[Index of Biographies]

Johann August, Freiherr von Starck (1741-1816)

[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).]

Johann August Starck (also: ‘Stark’) was born in Schwerin (Mecklenburg) on 28 October 1741, the son of a Lutheran pastor. He died in Darmstadt on 3 March 1816. Starck was a prolific author and controversial Königsberg theologian, as well as a widely-read political writer now best remembered for arguing that an Illuminati-led conspiracy brought about the French revolution. Immanuel Kant and J. G. Hamann were among his acquaintances in Königsberg. His prose, both written and from the pulpit, was described as plodding and humorless, yet he possessed a remarkable ability to make and keep friends in high places, gaining the confidence of many aristocrats.

Starck began his studies in theology and oriental languages at Göttingen in 1761 under J. D. Michaelis (1717-91) [bio], with whom he later broke. In that same year he was initiated into a French freemasonry lodge at Göttingen and soon became an enthusiastic and evangelizing convert. He also made the acquaintance – either at Göttingen or later at St. Petersburg – of A. F. Büsching (1724-93) [bio], who would play a continuing and important role in Starck's career. Büsching taught at the university in Göttingen but left for St. Petersburg in 1761 to pastor the Lutheran congregation there and to direct the famous Petrina Academy, and in 1763 he offered Starck a post teaching Roman antiquity and Near Eastern (‘oriental’) languages. Starck filled this post for the next two years, all the while furthering his contacts in the world of freemasonry, and then traveled to Paris in 1765 and obtained a position at the royal library working with ancient Near Eastern manuscripts. It was claimed that he secretly joined the Catholic church during this trip to Paris, although he disputed this claim to the end (and in any event he was buried as a Protestant). Starck was awarded his magister degree from Göttingen in absentia (28 August 1766), but his father’s illness soon brought him back to Germany, where he assumed a position as assistant rector at the gymnasium in Wismar (1766-8). Starck returned to St. Petersburg in 1768, presumably on freemasonry business, before arriving in Königsberg (28 September 1769) where he lived next door to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) [bio] – both were renting rooms from the book dealer Kanter, although Starck appears to have enjoyed free lodging. Starck began teaching in the philosophy faculty as an associate professor of Near Eastern languages with the summer semester of 1770, the same semester Kant began his tenure as full professor of logic and metaphysics [timeline of the faculty at Königsberg]. Starck was also appointed as second court chaplain at this time. In 1773 he received a doctorate in theology from Königsberg, legitimizing his appointment as 4th full professor of theology in 1772 (university records show him offering theology courses since the summer semester of 1771). He gave up his philosophy appointment in the fall of 1773, and the following April married Maria Albertine Schultz, the youngest daughter of the late Franz Albert Schultz (1692-1763) [bio], a prominent Pietist leader and professor of theology at Königsberg. In 1776 Starck became the senior court chaplain at Königsberg, as well as third full professor of theology and the general superintendent of the East Prussian schools.

This quick succession of promotions, on top of a favorable marriage, might suggest that Starck enjoyed considerable popularity in Königsberg, but the reality was rather mixed. His writings on comparative religion and his peculiar brand of freemasonry led to considerable controversy and unpopularity, and his appointments all came from Berlin, often in opposition to the local consistory and the faculty senate. Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88) was a strident critic of Starck’s – see Hamann’s April 1774 letters to Herder and Kant – and much of the theology faculty and local clergy opposed him, especially G. C. Pisanski (1725-90) [bio], G. C. Reccard (1735-98) [bio], F. S. Bock (1716-85) [bio], and Kant’s close acquaintance and biographer L. E. Borowski (1740-1831).⁠ Ludwig Baczko [bio] notes that Professor C. J. Kraus [bio] was also a relative of Starck’s, which apparently led to certain difficulties when Baczko, a Catholic, petitioned to join the Philosophy Faculty at Königsberg; cf. Baczko [1824, 2: 86, 95]. Borowski once turned down a pastoral position so as to avoid working with Starck, and Bock, who was also the full professor of Greek and director of the university library, denied Starck access to the library’s manuscripts. Starck’s publication of Hephästion (1775), which traced certain features of Christianity back to pagan roots, precipitated a strong reaction among clerics and the academic community, including a rebuttal by Pisanski (Antihephästion, 1776). Starck had made the same arguments in his 1774 inaugural address, but that work was in Latin and thus with considerably less reach into the general public. His broadly deistic approach emphasized natural religion and smoothed over doctrinal differences among the various faiths, such as in his anonymous Defense of Freemasonry (1770), that argued the wisdom found in the Eleusinian mystery religion, freemasonry, and Christianity were essentially all of a piece.

Personal disagreements and conflict with the local consistory, as well as overwork, eventually led Starck to resign his various positions in March 1777, leaving Prussia to teach philosophy at the gymnasium at Mitau (the capital of Courland and a center of freemasonry at the time). During this time he published a three-volume History of the Christian Church (1779-80) as well as an anonymous Honest Thoughts about Christianity (1780) that marked a conservative turn in his theology.

Starck’s views and personality soon made him unwelcome in Mitau, and in 1781 he secured an appointment at Darmstadt as the court chaplain and general superintendant of schools for Gießen and Darmstadt, where he finished out his career. In 1811 he was raised to the nobility by the Großherzog of Hessen.

Starck’s troubles and fortunes can scarcely be understood apart from his aspirations in the world of freemasonry. In the 1750s, Karl Gotthelf von Hund (1722-76) had developed a new order of freemasonry, the so-called ‘Strict Observance’, that claimed direct descent from the Templar Knights, whose last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, had been executed by the French monarchy in 1314. A 1764 meeting of Templarists consolidated Hund’s control, but at this very time Starck was developing a competing form of Templarism known as the Klerikat. While teaching in St. Petersburg, Starck had met a Greek by the name of Count Peter Melesino (or ‘Melissino’; 1726-97), a lieutenant-general in the Russian Imperial Army, and whose order of freemasonry claimed the clerics of the Templar Knights as its ancestors, and through whom the secret wisdom of the ancient Egyptians and Jews was claimed to have been preserved. Starck promoted this clerical brand of Templarism and in 1768 joined it to Hund’s movement, a union formalized in 1772. During this time he helped found a Strict Observance lodge at Wismar (February 1767) while teaching at the local gymnasium, and after moving to Königsberg he founded a second Clerical chapter (1770). Relations with Hund soured, however, and the union was dissolved in 1778, also bringing to an end Starck’s official involvement in freemasonry – although in this same year he organized a secret group of ‘seven allies’, all various German princes, one of whom later secured for him his post at Darmstadt. The Prussian Crown Prince (as of 1786: Friedrich Wilhelm II) was traveling through Courland at this time and a meeting with Starck appears to have caused the prince to leave the Strict Observance order. Starck’s break with Templarist forms of freemasonry continued with his anonymous publications in 1781 of The Purpose and Uses of Freemasonry and in 1785 of St. Nicaise, a novel highly critical of Hund and his order, and which is widely viewed as Starck’s decisive break (although he consistently denied authorship of this work). The publication of St. Nicaise generated several replies, and appears to have been the immediate cause of the accusations that Starck was a crypto-Catholic in the pages of the Berlinische Monatsschrift (Starck brought an unsuccessful suit against its editors, J. E. Biester [bio] and F. Gedike [bio], and published a two-volume defense in 1787, wherein he claimed allegiance to the Lutheran church and suggested that the editors were trying to surreptitiously reduce Christianity to a form of Deism). Starck’s Ancient and New Mysteries (1782) revisited earlier work on ancient mystery religions and compared these with modern freemasonry; while finding some similarities, he rejected any historical continuity.

A shift towards the reactionary, first evident in Starck’s 1780 anonymous Honest Thoughts about Christianity, was complete in his widely-read Triumph of Philosophy (1803) – a work partly inspired by Abbé Barruel’s attack on freemasonry (1797) – wherein he claimed that the Illuminati, a freemasonry group founded by Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830) in 1776, stood behind the French revolution and were secretly pursuing similar lawless and godless schemes in German lands and elsewhere. Starck argued that the rationalist tendencies of Enlightenment theology, as represented in C. F. Nicolai’s Neue Deutsche Bibliothek and in the writings of Lessing (1729-81) and the theologians J. S. Semler (1725-91), and K. F. Bahrdt (1741-92) – as well as Starck’s own earlier writings – were destroying Lutheran orthodoxy. While many read this as further proof of his Catholic sympathies, it is perhaps best seen as a concern for the defense of Christianity in general against various Enlightenment forces. He argued that Protestantism could not hold its ground against the naturalistic tendencies of the Enlightenment, a point furthered in his anonymous 1809 plea for ecumenicism (The Banquet of Theodulus), which enjoyed numerous editions.


Apologie des Ordens der Freymaurer / Von dem Bruder **** Mitgliede der ** Schottischen Loge zu P.*. Freimaurer [Anon.] (Königsberg, 1770; fully revised 2nd edn, Berlin, 1778).

De tralatitiis et gentilismo in religionem christianam liber singularis (Königsberg, 1774).

Hephästion (Königsberg, 1775; 2nd edn, 1776).

Geschichte der christlichen Kirche des ersten Jahrhunderts, 3 vols. (Berlin and Leipzig, 1779-80).

Freymüthige Betrachtungen über das Christenthum [Anon.] (Berlin, 1780; much expanded 2nd edn, 1782).

Ueber den Zweck und Nutzen des Freymaurerordens [Anon.] (Berlin, 1781).

Saint Nicaise, oder eine Sammlung merkwürdiger maurerischer Briefe, für Freymaurer und die es nicht sind [Anon.] (Frankfurt/Main, 1785).

Ueber Krypto-Katholicismus, Proselytenmacherey, Jesuitismus, geheime Gesellschaften und besonders die ihm selbst von den Verfassern der Berliner Monatsschrift gemachte Beschuldigungen, mit Acten-Stücken belegt, 2 vols. (Frankfurt/Main and Leipzig, 1787).

Der Triumph der Philosophie im achtzehnten Jahrhunderte, 2 vols. [Anon.] (Frankfurt/Main, 1803).

Theoduls Gastmahl, oder über die Vereinigung der verschiedenen christlichen Religions Societäten [Anon.] (Frankfurt/Main, 1809; 2nd edn, 1811; 3rd edn, 1813; 4th edn, 1815; 5th edn, 1817).

Other Relevant Works

De Aeschylo et eius imprimis tragoedia ‘Prometheus vinctus’ inscripta est libellus (Göttingen, 1763).

Commentationum et observationum philologico-criticarum (Königsberg, 1769).

Antrittspredigt zum Hofpredigeramt (Königsberg, 1770).

Dissertatio inauguralis de usu antiquarum versionum Scripturae Sacrae interpretationis subsidio (Königsberg, 1773).

Antrittspredigt zum Oberhofpredigeramt (Königsberg, 1776).

Neujahrs- und Abschiedspredigt (Königsberg, 1777).

Ueber die alten und neuen Mysterien (Berlin, 1782; 2nd edn, 1817).

Versuch einer Geschichte des Arianismus, 2 vols (Berlin, 1783-85).

Wahrhafte Begebenheiten einiger Brüder Freymaurer, die sich durch ein falsches Licht blenden ließen, und endlich zur wahren Erkenntniss gelangten.  Von ihnen selbst in Briefen an ihre Freunde geschrieben (1786).

Auch Etwas, wider das Etwas der Frau von der Recke über des Oberhofprediger Starcks Vertheidigungsschrift (Leipzig, 1788).

Beleuchtung der letzten Anstrengung des herrn Kessler von Sprengseysen, seine verehrungswürdigen Obern, die Berliner und sich selbst vor aller Welt zu vertheidigen.  Nebst einigen Erwägungen, das neue Betragen der Berliner betreffend (Leipzig, 1788).

Christian Nicolai Buchführers zu Bebenhausen in Schwaben.  Wichtige Entdeckungen auf einer gelehrten Reise durch Deutschland, und aus Eifer für die christliche, vornehmlich evangelische Kirche durch den Druck bekannt gemacht [Anon.] (Dessau and Leipzig, 1788).

Dokumentirter Anti-Wehrt, nebst einer kurzen Abfertigung der drey Berliner und des Herrn Carl von Sacken (Frankfurt/Main and Leipzig, 1789).

Apologismus an das bessere Publikum (Halle and Leipzig, 1789).

Geschichte der Taufe und Taufgesinnten (Leipzig, 1789).

Theoduls Briefwechsel.  Seitenstück zu Theoduls Gastmahl [Anon.] (Frankfurt/Main, 1828).

Further Reading

ADB, vol. 35, pp. 465-6 (Paul Tschackert).

APB, vol. 2, pp. 690-91 (Fritz Gause).

Epstein, Klaus, The Genesis of German Conservatism (Princeton, 1966), pp. 506-17.

Hamberger (1798), vol. 7, pp. 614-6; (1825), vol. 20, pp. 578-9.

Konschel, Paul, Hamanns Gegner, der Kryptokatholik D. Johann August Starck, Oberhofprediger und Generalsuperintendent von Ostpreußen (Königsberg, 1912).

Pisanski, Georg Christoph, Entwurf einer preussischen Literargeschichte in vier Buchern: mit einer Notiz uber den Autor und sein Buch, ed. by Rudolf Philippi (Königsberg, 1886), pp. 565, 570, 592, 596, 601, 637, 708. Orig. publ.: Königsberg, 1790.

Strieder, Friedrich Wilhelm, Grundlage zu einer Hessischen Gelehrten- und Schriftstellergeschichte (Kassel, 1806), vol. 15, pp. 225-37.

Telepneff, Boris, ‘J. A. Starck and his Rite of Spiritual Masonry’ in Transactions of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge (London, 1929), vol. 41, pp. 238-84.

[Index of Biographies]