A friend of Bonhoeffer in Cambridge


Portrait from front cover of Dr Franz Hildebrandt: Mr Valiant-for-Truth (145:9.c.200.5)

Continuing my mini-series of blogs about German speakers who spent time in Cambridge (see earlier posts on Wittgenstein and Bucer) I am moving on to Franz Hildebrandt (1909-1985), pastor and theologian and friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, founding member of the Bekennende Kirche in Nazi Germany.

Hildebrandt met Bonhoeffer while studying theology in Berlin and in 1931 the two friends collaborated on a short piece entitled Glaubst du, so hast du: Versuch eines Lutherischen Katechismus (an attempt at a Lutheran cathechism, reproduced in volume 3 of Bonhoeffer’s Gesammelte Schriften – 47:5.d.95.47). In June 1933 Hildebrandt was ordained as a pastor in the Lutheran Church but resigned soon after in protest at the Arierparagraph introduced into some churches which required those of Jewish descent to be removed from their posts (Hildebrandt was personally affected by this as his mother was Jewish). By this time Bonhoeffer had left Germany to be pastor to two German-speaking churches in London and Hildebrandt followed him there. He did not stay long though as he returned to Germany after three months to help Martin Niemöller with the Pfarrernotbund, an organisation set up to unite against the Arierparagraph and a forerunner of the Bekennende Kirche for which Hildebrandt also preached.

Hildebrandt was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 and detained for four weeks until, with the help of friends, he was released. He then managed to travel to Switzerland and then on to exile in England where at first he worked in London with Julius Rieger among the German-speaking community before coming to Cambridge in 1939. He helped to establish the German-speaking congregation in Cambridge, lectured at the University and also worked on a second doctorate, Gospel and humanitarianism, submitted to Cambridge University in 1941 (Ph.D.1180) – in 1930 in Berlin he had been awarded a licentiate for a thesis entitled Est: Das Lutherische Prinzip. He also wrote two more books during his time in Cambridge:

  • This is the message: a continental reply to Charles Raven (9100.d.4805)
  • Melanchthon: alien or ally? (61:25.c.90.1)

In 1940, along with other Germans classified as enemy aliens, he was interned for several months, first in Bury St Edmunds, then Liverpool, then the Isle of Man. The Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, a staunch ally of the Bekennende Kirche, helped to secure the release of Hildebrandt and other internees. “And other pastors of thy flock”: a German tribute to the Bishop of Chichester (9100.d.5109), edited by Hildebrandt and published in 1942, served as a thank you from Hildebrandt and ten other German pastors.

Wesley House, Cambridge where Hildebrandt gave lectures

Wesley House, Cambridge where Hildebrandt gave lectures. Photo by Tiburon11 (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

After the war the German congregation in Cambridge dwindled as refugees returned to Germany. Hildebrandt decided not to return – in 1943 he had married Nancy Wright, a student he had met in Cambridge. He did not feel able to join the Church of England as it would not recognize his ordination in Germany as valid and he did not wish to undergo a second ordination. He had already studied the Wesleys, found something of Luther’s hymns in the hymns of Charles Wesley, and indeed in 1942 lectured on From Luther to Wesley (a book derived from these lectures was published in 1951 – 144:3.c.95.2). Joining the Methodist Church was therefore a logical choice and from 1946 he worked as a Methodist minister, first in Cambridge, then in Edinburgh. In 1953 he moved with his family to the USA to be an academic at a Methodist University in New Jersey.

Hildebrandt was selected to represent the World Methodist Council as an observer at the Second Vatican Council in Rome. While in Rome he worked on I offered Christ: a Protestant study of the mass (57:9.b.95.2) which was published in in 1967. In the late 1960s he returned to Edinburgh but resigned from the Methodist Church and joined the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This move was motivated by discussions between the Methodist and Anglican churches with a view to the two churches having closer relationships. He continued to be an active theologian right up until his death, editing volume 7 of John Wesley’s works which contained a collection of hymns (144:01.c.1.7). Despite failing health he was able to take up an invitation to speak at a symposium in Seattle in 1984 which marked the 50th anniversary of the 1934 Barmen Synod at which the Barmen Declaration was adopted, a document that defined the Christian opposition to Nazi ideology.  He was one of only two people present in Seattle who had also been present 50 years earlier in Barmen (see The Barmen confession: papers from the Seattle Assembly – 57:3.c.95.31).

For more details on Franz Hildebrandt’s life and work the following books would be useful:

  • Dr Franz Hildebrandt: Mr Valiant-for-Truth by Amos S. Cresswell and Maxwell G. Tow (145:9.c.200.5) (this book contains in an appendix an English translation of the Lutheran catechism written with Bonhoeffer)
  • Franz Hildebrandt: ein lutherischer Dissenter im Kirchenkampf und Exil by Holger Roggelin (142:01.c.15.31)

The National Library of Scotland holds a collection of his papers. The Imperial War Museum also has available online a 2 hour long interview with him, conducted in 1979 and covering his life up until 1945.

Katharine Dicks


2 thoughts on “A friend of Bonhoeffer in Cambridge

  1. I must pay my compliments; this is a very well researched article, and it’s nicely put together, too. I had been wondering how Hildebrandt ended up at the Second Vatican Council, given his distinct distaste for Catholicism. So, thanks for shedding a bit of light on that. I wonder whether you might know how he happened to be selected by the Methodists? Do we have any resources on that?

    • Thank you and pleased you enjoyed it. I have been unable to find any reference in World Methodist Council resources but the Cresswell and Tow biography (145:9.c.200.5) has a brief chapter on this and states that he was delighted to be selected and that it coincided with his growing interest in Catholic theology and practice.

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