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Andrews and Nietzsche: the Swiss Connection

Nietzsche and Andrews

Significant moments in Adventist history happened at the same time as important events in the wider world. Adventism never exists in a vacuum. The church exists in context. It forgets that at its peril.

Friedrich Nietzsche arrived at the central railway station in Basel, Switzerland, on Monday April 19, 1869. He had come to take up the University of Basel’s chair of classical philology. At 24 he was the youngest to hold the position—an extraordinary intellect. Basel was a small, medieval town of 30,000 inhabitants, struggling to open itself to the modern world. Mountains hedged it in, and only a year before Nietzsche’s arrival, the demolition of the ancient city walls had begun to allow freer movement. Living close to Leipzig in Prussia (a year before it became Germany) Nietzsche felt the narrowness of it all.

John Nevins Andrews left Boston on September 15, 1874 bound for Neuchatel, a town some 50 miles southwest of Basel. He set out to contact local Sabbath keepers—mainly watchmakers in the mountain areas. But in March 1876, he relocated to Basel where he found better means for printing and publishing his new magazine, Les Signes des TempsSigns of the Times. The first edition appeared that July. More importantly, Andrews hoped to expand the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist Church in Europe. He established these missionary endeavors at Weiherweg 46 in Basel. 

Nietzsche lived mostly at Spalentorweg 48, a ten-minute walk away at most. He was an indefatigable walker, taking solitary strolls for 8 to 10 hours at a time.  “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” he said. He sometimes visited the hills and mountains. Other times he walked in and around the city. Opposite the Adventist European Mission building lay a huge park and woodland area that would have provided him with an ideal ‘short’ walk. 

One can easily envision these two near neighbors passing each other in the street during the three years (1876-1879) that they lived in the city at the same time. If they had stopped to speak to one another, what might they have said? The two inhabited parallel universes, Nietzsche professing, “God is dead”; Andrews believing, “Jesus is coming.”

Friedrich Nietzsche worked almost in a frenzy on grand ideas ultimately designed to banish the myths of the Christian church popularized in Europe by the likes of John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. Nietzsche had no time for a self-sacrificing God who ruled the world so ineptly, or for weak human beings who leant on a feeble, pernicious teachings of Jesus. Nietzsche saw Jesus as lacking all vitality and draining it from his followers. He despised Christians who preferred their fiction of this poor deity to the necessity of robustly confronting their own lives. 

Nietzsche railed against the Christian virtues—humility, pity, poverty, chastity. The Christian God was the God of the sick. Christianity was hostility against life. It betrayed basic human instincts. The priests nauseated him with their story about an imaginary world where all injustices are righted.

In stark contrast with Nietzsche’s ubermensch, or ‘superior-man,’ Andrews believed that Jesus was the supreme God-man, intimately involved in all our lives to strengthen us—the only hope for the people of Basel and everyone else. Indeed, Andrews was here precisely to tell the people of Europe that this same Jesus would soon return to earth to welcome the faithful, a message that did not sit well with the traditionalists of Basel. But Jesus would give them strength to contend with the hostility that they would inevitably encounter. The message was not for the weak-willed.

It did not end well for either of them. Andrews was discouraged by letters from the American leaders, his friends, who wrote words of severe rebuke saying that his work in Basel was a failure. He took scant care of his own wellbeing. His health deteriorated, and on October 21, 1883, at age 54, tuberculosis cut short Andrews’ life, hastened by his obsession with working to proclaim a soon-coming Lord. Grief at the loss of his daughter Mary to the same disease five years before weakened Andrews. He was buried in a nearby cemetery in an unmarked grave, which soon became overgrown and forgotten. 

Nietzsche left Basel in 1879, his health deteriorating, too. His writing received very mixed reactions. He often felt lonely and misunderstood. He sank deeper into ill-health and suffered a severe mental breakdown. He had to be cared for by his sister, Elisabeth, among others. He finally died in 1900, not much older than Andrews. 

Neither of them was much missed by the residents on Spalentorweg or Weiherweg, yet strangely enough, the influence of both men, who may have rubbed shoulders on the streets of Basel in the late 1870s, proved far-reaching. In time the impact of their ideas spread from Basel throughout the world. 

Andrews pioneered a missionary movement in Europe that, in subsequent years, sustained the faith and lives of hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants. World-wide the numbers run into many millions. In Switzerland there are now over 50 Adventist churches, as well as the Inter-European Division headquarters. Not a proud man, Andrews might have been gratified by the fact that his church did eventually recognize his contribution and named one of its premier universities after him.

Nietzsche gave bold expression to the idea that God is dead, which has now invaded every aspect of life in Europe. He generated a new secular orthodoxy. Nietzsche would similarly be surprised that his ideas were responsible in part for banishing the Christian god to the margins of society, surprised that his ideas would still be studied in university philosophy courses a century after his death. He would be appalled by the fact that a perversion of his ideas was the rationale for Nazi ideology long after his death.

Two residents of Basel. But no one who lived on Spalentorweg or Weiherweg had any idea what revolution was incubating on their quiet streets.

About the author

Michael Pearson is a retired ethicist living in the UK. He and his wife, Helen, run the website Pearsons’ Perspectives. More from Michael Pearson.
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