Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette
Life and education
He was born at Ulla, near Weimar, where his father was pastor. He was sent to the gymnasium at Weimar, then at the height of its literary fame. Here he was much influenced by Johann Gottfried von Herder, who frequently examined at the school. In 1799 he entered on his theological studies at Jena, his principal teachers being J. J. Griesbach and H. E. G. Paulus; from the latter he derived his tendency to free critical inquiry. In addition, by the time he submitted his dissertation in 1804 (September), he was in regular contact at Jena with Jakob Friedrich Fries and Karl David Ilgen, who perhaps led him to his contact with Johann Severin Vater, a scholar whose work he both admired and, in some respects, duplicated independently. Both in methods and in results, however, he occupied an almost solitary position among German theologians.
Having taken his doctor's degree, he became Privatdozent at Jena; in 1807 professor of theology at Heidelberg, where he came under the influence of Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773-1843), whose hiring he helped arrange (as well as that of Paulus); and in 1810 was transferred to a similar chair in the newly founded Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin, where he became friendly with Friedrich Schleiermacher. He was, however, dismissed from Berlin in 1819 on account of his having written a letter of consolation to the mother of Karl Ludwig Sand, the murderer of August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue. A petition in his favour presented by the senate of the university was unsuccessful, and a decree was issued not only depriving him of the chair but also banishing him from the Prussian kingdom.
He retired to Weimar, where he occupied his leisure in the preparation of his edition of Martin Luther and in writing the romance Theodor oder die Weihe des Zweiflers (1822), in which he describes the education of an evangelical pastor. He began preaching, at which he proved to be very popular. But in 1822 he accepted the chair of theology in the University of Basel, which had been reorganized four years before. Though his appointment had been strongly opposed by the orthodox party, De Wette soon won for himself great influence both in the university and among the people generally. He was admitted a citizen and became rector of the university, which owed to him much of its recovered strength, particularly in the theological faculty.
De Wette has been described by Julius Wellhausen as "the epoch-making opener of the historical criticism of the Pentateuch." He prepared the way for the Supplement-theory. But he also made valuable contributions to other branches of theology. He had, moreover, considerable poetic faculty, and wrote a drama in three acts, entitled Die Entsagung (Berlin, 1823). He had an intelligent interest in art, and studied ecclesiastical music and architecture. As a Biblical critic he is sometimes classed with the destructive school, but, as Otto Pfleiderer says (Development of Theology), he "occupied as free a position as the Rationalists with regard to the literal authority of the creeds of the church, but that he sought to give their due value to the religious feelings, which the Rationalists had not done, and, with a more unfettered mind towards history, to maintain the connection of the present life of the church with the past." His works are marked by exegetical skill, unusual power of condensation and uniform fairness. Accordingly they possess value which is little affected by the progress of criticism.
Marriages and family
De Wette married three times, first with Eberhardine Boye, then Henriette, née Frisch, widowed Beck, the mother of Charles Beck, and the third time in 1833 Sophie, née Streckeisen, widow of the Berne pastor Abraham Rudolf von May.
De Wette died in Basel.
His most important works are:
- Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament (2 vols, 1806–1807)
- Kommentar über die Psalmen (1811), which has passed through several editions
- Lehrbuch der hebräisch-jüdischen Archäologie (1814)
- Über Religion und Theologie (1815); a work of great importance as showing its author's general theological position
- Lehrbuch der christlichen Dogmatik (1813-1816)
- Lehrbuch der historisch-kritischen Einleitung in die Bibel (1817)
- Christliche Sittenlehre (1819–1821)
- Einleitung in das Neue Testament (1826)
- Religion, ihr Wesen, ihre Erscheinungsform, und ihr Einfluss auf das Leben (1827)
- Das Wesen des christlichen Glaubens (1846)
- Kurzgefasstes exegetisches Handbuch zum Neuen Testament (1836–1848).
De Wette also edited Luther's works (5 vols., 1825–1828).
Selected works online
From Google Books:
- Dr. Martin Luthers Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken: vollständig aus den verschiedenen Ausgaben seiner Werke und Briefe, aus andern Büchern und noch unbenutzten Handschriften gesammelt, kritish und historisch bearbeitet, 5 vols., Berlin: Georg reimer, vol. 6, ed. by Johann Karl Seidemann - German (Fraktur) and Latin. Reviewed here (July 1845), books.google.com
- vol. 1, Erster Theil, 1825
- vol. 2, Zwenter Theil, 1826
- vol. 3, Dritter Theil, 1827
- vol. 4, Vierter Theil, 1827
- vol. 5, Fünfter Theil, 1828
- vol. 6, Sechster Theil, 1856
- Lehrbuch der historisch-kritischen Einleitung in die Bibel Alten und Neuen Testamentes, Erster Theil, Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1852
- Commentar über die Psalmen nebst beigefügter Übersetzung, fünfte auflage, herausgegeben von Dr. Gustav Baur, Professor der Theologie an der Universität Giessen, Akademische Verlagshandlung, Heidelberg, 1811, 1856, which passed through several editions, and was long regarded as of high authority.
- An Historico-Critical Introduction to the Canonical Books of the New Testament, Frederick Frothingham, tr., Boston: Crosby, Nichols and Company, 1858
- Lehrbuch der hebräisch-jüdischen Archäologie nebst einem Grundrisse der hebräisch-jüdischen Geschichte, 4th edition, Leipzig: F.C.W. Vogel, 1864
- Chisholm 1911, p. 138.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "De Wette, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht". Encyclopædia Britannica. 8 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 138.
- Howard, Thomas Albert, Religion and the Rise of Historicism: W.M.L. De Wette, Jacob Burckhardt, and the Theological Origins of Nineteenth-Century Historical Consciousness, Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-521-65022-4
- John W. Rogerson, W.M.L. de Wette, Founder of Modern Biblical Criticism. An Intellectual Biography, Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.