August Hermann Francke

Portrait of August Hermann Francke, painted after life by Antoine Pesne, c. 1725
The portrait of the founder of the foundation was painted around 1725 by the Prussian court painter Antoine Pesne (1683-1757). You can see the original in the Francke-Wohnhaus.

August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) was born in Lübeck on 22 March 1663, the son of a lawyer. He spent his youth in Gotha, the centre of the Thuringian church and school reform. He studied theology in Erfurt, Kiel and Leipzig, where he joined the Pietist reform movement and founded a discussion group (Konventikel) with other students for the joint interpretation of the Bible. At the instigation of Lutheran Orthodoxy, Francke had to leave Leipzig and later Erfurt.

During the preparation of a sermon in Lüneburg in October 1687 he gained the certainty of being on the right path: »Nun erfuhr ich wahr zu sein, was Lutherus saget: Glaube ist ein göttlich Werk in uns, das uns wandelt und neu gebieret aus Gott.«

Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), his spiritual mentor, arranged him a professorship for oriental languages at the newly founded university in Halle in Brandenburg and a parish post in the suburb of Glaucha, where he was appointed by Elector Friedrich III of Brandenburg in 1691. It was here that Francke began his life's work, which, by turning to the individual, allowed Martin Luther's ideas to have an effect deep into society and beyond the borders of Europe.

The Hallesche Pietism

The centre of Halle's pietism was the school town founded in 1698 by August Hermann Francke, which, as a »planting place« for children and young people, sought a universal reform of society through broad education and self-responsibility according to Christian standards. The Halle Orphanage became the hallmark of the largest social reform movement of the early modern period after the Reformation. Francke's reform ideas spread almost all over the world through a carefully cultivated, close-meshed network. Pietism's own turn towards the individual sharpened the focus on the needs and support possibilities of each individual. The person thus transformed was to carry on with his actions the reform ideas that would become effective around the globe as a result of worldwide networking. Based on the Bible and in the understanding that he was »God's tool« , Francke launched a series of innovations which are noticeable worldwide until today as a result of a broad-based educational reform, groundbreaking changes in the social and community system and a fruitful religious renewal.

In the beginning there were four thalers...

Francke reports that in the spring of 1695 a certain person placed »Four Thalers and Sixteen Groschen« in the poor box of the parish flat and »when I took this into my hands, I said with joy of faith: This is honest capital, you have to donate something right of it; I want to start a school for the poor with it.«  Within just 30 years, Francke built his own city right outside Halle. As early as the 18th century, the dimensions of the mainly timber-framed buildings caused a stir. Elector Friedrich III recognised his institution, which had begun as a private initiative, as a "publiques Werck". He supported Francke's work by presenting him with a founding privilege that guaranteed the institutions significant advantages. Despite this, the Francke Foundations fought again and again for financial survival throughout their more than 300-year history. Thanks to the prudence of its directors, they now stand for over 300 years of German educational history with international appeal.

Parallel to the orphanage, a school was built to teach the poor children. Shortly afterwards, Francke established the Pedagogium as an educational institution for children from the aristocracy and the wealthy middle classes. In 1697 the Latin School followed, which prepared middle-class and gifted poor children for university studies, and in 1698 a Gynäceum especially for girls' education. This laid the foundation for a differentiated system of educational institutions that went far beyond the educational standards of the time and offered children of all social classes the chance of an adequate education. The school curricula contained a wide range of subjects. Special emphasis was placed on the realities, practical subjects, which included the teaching of manual skills as well as early technical education. The real school system in Germany and the professionalisation of the teaching profession have their starting point in the Francke Foundations. To this day, the Francke Foundations are a renowned educational centre.

Childhood and Youth

On 22 March 1663 August Hermann Francke was born in Lübeck as the son of the lawyer Johannes Francke (1625-1670) and Anna (1634-1709), the daughter of the Lübeck council syndic and mayor David Gloxin. Already three years later (1666) the family moved to Gotha, where the father became court counsellor of Duke Ernst I of Saxony-Gotha-Altenburg ("the Pious", 1601-1675). He received his education among others at the Gothaer Gymnasium, which enjoyed a good reputation thanks to the educational reforms of the duke. Some of Francke's companions in Gotha will accompany him for life. In the Gotha period the moment of awakening is also anchored in Francke's life. His sister Anna and the reading of Johann Arndt's »Vier Bücher vom wahren Christentum« provided the impulse.

Education and Studies

Thanks to a scholarship from the Family Foundation, Francke began studying theology in Erfurt in 1679. His uncle moved him to Kiel in the same year. Christian Kortholt (1633-1694), who was considered an open reformed theologian, taught here. The combination of faith and lifestyle within the framework of Lutheran theology was one of his most important concerns.

Financial difficulties forced Francke to interrupt his studies in 1682. In Hamburg he devoted himself to studying Hebrew with Esdras Edzardus (1662-1713).

When the opportunity arose in Leipzig to teach Hebrew, Francke returned to Messestadt in 1684. One year later he already earned the degree of Magister, habilitated with a dissertation on Hebrew grammar and gave biblical-philological lectures. Together with some young university magisters he founded the Collegium philobiblicum in 1686 to deepen his knowledge of biblical languages.

During the Leipzig period Francke also got to know the theologian Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), who is regarded as a pioneer of Pietism in Germany. Both were united by a lifelong friendship. Spener had a decisive influence on Francke's later life.    

The year 1687 was decisive for this. During the preparation of a sermon on John 20:31 (»But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.«) Francke fell into a deep crisis. How could he face the church if he was not sure of his own faith?  With a deeply rooted faith in God, he could leave doubts behind. He devoted himself again to his studies in Hamburg with Johann Winckler (1642-1705), a pupil of his spiritual father Philipp Jakob Spener.

First years of service

Francke spent the beginning of 1689 with Spener in Dresden. In February he met again in Leipzig, where he taught at the university. The collegium philobiblicum was also continued, the Bible was interpreted in a practical and edifying way, and most of the time it was spoken in German. Soon the students also held conventions on the interpretation of the Bible in private houses. The Faculty of Theology protested against this. None other than Christian Thomasius (1655-1728) proved the illegality of the initiated proceedings, Francke denied the accusations and nevertheless the »Pietists« were banned in Leipzig.

Immediately after that Francke received the news that the Augustinian congregation in Erfurt had a second parish post to fill and that Francke's appointment was successful. So he preached at the age of 27 at the place where Martin Luther had become a monk in 1505 at the age of 22. Here, too, he was expelled as a Pietist just one year after and turned to Spener, who had been called to Berlin on 21 March 1691 as prophet and consistorial councillor.

Work in Halle

On 22 December of the same year, the up-and-coming Brandenburg-Prussia appointed Francke as pastor in Glaucha, an official town just outside Halle. At the same time he was named professor for oriental languages at the University of Halle, which was in the process of being founded.  Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg remained favourably disposed towards Francke for a long time. Thanks to this support, the theologian and Pietist was able to survive disputes with the town and the community and lay the foundation stone for his life's work in the salt town on the Saale.

In 1694 Francke married Anna Magdalena von Wurm (1670-1734) with a secure livelihood. Three children were born after the marriage: the first son died at the age of 10 months, Gotthilf August (1696-1769) became a theologian and successor in the directorship of the Glauchaer Anstalten (later: Franckesche Stiftungen), Johanna Sophia Anastasia (1697-1771) married in 1715 the theologian, close collaborator and later successor of Francke in the directorship, Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen (1670-1739).

A donation of 4 talers and 16 groschen is regarded as Francke's founding capital, with which he founded a school for the poor as the basis of a comprehensive social educational work, the later Francke Foundations. In 1701 he acquired the former inn Zur Goldenen Rose and moved into it a year later with his family. From here he led the establishment of today's Francke Foundations, for which he uses his diverse talents with a firm trust in God. As a diplomat and global player, the theologian was networked with the great centres of power of the time, London, Vienna or St. Petersburg, he cultivated a close-knit communications network, was an innovative builder and responsible businessman. The school town of Franckes in Halle, with the world's first Bible Institute and the first Protestant mission, is one of the milestones of Halle's pietism that made Franckes' work known worldwide.

When in 1713 the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I paid a visit to Francke's Orphanage in Halle, August Hermann Francke may have been very excited. It was the inaugural visit of the new elector and king to Halle. His father Friedrich I had granted the orphanage extensive privileges and actively supported the establishment of the Francke Foundations. Would this continue under the new regiment? For August Hermann Francke this inaugural visit was highly explosive. A transcript of the visit, which is kept in the archives of the Francke Foundations, reveals the impression the work had left on the king. With the words »Schreibe er mir nur, wenn Er ein Anliegen hat, ich will sein Procurator sein...«, he left Halle, satisfied with what he had seen.

In 1715, after many years, Francke had the opportunity to move from the suburb of Glaucha to the city of Halle. He was appointed to the parish church of St. Ulrich in Halle and one year later was even elected prorector of the Friedrichs-Universität. A trip to southwest Germany from August 1717 should bring urgently needed recreation. The journey into the countryside became an advertising tour of undreamt-of proportions. At pietistically minded courts of counts and princes Francke was accepted as a state guest and invited to preach in many cities. Often the places in the churches were not sufficient for the listeners.

Again and again Francke took short breaks in the following years, drove to the vineyards or to the Saale. His diary at this time still resembles that of a manager. Writing letters, receiving visits, teaching, preaching, supervising construction. The workload was enormous. In 1725 he was seen again in Berlin. The Prussian court painter Antoine Pesne (1683-1757) took the opportunity to capture Francke on canvas. The painting can now be seen in the Francke residence.

On 8 June 1727 August Hermann Francke died in Halle and was buried on the Stadtgottesacker.


Helmut Obst: Augst Hermann Francke und sein Werk. Halle 2013.
249 S., 80 s/w Abb., € 15,80; ISBN 978-3-447-06903-8 orden online

Die Welt verändern. August Hermann Francke - Ein Lebenswerk um 1700
Katalog zur Jahresausstellung der Franckeschen Stiftungen vom 24. März bis 21. Juli 2013.
Hrsg. von Holger Zaunstöck, Thomas Müller-Bahlke und Claus Veltmann. Halle 2013
(Kataloge der Franckeschen Stiftungen, 29).
324 S., 311 Abb., € 24,00; ISBN 978-3-447-06889-5 order online

Das Hallesche Waisenhaus. Die Franckeschen Stiftungen mit ihren Sehenswürdigkeiten. Hrsg. von Thomas Müller-Bahlke. 3., überarbeitete und erweiterte Auflage. Halle 2015 (Kataloge der Franckeschen Stiftungen, 1).
144 S., 128 Abb., 1 Lageplan, € 17,00; ISBN 978-3-447-10257-5 order online

Further literature can be found at the Publisher of the Francke Foundations.