But although the terrible circumstances of the time certainly disengaged and developed many ideas of this kind, and easily account for the wild enterprises of the false Messiahs and the political efforts of fanatical Pharisees, they are very far from being sufficient to explain John the Baptist’s message. They do, indeed, explain how it was that deliverance from earthly things was an idea which seized hold of wide circles, and that people were looking to God. Trouble makes men pray. But trouble in itself does not give any moral force, and moral force was the chief element in John the Baptist’s message. In appealing to it, in proclaiming that everything must be based on morality and personal responsibility, he took a higher point of view than the feeble piety of the “poor,” and drew not from time but from eternity.
It is scarcely a century since Fichte delivered his memorable orations here in Berlin, after the terrible defeat which Germany had suffered. What did he do in these lectures? In the first place, he held up a mirror to the nation, and showed it its sins and their consequences,—frivolity, godlessness, self- complacency, infatuation, weakness. What did he do next? Did he simply call them to arms? Arms were just what they were no longer capable of bearing; they had been struck from their powerless hands. It was to repentance and to inward conversion that he called them; to God, and therefore to the exertion of all their moral force; to truth and to the Spirit, so that by the Spirit everything might be made new. By his powerful personality, and in union with friends of a like mind, he produced an immense impression. He succeeded in opening up once more the choked fountains of our energy, because he knew the strength from which help comes and had drunk of the living water himself. No doubt the necessities of the time taught him and steeled him; but it would be foolish and ridiculous to maintain that Fichte’s orations were the product of the general woe. They are the antithesis of it. Not otherwise must we think of John the Baptist’s message, and—let me say it at once—of the message which Jesus himself delivered. That they appealed to those who expected nothing of the world or of politics—of John the Baptist, however, this is not directly reported; that they would have nothing to do with those popular leaders who had led the people to ruin; that they turned their gaze altogether from earthly things, may also be accounted for by the circumstances of the time. But the remedy which they proclaimed was no product of those circumstances. Nay, was not calling people to ordinary morality and expecting everything of it bound to seem a hopeless enterprise? And whence came the power, the inflexible power, which compelled others? This leads us to the last of the questions which we have raised.