The Orthodox Annihilator of the Microcosmic Preludes

'J. Conrad Dippel, doctor of medicine, commonly known as the Christian Democritus.'

Most of Dippel’s writings appeared under the pseudonym ‘Christianus Democritus’, so most readers would have known him by that name.

Even though it sounds frightful, don’t panic: there was no terminator-style attack on this blog (as yet and to my knowledge). But some readers might remember that this blog adopted its name from a 1733 publication entitled Microcosmic Preludes. This work was falsely attributed to Johann Conrad Dippel (1673–1734), whose ‘Real Frankenstein Potential’ is still up for further investigation. Even though that attribution is almost as old as the book itself and many library catalogues still list Dippel as the author, he was in fact furious at this supposition and published a refutation of the entire work in the very same year. Under the menacing title Orthodox Annihilator (1733), this treatise also contained his own, somewhat paranoid conjectures as to who had written the Microcosmic Preludes and how his own name had come to be associated with them.

According to Dippel, the author was ‘a Swiss already well known to me thirty years ago, who back then found refuge in Germany along with the Pietists banished from Switzerland’. [1] There he was transmuted, Dippel continued, from a Reformed believer to one thoroughly steeped in the ‘principles of the blessed Jacob Boehme’ (1575–1624). These as well as other details about the anonymous detractor’s whereabouts and living situation have made it possible to identify whom Dippel had in mind: Nicolaus Tscheer (1682–1748), whose name is pronounced approximately like ‘chair’. [2] Some fifteen years earlier, Tscheer had in fact published a reader’s digest of the famous theosopher’s works as Introduction to the True and Thorough Knowledge of the Great Secret of Godliness (1718).

[Nicolaus Tscheer], Author's photograph; Special Collections, University of Amsterdam,   OTM: OG 63-7070.

The frontispiece of Nicolaus Tscheer’s True and Thorough Knowledge of the Great Secret of Godliness (1718) closely resembles others designed for editions of Jacob Boehme’s works. It shows the three principles, or worlds, according to Boehme: light, darkness and the visible world in which they clash. Author’s photograph; courtesy of University of Amsterdam, Special Collections (OTM: OG 63-7070).

Neatly filing Tscheer as an ardent Boehmist, Dippel assumed he had drawn his sectarian ire by ‘taking the liberty to call some hypotheses’ of Boehme’s ‘into doubt, yes, even to contradict him’. [3] In this way, the conflict was framed by Dippel as centred on the evaluation of Jacob Boehme. An attack on Dippel from Tscheer was indeed a possibility from this perspective, and rumours circulated among religious dissenters that Tscheer had criticized Dippel in the past and was planning to attack him in print in the future. Moreover, in the ‘Microcosmic Preludes’ there are statements endorsing Boehme as well as one of his English followers: ‘Whoever desires to learn more about such divine secrets can read the writings of Jacob Boehme and John Pordage’ (1607–81). [4] As a former minister and medical doctor, Pordage was also among those prophets esteemed little in their native land: most of his writings only survive in German translations that found avid readers.

While this might account for Tscheer’s involvement, Dippel needed to resort to something of a conspiracy theory to explain why he should have been the author of a treatise intended to discredit him. To add insult to injury while boosting sales at the same time, the publisher—whom Dippel held to be the Berlin-based printer Johann Andres Rüdiger (d. 1751)—had the audacity of passing it off as Dippel’s work at the Leipzig book fair! Dippel was thus offended because he saw himself discredited by appearing as the author of a book steeped in Boehmean language and containing the ‘ill-connected, silly notions’ of some Boehmist. [5] And around that time, not even someone with as little respect for confessional churches as Dippel wanted to be labelled as such. As the title asserted, for once he fought on the same side as the orthodox Lutherans against the Boehmists.

Even though he was made aware that Tscheer denied being responsible for the Microcosmic Preludes before the Orthodox Annihilator was printed, Dippel went ahead and published the work along with all its niceties directed against Tscheer. Responding to Dippel’s unflattering characterization in a Short and Resolute Declaration (1734), Tscheer flatly stated he had never even laid eyes on the Microcosmic Preludes either in print or manuscript, expressed a nuanced stance on Boehme and noted that the ‘orthodox Boehmists’ had disapproved of his Great Secret of Godliness. Taken together with an extant letter on his experiences with religious groups, Tscheer was likely referring to the group known as Angelic Brethren, which had first coalesced in Amsterdam around Boehme’s editor, Johann Georg Gichtel (1638–1711). Even though he had at one stage studied Boehme intensely, Tscheer declared that he owed allegiance to no religious community whatsoever: he was living the withdrawn life of a pious separatist.

Beyond this, Tscheer gleefully pointed out that this wasn’t the first time Dippel suspected innocent bystanders of having aggressed him in print. As early as 1700, Dippel had attacked the Offenbach court preacher and Reformed Pietist Conrad Bröske (1660–1713) on similarly shaky grounds, which led to a feud throughout many pamphlets. [6] Tscheer took particular delight in a much more recent episode: in a dream, Dippel encountered a man who handed him a recent treatise criticizing his work and announced, ‘This writing comes from Dr Weißmann, whom you so highly esteem’. [7] Even better, this dream occurred some nine months before Dippel actually laid eyes on that treatise by one Christophilus Wohlgemuth (1732) in a waking state. Along with stylistic considerations, this dream proved enough to convince Dippel that Christian Eberhard Weißmann (d. 1747), a professor of theology in Tübingen and otherwise sympathetic to Pietism, had indeed turned on him. Unsurprisingly, Weißmann did not wait long to respond with a Short and Conscientious Proof That He [the author] Is Not Christophilus Wohlgemuth (1732). [8]

From all this, we still haven’t learnt who wrote the Microcosmic Preludes; all we know is that it hadn’t been Nicolaus Tscheer. Dippel had, of course, long been hated by numerous Lutheran as well as Reformed theologians whom he had attacked in many polemical writings for more than three decades. But late in life it would seem that his biting pen had even led to increasing isolation and alienation from many who actually shared his critique of the confessional churches. Tscheer noted that his correspondents back in his hometown, Bern, did not know what to make of Dippel anymore: was he on the side of the Pietist dissenters or that of the orthodox heresy-hunters? [9]

Lastly, the examples of Tscheer and Dippel teach an important lesson: even though religious dissenters all dissented with the confessional churches, this did not mean that they consented among each other. In spite of being connected through loose networks across the Holy Roman Empire and the Netherlands (as well as the wider world), there were many fine distinctions actors drew to delineate religious choices that could be highly individual—much as in today’s pick-and-choose religious self-service. Used by church historians often connected to a specific confession, labels such as ‘religious dissenters’ or ‘radical Pietists’ embody a dichotomy of ‘the Church’ and ‘those on the outside’ that might help me articulate which crowd I’m interested in (the latter, in case you hadn’t guessed) but is considerably less helpful for grasping the complexities within that crowd.

[1]  Johann Conrad Dippel, Orthodoxer Annihilator oder Zernichter der … Microcosmischen neuen Schöpffung (n.p., 1733), 3.

[2] Ulrich Bister, ‘Nicolaus Tscheer: Briefe und andere Vermächtnisse’, in: Frömmigkeit unter den Bedingungen der Neuzeit: Festschrift für Gustav Adolf Benrath zum 70. Geburtstag, eds. Reiner Braun and Wolf-Friedrich Schäufele (Darmstadt: Verlag der Hessischen Kirchengeschichtlichen Vereinigung, 2001), 89-101. Here as elsewhere, Tscheer’s confessional background is given as Lutheran, which is in the first place unlikely considering his origin in Bern, Switzerland, and explicitly contradicted by his own statement in [Nicolaus Tscheer], Kurtze und resolute Declaration (Frankfurt a.M./Leipzig, 1734), 17 and 20–21. For his Boehme digest, see Einleitung Zum Wahren und gründlichen Erkänntnis Des grossen Geheimnisses der Gottseligkeit (Amsterdam, 1718).

[3] Dippel, Orthodoxer Annihilator, 4.

[4] Microcosmische Vorspiele (Amsterdam [?], 1744), 12.

[5] Dippel, Orthodoxer Annihilator, 6.

[6] Douglas L. Shantz, Between Sardis and Philadelphia: The Life and World of Pietist Court Preacher Conrad Bröske (Leiden/Bosten: Brill, 2008), ch. 8.

[7] [Tscheer], Kurtze und resolute Declaration, 6; cf. Dippel, Entdeckung der gewissen-losen Verdrehung (Sämtliche Schrifften, vol. 3), 13–14.

[8] Christian Eberhard Weißmann, Kurtzer und gewissenhaffter Erweiß, Daß Er der Christophilus Wohlgemuth nicht seye (Tübingen, 1732).

[9] [Tscheer], Kurtze und resolute Declaration, 54.

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