New Church Worthies

Rev. Dr. Jonathan Bayley


Pastor of the Ban de la Roche

OUR object as we have stated is to avoid, for this series at least, to present our readers with the biographical sketches of ministers who by their public position became well known; and relate only the lives of those in less conspicuous positions. It might be thought that Oberlin, as he was a pastor, ought not to appear in this company. We think, however, that although we hold he was a New Churchman, and of the first class, yet as he was not technically in the New Church ministry, and his life and virtues probably are not widely known amongst our readers, we may relate his instructive and noble story as that of a New Church Worthy in the early times. We have another reason for placing his history before our readers. We intend to point to the fact that infant schools really originated in the Ban de la Roche. Afterwards New Churchmen were especially connected with the earliest efforts to teach the very little ones in England to play and learn at the same time.

We desire to some extent to prepare the way by the story of the good Oberlin. The Steinthal, which is the German name for the valley among the mountains about thirty miles from Strasbourg, called in French the Ban de la Roche, was taken in the time of Louis XIV from Germany and added to the kingdom of France; but as the inhabitants had previously nearly all of them been Protestants, the French, from policy, granted them the free enjoyment of their own religion. Owing to the rude character of the mountain district, and the entire want of roads, the people, though industrious and honest, were very ignorant. As shepherds they had great difficulty to obtain from the mountain sides and the desolate land a poor subsistence, and education was out of the question.

Stouber, a worthy clergyman, the predecessor of Oberlin, relates that when he entered on his duties, in 1750, he enquired if there was not a schoolhouse somewhere, and was conducted to a very mean cottage where a number of children were crowded together with nothing to do, and, in reply to his enquiries for the schoolmaster, he was pointed to a withered old man, who lay on a little bed in one corner of the apartment.

"Are you the schoolmaster, my good friend?" inquired Stouber.
"Yes, sir."
"And what do you teach the children?"
"Nothing, sir."
"Nothing! why, how is that?"
"Because," replied the old man, with characteristic simplicity, "I know nothing myself."
"Why were you then appointed schoolmaster?"
"Why, sir, I had been taking care of the pigs for a great number of years, and when I got too old for that employment they sent me here to take care of the children."

The schools in the other villages were no better, for if the schoolmasters were not swineherds, they were shepherds, who in the summer followed their flocks over the mountains, and during the winter months only attempted to impart to their little pupils what small knowledge they themselves possessed. Scarcely any could read with fluency, and very few could write at all. Stouber, during seventeen years of conscientious and active ministry, made considerable change for the better, and was then pressed to take the station of pastor to St. Thomas's Church at Strasbourg, which he accepted; and on looking round for a successor it occurred to him that young Oberlin, with whose piety and zeal he was acquainted would just be the man to succeed him.

He knew young Oberlin was already ordained, and was about to accept the position of military chaplain; this was in 1767. But when he proposed the new position, one wholly uninviting to any one but a true servant of God, who in singleness of heart was ready to undertake anything which he felt was the will of the Lord Jesus, the young minister, after earnest prayer that a blessing might descend upon the flock committed to his charge, accompanied his friend and patron to his post, and arrived at Walbach, the chief village and residence of the pastor, on the 30th of March. He was at this time in the 27th year of his age.

On Oberlin's arrival and settlement at Walbach, he found the parsonage house tolerably commodious, with a courtyard in front and a good garden behind. It stood in a delightful situation, very near the church, and the scene was made beautiful by here and there clumps of pine and other straggling trees. A little acquaintance with the place, its rude inhabitants, and its rough mountains, dells, and rocks, convinced him that, notwithstanding the partial reformation effected by the labours of Mr. Stouber, neither the necessities of his flock, nor the difficulties which were to be overcome, were of an ordinary kind. The people were entirely secluded from the neighbouring districts for want of roads, which, owing to the devastation of war, and decay of population, had been so totally lost that the only mode of communication for the bulk of the parish to the neighbouring towns was across a river, thirty feet wide, by stepping stones, and in the winter along its bed.

The husbandmen were destitute of the most necessary agricultural implements, and had no means of procuring them. The provisions springing from a scanty soil were not sufficient to maintain comfortably even the scanty population; and the oppressive exactions of labouring for their so-called superiors, often without pay, under the old regime, depressed and irritated the spirits of the people.

Confident, however, that strength would be afforded, if rightly sought, Oberlin at once resolved to use all the attainments in religion, philosophy, and science, which he had brought with him from Strasbourg, to the improvement of the parish and of his parishioners. He was so zealous, however, and saw so many things that urgently needed change, that although the more thoughtful and estimable Christians of the parish stood by him, the stupid and prejudiced formed a party against him. They declared that old practices were safe, and whatever was new was pernicious. They resolved, therefore, not to submit to innovation, but to give it their most strenuous and determined resistance. So far did they carry this, that on one occasion soon after his arrival they laid a plan to waylay their new minister, and inflict upon him a severe personal chastisement, judging that such a measure, at the early part of his career would prevent his future interference.

Sunday was fixed upon for their attempt. Oberlin happily received information of what was contemplated, and preached that day on Christian patience, submitting to surmises, and returning good for evil. After the service the malcontents met at the house of one of their party, and were considering what they had better do, when to their astonishment Oberlin himself opened the door and stood before them. He addressed them with mingled dignity and tenderness, assured them that all he sought was their real and highest good, and added: "If you still think I am doing or intending you any wrong, I have come to deliver myself into your hands, rather than you should be guilty of the meanness of an ambuscade." These simple words produced their intended effect. The peasants, ashamed of their scheme, sincerely begged his forgiveness, and promised never again to entertain a doubt of the sincerity of the motives by which he was actuated, and of his affectionate desire for their welfare.

He next gave himself a worthy wife in whose choice he had prayed to be guided by the Lord, and whose virtues, intelligence, and spiritual-mindedness, were the greatest possible help to him for sixteen years. They were married July 6th, 1768, and she entered the eternal world in 1784. Oberlin always believed she was still with him after death, and counseled him.

One of Oberlin's early projects was to build a bridge over the river, and then to make a road a mile and a half long leading into the highway to Strasbourg. He assembled the people and explained his plans. They were perfectly astonished at the proposition, which appeared simply impracticable. Everyone excused himself, on the plea of other business, from engaging in so stupendous an undertaking. Oberlin endeavoured to refute the objections offered on all sides. The produce of your fields, said he, will then meet with a ready sale abroad. Instead of being imprisoned in your villages nine months out of twelve, you will be enabled to keep up an intercourse with the inhabitants of the neighbouring districts. You will have the opportunity of procuring a number of things, of which you have long stood in need, and your happiness will be augmented and increased by the additional means thus afforded of providing comforts for yourselves and your children. He concluded with this practical appeal. Let all who feel the importance of my plan come and work with me. Then, with pick-axe on his shoulder, he proceeded to the spot to make a beginning, while the astonished peasants, now having learned to trust him, and animated by his example, hastened to fetch their tools and follow. The emulation to assist spread through the whole parish. The increased number of hands rendered an increased number of implements necessary: he procured them from Strasbourg; expenses accumulated: he interested distant friends, and through their aid funds were obtained. Walls were erected to support the earth which was ready to give way; mountain torrents which had hitherto inundated the meadows were diverted into courses sufficient to contain them; perseverance, in short, triumphed over difficulties, and at the commencement of the year 1770 a communication was opened with Strasbourg by means of a new road and a neat wooden bridge thrown across the river. This bridge still bears the name of the Bridge of Charity (Le Pont de Charité). The pastor who on the Sabbath had directed their attention with that earnestness and warmth by which his own soul was animated to the "rest that remaineth for the people of God," was seen on the Monday, pick-axe on his shoulder, at the head of two hundred of his flock, with an energy that neither fatigue nor danger could diminish.

These labours, continued for the spiritual and temporal well-being of his people for a period of sixty years, to the time of his death in 1826, resulted in such a wonderful change in the district that the wilderness might in all respects be said to blossom as the rose. This noble result was acknowledged in 1818 by the Gold Medal of the Royal and Central Agricultural Society of Paris. The presentation was made through M. le Comte François de Neufchateau, who had repeatedly visited the Steinthal and was deputed to this office, and who delivered the gold medal to Oberlin in acknowledgment of the services he had rendered during more than half a century to agriculture in particular, and to mankind in general.

As a coadjutor of the Bible Society, he had taken care that there was a Bible in every house in the district; and as a friend of education, he had diffused such a desire for learning that all the children of due age were well instructed, and he was universally beloved.

But the two special points to which we desire to draw the attention of our readers are, that he was the real originator of Infant Schools; and, secondly, that he was an early receiver of the writings of Swedenborg. Oberlin had observed with concern the disadvantages to which the young children were left while their parents were busily employed in their daily avocations, and the elder children were at school. He laid down a plan for Infant Schools, and carried it into practice in the villages of his large parish, which were the model of those subsequently opened at Paris, and still more recently in this country. He engaged large rooms for them, engaged mistresses, and salaried them at his own expense. Instruction in these schools was mingled with amusement, and whilst enough of discipline was introduced to instil habits of order, a degree of liberty was allowed, that school might be enjoyed by children of two and three years of age. Those of five and six were taught to knit, spin, sew, and read. The mistress would teach them Scripture and natural history by coloured pictures and easy explanations, and vary their exercises by hymns and moral songs, so as to keep them usefully but delightedly occupied. Then came the higher schools and Sunday Schools.

When the Rev. John Henry Smithson was a student in Switzerland, and had been recently introduced to a knowledge of the writings of Swedenborg himself, he paid a visit to the Ban de la Roche, and specially enjoyed his intercourse with the heavenly-minded Oberlin. He relates the circumstances of this visit at considerable length in the Intellectual Repository for 1850, from which we extract the conclusion in substance of this paper.

"Oberlin was then in his eighty-fourth year. He was tall and well-proportioned. He could scarcely be said to be bent, his sight was not dim, and he appeared to enjoy the use of his faculties unimpaired. His countenance was very expressive, and full of that energetic appearance which is the characteristic of greatness of soul. In a short time after my arrival dinner was announced, and Oberlin, leading me by the hand, showed me the place at his table reserved for the friend and the stranger, opposite to the seat which he occupied himself.

"The entire household dined together, himself, his friends, and the housekeeper occupying the upper portion; and the servants, and frequently one of the inhabitants of the more distant part of the valley, the lower part of the table. Oberlin embraced this opportunity to instil many solid principles of goodness and virtue into the hearts of his family, his flock, and his guests. After dinner he took me into his library, a large upper room, two sides of which were fitted up with shelves from top to bottom, and well stocked with books in several languages.

"Having received a few explanations from Oberlin respecting the diagrams, models, &c., which I observed in his library, I asked him whether he had read any of the works of Swedenborg. Without replying, he immediately reached a book, and clapping his hand upon it, expressive of great satisfaction, told me that he had had this treasure many years in his library, and that he knew from his own experience that everything relating to it was true. This treasure was Swedenborg's work on Heaven and Hell.

"As I had lately become acquainted with the works of Swedenborg," continues Mr. Smithson, "and as Oberlin was almost the only person I had met with who had any knowledge of these writings, I was of course highly delighted to meet with a man whose name was universally honoured, and whose life and character were considered as a bright example of every Christian virtue. The great weight which accompanied the name of this good man, and the approving declaration he had already made respecting one of the most important works of Swedenborg, materially strengthened my convictions of the truth of their claims to universal attention. I accordingly felt the deepest interest in conversing with Oberlin on the subject of Swedenborg's theology, and the amazing spiritual intelligence displayed in his writings.

"I inquired how it happened that he had arrived at convictions so solid respecting the truths contained in the work on Heaven and Hell. He replied that when he first came to reside as pastor among the inhabitants of Steinthal they had many superstitious notions respecting the proximity of the spiritual world, and of the appearance of various objects and phenomena in that world which from time to time were seen by some of the people belonging to his flock. For instance, it was not unusual for a person who had died to appear to some individual in the valley. This gift of second sight, or the opening of the spiritual sight to see objects in a spiritual state of existence, was however confined to a few persons. At first, he said, he was annoyed with the accounts of these things and discouraged them, but circumstances occurred so striking as to stagger his own scepticism, and, being about that time on a visit at Strasbourg, a friend (probably Jung Stilling) recommended him to peruse the work on Heaven and Hell. This work, he informed me, gave him a full and satisfactory explanation of the extraordinary cases occurring in his valley, and which he himself, from evidences which could not be doubted, was constrained to admit. He read the treasure, as he called it, very attentively, and with increasing delight. He no longer doubted the nearness of the spiritual world: yea, he believed that man, by virtue of his immortal mind, is already an inhabitant of the spiritual world, in which, after the death of the material body, he is to continue his existence forever."

The other works which Oberlin possessed, Mr. Smithson informs us, were the Divine Love and Wisdom, the Divine Providence, and he thinks the Earths in the Universe.

"So convinced was Oberlin," Mr. Smithson continues, "of the salutary importance of teaching his flock concerning Heaven and Hell, and the relation which man sustains to the spiritual world, that he formed a chart or map representing heaven, which he hung up in his church. This celestial diagram, as it was called, was taken from Solomon's temple, which in all respects corresponded to heaven. These correspondences Oberlin had derived from Swedenborg, and he pointed out to his flock that according to their humility, piety, fidelity, and their love of being useful to each other, would be their elevation either to the first, second, or third heaven.

"His flock were extremely delighted to hear his remarks concerning heaven; and the manner in which he explained to them how the love of the Lord above all things, and the love of our neighbour even better than ourselves, constitutes the life and soul of the heavenly kingdom, served no doubt to kindle that celestial fire of mutual love amongst his people which made them a bright and shining light to all around them.

"For the numerous instances of remarkable self-denial; of benevolence to the orphan, widow, and stranger; of liberal contributions from their scanty means to procure Bibles for those in the surrounding districts who did not possess them, and to purchase articles of clothing and implements of use for those who were destitute and not able to work for the want of the necessary means—these facts, I repeat, when considered in connection with the general exemption from vice and crime, were striking proofs of something like that spirit of genuine Christianity which has seldom been witnessed upon earth, but which, as the New Jerusalem Church advances, will not be so great a stranger among men.

"M. Morel, a French writer who composed an excellent life of Oberlin, says: 'Oberlin had much originality in his conceptions, and his most singular ideas bore the impress of a great soul; he attached an emblematical sense to colours. His ardent imagination, nourished by the mystical works of Swedenborg, delighted to bound over the threshold of the tomb, and to expatiate on the mysterious world which awaits the soul when separated from its earthly bonds.'"

Mr. Smithson, from whose interesting account we have been obliged to abbreviate much, concludes by saying: "He taught his flock the way to heaven, and reduced the whole of his religious instruction to two essential points—to the acknowledgment of Jesus as our Heavenly Father, and to the necessity of loving Him by keeping His Divine precepts, as the essential means of salvation. His love and veneration for the Holy Scriptures were very great; he knew that the Word is the medium of conjunction between man and the Lord, and the channel through which all the blessings of salvation are conveyed to the human soul. He spared no pains or labour to distribute the Word of Life, and became one of the earliest correspondents of the British and Foreign Bible Society, as well as one of their most zealous co-operators. He died in the eighty-sixth year of his age, universally admired and beloved.

"On returning to the university, to pursue my studies," says Mr. Smithson, "I reflected much on what I had heard from Oberlin, and resolved to procure all the Writings of Swedenborg, and to study them with profound attention."

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