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The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment

Kelly Joan Whitmer
Published by The University of Chicago Press in 2015

Reviewed by Zachary Purvis, Divinity, University of Edinburgh

In Kelly Joan Whitmer’s telling, the story of the Halle Orphanage is the story of the formation of a new “scientific community,” populated by kings, theologians, and cosmopolitan inventors determined to furnish new instruments with the ability to decode the mysteries of magnetism. Hers is a fascinating book, drawing together some of the more significant themes in the study of the 17th and 18th centuries into a nimbly told tale that gives new life to an old institution.

The Orphanage was founded in the Prussian city of Halle (an der Saale) in the mid-1690s by a company of German Lutherans, chief among them the controversial Pietist August Hermann Francke (1663–1727). Francke, who also taught Greek, oriental languages, and theology at the recently established University of Halle (founded in 1694), envisioned the Orphanage as an innovative “universal facility…for the use of Christendom and the entire world” (3). Though filled with young boys and girls—among them orphans, boarder school pupils, and day school students—the Orphanage soon emerged as a vast “suburban institutional facility.” In short order, it encompassed

the headquarters of an educational, charitable, and scientific community comprising an elite school, or Pädagogium, for the sons of noblemen; schools for the sons of artisans, soldiers, and clergy; a hospital; an apothecary; a bookshop; a botanical garden; and a gallery of architectural models, naturalia, and scientific instruments. The entire facility, including the curious objects it housed, attracted thousands of visitors. (1)

Despite considerable attention paid to both Francke, in particular, and Pietism, generally, scholars have ignored the scientific pursuits of those connected with the Orphanage. But what, exactly, constituted a scientific community in early modern Europe? The founders of the Orphanage, Whitmer contends, “were engaged in a transnational and transgenerational discourse about the reform of the sciences and how to teach these sciences in schools” (15). She places the Orphanage, then, within terrain that has been so high yielding in recent years for culturally attuned historians of science.

The Orphanage shared traits with the great pan-European scientific academies, which attempted to standardize empirical methods and encourage getting one’s hands dirty, pushing scholars and students alike to dig deep into the world’s earthy matter for a more material knowledge of nature—initiatives that frequently received funding from ambitious territorial sovereigns. Recent scholarship has also “contributed to a recalibration of conventional accounts of the origins of modern science, which involved an astounding array of efforts to reconfigure relations between art and nature and collaborations between craftsmen, scholars, and the state” (15). The Halle Orphanage not only participated in these exercises, but also added “museums that would contain the world in a single room,” training grounds for academic research and practical application, open schools through which newly acquired knowledge could be made more accessible, and instruction in what would become known as “eclecticism,” a way of “referring to the related pursuit of experimental physics and practical mathematics” (16). Eclecticism was an equal opportunity, pragmatic approach “to assimilating perspectives and observations and a way of improving one’s ability to become a discriminating observer” (17). Like spokes on a wheel, each of these of endeavors shared a common hub, and were all part of an overall strategy intended to induce the end of confessional strife (18). Hence, Whitmer reports, her book “is indebted to scholarship that has clarified just how deeply intertwined natural philosophical and theological concerns were in early modern Europe, even in the eighteenth century” (12).

To support this interpretation, Whitmer delves into five multi-faceted episodes from the Orphanage’s history. First, she explores conversations among Francke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and a curious but exceptionally talented mathematician, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, about how to teach mathematics and experimental physics in the fledgling institution. Their interactions reveal the importance of carefully constructed patronage networks for the Orphanage’s early success. Tschirnhaus, a close friend of Baruch Spinoza, had close ties to both Francke and to Francke’s Pietist mentor, Philipp Jacob Spener. Orphanage administrators enthusiastically adopted Tschirnhaus’s “new method” for teaching mathematics, which was based less on old scholastic practices and more on fresh arguments for reforming schools into places of wonder and useful information in everyday life (22). Leibniz collaborated with Francke and invited him to join the Berlin Academy of Sciences after it was officially inaugurated in 1701, as a way to attract the attention of Tsar Peter the Great in Russia. Together, they plotted how the Orphanage might give birth to a Protestant missionary society that would counteract the influence of Jesuit “scientific missions” across Europe, Russia, China, and beyond (31).

Next, Whitmer explores how the Orphanage helped negotiate what she calls “the irenical turn”: the efforts by the territorial state of Brandenburg-Prussia in the Holy Roman Empire to promote confessional reconciliation after the Thirty Years’ War (38). She discusses how debates between Lutheran orthodox theologians like Georg Calixt and Abraham Calov over the possibility of achieving a union of confessional systems played out in Halle. Differing theological visions for Christian unity went hand-in-hand with particular programs for curricular reform at the Orphanage and the growth of a mild, pious, natural philosophy, the via eclectica. The new tool of “eclecticism” entailed a conscious “choice to see the good in as many perspectives as one could bring to bear on a particular issue as possible—and it freed one up from having to choose a particular philosophy or ‘school’ to belong to, thereby contributing (many hoped) to the elimination of sectarianism” (50).

The fourth chapter surveys with ingenuity the use of three-dimensional models at the Orphanage, concentrating on an 11×11-foot model of Solomon’s Temple, constructed by Christoph Semler, which the Orphanage exhibited in 1718. Drawing on the Old Testament books of Kings, Chronicles, and Ezekiel, accounts of the Jewish-Roman wars by Josephus Flavius, and prior architectural attempts, Semler’s model was one of the largest wooden models of Solomon’s Temple ever assembled. Students at the Orphanage were given free reign to inspect, observe, and make calculations of a copy of the model in the Pädagogium. In fact, as one of Semler’s students later recalled, Semler built

two models of the heavens, including the earth and the routes of the planets, and two models of the city of Jerusalem, the Tabernacle of Moses and the Temple of Solomon that are all on display in the Orphanage’s cabinet of curiosity; every day, three instructors were received from the Orphanage, who would each teach us for two hours apiece. In his house was also a mechanical fabrique. He worked on building earthly and celestial globes and we children helped him with this. He instilled in us, playfully, a love of mathematics this way. (63)

Observation of models encouraged seeing with a spiritual “inner eye” and helped instructors teach projective geometry. More importantly, large models provided Orphanage administrators with tangible examples of what set their community apart from others:

Whereas other radical or “enthusiastic” religious groups, including Anabaptists, Moravians, and Zionists, also made sacred architecture central to the construction of their new communities, they relied mainly on descriptions of a “heavenly Jerusalem” found in the book of Revelation, where there is actually no temple mentioned at all. The Orphanage, on the other hand, was supposed to be a different kind of community: showplace, temple, “universal seminar,” and “prophet school.” (85)

In a word, institutions like the Orphanage “were places where young prophets in training came to learn from resident visionaries….They were not fanatics; they had simply cultivated special ways of observing and apprehending things that most others could not see” (85).

Alongside temple models, one encounters the remarkable theology student-teacher Christoph Eberhard, affiliated with the Halle Orphanage, and his inclinatorium instrument, which could measure geomagnetic phenomena. In the course of many travels abroad, Eberhard was prompted by the Russian tsar to examine whether it would ever be possible to measure longitude reliably. Already concerned with problem of finding true North and thus an overall “magnetic philosophy,” Eberhard applied his new theories to the longitude question, and ultimately presented his findings—and his inclinatorium—before London’s prestigious Board of Longitude. In the end, though, he found himself at odds with Halle’s leaders in the 1720s, caught in the middle of a fight between factions at the University of Halle that culminated in the infamous expulsion of the philosophy professor Christian Wolff. Eberhard went “too far when he created a theory that was axiomatic, overtly mechanical, and ahistorical,” deems Whitmer, and “in Halle’s increasingly politicized environment, it now seemed as though he was working against his former friends and patrons in the Orphanage by insisting that reason, not moral principles, should serve as the foundation of an applied eclecticism” (107).

Finally, Whitmer casts her eye on the numerous copies of the Orphanage that began to sprout up quickly after its initial founding. Francke’s institution was an archetype, and efforts to replicate it met with astounding success. Those involved with the Orphanage, and with the many replica institutions dotting the world’s map from Siberia to India to Denmark and North America, all “explored ways of linking the pursuit of knowledge in schools—through collaborative research and attention to observational techniques and methods of synthesis—with new forms of communal solidarity, expressions of friendship, and (if I may),” injects Whitmer, “love” (130).

If Whitmer helps us to understand the richly complex world of the Halle Orphanage, she also provokes a number of questions. One of the book’s many strengths is its consistently crisp, succinct style. But if one might hazard a seemingly contradictory request, this reader at least would have gladly turned a few more pages to get Whitmer’s explicit take on what her reinterpretation of the Halle Orphanage entails for some of the larger, still lingering, “grand narratives” in early modern and indeed modern historical scholarship. The opening chapter does most of the heavy lifting in this regard, treating “enthusiasm” (Schwärmerei), philanthropy, and the evolution of scientific technologies in the age of Enlightenment. A slightly more developed conclusion to the book would have allowed for a fuller discussion of these issues. Nevertheless, all readers interested in nearly all aspects of early modern European intellectual culture would do well to read and reflect on this excellent book.

Cite this article
Zachary Purvis, “The Halle Orphanage as Scientific Community: Observation, Eclecticism, and Pietism in the Early Enlightenment”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:4 , 384-387

Zachary Purvis

University of Edinburgh
Zachary Purvis is Professor at the School of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh.