Private Candles in German Protestant Churches

It is now commonplace in German Protestant churches to find private, non-liturgical candles burning in wordless prayer. These candles, lit by individuals who might spend little time in church themselves, represent a transformation of classical Protestantism that highlights shifts between public (congregational) and private (individual) religiosity, and perhaps between what we might call “institutional theology” and “individualistic spirituality.” If Martin Luther (1483-1546) were to visit a Protestant church in present-day Germany, he might be shocked to see the new forms of spirituality that have emerged there. Seeing the candles, Luther might be relieved to notice that the church had no statues, that the candles were lit before plain walls. However, he might be puzzled that the next Protestant church contains a huge statue of the Virgin Mary looking out onto a similar sea of candles and flyers filled with prayers and poetry. But, perhaps on further reflection, he might recognize in such practices some aspect of the Protestant Reformation that he began: namely, he recognize at the core of such practices an echo of the Reformation’s erasure of spiritual hierarchy and the dissolution of centralized power to grant or deny access to God.

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