Conference Agenda

4C: German Chronicles of Welfare, Health, and Spirituality, 1750-1900
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
3:15pm - 4:30pm

Session Chair: Dr. Avi Sharma, TU Berlin


German Chronicles of Welfare, Health, and Spirituality, 1750-1900

Chair(s): Sharma, Avi (Technische Universität Berlin, Germany)

This panel aims to shed light on the intertwined relationship between the church and health reforms in eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century Germany. Panelists will explore various approaches towards German welfare and health, how the church embraced new intellectual health movements, and the ways in which religion informed state-based poverty relief efforts and public health institutions. They also examine how religious leaders, state officials, and individual citizens interpreted health, death, and the body. These narratives of missionaries and church leaders illuminate the continued influence of religion on German medical knowledge and ideas of health.


Presentations of the Symposium


Spiritual Health, Bodily Illness: Death Narratives in Eighteenth-Century Moravian Church

Douma Kaelin, Kelly
The Pennsylvania State University, United States of America

The eighteen-century sits at the cusp of the modern era. Often associated with Enlightenment ideals and increased medical knowledge, the eighteenth-century was also a time of increased religiosity and a rejection of rational religion, particularly in the German states. The Moravians, a separatist and migratory religious group from eastern Germany, participated in both the wider intellectual movements of the age as well as preaching their “religion of the heart,” a rejection of orthodox Lutheranism and a belief in childlike trust in Christ. The Moravians traveled widely throughout the eighteenth-century world, becoming the first truly global Protestant missionaries. In order to maintain a sense of global community, the Moravians published and circulated spiritual memoirs of their deceased members. This study focuses specifically on the extensive focus on final illness and death within these pages, often comprising up to half of the total life narrative. These narratives contain contemporary vernacular medical terms for lay-diagnoses as well as attempts at cures. Particularly in the Caribbean, where Moravian women both nursed enslaved Africans and themselves fell prey to sudden and fatal illnesses, these memoirs shed light on the religious juxtaposition of bodily sickness and spiritual health. In a church that largely shunned an organized written theology, these constructed and distributed narratives centering on illness, loss of life, and assured salvation offer a fascinating glimpse into how medical crises were interpreted in ways both beneficial for the individual believer and the church as a whole.


Bridging the Divide: Church and State Poor Relief in Elberfeld

McMillan, Rebekah O.
Angelo State University, United States of America

Located in the mountainous area of the lower Rhineland in the Wupper Valley, the city of Elberfeld (known today as Wuppertal) is home to the most notable form of state-sponsored German poor relief in the nineteenth century. Known as the Elberfeld System and originating in 1853, it operated under the conviction that only through knowing the condition of the poor and the circumstances behind that condition could the problem of poverty be solved within a community. The Elberfeld System utilized local poor relief volunteers to investigate the needs of those impoverished and build relationships between those officials and the poor to ensure relief was deserved and appropriate. This System only came about after the city vacillated between church and state relief for over half a century. Even when state control officially subsumed church responsibility, the role of religion and church guidance continued to play an integral part in the System’s development. Utilizing municipal and church records, this paper will explore the shift away from church-based control while also exploring the ways in which religious ideas about poverty remained central to the ideology that undergirded state-sponsored relief. Elberfeld provides a unique location study as it was an area of early industrial development within the German states and contained an active church presence of the three main denominations, Reformed Calvinist, Catholic, and Lutheran. Additionally, the Elberfeld System would go on to become the most prominent form of localized poor relief adopted by cities throughout Germany by the end of Wilhelmine Era.


Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Religious Leaders and Public Health Institutions in Nineteenth-Century Bavaria*

Culp, Alyssa Nicole
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, United States of America

After the 1854 Cholera Epidemic violently ripped through the city of Munich, citizens gathered at Mary’s Column in Marienplatz to give thanks to God and with hopes that the worst was over. Soon after, state physicians formed a commission to search for ways to promote cleanliness and prevent illness. They were not the only advocates of health at this time, however. Long before nineteenth-century public health efforts, priests and church leaders took the lead in providing poor relief for their parishioners, recording deaths, and caring for the corpse. Death took on new meaning in the nineteenth century as morgue-based physicians replaced priests as the final authority of death. The morgue set in motion changes to various burial processes and who controlled the corpse. While threatened by this incursion, religious involvement did not disappear entirely as leaders worked to cooperate with state officials.

This paper examines the tension between state authority and religious leaders. While at first opposed to this shift, local religious leaders soon became invested in the morgue and used their church resources to promote cleanliness, provide basic care for their parishioners, and fund these public health institutions. My paper analyzes physician reports, diocesan policies, and clerical journals to reveal how religion continued to inform state-based health institutions like the morgue. I argue that while public health became a state sanctioned venture, religious leaders continued to influence medical practice and public health regulations as they possessed knowledge of common maladies, understood local traditions, and held parishioners’ trust.