Cornelius, Carl Adolf (1819-1903)

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Carl Adolf Cornelius, the historiographer of the Münster revolt, the eldest son of the actors Carl and Friederike Cornelius, was born 12 March 1819 at Würzburg, Germany, growing up in Mainz and Wiesbaden. To attend the gymnasium he lived with his uncle, the Provinzialschulrat Brüggemann, first in Coblenz and later in Berlin. The strict Catholic piety of this home in contrast with the freer atmosphere of his own home made a lasting impression on him. From 1836 on he devoted himself to the study of history and philology in Bonn and Berlin, especially under Ranke.

Cornelius began to teach in 1841, but not until his appointment as professor of history at the Lyceum in Braunsberg in 1846 was it possible for him to devote himself to scholarship. Always active in politics as well as scholarship, in 1848 he became the Braunsberg delegate to the Frankfurt parliament. His experience here during the revolution of 1849 stirred his interest in writing on the Münster rebellion.

Since his account of the origin of the book on Münster prepared for his publisher (June 1845) may be of interest to the reader, it is herewith presented:

When in the spring of 1849 at Frankfurt I experienced the beginnings of a serious revolution, I formed the idea of writing a history of the Münster revolt, the only real and complete revolution on German soil. This vivid experience aided me in giving a clear picture of that movement. . . .

Careful examination of existent works and a comparison of these with the known sources soon convinced me that the lazy use of accessible aids would not be adequate in carrying out my intention. My predecessors had neither exploited the sources with sufficient thoroughness, nor discriminated between the relative value of the individual reporters. Then it turned out that the sources they had used were themselves for the most part not original but secondary, and that the true source materials were still to be discovered. I therefore had to change my original plan for a historical and political sketch into a really scholarly work. I . . . have ever since been occupied with this subject, at first fully without interruption, then in the time I could spare from my teaching duties. Rarely has so much time and effort been expended on so limited a topic.

The result of my investigations in libraries and archives was (1) the use of the hitherto neglected but extensive account of the only eyewitness, Meister Gresbeck; (2) the discovery of the chief writings of the Münster Anabaptists; (3) the discovery of several minor writings in printed and manuscript form and over 1,000 authentic documents.

The result of my critical efforts was a thorough reworking of the material from the ground up. I owe nothing to any of my predecessors; almost every stroke of my historical picture deviates to some extent at least from the traditional presentations.

Since I have by way of introduction published two preliminary smaller works, Die Münsterischen Humanisten und ihr Verhältnis zur Reformation. Ein historischer Versuch (Münster, 1851); and Der Anteil Ostfrieslands an der Reformation bis zum fahr 1535 (Münster, 1852), and had published a part of my new sources and a detailed critique of the total supply of sources, Berichte der Augenzeugen über das Münsterische Wiedertäuferreich. 2. Teil der Geschichtsquellen des Bistums Münster (Münster, 1853), I now intend to publish the principal work. Geschichte des Münsterischen Aufruhrs, in three books.

The third book, Neu-Jerusalem, describes the kingdom of Jan van Leyden, the doctrinal system of the sect, the ecclesiastical and political institutions and the life of the congregation, the struggle of the imperial forces against Münster and the outcome.

Cornelius did not return to Braunsberg when his term in Frankfurt was finished, but devoted all his time in the following years to archival research and working over the unexpected treasures he found. In 1850 he took his doctor's degree in Münster with the dissertation, De fontibus, quibus in historia seditionis Monasteriensis Anabaptisticae narranda viri docti hue usque usi sunt, in which he demonstrates the inadequacy of the sources hitherto used. The monograph, Die Münsterischen Humanisten und ihr Verhältnis zur Reformation, which he worked out at the same time, followed. He then acquired the venia legendi in Breslau in 1852 with a third work, Ostfrieslands Anteil an der Reformation. His scholarly achievements found immediate recognition. Early in 1854 he was made associate professor at the university of Breslau, and in the same year full professor at Bonn. In 1855 appeared the first volume of his history of the Münster revolt. In the autumn of 1856 he was called to a professorship at the university of Munich, and remained there until his death.

With the establishing of the Bavarian Historical Commission in 1858 a new field was opened to him and his students. The publication of the Wittelsbach correspondence ordered by the king delayed his work on the third volume of his history of the Münster revolt, the second volume of which had appeared in 1860. Later he returned to this work and published a part of his studies in Münchener Akademische Abhandlungen, 1869; Historisches Taschenbuch, 1872; and Zeitschrift des Bergischen Geschichtsvereins X and XIV. But he never concluded his Münster studies, for he waited in vain for the recovery of a document which he thought was hidden in a peasant house in Westphalia.

The scholarly work of his later years was concerned almost exclusively with the history of Calvin. After he resigned from active teaching at the age of 70, partly in consequence of the attitude of the Munich Ministry of Religious Affairs toward his ecclesiastical position, he devoted himself to this new task until a cerebral hemorrhage in 1897 disabled him. On 10 February 1903 he died.

When the dogma of papal infallibility was decreed by the Vatican Council of 1870, Cornelius left the Roman Catholic fold to become a leader (until his death) of the Old Catholic Church.

His sketch of his father's personality is a most striking description of his own character: "In daily conduct amiable, sociable, and cheerful, in all his obligations faithful, helpful, unselfish, of highest integrity and purity of heart, the foe of all falsehood and all pretense; at once possessed by a sense of dignity as a man of God's grace and personal honor and by childlike modesty toward all foreign outside recognition." -- HC

Carl Adolf Cornelius rendered the greatest service to the historiography of the Anabaptists. He broke completely with the traditional, prejudiced, state-church treatment of the subject. In untiring and thorough research he pursued the sources and with marvelous lucidity in a noble zeal for the truth he uncovered and exposed all the malice and bias of previous presentations. With amazement we see in his writings his gradual growth into the tremendous material and regret that he was unable to carry the great work to completion. In classically beautiful language, in concentrated brevity, with the most thorough familiarity with and fullest use of the sources, which he notes carefully and in part reproduces, in benevolent kindly judgment which endeavors to secure justice to the Anabaptist movement, this meritorious historian has produced an epoch-making presentation of one of the phases of Anabaptist history and obligated us to lasting gratitude.


Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 v. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 372 ff.

Author(s) Christian Neff
Date Published 1953

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MLA style

Neff, Christian. "Cornelius, Carl Adolf (1819-1903)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 23 Sep 2021.,_Carl_Adolf_(1819-1903)&oldid=94252.

APA style

Neff, Christian. (1953). Cornelius, Carl Adolf (1819-1903). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 September 2021, from,_Carl_Adolf_(1819-1903)&oldid=94252.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 714-715. All rights reserved.

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