The Religious Thought of the Young Lessing

In German intellectual history, philosophers and men of letters who began life in a Lutheran parsonage are by no means rare. Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Hesse are among those who might be named. (Herder, incidentally, was the son of the cantor, or precentor, of a Lutheran church.) But Lessing stands out as the first great German thinker to be born in a parsonage.

His grandfather, Theophilus Lessing (1647—1735), was a local dignitary who had published a book on religious toleration1 in his youth and rendered long and notable service to his community as mayor of the city of Kamenz. His father, Johann Gottfried Lessing, as we have seen, was a Lutheran orthodox pastor, while his mother, Justina Salome, was the daughter of another Lutheran pastor who sprang from a venerable line of pastors. Our Lessing, therefore, was born into the Christian tradition and grew up within it. In this chapter we wish to trace the young Lessing's development, focusing on his religious thought.

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