed himself to them, they believed, not indirectly and only through the medium of the Holy Scriptures; but directly and immediately through dreams and waking visions, and in this way taught them to understand perfectly all the sublimest mysteries in theology. It often happened that these revelations consisted in allegorical visions, as when Rulmann Merswin had a vision of a stone successively assuming three shapes, and was thereby taught to understand as he had never understood before the doctrine of the Trinity; while at other times, as in the vision which came to Tauler at his conversion, the revelation was expressed in ordinary language. This private inspiration, which Nicholas believed that he possessed, was quite different from the ordinary efforts of the human reason, and in this respect Tauler and Nicholas held opinions altogether opposed to the rationalism of Eckhart. It was a supernatural gift especially bestowed upon men from without, and showed itself in ways altogether different from the exercise of the ordinary reason. The men who were believed to be possessed of it had in it a new gift, altogether different from the capacities of their fellows, which made them independent of all churchly and other aids to a religious life, and they were, as possessors of the same spirit, brought into such a close spiritual fellowship with each other, that they could, while far distant, correspond with each other through alternate visions.
Of the private history of Nicholas we know very little, but it is evident that he traveled a great deal through Germany, propagating his opinions in a quiet, unostentatious manner. Gradually there grew up around him a society of Christians composed of men and women likeminded with himself, who loved and honored him as their spiritual father. It does not seem that this society had any definite place of association, or that its members proposed to themselves any practical or political ends and aims. The bond of association was the personal character of Nicholas, and the members were all men and women of pious lives and characters, who, in a profligate and disastrous age, amid the breaking up, as it seemed, of all mechanical aids to piety, were insensibly attracted towards Nicholas, and through him to each other. They called themselves "the Friends of God," to signify that they had reached that stage of the Christian life when Christ, according to his promise, would call them "no longer servants, but friends;" and they included in their number individuals who differed most widely in rank and circumstances. More than one monkish order had its representatives among the Friends of God. Tauler, Suso, and Henry of Nordlingen were Dominicans; Otto of Passau was a Franciscan, and there were numbers of laymen. Rulmann Merswin was a banker, Conrad of Brunsberg was grand-master of the Knights of St. John in Germany. There were women too enrolled as members, for example, the two Ebners, Margaretha and Christina, and Anne, queen of Hungary, SEE FRIENDS OF GOD. From the fact that after the death of Nicholas of Basle (he was burned to death at Vienne, near Poitiers, after 1382) the association of his followers fell to pieces, it is evident that it was Nicholas's personal power and influence that kept them united. Nicholas of Basle was not only noted as a preacher; he also wielded a powerful pen, and wrote much for the edification of his followers. Indeed many were gathered as Friends of God by the influence of his writings. His principal works are, Buch von den zwei Mannern (who these two men were is not now known): DieBekehrung Tauler's: — Buch von den funff Mannern (a religious biography of Nicholas himself and four of his companions): — Von derBekehrung eiizes Deutsch-OrdensRitters: — Von zwei Kloster-Frauen in Baiern and von zwei Klausnerinnen, Ursula u. Adelheit (the memoir of two nuns in Brabant), believed to be simply a translation from the Welsh or Och Walloon dialect. See Vaughan, Sours with the Mystics (1873); Schmidt, Nicolas von Basel, Leben u. Werke (Vienna, 1866); ejusd. Die Gottes- Freunde im 14ten .fahrh. (Jena, 1854); Meth. Quart. Rev. January, 1869, art. i; Brit. Quart. Rev. Oct. 1874, art. i; Gieseler, Eccles. Hist. 4:1.84-186; Hodgson, Reformer's and Martyrs (Phila. 1867), p. 120 sq.