SchönHerr, jOhann hEinrich
Schönherr, Johann Heinrich a very remarkable and influential German theosophist, was born at Memel November 30, 1770. At the age of fifteen he was sent to Königsberg to engage in trade. After a year of trial he concluded that he had not found his calling. By great self denial he succeeded in entering and passing through a gymnasium course, so that at the age of twenty-two he was ready for the university. Even in his gymnasial course he became interested in those deep problems to which his subsequent life was given. But as yet it was a period of inner commotion. His early reverence for the Bible and orthodoxy was shaken by contact with the Kantian philosophy. At first intent on studying theology, he now wavered and began with jurisprudence. Soon he broke off from Kantian principles and endeavored, in his own way, to solve the problem of destiny and immortality. After a year at Königsberg he made an extensive journey, stopping a while at Greifswald and Rostock, and finally studying a whole year at the University of Rinteln. Here at Rinteln his system of theosophy began to take shape. It was rooted in a reaction against Kant's abstract idealism, and was a fervent grasping after realism. He imagined that in the simple words of revelation he had found a complete philosophy of being. "I even saw into the mystery of the Trinity," says he; "and I discovered that the world is a structure that leads to perfection." Leaving Rinteln in 1793, he passed through Göttingen, Erfurt, and Jena, and finally stopped at Leipsic to continue the study of philosophy. Here he led a quiet, studious life until February, 1794, and showed no signs of eccentricity. But of a sudden one morning he came into the room of a friend and inquired the way to the highest mountain of Thuringia, affirming that he must repair thither at once. His manner awakened a belief of his insanity, and he was at once taken to an asylum. Here he at first refused all food. After a month he was released. He returned to Königsberg in the full conviction that he had discovered a new system of religious truth, and with the full determination to devote his life to its propagation. To university studies he gave no further attention, but, gaining his daily bread by private instruction, he explained his thoughts in private, and gradually gathered to himself a little circle of admirers. His earnest assaults upon the prevalent rationalism, and his absolute enthusiasm for the literal written word of God, made a happy impression upon many a youthful heart. Two regular weekly meetings were held, Wednesday and Sunday evenings, at which were had animated discussions on the profoundest problems of philosophy and religion. They extended far into the night, sometimes until daybreak. Ladies also attended. Usually they closed with a hymn and a simple meal. These meetings were held not so much simply to impart a fully developed system as in order to develop and mature on all sides a number of fundamental principles which were regarded as already settled and certain. Hence Schönherr was also himself a seeker of light as well as a giver. As to his outward manner, he was as unpretentious as a child, showing no trace of a desire to rule or to be held in extraordinary esteem. He was simply a thoroughly convinced believer. He believed that he had found the key to a fuller understanding of revelation and a deeper insight into nature, and he felt that a great regeneration of Christendom would go out from his teachings. But he had not the least intention of forming a sect; on the contrary, he was very constant in his attendance upon the regular Church services, and he joined in them with fervent devotion. Although the private meetings at Schönherr's house were never very large, still their very regularity and the striking appearance of Schönherr himself attracted the attention of the police to them. Measures were about to be taken for their suppression, when a casual meeting of Schönherr with the minister of public worship made such a favorable impression as to cause the matter to be dropped. Thenceforth he was left to labor unmolested until his death.
Among the young friends of Schönherr none contributed more than J. W. Ebel (q.v.) to bring his teachings into public notice. Ebel had studied at Königsberg and received the degree of Ph.D. at Leipsic. In 1810 he obtained a place as preacher in Königsberg, where his intimacy with Schönherr was renewed. His preaching soon invited general attention. His manner was attractive, his language imaginative, and his chief themes (conversion and personal holiness) almost novel. Twice the clerical authorities were impelled to call him to give account of his doctrines and of his relations to Schönherr. But no good reason could yet be seen for interfering with him. These failures to find aught against him, especially the last one, in 1814, contributed to give even greater prominence to his ministry and his theosophic views. In 1816 he attained to the most prominent place in the Church of the city. This prominence soon opened the way for the conversion of not a few eminent persons. Even professors of the university and noble dukes and ladies were brought into close intimacy with Schönherr. In the year 1819, however, a violent disagreement arose between Ebel and his master. Ebel had ripened into spiritual independence, and could no longer concede the infallibility to Schönherr which the whole circle had hitherto passively admitted. Besides, he could not admit the scripturalness of some of the later developments of his master's system. And when Schönherr actually proposed physical castigation as a means of hastening on the kingdom of God, and endeavored to sanction it by Scripture texts, Ebel took direct issue with him, and ventured to intimate to him that, while starting well. he had stopped short and was yet entangled in the flesh. Thenceforth there were two parties, the larger one following Ebel. Schönherr continued with his diminished circle just as before. In 1823 he made a journey to St. Petersburg, and the next year another to Berlin; but he made no permanent impression. In 1825 he fell upon the insane notion of constructing a ship which was to move without sail against wind and stream, and to serve as a place of refuge for his followers amid the terrible judgments that were soon to fall upon the world. He actually constructed it. On being launched, it went to pieces amid the derision of the witnessing multitude. This came near entirely breaking up his little band of followers; yet it did not in the least shake his faith in the truth of his system or in his divine call. But his career was now about run. Broken down in health by his self mortifications and labors, he retired to Spittelhof, in the environs of Königsberg, and there died of consumption, Oct. 15, 1826, attended only by a single maid servant, who was faithful to him to the last.
What are the outlines of Schönherr's system? He never fully reduced them to writing. Only two small tractates are all he ever published: Der Sieg der göttlichen Offenbarung, and Vom Sieg der göttlichen Offenbarung (both Königsberg, 1804). But these essays contain only the embryo of his system. In addition there were found among his posthumous papers some brief notes, mostly aphoristic in form. De la Chevalerie, a disciple, also published abstracts of some of his lectures (Königsberg, 1835). All these data were used in preparing the book Grundzüge (Leipsic, 1852). From these sources, and from the works of Ebel and Diestel, Schönherr's most prominent disciples, the following not very clear outlines of a system may be gathered. The actual universe consists of a dualism; but the dualism can and should rise to unity. At the basis of the universe there are two primitive principles or beings. They are equally primitive and are personal and free. These beings exist in space, have a globular form, and are of the colors white and black. There is but one difference between them: the one is strong, the other weak. This difference, rightly taken, is a difference of activity and passivity. The cooperation of the two generates the world of reality. As the system grew towards self consistency, the two principles assumed the forms of spirit and nature. But in Schönherr's thought they were rather of the nature of water (the weaker) and fire (the stronger). Fire and water lie at the basis of all reality. From their union and interaction arise the universe and God. The fire poured its light upon the water, and thus became self conscious. By the mutual action of the two a mutual effect was wrought — namely, the Word. The outer form of the Word is Day. The two first principles are the Mosaic Elohim. The stronger one is Jehovah; the weaker one is matter. From the absolute submissiveness of the latter to the former results the absolute harmony and order of the universe. To preserve and virtualize this harmony is the object of creation and providence. Creation is but another word for the plastic operation of the stronger upon the feebler principle. The Trinity is thus explained: the primitive essence of God is fire or light; this is the Spirit. The immanent power of God is the Father. The product of the essence and the power is consciousness, or the Word — that is, the Son of God. The contact of the Spirit with matter produced not only the Son of God, but also the whole series of spiritual beings. The kingdom of evil was produced by one of these highest beings turning away from light and allying himself with matter. The origin of sin in man is explained in the most realistic manner. Man, tempted by Lucifer, took into his blood the destructive substance of the tree of good and evil. Through the blood the evil is propagated as depravity in all after generations. The theory of redemption is also very realistically conceived. By the fall man disturbed the harmony of the two principles of being. By redemption this harmony is reestablished. But how? By a realistic implantation into nature of a healthful, harmonious leaven. Yet how? Thus: man's life lies in his blood. By the corruption of man's blood the whole life of nature is poisoned and depraved. Inside of humanity there is, therefore, no healthful starting point. The healthful leaven must then be furnished from on high. It is furnished in the ideal human person of Jesus Christ, in whom the absolute mastery of the active over the passive principle is realized. The healthful, undepraved blood of Jesus is the redeeming principle. When he permitted the spirit of disorder to shed his precious blood on the cross, this blood flowed out and over into the realm of nature, or passivity and sin; and there it became the potent leaven which will ultimately transfigure, and glorify, and introduce order into the whole field of darkness. As the spilling of the actual blood of Jesus upon the lap of nature is the means of regenerating the cosmos, so the right partaking of the blood of Christ in the eucharist is the means of regenerating the depravity of human nature. As with redemption, so with the resurrection, the ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost. All are explained in a realistic and physical manner.
As to the proximate coming of the kingdom of God on earth, Schönherr had peculiar and very detailed views. How soon the state of perfection should break in depended largely on the use of human freedom. To freedom a very high role is attributed. By freedom man, in some sense, takes the place of God. By freedom he interferes with omnipotence and omniscience. How he will help to shape the future history of the universe is not absolutely foreknown even by God. It lies within the discretion of man, by fidelity to his own possibilities, to inaugurate a new phase in the history of humanity. But there are two absolutely differing classes of men. There are central natures and subservient natures. The latter revolve about the former as planets about the sun. Let a central nature only be faithful, and he carries a whole galaxy with him into the realm of light. As such a central nature Schönherr unquestionably regarded himself. Faith in himself was the very essence of his character. Nor did he ever waver in this. Hence his oft expressed anticipation of a speedy transformation of humanity. He would be faithful, and would carry his brethren with him over into the realm of light.
After the death of Schönherr, the pastor Ebel took up the work of his master. It was a principle of the whole system that the essential thing is not knowledge, but faithfulness. Upon this maxim Ebel proceeded. In the pulpit and before the multitude he preached only the common doctrines of the catechism; but in private he gathered about his own person an elect circle of the initiated. Among them were great lords and ladies, professors and students. Best known among them are pastor Diestel and the commentator Olshausen. These were mostly "central natures;" while the uninitiated masses were but subordinate natures. The two corresponded to the two primitive principles of being, the active and the passive. But the main leader of the circle was Ebel. As the circle drew closer around him, the personal confession of every secret sin was introduced as a special means of rapid advancement in holiness. This gave Ebel an almost papal power over the consciences of the circle. It proved the means of a violent outburst which took place in 1826. Many of the chiefs of the circle left it and at once began an assault upon Ebel. For a while Ebel was prostrated by sickness, and dropped from the public attention. In 1834 he came again before the public. But a fresh storm broke out, and very soon involved Ebel and Diestel in one of the most notorious lawsuits of modern times. The two preachers were charged with unchurchly doctrines, immoral practices, and heresy. The trial lasted from 1835 to 1841, and resulted in deposing the accused from office, but in acquitting them of intentional immorality. The result was to entirely discredit the theosophy of Schönherr. Thenceforth it has had no organic existence, though isolated theologians have, here and there, studied it with more or less admiration. See, besides the works already mentioned, Die Schutzwehr (Königsberg, 1834); Geyenseitige Liebe (ibid. 1834); Verstand u. Vernunft im Bunde (Leipsic, 1837); Diestel, Ein Zeugenverhör (ibid. 1838); Grundzüge (ibid. 1852) from Schönherr's papers; Compas de Route (Königsberg and Mohrungen, 1857), vol. 1; Life of Rudolf Stier (N.Y. 1874), p. 141, 142; Herzog, Real-Encyklop. 13, 620-647; Hahnenfeld, Die religiöse Bewegung zu Königsberg (Leipsic, 1858). (J.P.L.)