[Index of Biographies]

Ernst Jakob Danovius (1741-1782)

[This is a draft of an article in The Dictionary of Eighteenth Century German Philosophers, 3 vols., edited by Manfred Kuehn and Heiner Klemme (London/New York: Continuum, 2010).]

Ernst Jakob Danovius was born 12 March 1741 in Redlau (near Danzig), and died 18 March 1782 in Jena as the first professor of theology. During his brief academic career, Danovius was an Enlightenment reformer of theology and one of Kant’s early supporters at Jena.

Much of Danovius’s early education was carried out by his father, the Lutheran pastor in Redlau (later pastor of the Trinity Church in Thorn), but he also attended the Latin school in Danzig before entering the university at Helmstedt in 1760 (studying under the Wolffian Johann Ernst Schubert and the deist Wilhelm August Teller [bio]), transferring to Göttingen in 1763, where he studied Eastern languages under Johann David Michaelis [bio]. He worked as a private tutor in the home of Abt Schubert in Greifswald in 1765, during which time he also received his Magister degree, and in 1766 was called back to Danzig as rector of the Johannisschule. In 1768 he was offered a full professorship of theology at Jena, and in 1775 was made a church counselor for Saxony. Danovius taught at Jena for fourteen years, eventually becoming the senior theology professor, and lectured primarily on dogmatics, symbolics, New Testament exegesis, and moral philosophy, until his early death by suicide, of which Goldbeck (1783) gives a detailed account (in sum: at four in the morning on a Monday two weeks before Easter, with neither cane nor hat nor wig, he left his house and threw himself into the river Saale). Danovius had been arguing recently against suicide in his lectures, and colleagues attributed the suicide to a regrettable combination of overwork and an impetuous yet melancholy disposition.

Apart from the works listed below, Danovius published about a dozen disputations and programs (as listed in Meusel and Jöcher/Adelung). He wrote only with great effort, and in a prose that was labored and stiff, although he was said to have been a passionate and successful classroom lecturer. In theology he aligned himself with J. A. Ernesti [bio] (Leipzig), J. S. Semler [bio] (Halle), and Michaelis, and in his own work, principally his two-volume Dogmatics (1772-1776), he hoped to reconcile the Lutheran and Reformed confessions and to move the whole closer to a rational religion. In a note to his unfinished translation of Roustan (1783), he wrote: “The truth of Christianity follows from natural religion itself, conveying the undeniable facts to which it leads so directly that, to deviate from Christianity one could not leave undisturbed the principles on which natural religion rests. [...] Hume, in order to destroy the proofs of Christianity, saw it necessary also to make God’s existence doubtful” (qtd. in Schröpfer 1993, 79).

Danovius’s career was marked by controversy, in particular over his account of justification, first described in his inaugural dissertation of 1768, that held it to concern one’s beliefs over a lifetime, and not of a particular moment. As he wrote in his Three Treatises on the Justification of the Human before God (1777): “Justification itself is eternal and unchanging; no one loses the goodness of justification once received from God. And many are not justified who at present actually believe, because God has already seen that they will not continue in their belief to the end of their lives.” This position set him at odds with his own theology faculty, as well as those at Erlangen and Göttingen, and when he persisted in this doctrine the Erlangen faculty had their dean, Georg Friedrich Seiler, publicly contradict him — to which Danovius replied (1777, 1778).

Danovius belonged to a group of early Kant supporters at Jena, including his close colleague Johann Wilhelm Schmid [bio] (1744-98) and his wife’s brother, C. G. Schütz [bio] (1747-1832), who came to Jena in 1779 as the full professor for poetry and eloquence and co-founded (with Gottlieb Hufeland) the Jenaische Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung in 1785 (an important forum for the Critical Philosophy). K. C. E. Schmid [bio] (1761-1812), who would later lecture on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at Jena, was a student in Danovius’s classroom during his last three years. Danovius made Kant’s acquaintance during a visit to Königsberg, probably when he was still at Danzig, and in a letter of 12 January 1770 (AA 10: 87-88) he asked Kant of his interest in a newly created chair of philosophy at Jena (Kant had already been short-listed for a position at Jena in 1765 that ultimately went to J. C. Hennings [bio]). If Kant was interested, Danovius would promote his case; but by then Kant was certain of an imminent opening at Königsberg, so the matter was dropped.

From nearby Weimar, Herder [bio] complained to Hamann of Kant’s recently published Critique of Pure Reason (in a letter of 31 December 1781): “I’m reading Kant, but I can’t make any headway. Danovius in Jena said in his class that the book takes a year to read.” Danovius committed suicide three months later.


Ueber die Religionsvereinigung, eine Vorlesung (Jena, 1771).

Theologiae dogmaticae institutio, 2 vols. (Jena, 1772-76).

Drey Abhandlungen von der Rechtfertigung des Menschen vor Gott (Jena, 1777).

Kurze Erklärung über die neue vom Hrn. K. R. Seiler gegen ihn, der Lehre von der Rechtfertigung halber, herausgegebene Schrift (Jena, 1778).

(trans./ed.), A. J. Roustan, Briefe zur Vertheidigung der christlichen Religion, ed. C. G. Schütz (Halle: J. J. Gebauer, 1783).

Further Reading

ADB, vol. 4, p. 746 (Gustav Frank).

APB, vol. 1, pp. 124-25 (Faber).

Frank, Gustav, “Danovius.” In: Albert Hauck, ed., Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche (Leipzig, 1898), vol. 4, pp. 464-66.

Goldbeck, Johann Friedrich, Litterarische Nachrichten von Preußen, 2 vols. (Berlin, Leipzig, Dessau: 1781/1783), vol. 2, pp. 127-30.

Jöcher/Adelung (Leipzig, 1787), vol. 2, col. 620.

Meusel (Leipzig, 1803), vol. 2, pp. 274-75.

Schröpfer, Horst, “Danovius und Kant.” In: Norbert Hinske, ed., Kant und die Aufklärung (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1993), pp. 77-83.

[Index of Biographies]