SUPERINTENDENT, a term which, apart from its general use for an official in charge, has a distinct religious connotation, being applied, e.g. to the head of a Sunday school and to the chief minister in a Methodist circuit. In its most important historical sense it refers to certain ecclesiastical officers of reformed churches of the Lutheran model.
At the Reformation the question of the ordering and constitution of the churches was urgent. The greatest confusion prevailed: the priests were often dissolute, the people were ignorant, and meanwhile nobles were seizing the Church lands. Luther and Melanchthon would have preferred to retain the old episcopal control, and to have charged the bishops with the duty of making the necessary alterations in the ecclesiastical constitution. For, while they taught that in spiritual powers all ministers were equal, they recognized the propriety of allowing administrative distinctions. But the bishops were unwilling to come to any terms with the Reformers, and it became necessary to appoint officers of some new kind. The name of superintendent was then given to a class of men who discharged many of the functions of the older bishops, while bearing a character which in several respects was new. Only in Denmark was the name of bishops reserved for the new officers after the Lutheran model had been adopted and the older bishops had been deposed and imprisoned. It is still used there, though no claim is made that it is the sign of formal apostolical succession. In Scotland the First Book of Discipline provided not only for ministers, teachers, elders and deacons, but also for superintendents and readers. The superintendents (who were appointed because of the scarcity of Protestant pastors) took charge of districts corresponding in some degree with the episcopal dioceses, and made annual reports to the general assembly of the ecclesiastical and religious state of their provinces, in the churches of which they also preached.
The distinctive character borne by the new officers was determined by the cardinal principles which Luther had laid down in his work regarding the religious functions of the state. He conceived of the secular government as an ordinance of God, and as being set to direct and control the external fortunes of the Church. He hoped that righteous magistrates would at all times form a sound court of appeal in times of ecclesiastical disorder, and that they would guard the interests of truth and justice more securely than had been done under papal jurisdiction. The superintendents who now had to undertake large administrative responsibilities in the Church were therefore to be appointed by the civil power and to be answerable to it. They were to stand as intermediaries between the prince or magistrates on the one hand, and the ministers in their districts on the other.
In his earlier writings Luther had laid his main emphasis on the spiritual priesthood of all believers. Every sincere Christian was declared free, not only to preach, but also to administer the sacraments and to rebuke evil livers. The differences in office and function between the members implied no difference in rank, for the members of Christ's Church were all members of His body, and Luther believed that they would all be ruled into true order and charity by the Head. But he was shaken by the Peasants' War, and his faith in the virtues of the average man never recovered itself. The result was seen in his later writings, where he expresses his conviction that men need to be directed and restrained from without, and he looks to the state to undertake this duty. In the last resort the civil magistrates must take control of the Church. His vindication for thus subordinating the ecclesiastical to the civil lay in his assumption that the rulers of a Christian land would themselves be Christian, and that it was the Christian duty of the Church to render obedience to those who had been ordained of God to bear rule. He, and the rest of the Reformers, were as firm believers in a visible Catholic Church as were any of those of whom he speaks as " the adherents of the old religion," and Luther, always conservative in feeling, clung to an alliance with the state and denied that the repudiation by the Reformers of papal authority had severed them from the visible Church.
The character of the office and duties of the superintendent were not everywhere the same. Luther shrank from imposing any stereotyped forms and asked that the special circumstances of each separate district should be consulted. He hoped that as few changes as possible would be made, and trusted that the reformed doctrines would spread peacefully throughout the country. After the Diet of Speyer (1526) the civil authorities were invited to reorganize the Church in their respective dominions as they thought best. This was not felt to present any great difficulties in the free towns, for institutions of selfrule had there grown strong and schemes of ecclesiastical readjustment were speedily drawn up. Richter and Sehling 1 have published a number of these ordinances, and they show that as a rule one of the city clergy was appointed superintendent by the city fathers and set in a position of administrative authority over all the churches within their jurisdiction. They were answerable to those fathers for their good order. Greater difficulties presented themselves in the territories of the German princes, and in the case of Saxony Luther proposed to the elector that his first step should be to send out a commission of visitation which should report on the moral and spiritual condition of his principality, district by district. His proposal was carried out, and Luther himself became one of the visitors (1527-1528). He found the people in a state of such religious indifference and ignorance, and the clergy living often in such grossness, that his faith in their fitness to govern themselves ecclesiastically sank even lower than before, and he resisted all schemes for self-government such as had been proposed by Francis Lambert. The church organization which he devised for Saxony provided 1 In their works on Die evangelischen Kirchenordnung des i6ten Jahrhunderts (Weimar, 1846; and Leipzig, 1902-1904).
no place for democratic or representative elements: the grasp of the state must at all times be felt. The superintendent must speak at all times as a minister of the state, and the state must be represented in the synod to which he makes his first report, for upon the synod there must sit not only the pastors but also a delegate from every parish. If any appeal should be made from the decisions of the synod it must be heard in the court of the electoral prince, for he, as supreme civil ruler, possessed the jus episcopate, the right of oversight of the churches. Luther proposed that he should exercise this right by appointing a consistorial court composed in part of theologians and in part of canon lawyers, and it was thus that in 1542 the Wittenberg ecclesiastical consistory was formed. Other principalities adopted the model, so that the institution became common throughout the Lutheran churches.
In this scheme the superintendent (or superattendant) was charged with such part of the duty of the older bishops as had been purely administrative. He must concern himself with the discharge of their duties by the pastors of the churches, as well as with their character and demeanour. He must supervise their conduct of public worship, as well as give them licence to preach. He must take cognizance of their ministry to the indigent in their parishes, and of their management of the schools. He must further direct the studies of candidates for the pastoral office. He was answerable to the civil authorities to report all evil-living and false teaching, and those authorities had final power in the matters referred to them. If those matters, however, presented technical difficulties, they could be referred to the consistorial courts.
The earliest occasion of the appointment of such a superintendent would seem to be found in the decisions of Prince John of Saxony about 1527. He assigns the duties of the office, and summons the newly appointed officer to give diligent heed to the conduct and teaching of the pastors under him, faithfully to warn them of all errors, and, in case they prove obstinate, to report them to the electoral court. He must further give close attention to the due observance of the marriage laws, for in this matter the previously appointed visitors to the principality had reported grave laxity. The title of this office was not new, but was taken over from the later Scholastics, who had employed it as a suitable translation of the word iirlaKcnroi, but Prince John made it clear that his superintendents were not to be bishops in the old sense of the term. For every pastor was declared in the reformed doctrine to be truly a bishop and to have the spiritual functions and authority of a bishop; but the older bishops had also claimed a large number of administrative powers, and these for the future must be retained in the hands of the secular power, which would express itself in the first instance through the state-appointed superintendent. In the few cases in which the old bishoprics were retained in Lutheran communities their tenants held office directly from the state.
Some of the smaller principalities appointed but a single superintendent for their territory, who, instead of being answerable to a consistory, sat as spiritual member on the territorial council, whilst in towns the superintendent was summoned to the town council whenever Church matters arose for discussion. In larger states there were various classes of superintendents with their respective duties severally assigned.
In modern times the functions of the superintendent have been somewhat confused in consequence of the introduction into Lutheran Church theory of inconsistent elements of Presbyterian and synodal type.
See T. M. Lindsay, History of the Reformation (1906), i. 400-416; and the articles " Kirchenordnung " and " Superintendent ' in Herzog-Hauck's ReoJencyklopddie fur protestantische Theologie und Kirche. (E. AR.*)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)