Jacob Boehme: his Life and Spirit
Few men have ever made greater claim to be the bearer of a new revelation than did the humble shoemaker-prophet of Silesia, Jacob Boehme. "I am," he wrote in his earliest book, "only a very little spark of God's Light, but He is now pleased in this last time to reveal through me what has been partly concealed from the beginning of the World,"[2] and he admonished the reader, if he would understand what is written, to let go opinion {152} and conceit and heathenish wisdom, and read with the Light and Power of the Holy Spirit, "for this book comes not forth from Reason, but by the impulse of the Spirit."[3] "I have not dared," he wrote to a friend in 1620, "to write otherwise than was given and indited to me. I have continually written as the Spirit dictated and have not given place to Reason."[4] Again and again he warns the reader to let his book alone unless he is ready for a new dawning of divine Truth, for a fresh Light to break: "If thou art not a spiritual overcomer, then let my book alone. Do not meddle with it, but stick to thy old matters!"[5]

Before the Spirit came upon him, he felt himself to be a "little stammering child," and he always declared that without this Spirit he could not comprehend even his own writings -- "when He parteth from me, I know nothing but the elementary and earthly things of this world"[6] -- but with this divine Spirit unfolding within him "the profoundest depth" of mysteries, he believed, though with much simplicity and generally with humility, that the true ground of things had "not been so fully revealed to any man from the beginning of the world" -- "but," he adds, "seeing God will have it so, I submit to His will."[7] Nobody before him, he declares, no matter how learned he was, "has had the ax by the handle," but, with a sudden change of figure, he proclaims that now the Morning Glow is breaking and the Day Dawn is rising.[8] In his Epistles he says: "I am only a layman, I have not studied, yet I bring to light things which all the High Schools and Universities have been unable to do. . . . The language of Nature is made known to me so that I can understand the greatest mysteries, in my own mother-tongue. Though I cannot say I have learned or comprehended these things, yet so long as the hand of God stayeth upon me I understand."[9]

We shall be able to estimate the value of these lofty {153} claims after we have gathered up the substance of his teaching, but it may be well to say at the opening of this Study of Boehme that in my opinion no more remarkable religious message has come in modern centuries from an untrained and undisciplined mind than that which lies scattered through the voluminous and somewhat chaotic writings of this seventeenth-century prophet of the common people.[19]

He frequently speaks of himself as "unlearned," and in the technical sense of the word he was unlearned. He had only a simple schooling, but he possessed extraordinary native capacity and he was well and widely read in the books which fitted the frame and temper of his mind, and he had very unusual powers of meditation and recollection so that he thought over and over again in his quiet hours of labour the ideas which he seized upon in the books he read.

There are many strands of thought woven together in his writings, and everything he dealt with is given a {154} new aspect through the vivid insights which he always brings into play, the amazing visual power which he displays, and his profoundly penetrating moral and intellectual grasp. But, nevertheless, he plainly belongs in the direct line of these spiritual reformers whom we have been studying. He was deeply influenced, first of all, by Luther, especially in two directions. He got primarily from the great reformer his transforming insight of the immense importance of personal faith for salvation, and secondly he was impressed -- almost overwhelmingly impressed in his early years -- with the awful reality and range of the principle of positive evil in the universe, upon which Luther had insisted with intensity of emphasis. His feet, however, were set upon the track which seemed to him to lead to light by the help which he got from the other line of reformers. Schwenckfeld made him feel the impossibility of any scheme of salvation that rested on transactions and operations external to the human soul itself, and through that same noble Silesian reformer he discovered the central significance of the new birth through a creative work of Grace within. Sebastian Franck was clearly one of his spiritual masters. From him, directly or indirectly, he learned that the spirit must be freed from the letter, that external revelations are symbols which remain dead and inert until they are vivified and vitalized by the inwardly illuminated spirit. He was still more directly influenced by Valentine Weigel, the pastor of Zschopau, who united the spiritual-mystical views of Schwenckfeld, Franck, and the other teachers of his type with a nature mysticism or theosophy which had become, as we have seen, a powerful interest in the sixteenth century when a real science was struggling to be born, but had not yet seen the light. This nature mysticism came to him also in a crude and indigestible form through the writings of Paracelsus. Through him Boehme acquired a vocabulary of alchemistical terms which he was always labouring to turn to spiritual meaning, but which always baffled him. It has been customary to treat Boehme as a mystic, and he has not {155} usually been brought into this line of spiritual development where I am placing him, but his entire outlook and body of ideas are different from those of the great Roman Catholic mystics. He has read neither the classical nor the scholastic interpreters of mysticism. In so far as he knows of historical mysticism he knows it through Franck and Weigel and others, where it is profoundly transformed and subordinated to other aspects of religion and thought. Unlike the great mystics, he does not treat the visible and the finite as unreal and to be negated. The world is a positive reality and a divine revelation. Nor, again, are sin and evil negative in character for him. Evil is tremendously real and positive, in grim conflict with the good and to be conquered only through stern battle. A mystic, an illuminate, he undoubtedly was in his first-hand experience, but his message of salvation and his interpretation of life are of the wider, distinctively "spiritual" type.

Jacob Boehme[11] was born in November 1575 in the little market-town of Alt Seidenberg, a few miles from Goerlitz. His father's name was Jacob and his mother's Ursula, both persons of good old German peasant stock, possessed of a strong strain of simple piety. The family religion was Lutheran, and Jacob the son was brought up both at home and at church in the Lutheran faith as it had shaped itself into definite form at the end of the sixteenth century. His early education was very limited, but he was possessed of unusual fundamental capacity and always exhibited a native mental power of very high order. He was always a keen observer; he looked through things, and whether he was in the fields, where much of his early life was spent as a watcher of cattle, or reading the Bible, which he knew as few persons have known it, he saw everything with a vivid and quickened imagination. He plainly began, while still very young, to revolt from the orthodox theology of his time, and his {156} years of reading and of silent meditation and reflection were the actual preparation for what seemed finally to come to him like a sudden revelation or, to use his own common figure, as "a flash."[12]

His external appearance has been quaintly portrayed by his admiring friend and biographer, Abraham von Franckenberg, who, like a good portrait-painter, strives to let the body reveal the soul. "The external form of Jacob's body," he says, "was worn and very plain; his stature was small, his forehead low, his temples broad and prominent, his nose somewhat crooked, his eyes grey and rather of an azure-cast, lighting up like the windows of Solomon's Temple; his beard was short and thin; his voice was feeble, yet his conversation was mild and pleasant. He was gentle in manner, modest in his words, humble in conduct, patient in suffering and meek of heart. His spirit was highly illuminated of God beyond anything Nature could produce."[13]

This youth, with "azure-grey eyes that lighted up like the windows of Solomon's Temple," was from his childhood possessed of a most acutely sensitive and suggestible psychical disposition. He always felt that the real world was deeper than the one which he saw with his senses, and he was frequently swept from within by mighty currents which he could not trace to any well-mapped region of the domain of Nature. His vivid and pictorial imagination, his consciousness of inrushes from the unplumbed deeps within, and his inclination to solitude and meditation are well in evidence at an early age, and we have no difficulty at all in seeing that his psychological equilibrium was unstable, and that he was capable of sudden shifts of inward level.

The first sign of his psychical peculiarity comes to light in an incident of his early childhood. While he was tending cattle in the fields one day he climbed alone a neighbouring {157} mountain-peak, and on the summit he espied among the great red sandstones a kind of aperture overgrown with bushes. Boy-like he entered the opening, and there within, in a strange vault, he descried a large portable vessel full of money. The sight of it made him shudder, and, without touching the treasure, he made his way out to the world again. To his surprise he was never able to find the aperture again, though, in company with the other less imaginative cowboys, he often hunted for it. His friend, von Franckenberg, who relates the story and says that he had it from Boehme's mouth, thinks that the experience was "a sort of emblematic omen or presage of his future spiritual admission to the sight of the hidden treasury of the wisdom and mysteries of God and Nature,"[14] but we are more interested in it as a revelation of the extraordinary psychical nature of the boy, with his tendency to hallucination.

When he was in his fourteenth year he was apprenticed to a shoemaker in Seidenberg, and devoted himself diligently to the mastery of his trade. It was during this period of apprenticeship, which lasted three years, that there was granted to him "a kind of secret tinder and glimmer" of coming fame. One day a stranger, plain and mean in dress, but otherwise of good presence, came to the shop and asked to buy a pair of shoes. As the master shoemaker was absent, the uninitiated prentice-boy did not feel competent to sell the shoes, but the buyer would not be put off. Thereupon young Jacob set an enormous price upon them, hoping to stave off the trade. The man, however, without any demur paid the price, took the shoes, and went out. Just outside the door the stranger stopped, and in a serious tone called out, "Jacob, come hither to me!" The man, with shining eyes looking him full in the face, took his hand and said, "Jacob, thou art little but thou shalt become great -- a man very different from the common cast, so that thou shalt be a wonder to the world. Be a good lad; fear God and reverence His Word." With a little more counsel, the {158} stranger pressed his hand and went his way, leaving the boy amazed.[15]

He had, his intimate biographer tells us, lived from his very youth up in the fear of God, in all humility and simplicity, and had taken peculiar pleasure in hearing sermons, but from the opening of his apprenticeship he began to revolt from the endless controversies and "scholastic wranglings about religion," and he withdrew into himself, fervently and incessantly praying and seeking and knocking, until one day "he was translated into the holy Sabbath and glorious Day of Rest to the soul," and, according to his own words, was "enwrapt with the Divine Light for the space of seven days and stood possessed of the highest beatific wisdom of God, in the ecstatic joy of the Kingdom."[16] Boehme looked upon this "Sabbatic" experience as his spiritual call, and from this time on he increased his endeavours to live a pure life of godliness and virtue, refusing to listen to frivolous talk, reproving his fellows and even his shopmaster when they indulged in light and wanton conversation, until finally the master discharged him with the remark that he did not care to keep "a house-prophet" any longer.[17] Hereupon he went forth as a travelling cobbler, spending some years in his wanderings, discovering more and more, as he passed from place to place, how religion was being lost in the Babel of theological wrangling, and seeing, with those penetrating eyes of his, deeper into the meaning of life and the world. Near the end of the century -- probably about 1599 -- he gave up his wanderings, married Catherine Kunchman, "a young woman of virtuous disposition," and opened a shoemaker's shop for himself in the town of Goerlitz, where he soon established a reputation for honest, faithful work, and where he modestly prospered and was able to buy a home of his own, and where he reared the four sons and two daughters who came to the happy home.


The supreme experience of his life -- and one of the most remarkable instances of "illumination" in the large literature of mystical experiences -- occurred when Boehme was twenty-five years of age, some time in the year 1600. His eye fell by chance upon the surface of a polished pewter dish which reflected the bright sunlight, when suddenly he felt himself environed and penetrated by the Light of God, and admitted into the innermost ground and centre of the universe. His experience, instead of waning as he came back to normal consciousness, on the contrary deepened. He went to the public green in Goerlitz, near his house, and there it seemed to him that he could see into the very heart and secret of Nature, and that he could behold the innermost properties of things.[18] In his own account of his experience, Boehme plainly indicates that he had been going through a long and earnest travail of soul as a Seeker,[19] "striving to find the heart of Jesus Christ and to be freed and delivered from everything that turned him away from Christ." At last, he says, he resolved to "put his life to the utmost hazard" rather than miss his life-quest, when suddenly the "gate was opened." He continues his account as follows: "In one quarter of an hour I saw and knew more than if I had been many years together in a University. . . . I saw and knew the Being of Beings, the Byss and Abyss, the eternal generation of the Trinity, the origin and descent of this world, and of all creatures through Divine Wisdom. I knew and saw in myself all the three worlds -- (1) the Divine, Angelical, or Paradisaical World; (2) the dark world, the origin of fire; and (3) the external, visible world as an outbreathing or expression of the internal and spiritual worlds. I saw, too, the essential nature of evil and of good, and how the {160} pregnant Mother -- the eternal genetrix -- brought them forth."[20]

He has also vividly told his experience in the Aurora: "While I was in affliction and trouble, I elevated my spirit, and earnestly raised it up unto God, as with a great stress and onset, lifting up my whole heart and mind and will and resolution to wrestle with the love and mercy of God and not to give over unless He blessed me -- then the Spirit did break through. When in my resolved zeal I made such an assault, storm, and onset upon God, as if I had more reserves of virtue and power ready, with a resolution to hazard my life upon it, suddenly my spirit did break through the Gate, not without the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and I reached to the innermost Birth of the Deity and there I was embraced with love as a bridegroom embraces his bride. My triumphing can be compared to nothing but the experience in which life is generated in the midst of death or like the resurrection from the dead. In this Light my spirit suddenly saw through all, and in all created things, even in herbs and grass, I knew God -- who He is, how He is, and what His will is -- and suddenly in that Light my will was set upon by a mighty impulse to describe the being of God."[21]

This experience was the momentous watershed of his life. He is constantly referring to it either directly or indirectly. "I teach, write, and speak," is his frequent testimony, "of what has been wrought in me. I have not scraped my teaching together out of histories and so made opinions. I have by God's grace obtained eyes of my own."[22] "There come moments," he writes, "when the soul sees God as in a flash of lightning,"[23] and he tells his readers that "when the Gate is opened" to them, they also "will understand."[24] "In my own faculties," he writes again, "I am as blind a man as {161} ever was, but in the Spirit of God my spirit sees through all."[25]

During the ten quiet years which followed "the opening of the Gate" to him, Boehme meditated on what he had seen, and, though he does not say so, he almost certainly read much in the works of "the great masters," as he calls them, who were trying to tell, often in confused language, the central secret of the universe. Instead of fading out, his "flash" of insight grew steadily clearer to him as he read and pondered, and little by little, as one comes to see in the dark, certain great ideas became defined. With his third "flash,"[26] which came to him in 1610, when he felt once more "overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and touched by God,"[27] he was moved to write down for his own use what he had seen. "It was," he says, "powerfully borne in upon my mind to write down these things for a memorial, however difficult they might be of apprehension to my outer self [intellect] and of expression through my pen. I felt compelled to begin at once, like a child going to school, to work upon this very great Mystery. Inwardly [in spirit] I saw it all well enough, as in a great depth; for I looked through as into a chaos where all things lie [undifferentiated] but the unravelling thereof seemed impossible. From time to time an opening took place within me, as of a growth.[28] I kept this to myself for twelve years [1600-12], being full of it and I experienced a vehement impulse before I could bring it out into expression; but at last it overwhelmed me like a cloud-burst which hits whatever it lights upon. And so it went with me: whatsoever I could grasp sufficiently to bring it out, that I wrote down."[29]

This first book which thus grew out of his spiritual travails and "openings" Boehme called Morning Glow, to which later, through the suggestion of a friend, he gave {162} the title Aurora. It is a strange melange of chaos where all things lie undifferentiated and of insight; dreary wastes of words that elude comprehension, with beautiful patches of spiritual oasis. He himself always felt that the book was dictated to him, and that he only passively held the pen which wrote it. "Art," he says, speaking of his writing, "has not written here, neither was there any time to consider how to set it down punctually, according to the understanding of the letters, but all was ordered according to the direction of the Spirit, which often went in haste, so that in many words letters may be wanting, and in some places a capital letter for a word; so that the Penman's hand, by reason that he was not accustomed to it, did often shake. And though I could have wrote in a more accurate, fair, and plain manner, yet the reason was this, that the burning fire often forced forward with speed, and the hand and pen must hasten directly after it; for it goes and comes like a sudden shower."[30] This is obviously an inside account of the production of inspirational script, amounting almost to automatic impulsion. Throughout his voluminous writings he often speaks of "this hand," or "this pen" as though they were owned and moved by a will far deeper than his own individual consciousness,[31] and his writings themselves frequently bear the marks of automatisms.

His manuscript copy of Morning Glow was freely lent to readers and circulated widely. Boehme himself kept no copy by him, but he tells us that during its wanderings the manuscript was copied out in full four times by strangers and brought to him.[32] One of the copies fell into the hands of Gregorius Richter, pastor primarius of Goerlitz, a violent guardian of orthodoxy and a man extremely jealous of any infringement of the dignity of his official position. He proceeded at once -- "without sufficient examination or knowledge" -- to {163} "vilify and condemn" the writing, and in a sermon on "False Prophets" he vigorously attacked the local prophet of Goerlitz, who meekly sat in Church and listened to the "fulminations" against him.[33] After the sermon, Boehme modestly asked the preacher to show him what was wrong with his teaching, but the only answer he received was that if he did not instantly leave the town the pastor would have him arrested; and the following day Richter had Boehme summoned before the magistrates, and succeeded by his influence and authority in overawing them so that they ordered the harmless prophet to leave the town forthwith without any time given him to see his family or to close up his affairs. Boehme quietly replied, "Yes, dear Sirs, it shall be done; since it cannot be otherwise I am content." The next day, however, the magistrates of Goerlitz held a meeting and recalled the banished prophet and offered him the privilege of remaining in his home and occupation on condition that he would cease from writing on theological matters. On this latter point we have Boehme's own testimony, though he does not refer the condition to the magistrates. "When I appeared before him" [Pastor Richter], Boehme says, "to defend myself and indicate my standpoint, the Rev. Primarius [Richter] exacted from me a promise to give up writing and to this I assented, since I did not then see clearly the divine way, nor did I understand what God would later do with me. . . . By his order I gave up for many years [1613-18] all writing or speaking about my knowledge of divine things, hoping vainly that the evil reports would at last come to an end, instead of which they only grew worse and more malignant."[34]

Boehme's friend, Doctor Cornelius Weissner, in his account, which is none too accurate, endeavours to find an explanation of Richter's persistent hate and persecution {164} of the shoemaker-prophet in a gentle reproof which the latter administered to the former for having meanly treated a poor kinsman of Boehme in a small commercial transaction, but it is by no means necessary to bring up incidents of this sort to discover an adequate ground for Richter's fury. The Aurora itself furnishes plenty of passages which would, if read, throw a jealous guardian of orthodoxy into fierce activity. One passage in which Boehme boldly attacks the popular doctrine of predestination and asserts that the writers and scribes who teach it are "masterbuilders of Lies" will be sufficient illustration of the theological provocation: "This present world doth dare to say that God hath decreed or concluded it so in His predestinate purpose and counsel that some men should be saved and some should be damned, as if hell and malice and evil had been from eternity and that it was in God's predestinate purpose that men should be and must be therein. Such persons pull and hale the Scriptures to prove it, though, indeed, they neither have the knowledge of the true God nor the understanding of Scripture. These justifiers and disputers assist the Devil steadfastly and pervert God's truth and change it into lies."[35] He closed his book with these daring words: "Should Peter or Paul seem to have written otherwise, then look to the essence, look to the heart [i.e. to interior meaning]. If you lay hold of the heart of God you have ground enough."[36] His entire conception of salvation was, too, as we shall see, vastly different from the prevailing orthodox conception, and furthermore he was only a layman, innocent of the schools, and yet he was claiming to speak as an almost infallible instrument of a fresh revelation of God. Theologians of the type of the Primarius Richter need no other provocation to account for their relentless pursuit of local prophets that appear in the domain of their authority.

Meantime Boehme's fame was slowly spreading, and he was drawing into sympathetic fellowship with himself a number of high-minded and serious men who were {165} dissatisfied with the current orthodox teaching. In this group of friends who found comfort in the fresh message of Boehme were Dr. Balthazar Walther, director of the Chemical Laboratory of Dresden, Dr. Tobias Kober, physician at Goerlitz, a disciple of Paracelsus, Abraham von Franckenberg, who calls Jacob "our God-taught man," Doctor Cornelius Weissner, who became intimate with him in 1618, and the nobleman Carl von Endern, who copied out the entire manuscript of the Aurora. These friends frequently encouraged Boehme to break his enforced silence, and he himself was restless and melancholy, feeling that he was "entrusted with a talent which he ought to put to usury and not return to God singly and without improvement, like the lazy servant." "It was with me," he writes, describing his years of silence, "as when a seed is hidden in the earth. It grows up in storm and rough weather, against all reason. In winter time, all is dead, and reason says: 'It is all over with it.' But the precious seed within me sprouted and grew green, oblivious of all storms, and amid disgrace and ridicule it has blossomed forth into a lily!"[37]

Under the pressure, from without and from within, he resolved after five years of repression to break the seal of silence and give the world his message. Writing to a dear friend, whom he called "a plant of God," he says: "My very dear brother in the life of God, you are more acceptable to me in that it was you who awaked me out of my sleep, that I might go on to bring forth fruit in the life of God -- and I want you to know that after I was awakened a strong smell was given to me in the life of God."[38] During the next six years (1618-24) he wrote almost incessantly, producing, from 1620 on, book after book in rapid succession.[39] In 1622, he informs a friend that he {166} has "laid aside his trade to serve God and his brothers,"[40] and in 1623, he says that he has written without ceasing during the autumn and winter. He felt throughout his life that the "illumination," which broke upon him in the year 1600, steadily increased with the years, and he came to look upon his first book as only the crude attempt of a child as compared with his later works. "The Day," he writes in 1620, "has now overtaken the Aurora [the morning glow]; it has grown full daylight and the morning is extinguished."[41] He says, with artlessness, that when he wrote the Aurora, he was not yet accustomed to the Spirit. The heavenly joy, indeed, met him and he followed the Spirit's guidance, but much of his own wild and untamed nature still remained to mar his work. Each successive book marks a growth of "the spiritual lily" in him, he thinks: "Each book from the first is ten times deeper!"[42]

Once again, the zeal of a friend brought Boehme into the storm-centre of persecution. Until 1623, his works circulated only in manuscript and were kept from the eye of his ecclesiastical enemy, but toward the end of that year, an admirer, Sigismund von Schweinitz, printed three of his little books -- True Repentance; True Resignation; and The Supersensual Life -- in one volume under the title The Way to Christ. Richter was immediately aroused and poured forth his feelings in some desperately bad verses:

Quot continentur lineae, blasphemiae
Tot continentur in libro sutorio,
Qui nil nisi picem redolet sutoriam,


Atrum et colorem, quern vocant sutorium.
Pfuy! pfuy! teter sit fetor a nobis procul![43]

But the Primarius was not content with this harmless weapon of ridicule. He stirred up the neighbouring clergymen to join him in the attack, and a complaint was lodged in Town Council against Boehme as a "rabid enthusiast," and he was warned to leave the town. Boehme was as sweet and gentle in spirit now as he had been ten years before. He wrote in 1624: "I pray for those who have reviled and condemned me. They curse me and I bless. I am standing the test ["Proba"] and have the mark of Christ on my forehead."[44] But he thought that it did not befit him as an instrument of God's revelation to let the false charges against him go unanswered. He accordingly replied to the accusations in an Apology, in which the whole depth and beauty of his spiritual nature breathes forth. His appeal was in vain and he was forced to leave Goerlitz. He went forth, however, in no discouraged mood. He saw that his message was "being sounded through Europe," and he predicts that "the nations will take up what his own native town is casting away. Already, he hears, his book has been read with interest in the Court of the Elector of Saxony, and he writes, March 15, 1624: "I am invited there to a conference with high people and I have consented to go at the end of the Leipzig fair. Soon the revelation of Jesus Christ shall break forth and destroy the works of the Devil."[45] The real trouble with the world, he thinks, is that the Christians in it are titular and verbal," -- they are only "opinion-peddlers,"[46] and that is why a man who insists upon a reproduction of the life of Christ is persecuted. The visit to the Elector's Court in Dresden came off well for the simple shoemaker. He spent two months in the home of the court physician, Dr. Hinkelmann, where many of the nobility and clergy came to see {168} him and to talk with him. Three professors of theology and other learned doctors were asked by the Elector to examine him. They reported that they did not yet quite succeed in understanding him, and that therefore they could not pronounce judgment. They hoped "His Highness would please to have patience and allow the man sufficient time to expound his ideas" -- which were, in fact, already "expounded" in more than a score of volumes! One of the professors is reported to have said: "I would not for the world be a party to this man's condemnation," and another declared: "Nor would I, for who knows what lies at the bottom of it all!"[47]

The end of the good man's life, however, was near. He was taken ill in November 1624, while staying with his old friend, von Schweinitz, and he hurried home to Goerlitz, where his family had remained during his absence, to die in the quiet of his own house. The night before he died, he spoke of hearing beautiful music, and asked to have the door opened that he might hear it better. In the morning -- as the Aurora appeared -- he bade farewell to his wife and children, committed his soul to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ, arranged a few simple matters, and, with a smile on his face, said, "Now I go to Paradise."

His old enemy, Richter, had died a few months before him, but the new pastor was of the same temper and refused to preach his funeral sermon. The second pastor of the city was finally ordered by the Governor of Lausitz to preach the sermon, which he began with the words, "I had rather have walked a hundred and twenty miles than preach this sermon!"[48] The common people, however, -- the shoemakers, tanners and a "great concourse of us his fast friends," as one of them writes, -- were at the funeral, and a band of young shoemakers carried his body to its last resting-place, where a block of porphyry now informs the visitor that "Jacob Boehme, philosophus Teutonicus" sleeps beneath.

Gruetzmacher holds that Boehme is an "isolated thinker," having little, if any, historical connection with {169} the past.[49] I do not agree with this view. I find in him rather the ripe fulfilment of the powerful protest against the dead letter, against a formal religion, and equally a fulfilment of a Christianity of inward life, which was voiced so vigorously in the writings of Denck, Buenderlin, Entfelder, Franck, and Weigel, neglecting for the moment another side of Boehme and another set of influences which appeared in him. The central note of his life-long prophet-cry was against a form of religion built upon the letter of Scripture and consisting of external ceremonies and practices, and this is the ground of Richter's bitter hostility and stubborn opposition.[50]

The Church of his day seems to him a veritable Babel -- "full of pride and wrangling, and jangling, and snarling about the letter of the written Word," lacking in true, real, effectual knowledge and power; a pitiably poor "substitute for the Temple of the holy Spirit where God's living Word is taught."[51] Through each of his books we hear of "verbal Christendom"; of "titular Christians"; of "historical feigned faith"; of "history religion"; of "an external forgiveness of sins"; of "the work of outward letters." "The builders of Babel," he says, "cannot endure that one should teach that Christ Himself must be the teacher in the human heart" -- "they jangle instead about the mere husk, about the written word and letter while they miss the living Word."[52]

The divisions of Christendom are due to the fact that its "master-builders" are of the Babel-type. They always follow the line of opinion; their basis is "the letter"; their method of approach is external. They build "stone houses in which they read the writings which the Apostles left behind them," while they themselves dispute and contend about "mental idols and {170} opinions."[53] The true Church of Christ, on the contrary, is the living Temple of the Spirit. It is built up of men made wholly new by the inward power of the Divine Spirit and made one by an inward unity of heart and life with Christ -- as "a living Twig of our Life-Tree Jesus Christ." Nobody can belong to this Church unless "he puts on the shirt of a little child," dies to selfishness and hypocrisy, rises again in a new will and obedience, and forms his life in its inmost ground according to Christ, the Life.[54] "The wise world," he declares, "will not believe in the true inward work of Christ in the heart; it will have only an external washing away of sins in Grace," but the ABC of true religion is far different.[55] He only is a Christian in fact in whom Christ dwelleth, liveth and hath His being, in whom Christ hath arisen as the eternal ground of the soul. He only is a Christian who has this high title in himself, and has entered with mind and soul into that Eternal Word which has manifested itself as the life of our humanity.[56] He wrote near the end of his life to Balthazar Tilken: "If I had no other book except the book which I myself am, I should have books enough. The entire Bible lies in me if I have Christ's Spirit in me. What do I need of more books? Shall I quarrel over what is outside me before I have learned what is within me?"[57] "What would it profit me if I were continually quoting the Bible and knew the whole book by heart but did not know the Spirit that inspired the holy men who wrote that book, nor the source from which they received their knowledge? How can I expect to understand them in truth, if I have not the same Spirit they had?"[58]

This insistence on personal, first-hand experience and practice of the Christ-Life, as the ground of true religion, {171} is the fundamental feature of Boehme's Christianity. He travels, as we shall see, through immense heights and deeps. Like Dante, who immeasurably surpasses him in power of expression, but not in prophetic power of vision, he saw the eternal realities of heaven and hell and the world between, and he told as well as he could what he saw, but his practical message which runs like a thread through all his writings is always simple -- almost childlike in its simplicity -- "Thou must thyself be the way. The spiritual understanding must be born in thee."[59] "A Christian is a new creature in the ground of the heart."[60] "The Kingdom of God is not from without, but it is a new man, who lives in love, in patience, in hope, in faith and in the Cross of Jesus Christ."[61]

And this simple shoemaker of Goerlitz, with his amazing range of thought and depth of experience, practised and embodied the way of life which he recommended. He was a good man, and his life touches us even now with a kind of awe. "Life," he once said, "is a strange bath of thorns and thistles,"[62] and he himself experienced that "bath," but he went through the world hearing everywhere a divine music and "having a joy in his heart which made his whole being tremble and his soul triumph as if it were in God."[63]

[1] I have used as primary source the German edition of Boehme's Works -- Theosophia revelata -- published in 1730 in 8 vols. All my references are to the English translations made by Sparrow, Ellistone, and Blunden, 1647-61. These translations were republished, 1764, in 4 vols. in an edition which has incorrectly been called William Law's edition. Four volumes have been republished by John M. Watkins of London, as follows: The Threefold Life of Man, 1909; The Three Principles, 1910; The Forty Questions and The Clavis, 1911; and The Way to Christ, 1911. The Signatura rerum, in English, has been published in "Everyman's Library." A valuable volume of selections from "Jacob Behmen's Theosophic Philosophy" was made by Edward Taylor, London, 1691. Many volumes of selections have been published in recent years. The books on Boehme which I have found most suggestive and helpful are the following: Franz von Baader's "Vorlesungen und Erlaeuterungen ueber J. Boehme's Lehre," Werke (Leipzig, 1852), vol. iii. [edition of 1855, vol. xiii.]; Emile Boutroux, Le Philosophe allemand (Paris, 1888): translated into English by Rothwell in Boutroux's Historical Studies in Philosophy (London, 1912), pp.169-233; Hans Lassen Martensen's Jacob Boehme (translated from the Danish by T. Rhys Evans, London, 1885); Franz Hartmann's Life and Doctrine of Jacob Boehme (London, 1891); Von Harless' Jacob Boehme und die Alchymisten (Leipzig, 1882); Ederheimer's Jakob Boehme und die Romantiker (Heidelberg, 1901); Paul Deussen's Jacob Boehme -- an Address delivered at Kiel, May 8, 1897 -- translated from the German by Mrs. D. S. Hehner and printed as Introduction to Watkin's edition of The Three Principles (1910); Christopher Walton's Notes and Materials for a Biography of William Law (London, 1854) -- a volume of great value to the student of Boehme; Rudolph Steiner's Mystics of the Renaissance (translated, London, 1911), pp.223-245; A. J. Penny's Studies in Jacob Boehme (London, 1912), uncritical and written from the theosophical point of view; Hegel's History of philosophy (translated by Haldane and Simson, London, 1895), iii. pp.188-216.

[2] Aurora, John Sparrow's translation (London, 1656), ii.79-80.

[3] Aurora, iii.1-3.

[4] Third Epistle, 15.

[5] Aurora, xiii.27.

[6] Ibid. viii.19.

[7] Ibid. ix 90.

[8] Ibid. xiii.2-4.

[9] Third Epistle, 22.

[10] Many thinkers of prominent rank have borne testimony to the greatness of Boehme's genius. I shall mention only a few of these estimates:

"I would recommend you to procure the writings of Boehme and diligently read them. For though I have studied philosophy and theology from my youth . . . yet I must acknowledge that the above writings have been to me of more service for the understanding of the Bible than all my University learning." -- "J. G. Gictell, 1698.

"Jacob Boehme, as a religious and philosophical genius, has not often had his equal in the world's history." -- "Jacob Boehme: His Life and Philosophy." An Address by Dr. Paul Deussen.

"Jacob Boehme est le seul, au moins dont on ait eu les ecrits jusqu'a lui, auquel Dieu ait decouvert le fond de la nature, tant des choses spirituelles, que des corporelles." -- Peter Poiret, in a note at the end of his Theologie germanique, 1700.

"As a chosen servant of God, Jacob Boehme must be placed among those who have received the highest measures of light, wisdom, and knowledge from above. . . . All that lay in religion and nature as a mystery unsearchable was in its deepest ground opened to this instrument of God." -- William Law, Works (ed.1893), vi. p.205.

"To Jacob Boehme belongs the merit of having taught more profoundly than any one else before or after him the truth that back of and behind all that has come to appear of good and evil there is an immaterial World which is the essence and reality of all that is." -- Franz von Baader, Werke (Leipzig, 1852), iii. p.382.

Novalis wrote in a letter to Ludwig Tieck in 1800: "Man sieht durchaus in ihm [Jakob Boehme] den gewaltigen Fruehling mit seinen quellenden, treibenden, bildenden, und mischenden Kraeften, die von innen heraus die Welt gebaeren. Ein echtes Chaos voll dunkler Begier und wunderbarem Leben -- einen wahren auseinandergehenden Mikrokosmos." -- Quoted from Edgar Ederheimer's Jakob Boehme und die Romantiker (1904), p.57.

[11] His English translators in the seventeenth century variously spelled his name Behm, Behme, and Behmen. This latter spelling was adopted in the so-called Law Edition of 1764, and has thus come into common use in England and America.

[12] Boehme refers frequently to "the writings of high masters," whom he says he read (Aurora, x.45), and he often names Schwenckfeld and Weigel in particular. See especially The Second Epistle, sec.54-62

[13] Memoirs of the Life, Death and Burial, and Wonderful Writings of Jacob Behmen, translated by Francis Okeley (1780), p.22.

[14] Memoirs, p.2.

[15] Memoirs, p.6. Von Franckenberg says that Boehme himself told him this incident.

[16] Ibid. pp.4-5. The reader will have noted the long history of this phrase, "Sabbath of the soul."

[17] Ibid. p.7.

[18] Memoirs, p.8. Paracelsus taught that the inner nature of things might be seen by one who has become an organ of the Universal Mind. He says: "Hidden things which cannot be perceived by the physical senses may be found through the sidereal body, through whose organism we may look into nature in the same way as the sun shines through a glass. The inner nature of everything may be known through Magic [The Divine Magia] and the power of inner sight." -- Hartmann's Life of Paracelsus (1896), p.53.

[19] He uses this word Seeker hundreds of times in his writings.

[20] Second Epistle, sec.6-8.

[21] Aurora, xix.10-13. He goes on in the following sections to describe how for twelve years this insight "grew in his soul like a young tree before the exact understanding of it all" was arrived at.

[22] The Fifth Epistle, 50.

[23] Aurora, xi.146.

[24] Ibid. xi.6.

[25] Aurora, xxii.47.

[26] In the Aurora Boehme speaks of the Flash as an experience: "As the lightning flash appears and disappears again in a moment, so it is also with the soul. In its battle the soul suddenly penetrates through the clouds and sees God like a flash of Light." -- Ibid. xi.76.

[27] Memoirs, p.8.

[28] Evidently the "flash" of the year 1610 was not the last one. In fact, he seems to have had frequent ecstasies.

[29] The Second Epistle, 9-10.

[30] Third Epistle, 35.

[31] See especially Signatura rerum, ix.63, and Forty Questions, xxvi.2-3 and xxx.3 and 5.

[32] Third Epistle, 32. The Memoirs describe how it was copied by "a Gentleman of some rank" [Carl von Endern].

[33] Memoirs, p.9.

[34] Preserved in the Diary of Bartholomew Scultetus, then Mayor of Goerlitz (Ueberfeld's edition, 1730). This Diary does not record any actual banishment of Boehme. The data for our knowledge of the persecutions of Boehme are found in a personal narrative written by his friend Cornelius Weissner, M.D. -- Memoirs, pp.39-50.

[35] Aurora, xiii.7-10.

[36] Ibid. xxxvi.152.

[37] Third Epistle, 7.

[38] Fifteenth Epistle, 18.
This "new smell in the life of God" often occurs in Boehme's writings. Compare George Fox's testimony, "The whole creation had a new smell." For further comparisons see pp.221-227.

[39] The following is a complete list of his writings:

1612. The Aurora.

1619. The Three Principles of the Divine Essence.

1620. The Threefold Life of Man; Forty Questions; The Incarnation of Jesus Christ; The Suffering, Death and Resurrection of Christ; The Tree of Faith; Six Points; Heavenly and Earthly Mysterium; The Last Times.

1621. De signatura rerum; The Four Complexions; Apology to Balthazar Tilken in 2 parts; Consideration on Esaias Stiefel's Book.

1622. Sec. Apology to Stiefel; Repentance; Resignation; Regeneration.

1623. Predestination and Election of God; A Short Compendium of Repentance; The Mysterium magnum.

1624. The Clavis; The Supersensual Life; Divine Contemplation; Baptism and the Supper; A Dialogue Between the Enlightened and Unenlightened Soul; An Apology on the Book of Repentance; 177 Theosophic Questions; An Epitome of the Mysterium magnum; The Holy Week; An Exposition of the Threefold World.

Undated. An Apology to Esaias Stiefel; The Last Judgment; Epistles.

[40] Thirty-first Epistle, 10.

[41] The Third Epistle, 30.

[42] Ibid. 29.

[43] There are as many blasphemies in the shoemaker's book as there are lines. It smells of shoemaker's wax and filthy blacking. May this intolerable stench be far from us.

[44] Thirty-fourth Epistle, 5.

[45] Thirty-third Epistle.

[46] Thirty-fourth Epistle, 16 and 21.

[47] Weissner's Narrative, Memoirs, p.49.

[48] Ibid. p.58.

[49] Wort und Geist, p.196 seq.

[50] What could be a bolder criticism of the existing Church of his day than this: "In place of the wolf [the Roman Church] there has grown up the fox [the Lutheran Church] another anti-Christ, never a whit better than the first. If he should come to be old enough how he would devour the poor people's hens!" -- The Three Principles of the Divine Essence, xviii.102.

[51] Mysterium magnum, xxvii.47.

[52] Ibid. xxviii.49-51.

[53] Mysterium magnum, xxxvi.34; xl.98.

[54] Ibid. lxiii.47-51; Twenty-first Epistle, 1.

[55] Myst. mag. xxv.13.

[56] The First Epistle, 3-5.

[57] Apology to Tilken, ii.298.

[58] Ibid. 72. Compare George Fox's testimony: "All must come to that Spirit, if they would know God or Christ or the Scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by." -- Journal (ed.1901), i.35 and passim.

[59] Sig. re. xiv. i.

[60] Myst. mag. lxx.40.

[61] Fourth Epistle, 27 and 32.

[62] The Three Princ. xxii.2.

[63] Aurora, iii.39.

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