Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Bunsen, Christian Charles Josias

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Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition
Bunsen, Christian Charles Josias
See also Christian Charles Josias von Bunsen on Wikipedia, the 11th edition, and the disclaimer.

BUNSEN, Christian Charles Josias, Baron von (1791-1860), was born 25th August 1791, at Corbach, an old town in Waldeck, one of the the smallest of German principalities. He was of honourable but humble origin. His father, to eke out the scanty subsistence provided by his few acres of land, had entered a regiment “granted” to Holland by the prince. Without promotion or encouragement, he attended conscientiously to the drudgery of his post during twenty-nine long years, to return at last, in 1789, a widower, with broken health and a miserable pension. Brighter days were in store for him through the affections of his second wife and the birth of Christian. It is on record, how joyous were the evenings in that old-fashioned Corbach home, when, after reading a chapter from the family Bible, and devoutly praying with his household, the kindly old man loved to prune, by pithy remarks and snatches of proverbial lore, the redundant enthusiasm and all-embracing fervour of his son. To the latter, success and a host of fond admirers seem from the first never, to have been wanting. Nor did humility of demeanour, exquisite sympathy with all men, and an almost unexampled power of work ever fail him. The Corbach grammar school was brilliantly passed, and after it a first year of university studies, at Marburg, devoted to divinity. But Göttingen in those days attracted all superior minds, and the youth of eighteen found himself on his way thither with the last savings from his father's purse, intent upon appeasing his desire for those wider regions of philological and historical learning in which he knew his strength must lie. Again all avenues of outward success opened to the unpretending student; although so young he was entrusted with lessons at the Latin school, and soon after with the office of private tutor to W. C. Astor, only son of the well-known merchant king of New York.[1] Bunsen soon became the acknowledged though unobtrusive centre of a chosen band of students, few only of whom have failed to attain that reputation to which their abilities seemed to call them, or that degree of public usefulness to which in an hour of genuine enthusiasm they one and all vowed to aspire. “Right royal in all his ways,” as a poet has fitly described him, he sympathized with the favourite pursuits of each, wrestled with all, made them to love each other, and held high among them the ideals of youth and of science. It was quite a day of rejoicing in Göttingen when Bunsen had won tho university prize essay of the year 1812 by a treatise on the Athenian Law of Inheritance, and again a few months later when the university of Jena granted him, unsolicited, the honorary degree of doctor of philosophy.

The time had now come for Mr Astor to travel. Bunsen had seen little of the world before then. Only one journey had he made, but that one was to Weimar, and in company with Arthur Schopenhauer, one of his Göttingen acquaintances, a man of genius, whose fate it has been to live unknown and to become after death not famous only, but the founder of a numerous and turbulent school of metaphysicians. Bunsen was introduced to Goethe, and bore away the impress of the society that assembled around the great poet. In 1813, a journey was undertaken to South Germany, during which Mr Astor was well pleased to see his friend revelling in the company of choice spirits at each centre of intellect, and shared in his exultation over the crushing blow that had fallen upon Napoleon at Leipsic. Some months later they separated at Göttingen, Astor to return to New York, with an understanding that they would meet for further travel two years later, and Bunsen to resume his studies which had lost nothing of their vast range. It seemed to Bunsen a purpose not exceeding the limits of a man's life to comprehend the history of all Teutonic races in religion, laws, language, and literature. That was the heroic age of comparative philology; and thus we see Bunsen, who had read Hebrew when a boy, plunging into Arabic at Munich, Persian at Leyden, and Norse at Copenhagen, as opportunities offered for each.

At the close of 1815 Bunsen found his way to Berlin, to lay before Niebuhr the historian what was then already a many years plan of learned inquiry. This step led to important consequences in the life of Bunsen. Niebuhr not only approved of the Titanic scheme, and hoped that Prussia, in which all the hope of Germans then began to be centred, would in time find money for assisting it, but so powerful an impression did he receive on that occasion, that when they met again two years later, Niebuhr, having meanwhile become Prussian envoy to the Papal court, exerted all his influence to draw Bunsen into official life. Of the two intervening years it will suffice to relate that they had been spent by Bunsen in assiduous labour among the libraries and collections of Paris and Florence, whither the hope of meeting his former pupil, Mr Astor, had led him; and that he contracted during his stay in the capital of France a love for the peculiar graces of French genius which never left him through life.

Fascinated by the condescending friendship of Niebuhr, by the glories of Rome, and also by the charms of English society, Bunsen continued his stay in that city. In July 1817 he married Miss Waddington, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Mr B. Waddington of Llanover, Monmouth shire. Even then his purposes in life remained purely scientific. Little did he dream that the Eternal City was to become his home for twenty-one years, or that one of the most difficult problems of European diplomacy would there be entrusted to his hands.

When Niebuhr obtained the consent of his Government for the appointment of Bunsen as secretary of the Roman embassy, negotiations were being actively carried on between Berlin and Rome for a new establishment of the Papal Church iu the Prussian dominions. This had become necessary, since 1815, by the addition of several millions of Catholics to the population of that mainly Protestant country, of which they now formed no less than two-fifths. An agreement was the fruit of these labours, by which the king of Prussia allowed the publication within his dominions of a Papal bull (called De salute animarum), circumscribing the Catholic dioceses, and determining the position of the Romanist hierarchy. During this period of initiation into the mysteries of Papal statecraft, Bunsen had occasion to learn that the Vatican began, under the fostering care of the Jesuit order, to revive from the inanition into which the French Revolution and its effects had thrown it. So universal and so strong was the wave of reaction in those days throughout Europe, that Protestant and Catholic rulers agreed in the conviction that of all conservatism the apex and supreme exponent must be the Pope, as representing “the most ancient succession of sovereigns,” as “upholder of things as they are.” Considering themselves the Pope's born allies, they closed their eyes to that stealthy encroachment of absolute Romish power into the dioceses within their territory with which the present generation is becoming acquainted in America as well as in Europe. Bunsen was among those who first discerned the coming danger. To direct official attention towards it, to ward it off by fairness and impartiality towards his Catholic fellow-subjects, to preserve religious peace in his country, thence forward became the main object of his official labours.

At first his success was great. In Berlin the king and his minister, and at Rome each successive Pope and his cardinal secretary, bestowed upon him every mark of confidence and even of affection. King Frederick William III, had made his acquaintance as early as 1822 during a brief stay at Rome, and had taken unwonted pleasure not only in his conversation generally, but even in the outspoken but elegant frankness with which Bunsen defended his views when at variance with one or two of his sovereign's favourite theories. He evinced his appreciation of the youthful diplomatist by desiring him to undertake the legation after Niebuhr's retirement from his office.

In the Papal Government, also, Bunsen's honest endeavours to preserve a good understanding were readily acknowledged, and formed the basis for one of the rarest life friendships, and yet a most real one, with Monsignor Capaccini, the confidential adviser of successive Popes in foreign affairs, who never swerved from his principle of both receiving and meeting every communication of the Prussian envoy with equal trust and truthfulness.

A few words will explain the causes which eventually led to a failure of Bunsen's pacific efforts. Marriages between Romanists and Protestants (or so-called mixed marriages) had formerly been of rare occurrence in Prussia. Before the iron will of Frederick the Great, the naïve demands of the hierarchy of Silesia — the chief of which is a promise on oath that all children shall be brought up as Catholics — had dwindled into a passive attitude on their part. After the accession of Rhineland and Westphalia to the Prussian monarchy had added to the frequency of such marriages, it was truly fortunate that a prelate of moderate views in matters ecclesiastical and a good patriot — Count Spiegel — held the archiepiscopal see of Cologne (1825). With him, who forbade processions of his own accord as leading to immorality, and who favoured a more enlightened education of candidates for holy orders, an arrangement which would leave the consciences of spouses and priests unviolated was practicable. It was easily obtained by Bunsen's personal negotiation with the archbishop. The other Prussian bishops also consented; but such was the slothfulness of the absolute king's Government, that the death of that wise archbishop (1835) occurred before its ratification, and such their blindness to reality that they offered to promote a narrow-minded ascetic, Baron Droste. to the vacant post. “Is your king mad?” bluntly exclaimed the cardinal-secretary whilst hastening to accept, on the part of the Vatican, the proffered tool of Papal aggression! Before two years had passed the religious strife was in a blaze everywhere, — Jesuit advisers more eagerly listened to at Rome, Prussian bishops all but unanimous in their opposition against moderate counsels, and (so the Government was informed) the leadership of these machinations against the internal peace of Prussia entrusted to members of that uniformly Ultramontane body, the Belgian bishops. In this extremity Bunsen was again summoned to Berlin from his post. It is difficult at this distance of time to discern how far the advice he may have given was founded upon too sanguine a view both of the power of an absolute king, unaided by an emancipated public opinion, a free press, or a parliament, and of the intensity of the agitation raging in Catholic districts. But this much is known that, when the seizure of the chief offender in his archiepiscopal palace at Cologne was resolved upon, Bunsen understood that the archbishop would forthwith be placed before the ordinary judges of the country for disobedience to its laws. This was never done, and the seizure was so mismanaged that the incriminating documents are said to have been destroyed before the judicial authorities had set foot in the palace. Thus a complete failure was the result of this very unsafe step. The Government thought it easier to leave Bunsen unsupported when, after his return to Rome, he courageously attempted to convince the Vatican of the archbishop's guilt, and, in the hope of burying the matter in oblivion, they accepted Bunsen's offer of resignation, in April 1838. It may not be irrelevant to mention here that the king's successor, Frederick William IV., on his elevation to the throne in 1840, released Baron Droste from prison. This romantic king established his policy towards the Vatican on the principle of granting liberty of action to the Papal power, — a liberty so well employed both before and since the revolution of 1848, that at this moment (1876) all the energies of a powerful chancellor and a united Germany are taxed to the utmost to find a basis for harmonious coexistence between modern states and the hierarchy of Rome.

When Bunsen left the Eternal City a politically disappointed man, he was able, nevertheless, to look back upon a term of years filled with everything that could adorn life — intense domestic contentment, intimacy with distinguished men of every nation who had sojourned in Rome during his twenty-one years residence there, success in establishing institutions which, like the Archæological Institute, the German Hospital, and the Protestant chapel, have outlived his stay, experience in public affairs, and a deepening of his religious convictions. Religion had become the centre of his most tender emotions, of his intellectual activity, of his practical aspirations. To restore to the Bible that place in the households of his country which it had possessed in the first generations after the Reformation, to revive the knowledge and the love of the German reformers' hymns, to give his people such a Book of Common Prayer, resting upon the liturgies of all Christian ages, as would help congregations in “presenting themselves a living sacrifice,” to rekindle the fervour of other days for works of self-devotion and charity, to work out a Christian philosophy of history, — such were the purposes to which he devoted, his happiest and best hours in each succeeding year. Whilst he was at Rome a book of ancient hymns and a liturgy were printed.

Bunsen always looked back in later years upon his Roman time as men are apt to remember their college days. Right joyous had been his intercourse with artists such as Thorwaldsen, Rauch, Wolff, Cornelius, Schnorr, Overbeck, Schinkel, Felix Mendelssohn. He had become one of the best-informed men among art-collections, and was so attracted by the charms of Roman topography as to surrender to the temptation of contributing volumes to the German Description of Rome.

Few strangers have ever lived on terms of greater intimacy with Italians, or possessed a more entire command of their language than Bunsen. He was a believer in their national revival and political future at a time when Italy was “a geographical expression” only and when her art treasures and her blue sky were her only acknowledged qualities. Among Americans Mr Ticknor; among Russians Italinsky, Joukovsky, and Al. Tourgenieff; among French men the Duc de Blacas, Comte de St Aulaire, Chateaubriand, Champollion, Ampère, and others became his friends. But his most cherished intercourse was with English visitors and residents,[2] to which he owed an acquaintance with British life such as has rarely been possessed by any foreigner who never had set foot in this country.

Towards England, then, did he turn his face in 1838 to enjoy the leisure occasioned by his removal from the Capitol, and in England, except when he held a brief diplomatic appointment as Prussian ambassador to Switzerland from 1839 to 1841, the remainder of his official life was spent.

Between the Crown Prince of Prussia and Bunsen a very close intimacy had sprung up ever since they met at Berlin in 1828. They were attracted to each other by similarity of literary tastes, of poetic temperament, and of religious aspiration. In their enthusiasm for each other, the prince as well as the public servant fondly hoped, year after year, that diversity of character and of self-grown conviction, however marked, would tend rather to compensate defects than to disturb harmonious action. Their correspondence lately published (in part) by Ranke, the historian, shows the truthfulness and the durability of this remarkable friendship, and helps to explain why its results were not commensurate to the moral worth and intellectual capacity of the men who were united by it.

The new king had no sooner ascended the throne under the name of Frederick William IV. than he contemplated the erection of an Anglo-Prussian bishopric at Jerusalem, intended to represent European Protestantism as a united power, and to give a rallying point to Protestant missions in Syria and Palestine. The time seemed propitious for this fantastic scheme. The four allied powers, under the leadership of Great Britain, had reinstated the sultan in the possession of Syria. The Turkish Government would therefore readily grant a similar representation to Protestant churches to that possessed by Orthodox Greeks and Roman Catholics. King Frederick William summoned Bunsen to his capital, and instructed him to negotiate in London the establishment of such a bishopric on Mount Zion. In an incredibly short time (June to November 1841) Bunsen succeeded in bringing it about, with the English Government's courteous assent, and the energetic furtherance of the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London, Prussia paying in a capital which secured one-half of its endowment, whilst the other half was to be raised in England. Much suspicion was felt and opposition raised against any association of the Church of England with German Protestantism, in both countries alike, though from opposite motives. To Bunsen this “special mission” brought in a rich harvest of friendly feeling among the leaders of both parliamentary parties, so that when Queen Victoria selected his name out of three proposed by the chivalrous courtesy of the Prussian king for the post of Prussian ambassador, he found himself well received by all classes of English society. The king's visit to England in February 1842, as sponsor to the Prince of Wales, helped to prove the earnest desire of Prussia to seek the friendship of Great Britain. An event, however, which directed the eyes of the British public even more to Bunsen than royal favour was the publication of Arthur Stanley's Life of Dr Arnold, in whose private letters an admiration amounting almost to enthusiasm for his German friend was expressed with a fervour unusual to Arnold's stately reserve. Although not palatable to the growing ritualistic school, and not always considered a safe theologian by the partizan leaders of the Low Church, Bunsen retained to the last the affection of the British nation, among whom he spent thirteen eventful years.

In the year 1844 his advice was asked by the king on the constitutional changes, — from absolutism to a representative government, — upon which Prussia, although in a first-rate financial military and administrative condition, found herself irresistibly constrained to enter. His advice, though studiously conservative, was considered of too sweeping a nature, and the king contented himself in 1847 with convoking an assembly composed of all members of the eight provincial diets of the monarchy, and clothed with scarcely any constitutional powers

On the question of church organization, also, the king and his friend were fated to disagree more strongly than they had expected. Bunsen's views had developed into a system essentially Presbyterian, though with an Episcopal headship. He held up the constitution of the Episcopal Church of America as, perhaps, the best type to follow, because it contained personal rule organically allied to the free power of the laity. He recommended these ideas to his countrymen as well as to his sovereign in a book entitled The Church of the Future, which has not been without influence in the church constitution now (1876) about to become law in Prussia.

The king's expectations of a quiet time for maturing his work of reconstruction in church and state were rudely broken in upon by the French Kevolution of February 1848. Bunsen's warning voice had been raised in vain; the discontent of the educated classes helped to weaken the distracted councils of Frederick William IV., and, though a constitution was eventually promulgated, Prussian politics succumbed under the tutelage of the Austrian premier, Prince Schwarzenberg, in 1849 Bunsen's diplomatic labours were mainly directed to settle, as German commissioner, the dispute with Denmark about the duchies of Holstein and Schleswig, Great Britain having offered her mediation. In these duchies a strong agitation of several years standing had roused the German population, which occupies the whole of the former and part of the latter, to oppose the centralizing tendencies of the Danish Government. During the troubles of March 1848 they had taken up arms against Denmark and found assistance in Germany, then for the first time aspiring again to the position of a national power. This disturbance of the public peace of Europe was, however, regarded with so much disfavour by all powers, and secretly also by the sovereigns of Prussia and Austria, that the Danes obtained, in 1852, a European protocol, which reversed the political autonomy of the two duchies, and settled the crown of Denmark, after the death of the king and his son, upon Prince Christian of Glücksburg. It was the fate of Bunsen to be obliged to add his signature to this protocol, although it contained an abrogation of those “constitutional rights of Schleswig and Holstein,” upon which he had dilated in a Letter to Viscount Palmerston, printed in April 1848.

The unity of Germany was another of those wishes in which Bunsen and his royal patron had been one ever since the beginning of their acquaintance, and yet found themselves widely apart when the question came to be practically tested. The king sincerely aimed at the resuscitation of the venerable German empire, fancying that the leadership within the federation of sovereigns might be divided between Austria and Prussia, yet so as to leave a kind of ceremonial primacy to the former. Enlightened Germans, on the contrary, had then already arrived at the conviction that the leadership must be in Prussian hands. Austria, hampered as she is by the numerical preponderance of non-German populations, and the divergence of her interests from those of Germany, should, they thought, take her place within a wider federation. Gradually and almost imperceptibly did this truth work its way through time-honoured tradition. Bunsen was one of its most eloquent apostles, in his official correspondence as well as in pamphlets published in 1848. Several times he was sanguine enough to believe such a policy to be permanently grasped in Berlin, but the king's vacillating temper and his adherence to tradition refused to be wrought upon beyond the approval of half-measures. Thus the opportunity was lost, the potentiality of the Prussian military power neglected, and a gnawing disappointment left in the minds of the best patriots throughout Germany.

With small hopes, and with no other wish but to serve as long as possible a sovereign whose friendship and confidence had outlived their former agreement on matters of religion and policy, Bunsen continued in the thankless task of representing Prussia after the downfall of those proud hopes that had pictured forth a revival of the German nationality under Prussian leadership. His main object, pursued under every difficulty, and seized with energy on every favourable opportunity, was to dissociate the policy of Berlin from that of St Petersburg and Vienna, and to draw closer whatever bonds of common sentiment or interest existed between the English and German communities. He was not tardy, therefore, in advising his royal master in an anti-Russian sense when the Crimean war began. As had so often been the case, the king's understanding went along with much that Bunsen wrote, and hopes were entertained that a Prussian participation in the war, containing the threat of an invasion of the north-western frontier of Russia, would force that country into compliance with the demands of the Western powers. But traditional policy again prevailed, mixed with the king's unconquerable aversion to Napoleon III., and his growing mistrust of Lord Palmerston's political principles. The alliance of the Western powers was declined, Prussia preserved towards her Eastern neighbour what is technically called a “benevolent neutrality,” and the king accepted Bunsen's proffered resignation of his post as minister in London in April 1854.

The remaining years of Bunsen's life were spent in almost unbroken literary labours, first at a villa on the banks of the Neckar, near Heidelberg, and at the last in Bonn. In the politics of the day his interest was as keen as ever, and readily did he give his advice when advice was asked, as happened frequently on the part of the prince and princess of Prussia then residing at Coblentz, who have since risen to the exalted position of emperor and empress of Germany. But declining health determined him not to enter the Prussian Lower House, in which a seat was offered him by the liberal majority in the city of Magdeburg. His Signs of the Times, however, an elaborate pamphlet, published in 1856, acted like a first trumpet-call against the aggressive demeanour of the reactionary clique, who were utilizing, in the interests of despotism and obscurantism, the horror of revolutionary outbreaks then felt by the quiet middle classes of Germany. Its publication prepared the way, more perhaps than any other event, for that rise of liberal opinion in Prussia which showed its power in the next reign.

Twice only was Bunsen tempted away from his Heidelberg retreat to show himself at Berlin, — once, at the king's desire and as his guest, in September 1857, to attend the meeting of the Evangelical Alliance, in the main objects of which he sympathized as warmly as King Frederick William IV. On that occasion, and after much confidential intercourse, the two friends parted never to meet again on this side of the grave. One of the last papers signed by the king before his mind gave way in October of that year was that which raised Bunsen to the rank of baron, and conferred upon him a life peerage. In 1858 the Regent (now Emperor) William having addressed a special request to Baron Bunsen not to fail him at the opening of his first parliament, he took his seat in the Upper House, and supported actively during a brief autumn session, but without ever making a speech, the regent's new cabinet, of which several of Bunsen's political and personal friends were members.

Literary work was, however, the centre of his life throughout that time. Two discoveries of ancient MSS. which occurred during his stay in London, containing, the one a shorter text of the Epistles of St Ignatius, and the other an unknown work On all the Heresies, by Bishop Hippolytus, had already given him an opportunity for enlarging upon the history of the first centuries of the Christian Church. He now concentrated all his efforts upon producing a Bible translation with commentaries that would open the sacred volumes afresh to the understanding and the hearts of a generation gradually estranged from them. Whilst this “Bible-work” was in preparation, and to pave the way for its reception, he printed a book considered by many to contain his most matured thoughts, under the title of God in History. The progress of mankind, he contends, marches parallel to the conception of God formed within each nation by the highest exponents of its thought. At the same time he carried through the press, ably assisted by Mr Birch the Egyptologist, the concluding volumes of his work (published in English as well as in German) Egypt's Place in Universal History — containing a reconstruction of Egyptian chronology, together with an attempt to determine the relation in which the language and the religion of that country stands to the development of each among the more ancient non-Aryan and Aryan races, between which its curious civilization seems to have formed a kind of connecting link. Those who desire to know Bunsen's ideas on this subject may find them most fully developed in two volumes published in London before he quitted England — Outlines of the Philosophy of Universal History as applied to Language and Religion. It will be seen even from this brief outline that his “first love” had never lost its hold upon him, and that the desire “to trace the firm path of God through the stream of ages” continued his purpose for life.[3]

But asthma and all other concomitants of a malady that had announced itself for years now began to disturb, not the mental alacrity or the spirits of Bunsen himself, but the hopes of his family and those among his friends who had imagined that he would be allowed to complete the works undertaken. Ordered to spend his winters in a more genial climate, he repaired to Cannes in 1858 and 1859, not without a lengthened visit to Paris, where he revelled, as in younger days, in the contact with men of learning. In May 1860 he purchased a house in Bonn, hoping against hope, pushing forward the publication of his Bibel-Werk, and even preparing lectures for students upon those subjects which he had most at heart. But the hand of death was upon him. He thanked God daily for teaching him how to support pain at the close of a life so eminently exempt from bodily suffering. And whenever, in the closing weeks of his existence on earth, a relaxation of asthma ensued, fervent prayer flowed from his lips, powerful attestation of his religious belief, loving exhortation to those from whom he was soon to be removed. Baron Bunsen died on November 28, I860, and lies buried in the churchyard of Bonn, not far from the grave of his early friend and benefactor Niebuhr.

“Let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa. ii. 5) is the text which Baroness Bunsen placed on his tomb. One of his last requests having been that she would write down recollections of their common life, she published his Memoirs in 1868, which contain much of his private correspondence. The German translation of these Memoirs has added extracts from unpublished documents, throwing a new light upon the political events in which he played a part. Baron Humboldt's letters to Bunsen were printed in 1869, and Ranke published in 1873 a large portion of the correspondence that passed between King Frederick William IV. and Bunsen. (G. V. B.)


  1. Mr W. C. Astor, “the landlord of New York,” as he has been called, died in November 1875.
  2. One of these, and a very valued correspondent of Bunsen, was Lord Clifford, well known as a devout Roman Catholic. He had made the struggle between Berlin and the Vatican the subject of earnest study, and was enabled by his high social position to obtain from documents a more dispassionate view of it than, perhaps, any contemporary witness of the events. His testimony, therefore, expressed in a letter to Bunsen of 31st March 1838, may claim a place in this sketch. Lord Clifford writes, — “Your public career here has been of benefit to the peace of Europe.”
  3. It may be mentioned that Bunsen contributed the article Luther, one of the finest biographies of the great Reformer, to the eighth edition of the present work, 1857.