Lessing and the Fragments Controversy Fragmentenstreit

The fragments controversy, a dispute ignited by his publication of parts of Hermann Samuel Reimarus's unpublished manuscripts under the title Fragments from an Unnamed Author, made Lessing's name immortal in the history of Protestant theology. Reimarus, a deceased professor of Oriental languages at a Gymnasium in Hamburg, was highly respected during his lifetime for his warm personality and academic excellence. His contemporaries regarded him as a good Christian. He was regarded as standing up for the Christian religion, even if he was not in complete agreement with Lutheran orthodoxy. In his heart of hearts, however, he had become a radical deist. In secret he entertained highly critical and radical ideas about Christianity, expressing his critiques in voluminous, unpublished manuscripts drawn together under the title Apology for Rational Worshippers of God (Apologie oder Schutzschriftfür die vernünftigen Verehrer Gottes). For fear of civil persecution, he did not want to take the risk of publishing the manuscripts. He showed them to only a few of his most trusted friends and to his two children—but not to his wife!

Lessing had the good fortune of becoming close friends with Reimarus's children, Johann Albert and Elise, during his stay in Hamburg (1765—70). He borrowed their father's unpublished manuscripts under the pledge of never disclosing the author's real name. Beginning in May 1770 he assumed the office of librarian at the famous Herzog-AugustBibliothek at Wolfenbüttel. On 13 February 1772 he was granted, from the hand of the Duke of Brunswick, the privilege of immunity from censorship, on condition that he would never attack the Christian religion. From 1774 onward, he began to publish a series of precious manuscripts and other acquisitions that he had discovered in the library. He smuggled the Reimarus manuscripts into the library and, pretending he had found them in its holdings, published them under the title Fragments from an Unnamed Author. He camouflaged the author's identity by providing the false supposition that the author might be Johann Lorenz Schmidt, the deist who had translated the banned Wertheimer Bible of 1735. In 1774 Lessing first published a small and comparatively moderate part of the Reimarus manuscripts under the title On Tolerating the Deists. It evoked, as he had expected, no significant response. Three years later, he published five other fragments that stood at the heart of Reimarus's attacks on the Christian doctrine of revelation. To these fragments he appended his own "Editor's Counterpropositions" (Gegensätze des Herausgebers). This publication of more fragments, allegedly anonymous, aroused sharp refutations and reproaches from all sides, especially from the camp of Lutheran orthodoxy. This led to the exceptionally bitter dispute called the fragments controversy.

The controversy began innocuously enough. Johann Daniel Schumann, director of a lyceum in Hanover, attempted to refute the unnamed author by writing the treatise On the Evidence of the Proofs for the Truth of the Christian Religion. Lessing countered Schumann with his famous booklets On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power (Über den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft) and The Testament ofJohn (Das Testament Johannis), to which Schumann responded with J. D. Schumann's Answer to the Letter Sent Him from Brunswick on the Proof of the Spirit and of Power. Johann Heinrich Ress, the Archdeacon and Superintendent of Wolfenbüttel, then attacked the unnamed author by writing a treatise called Defense of the History of the Resurrection. When Lessing responded with A Rejoinder (Eine Duplik), Ress made a further attempt to defend the gospel account of the resurrection by writing yet another treatise, The History of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ without Contradictions: In Opposition to A Rejoinder. Later, other people such as Friedrich Wilhelm Mascho and Georg Christoph Silberschlag took part in the controversy. But Lessing did not attempt to refute them publicly, presumably because he judged these opponents too insignificant to fight against.16

But with the participation of Johann Melchior Goeze (1717—1786), pastor of the Church of St. Catherine in Hamburg and Hauptpastor, or Pastor Primarius, of the Hamburg pastors, a drastic change in the nature and pace of the controversy took place. Unlike his predecessors, who had been preoccupied with refuting the statements of the unnamed author, Goeze took aim not so much at the unnamed author as at the editor of the fragments. The fragments were a "hostile blasphemy"17 against the Christian religion, to be sure, but Lessing was a blasphemous person who "derided the entire Christian world to its face." The fragments were a "disgraceful abortion," but the "Editor's Counterpropositions" were "more poisonous than the poison in the fragments themselves."18

Representing Lutheran orthodoxy, Goeze launched a fierce attack against Lessing with his publication of Something Preliminary against Court Counallor Lessing's Direct and Indirect Malevolent Attacks on Our Most Holy Religion, and on Its Single Foundation, the Bible together with another pamphlet called Lessing's Weaknesses. Lessing, to defend both the unnamed author and himself, published a series of polemical writings: A Parable, Axioms, If There Be Any in Such Things, Anti-Goe%e in eleven installments; and The Necessary Answer to the Very Unnecessary Question of Hauptpastor Goeze in Hamburg. Moreover, he even went so far as to put into print the most radically critical fragment of Reimarus's manuscripts, On the Purpose of Jesus and His Disciples.

This head-on confrontation between Lessing and Goeze became hopelessly mired in personal invective. But when it began to look as if he might lose the battle, Goeze appealed to the civil authority. In July 1778 all of Lessing's publications became subject to strict censorship, and in August of the same year, Lessing was required to receive permission from the government of Brunswick before he could publish anything.

Having been prohibited from continuing his anti-Goeze controversy within the territory of the Duke of Brunswick, Lessing decided to return to "his old pulpit, the theater,"19 to resume the theological battle. He then wrote "a play, the content of which has some analogy with his present disputes."20 Lessing characterized this play, his famous Nathan the Wise, as "a son of his approaching old age, [a son] whom the polemic helped to bring to birth."21

But if Lessing is right in saying that "Nathan's attitude toward a// positive religions has always been my own"21 then we have to take the dramatic work Nathan the Wise into consideration in order to understand the full spectrum of his theological or religious-philosophical thought. Thus the task of elucidating Lessing's theology or philosophy of religion will inevitably require a much broader scope of research than that of ordinary theological studies.

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  • risto karlsson
    What was the fragments controversy lessing?
    8 years ago

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