BOEHME, JAKOB (1575–1624), Protestant visionary and theologian. Born into a Lutheran farming family in the village of Alt Seidenberg near Görlitz, Saxony, Boehme was apprenticed to a shoemaker following his elementary education. In 1599 he became a citizen of Görlitz, where he opened a shoemaking business and married. Boehme was early associated with various religious groups in the city, and through them he encountered the work of the alchemist Paracelsus (1493–1541) and the nature mystic Valentin Weigel (1533–1588). He also shared with his religious associates an interest in Qabbalah.
In 1600 Martin Moller (d. 1606) came to the city as Lutheran pastor and formed the Conventicle of God's Real Servants, which Boehme joined following a religious conversion. Deeply concerned with the problem of theodicy, Boehme in 1612 completed Aurora, but when a copy of the manuscript fell into the hands of the local Lutheran pastor, the book was confiscated and the author banned from further writing. Seven years later, as the result of an illumination, Boehme broke his silence with the publication of On the Three Principles of Divine Being, a work abounding in alchemic imagery, which was to shape the form of his arguments for the next several years. In 1620 there appeared On the Three-fold Life of Man, On the Incarnation, Six Theosophical Points, and Six Mystical Points. Other major works followed quickly, including, Concerning the Birth and Designation of All Being, On Election to Grace, the large commentary on Genesis titled Mysterium magnum, and the various tracts that make up The Way to Christ. As a result of these publications, Boehme was involved in bitter controversy, and suffered exile for a short time. He died in Görlitz on November 17, 1624.
In an attempt to solve the problem of theodicy, Boehme began with the nothing (unknown even to itself), which, as a single unified will, wills a something. In this act of willing, the Son is begotten. In this begetting the nothing discovers the something within itself, which is itself the ground of the abyss. Simultaneously the will proceeds from the Son as Holy Spirit to an eternal contemplation of itself as wisdom (Sophia).
In this contemplation are conceived the various possibilities of being present in the Word (the Son) and created by it. The will of the nothing looks out to the something as light (love) and returns into itself as a desiring fire (wrath). In the knowledge that results, eternal nature has its being. The two fused principles of fire and light reflect in themselves a third, the being of the universe, which is progressively manifested through seven properties: harshness; attraction; dread; the ignition of fire, which is the basis of sensitive and intellectual life; love, which overcomes the individualism of the first four; the power of speech; and speech itself. All properties are present in all being. Further, the seven properties can be categorized according to three principles. The first three properties represent the fire (wrath) principle. The fifth and sixth properties represent the light (love) principle. The seventh property represents the third principle (being of the universe). The fourth property is the center on which all turn. All beings of the third principle are free and can turn to either of the first two principles, thereby upsetting the balance. Searching for the controlling fire of light, Lucifer refused to accept the light principle within himself and as a result fell.
At the moment of Lucifer's fall, temporal creation came into existence. At its height stood Adam, a perfect balance of the four elements fire and light, male and female. But Adam, too, chose to know the principles separately and fell. In the loss of the balance, these four elements were awakened and male and female divided. Thereafter human beings have chosen the fiery origin that, untempered by light, love, or the spiritual water of the new life, would destroy each individual human being. In his mercy, however, God fully revealed the light element in the New Man, Christ, in whose perfect balance each human being can once more live in harmony with the divine contemplation, the virgin Sophia.
Following Boehme's death, his disciples, chief among whom was Abraham von Franckenberg (1593–1649), spread his ideas throughout Europe. The Silesian poet Angelus Silesius (Johann Scheffler, 1624–1677) used Boehme's images extensively in his poetry before and after his conversion from Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism. By 1661 Boehme's works appeared in English translation, and under the direction of Jane Leade (1623–1704) the Philadelphian Society was founded in London on Boehmist principles. In England alone Boehme's influence can be traced in the seventeenth century to persons of such stature as the Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote, the poet John Milton, and the physicist Isaac Newton, and in the eighteenth century to the spiritual writer William Law and the visionary poet William Blake. In the Low Countries, Boehme's thought was popularized by the most important of his editors and students, Johann Georg Gichtel (1638–1710), and by radical Quietists such as Antoinette Bourignon (1616–1680) and Pierre Poiret (1646–1719).
Boehme, Jakob. Sämmtliche Schriften. 10 vols. Edited by Will-Erich Peuckert. Stuttgart, 1955–1960.
Peuckert, Will-Erich. Das Leben Jakob Böhmes (1924). Reprint, Stuttgart, 1961. A detailed biography of Boehme.
Stoudt, John Joseph. Sunrise to Eternity. Philadelphia, 1957. The best introduction to Boehme's life and thought in English.
Thune, Nils. The Behmenists and the Philadelphians. Uppsala, 1948. A limited but useful outline of the Boehmist heritage.
Peter C. Erb (1987)
Boehme, Jakob (1575-1624)
Boehme, Jakob (1575-1624)
Famous German mystic. His name is sometimes spelled Beem, Behm, Behmon, or Behmont, but the most common form is Boehme, although it is probable that the family name was really Böhme, and Boehme most closely matches the German version.
Born in 1575 at Altsteidenberg in Upper Lusatia, Boehme came from peasant stock, and accordingly his education consisted of brief study at the nearby village school in Seidenberg, and for the greater part of his childhood he tended his father's flocks on Mount Landskrone. Not strong enough physically to make a good shepherd, Boehme left home at the age of 13 to seek his fortune at Görlitz, the nearest town of any size.
To this day, Görlitz is famous for its shoemakers, and it was to a cobbler that the boy went first in search of employment. By 1599 he became a master shoemaker, and soon afterward married Katharina, daughter of Hans Kantzschmann, a butcher. The young couple took a house near the bridge in Neiss Voistadt—their dwelling is still pointed out to tourists—and some years later Boehme improved his business by adding gloves to his stock in trade, a departure which sent him periodically to Prague to acquire consignments.
It is likely that Boehme began to write soon after becoming a master cobbler. About the year 1612 he composed a philosophical treatise, Aurora, oder die morgenröte in Aufgang. Though not printed until much later, the manuscript was copied and passed from hand to hand. The writer soon found himself the center of a local circle of thinkers and scholars, many of them people far above him in the social scale. As a result, a charge of heresy was brought against him by the Lutheran church; he was loudly denounced from the pulpit by Gregorius Richter, pastor primarius of Görlitz, and then the town council, fearing to contend with the ecclesiastical authorities, took possession of the original manuscript of Boehme's work and prohibited him from writing.
It seems that he obeyed instructions for a little while, but by 1618 he was busy again, compiling polemical and expository treatises, and in 1622 he wrote short pieces on repentance, resignation, and the like. These last were the only writings published in book form during his lifetime with his consent, but in any event they were not likely to excite clerical hostility. However, Boehme later circulated a less cautious theological work, Der Weg zu Christa, which brought a fresh outburst of hatred on the part of the Church. Boehme left town for a period and met with some of his admirers in Dresden. However, while there he was struck down by fever. He was carried with great difficulty to his home at Görlitz, where he died in 1624.
Boehme's literary output falls into three distinct sections. At first he was concerned simply with the study of the deity, and to this period belongs his Aurora. Second, he grew interested in the manifestation of the divine in the structure of the world and of man, a predilection which resulted in four great works: Die Drei Principien Gottlichens Wes Wescus, Vom Dreifachen Leben der Menschen, Von der Menschwerdung Christi, and Von der Geburt und Bezlichnung Aller Wescu. Finally, he devoted himself to advanced theological speculations and researches, the main out-come being his Von Christi Testamenten and his Von der Chaden-wahl: Mysterium Magnum. Other substantive works include his seven Quellgeister and his study of the three first properties of eternal nature.
Although not an alchemist himself, Boehme's writings demonstrate that he studied Paracelsus closely, and they also reflect the influence of Valentine Weigel and the earliest Protestant mystic, Kaspar Schwenhfeld. Boehme never claims to have conversed with spirits, angels, or saints nor of miracles worked on his behalf, the one exception being a passage where he tells how, when a shepherd boy on the Landskrone, he saw an apparition of a pail of gold. At the same time, he seems to have felt a curious and constant intimacy with the invisible world and he appears to have had a strangely perspicacious vision of the Urgrund, or primitive cause.
His wide influence over people inclined to mysticism has been attributed to the clarity with which he sets down his ideas and convictions. Throughout the latter half of the seventeenth century, his works were translated into a number of different languages. They proved an inspiration to William Law, the author of Christian Perfection and A Serious Call to a Devout Life. Since then various religious bodies that regard Boehme as their high priest have been founded in Great Britain and in Holland, while in America, the sect known as the Philadelphians owe their dominant tenets to him.
Boehme, J. Aurora. London: John M. Watkins, 1960.
——. Mysterium Magnum. London: John M. Watkins, 1965.
——. The Signature of All Things. London: James Clarke, 1969.
——. Six Theosophic Points. Lansing: University of Michigan Press, 1970.
——. The Three Principles of the Divine Essence. Jacksonville, Fla.: Yoga Publication Society, 1909.
——. The Way to Christ. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.
Martensen, H. L. Jacob Boehme. Rockliff, 1949.
Stoudt, J. J. Sunrise to Eternity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1957.