WESSEL, JOHAN ' (c. 1420-1489), Dutch theologian, was )orn at Groningen. He was educated at the famous school at Deventer, which was under the supervision of the Brothers of !ommon Life, and in close connexion with the convent of Mount St Agnes at Zwolle, where Thomas a Kempis was then iving. At Deventer, where the best traditions of the 14 th century mysticism were still cultivated, Wessel imbibed that earnest devotional mysticism which was the basis of his theology and which drew him irresistibly, after a busy life, to spend his ast days among the Friends of God in the Low Countries. From Deventer he went to the Dominican school at Cologne to be :aught the Thomist theology, and came in contact with humansm. He learnt Greek from monks who had been driven out of Greece, and Hebrew from some Jews. The Thomist theology sent him to study Augustine, and his Greek reading led him to Plato, sources which largely enriched his own theological system, [nterest in the disputes between the realists and the nominalists m Paris induced him to go to that city, where he remained for sixteen years as scholar and teacher. There he eventually took the nominalist side, prompted as much by his mystical antiecclesiastical tendencies as by any metaphysical insight; for the nominalists were then the anti-papal party. A desire to know more about humanism sent him to Rome, where in 1470 he was the intimate friend of Italian scholars and under the protection of Cardinals Bessarion and Francis Delia Revere (general of the Franciscan order and afterwards Pope Sixtus IV.). It is said that Sixtus would have gladly made Wessel a bishop, but that he had no desire for any ecclesiastical preferment. From Rome he returned to Paris, and speedily became a famous teacher, gathering round him. a band of enthusiastic young students, among whom was Reuchlin. In 1475 he was at Basel and in 1476 at Heidelberg teaching philosophy in the university. As old age approached he came to have a growing dislike to the wordy theological strife which surrounded him, and turned away from that university discipline, " non studia sacrarum literarum sed studiorum commixtae corruptiones." After thirty years of academic life he went back to his native Groningen, and spent the rest of his life partly as director in a nuns' cloister there and partly in the convent of St Agnes at Zwolle. He was welcomed as the most renowned scholar of his time, and it was fabled that he had travelled through all lands, Egypt as well as Greece, gathering everywhere the fruits of all sciences " a man of rare erudition," says the title-page of the first edition of his collected works, " who in the shadow of papal darkness was called the light of the world." His remaining years were spent amid a circle of warm admirers, friends and disciples, to whom he imparted the mystical theology, the zeal for higher learning and the deep devotional spirit which characterized his own life. He died on the 4th of October 1489, with the confession on his lips, "I know only Jesus the crucified." He is buried in the middle of the choir of the church of the " Geestlichen Maegden," whose director he had been.
Wessel has been called one of the " reformers before the Reformation," and the title is justifiable if by it is meant a man of deeply spiritual life, who protested against the growing paganizing of the papacy, the superstitious and magical uses of the sacraments, the authority of ecclesiastical tradition, and that tendency in later scholastic theology to lay greater stress, in a doctrine of justification, upon the instrumentality of the human will than on the objective work of Christ for man's salvation. His own theology was, however, essentially medieval in type, and he never grasped that experimental thought of justification on which Reformation theology rests.
Martin Luther in 1521 published a collection of Wessel's writings * which had been preserved as relics by his friends, and said that if he (Luther) had written nothing before he read them, people might well have thought that he had stolen all his ideas from them. The books are of an aphoristical character, the ideas being rather mechanically 1 His correct name was Wessel Harmens Gansfort (or Ganzevort), the Christian name Wessel being a corruption of Basilius, and the surname Gansfort being that of a Westphalian village from which his family came.
1 The c&llection included De praridentia, De causts el effecttbu incamationis et passionis, De dignitate et potestate ecclesiastica, De sacramente, poenitentiae, Quae stt vera fommunio sanctorum, De purgatorio and a number of letters.
arranged, so that it is not possible to single out any one as the centre of the whole system. The authority of the Bible Wessel would support when necessary, not by the priest but by the divinity professor. His views on the sacraments anticipated those of Zwingli rather than of Luther.
See Vita Wesseli Groningensis, by Albert Hardenberg, published in an incomplete form in the preface to Wessel's collected works (Amsterdam, 1614; this preface also contains extracts from the works of several writers who have given facts about the life of Wessel) ; W. Muurling, Cam. Hist. Theol. de Wesseli Gansfortii vita, etc. (1831); K. Ullmann, Reformers before the Reformation (the second volume of the German edition is a second and enlarged edition of a previous work entitled Johann Wessel, ein Vorgdnger Luthers (1834); J. Friedrich, Johann Wessel, ein Bild aus der Kirchengeschichte des i$ten Jahrhunderts (1862); A. Ritschl, History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (Edinburgh, 1872) ; J. J. Doedes, " Hist.-litterarisches zur Biographic J. Wessels " in Theol. Studien und Kritiken (1870).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)