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In the Mill of History: The Doktor Augustinianus

Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1543

Near Karasberg in southern Namibia on Christmas Eve 2003, a man named Augustinus Dreyer—surely descended, as am I, from Johannes Augustinus Dreyer, aka “Isacq d’Algué” (1689–1759), the forefather of practically all Southern African Dreyers—was arrested, along with his mates Jacobus Muisoor and Josef Grasveld, on a charge of rustling and slaughtering eight sheep and a donkey—meat for the holidays in the back of the Namibian beyond.[1]

Some four hundred and seventy years before this, Bishop Erich of Paderborn offered the bishop of Münster in Westphalia, Friedrich von Wied, 20,000 gulden for his ecclesiastical perquisite, a deal sponsored by the archbishop of Cologne, Hermann von Wied, who explained that Friedrich (his brother) had scant interest in matters spiritual. Bishop Fritzchen prefers working on his lathe (Drechseln). His parishioners call him “the Spindleturner” (der Spillendreher).

Clement VII, Giulio de’ Medici (Machiavelli’s patron—“one of the most unfortunate popes in history,”[2] approved this blatant simony, provided the Münster chapter did too. It did, and Erich was duly invested, borrowing the purchase money from Landgrave Philip of Hesse, a hard-nosed Protestant, who doubtless relished helping the Catholic Church shoot itself in its ecclesiastical foot. The feasting and boozing at Erich’s entry into his new see were so lavish (so reichlich gezecht), however, that the chief celebrant dropped dead, All three Westphalian bishoprics (Münster, Osnabrück, Paderborn) were thus simultaneously left vacant.

This vacuum was just the opening Westphalia’s Protestants needed. The citizens (Bürgerschaft) and city council of Herford, a nearby Hanse city founded in 789 by Charlemagne as Hervorde (“army ford,” the name also of Hereford in the marches of Wales, the capital of Saxon West Mercia), invited a young Lutheran preacher named Johann Dreyer (Dreier, Dreiger), a former monk in a local Augustinian monastery, to draw up a new constitution (Kirchenordnung) for their church.

No one could best this Dreyer in argument (bei Disputationen kein Gegner Dreyer widerstehen könne), they insisted. By letting it be known that he was otherwise planning to leave town soon, Dreyer nudged them into choosing him.

Born around 1500, this Johann Dreyer was the son of Bernhard Dreyer, a city councilor of the Alte Hansestadt and imperial free city of Lemgo in the Lippische Bergland (Lippe Uplands), bordering to the south on the Teutoburger Wald. Lemgo—which had a sizeable Jewish community—was a focus of radical thinking for centuries. Martin Luther’s theses were read from the pulpit there around 1518, and a local Reform movement rapidly developed. It had been a Hanse city since 1324, trading in cloth with Scandinavia via Lübeck.

In 1747, a Lemgo printer brought out a German translation, by a geübten Feder (“experienced Quill-pen,” i.e., writer), of the French deist Henri de Boulainvilliers’ Vie de Mahomed, “the most striking example of the ideological deployment of Islam [against Christian dogma] . . . in the European Early Enlightenment.” Boulainvilliers calls Mohammed “a true prophet and philosopher who, almost single-handedly, brought crashing down the corrupt and rotten empires of the Byzantines and Persians,” saying that “no other religious doctrine would seem to conform so completely to the light of reason as that founded by Mohammed.” This provocation was not just a flash in the pan either. A second edition of the Feder’s translation, Leben des Mahomeds, was published at Lemgo in 1769.[3]

The Lemgo Dreyers belonged to North Germany’s theological elite. Johann’s uncle was Dr. Hermann Dreyer, provincial superior of the Order of Saint Augustine in Saxony and Thuringia, and before that a professor at Rostock University. Hermann and Johann Dreyer were presumably Eremites—members of the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine—like Luther, and not, like their great contemporary Desiderius Erasmus, of the less strict order of canons regular. In either case, they were vowed to poverty, chastity, and obedience. “Both groups of Augustinians combined theology with a piety that was mystical without being extreme,” my late friend Richard Marius writes. “Their devotion to Augustine, cynosure of orthodoxy, kept them from wandering into giddy transports that could topple into heresy.”

Young Johann Dreyer would  nevertheless "topple into heresy." In 1528, still only in his twenties, he published a Protestant text in the vernacular, Eine korte underwysunge von deme heylsamen worde Goddes (A Short Exposition of God’s Healing Word). In 1530, he shed his monk’s habit and went to Wittenberg, where he met Martin Luther (1483–1546); Johannes Bugenhagen Pomeranus (1485–1558), Luther’s own confessor; and the famous Protestant theologian Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560), called the praeceptor Germaniae (teacher of Germany). On his return to Herford, since he was unable to preach the new doctrine in the Münsterkirche (Bugenhagen regarded Herford as a dangerous place, where Protestants might meet with violence), Johann preached it, to growing crowds, in the cemetery.

On April 7, 1532, am Sonntag Quasimodogeniti, which is to say, the Sunday following Easter Sunday, the new constitution, Ordinantie kerken ampte der erliken Stadt Hervorde dorch D. Johan Dreiger, received a full public reading. Bugenhagen, who had written several such constitutions, including that of Lübeck, supplied a preface to it, praising Johann Dreyer. As chief author of this Dreierschen Kirchenordnung, Dreyer became the first Lutheran minister at Herford and was acclaimed with the title Doktor Augustinianus. He was a rising star in the Protestant hierarchy, which was increasingly a secular as well as a spiritual power—his patron Bugenhagen personally crowned Christian III king of Denmark in Copenhagen in 1537.[4]

However, Dreyer soon found himself in conflict with Luther himself. In Herford there had long been a “Brethren House” of the pietistic Fratres Vitae Communis, or Brethren of the Common Life, committed to the devotio moderna (modern devotion) movement and linked to the Augustinian canons regular. The related Sisters of the Common Life also had a house in Herford. Although the Brethren espoused Lutheranism, the radical Herford city council had moved to secularize their establishments as early as 1525: “The monasteries were to cease as such, their inmates must attend the city churches, partake there of the sacraments, and change their clothing and habits of life. The Brethren and the Sisters in Herford refused to comply, and they appealed to Luther.”[5]

As it happened, Luther had himself attended a school of the Brethren of the Common Life, in Magdeburg in 1497–98, when he was in his early teens, and he evidently remembered them fondly. More important, the Herford Brethren had adopted Luther’s key doctrine of salvation by grace alone. On January 31, 1532, he therefore responded favorably to their appeal,  saying:


I have received your communications and have written about this matter to the senate of your city and asked that your house might be protected and spared the uncertainty which the agitators [clamatores, i.e., Dreyer and those who thought like him] are occasioning you.…Your manner of dress and other laudable practices have not hurt the Gospel; rather these old usages serve, once the Gospel is firmly planted, to keep under control the raging, licentious, and undisciplined spirits which today are bent upon destroying, not building.


Luther thus branded his own partisans in Herford “agitators”—“raging, licentious, and undisciplined spirits . . . bent upon destroying, not building.” According to William Landeen:


Doctor John Dreyer, the Lutheran pastor in the city church, complained bitterly to the prior of the Brethren House over his loss of face and prestige. This led Gerard Wiscamp [the rector], in an unguarded moment, to show Pastor Dreyer Luther’s personal letter of January 31 to the Brethren. Infuriated by Luther’s statements concerning himself and his fellow pastors, Dreyer now began a systematic campaign of slander, vilification, and falsification against the Brethren and the Sisters, which probably did not stop until the Lutheran leader moved to the city of Minden in 1540.

“I am glad, my Gerard, that the racket among you which Satan started, is sleeping,” Luther wrote Wiscamp in October 1532. In 1537, however, the conflict revived, and again Luther intervened. The Brethren and Sisters of the Common Life also found a defender in Anna von Limburg, abbess of Herford. “Two years later the Lutheran pastors seem to have made a special effort to destroy the Brethren and the Sisters, and it was not until 1542 that their houses were finally allowed to remain,” Landeen writes.

Dreyer had unreasonably condemned the Brethren and Sisters as ander Rotten und Sekten, using Luther’s own term for “enthusiasts” (Schwärmer) like Anabaptists and Schwenkfeldians (aliis haeresibus et sectis: “other heresies and sects”—but Rotte also means “rabble”).[6] Denounced as “raging, licentious, and undisciplined” by Luther himself, Dreyer was eventually obliged, it would seem, to step down as Herford’s Pfarrer. A letter Luther is known to have written to him has been lost, and what it conveyed is unknown.

Johann Dreyer died young, around 1544, at Minden—about twelve miles from Lübbecke, just over fifteen from Herford, and about sixteen from his presumed birthplace, Lemgo. It is unknown whether he ever married, or ever lived in Münster, but likely he did both. In his writings “The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows” (1521) and “Concerning Married Life” (1522), Luther celebrated marriage as an act of faith and sacred witness, and it became the rule for Reformed clerics. “Clerical marriage . . . was . . . as prominent a part of the Protestant agenda as justification by faith.”[7] Luther married himself and had six children with his wife, a former nun. Bugenhagen, Melanchthon, and other leading reformers also married and had children. So we may surmise that Johann Dreyer had children.

Luther believed in the 1530s that the end of the world was at hand, that the seemingly invincible Turks would soon take Vienna, and that the Muslims would then overrun Italy and western Europe.  Moreover, the papacy was itself demonic. “My fear is, that the papists will unite with the Turks to exterminate us,” Luther said. “Please God, my anticipation come not true, but certain it is, that the desperate creatures will do their best to deliver us over to the Turks.”[8]

Another Johann Dreyer—a son of the Doktor Augustinianus?—would be parson at Lemgo from 1567 to 1604. For over a century and a half, from 1509 to 1681, the city, dubbed a “witches’ nest” (Hexennest), was the scene of numerous witch trials, inspired by such paranoid musings, and this second Pastor Johann Dreyer could scarcely not have been involved.[9] Over two hundred people were judicially murdered at Lemgo as witches in this period. During the Thirty Years’ War, reckoned one of the most terrible in history, Lemgo was attacked in turn by both Catholic and Protestant armies and plague raged. Only half the city’s houses were left intact, and its population declined by two-thirds. The surrounding countryside was ravaged and its peasantry forcibly reduced to soldiers’ slaves, if not murdered. Every soldier needs three peasants, the troops said: one to feed and house him; one for a wife; and one to take his place in Hell.

Who, then, are these remote Westphalian Dreyers to me?

“Ils sont mes parents du fait d’avoir existé,” Marguerite Yourcenar mused about her own Flemish forebears.[10] They are my relatives by the fact of having existed.

The middle name given in 1689 to the future Isacq d’Algué, Johann Augustinus Dreyer (altered to “Augustus” in his will and in the names of many of his descendants in South Africa, but preserved by the Namibian sheep-rustler Augustinus Dreyer) paid homage to this ancestor who had figured in the Reformation, and to the family’s historical connection with the great mendicant order of the Augustinian Hermits.

[1] Republikein (Namibia),

[2] Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1999), 471.

[3] Boulainvilliers’ Vie de Mahomed, German trans. Das Leben des Mahomeds mit historischen Anmerkungen über die Mahomedanische Religion und die Gewohnheiten der Muselmänner; nebst einer Stamm-Tafel des Mahomeds und vollkommenem Abriß des Tempels zu Mecca (Lemgo: Meyer, 1747; 2nd ed., 1769), is cited in Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 571–72.

[4] Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 85. Crowning the Danish king had formerly been the prerogative of the Catholic archbishop of Lund.

[5] On the conflict over the Brethren of the Common Life, see William M. Landeen, “Martin Luther and the Devotio Moderna,” in The Dawn of Modern Civilization: Studies in Renaissance, Reformation and Other Topics Presented to Honor Albert Hyma, ed. Kenneth A. Strand, 145–64 (Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Publishers, 1962, 1964); quotations in the text are drawn from this account. On the Devotio Moderna, see also Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 1477–1806 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 41ff.

[6] See Robert Stupperich, Das Herforder Fraterhaus und die Devotio moderna: Studien zur Frömmigkeitsgeschichte Westfalens an d. Wende zur Neuzeit (Münster: Aschendorff, 1975), 62.

[7] Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 80.

[8] Luther, Tischreden (Table-Talk), trans. William Hazlitt, “Of the Turks,” no. 835.

[9] See Karl Meier, Geschichte der Stadt Lemgo (3rd ed. Lemgo: F. L. Wagener, 1981), 75–76; but Meier has little to say about Dreyer.

[10] Yourcenar, Archives du Nord (Paris: Gallimard, 1977), 76.


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