Believe in prison reform

Johann Hinrich Wichern - The human savior

Status: November 16, 2020 2:29 p.m.

Reformer, prison director and also inventor of the Advent wreath: The bustling Hamburg theologian Johann Hinrich Wichern laid the foundation for the diaconal system and modern social education.

by Nils Zurawski

He not only founded the Rauhe Haus in Hamburg, but is also considered an important church reformer of the 19th century, the founder of diakonia and the concept of the Inner Mission: As the eldest of seven children, Johann Hinrich Wichern became simple in Hamburg on April 21, 1808 bourgeois relationships born into it. He attended a private school and later the Johanneum Scholar School, but after the death of his father he had to take care of the family's upkeep as a private teacher at the age of 15. He later made up his Abitur. With the help of a scholarship, he was soon able to study theology in Göttingen and Berlin.

During his student days he made acquaintance with people who influenced many ideas and undertakings in his later life and work, including the theologians Schleiermacher and Neander and the doctor Nikolaus Heinrich Julius. The latter had a major influence on Wichern's involvement in Prussian prison reform.

"Want to save" as Wichern's inner drive

Johann Hinrich Wichern was a theologian and inspired to help other people.

The young Hamburg theologian was also involved as a renewer of the penal system, although he was not as successful here as in other areas. Wichern was seen as a busy man who was inspired by the idea of ​​wanting to save people. Significant institutions and movements have emerged from this simple motivation to this day.

A missionary pathos drove Wichern. His early encounters with Christian revival movements - conservative Protestant currents that turned against an enlightened rationalism - shaped him throughout his life. But the inability of the church and the state to react to poverty and the catastrophic conditions in Germany can also explain his undertakings. He didn't want to discipline and correct, but to create a living space for children in which they can grow up to be good citizens and Christians.

Beginnings: The boys from the rough house

In 1833 Wichern founded the Rauhe Haus.

In Hamburg, he led a Sunday school in St. Georg as a theologian and teacher and thus encountered life in the slums of the Hanseatic city. To help the children - to save them - in 1833, at the age of 25, he founded the Rauhe Haus to "rescue neglected and difficult to educate children". Wichern's idea took shape in an old farmer's cottage in Hamm. His "home" was anything but a normal reformatory at the time.

VIDEO: Rough House (18 min)

The Rauhe Haus was not a workhouse or orphanage, but an institution in which the "pupils" should grow up in family-like conditions ("free children in a free family"). They were instructed in this by the "brothers" - men trained by Wichern, mostly craftsmen - who lived with them. This pedagogy was influenced by Pestalozzi's principle of a holistic life education. The facility was very popular right from the start and developed into a model of modern youth welfare beyond the borders of Hamburg.

Wichern invents the Advent wreath

It was also the work with the children in the Rauhen Haus that led Wichern in 1839 to invent something that can be found all over the world today - the Advent wreath. He was born out of an "emergency situation": During Advent, the children kept asking when it would finally be Christmas. Finally, Wichern took a large cartwheel, put 19 small and four large candles on it, and lit one each day.

Diakonia and Inner Mission

With the professionalisation of service to others, Wichern laid the foundation for diaconia and modern social pedagogy as a whole. The assistants or "brothers" trained in the Rauhen Haus soon worked all over Germany and thus spread Wichern's ideas. A university of applied sciences still teaches Wichern's basic ideas about solid training for professional helpers.

The Hamburg Wichernschule is Hamburg's oldest Protestant private school.

But Wichern's ideas went beyond the limited area of ​​youth welfare. He wanted to reform the church as a whole. At the first Protestant Church Congress in Wittenberg in the revolutionary year of 1848, he gave an impromptu speech of over five hours in which he justified the need for an internal mission for the church. This was also due to the effects he perceived of the economic and social consequences of social transformation processes - industrialization and urbanization - which brought large parts of the population above all poverty and impoverishment. In 1849 the "Central Committee for the Inner Mission of the German Evangelical Church" was founded on his initiative. This "Central Committee" is the direct forerunner of today's Diaconal Work.

These reforms were favored by the then pronounced association system, which Wichern used to implement his ideas. The "Central Committee" bundled the many initiatives that had been initiated by it and others and offered a communicative platform. The Church initially suspected these activities, but used them in the end and developed them to this day.

Penitentiary System and Prison Reform

The model prison Moabit in Berlin was built based on the English model. It was demolished in 1955.

In 1857 Wichern became a lecturer for the penal system and the poor system in Prussia. King Friedrich Willhelm IV had noticed him when he wrote a memorandum in 1849 to support the church's participation in the penal system. The king wanted to push through the prison reforms with him, which his parliament repeatedly refused to do.

Wichern ensured that the so-called Pennsylvania system, favored by the king, was consistently introduced in Prussia. This system was practiced in what was then the model prison in Pentonville in England and goes back to ideas of the Quakers in America. The king was so enthusiastic about a visit to Pentonville that he wanted this system in Prussia as well. These reforms took shape in the Lehrter Strasse cell prison (later Moabit JVA).

This new type of prison was a star-shaped structure that made it possible to have almost complete control of the prisoners. The prisoners were held in solitary cells and had no contact with one another. They lived isolated in the cells, sealed off - even in church services, where they sat in prayer chairs that only allowed a view of the pulpit to the front.

With his reform of the penal system, Wichern failed due to the resistance of the liberals. On the one hand, because they ultimately did not accept him as one of their own and were at war with his ideas, but above all with his salary claims and the contractual terms negotiated with the king. Among other things, he had assured himself that he would be able to spend half of the year in the Rauhen Haus and the other half in Berlin. On the other hand, it failed because parts of the Prussian state parliament rejected the system of solitary confinement and criticized the overly "religious" and inhumane regime of the Brothers of the Rough House, who were appointed as guards.

Wichern and politics

The revolution of 1848 - here the first national assembly in the Paulskirche - was not an issue for Wichern.

Politically, Wichern was conservative, unaffected by the 1848 revolution, which he described as godless. He turned against the new movements and currents such as communism and social democracy. His commitment to the Prussian king was also based on the fact that he shared his views of a Christian state, shaped by a Christian authority. As revolutionary as Wichern's social reforms within the church and also for society were, his understanding of the state and power were just as conservative and backward-looking.

The ideas of the Awakening Movement had an important influence and let him see the poverty and impoverishment, but draw very own conclusions from them. For him, the influences of communism and social democracy, which he regarded as godless and oriented against the state, were partly responsible for this impoverishment. He did not see these impoverishes as a result of the social upheavals of his time, but as a lack of faith, to which the revolution and the workers' movement also contributed.

However, his work in child welfare continues to this day and has sustainably reformed the welfare system beyond the church.

Wichern died after several strokes and a long illness as a grumpy man on April 7, 1881 in Hamburg.

This topic in the program:

Hamburg Journal | 07/13/2019 | 19:30 o'clock