The Practical Divinity of Universal Learning:

John Durie’s Educational Pansophism



George M. Ella


     What awaits the reader of a book on John Durie’s pansophism? “Pansophism” – that sounds like an esoteric secret science, like special occult teachings, like “Theosophy” and “Anthroposophy”. In fact, the opposite is true. Not an exclusive secret knowledge for the few, but free access to the entire knowledge of mankind for all, regardless of race, social class, age and gender, is what a correctly understood pansophism aspires. It does not look for an exclusive knowledge of God, man or the cosmos, but rather for an integration and connection of all knowledge and its free distribution. Pansophism is not esoteric but exoteric, it is a comprehensive program of education and social reform. In this respect, the pansophical ideal is eminently modern. Many claims pansophical thinkers have raised over three hundred years ago are more relevant today than ever before, and only the technological achievements of our time make it possible to redeem them in full. Rightly so, this book reclaims the pansophical ideal as a model for the present.

     At one crucial point, however, the pansophical program is decidedly non-modern, even anti-modern. For the totality of knowledge it seeks to integrate includes religious, theological understanding – and that not as an addition to other stocks of knowledge, but as the beginning and foundation. The core of pansophia must be the knowledge of God and its practical appropriation in life: a “practical divinity”, as Durie called it. At this point the pansophical ideal constitutes a challenge, even a provocation for the modern secular thinking. Unlike as in Durie’s days, the concept of a pansophism based on a theology of the Covenant of Grace nowadays cannot meet general acceptance in society and scholarship any longer. All the more it can and must serve as a necessary stimulus and skandalon for the secular society, but even more for theology, which is reminded that the knowledge about God must not became worldless, that it must never became a pious end in itself. Christian knowledge of God as the Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer of the world and of man cannot be without a comprehensive knowledge about the world and about man and an affectionate love for both of them.

     Nowadays, usually John Amos Comenius is regarded as the main champion of pansophism. In fact, this credit must be attributed to John Durie. The author of this book, Dr. George Melvyn Ella, has clearly demonstrated his priority. As he could prove, in comparison to Comenius Durie has developed the more original, more comprehensive and more ambitious approach. So it is high time to make Durie step out of the long shadow of the famous Moravian theologian and educator.

     Unlike in parts of anglophone scholarship Durie had never been totally forgotten in German church history. Above all he was known as a champion of pan-Protestant unity. As such, I became acquainted with Durie some twenty years ago in my own research on aspirations for Protestant unity in the early modern period without having the opportunity to spend more time on this fascinating personality. So when Dr. Ella approached me with the plan to write a doctoral thesis in divinity on Durie I gladly agreed to supervise his work and his graduation at the University of Marburg. Following Karl Brauer’s essay of 1907, Dr. Ella’s book is the second thesis on Durie presented to the University of Marburg – the State University of the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel which became Durie’s most important operational base and his last asylum in Germany.

     The book by Dr. Ella is something like the sum of a life’s work. Since his student days in Uppsala half a century ago, he has been fascinated by Durie, and you can still feel this fascination in the pages of the present book. Through his varied biography Dr. Ella has acquired in a unique way all those skills which are necessary for a comprehensive assessment of Durie’s concern and action. Like Durie, he is British with Scottish roots and has lived in England, Sweden and Germany. Like Durie, he is a polyglot and commands a wide range of antique and modern languages. Like Durie, he has worked as a clergyman, a teacher, a librarian and a writer, and like Durie he is a versatile polymath, a gifted theologian and an educator and irenicist of passion.

     Dr. Ella’s book cannot and will not be the last word on Durie research. It is intended as a guidance and expedient for further studies. Nevertheless, one can safely call this book a milestone in the history of research on Durie. Dr. Ella has used printed and manuscript sources from more than 60 libraries and archives, especially in Germany, Britain and Sweden. He has spotted and perused nearly 220 books and about 500 letters from Durie’s pen and analyzed about 50 books and about 200 letters in detail. Thus, his work is based on a much larger amount of sources than any previous study of Durie.

     In this way, Dr. Ella has greatly expanded the research material available for reconstructing the biography and thinking of Durie. Because of his knowledge of the sources he has been able to rectify a multitude of errors and misjudgments circulated in earlier publications. Most spectacular to me is his reassessment of the relationship between Durie and Comenius.

    The most substantial achievement of this book, however, lies in the fact that Dr. Ella has presented for the first time a consistent, comprehensive interpretation of Durie’s work in toto. Durie’s amazing versatility and activity compelled all previous publications to single out only a few aspects of his work, mostly his irenicism or his contributions to education, but also his contributions to librarianship or his attitude toward Judaism. Actually, in all this Durie was conducted by one parent interest: the establishment of a universal, pansophic education on a Christian foundation. To have discovered this Archimedean point in Durie’s will and action is the great merit of the present book. Any future research on Durie will have to deal with this thesis.

     I wish the book a lot of interested readers, and many dedicated followers who will help to make the fascinating personality of John Durie so well known again as he deserves.

Marburg, on Ascension Day 2012

Prof. Dr. Wolf-Friedrich Schäufele