March 10, 2021

An Underground Seminary

Stephen Nichols
An Underground Seminary

After the national church in Germany endorsed the Nazi party, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began an underground seminary to train ministers to defend the truth of God’s Word. On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols describes the challenges that this small school faced under Nazi suppression.


On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, we’ll talk about the context of a classic book from the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. We will look at the book itself later, but here, let’s look at what gave shape to that book.

In 1933, there was the formation of the Confessing Church in Germany. This stood alongside of the national church, which had endorsed the Nazi party and came to be known as the Reichskirche. The Confessing Church needed its own seminary, so in 1935 it opened the doors of the seminary at Finkenwalde. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the director. It had very modest and humble beginnings. In fact, Bonhoeffer writes, “When we opened our new home here in Finkenwalde back in June [1935], we did not know where to start. The great house was empty except for a few pieces of furniture, and even they were in bad shape. And the rooms were dilapidated; hence, we asked the congregation and pastors of the Confessing Church to help us out.”

Well, they did help out. They sent chairs and bookshelves and beds and other items of furniture. They would send food. He writes about someone who dropped off a whole basket of pears and a 10 mark note so they could buy a roast. Even a seventy-eight-year-old woman from the neighborhood helped out. She would come and help them clean the seminary.

Bonhoeffer continues, “After offering thanks for all these things, we would now also like to relate something about the purpose of our life and work together here, the special crisis into which the church struggle has led us. This is the formation of the preacher’s seminary here of the Confessing Church.” Then Bonhoeffer says, “The Bible stands at the center of our work.” He writes in a letter to none other than Karl Barth that the purpose of the seminary is threefold. First, to learn how to read the Bible. This is first and foremost. Second, to know what they believe and how to defend it. A key text for them at Finkenwalde was the Augsburg Confession. This is the doctrinal confession of the Lutheran church, and this was at the center of the teaching, so they knew what they believed and would be able to defend it and contend for it. Then third Bonhoeffer says, “And we need to teach students how to pray.” They were in a time of crisis; and an even more intense crisis would come, as we know how the 1930s end and we move into the 1940s.

There’s even a moment where Bonhoeffer shares the budget. This is the budget for six months, the winter of their first six months there. It totals $2,900. It includes money for rent. It includes one hundred dollars for the library. It includes coal for the kitchen, money for lights and gas, and then the food total: one hundred twenty pounds of butter, seventy-five pounds of sugar, and potatoes, bread, meat, bacon, milk, and flour. These are Germans, you know. Meat and potatoes. Of course, these are seminarians, so they get hungry.

How did things go at the seminary? On November 30, 1937, the Gestapo shut down the seminary at Finkenwalde. In response, on December 20 Bonhoeffer wrote to the friends of the seminary: “The balance sheet for this year is rather clear and unambiguous. Twenty-seven from our circle have been in prison. For some, it lasted several months. Some are still detained at present and have spent the entire Advent in prison. Among the others, there won’t be a single person who has not experienced the impact in his work and in his personal life of the increasingly impatient attacks of the anti-Christian forces. Now, even the place where we would gather has been taken from us. This is a time of testing for us all. We have said farewell to Finkenwalde in great thankfulness for everything that God gave us in the two and a half years of seminary work, and we are prepared to fulfill the new task we face. What we have learned will stay with us. And already today, we can see that the new paths along which we are being led will also give us reason for deep gratitude.”