Recluse in Demand
No small stir was occasioned in Mülheim when the young merchant, Gerhard Tersteegen, retired from his business and took up lodgings in an isolated cottage, in order to search after God. For some years, his relatives and friends left the youthful twenty-two-year-old to his odd quest. Another young man, many hundreds of years before him, had retired from his active life in the city of Jerusalem to the Arabian desert, where he, too, was to be initiated into the deep things of God. And Gerhard Tersteegen, like St. Paul, was to share the secrets that he learned in his Arabia with the sin-burdened and sorrowing, the hungry and dissatisfied souls. These yearned for soul-food instead of the intellectual rationalizing of a formal ministry.
Gerhard would have given as his reason for this escape from social and business contacts, the conviction that his barque was too frail to successfully outride the currents of the world about him. His seven brothers and sisters, save one who had entered the ministry, were intent upon making money. When this youngest member of their family turned his back upon good business opportunities in order to live simply and frugally, they were so chagrined that his name was not mentioned among them. When his mother died, he was not invited to the gathering where the family divided the assets.
The young mans father, Heinrich Tersteegen, died when the child was very small. He was a pious merchant and a member of the Reformed Church. Letters found after his death, revealed that he had been in touch with the spiritual movement gathering momentum at that time.
Gerhard was born in Möhr in the valley of the Rhine in 1697, just six years prior to the advent of John Wesley into Epworth Rectory in England. At the time of his birth, Germany was still suffering from the devastation which resulted from the thirty years struggle between the Protestants and Catholics. Twelve million of her population had perished during this period of bloodshed. Whole villages had been pillaged and burned; fields and orchards lay waste. In Leipsig, in 1686, not a single Bible or New Testament could be found in any booksellers shop. The Reformed Church had come to be designated the Deformed Church, and the Lutheran Church had succumbed to dead rites and ceremonies until those who sought to revive the spiritual life were accounted heretics.
God had His witnesses, however, torches alight with divine fire, who were to illumine this darkness. Labardie, Spener, Hockmann, and others sought to rouse the apathetic populace to a sense of need. They strove to transfer religion from the icy region of the head to the warmer clime of the heart, and went everywhere seeking to form a Church within the Church by instituting prayer-meetings and Bible studies.
These messengers proclaimed four distinguishing doctrines: 1. Self-renunciationthe complete giving up of self-will to the will of God. 2. The continuous activity of the Spirit of God in all believers, and the intimate union possible between God and man. 3. The worthlessness of all religion based upon fear or hope of reward. 4. The essential equality of laity and clergy, though for the sake of order and discipline, the organization of the church was necessary.
Mülheim (home of the mill) had been one of the centers from which this spiritual blessing had radiated. Labardie had taken up his residence here and had labored for its welfare. William Hoffman, a deeply spiritual young theological student who was to influence Gerhard, also resided there. He favored the cause of the Pietists and so was suspected by the churchmen who feared he would draw away members from the church.
In the providence of God, Mülheim was to be the home of Gerhard for most of his life. But we must go back to the young mans early career in order to trace his footsteps thither. Having finished grammar school, where he had distinguished himself by studious habits and a natural aptitude for languages, he was forced to give up thoughts of furthering his education. The straitened circumstances of his widowed mother made such a course impossible, and so it was that he became apprenticed to his brother-in-law who was a merchant in this mill town.
These were hard years for the young lad. His employer was rigid in his discipline and had little sympathy for the boys meditative and studious disposition. The few hours he craved for study were denied him, and he was asked to roll empty casks backwards and forwards across the courtyard when no duties were required. But Gerhard had little taste for keeping accounts, writing business letters, and selling goods. He was, however, very grateful in after years for the disciplinary value of this training.
It was during this interval of apprenticeship that Gerhard came to know the pardoning grace of God. Numbers of forces had been at work in his young life. A godly weaver residing in Mülheim did much to influence him. A message written by a dying pastor moved him. The conventicles held in the district were attended by him, and it was perhaps here that he was awakened, under the preaching of William Hoffman, to a sense of a deep dissatisfaction. Conscience-stricken, Gerhard would go about his toil, waiting for the time when he could snatch a few minutes for prayer. Whole nights he engaged in his search, and his groans and tears were heard in the courts of Heaven.
Although Hoffman pointed the youth to the Rest-giver, it was not until passing through the woods of Duisburg on a long journey, that the young apprentice, gripped with pain and fever and fearing he would die unprepared, met God. His pain and fever vanished, and he rose with a heart overflowing with gratitude toward the One Whom he wished to serve devotedly. Of this time he wrote:
I heartily rejoice, whenever I see a prodigal son coming to himself, and arising to go to his Father. I also was a swineherd once, and when, after a thousand threatenings and invitations, I came at length, as I was, to become what I was not, I needed only to beg and wait a little while. I was infinitely more graciously received, than I could have hoped or expected.
For several years after serving his apprenticeship, the young man ventured forth in business on his own. But he had little relish for the avaricious, competitive world of commerce. A godly merchant offered to teach him linen-weaving, but the work proved too heavy, occasioning severe headaches. Instead, he took up ribbon-weaving in his rented lodgings where he could work with his Bible open before him, enjoying the uninterrupted hours of quiet. He labored long at his weaving, eating but one meal a day and seeing no one save the small girl who came to wind his silk. Under cover of darkness, he would visit the sick and poor, giving liberally what he could ill afford of his scanty means. In a letter years later, he reminisces on some of his experiences as illness struck his weakened frame:
I have known the time when I knew not where I should find food for the next day, and was without a friend who was acquainted with my situation. I was at work from five in the morning till nine in the evening, and occasionally I lay ten or twelve weeks in bed on the loft, without those with whom I lodged giving themselves the trouble to send one of their none-too-busy servants to give me a drink of water. But I always thought there was a necessity for this.1
For five long years, the young recluse experienced great darkness as the sense of Gods approval was withdrawn. He seemed assailed by doubts as to whether God even existed, as he observed the fanaticism into which many professed followers were drawn. The divisions which rent the Church distressed him, as well as the apostasy of some who had once experienced divine favor. Although he read some of the deepest spiritual books, he was only confused by the varied opinions and the deep mazes of thought. He abandoned Behmens books, for said he, I read them till I was filled with strange fears and bewilderment. . . . At last I took the books back to their owner, and it was like a weight lifted off my heart.2
Some of Tersteegens biographers hint that the five years of darkness may have been occasioned by his secluding himself instead of sharing his newly-found faith. The mature man of God, looking back on those years, felt such an experience was invaluable:
Our Lord Jesus was silent and kept Himself concealed for thirty years, in order that by His example, He might inspire us with a fondness for a truly retired life, and scarcely did He spend four years in a public manner. I often think, if we that are awakened, would endure only four years of probation, in silent mortification and prayer, before we shewed ourselves publicly, our subsequent activity would be a little purer, and less injurious to the kingdom of God. This is a secret but common temptation of the enemy, and a subtle device of the flesh, by which the tempter seeks to allure us from the one thing needful, and to weaken our strength by the multiplicity of the objects in which we are engaged. But the flesh and its progeny, which finds a life of mortification too strait for it, and too disagreeable, may breathe very easily and even maintain itself, in every outward spiritual and apparently profitable exercise, whilst in the meantime the mystery of iniquity at the bottom remains unperceived and unmortified.
It was just the day before Good Friday, known as Green Thursday, that the twenty-seven-year-old seeker entered into an enlarged place, the cries and entreaties of the past years being abundantly answered. He came to realize that the life of crucifixion with Christ was not to be one he could learn by instruction save by that of the Holy Spirit. He says: It is a small thing with Him to cause us to find in our souls in one moment without trouble, that which we may have sought externally for years with much labor.
The long night of darkness and uncertainty was past. While journeying to another city, the Savior, as the all-sufficient One, appeared to the young man and rose upon his horizon like the day-star from on high. He continues, It was as if a sick child were alone and far away in the dark night, when suddenly the door was opened, and father and mother and all the loved ones came in, and the long, lonely hours were over, and all was love.3
There by the roadside, Tersteegen dedicated himself to the Lord. He was lifted on to a new plane where God was henceforth the One and only Good. He had learned that Jesus alone is sufficient, but yet insufficient, when He is not wholly and solely embraced. Returning from his journey, he sat down in the quiet of his own room and wrote out the following covenant of love with blood drawn from his own veins:
My Jesus, I own myself to be Thine, my only Savior and Bridegroom. Christ Jesus, I am Thine wholly and eternally. From this evening onward, I renounce from my heart all right and authority that Satan unrighteously gave me over myself. From this eveningthe evening on which Thou, my Bridegroom, through Thy precious blood, didst purchase me for Thyself, agonizing even unto death, praying till Thy sweat was as it were blood falling to the ground, that I might be Thy treasure and Thy brideThou hast burst the gates of hell and opened to me the loving heart of the Father! From this evening onward my heart and all my love are offered up to Thee in eternal thankfulness.
From this evening, to all eternity, Thy will, not mine, be done! Command and rule and reign in me. I yield myself up without reserve, and I promise, with Thy help and power, rather to give up the last drop of this my blood than knowingly and willingly, in my heart or in my life, be untrue or disobedient to Thee. Behold, Thou hast me wholly and completely, sweet Friend of my soul. Thou hast the love of my heart for Thyself, and for none other. Thy Spirit be my keeper; Thy death the rock of my assurance. Yea, Amen! May Thy Spirit seal that which is written in the simplicity of my heart.
Thine unworthy possession,
Anno Domini 1724, Green Thursday.4
Through the kindly advice of Hoffman, a young man by the name of Henry Sommer was taken into the solitary lodgings of Tersteegen. He was of the same spirit, and one whom Gerhard had known for some time. He wished to learn the art of ribbon- weaving, so the two worked long hours together, while at intervals during the day they prayed unitedly. The atmosphere became less rigid, and this routine continued for three years.
During this time, Tersteegen translated some godly books by the saintly Bernières de Lauvigny. He also wrote The Pious Lottery and prepared some materials for The Spiritual Flower Garden.
Knowing the depth of spiritual truth that Tersteegen had attained during this period of retirement, Hoffman prevailed upon him to become a lay preacher and minister at some regular meetings held each Thursday. As he spoke, many were awakened and a permanent work of grace was performed in hearts. He sounded forth four great verities: the atonement of Jesus, the words of Jesus, the spirit of Jesus and the example of Jesus.
In 1727, when Tersteegen was thirty years of age, a reviving took place in Mülheim, doubtless the result of past faithful sowing and many intercessory prayers. The days of his solitude were over. His time was occupied from morning until evening in personal counseling and correspondence, for many came to him for spiritual guidance. It was necessary to give up his weaving, and at last accept the proffered gifts and legacies which kind friends had before offered, but which he had refused.
Larger accommodations were required to meet the needs of the numbers who now thronged Gerhards dwelling. A house was provided where the lower rooms could be opened one into another, while Sommer and Tersteegen occupied the upstairs.
The Spiritual Flower Garden was published in 1731. The hymns included in this book were dearly prized by the people of Mülheim who sang them at weddings and social gatherings. People would be heard singing them while walking down the streets. Others would greet one another with a few lines from one of his compositions. Travelers took them on journeys, for Tersteegen could utter in beauty of language, what they themselves were unable to so feelingly express. John Wesley translated some of them into English and they were included in the Methodist Hymnal.
San Souci was written about this time to refute the erroneous views held by King Frederick the Great. That monarch, upon reading it, exclaimed, What can the quiet of the land do! He invited Gerhard to come and see him, but as it was not a command, the invitation was politely declined.
Many changes came into the life of Tersteegen in 1746. His good friend, William Hoffman, fell ill and Gerhard visited him frequently, praying with him and ministering tenderly to his needs. After Hoffmans death, he took over that godly mans home in order to have larger premises to accommodate the growing dispensary work and the preparation of medicines. His friend, Sommer, attended to many of the practical duties necessary in the running of such an establishment. He would also assiduously guard the servant of God from any visitors who might unduly exhaust him, as thousands came from far and near to benefit by his spiritual counsel, some waiting for hours in order to enjoy fifteen minutes of spiritual direction. Gerhard writes:
My ardent love of retirement and repose appears to have been given to me to make the reverse more burdensome, and perhaps also to serve as a counterpoise to keep me from entering too deeply into and living too much in outward exercises. I everywhere find a hunger amongst the people, and there is no one to break unto themthe customary food no longer suffices them! I am obliged to devote myself almost from morning till evening, to converse with persons, either individually or collectively.
The secret of retaining the desert atmosphere of aloneness in the midst of such comings and goings, had at last been learned. He writes:
There God and Inone other; so far from men to be!
Nay, midst the crowd and tumult, still, Lord alone with Thee.
Still folded close upon Thy breast, in field, and mart, and street,
Untroubled in that perfect rest, that isolation sweet.
In 1747, journeys further afield began to be undertaken. Those who had been inspired and blessed as a result of his writings, implored him to visit them in the Duchy of Berg. Although Tersteegen traveled incognito, it soon became known that he was actually in the district, and anxious persons met him on the roadside, pleading with him to turn aside to some neighboring barn or building in order to speak to a number who had gathered to hear him. For eleven days, he ministered to such until, weakened by cold and fever, his voice was affected. This he took as a providence directing him to return to his home.
His travels were extended to Holland, having been invited to go there by a gentleman of some social standing, who, as a result of reading Tersteegens books, had given up a high position and affluence in order to live a quiet and godly life. When Gerhard was a guest of this man, his privacy was invaded by the hungry who sought for the true bread. So fruitful were these visits that they became an annual event.
A second reviving came to Mülheim in 1750 through the preaching of a student by the name of Chevalier. Many were awakened through his sermons on repentance. The young man could not remain behind to continue ministering, so it devolved upon Tersteegen to meet the demands of those who clamored for further words concerning this life in Christ. Many would gather in the lower rooms of his home which could accommodate six hundred souls. But there were times when the house being filled, ladders were placed up against open windows by those hoping to catch a few words from the prophets lips.
Tersteegen had been enabled to meet obloquy and scorn with lowliness of heart, but would he be empowered to take the admiration and esteem now showered upon him? In those days of meditation and stillness, he had learned that the Most High dwells only with the lowly in heartthat God is with the poor in spirit who tremble at His word. In his sermons, poems, and letters this truth is repeated over and over again:
Expect nothing from yourself, but everything from the goodness of God, which is inwardly so near you. Be afraid, when thou art known and praised, but on the contrary, rejoice when thou art forgotten and despised; for by this, the road to much danger and distraction is blocked up, and thou gainest so much more time and opportunity to abide in thyself and to walk alone with God.
We must depart from ourselves in order to enter into Him. This exit and entrance is the basis and most essential act of godliness, because by it, we restore to God what is HisI mean ourselves, thoroughly, wholly, and irrevocably. If this departure and this entrance be neglected, our godliness is little worth, and is only a shadow without the substance.
This saint had likewise learned that it takes time to be holy and to keep holy. The wise disposal of ones hours requires a self-denial of that which is secondary. He advises:
If others follow their sensual appetites, and spend and misspend their valuable time in the . . . adorning and beauty of their dress, their houses, and their furniture, and apply so much valuable attention to the ease and enjoyment of their vile bodiesit is for us to show that we are not sensual or animal, but spiritual men. We do not seek to lie here upon roses and at ease, when our Head and Forerunner was born in a wretched stable and manger, and died upon the cross, wearing a crown of thorns.
If we see others turning outwards into the senses, and by trifling and unnecessary hearing, seeing, speaking, and thinking, open their hearts as it were to the creaturelet our hearts be as an enclosed garden, and a sealed fountain to all created objects, and solely open to the Beloved of our souls. We must wait day and night at the posts of His doors, as a spiritual priesthood, and therefore we are under obligation, because we believe the Lord to be present in the temple of our hearts.
How little do we remain at home, to converse with God and ourselves, and forsaking everything else, make this our sole, our constant, and chief enjoyment.
In his correspondence to inquirers, Tersteegen sought to impress upon them the importance of maintaining a life of communication with God. In the days of his disillusionment with men and organizations, he had discovered that God alone was perfect, and converse with Him would clear away every bit of perplexity, whereas discussions with even professed Christians who knew little of that deep life of devotedness, could only confuse and bewilder. He writes:
Avoid all unnecessary intercourse with the men of this world, lest time be stolen from you and lest you yourselves be polluted and carried away. The most dangerous kind are those who make great pretensions to reason, particularly those who are Christians only in name and appearance, and who do not act directly and sincerely according to their previous calling. Such have, as it were, truly studied every specious pretence by which they may render void the strict, simple, and inward life in Christ and seduce unstable minds.
You are calledthink what graceto social converse with God; you must therefore avoid, by all means, all unnecessary converse with men. This is particularly needful whilst we are still so weak. We must escape from the enemy and not come too near the view of the world and the creature, in order that we may not lose sight of the nearness of the Creator.
Love prayer! Let prayer be your constant companion from morning till night. Let your heart and desires continually hold converse with God in heart-felt simplicity, for His delights are with the children of men.
Let us love, and esteem, and use the Holy Scriptures or the Bible, according to the state and circumstances of our souls. It is undeniably the best and most divine Book in the world, and a revelation or expression of the will of God to us. It manifests an extremely reprehensible ingratitude and arrogance to neglect and despise it. We must not, however, forget that the power and illumination of the Spirit of God are indispensably necessary to understand it aright, and to walk according to it.
How fatherly Gerhards counsel was to the beginner who often failed in his first endeavors! To such he would write: If through weakness or unfaithfulness you forsake this exercise, which is so incredibly useful and beautiful, all you have to do is meekly and heartily to begin again. Do not be weary of it, although in the beginning you may not find any great advantage from it, or make any rapid progress in it.
In order to renew his strength in God, this spiritual counselor would retire to the nearby woods for whole days, taking but little refreshment with him. These were delightful times for the man whose privacy was invaded throughout his waking hours. He writes: Oh my dearest friends, what are all our virtues and all our piety, unless fellowship with Jesus lie at the bottom of it? Let us apply ourselves more diligently to this delightful exercise of prayer for we cannot exist a single moment of ourselves. All our faults and falls proceed from our not abiding with Christ within.
This lover of God discouraged everything of a sensational nature. He lived in a time when others were stressing visions, voices, and supernatural manifestations. As in our own day, there was a great need for men, gifted with discernment of spirits, who would be sensitive to true spiritual movements of revival impetus, but would at the same time be aware of the many substitutes that our wily enemy foists upon the unwary.
This true servant of God had been prepared for just such emergencies by his own early experience. He had had contact with certain persons who had thrown themselves open to supernatural influences that were not of God. So affected was he by their proximity, that at times, when engaged in prayer, he would be seized by a shaking and trembling in every limb. But his deepening knowledge of the character of God caused him to detect the farce and resist such attacks quietly. After a few such experiences, the shaking ceased.
Later he was called upon to counsel a young lady in poor health, who felt she heard a voice commanding her to rise on winter nights and pray in a cold room. Tersteegen advised that when she again had this impression, it would be wise to engage in her devotions in bed. As this advice was observed, the voice ceased to distress her.
A friend of Gerhards had come under the influence of a woman who had seemed to become greatly transformed spiritually. She showed great increase in devotion to God and had given utterance to many edifying statements. However, these were mixed with a questionable assortment of voices and manifestations, including prophecies of things which were to come to pass after her decease. Gerhard gave the friend the following sound advice: Pay no attention to all these extraordinary things, which are only dangerous and tend to hinder growth in grace. I cordially admire the substantial change which divine grace has wrought in her, but you and I will live long enough to see that nothing will follow of all these things, however desirable they may be.
Later, after the death of the woman, this friend came again and expressed his regret for not having followed the advice given. Tersteegen remarked that doubtless God had permitted this to warn him of similar perils in the future.
As is usually the case with all self-crucified, disciplined souls, Tersteegen had a loving and balanced attitude toward denominational membership and church attendance. Confused persons sought his advice about remaining within the Church when it was so filled with inconsistencies. To one such he wrote:
I cannot deny the corruptions of the external church, but I think my dear friend has now more necessary things to attend to than to occupy himself with these. Within! Within! With God alone! Neither do I recommend you to separate yourself from church and sacrament. There is no material benefit to be derived by such a separation, and it has often been injurious to many. You must not, however, act contrary to your conscience. If you find your conscience oppressed by partaking of the sacrament, you will do better to stay away, and wait awhile, to see whether the Lord will give you more light on the subject. I should not like to attend the discourse of a blasphemer, of one who is evidently still carnal. If circumstances call for it, one may refrain a while without resolving upon any thing for the future, much less judging others, who act otherwise.
One may have patience with honest preachers, who would gladly see a better state of things, but know not how to attain it, but they, on their part, ought to exercise equal patience with honest souls whose consciences will not allow them to break bread with those whom they cannot own as members of the one Body, and who, therefore, stand aloof from the fear of displeasing God.
This German saints entire life had been one continual and painful illness, but he witnessed to his friends that he had experienced more of Gods comfort and divine favor at these times than in health. Even at birth, he had been weakly and yet he had survived the more robust members of his family. In his correspondence, he mentions repeated bouts of fever, rheumatism, stomach complaints, asthma, and colds, which at times severely curtailed his public ministry.
The last thirty years of his life were specially trying in this respect, and he looked upon himself always as a candidate for death, living only moment by moment. The seventy-year-old man was now so frail that he could only minister to a few in a small room, and all his longer journeys had to be abandoned. There was, however, no spiritual decline. His hand still wielded his pen in revising and supplementing his former literary efforts. His assistant, Henry Sommer, told of entire nights spent in tears and entreaties for the well-being of the members of Christs body.
But added to these afflictions were even the more trying misunderstandings and cruel insinuations at the hands of not only scornful men, but of professed followers of Christ. Some thought he did too little; others that he did too much. Some envied him and his gifts; some were jealous of the esteem he received from thousands and thousands from all over Europe. When they came to find fault with him, his patience with these opponents often turned them into real friends. He was not at liberty to compromise the truth to curry their favor, but he could manifest real heart concern for those with whom he differed.
In March, 1769, dropsy developed, bringing with it much pain. He had formerly wished to die like a hero; now he was content to go as a child. To those who visited him, he had choice treasures, new and old, to bring out of the treasury of his heart:
Malachi has preached to me today, He will sit. It is not all done at once. He still finds something to refine in me. . . .
I am not able to speak of great things and experiences, but God gives me grace to forget myself. I suffer much. . . .
I am the care of angels. . . .Yes, cared for by the love of God. All the suffering and weakness are part of the way and we pass on, leaving behind now a rough bit of road. The sweet eternity is our home, and JesusWho makes all things sweetour Companion on the road. What love and grace!
Gerhard Tersteegen had set out fifty years before on a quest for God. Had he found Him? Was his search successful? Let the old battle-scarred warrior answer in prose and song:
I am glad I have lived so longthat I have come to know God with the heart, and with firm conviction.
Stilled by that wondrous Presence,
That tenderest embrace,
The years of longing over,
Do we behold Thy Face:
We seek no more than Thou hast given,
We ask no vision fair,
Thy precious Blood has opened Heaven,
And we have found Thee there.
As the end approached, he slept deeply, but, at midnight on April 2, his friends could no longer awaken him. He had passed from the forecourt of eternity into the presence of the King. His biographer tells us that those standing around thought that there were angels about them who took his soul away with joy.