An Ancient Church Father and his Victorian Audience: Christian von Bunsen’s Unusual Work on Hippolytus of Rome and its Influence on Nineteenth-Century Debates

[T]he amiable curates were politely requested to dribble out a few drops from the full fountain of their patristic lore, that poor benighted Farmer Giles in his chimney-corner might read, for the first time in his life, the talismanic name of Hippolytus.1


As nineteenth-century Europe faced the challenges of advancing modernity and its shattering consequences for the religious mind, a lost treatise by an ancient Church Father, the Philosophoumena, was rediscovered in the dusty library of Mount Athos. This find would become a popular topic of conversation among an educated and a wider public in England and Germany, not so much because of the rediscovery itself, but because of  its use by the Prussian envoy in London, Christian von Bunsen, in his  study Hippolytus and his Age,2 which ambitiously set out to criticize and modernize nineteenth-century religion as a whole.

This work is at the heart of my current research project, which traces the multifaceted influence of Bunsen’s interpretation of church history on the debates of the nineteenth century in England and Germany. Thanks to a scholarship granted by the German Historical Institute London, I had the chance to investigate Bunsen’s unique take on early church history by consulting key sources now held in the British Library and in libraries and archives of King’s College London, Unitarian Harris Manchester College (now Oxford), and the universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

Contemporaries hailed Hippolytus and his Age as a striking success, comparing it to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in the same year of 1852. The German lay theologian and bourgeois diplomat to the Court of St James’s in London ascribed the anonymous treatise to the first anti-pope and rigorist, Hippolytus of Rome, then a largely unknown figure of early Christianity, who had now seemingly provided a living account of a deceitful Roman Church and its heretical leader at the very beginnings of Christianity. ‘Unfortunately’, says Hippolytus, ‘[the Roman Bishop] Zephyrinus was not only very stupid and ignorant, but, loving money very much, took bribes.’3

Hippolytus of Rome before his rise to fame in the 1850s, after which he fell into oblivion once more. Little is known about this enigmatic figure, but some information can be retrieved from a statue found near Rome in 1551, including a list of works by the disputed Church Father. Lithograph. Johann A. Fabricius, S. Hippolyti Episcopi et Martyris Opera I (Hamburg, 1716), Tab. IIa (post pag. 36). Licensed under a CC NC 1.0 license, provided by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.

That Bunsen’s work on Hippolytus soon gained the dubious honour of a place on the Roman index of banned authors marks the end of this strongly anti-papal controversy, which resonated with an increasingly anti-Catholic public in Europe. For them, ‘if we may judge from the trash which . . . has [been] printed upon the Philosophoumena’, this discussion revealed the poor state of Roman Catholic theological thought.4

Triumphalist attempts by the church to defend the nimbus of the papacy—though non-Catholics strongly believed that there was evidence to the contrary in the Philosophoumena—deepened mistrust of the Roman Church, especially in England, where its political power had increased in recent decades as the result of Irish Catholic immigration. Bunsen’s study of Hippolytus of Rome seemed to many to make a contribution to the struggle against the theological self-assertions of a gradually disintegrating Vatican state, the 1854 dogma of the Immaculate Conception being a particularly relevant example.

To avoid the antiquated style of theological textbooks, heavy with commentary, and to reach out to a wider public, Bunsen composed his Hippolytus and his Age in a manner often perceived as strange. He combined different genres, such as letters (to the Germanophile theologian Julius Hare), with philosophical aphorisms, freely reconstructed ‘Church laws’, and emended manuscripts in ancient Greek and Latin. His ambitious aim was ultimately ecumenical. He intended to provide nothing less than a new theological historiography, which would leave all bickering confessions behind.

The theological public was taxed by this proposal, especially after Bunsen imaginatively placed his religious hero on a London stage in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition. More than 6 million visitors came to marvel at the inventions and creations of human genius from all over the world, displayed under the magnificent roof of Crystal Palace. A year earlier, Bunsen was asked to give a speech at a public conference preparing for the Exhibition, where he strongly supported the plans of his dear friend Prince Albert. After the turmoil of 1848, Bunsen claimed, an international event like the Exhibition could overcome a dangerous nationalism and secure European peace through various exchanges.5

And do you not see with me how the walls of separation (unfortunately, still more or less connected with nationality) must fall down, not only before the trumpets of general industry and rivalry, but from the irresistible force of common feelings of brotherhood, of a consciousness that every nation in its day has to run the same glorious race of a truly ennobling progress of the leavening the things of this world with something higher, and freer and nobler, and everlasting? . . . Go on; give out the word of friendship and peace to all nations—and the good men and good women of all nations will say, Amen! and the angels in heaven will say, Amen!6

The Exhibition demonstrated the unifying progress of humanity and should be understood, Bunsen thought, as reflecting the intentions of true Christianity. The rediscovered records of Hippolytus and his age testified to this—a pure version of Jesus’ religion, unaltered by the distorting powers of time, and undiminished by confessional tensions. Bunsen’s new historiographical approach to early Christianity was intended as a religious contribution to the Great Exhibition. Its visitors were the intended audience of Hippolytus’ emphatic call for a second Reformation to reinstate the true ideas of an early Christian religion. The future of Christianity lay ahead of the nineteenth century, ready to be picked up by those who were willing to reform the Church and leave behind the erroneous theological boundaries the various Christian confessions had imposed in days past.

As parts of Bunsen’s work were soon republished in the USA in the form of an anti-Slavery pamphlet,7 the controversy revealed that most confrontations were also hotly debated within the Christian confessions themselves. Despite its underlying ecumenical intentions, Bunsen’s Hippolytus ignited an unforeseen controversy. When a German edition of Bunsen’s Hippolytus and his Age was published, he exerted a unique influence on these debates in Europe, especially in England and Prussia.8 One of the few copies of the German version in Britain turned out to be Alexander von Humboldt’s personal copy, a rare remnant of his library of over 11,000 books, which has almost completely disappeared. Each defending their own party, leading theologians began an increasingly fierce discussion about the Early Church and its importance in an era marked by science, photographic technologies, and the steam engine. Should the new steam trains run on Sundays, the Lord’s day? Was increased interest in theatres compatible with the new piety of Victorian England?

The wide reception of Bunsen’s work was partially due to his vast network. His embassy, located in Carlton Terrace, became a melting pot of intellectual London, where Bunsen’s Hippolytus was read by Anglican intellectuals, but also by Nonconformist colleges. Conservative forces soon responded with an allegation that he was a foreign spy. These prejudices were rooted in Bunsen’s highly controversial foundation of an Anglican–German bishopric in Jerusalem in 1841, an exceptional ecumenical venture that shocked its Conservative opponents. Bunsen’s theological work is an early example of an unsuccessful attempt to suppress new theological ideas by means of simple national framing. It had worked for the famous Friedrich Schleiermacher and the infamous Ferdinand Christian Baur, the two key figures of modern German theology, whose ideas were almost totally ignored in Victorian England.9 But Bunsen was not the scruffy German professor suggested by Victorian literature. He was not, in fact, a professor at all, but combined English ideals with state-of-the art philological methods, which theologians worldwide referred to—sometimes devoutly, often distrustfully—as ‘German Criticism’. The liberal theologian Frederick D. Maurice considered Bunsen’s work to be ‘so thoroughly German, that an ordinary Englishman must require more time . . . to master it than I can pretend to have bestowed upon it. . . . There was in the English mind only a faint desire after all this knowledge, a despair of it, a suspicion of it; yet, withal, a sort of wish in some quarters to be like the Germans, to do what they do.’10

Opulent church furniture on display at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. The exhibition area for industrial machines was only a few metres away. Here, enthusiasm for technology and loyalty to the church were found under a common roof. The Prussian envoy in London, Christian von Bunsen, thought it a perfect occasion on which to air the theological objections of the first anti-pope, Hippolytus of Rome, who died in the third century. Edwin Thomas Dolby, ‘Church Furniture’, Lithograph on paper with watercolour, 1851 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, E.13-2007.

Bunsen perfectly adopted the habitus of a pious English gentleman and patron of science, an ambitious role he had already tried out as ambassador to the Vatican in Rome. When the prestigious basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura burned to the ground in 1823—probably as the result of a quarrel between drunk workers—he organized a unique fundraising campaign in Prussia to restore one of the oldest buildings of Christian worship. Three decades later, after the rediscovery of a long-lost treatise, Bunsen also threw light on other forgotten relics of Christian Antiquity, such as the Constitutiones Apostolica, an early constitution that strongly influenced the architectural projects of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, a friend of Bunsen’s. An impressive example of this Romanesque revival is the Friedenskirche basilica in Potsdam, Germany. He was also the first to make ancient fragments of texts widely accessible, notably the Codex Barberini gr. 336 (now in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana), which contains liturgical texts of Byzantine origins and is today considered as the oldest witness of its kind.11

Christian von Bunsen thus emerges as a uniquely fascinating and revealing figure of nineteenth-century religious history, seeking moral and political guidance in a rapidly changing world. While his reconstruction of Christian liturgical practices  continued to be subjects of academic discussion, Bunsen himself was quickly forgotten towards the end of the nineteenth century. The indignation of an educated elite added to this process of forgetting, when it mockingly asked, as The Times did:

Who taught him [= Hippolytus of Rome] to speak the English tongue? . . . “One of the bishops, of course,” some one will exclaim. No! not a bishop; they can’t afford to waste their time in reading the works of an old heretical Father; all their Greek is expended on Greek plays. . . . “Well, then, a dean!” No, not a dean, nor a prebendary, nor a canon, nor any other ecclesiastic, great or small, but a stranger and sojourner in the land.12

Bunsen, the social climber, gave monarchs such as Friedrich Wilhelm IV and Prince Albert, politicians such as William Ewart Gladstone, and the benighted Farmer Giles in his chimney-corner, a vision of a unifying past and a bright Christian future, when, for the first time in their lives, they read the talismanic name of Hippolytus of Rome.

  1. [Anon.], ʻHippolytus and his Ageʼ, The Eclectic Review, 8 (1854), 690–8, at 690. []
  2. Christian K. J. von Bunsen, Hippolytus and his Age: Or, the Doctrine and Practice of the Church of Rome under Commodus and Alexander Severus: and Ancient and Modern Christianity and Divinity Compared, 4 vols. (London, 1852). An impressively enlarged second edition was rearranged and renamed: id., Christianity and Mankind: Their Beginnings and Prospects, 7 vols. (London, 1854). []
  3. Bunsen, Hippolytus and his Age, i. 130. []
  4. [Anon.], Hippolytus and his Age, 691. []
  5. The speech is preserved in Frances Bunsen, A Memoir of Baron Bunsen, 2 vols. (London, 1868), ii. 241–5. []
  6. Ibid., 244–5. []
  7. Christian K. J. von Bunsen, The Law of Slavery in the United States (Boston, 1863). Bunsen was an abolitionist, yet his historical analysis of Christian slavery paid attention to the political implications of a desired ban. Abolitionists believed that this approach could provide a mediating role in a controversy that fuelled the continuing American Civil War (1861–5). []
  8. Id., Hippolytus und seine Zeit: Anfänge und Aussichten des Christenthums und der Menschheit, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1852/1853). []
  9. Cf. James C. Paget, ʻThe Reception of Baur in Britainʼ, in M. Bauspieß, C. Landmesser, and D. Lincicum (eds.), Ferdinand Christian Baur and the History of Early Christianity (Oxford, 2017), 307–54; Ieuan Ellis, ʻSchleiermacher in Britainʼ, Scottish Journal of Theology, 33/5 (1980), 417–52. []
  10. Frederick D. Maurice, ʻBaron Bunsenʼ, Macmillan’s Magazine, 18 (1868), 144–50, at 149. []
  11. Bunsen, Hippolytus and his Age, iv. 379-434. []
  12. [Anon.], ʻBunsen’s Hippolytusʼ, The Times, 18 May 1853 (21431), 7. Here, the author polemically refers to the ancient Greek play Hippolytus by Euripides, which was based on the myth of the son of Theseus. []

Published by

Pierre Sfendules

He is a researcher at the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Munich (LMU), where he holds a PhD scholarship of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Northern Germany and the German Historical Institute London (2020). His research focusses on Early Christianity in nineteenth-century theology in England and Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.