For where belief dwells, the spider may not stir, neither by day nor by night.
Though few Americans today have heard of Jeremias Gotthelf, he belongs among the great European authors of the 19th century and, indeed, the greatest Christian writers of the modern West. Gotthelf, whose real name was Albert Bitzius, was pastor in the tiny Swiss village Lützelflüh, not far from the capital, Bern. He began writing relatively late, publishing his first novel, Reflections on a Peasant’s Life, in 1837. But then his output was prodigious. In less than 20 years he produced eleven more novels and over forty novellas and short stories, while also editing an almanac for several years and, of course, fulfilling his pastoral duties. Sadly, little of his writing is available in English, though there is a recent translation of his best-known work, the novella The Black Spider.
Throughout his life, Gotthelf maintained an intense interest in politics, and as a young man he wrote often on political topics for the newspapers. He was closely allied with leading liberal politicians in Bern, who used his apartment as a frequent meeting place during the year he spent in the city as vicar. In 1830 Gotthelf supported their successful efforts to overthrow the dominant Bernese patriciate and liberalize the city’s constitution. His early writings demonstrate his commitment to liberal, progressive reform: his first novel excoriates the practice by which orphans or children removed from their homes were auctioned out by the government to whoever would accept the lowest fee for their care (and would, therefore, exploit the children brutally); his second novel dramatized the need for educational reform, a favorite cause of Gotthelf’s; an early novella exposed the growing problem of rural alcoholism; and a non-fiction work titled The Plight of the Poor warned of the danger of a growing proletariat.
In the following decades, however, Swiss liberals, under the ideological influence of the French Revolution, became increasingly radicalized, embracing greater state centralization and, often, socialism or communism. They also grew more vehemently secular. As they did, Gotthelf turned on them. Many of his later novels are filled with political criticism, not to say polemic—indeed, friends warned him that he should reduce his political commentary, lest he endanger his position as pastor. But such warnings were in vain. Novels like The Swiss Travels of Jakob, Journeyman Apprentice or The Spirit of the Age and the Spirit of Bern overflow with criticism of a centralized, bureaucratic and secular state. This state, charged Gotthelf, had become hostile to traditional morality and protected behind its impersonal and legalistic forms a new class of powerseekers who knew how to manipulate those forms for their own advantage, exploiting the less privileged in the process. By the end of his life, many contemporaries had come to regard Gotthelf—much like Burke, in England—as having changed from liberal to reactionary.
In truth, however, Gotthelf was more consistent than these critics gave him credit for, holding firm to Christian social principles while the world around him changed rapidly. The core of his political vision remained always the same: faith, family and the dignity of honest labor. The task of government was to enable virtuous families to form virtuous citizens. Gotthelf summed up this credo in a ringing declaration that can be found today on a plaque marking his birth house: “Whatever is to shine forth in the fatherland must begin in the home.”
Hero of Liberty image attribution: Johann Friedrich Dietler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons