Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (August 25, 1741 – April 23, 1792), German theologian and adventurer, was born at Bischofswerda, Lusatia, where his father, afterwards professor, canon and general superintendent at Leipzig, was pastor.
At the age of sixteen young Bahrdt, a precocious lad whose training had been neglected, began to study theology under the orthodox mystic Christian August Crusius (1715–1775), who in 1757 had become first professor in the theological faculty. The boy varied the monotony of his studies by pranks which revealed his unbalanced character, including an attempt to raise spirits with the aid of Dr Faust's Höllenzwang. His orthodoxy was, however, unimpeachable, his talent conspicuous, and in 1761 he was appointed lecturer on biblical exegesis, and preacher (Katechet) at the church of St Peter. His eloquence soon gave him a reputation, and in 1766 he was appointed professor extraordinarius of biblical philology. Two years later, however, the scandals of his private life led to his dismissal.
In spite of this Christian Adolph Klotz supported him to obtain the chair of biblical antiquities in the philosophical faculty at Erfurt. The post was unpaid, and Bahrdt, who had now married, lived by taking pupils and keeping an inn. He had meanwhile obtained the degree of doctor of theology from Erlangen, and persuaded the Erfurt authorities to appoint him professor designate of theology. His financial troubles and coarse and truculent character, however, soon made the town too hot to hold him; and in 1771 he was glad to accept the offer of the post of professor of theology and preacher at Giessen.
Thus far Bahrdt's orthodoxy had counterbalanced his character; but at Gießen, where his behaviour was no less objectionable than elsewhere, he gave a handle to his enemies by a change in his public attitude towards religion. The climax came with the publication of his Neueste Offenbarungen Gottes in Briefen und Erzählungen (1773–1775), purporting to be a "model version" of the New Testament, rendered, with due regard to enlightenment, into modern German. The book is remembered solely through Goethe's scornful attack on its want of taste; its immediate effect was to produce Bahrdt's expulsion from Gießen.
He was lucky enough at once to find a post as principal of the educational institution established in his château at Marschlins by the Swiss statesman Ulysses von Salis (1728–1800). The school had languished since the death of its founder and first head, Martin Planta (1727–1772), and von Salis hoped to revive it by reconstituting it as a "Philanthropin" under Bahrdt's management. The experiment was a failure; Bahrdt, never at ease under the strict discipline maintained by von Salis, resigned in 1777, and the school was closed. At the invitation of the count of Leiningen-Dachsburg, Bahrdt now went as general superintendent to Dürkheim an der Hardt; his luckless translation of the Testament, however, pursued him, and in 1778 he was suspended by a decision of the high court of the Empire.
In dire poverty he fled, in 1779, to Halle, where in spite of the opposition of the senate and the theologians, he obtained through the interest of the Prussian minister, von Zedlitz, permission to lecture on subjects other than theology. Forced to earn a living by writing, he developed an astounding literary activity. His orthodoxy had now quite gone by the board, and all his efforts were directed to the propaganda of a "moral system" which should replace supernatural Christianity. In 1787 he founded an Enlightenment-era secret society called the German Union, comparable to the Illuminati.
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