1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/De Wette, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht
DE WETTE, WILHELM MARTIN LEBERECHT (1780-1849), German theologian, was born on the 12th of January 1780, at Ulla, near Weimar, where his father was pastor. He was sent to the gymnasium at Weimar, then at the height of its literary glory. Here he was much influenced by intercourse with Johann Gottfried Herder, who frequently examined at the school. In 1799 he entered on his theological studies at Jena, his principal teachers being J. J. Griesbach and H. E. G. Paulus, from the latter of whom he derived his tendency to free critical inquiry. Both in methods and in results, however, he occupied an almost solitary position among German theologians. Having taken his doctor's degree, he became privat-docent at Jena; in 1807 professor of theology at Heidelberg, where he came under the influence of J. F. Fries (1773-1843); and in 1810 was transferred to a similar chair in the newly founded university of Berlin, where he enjoyed the friendship of Schleiermacher. He was, however, dismissed from Berlin in 1819 on account of his having written a letter of consolation to the mother of Karl Ludwig Sand, the murderer of Kotzebue. A petition in his favour presented by the senate of the university was unsuccessful, and a decree was issued not only depriving him of the chair, but banishing him from the Prussian kingdom. He retired for a time to Weimar, where he occupied his leisure in the preparation of his edition of Luther, and in writing the romance Theodor oder die Weihe des Zweiflers (Berlin, 1822), in which he describes the education of an evangelical pastor. During this period he made his first essay in preaching, and proved himself to be possessed of very popular gifts. But in 1822 he accepted the chair of theology in the university of Basel, which had been reorganized four years before. Though his appointment had been strongly opposed by the orthodox party, De Wette soon won for himself great influence both in the university and among the people generally. He was admitted a citizen, and became rector of the university, which owed to him much of its recovered strength, particularly in the theological faculty. He died on the 16th of June 1849.
De Wette has been described by Julius Wellhausen as "the epoch-making opener of the historical criticism of the Pentateuch." He prepared the way for the Supplement-theory. But he also made valuable contributions to other branches of theology. He had, moreover, considerable poetic faculty, and wrote a drama in three acts, entitled Die Entsagung (Berlin, 1823). He had an intelligent interest in art, and studied ecclesiastical music and architecture. As a Biblical critic he is sometimes classed with the destructive school, but, as Otto Pfleiderer says (Development of Theology, p. 102), he "occupied as free a position as the Rationalists with regard to the literal authority of the creeds of the church, but that he sought to give their due value to the religious feelings, which the Rationalists had not done, and, with a more unfettered mind towards history, to maintain the connexion of the present life of the church with the past." His works are marked by exegetical skill, unusual power of condensation and uniform fairness. Accordingly they possess value which is little affected by the progress of criticism.
The most important of his works are:—Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament (2 vols., 1806-1807); Kommentar über die Psalmen (1811), which has passed through several editions, and is still regarded as of high authority; Lehrbuch der hebräisch-jüdischen Archäologie (1814); Über Religion und Theologie (1815); a work of great importance as showing its author's general theological position; Lehrbuch der christlichen Dogmatik (1813-1816); Lehrbuch der historisch-kritischen Einleitung in die Bibel (1817); Christliche Sittenlehre (1819-1821); Einleitung in das Neue Testament (1826); Religion, ihr Wesen, ihre Erscheinungsform, und ihr Einfluss auf das Leben (1827); Das Wesen des christlichen Glaubens (1846); and Kurzgefasstes exegetisches Handbuch zum Neuen Testament (1836-1848). De Wette also edited Luther's works (5 vols., 1825-1828).
See K. R. Hagenbach in Herzog's Realencyklopädie; G. C. F. Lücke's W. M. L. De Wette, zur freundschaftlicher Erinnerung (1850); and D. Schenkel's W. M. L. De Wette und die Bedeutung seiner Theologie für unsere Zeit (1849). Rudolf Stähelin, De Wette nach seiner theol. Wirksamkeit und Bedeutung (1880); F. Lichtenberger, History of German Theology in the Nineteenth Century (1889); Otto Pfleiderer, Development of Theology (1890), pp. 97 ff.; T. K. Cheyne, Founders of the Old Testament Criticism, pp. 31 ff.