Louise of Prussia by Joseph GrassiLouise of Mecklenburg by Jozef Maria Grassi, 1804She had captured the hearts and imaginations of her people with her beauty and acts of charity, but it was her courage in confronting Napoleon that made her the iconic champion of Protestant German, much as her childhood friend Marie Therese would be to French Catholics. Raised simply, she was taught to sew her own clothes as a young girl, and always exuded an easy charm in the presence of others.

So captivating was the young seventeen year-old Louise that Crown Prince Frederick William, the earnest and deeply religious son of the King, was immediately smitten. In storybook fashion, Frederick William’s younger brother Prince Louis Charles also proposed to Louise’s younger sister, Frederica and a year later, the two couples were married only two days apart.

Protestant refugees from throughout Europe had found safe haven in Prussia, where the Protestant Prince-Elector John Sigismund sheltered them from the Catholic Counter-Reformation sweeping through neighboring lands. By the thousands they came, from Bohemia, France, parts of the Netherlands, Poland and Switzerland.

The Crown Prince’s father, Fredrick William II was an extremely interesting character who all but destroyed religious liberty in an attempt to save it. In typical Prussian fashion, his ministers required that the clergy stick strictly to whatever confession was adopted in their own churches, whether Lutheran, Reformed, Mennonite, Brethren, etc. There is no doubt that the policies solidified the right of such groups as the Mennonites, for example, to exist and worship openly, but Frederick William II seemed more interested in order than piety. On a personal level, he was something of a mystic, nominally associated with the Reformed Church, but in actuality a Rosicrucian whose court was marked by infidelity. In fact, the king sired seven children with three different mothers, following two bigamous marriages. The people derisively referred to him as der Vielgeliebte, the “much-loved” king.

Louise of Prussia by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1801
Louise of Prussia by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1801
But as is often the case, when the parents send the children off to “Sunday School” for show, God uses the experience for His own ends. That was certainly true of Frederick William III, who took the religious instruction to heart. Not surprisingly in 1797, the moment his father died, the Crown Prince began an immediate cleansing of the court according to the dictates of his Reformed faith. Ministers were dismissed, expenses slashed, and those who had previously flaunted their immoral conduct were swiftly sent packing. But how to deal with the system of state religion that his father has created would prove to be a lifelong challenge, and one which he never solved.

It has been said Frederick William III possessed all of the House of Hohenzollern’s desire for power with none of the ability to use it well. While he was happily married in an almost idyllic relationship with his beautiful Queen Louise, he proved tentative in statecraft and too clever by half in matters of the church. Striving to stay out of the Napoleonic Wars, he was eventually drug in to disastrous effect. He travelled to meet Napoleon and plead for mercy in the carving up of the Prussian lands, but it was Louise who would steal the show, albeit to none effect. Lovely, and pregnant, she went to meet with Napoleon at Tilsit, securing a private audience to “save her Prussia.”

Frederick William III and Queen Louise in the park of Schloss Charlottenburg by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1794
Frederick William III and Queen Louise in the park of Schloss Charlottenburg by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1794
Napoleon would write to his wife Josephine about the meeting, obviously impressed with both her charm and her courage. He would later call Louise “the only real man in Prussia.” For her part, despite the devastation of war that wreaked havoc throughout her lands, Louise would delight that “The calamities which have befallen us have not forced their way into our wedded and home life, rather have strengthened the same, and made it even more precious to us.”

Unfortunately, Frederick William’s ineptness in war, despite the most honorable of intentions, would be mirrored by his bungled attempt to unite the Protestant churches in Prussia. A devout Calvinist, his lovely bride was an equally ardent Lutheran. Such were there convictions that they both took communion, but never together. Whether this contributed to Frederick William’s order that the Reformed and Lutheran Churches should be merged under a common state ministry, and henceforth use a common liturgy, we can only speculate. We do know that it was seven years after Louise’s untimely death that Frederick William embarked upon his church union scheme.

Napoleon receives the Queen of Prussia at Tilsit by Jean Charles Tardieu, 1807
Napoleon receives the Queen of Prussia at Tilsit by Jean Charles Tardieu, 1807
The notion most probably came from the decision of the Potsdam Reformed and Lutheran churches to form a union church, since the order came soon after. The order also required churches to drop the name “Lutheran” or “Reformed” and adopt the common name “Evangelical,” instead. This he quickly decided was a bad idea, and the order was rescinded. More to the point, a common liturgy would obviously require compromise on someone’s part, and since Frederick William was Reformed, not surprisingly, it was the Lutherans who found their emphasis on the “real presence” of Christ’s body in the Lord’s Supper to be missing from the communion liturgy.

Friedrich Wilhelm III and His Family by Heinrich Anton Dähling, 1806
Friedrich Wilhelm III and His Family by Heinrich Anton Dähling, 1806
The “Old Lutherans” refused to go along with the order, and some were actually arrested. It was not until Frederick William’s death, when his son Frederick William IV assumed the throne, that the sharp teeth of these orders were mercifully withdrawn. The “Old Lutheran” division would manifest itself in the United States where the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod would take one side, while the “Evangelical Church” (the U.S. transplanted offspring of the Evangelische Church in Germany) would take the other.

John Sigismund, c. 1610
John Sigismund, c. 1610
Nevertheless, the marriage of Frederick William III and Duchess Louise would place an indelible stamp upon the conscience of a nation. It was not only their celebrated happy marriage, but also the tragedy of the young queen, mother of nine, departing this life at the tender age of 34. Painters and sculptors have rendered numerous tributes to the Prussian Queen, and she has often been idealized as the personification of the godly mother and wife (most ingenuously, by the Nazi propaganda machine). Today, for Germans of all stripes, but for German Protestants in particular, Louise remains an alluring and enigmatic subject, reflecting upon how one life, had she lived it but a while longer, might have changed so much of our collective histories.

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Wayne C. Johnson is the editor of Leben Magazine. He is a founding member of the Board of Governors of City Seminary of Sacramento. He is president of The Wayne Johnson Agency, a public affairs firm, as well as CEO of Gateway Media, a digital advertising agency. He graduated with a degree in European History from Purdue University.