Wednesday, February 25, 2015

From The History and Life of the Reverend Doctor John Tauler of Strasbourg (1340) by Susanna Winkworth, 1907, pp. 186-197, copied by Eric Abrahamson, February 25, 2015


In the following year, the great schism that had

been dimly foretold, broke out, and for forty years the

church was divided between two heads ; Urban VI.

was elected at Rome, under the influence of terror

at the violence of the insurgent mob ; and soon after,

in subservience to the French party, Clement VII.

et Fondi, who immediately hastened to Avignon.

When these tidings reached the " Friends of God,'*

it seemed to them that the time was come when the

threatened judgments of God were about to burst

over the world. It was, indeed, intelligence fitted

to shake all hearts, for, as the brethren of Gruenen




Worth write : " After God has been warning the

world for these forty years past, by deadly diseases

and earthquakes, famines, and a wild, masterless

folk,* laying waste many lands, He is now sending

us a plague that is worse than all the rest, because

it attacks our faith ; namely, the dissensions of

Christendom, in which all the wisdom of nature,

of Scripture, and of the grace of the Holy Spirit

is so utterly dried up and extinct, that all our

learned doctors and wise priests have lost their way,

and know not which to choose of these two Popes,

that they may help to bring back unity to Christendom,

and peace to the See of Rome." Their Master wished in

this perplexity to repair for counsel to the " Friends of God,"

but Nicolas forbade him,

saying : " Have you not the Holy Scripture ? Are

you not a professor in the chair ? Why should you

ask counsel from the creature ? Stop, and wait

till God Himself shall constrain you to come to us.

It is not yet time for us to reveal ourselves ; but it

may soon come to pass that we shp from our covert,

to be scattered abroad over the world, and if so, I

shall come to Straisburg and make myself known to


It is, however, evident that the " Friends of God,"

though concealed, were by no means passive at this

time ; what special plans they cherished are imknown,

but that they had such is dear from all their

proceedings. So early as November 1377, Nicolas

had been with the priest, John, in Metz, on some

business with which we are not acquainted. During

1378, much consultation by means of messengers and


*The hordes known by the name of "Englishmen," who for several

years after 1361 ravaged France, Lorraine, and Alsace.




letters must have taken place, for on the 17th of

March, in the following year, Nicolas (as he relates

in a letter to Henry von Wolfach), with seven other

brethren, met in some wild place high up among the

mountains, near a chapel hewn out in a rock, close to

which a priest dwelt with two young brethren in a

little hermitage. Four out of the seven were laymen,

the other three ordained priests. Nicolas, whether

from humility or not, speaks of himself as one of the

least among them. From his letter it would seem

that the chief purpose of this meeting was united

prayer to God, to avert the " dreadful storm"

that was menacing the Christian world, that there

might be space left for amendment. A week was

devoted to these supplications ; every afternoon the

brethren went out into the forest, and sat down

" beside a fair brook," to converse upon the matters

on which they had come hither. At length, on the

last day, while thus assembled, a storm of wind came

on, followed by a thick darkness, which they took

for a work of the evil spirits. After the storm had

lasted an hour, there came a pleasant light, and

the sweet voice of an invisible angel announced to

them that God had heard their prayer, and stayed

his chastisements for a year ; but when this was

ended, they should entreat Him no more, for the

Father would no longer delay to take vengeance on

the despisers of His Son. After this the " Friends

of God " returned back again each to his own place.

Respecting the course they resolved to pursue, all

that we can make out from the vague hints in the

letters of Nicolas is, that they interpreted the promise

of the angel to mean that they were to wait a year

longer before quitting their concealment and taking




an open and active part in the affairs of the world ;

the only thing that is distinctly stated is, that it was

resolved once more to try the effect of personal

remonstrances with the Pope. Nicolas himself was

entrusted with this mission, which, however, from

some unknown cause, was not carried out. Meanwhile,

according to the intelligence received from the

brethren in foreign parts respecting the progress

of the schism, affairs were assuming a more and

more gloomy aspect ; the confusion and perplexity

occasioned by the presence of two Popes was continually

increasing ; the Christian world was splitting

into two parties ; even the secular authority was

in danger of disruption and subversion. The time

drew nearer and nearer when Nicolas believed himself

called on to begin to work among the common

people ; already, in June 1379, he calls on the Strasburg

Master to warn the people in his sermons, and

hold up before them the testimonies of Scripture

concerning their duties in such a crisis.

As the end of the year approached, during which

the " Friends of God " were to wait, they agreed

to hold another meeting. All the accounts relating

to this conference (the latest distinctly recorded

intelligence we have respecting this extraordinary

band of associates), are so mixed up with the symbolical

and the marvellous, that it is extremely

difficult to make out the real facts of the case. According

to the narrative given by Nicolas to Rulman

Merswin, he, with twelve other " Friends of God,"

were at Christmas 1379 warned by dreams to

assemble together on the following Holy Thursday,

at the same place where the seven brethren had met

the year before. So early as February some of the




foreign brethren arrived at the abode of Nicolas : one

from the country of the " Lords of Meiglon," (probably

Milan) ; two from Hungary, whom he had

known thirty years before ; one from Genoa, a rich

burgher, with whom Nicolas was not previously

acquainted. On Holy Thursday, the 22nd of March,

they met at the little chapel in the rock, and, after

receiving the sacrament on Good Friday morning,

repaired, as before, to the wood, and sat down beside

the stream to begin their deliberations. What

passed during these conferences is only related in the

form of marvellous visions and fantastic occurrences.

After tempests and diabolical apparitions, a bright

light surrounds the place, and an invisible speaker

tells them that the impending plagues shall be

stayed for three years longer, on condition of their

obeying the injunctions contained in a letter which

thereupon drops down in their midst. These commands

are somewhat mysterious : the " Friends of

God " are to withdraw from their ordinary communications

with the world, except in the case of

those who desire their counsel ; to receive the

sacrament three times a week, &c. ; and after three

years they shall receive further commands from

God. After they have declared their readiness to

obey the letter, they are told by the same voice to

light a fire, and throw it in. Instead of burning, it

rises up in the fire, a flash of lightning meets the

flame, and catches up fire and letter together to

heaven, after which there is nothing more to be

seen ; and the brethren depart to their respective

homes. The brethren in the Oberland commence

their period of retreat at Whitsuntide, after a high

mass has been performed by the priest John in their




newly-finished church. Nicolas writes beforehand

to Rulman Merswin releasing him from his obedience,

and recommending him to take the Master Henry von

Wolfach for a confessor in his stead. To the latter,

who had again applied to know what course the

*' Friends of God " meant to take with regard to the

rival Popes, Nicolas replies with his usual caution,

that the Brethren of St. John could not regulate

their conduct in these matters by that of the " Friends

of God ;

" for they were bound to obey the dictates

of their superiors in the Order, while the latter had

received many privileges from Pope Gregory, and

were, moreover, only subject to their Bishop, who

did not press them for a decision.

It is certainly very difficult to know in what light

to regard the marvellous accounts that meet us in

the writings of Rulman and Nicolas. Some of them

seem to be simply symbolical ; for it is clear that they

were in the habit of presenting their views of human

affairs under the form of an allegory, supposed to be

seen in a vision or dream, just as Bunyan does in

his " Pilgrim's Progress." This is the case with

Rulman's Book of the Nine Rocks, Christiana

Ebner's vision of the Closed Cathedral, and some

unimportant visions occurring in the letters of

Nicolas.* But the case is different when wonders

are related, as far as we can see, as simple matters

of fact. That, however, the " Friends of God " expected,

and so were ready to receive without much

hesitation as to their reality, not only direct spiritual

communications from the Divine Being, but also

miraculous interpositions in physical things, is per-


• See, for instance, his vision of the Three Birds. (Schmidt's

Cottesfreundc-, S. 147.)




fectly clear ; and thus they were undoubtedly open

to all the self-deception in these matters which may

arise from intense emotion and mental excitement

acting on frames disordered by asceticism. Swoons

under the pressure of religious emotion are with them,

as with the Methodists of the last century, a matter

of continual occurrence ; and with them, as with

the early Methodists, seem to have been not unfrequently

the crisis of a state of overwrought

physical and mental excitement, after which they

regained a calmer and healthier condition both of

body and mind, with an addition of spiritual experience

and enlightenment. Such an occurrence as

a letter falling from heaven presents much greater

difficulties. It is possible that Nicolas may have

intended the whole story rather as an allegory than

as matter of fact ; if he regarded it in the latter

light, it must have been the result either of a terribly

over-strained imagination, or of fraud on the part

of some unknown person. But to suppose that a

man of so much simple holiness and practical wisdom

as Nicolas appears to us, should have taken part in

juggling tricks of such dreadful impiety in order to

persuade his associates that the course he judged

best was prescribed to them by Heaven, is, I confess,

a larger demand upon my powers of credence than

they are able to meet. Moreover, we must judge

these accounts by the age in which they were produced,—

an age when the mental food of the pious

laity was the life of St. Francis with his five wounds

and blasphemous " conformities " to the life of our

Lord, and other works of a similar nature. And it

must be remembered that the leaders of this party

—Nicolas, Rulman, John,—were laymen whose not




large stock of erudition was self-acquired, comparatively

late in life. In the writings of the scholar

Tauler (though, in common with all his contemporaries,

he believes in ghosts and heavenly visions)

we find scarcely a trace of the fanatical credulity

that meets us in the letters of these lay friends of his,

if we are to take their statements as literal and not

symbolical representations of fact. Even so doing,

however, if we compare them with the stories contained

in the staple religious literature of the day, or

even in the life of Suso, Tauler's companion and

friend, Nicolas and his friends, wild as they may seem

to us rational Protestants, will appear scarcely to

leave the regions of sober common sense ; * and it

is remarkable that, in most of the practical questions

that arise with regard to self-discipline, he takes the

moderate and judicious side.

Whatever interpretation, however, we may be

inclined to put upon the marvellous circumstances

attending the above-mentioned conference, it seems

tolerably clear that the three years' so-called seclusion

of the " Friends of God " was regarded by them

as a time of preparation for their public work, when

they should be " scattered abroad over Christendom;

" and that by their retirement, they were

breaking the ties that bound them to those who

had hitherto depended on them for guidance, and

accustoming them to act for themselves against a

time when they should no longer have their wonted


• This will, I think, seem no exaggerated expression to any reader

who will take the pains to consult only Diepenbrock's Life of Suso

(Ratisbon, 1829), with Gorres' Introduction to it, and so see for

himself the space that separates the Romish from our Protestant point

of view in these matters ; not forgetting, meanwhile, that the Editor

Diepenbrock was the secretary of the learned Bishop Sailer, the leader

of the most liberal party among the Catholics of almost our own day.




counsellors at hand. Probably, too, the brethren

took this course partly from the desire that their

spiritual children should not be involved in the

persecutions which they could not but perceive to

threaten themselves, but might continue to work

for the cause of true religion in their respective

spheres, unhindered by the suspicions of heresy,

which any known connexion with the " Friends of

God " would have brought upon them. Not that

there is any sign of the " Friends of God " having

been heretical in point of dogma ; it was rather the

remarkable freedom with which they criticized the

conduct both of the spiritual and temporal authorities

that was likely to bring them into trouble. Thus,

in one of their meetings just before their retreat, the

brother who had been a Jurist says, that if offices

in Church and State were conferred in accordance

with God's law, neither Urban nor Clement deserved

to be Pope ; the former had been appointed by the

Roman mob through violent means, and the latter

was now defending himself by similar acts of violence,

which was contrary to justice and God's order. So

likewise, the King of Rome had obtained the crown

after a shameful fashion (1376), for his father had

bought the votes of the electors with gold ; how the

electors could reconcile it with their oath to choose

an inexperienced boy for their king, God only knew ;

with the subjects matters did not stand much better :

they obeyed their rulers only so long as it served their

own interests to do so ; a godly life was almost extinct,

everywhere prevailed nought but the striving after

riches and pleasures.* This passage throws much

light on the views and aims of the " Friends of God,"

See Schmidt's Gottesfreunde, S. 170. –




and enables us to form an idea of what must have

been the frequent topics of discussion among them.

With the cessation of the correspondence between

Nicolas and Rulman Merswin, ceases our only source

of information about the " Friends of God." Their

term of waiting expired on the 25th March 1383 ;

and since we know, from contemporary history, that

the course of events, instead of bringing brighter

prospects, grew ever darker and more threatening,

we seem justified in concluding that they now

believed the time to have arrived for them "to go

out into the five ends of the world," and work for

Christ. Most likely they went forth as preachers

of repentance, for there occur in the letters of

Nicolas frequent comparisons of the present state of

the world to that of Nineveh, and hints that they

may have to act the part of Jonah. But where,

and how long they did so, is wrapt in utter darkness.

As far as we can learn, Providence did not see fit

to bless their preaching like that of Jonah, and, to

human eyes, their enterprise was a failure. For all

we actually know respecting their subsequent history

is, that in 1393 a certain Martin von Mayence, a

Benedictine monk of Reichenau, in the diocese of

Constance, who is called in the acts of his trial a

disciple of Nicolas of Basle and a " Friend of God,"

was burnt at Cologne, after the same fate had befallen

some other " Friends of God," a short time before,

at Heidelberg. Active researches were made after

Nicolas, but as he had concealed himself from his

friends, so for a long time he was able to elude the

efforts of his persecutors. At length, on a journey

which he had undertaken into France, in order to

diffuse his doctrines, accompanied by two of his




disciples, James and John (the latter most likely the

converted Jew who always appears as his bosom

friend), he fell into the hands of the Inquisitors at

Vienne, in the diocese of Poitiers. He was brought

to trial, and persisted firmly and publicly in his

heresies, the most " audacious " of which seems to

have been that he pretended to " know that he was

in Christ, and Christ in him." He was therefore

delivered over to the secular power, and perished

in the flames, together with his two disciples, who

refused to be parted from him.*

Since, in the trial of Martin of Mayence, Nicolas

is spoken of as still living, his death most likely

occurred subsequently to that date, but cannot have

taken place much later, as he must then have been

near ninety years of age. Even before this time,

the Strasburg brethren had lost all trace of the

"Friends of God," and their frequent attempts to

discover them had proved utterly unavailing ;


* The following note, inserted by Schmidt in his Tauler, S. 205,

is, I believe, the only source of information we have respecting the

end of the Layman :

" fohan Niederus, formicarhis. Arg. 1517, 4to. F. 40, &c. : Vivebat

paulo ante [the Council of Pisa] quidam purum laicus, Nycholaus

nomine. Hie in linea Rheni circa Basiliam et infra, primum velut

Beghardus ambulans, a multis qui persequebantur hereticos, de eorundem

hereticorum numero quasi unus habebatur suspectissimus. Acutissimus

enim erat, et verbis errores coloratissime velare novit. Idcirco etiam

manus inquisitorum dudum evaserat et multo tempore. Discipulos

igitur quosdam in suam sectam coUegit. Fuit enim professione et

habitu de damnatis Beghardis unus, qui visiones et revelationes in

praedicto damnato habitu multas habuit quas infallibiles esse credidit.

Se scire affirmabat audacter quod Christus in eo esset actu, et ipse in

Christo, et plura alia, quae omnia, captus tandem Wiennae in Pictaviensi

diocesi, inquisitus fatebatur publice. Sed cum Jacobum et Joannem

suspectos in fide, et sibi conscios suos speciales discipulos, ad jussum

ecclesiae eum inquirenti nollet dimittere nisi per ignem, et reportis in

multis a vera fide devius et impersuasibilis, secularium potestati juste

traditus est qui eum incinerarunt.


A detailed account of these attempts is given in Schmidt's

Gottesfreunde, S. 29.




no doubt, because the convent which they sought

to find was already deserted, and its inmates, whose

names they had never known, were scattered abroad

in fulfilment of their vocation. That which appears

to have formed the chief ground of their persecution,

was their effort to free the people from the tyranny

of the clergy, and their claiming for every one

enlightened by God the right to teach,—a claim

antagonistic to the inmost essence of the Romish

Church. And if their teaching failed to effect a wide

reformation because it was mingled with some of the

great errors of Rome, and in place of priestly authority

over men's consciences set up that of their brethren,

whose inspiration was often not less doubtful, yet

we cannot but recognize in it the germs of the true

freedom of the Gospel, as well as the great and all essential

truth that the Christian life does not consist

in outward works, but in the inward union of the

spirit with God.