The Secular Beyond: Free Religious Dissent and Debates over the Afterlife in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Church History 77 (3):629-658 (2008)
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The 1830s and 1840s saw the proliferating usage of “the Beyond” (Jenseits) as a choice term for the afterlife in German public discourse. This linguistic innovation coincided with the rise of empiricism in natural science. It also signaled an emerging religious debate in which bald challenges to the very existence of heaven were aired before the wider German public for the first time. Against the belief of many contemporaries that empirical science was chiefly responsible for this attack on one of the central tenets of Christianity, this essay shows instead that the role played by Christian dissenters in the negation of the Beyond. The polemical invocation of an empty Beyond coincided with the separation in the mid 1840s of two dissenting sects – the Deutschkatholiken (“German Catholics”) and the Protestant Free Congregations – from the main Christian Churches. During the Revolution of 1848, these sects, later known as Free Religious Congregations, deepened their critique of the Beyond as they articulated a new creed of radical humanism and natural scientific monism. Yet, despite their secularist agenda the Free Religious failed to fully secularize. The essay concludes by suggesting that the anticlerical activity of the Free Religious and affiliated freethinking organizations, which lasted into the 1930s, marks a century in which movements of radical political and social dissent remained open to and indeed partially dependent on the negation of the Beyond in order to sacralize humanity and nature.
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