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 outcome
being his Von Christi Testamenten and his Von der Chadenwahl
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.
Sources
Boehme, J. Aurora. London John M. Watkins, 1960.
———. The Confession of Jacob Boehme. New York Harper,
1954.
———. 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.
Hartmann, Franz. The Life and Doctrines of Jacob Boehme. New
York McCoy Publishing, 1929.
Martensen, H. L. Jacob Boehme. Rockliff, 1949.
Stoudt, J. J. Sunrise to Eternity. Philadelphia University of
Pennsylvania, 1957.