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.

Francke also founded the Collegium Orientale Theologicum (Oriental College of Theology) in 1702 in order to train students in both biblical and modern languages.

The Collegium created an annotated edition of the Hebrew Old Testament, which was published by the orphanage printing press in 1720.

Inspiring missions

All of these ventures, from humble primary schools to advanced laboratory research and prodigious Bible translation projects, were integral to Francke's vision of worldwide expansion of the Gospel and total transformation of the human condition. His practical innovations had profound repercussions throughout Europe and beyond.

Francke corresponded with thousands of people and won support from many nobles and princes scattered all over Europe. The king of Prussia, for example, applied Francke's techniques to an orphanage in Potsdam (for 1500 children) and asked Francke to extend his model school system to his entire kingdom. Such contacts led to missionary outreach and to translations of the Bible into Polish, Russian, and other Slavic languages.

A remarkable collaboration between Francke and two devout royal cousins, Queen Anne of England and King Frederick IV of Denmark, brought new missionary ventures: the SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) in 1698, the SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts) in 1702, and the Royal Danish-Halle Mission in 1704. These led to new translations of the Bible. The first missionary of the Danish-Halle Mission, Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, showed great sensitivity to the language and culture of South India. He translated the New Testament into Tamil, founded schools where children could learn the Bible as well as science and other subjects, and inspired missionary efforts in other parts of the world. Another Halle missionary to India, Benjamin Schultze, translated Scripture into Telugu.

One of Francke's students, Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, sheltered a community of Moravian Christian refugees at his estate, and this small but vibrant Pietist movement displayed enormous missionary zeal and influenced great evangelical awakenings in Britain and America. (A group of Moravians made a deep impression on Methodist founder John Wesley.) August Hermann Francke's efforts to enable all people to read the Word of God continue to bear fruit as many others have taken up his vision for "a life changed, a church revived, a nation reformed, and a world evangelized."

Robert Eric Frykenberg is professor emeritus of history and South Asian studies at the university of Wisconsin-Madison.