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Johannes Perthel – September 9, 1888 – July 20, 1944

–From  “Die Gründer Der Christengemeinschaft: Ein Schicksalsnetz” by Rudolf F. Gaedeke, translation by Gail Ritscher

 

As far as his friends are concerned, Johannes Perthel was called away far too early from his life and his work for The Christian Community. He had the peculiar destiny of dying during the bombing of Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance while he was vacationing there.

There was something difficult hanging over his destiny, but those in his circle, particularly his colleagues, treasured the radiant humanness that he had wrested from his life.

The way he himself described it was that from childhood on he kept experiencing and feeling himself as not quite an outsider, but still as someone else. He went his own way.

Born on September 6, I888, in Leukersdorf/Erzgebirge, he grew up in a very strict orthodox parish house. School aroused inner opposition. He had no friends there. Already in primary school he wrote in an essay saying that he wanted to become a pastor. After graduation, he studied liberal theology. He literally had to wrangle permission from this orthodox father to spend the semester in “liberal” Marburg.

He quarreled constantly with his father during semester breaks at home. His mother said nothing. Johannes became increasingly withdrawn. New forces needed to be extracted from orthodoxy and family tradition.

He became a member of the national and anti-Semitic “German Student Association.” Then, at 22, he wrote a favorable factual assessment of a lecture by the Jewish Social Democrat, Bernstein for the association’s magazine. Once again, he had shocked his friends.

Johannes Perthel had passed his theology exam before the First World War. He fulfilled his one-year mandatory military service; during that time, however, he struggled with an internal conflict that caused him to withdraw from an officer candidate’s course after the first 6 months. Once again, he was totally misunderstood.

After the war had begun, an inner sense of duty – he had just become a pastor – made him call on his colleagues in Saxony to take up arms for the fatherland. His best friend answered this call and died in service shortly thereafter. Johannes Perthel himself was not called up and was used as a field chaplain only for the last year and a half of the war. He found this to be an impossible task both inwardly and outwardly, but he gained a great deal of important insight into the destinies of soldiers.

In May 1915, Johannes Perthel married Mechthild Grohmann, the sister of the famous Goethean botanist Gerbert Grohmann. The couple had three children.

It seems typical for Perthel that, after his time as auxiliary pastor, he chose a pastorate that required a pioneer spirit. The small Saxon mining town of Oberwürschnitz, between Zwickau and Chemnitz, had just become an independent parish. There was neither church, nor community room, nor parish house, nor congregation. Perthel reported humorously about how he pulled off a parish house and community room. The congregation, however, just would not form. The locals were largely closed, hard-working miners.

Johannes Perthel now attempted to bridge the gulf between the working world and church. He became a member of the Social Democratic Party, again shocking his colleagues, friends, and family. Even harder to swallow, however, was the realization that the gap between workers and church was not bridgeable, even though the Social Democratic pastor was now often invited to give lectures by the Saxon workers.

The most valuable experience in all this was the complete inner freedom from all previous obligations, for a pastor as a Social Democrat was treated like a leper in his social class.

It was under these circumstances that a friend introduced him to a young man from the youth movement, presenting him as the representative of a new world view (Weltanschauung). It was the spring of 1920, the same time that the very first request went to Rudolf Steiner for a new religious practice.

Johannes Perthel and his wife purchased Rudolf Steiner’s “Basic Issues of the Social Question” and “How to Know Higher Worlds.” Understanding what was written there came only gradually, but was inspirational. Later, Johannes Perthel would have to suffer a severe shock to the system from this first go-between to anthroposophy, but now the first step had been made. He met Rudolf Steiner in Chemnitz and learned about the preparations for religious renewal.

From this moment on, Johannes Perthel knew that he wanted to join in the work. It was soon very obvious to him that the renewals Rudolf Steiner had proposed to the circle of founders would find no place in the existing church. He wished to work establishing independent congregations in the Ore Mountains. This became clear to him during inner wrestling in the fall of 1921, when he was attending the theological course in Dornach. According to his own telling, it was thanks to his wife, who was with him in Dornach, and the construction of the first Goetheanum that he was able to overcome “the intellect man” (Kopfmensch), as he called it. The large columns of the Goetheanum hall, each different and yet emerging from and connected with one another: This sense impression helped decisively.

Johannes Perthel gave up his parish in 1922 and was later present for the preparatory weeks in Breitbrunn. During the actual founding deeds in 1922, Rudolf Steiner himself suggested Perthel for a lenker position. And so, on September 16th, 1922, he was ordained as a priest by Friedrich Rittelmeyer during the first Act of Consecration of the Human Being.

He then established the congregation in Leipzig with Rudolf Frieling, and from there he supervised as lenker the founding of congregations in Saxony, Thüringen, and Silesia. He worked in Breslau from 1926, through the 30s, and up until the ban of The Christian Community in 1941. He numbered among the seven leading figures of the priest circle from the very beginning and, as such, he played a significant role until the ban in building up and initially forming The Christian Community.

On June 9th, 1941, Johannes Perthel participated in the lenker meeting in Erlangen as the ban came into effect. His two daughters in Breslau came under intense pressure from the Gestapo. They were forbidden to inform their brother in the field. Johannes Perthel rode out the time of the ban as a bookkeeper for the company of a Breslau congregation member.

He is not known for writing anything of great length. However, from the first issue of the magazine first called “Tatchristentum,” his articles and reports appeared every year, as well as in the “messages” for the members, which he issued as of 1936.

Johannes Perthel worked as a lecturer, particularly during the large conferences that took place at that time throughout Germany, often several times a year. But it was primarily his humanity, won through much suffering, that earned him great respect and thanks in the priest circle and among all members.

In the summer of 1944, Johannes Perthel was staying in Oberstaufen in the Allgäu visiting Elfriede Straub, the unforgettable congregation helper from first Breslau, then Stuttgart. From there, he wanted to visit his sister-in-law, the wife of Gerbert Grohmann, as well as Marta Heimeran, in Horn on Lake Constance. As the train pulled into the station at Friedrichshafen on July 20th, 1944, there was an air raid alarm. All the passengers had to leave the train for a nearby aboveground air raid shelter. The shelter received a direct hit, which no one survived. Days later, Elfriede Straub searched for her missing guest in Friedrichshafen. In a laundry basket at the police station, she found Johannes Perthel’s passport, riddled with holes. His memorial stone is found in a large community burial site. He was torn out of life without knowing that his son had preceded him, falling in the field in Russia on July 13th.


Memorandum

Oberwürschnitz, 21 February 1922

It seems clear to me from recent experiences that bringing about religious renewal within the [established] church in the sense we mean will be impossible. To remain viable in the present, and faced with inner emptiness, the church is forced to shift more and more into outer forms. In the process, it must enclose itself in a protective shell that will render it impenetrable to all new impulses coming from outside. Furthermore, the people we need to reach today are not to be found in church. On the contrary, one gets the impression that we are not doing the people who come to church today any favors if we let the new spiritual impulse flow into the sermon. As people who still somehow draw strength from the past, they also want to be uplifted by the past. So, in the long run, we ultimately do ourselves and them no favor by chaining ourselves together.

Once we have recognized this, the moment must come sooner or later when the inner impossibility becomes an outer impossibility, and if the kind of religious activity we intend is still to have any value, it must take place outside the church in the formation of independent congregations.

Because of the enormous responsibility involved, it will no doubt be tempting to postpone this decision and to wait for stronger external relationships and greater inner readiness, but the decision must nevertheless be made at some point. Therefore, because there will have to be a decision and because the times require something, it would be good for this decision to be made today.

I thus declare myself ready to give up my parish when the time is right and help form independent congregations, my only request being that I be allowed to bring everything to some kind of conclusion by Easter.

When I think about where to work, it seems that it should be possible for me to work my way into the local mining community from neighboring Oelnitz, the center of the local suburbs. These people are finished with the past, and they do not have anything new yet. It would just be a matter of shaking them out of their apathy. They might be able to trust someone whom they just recently knew as a pastor.

I would be most grateful if Dr. Steiner could make the effort to unite us once again for an immediate introductory course.

-Johannes Perthel

 

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