Friedrich Rittelmeyer

Die Gruender der Christengemeinschaft: Ein Schicksalsnetz
By Rudolf F. Gaedeke
Translated by Cindy Hindes

Friedrich Rittelmeyer
October 5th, 1872 in Dillinger/Donau – March 23rd, 1938 in Hamburg

Preview: Rittelmeyer wrested everything he accomplished out of a weak body and a melancholy temperament. He widened his soul in suffering and active service to everything human and divine. His spirit, however, became a potent force that affected those who worked with him, radiating certainty of life and trust in God.

In the spring of 1922 in the New Church—the German or Little Cathedral—in Berlin, Friedrich Rittelmeyer gave four big lectures on the theme “Anthroposophy and Religious Renewal”. This theme describes Rittelmeyer’s most important personal life motif and his objectively historical deed. His struggle for Christian understanding led him to anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner; His religious quest was led thereby from Jesus to Christ. When these two things are seen against the backdrop of the turn of the 19th century and what was happening in history at that time, particularly now that many decades have passed, we can appreciate his lifetime achievement even more clearly and value it even more highly. Rudolf Steiner’s assessment of Friedrich Rittelmeyer belongs to this appreciation:

“The anthroposophical movement had to see in Rittelmeyer the model of a personality who had united Christianity and anthroposophy in the inner harmony of the heart and in the outer harmony of the work.” (GA 37/2602, 1966, p. 398)

This sketch of his life can in no way replace Friedrich Rittelmeyer’s two autobiographical works: “From My Life” and “Rudolf Steiner Enters My Life.” It means only to mention them, as well as the books by Erwin Schüle, “Friedrich Rittelmeyer – Life and Work,” and Gerhard Wehr, “Friedrich Rittelmeyer.” Despite these works, however, what is still missing today, half a century after his death, is a comprehensive biography and assessment, as well as a representative – if not complete – edition of his works.

Friedrich Karl Robert Franz Rittelmeyer was born on October 5th, 1872, in Dillingen on the Danube, where his French-born father was the Lutheran minister. His mother, who was from Thüringen, had received her teaching degree in Wuppertal. A good year after Friedrich was born, Rittelmeyer’s father was transferred to Schweinfurt am Main, where he later became dean. The couple then had six more children.

Friedrich was a melancholic, solitary child with blond curls and blue eyes, repeatedly weakened by illness, without friends, but highly gifted and thorough in his studies. His parents sent him to school at 5 ½ years-old (1878). In high school and the Abitur (university entrance exam), he was always the top student in his class.

As solitary as he appeared outwardly, even with respect to his father, his inner life kept getting fuller. His astonishingly early memory of his mother at around 14 months, when they were still in Dillingen, already shows a strong, conscious ability to remember events. The death of one of his little sisters allows him to look behind the curtain into another world: an angel experience, which the boy immediately brings as comfort to his grieving mother.

His body is continually beleaguered. A bad case of vaccine poisoning, a life-threatening case of scarlet fever, chronic furunculosis, general weakness, sports injuries, broken arm, broken foot, a weak eye, in short, a constant battle against physical infirmity, but also against a fear of life.

He wanted to become a “minister of God.” High school was all about service. But the 9-year-old schoolboy is reading a 3-volume folkloric world history book and becomes convinced he has already lived through it. The idea of reincarnation begins to dawn in him. From the age of 12, he reads all the German classics and much that is already forgotten today. Whatever he read he retained in his mind; He never read it again – other than Goethe – and yet everything was there, within reach in his memory.

He covered The Iliad and The Odyssey in Greek during one 2-week vacation. The classical world of antiquity, “the clear sky of Greece arched above me in all its serene magnificence,” and “at Plato’s ‘Symposium’ I experienced the celebration of spirit surpassed in all my life only by the Gospel of John.”

But Christianity? Friedrich survived the father’s daily prayers for the entire family, morning and evening, only by sinking into apathy. The confirmation vows (on April 18th, 1886) troubled his conscience: The godless sinner – hoping for grace, certain of grace? – “So, I diligently searched through my life for transgressions.” “The Luther experience, venerably true and deep in itself, is misused punitively to mistreat the sun-thirsty souls of children.” “I wandered through the Christian world for years as a non-believer: And yet, out of a deep inner being, I still always wanted to become a minister.”

Friedrich Rittelmeyer did only what was most necessary for high school. He wanted to remain at the top of the class. Other than that, school was a bitter experience. He passed the Abitur in 1890 with flying colors, but inwardly, the 17-year-old was at the end of his rope. “If only war would happen now so that I could be shot dead with dignity.” He declined an invitation to the Maximilianeum in Munich – a foundation for gifted students created by King Maximilian II – and completed a theology degree (1894) in Erlangen, including two sessions between semesters (1892 and 1892/3) in Berlin.

Rittelmeyer was overfull of human encounters and experiences in Erlangen, Berlin, and in the Uttenruthia student fraternity. Names like Adolf von Harnack, Heinrich von Treitschke, Ernst Troeltsch, and Wilhelm C. Roentgen are just a small sampling. Dealing with students as their spokesperson, taking part in sports, making music on the piano and cello, hiking, theater, concerts, lectures and gatherings in Berlin: he took advantage of all of it, intensively. But the studies themselves did absolutely nothing to fulfill the seeking soul. “What is actually the purpose of your life?” He inwardly asked himself of humanity’s greats: “Which of them could you serve with your life? Whose work could you continue today?” This pondering led him to Jesus. Only to him did he feel obligated. “That’s when I decided to stay alive.”

The 21-year-old had to fight through his existential crisis and then use and fulfill the freedom he achieved. He took the exam (August, 1894). “I had a theology, but no religion, no Christianity.” He had a very good grade, was the best among 50 candidates, but had no content for his sermons.

He was only sure of himself when it came to a spiritual experience. For his 21st birthday on October 5th, 1893, he received a book by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1880) called “Sartor resartus.” He studied it for weeks. This was his introduction to the I-experience, which he then deepened by studying J.G. Fichte. I am – I have a purpose, a goal, and this purpose is eternal, is spiritual, as I am eternal, and thus spiritual. “The kingdom of the I appeared before my soul.” And with it again the experience of having lived on this earth before.

Friedrich Rittelmeyer had 200 Marks of exam prize money at his disposal when, after a stint in the military (1894) cut short for health reasons, he embarked on a month-long trip around Germany. Of the approximately 30 places he visited, he was most impressed with his experiences in the Herrnhut congregation, where the Easter service was being celebrated, Friedrich Naumann’s[1] activities in Frankfurt, and Bodelschwingh’s[2] work in Bethel.

We hear from Friedrich Rittelmeyer about three musical experiences that were important for him. It was a worship service in the “New Church” in Berlin, 21 years before his own sending there. The 100th psalm as scored by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy touched his innermost being. It was a spiritual experience through music, a perception of one’s own higher being.

Based on this experience, Friedrich Rittelmeyer could take the decisive step in cognition. To him is owed the discovery of the I as the fundamental motif of contemporary religious consciousness. For the fundamental motif is no longer the Luther-experience of humankind’s guilt before God, no longer the question: How do I get a merciful God? Human beings in the present time of natural science have lost the awareness of God, no longer know a moral authority, and can barely still think of themselves as “sinners before God.”

The religious experience of the “Consciousness Soul” is pictured in the gospel in the story about The Prodigal Son (Lk. 15), about the human being who comes to himself through the experience of godlessness. Rittelmeyer sees in that a key precondition for theology on the threshold of the 20th century. This is an important point of departure for religious renewal.

Even before Rittelmeyer’s big trip around Germany, he had experienced an inner transformation at the St John Church in Schweinfurt listening to the Brahms Requiem, specifically when a young girl sings the words of Christ “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” In the New Church, this “first greeting from the time of the coming Christ” was strengthened. But the deep thinking theologist spoke up: “I wonder if an angel encounter, if the experience of the higher self could perhaps be conveyed in some other way than through the word, like through music. The spirit blows where and when it will, and the God-less, the free and self-reliant human being, can know through it the true life of God, the Christ. The prodigal son’s father says of his son: “He was dead and is alive again.” Rittelmeyer had felt this in a tender, indisputable way as a blessing, a consecration of the human being. He now knew exactly what Paul had experienced when he said: “Not I, but Christ in me”; he knew what John carried within himself as the word of Christ: “I am the Life.”

Now he could take up his work. His consecration as a human being, as a Christian, had been fulfilled. Rittelmeyer became the vicar of the city of Würzburg, at the age of 23. His weak constitution, however, meant that he was on constant overload with all the tasks at hand. After 2 years on the job, the death of his 13-year-old sister hit him so hard that he fell ill for 9 weeks (1897). Still, it was generally acknowledged that his activities had also started to bear fruit. His sermon preparations, sometimes lasting up to 25 hours, was experienced as substance. He was befriended by philosophy professor Oswald Külpe, who urged him to take on as a doctoral thesis the long-needed epistemological basis for theology. After all, Immanuel Kant and his postulate about the limits of knowledge needed to be overcome. Friedrich Nietzsche was a suitable subject for this work, and Rittelmeyer secured his Ph.D. in 1903 in Würzburg with the doctoral theme “Friedrich Nietzsche and the Knowledge Problem.”

Despite his excessive workload, Friedrich Rittelmeyer completed the Second Theological Exam in Ansbach, from Würzburg, with an overall grade of “outstanding.” In 1901, the 28-year-old met the 16-year-old girl Julie Kerler, who was to become his wife in 1904.

It is impossible to pick out and report here on the important chapters in Rittelmeyer’s autobiography entitled “Confessional Hardships” (Bekenntnisnöte), “Protestant-Catholic,” and “Workings of Destiny” (Schicksalswalten). His application for employment as a pastor found no takers anywhere, not in Vienna, Rome, London, or Berlin. Destiny sent him to fill the position of third pastor at the Holy Ghost Church in Nürnberg, where he was the afternoon preacher. He worked there for 14 years, from 1902 until 1916, when he was called to Berlin.

He had already made the plan in Würzburg to write a book about Jesus at the age of 40. First, however, he had wanted to live with other great minds: Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Buddha, Meister Eckhart, and Johannes Müller, all of whom Rittelmeyer had highly respected at that time in his own way and whose limitations he would only recognize later.

All these works eventually found their written expression, to mixed reviews. There were accolades, but there were also those who called him “The Atheist of the Holy Ghost Church.” His friendship with Christian Geyer, the head preacher at St. Sebaldus, became one of kindred fighters in the spiritual arena. In order to have a positive influence, they put out a collection of sermons together called “God and the Soul” (1906). Its great success provoked the orthodox opponents, and signs of a rift between the many Old Believers and the few progressive priests became clearer. This eventually culminated in the “Nürnberg Church Fight” (1912/13). Rittelmeyer and Geyer, however, continued to work positively. They published a second book of sermons, “Living from God” (1910), and started their own monthly, “Christianity and the Present,” which existed from 1910 to 1923. In 1909, the book “The Pastor” (Der Pfarrer) came out, and in 1912 his life’s plan was truly fulfilled when, at 40, he published the book “Jesus.” “This is now really the best work of which I am capable at present.”

The life plan had left open what the next goal should be. Now the future came knocking. The invitation to give a lecture in Bremen on new religious movements made it clear to Rittelmeyer that he knew nothing as yet about the teaching of the Theosophical Society. He ordered written material. He became acquainted with Michael Bauer, who introduced him to anthroposophy, and he met Rudolf Steiner. That was on Goethe’s birthday, on August 28th, 1911, in Munich. What followed can be read in the valuable book “Rudolf Steiner Enters My Life,” which includes important stages in the collaboration of these two men. His first conversation with Michael Bauer took place in the days between the death and burial of his mother in 1910.

Friedrich Rittelmeyer worked his way into the new world of spiritual science with great energy and critical independence and often spoke openly about it. Now the church leadership could have easily suspended him. Instead, the call went out to him from Berlin in 1916: “Come to Berlin, as you are.” At that time, the nonsensical dogma labeling anthroposophy as “unchristian” had not yet been written in stone. Rittelmeyer’s preaching work in Berlin again took on a larger dimension, both externally and internally. This man, whose personnel file noted: “Not suitable for higher church office,” was now truly a “godly minister,” a sought-out server of the Word with a royal position at The New Church, and he was perfectly aware of what he owed Rudolf Steiner and of how all his listeners were really also guests at the table of anthroposophy.

Outside, the slaughter of World War I raged on. When it started, Rittelmeyer had hoped for an early victory. In 1917, he recognized that war cannot be the means of solving conflicts. Along with other ministers, he crafted a “call” for a ceasefire.

The times brought change, upheaval, revolution. People were stirred up. There was fertile soil in the souls. But Rittelmeyer did not find his way to the question that still needed to be asked and to which Rudolf Steiner had encouraged him. As of 1913, at the latest, it was clear to him that the liturgy, the substance of the ritual, in fact the central practice of religion needed to receive new forms. The riddle in the life of Friedrich Rittelmeyer, who was the classic example of someone striving toward the spiritual reality of Christ in his human activities, remains unsolved: Why could he not ask the question about the ritual? Others had to do so as though in his stead. And it was almost too late.

After working in Berlin for 2 years, Friedrich Rittelmeyer had an accident in French-speaking Switzerland on August 1st, 1918. His son stumbled and fell while hiking near Ebermannstadt. His father tried to catch him and ended up falling himself. A boulder rolled after him, grazing and wounding his head. He had to be hospitalized with a broken leg. Over a year later, after Christmas 1919, delayed repercussions from the head wound showed up. As of May 1920, he was on leave and spent 10 months recuperating on the estate of the von Zastrow family in Birgwitz near Glatz. From there, on the occasion of Rudolf Steiner’s 60th birthday, he produced the most important publication of the time that focused attention on anthroposophy (“From the Lifework of Rudolf Steiner – A Hope for a New Culture”, Munich, 1921).

Meanwhile, the questions to Rudolf Steiner were asked by other people and led to the “June Course” and then to the “Autumn Course” in 1921 (see the narratives on Hermann Heisler, Johannes Werner Klein, Gertrud Spörri, and Gottfried Husemann). Friedrich Rittelmeyer received detailed reports on these courses from Emil Bock. The Berlin students Emil Bock, Eberhard Kurras, Adolf Müller, Richard Gitzke, and Otto Franke had been working with him for a long time on anthroposophy and theology.

Soon after learning about the foundational text of the Act of Consecration of the Human Being as the central new ritual, Rittelmeyer decided to work with the Movement for Religious Renewal as the new true church. “The actual decisive point for me came from an unexpected direction. It was the experience that the living Christ truly comes to humankind in the bread from the altar. He was there, in ineffable purity and light.” (“Rudolf Steiner Enters My Life,” Stuttgart, 10th edition, 1983, p. 143.) The combination of Rittelmeyer’s physical weakness and his painstaking working method came across to the younger founders as hesitant. It was difficult for him to join in with the active initiatives launched by Johannes Werner Klein, Hermann Heisler, and others, all with the steady support of Rudolf Steiner, who was pushing them to get moving: If you waste too much time it could suddenly be too late! Further education and training would have to take place alongside their pastorale work.

How Friedrich Rittelmeyer had hoped his old friend Christian Geyer would be a leading figure in the work of the Christian Community! Without him, the future looked bleak. Geyer’s letter of refusal was lying In Breitbrunn. (The content of a talk between the two friends was often told as an important anecdote with regard to their disagreements: Geyer: “Fritz, if you can prove to me that the Apostle Paul went about preaching in an alb and colored stole, then I’ll join you.” To which Rittelmeyer responded: “Christian, if you can prove to me that the Apostle Paul went about preaching in a cassock and collar, then I’ll stay with you all.”)

There was pain to bear in major new events: Christian Geyer stepped out, Johannes Werner Klein broke his vow (1927), Gerturd Spörri broke hers (1933). As the Erzoberlenker of the newly founded priesthood, Friedrich Rittelmeyer suffered under these wounds to the community.

But the new was stronger: “The divine I of Christ was the most powerful and healing event of my life.” It was the striving for knowledge that resulted in this experience. In that respect, Rittelmeyer was an advanced student on the path of theology and anthroposophy. Now he was to celebrate the renewed form of the ancient holy mass himself and experience the presence of Christ in the bread and wine on the altar. Here his priestly willing and his Christianity found their fulfillment.

It was a group of 45 people, including Rudolf Steiner and 3 witnesses, who were involved in that first Act of Consecration: They were together in Christ’s name. They acted in His name, and he could therefore be in their midst.

After the 1922 founding in Dornach, it was not long before the Rittelmeyer family, with its six children, could move into the newly built Urachhaus in Stuttgart, which had been donated by a Swedish engineer. In Stuttgart, Friedrich Rittelmeyer, together with Emil Bock and Gerturd Spörri, founded the Christian Community, the priest seminary, and the monthly initially called “The Deed of Christianity.” His writing activity often produced several works a year. He was active as a speaker in lectures and on the occasion of many conferences. From 1931 to 1937, he led seven large, unforgettable camps (Freizeiten-retreats). But in the middle of this multi-dimensional work stood the powerful celebrant, the one praying with the congregation, the first priest of a new church.

Friedrich Rittelmeyer had always maintained his independence when it came to judging Rudolf Steiner. He did not hesitate to rebuke the latter in writing for his polemical way of talking about Müller, as his friend Geyer in Nürnberg had heard. On the other hand, he himself had to suffer the pain of being indirectly rebuked by Steiner for having publicly been too kind to an opponent of anthroposophy. (See GA 259, 1991, p. 814ff.)

Rudolf Steiner had provided the circle of priests with only the most essential elements for their social structure. Shaping, broadening, and completing it was up to them. It is understandable that Rittelmeyer declined the one-person job of Erzoberlenker because of his weak constitution and because he wanted to be a brother, not someone special among brothers. But it was spiritually necessary, not as the pinnacle of a pyramid social structure, but as the center, the middle point of the community. Rittelmeyer was spiritually and karmically cut out for the job, for he was not only one of the prominent theologians of the Protestant church, but also one of the most important students of Rudolf Steiner and the representative of anthroposophy – a seasoned fighter for contemporary Christ work in the written and spoken word and an experienced pastor. As it became increasingly clear that all of this was needed in the still small and young circle of priests, Rittelmeyer capitulated to necessity and was inducted as Erzoberlenker on February 24th, 1925.

A few weeks later, Rudolf Steiner died. Friedrich Rittelmeyer was allowed to perform the funeral services in Dornach and Basel on April 3rd.

The following can only hint at the efforts Friedrich Rittelmeyer made as a representative of anthroposophy in his region.  At the East-West Congress in Vienna, so important for the anthroposophical movement, he gave a lecture on “Spirit of Pentecost and Religious Renewal” (June 14th, 1922). He belonged to the Executive Council of the Anthroposophical Society in Germany as of 1923. Rudolf Steiner appointed him as “Goetheanum Speaker,” one of the few who could speak anywhere on behalf of Rudolf Steiner and of the Executive Council of the General Anthroposophical Society. After Christmas 1925, Rittelmeyer spoke out strongly in favor of Albert Steffen’s not self-evident appointment as First Chairman of The General Anthroposophical Society.

Noteworthy in the years 1928/29 is that the circumstances of The Christian Community in Stuttgart had developed in such a way that plans for a larger church were being considered. A substantial plot of land north of Urachhaus was available. Architects worked on plans and models. Then Marie Steiner in Dornach protested mightily that such a project was even being contemplated when construction of the second Goetheanum had not been completed yet. Rittelmeyer was crestfallen. He stopped work immediately. The piece of land was subdivided and sold, and a donation was sent to Dornach from the proceeds. Only a small pocket of land was retained, on which the priest seminary building was erected a few years later (1932/33. Construction of the second Goetheanum – on the inside – is still not completed today.

Relations with the German Anthroposophical Society developed to the point later that Friedrich Rittelmeyer stepped off the Executive Council in 1933. He had had to write a letter to Albert Steffen in 1931, in which he said: “People are naturally becoming increasingly aware that the news coming out of Dornach does not mention The Christian Community – other than in some book reviews – when something good happens, but only when there is something to criticize, and this criticism does not sound like it comes from a place of goodwill…Many who do not put this in writing, still think that way. And that is not in the interest of the anthroposophical movement.”

Then, two years later, shortly before the grave and far-reaching split in The General Anthroposophical Society and its executive council: “Can you blame me, esteemed Mr. Steffen, if I have the greatest reservations about the “memorandum” because of the way it is representing things that I am in a position to monitor? Can you blame me, if I cannot consider this orientation of The Society – shortly before the general assembly – as the basis upon which such fateful decisions may be taken? … [I must] reject the memorandum before history and must consider it a misfortune for The Society.”

In the same year, 1935, The Anthroposophical Society in Germany was banned by the National Socialists. Friedrich Rittelmeyer repeatedly negotiated with the powers-that-be in Berlin for this ban to be lifted. He also entered such negotiations in 1938, shortly before his death, which also helped stall the ban of The Christian Community.

It sounds strange to our ears today what Friedrich Rittelmeyer said and how he wrote about “Germanness” (Deutschtum). But if you think about how his life theme was the relationship of the human I to the I of God, and how he viewed becoming human and becoming Christian as the task of the Germans, then perhaps some formulations that seem tied to the past become understandable: The “matter” is as current as it was then, and he wanted to serve it with the writings “The German World Task Between Russia and America” (1932), “Rudolf Steiner and Germanness” (1921/23), and “Germanness” (1934).

Twenty-four years after the book “Jesus,” he published its follow-up: “Christ” (1936). He wrote about the most important themes of the new religious work: “Toward Religious Renewal” (1922), “The Christian Community” (1925), “From the Johannine Age” (1925) – almost a book a year, plus his articles in the newspaper “Tatchristentum/Christengemeinschaft” (Deed of Christianity/The Christian Community). His book “Meditation” (1921) is still in demand today; his work “Reincarnation in the Light of Thinking, Religion, Morality” (1931), in contrast, is almost completely forgotten. What a deed it was back then, to bring these themes into public view which are now on everyone’s lips! And finally, the motif “Theology and Anthroposophy” (1930) pointed to a field that is still largely lying fallow today…

Rittelmeyer wrested everything he accomplished out of a weak body and a melancholy temperament. He widened his soul in suffering and active service to everything human and divine. His spirit, however, became a potent force that affected those who worked with him, radiating certainty of life and trust in God.

He died on March 23rd, 1938, in Hamburg: He is the great father figure in the priest circle of The Christian Community – whose work is unjustly forgotten; the religious renewer in his own right, who, as a free and independent student of Rudolf Steiner’s, seized anthroposophy as the helper on his path, and who then as a priest could validly say: “Thus I came to the new Christian Community from out of the very center…It was not Rudolf Steiner who spoke the last word, but someone higher!”

[1] Friedrich Naumann was a German liberal politician and Protestant parish pastor.

[2] Friedrich “Fritz” von Bodelschwingh, also known as Friedrich von Bodelschwingh the Younger, was a German pastor, theologian and public health advocate. His father was Friedrich von Bodelschwingh the Elder, founder of the v. Bodelschwinghsche Anstalten Bethel charitable foundations.

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