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Good Words 1860
Dr Wichern and The Rauhe House


II. The Builder

Wichern in the little pictured room of the Raune Haus, looking over to Hamburg and expecting its juvenile rascality to come out to him, is a singular fact to hit upon in the whirl and birr of our nineteenth century. It does not exactly square with nineteenth century notions, but on the whole contradicts them and throws them quietly aside. It is not probably what you or I would have done. And if the last thirty years had not written the story, beyond dispute most people would drop it here. The man, they would say, may be earnest enough, but his way of setting about a thing is really too absurd: let us have something practical. It is a true instinct; let us at least have nothing impracticable; sin is too real and time is too short, and men's hands are too full for that. But then, what is practical? Gigantic labours in Berlin wool for the A------bazaar, sixpences and shillings deftly extracted from coy Croesuses through your collecting-card, secretary and assistant-secretary and travelling secretary and association-secretary, my lords president and vice-president, lady patroness and co-patronesses, and charity sermons and deputation speeches,—all these and the like, of course. May it not be also more than these? And looking fairly at the little Rauhe Haus, is there not reason to suppose it will be practical? Hard, faithful visiting among the poor is not a likely way to educate the dreamers of society. A mind that is capable of voluntary and steady effort in an unpopular direction is not likely to be vague and unreal in its conclusions. And just as one would expect, the details of the scheme were wrought out in a remarkably clear and business-like statement. Practical means were freely employed to develop it, to enlist some sympathy and interest for it. Private influence, the press, and last, a public meeting were tried, and with a shrewd eye to practical results. An unpractical man is but a poor and foolish worker in the kingdom of God. But then, prayer and faith are practical, walking by faith and not by sight; and the difference in this matter between the world and the Christian is just here,—that the one reckons only upon visible influences, bases its calculations upon men and motives as it finds them ; and the other, while fully recognising such calculations and their necessity, reckons also upon invisible influences, and because the unseen world overrules the seen, is quite prepared to hold on singly against appearances and natural probabilities if he has the honest and true conviction that he is right and has the witness of the Word of God. That was the conviction with which Wichern entered on his work, by which his conduct and system must be interpreted; that was the faith that carried him through.

Out of the hundred and odd people who went to his meeting and were wrought up into enthusiastic ay, ayes, some were probably there with the simple, good-natured benevolence pour encourager les autres, and some suspiciously, and some ignor-antly. The mass of the outcast poor was still unconscious of reformatories, and was likely to hold itself aloof from them; and it must be admitted that things did not look so very hopefully in the dull November weather. When the wind has buried the last leaves in the mud, and the rain drizzles in a damp fog before the door, and the sky is leaden and chill, and the days are altogether gloomy and mournful—and November in North Germany is not so very different from November in England— that is, not just the cheeriest time to open a new life, to feel that your friends are sceptical about it, that you must do without sympathy and fight your way alone. Nor is it just the congenial time to be remarkably buoyant and confident, when your neighbours and all judicious people whisper to their neighbours and all judicious people, that it is a mad scheme—perfect folly—if he had only consulted us. No doubt there are some men of an energetic and positive temperament who are independent of these outward things, whose will rises bravely up to defy them. And this may be one of them. Certainly "if he had only consulted us" there would have been neither madness nor folly, nor— the Rauhe House. "If he had only consulted us," Milton would never have spent five years on a poem that he must sell for as many pounds, nor Galileo have lain in prison for the whim of saying that the earth spins round, nor Harvey have encountered ridicule and worse for persuading people of the circulation of the blood, nor Stephenson in his straightforward bluntness have ventured to cut in two the famous Parliamentary cow; nor would there have been that old heroic spectacle of Martin Luther defying as many devils as there were red tiles upon the roofs to keep him back from Worms. And in memory of the works that have been wrought "without consulting us," we may be disposed to exaggerate the ease with which they have been done, and may count that it is a mere trifle to set up a lonely opposition to the world for the sake of an unappreciated truth. It would be a great mistake, as any one can prove it out of any day's experience ; that kind of opposition is a test from which we shrink back into our easy chair. When a man stakes his sagacity and prospects and life upon an unpopular theory, there must be a marvellous resoluteness in his purpose; that kind of resoluteness that nothing will daunt; that fervent glowing confidence which no amount of cold water will quench, which warms up into enthusiasm at the least possible provocation. And it was in some such mind that Wichern went into the Rauhe House, some such feeling that made him so calm and patient and reliant, so thoroughly prepared for reformatory work, although no man knew better how much might be plausibly urged against the probability of success. The source of that feeling he declares to have been that he walked by faith, seeing Him who is invisible. He sifted keenly the social state of his city, made his observations, matured his plans, weighed everything for and against, tried to interest his friends, waited on till he dared wait no longer. The prospect was still so indifferent, that from a pure business point of view it would have been prudent to retire; from his point of view it was prudent to push on, for the work was in the hand of the unseen Worker, and no matter how unlikely, it would be taken up at the point beyond which he could not carry it. And so it came that he was waiting there for these poor lost children of Hamburg, and that afterwards he wrote in words that some may think over strong, Jesus Christ is the founder of the Rauhe Haus.

This has been a somewhat long digression; but if it should lead any one to think that the child of God may live by faith and yet be practical,—the most practical of men, it will have been to the purpose after all.

On the 8th of November the first three boys came; by the end of December there were twelve. They varied in age from five years up to eighteen; their variations in vice were not so great, for they were uniformly bad. Eight of them were illegitimate; four were under the influence of criminal and drunken parents; one lad of twelve was known to the police by ninety-two thefts ; one had escaped from prison; one had sinned till he had. become imbecile; they were all thoroughly wild; lying and stealing were their second nature. They were poor street wanderers such as you may see in London in the dreary wintry nights, crouching in doorways and under bridges; little heaps of rags with perhaps bright, hungry eyes, that sparkle on you in a kind of savage fear. They used to sleep on piles of stones or on steps; only, said one who slept in empty carts, the stars awoke me in winter, for they looked down on me so clear and white. There was a shameless, false, little beggar among them, a poor thing deserted by his mother, and who had risen to be the leader of all the street boys in his neighbourhood, and a notorious plague. There was a boy who had been treated, like a beast, and naturally lived like a beast; his so-called adopted parents had bought him for £13; the woman was an idiot, the man a coarse drunkard, and under them he lived till he was eighteen: no wonder he came shy, full of mistrust, naked within and without. A boy of twelve declared positively that he believed no God, much less a Saviour, no resurrection, no judgment ; he had once laid violent hands on himself, and, when angry, he threatened that he would run himself through with a knife; frightful fits of passion seized upon him, culminating in one which lasted twelve hours, and during which four men could scarcely hold him. Before he came he used to be chained at such times. These made up the household of that loving son and mother. Others followed like them: notorious pickpockets, vagabonds who from very vagabondage could not speak fluently, young housebreakers; one made his entry by throwing down all the little boys he could find, rushing into the stalls, driving out the swine with a wild halloo, and hunting them over the garden beds, with an axe in one hand and a spade in the other. They were brought up familiar with the scenes of the Hamburg dancing-booths, the joys of street theatres, filthy romances, the most obscene ballads, travesties of the purest hymns, clever parodies of the Bible; there could scarcely be a more corrupt atmosphere than that in which they lived. They were mostly hopeless; young incorrigibles, given up by everybody who had tried a hand upon them. And this was what he had waited and prayed for; to have his room filled with these; to make them his companions; to see these hard vicious features that make one shudder. He might shrink from them, and decline the sacrifice, but they were certainly of the right stamp.

Twelve completed the number of the first family; they had a common dormitory and a common parlour ; they shared them with Wichern. Their character has been given already, very faintly and only from some statistics of their lives, but there is enough for any one to complete the picture. And now while they sit round him with their idiotic and cunning and hardened faces, what will he do with them? How will they ever be brought to a manliness and purity, and grace of Christian strength like his own? His principle of reform was quite as singular as his principle of faith. They were to be placed under new and healthy influences; they were to be controlled, educated, won off from the old ways, to become gentle, teachable, sober, busy, honest,—and all by loving them. One look at those twelve boys, with their wildness and stubbornness of sin stamped in upon their features, and what a folly that thought of loving them into goodness appears! What a sentimentalism! Perhaps not; it depends on what the love is. There is a love that came sweetly down from heaven, and flowed out sacrificially upon the cross, and it melts the most rugged hearts into repentance, and under it the chief of sinners becomes an apostle of the Gentiles, and heathens such as they were in Ephesus and Corinth become Christians such as they are in the Epistles of Paul. We do not call that sentimentalism. And there is a godly love which is after the pattern of the Divine, and of which it is said faith worketh by love. It is not kind sentiment, or petting, or good-nature, or philanthropy : these are feeble things with which to play upon rauhe and seared souls, for they ignore the depth and awfulness of sin. It honestly confesses sin, and sets out from sin, and says that notwithstanding the sin it loves, it is allied to righteousness, and to a firm and brave spirit; it is even severe, and it aims constantly, not so much at making people happy, as if personal comfort was the summum bonum, but at making them true and righteous, and then let them be happy if they will. And by all this it comes that it rules and moulds men, for it goes down into what they really feel, and shows what they ought really to be. It did so in the Rauhe House, and it will do so everywhere. And this is how it worked.

Besides the natural viciousness of the boys, there were three especial difficulties to be overcome, their distrust, their premature independence, and their vagabond freedom. When kind Wiehern reached out his hand to welcome a lad one day, he drew his quickly back, lest he should be struck. Kindness came to them only as a cunning guise, under which some mysterious project for their hurt lay hidden. A new and more cruel prison threatened them ; and they watched every act with a suspicion that was quickened by all they had known hitherto of life. There was indeed some slight hold upon the first twelve. Wichern had visited most of them, either where they lived or in the prison: they must have felt his uncommon power of attraction, and that confiding trust which he inspires almost at a glance. But then they were the first; it was all new; there was no one to encourage them; and they required the most delicate and sensitive handling. He assured them of an entire forgiving and forgetting of the past; that there was to be no punishment for anything they had ever done ; that there was not a word to be said of that past unless to him; that his mother was to be their mother. They heard and gazed in amazement. But as time wore on, and they found it was true, their whole heart warmed to their new life. In the evening they came into Wichern's room, to sit with him and talk over the day. They brought the first flowers to show him; and one morning his room was decked with flowers, and with such a quiet secrecy that he never found who did it. Love was the atmosphere of the house, and the harshness of their own experiences gradually gave way to it, until the same spirit was wakened among themselves. On their first Christmas a boy ran off; he was met unexpectedly in the Christmas fair, and, though in evident anxiety, did not hesitate to return. When he arrived, the rest were singing their Christmas hymns round the mother; there was a pause and a shrinking from him, and at length the elder boys proposed that he should be punished. They retired to consider what the punishment should be, and after a quarter of an hour suggested some that were very fitting, but very severe. One then stood out and begged forgiveness; and, with a sudden change, they all joined, and reached the culprit their hands. And when, shortly after, he found himself sent as before a mile off for milk, and without the slightest want of confidence, the change was complete. He went afterwards on the more distant errands, nor did he ever abuse his freedom again. For some time, as often as he heard the Christmas hymns, the tears would start into his eyes; and when, about the next Christmas, he was sent with a considerable sum for meal, he came forward, grasped Wichern by the hand, and said in a choked voice: "I never can forget that you trusted me last Christmas. That trust was met by trust; and a feeling of honour was roused and kept from being selfish, by being joined to the forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake.

The craving for the old vagabond life which led this lad away, was one of the greatest difficulties to combat. They had grown up in this free wandering until it was a second nature, and when the desire seized them, it was irresistible. Nothing had sufficed to restrain them hitherto: they broke out of every confinement, and had even got up in wintry mornings to walk by the frozen Alster. It was hazardous to try them with no outward restraint, and only the power of a Christian life; but it was found sufficient. One ran off in the morning, and was found in the evening close to the house, but ashamed to come in ; another, after a long absence, came back at last with a hen and a bag of apples as a peace-offering, and saying: "Forgive me; God forgives too." One declared there was no use in running off, for he must always come back. Another, who had never been anything but a wanderer for sixteen years, set out one day; and about ten o'clock he walked into the room as if nothing had happened, rubbed his eyes sleepily, and said he had gone home to fetch a better pair of trousers. Wichern saw he was tired, made him a supper of bread and milk, and sent him to bed, greatly refreshed, but with little disposition to run off again.

A more formidable obstacle than either of these was a precocious independence, observable enough among any poor children, but developed to an extraordinary pitch in poor castaways. They would suffer no control; they would be bound by no tie; they were in a continual self-assertion. They would not be taught; for "they were not coming to school:" they would not work; for "whether I'll do what I'm asked or not depends altogether on myself; if it don't please me, off I go." This wilfulness threatened, of course, disorganization ; the repressing of it threatened to empty the house. It was here again that love became the bond. The children were made to feel the atmosphere of a home, to realize a kind and thoughtful father. Family ties, of which the greater part knew nothing, were represented in this new life; they found they had common interest and sympathy; that there was an end of the reign of terror ; that they were perfectly free to carry out their threat and go, but that it would be somehow a grief to one who really loved them. It was at first an incomprehensible experience, this of a pure and unselfish love, seeking them for their own sakes; but as it was real, they yielded to its power. And if, on the one hand, there was this open freedom, on the other, they saw at once that the family had its duties as well as pleasures; that if they were members of it, they must be orderly and active members; that it had a rule and way of living to which they must conform. This family life was made the centre to which they were unconsciously attracted, and round which their little world kept moving ; while within it again, there was another centre, made visible at all times by the very structure and relations of life in the Rauhe House— the Word of God.

There was a morning and evening worship; the Bible was read and hymns were sung, and the boys heard wonderingly the simple reverent words of prayer. The singing had a peculiar effect. During the morning worship several of the elder boys and even the youngest broke out into loud weeping ; all were so moved on one occasion, that the singing had to be stopped; one was observed to stand with a vacant, far-off look, and when roused up he said: "I forgot that I was here, and could not help thinking over the past;" two brothers fell into each other's arms, and were so overcome that I had to send them out into the garden. The thought of their unfortunate mother was too keen to be borne: " We cannot stand it," the boys used to say; "it makes us think so of what we were." The singing seemed to penetrate the hardest with soft and blessed thoughts, and to lay hold on the tenderest part of their nature; so that, after work hours, they might be seen walking up and down by the hour, or sitting in the upper branches of the chestnut, and raising hymn after hymn. The hymn became thus the involuntary expressions of the new thoughts that were rising in their minds, and by its rich and full teaching of Christ, prepared the way for the Gospel. The Bible was taught as a history of the redemption both in its promise and fulfilment; and in this aspect the children seized it readily with more or less vividness. The reality of the story underlay their reception of the truth, and in the character brought out and placed before them, they were ready to recognise themselves. When a little fellow was asked one day how Samuel was taught by Eli, he replied, that ''Eli told him stories out of the Bible:" it was in that way the Bible was educating him. "That's me," said a lively boy, as a Bible character was once set in their midst; and "that's me" was the beginning of personal religious history in many.

This was how the system worked, and these are the fruits of it in the first twelve. They have eaten their bread in honour; they have their children, their Christian household life ; four of them settled in Hamburg; four settled elsewhere; two went seafaring. Of these three who have been specially mentioned, the first became a help and stay of the House; the second, a God-fearing, thorough man, with few capabilities, but with strong practical sense and an entire trust-worthiness; the third, of whom it is told,—and it is characteristic of that retarded childhood that marks the whole class, the child's freshness and simplicity that had been withered by poverty and cruelty and crime, pushing out, often grotesquely, in the grown-up man when he is brought under loving and humanizing influences,—that when digging in the garden he used to vex himself with such questions as whether he could dig on till he came out at the other side, and what the world would look like there, &c, who was the terror of his mother and sisters, and of the other boys, and even a terror to himself, soon drew everybody's heart, and grew up a gentle and forgiving, but brave, strong, determined man. This love and forgiveness, and Bible-reading and singing of hymns, up among the flower-spikes of the chestnut; this quiet, active country life, it sounds well and pretty ; it was also real and thorough. It was an education of the heart and spirit; a careful and patient cultivation of the blighted and decayed moral sense, and it had its reward. It was a hazardous experiment to any one who should try it by himself; it could neither have been faithfully nor boldly carried out; but it was easy and pleasant to one who went to it by faith, who felt that Christ was working with him, that His hand would perfect what His Spirit had put it into his heart to begin, that His unseen influence was busy even where there was no outward improvement to encourage. It needed faith to bear up against the frequent disappointment; to watch without despair, while the seed after long care seemed to be springing in the coarse mind, how the springing quickly perished; to be hopeful in the midst of so much confirmed vice; to refuse the common experiments that were inconsistent with her principle even when they alone promised the speediest result. Such faith was given, and the promise of God to it was not broken; and on the foundation of Jesus Christ, Wichern is a master builder, and, according to the grace given unto him, reared his Rauhes Haus. How that house was built up in the silence of prayer, how God prospered it, and what relation it afterwards bore to its early promise, must be reserved for another chapter.


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