The German mystic Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) drew unique philosophical and religious ideas from his own spiritual experiences. His thought had a profound effect on German religious life and philosophy and influenced Quakerism in England.
Jacob Boehme was born at Alt-Seidenberg near Görlitz. His parents were peasants who apprenticed him to a shoemaker in Seidenberg. In 1599 he moved to Görlitz, where he prospered as a master cobbler. While still a young man, Boehme experienced mystical visions. These recurred as he grew older, and he became convinced that the inner mysteries of the universe had been opened to him. He had become, as he said, "enwrapped in the Divine Light," and he decided to write an account of his visions, Aurora (1612). This work soon came to the attention of the Lutheran pastor in Görlitz, who tried to have Boehme expelled from the town as a "villain full of piety." The town authorities, however, allowed Boehme to remain on the condition that he write no more books.
Boehme wrote nothing for 5 years, but then, encouraged by a vision, he again felt compelled to compose works that would set forth his ideas. The result was an astonishing number of writings, principally philosophical, theological, and devotional in nature. His most important works include Von der Gnadenwahl (Predestination), Mysterium magnum (Great Mystery), and Der Weg zu Christo (The Way of Christ; all 1623). The last is a collection of four of his devotional works dealing with true repentance, true resignation, regeneration, and the supersensual life.
While some of Boehme's thought remained within a traditional Lutheran framework, he also developed unorthodox ideas. He believed that man was saved by his own effort as well as grace, and he criticized institutional religion, referring to established churches as "churches of stone." But it was his metaphysical speculations that were most novel and that brought him many followers. He believed that all creation proceeded from God "by His self-differentiation into a negation of Himself." Thus, God manifests Himself in contraries. All things consist in yes and no, good and evil, dark and light, and the conflict between these opposites is the fundamental law of being. Boehme's primary religious concern was to demonstrate how the duality of life could be overcome through the reconciliation of opposites in spiritual unity.
Because of the Lutheran pastor's opposition, Boehme was finally obliged to leave Görlitz. He went to Dresden, where he was warmly received by the intellectual community. But he soon returned to Görlitz and, shortly after his arrival, died there on Nov. 17, 1624.
The most complete work on Boehme, based on all the sources, is John Joseph Stoudt, Sunrise to Eternity: A Study in Jacob Boehme's Life and Thought (1957). Another biography is Hans L. Martensen, Jacob Boehme (trans. 1885; rev. ed. 1949). Additional studies are A. J. Penny, Studies in Jacob Böhme (1912); Rufus M. Jones, Spiritual Reformers in the 16th and 17th Centuries (1914); George Mervin Alleman, A Critique of Some Philosophical Aspects of the Mysticism of Jacob Boehme (1932); and C. A. Muses, Illumination on Jacob Boehme: The Work of Dionysius Andreas Freher (1951). Numerous editions of all of Boehme's works are available in English translations.