I have been keenly interested in studying the lives of pastors in Germany from the Weimar period (1920s to 1932) and during the National Socialist and War periods. The question that hounds me is this: “How does the church respond to a prevailing culture that seeks to destroy it?” For many of the pastors of this time accommodation to the prevailing culture’s demands was the path to be taken. Consequently, they allowed for National Socialist flags to be draped over church altars. The accommodationalists allowed for National Socialist ceremonies to take place within church buildings. They interpreted the Bible through the lens of National Socialist ideology. An entire movement sprang forth known as the “Deutsche Christian” movement which sought to fuse National Socialism with Christianity. When Church elections were held in the summer of 1933 the so called “Deutsche Christian” movement prevailed with 70% of the vote. The accomodationalists who sought to revise the Christian faith and its structure in Germany along the lines of National Socialism prevailed.
Pastors and churches that sought to be faithful to our Lord and His Word banded together. One of them was a pastor named Franz Hildebrandt (1909-1985). Pastor Hildebrandt does not get a whole lot of attention in Lutheran circles for reasons to be explained below, but he is nevertheless a shining example of being faithful when it matters most. Hildebrandt was ordained just days before the church elections of 1933. Part of the Deutsche Christian platform was the so called “Aryan Paragraph” which denied pastors who had Jewish ancestry their offices. Hildebrandt’s mother was of Jewish ancestry and in protest he resigned his office as pastor that summer and joined another young pastor who was standing firm for the Faith: Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was in London at the time. They served together in two small German Lutheran congregations in and around the London. Three months later Hildebrandt was back in Germany assisting Pastor Martin Niemöller in forming the Confessing Church that would stand apart from the apostate church of the Deutsche Christians. Niemöller was arrested by the Gestapo soon thereafter and spent the next seven years in concentration camps. Hildebrandt was arrested as well. On the day of his arrest he had accidently left his passport at his parent’s home. Had he not forgotten the passport his story would have most likely turned out very different. Through the efforts of friends, Hildebrandt was released and was spirited away with his passport back to England where he would stay for the next decade and a half.
I have found this fascinating interview of Franz Hildebrandt here.
Why is Hildebrandt all but forgotten in Lutheran circles? Well it has to do with ordination. Hildebrandt was very close with the Church of England Bishop George Bell
who urged him to take holy orders in the CofE. The trouble with this was that Hildebrandt would have to be re-ordained by the Anglicans because Hildebrandt was not ordained by a bishop in “apostolic succession” as Anglicans require. Consequently, as there is only a scant Lutheran presence in England he began serving a Methodist circuit and grew increasingly interested in the theology of John and Charles Wesley. He eventfully would go on to teach in America at Drew University in New Jersey and finally retired to Scotland where he associated himself with the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian).
I had come across Franz Hildebrandt’s name in my old Methodist days, but I never really looked into who he was. While his ecclesial confession morphed and changed over the years, he stood firm for Christ when it mattered most.