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Switzerland and Spiders at Halloween
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Switzerland and Spiders at Halloween

The greatest Christian author you’ve never heard of.

(Image created in Midjourney.)

In the picturesque, bilingual Swiss town of Murten, nestled up against the lake of the same name and with a view of the Jura Mountains, stands a small German Reformed church. In front of the church is a modest statue depicting a jovial-looking man in frock coat and whiskers. He stands with one hand raised, as if addressing an audience, and one foot slightly forward, suggesting a certain eagerness or intensity. Facing him across a small courtyard is the church rectory, an attractive house dating back to 1729.

Walking around the corner to view the rectory from the street, the visitor can spot a small plaque halfway up the side wall. It bears a short but arresting German sentence: Im Hause muss beginnen, was leuchten soll im Vaterland, in English, “Whatever should shine forth in the fatherland must begin in the home.” That pithy expression of a certain conservative philosophy comes from the man commemorated by both statue and plaque: Jeremias Gotthelf, who was born in the rectory 225 years ago this month, on October 4, 1797, and who is the greatest Christian author you’ve never heard of.

That’s a strong claim, but Gotthelf deserves it. By a great Christian author, I mean one who is not only indisputably of the first rank in terms of literary merit but also whose work is decisively shaped by his Christian faith. Gotthelf satisfies both criteria. Though unknown to most English readers, he has a firm place in the German literary canon as one of Switzerland’s greatest authors and a master of 19th-century realism. In the peasant villages of the Swiss Emmental, just outside of Bern, where he spent almost his entire life, Gotthelf discovered and portrayed the whole gamut of human existence: love, jealousy, ambition, vengeance, courage, perseverance, and piety. The superbly drawn characters who populate his work range from comic to tragic; his women are often especially compelling. His vigorous, Swiss-inflected German prose has no real likeness.

Gotthelf’s real name was Albert Bitzius. He took his pen name from the protagonist of his first novel, a fictional memoir, when readers began writing letters to its purported author in the belief that Jeremias was a real person. He was not only the son of a protestant minister but also became one himself, pastoring the tiny congregation in the village of Lützelflüh from 1832 until his death in 1854. It was during this same period, beginning in 1837, that he began writing fiction, producing in that relatively brief span a dozen novels along with numerous short stories and novellas.

These are not merely the writings of a Christian, they are deeply Christian writings, with plot, character, and meaning all bearing the mark of their author’s faith. Gotthelf thought of himself as a Volksschriftsteller, a people’s novelist, and he wrote with a fierce sense of moral purpose. Though he could sometimes fall into the Scylla of polemic or the Charybdis of preachiness, he generally avoids those pitfalls and simply portrays a world filled with good and evil characters working out their salvation (or damnation) in fear and trembling. The novel Money and Spirit shows a loving family first torn apart by strife and only gradually reconciled through humility and self-sacrifice; Anne Bäbi Jowäger examines the potentially rival claims of science and faith, along with superstitious perversions of each; The Travels of Jakob, Journeyman Apprentice retells the parable of the prodigal son in the context of revolutionary mid-century Europe.

So if Gotthelf is so great, why have you never heard of him? Little of his work has been translated into English. In the late 19th century, a translation of Uli der Knecht appeared under the title Ulric the Farm Servant. It contained an introduction by John Ruskin, who modified the English version by drawing upon a French translation he found more elegant in places. (Ruskin, a fan, produced his own translation of a Gotthelf short story, “The Broom Merchant.”) In the 1980s, Robert Godwin-Jones translated several short stories under the title Tales of Courtship. You can track down a few other works if you try, but it isn’t easy.

One reason so few translations have appeared is that Gotthelf sprinkles his prose liberally with bits of Swiss German. “Schweizerdeutsch,” as it is called, is really only a spoken language, not a written one, and has no standard orthography. It also varies significantly by region, with Gotthelf’s Bernese dialect considered one of the more difficult. And it is very different from standard or “high” German. Even a native German speaker will occasionally be stumped by Gotthelf’s Swiss turns of phrase.

But the more important reason for his neglect is political. Gotthelf was intensely interested in politics; during a brief vicarage in Bern, his apartment was said to be a meeting place for liberal politicians, and he wrote regularly for the papers even before turning to fiction. Gotthelf’s early works were novels of social reform (Dickens may be the closest English parallel), sharply criticizing methods of caring for poor or orphaned children, the scourge of rural alcoholism, and the dismal salaries and teaching conditions in many schools. They are the work of a liberal reformer.

As the forces of radicalism, socialism, and communism gained force, however, Gotthelf saw liberalism drifting in a dangerous direction. More and more he took aim at the ideological heirs of the French Revolution. Having supported a form of Christian republicanism, the pastor Gotthelf was especially alarmed at the increasingly aggressive secularism of radical politics, which he viewed as a form of idolatry. Gotthelf would surely have endorsed a version of Ronald Reagan’s famous quip that “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” Many of his former allies grew antagonistic. By the time of his death, they looked on him as a hopeless reactionary, and he quickly fell from favor.

In truth, Gotthelf belongs among those invaluable 19th-century friendly critics of liberal democracy. Like Burke before him or his contemporary Tocqueville, Gotthelf appreciated democracy’s twin promise of equality and liberty. But he cherished what Burke called a “manly, moral, regulated liberty,” one compatible with order, morality, and piety. Today, when liberal democracy is increasingly under attack, the recovery of this Burkean, Tocquevillian, and Gotthelfian tradition of “conservative liberalism” is an essential task.

Fortunately, despite the paucity of translations, English readers can get at least a taste of Gotthelf to mark the 225th anniversary of his birth. His best-known work, the novella Die schwarze Spinne, or The Black Spider, is available in a few translations, most notably a 2013 version by Susan Bernofsky, published by NYRB press. As it happens, The Black Spider is excellent pandemic reading, especially around Halloween. In it, a group of villagers, to escape oppression by their feudal lord, make a pact with a mysterious green huntsman. The stranger offers to solve their problems in exchange for a shocking payment: the next child to be born in the village, who must be delivered to him unbaptized. All of the villagers flee but one, a woman named Christine, who agrees to the huntsman’s terms and seals the deal by accepting a kiss on the cheek.

When a child is born, the villagers quickly baptize it, rejoicing that they have outwitted the huntsman. But the spot on Christine’s cheek where he had kissed her begins to burn. It gradually grows, turns dark, and takes on the form of a spider. When a second child is born and also baptized, the spot bursts open and a horde of poisonous spiders pours from Christine’s cheek. They terrorize the countryside, slaughtering all the flocks and herds.

When a third birth nears, the frightened villagers agree to seize the infant upon birth and deliver it to Christine, so that she can hand it over to the green huntsman. As she hurries to do so, the heroic village priest rushes after her and at the last moment sprinkles holy water upon the child. Christine herself then transforms into an enormous black spider, which seems to appear and disappear at will, bringing death to everyone it touches. I won’t spoil the ending of the novella. But The Black Spider would be an appropriate book to take to bed with you on Halloween. It is a tale of tyranny and fear, cowardice and moral folly, but also of love and heroic sacrifice. As Gotthelf tells his readers at the story’s end, “where belief dwells, the spider may not stir, neither by day nor by night.” And when you’ve finished it, it will no longer be the case that Gotthelf is the greatest Christian author you’ve never heard of.

Peter C. Meilaender is professor of political science and dean of religion, humanities, and global studies at Houghton University.