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Christian History Home > By Topic > Movements, Denominations, & Traditions > A Pastor's Revolutionary Vision

A Pastor's Revolutionary Vision
The name August Hermann Francke may not be widely known today, but this gentle and innovative teacher helped launch the modern wave of Protestant missions, education, and translation.
Robert Eric Frykenberg | posted 1/14/2009 10:55AM

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A Pastor's Revolutionary Vision

What do Bible translations, orphan schools, and science laboratories have in common? For a German pastor and professor named August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), they were all part of fulfilling the Great Commission to "make disciples of all nations." Every man, woman, and child in the world, Francke believed, should be able to read and understand the Word of God in his or her own language. This meant that translation and education should go hand in hand. For over 30 years, Francke strove to provide basic literacy and access to Scripture in the "mother tongue" for as much of the world as possible, and his pioneering efforts became the model for all Protestant missionary translation and education projects after him.

Francke was one of the leading figures of Pietism, a movement of spiritual and moral renewal within the Protestant churches of Europe in the late 1600s and 1700s. While teaching students about the Bible, he had a profound spiritual crisis that prompted him to become a "true child of God." In December 1691, Francke became a pastor in Glaucha, a suburb of Halle, Germany, and a professor of oriental languages and theology in the new University of Halle, where he remained until his death.

Francke stressed the need for absolute and "childlike" faith in God, a "new birth," and "a true and thorough reformation of life." His goal was "the transformation of the world through the transformation of man." Like Johann Arndt and Philipp Spener, whose Pietism inspired him, he believed that God uses both the "Book of Grace" (revealed Scripture) and the "Book of Nature" (natural science) to teach people about Himself. And so, he argued, proper belief in God requires an understanding of the Bible; understanding the Bible requires literacy; and literacy, as well as other practical vocational skills, requires exposure to the wonders of nature. Every single person on earth, whether child or adult, male or female—no matter what social class—needed to learn reading, basic numbers, practical science, and technical skills! This was a radical agenda with revolutionary implications, and it led to educational innovations, worldwide missionary ventures, and Bible translations.

Chamber of wonders

Remarkably kind, gentle, and charming, Francke became deeply disturbed over the plight of orphans and outcast street children who were dwelling in ignorance and crime. So he started a one-room orphanage and "ragged school." One house led quickly to a second house, and then to more and more facilities. By 1698, the Francke Foundations accommodated 500 children and enrolled over 1000 other students who came for primary, secondary, technical, and pre-university training. This number grew to nearly 2300 in 1727.

Francke experimented with new educational methods to help young people gain access to literature, laboratory science, and higher learning. For example, the "cabinet of wonders" (or "chamber of wonders") exposed students to the latest advances in discovery, science, and technology—this went far beyond the traditional emphasis on reading, writing, and mathematics! Students learned astronomy, geography, biology, physics, history, and law, as well as music, drawing, and calligraphy.

In addition, each student was expected to work with his or her hands, learning such basic skills as baking, carpentry, and optics. The school's farms and factories produced food, clothing, furniture, and tools.

The Weisenhaus (orphanage) printing press turned out cheap editions of the Bible and Bible translations in several languages. Ten thousand copies of the German New Testament were sold in one year (1710). The orphanage prepared Tamil (an Indian language) fonts and printing presses for the very first Protestant missionaries. Its library also included grammars, dictionaries, and works in many languages, including Marathi, Telugu, Sanskrit, Persian, Russian, and Polish.

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