The depth & significance of the friendship of Pierre Maury and Karl Barth

Karl Barth and Pierre Maury Boulevard Arago Paris 1934

The excerpts (below) are taken from Reymond, B. 1985, Theologian or Prophet, French speakers and Karl Barth before 1945, Symbolon, L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne pp 51-5, Translation © Simon Hattrell 2014.

Pierre Maury and the beginnings of the Barthian era

“When one calls to mind the beginnings of this Barthian wave in its French-speaking context, one name immediately comes to mind: Pierre Maury. This is only right: in French-speaking Switzerland as in France, his personal influence has often been the determining factor. It is therefore him that we must now consider, not without this clarification: without the presence and the influence of Pierre Maury, Barthianism would have been, despite everything, the major theological and ecclesiastical phenomenon of French Protestantism in the thirties and the years that followed. The preceding pages make this abundantly clear: people had begun to be interested in Barth independently of Maury. Besides, the interest shown by the people of Neuchatel for Barth’s theology was awakened independently of any Swiss or French influence: as their custom for a long time had been to finish their studies by spending semesters in Germany, the people of Neuchatel of that time had discovered Barth with enthusiasm by reading him in the original texts, by attending his lectures[1], or again by hearing the conference that he gave at the camp of Vaumarcus on the 11th of September 1934. This means that, if France received some Barthian influence through the people of Neuchatel, it was practically never really reciprocated. It seems as far as this is concerned that Pierre Maury’s action, so clear and noticeable in Geneva, had equally been extended to Lausanne, but hardly touched the town of Farel and Ostervald.

Pierre Maury toward the end of the 1920s


Son of Leon Maury, professor at the Faculty of Theology of Montauban, then transferred to Montpellier in 1921, Pierre Maury [2] was born in the first of these two cities on the 21st of November 1890. Receiving his Bachelor degree in Arts, Philosophy and Natural Sciences from the Sorbonne, he had studied at  the University of Berlin for three months before taking up serious theological studies at Montauban. From 1919 to 1924 he had been secretary of the French Federation of the Christian Association of Students (ACE) and, ex officio, editor of the Semeur (Sower), official mouthpiece of that movement. To believe those who knew him at that time, what profoundly left its mark on him was not only the strongly evangelical tone of the faculty at Montauban [3], but above all his reading of Pascal. His favorite catch cry at that time was “from Fosdick to Pascal” [4]. So what he was asking was that people should give up Harry Emerson Fosdick’s superficial and optimistic (but workable and encouraging) kind of Christianity, (he was the brilliant preacher of Riverside church in New York, whose French translations [5] the YMCA spread all over the place) for a deeper and more truly striking Christianity of Pascal. Or still, in other words: from a rather activist Christianity to a Christianity of the cross.

When you read the text of the ten conferences that he gave in Geneva in 1931 and which were published by Faith and Life in a special edition, in 1932, under the title of Three Spiritual Stories, you discern more easily the theological maturity which Maury had already attained before being influenced by Barth, and what was then the orientation of his thinking. The fact that he chose Augustine, Luther and Pascal presenting them in their diversity, but above all in their profound spiritual pedigree, shows a specific and avowed choice: Maury leaned toward the way of experience and internal quests, in contrast with the way that followed St Thomas Aquinas whose legitimacy he recognized amongst those preoccupations that he prioritized, but in which he did not find a direct line to the evangelical revelation as he understood it. Maury was determined above all to show that these three witnesses and thinkers of the faith all had a common experience of grace. It was still not the God who is wholly other “totaliter aliter” of Karl Barth, but a profound conviction that a Christianity worthy of its name would not be known without being the sole result of the grace of God.

When one compares more rigorously Maury’s treatment of Augustine, Luther and Pascal, with that of Barth (whom he was in the process of discovering at just about the same time), two other characteristics of his theological proposal still hold our attention: firstly Maury’s profound humanity, then his bias in locating grace at work in well-defined individual destinies; further the absence in his writing of any paradox or any verbal acrobatics which would be susceptible of putting off his readers, i.e. disconcert them unnecessarily. At a pinch, one could be tempted to place the Maury of The Three Spiritual Stories amongst experiential theologians. However, this is at a pinch only: the spiritual and theological experiences through which he openly expressed his own thought only had some value and significance in his eyes in as much as they pointed directly to grace and thus went back radically to giving priority to the inductive approach of the so-called theologians of ‘experience’: “All three, daring to open their eyes, not resigning themselves to misfortune nor to death, had to become preachers of conversion. Let others imagine an evolution without sacrifice, a subtle mixture where nature is fulfilled without renunciation, let others believe in natural revelation, and in a movement of human progress, let others teach morality and be content with their human limitations, they know very well that there is nothing we can do about ourselves, we have missed out inexplicably, everything comes to nothing. There is nothing, except the miracle of being apprehended by the living God.” [6]


It was in Christmas 1923 that Maury must have discovered Karl Barth, thanks to a little volume of sermons of Barth and Thurneysen (Come Holy Spirit), which Rene Guisan presented to him on that occasion. According to the testimony of his family, Maury never failed to remind them of the debt of gratitude that he owed to Guisan. A little time afterwards in 1924 Maury settled with his family in Ferney-Voltaire, still in French territory but not far from Geneva, to take up a pastorate in the Reformed parish. So his discovery of Barth just about coincided with his arrival in the region of Geneva.

At about the same time, in October 1924, the Dutchman Willem-Adolph Visser’t Hooft, future general secretary of the World Council of Churches, also settled in Geneva, serving on the International Committee of the YMCA. Being of Arminian background (therefore liberal), Visser’t Hooft, had also just discovered Barth a little before Maury, in 1922 [7]. Maury and he had already met at an international Christian student conference in England. Visser’t Hooft had begun to regularly attend worship services held by Maury, and the two men quickly became friends, speaking of all that Barth’s theology could mean for them. Besides, their intimacy only increased when in 1931 Maury became secretary of the International World Student Christian Federation in Geneva with Visser’t Hooft at his side. “For three years they shared the same office”, Suzanne de Dietrich [8] said. “This partnership between an expansive Southern Frenchman and a reserved tenacious Dutchman must have been very amusing at times”. So as he became more deeply familiar through his discussions with Visser’t Hooft, Maury wanted to make Barth more widely known in French, particularly through the journal Foi et Vie of which he had become the editor in 1928. So he began to publish articles which introduced Barth’s theology [9]; he especially wanted to put in front of French speakers Barth’s actual texts, translated into their language.

And so it was that Maury began a correspondence with Karl Barth by a letter sent on 4 December 1928 [10]. He asked for permission to translate several texts of Barth’s in Foi et Vie. Barth’s response dated 9 December written in French [11] was prudent: he was concerned that the translator should be “in general a good theologian and someone who knew my theology especially well [12]”; more than that he expressed the wish to be able to look at the translation before it was published. Altogether, these first letters had a tone of reserved polite formality, while already allowing for some cordiality. In the summer of 1931, Maury had already thought of the idea of visiting Barth in Bonn, along with Visser’t Hooft. Circumstances obliged them to put off this visit until the month of March 1932. Many years later, Barth himself still vividly remembered that time: “The two of them came to see me at my mother’s house in Bern where I was on holiday. It was of course Pierre who led the discussion. I can still see him before me and feel the fresh air that he brought with him [13]”.

From then on the ice had been broken; their letters abundantly bear witness. The reciprocal attraction must have quickly given place to an ever-growing friendship, especially from the moment where they stopped using the more formal ‘vous’ and adopted the intimate ‘tu’, when Barth went to Paris in April 1934. “We understood each other so well”, as Barth recalled in his article in 1956 for Reforme. “We were so naturally in agreement on all the great and important things, and yet also so sharply in disagreement on secondary questions, that our coming together could never have become unfruitful or boring. We never wondered what to talk about as we were always so eager to exchange our ideas”.

Screenshot (5)

Above: Charlotte von Kirschbaum (left) with Barth and Maury in the mid 1950s before Maury’s death

To be quite frank, as far as their particular correspondence is concerned, one is left with the feeling that, from a theological point of view, these exchanges were slightly one-sided. Barth had without doubt been won over by Pierre Maury’s exceptional personality. Maury was almost subjugated by the theology of Barth. Not that his friendship for him had led him to deny his past. As Visser’t Hooft put it, “His discovery of Barth was enriching, clarifying, without rupture”. But in reading him, he did not just admire him but gave his consent to what he was saying. One of the only matters that he really resisted in Barth, was the problem of the baptism of infants: Maury was much too aware of the difficulties that such a position raised amidst French Reformed churches (in particular in the region of Drome-Ardeche) which meant that he never took on board Barth’s doubts as far as the baptism of children was concerned; he did not really take up these theses of Barth until after the war. Conversely, Barth expected Maury to respond to his diverse publications, but he barely gives us any clues in his correspondence with him (either in his works) of the influence that Maury had on him. It is above all in their face-to-face meetings that Barth’s observations must have been true: “We asked each other many questions. (…) How often, he pushed me much further, simply by his questions, his reservation or his objections.” [14]

In the correspondence, this theological influence of Maury on Barth is only noticeable, but very clearly, with regard to one point: the doctrine of predestination [15]. After Maury’s death, Barth specifically said it in the preface to his friend’s posthumous volume on this theme [16]. The letter that he wrote to Maury in French (this was in fact more than just a casual interest) immediately after having read the text of his paper at the International Calvinist Conference at Geneva on Election and Faith which shows that Maury had well and truly opened up for Barth, on this point, new perspectives in which he was going to resolutely commit himself. “I wonder”, he wrote to him on 21 August 1936, “if you fully realize the enormous change in the nature and importance of the doctrine of predestination, as it is portrayed on page 216 of your work. Would Calvin be happy with this or would he not start proceedings against us in the same way that he took on the unfortunate Bolsec?” But as far as the rest is concerned, Maury has always been considered as someone who stood in Barth’s debt theologically speaking. So it was in 1942, in the midst of the war, that he was given responsibility, after the death of Auguste Lecerf, for the lectures in Dogmatics at the faculty in Paris, which he spoke about in the letter of 11 February 1943 where he was determined, “in order not to fail in his task and responsibilities by following faithfully, in summary form, the prolegomena/s (of Barth)”.


For all those who knew him, the memory of Pierre Maury was of a man of human warmth. In his memoirs Visser’t Hooft wrote that Maury had been his ‘Guru’, which was how he expressed that Maury had been the only man who had truly been his pastor. Many other witnesses of that time also talk about Maury as a  man with a profoundly pastoral gift. One cannot labor this point too much: it is this gift, linked to undeniable intellectual and literary qualities, which more than any other, certainly contributed in making him a key person in the diffusion of Barthian ideas in France and French-speaking Switzerland. Won over, full of enthusiasm for the discovery of a doctrine which met his expectations, because it corresponded to the orientation of his own reflections, he was the man with a theological conviction capable of communicating with others. Suzanne de Dietrich expressed it very well in the picture that she painted of him: “Pierre Maury! How to speak of Pierre Maury, a friend for 30 years? (…) Barthian? Yes he is; but in a very French way, that is to say with no restrictions, an inner independence; he is a Barthian while remaining his own man. And through him a biblical and theological renewal became for a whole generation of French pastors, youth workers, parishioners, a living and concrete reality. Yes he had a solid doctrinal base; but this preacher of total corruption and grace, had a sense, a marvelous awareness of human art, literature, detective stories, nothing escaped his notice. And then there is the friend. “I am the best friend, he quipped one day, of 80 people”. The number is without doubt exaggerated. This man who was always snowed under, didn’t worry about time when it was a question of helping a suffering friend; and when he is there, he is completely focused on you, with his faith, with his friendly pastoral heart. It’s that human touch allied to his faith, which the Federation loved, which made Pierre Maury one of the most popular figures of all”.

[1] This fact was related orally by Professor Jean-Louis Louba. According to him it was William Lachat who was the first to speak of Barth to his friends in Neuchatel, organising at Travers some small seminars reading Barth in German texts. We are obliged to Lachat for the first translation of Barth into French. At the end of his life, Lachat was more and more attracted by Pentecostalism. The conference that Maury gave at Chaux-de-Fonds on ‘The Message of Karl Barth’ in October 1936 (letter of 20/09/1936) does not take anything away from the relative autonomy of the discovery of Barth by the people of Neuchatel.

[2] We are borrowing the essential biographical details published in Reforme in the part that focussed on P. Maury 18/2/1956.

[3] Up until the reunification of the Reformed Church of France (1938), traditionally (but this was a generally held concept rather than a reality) the Faculties of Montauban and then of Montpellier were orthodox, while that of Paris was liberal. Things have since changed.

[4] An interview with Visser’t Hooft 1/2/1980.

[5] For example: The Man Jesus, Geneva 1920; Why Prayer, Paris 1922; To Serve, Geneva 1923; etc

[6] Three Spiritual Stories, 1962, Labor et Fides, Geneva, pp 14-15.

[7] He confirmed in a letter of 1/9/1980 that he had not met him personally until 1926 in Holland.

[8] Fifty Years of History- the International Federation of the Student Christian Movement (1895-1945), Paris, 1945, p. 93.

[9] This is, in particular, the origin of the two texts of Visser’t Hooft “The Message of Karl Barth” (Faith and Life 1928, pp 915-21) and “Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth” (ETR? 1931, pp 3-23), but also in other ‘Barthian’ texts of Visser’t Hooft which were published at the same time either in Foi et Vie (Faith and Life) of Se (Le Semeur, The Sower) and had a foothold in the ETR, the journal of the Faculty of Montpellier, through the intermediary of his father who was a Professor there.

[10] So had Barth already heard about Maury? Nothing in their correspondence allows us to think so. Still it is possible that Visser’t Hooft mentioned the name of his friend on the occasion of his first visit with Karl Barth in 1926. ……

[11] Not all Barth’s letters were written in French. This one is remarkable for the quality of its French: Barth must have had the help of a translator for this letter. When, later he wrote directly in French to Maury, his syntax was not nearly so precise.

[12] Letter from Barth to Maury 11/6/1931.

[13] Reforme, 18.2.1956. …Barth mentions this visit in a letter to Thurneysen 24/3/1932.

[14] Reforme, 18.2.1956

[15] The only passage in the Dogmatics where Barth refers to Maury touches on the 1936 conference on predestination.

[16] P. Maury Predestination, Geneva, 1957.

Leave a Reply