Adolph Kolping was born more than 200 years ago. His ideas were modern at the time and they are still relevant today. The misery and the social consequences of the early stages of industrialization were reasons for Kolping to take initiative and to devote his life to the people living on the margins of society. By founding his Journeymen’s Societies he developed new forms of living and learning together. A dedicated priest, he dealt intensively with political and social questions of his time. It took Adolph Kolping only twenty years to establish a network of Journeymen’s Societies throughout Europe, guiding and assisting thousands of people in need.
In 1836, shoemaker’s apprentice Adolph Kolping was faced with the most important question of his life: Should he continue along his career path he chose when he was 13 until the end of his life? Or should he follow his true calling of learning, continuing to go to school, studying and becoming a priest? Kolping was able to follow this other path thanks to the support of the people who believed in him and his calling.
And so in 1837 – at age 24 – Kolping returned to school, graduated from the Marzellengymnasium grammar school in Cologne and continued on with his studies in theology. On April 13, 1845, Adolph Kolping was ordained in the Minorite Church in Cologne. He received his first assignment as chaplain in Wuppertal-Elberfeld. Here, he experienced the misery of the workers who had to cope with social changes as a result of industrialization. The journeymen were no longer able to live in the homes of their masters since the guild system had collapsed. In Elberfeld, Kolping also got to know the organization for journeymen recently founded by local teacher Johann Gregor Breuer and he was elected its Praeses (spiritual leader) soon thereafter. Kolping recognized this association as an excellent tool for overcoming social problems brought about by the radical change of the world of work as part of the industrialization.
As a contemporary of Karl Marx, Kolping in fact held the same views of these social problems since he was faced with their immediate impact as a member of the clergy. However, Adolph Kolping trusted in the strength of the community and willingness of every individual to contribute to a fairer society instead of a revolution. Based on his experiences in Elberfeld, he fully dedicated himself to spreading the notion of Gesellenvereine – Journeymen’s Societies – as communities for providing education and mutual support.
He tirelessly promoted this idea in his native Rhineland at first and then moved far beyond Germany’s borders for establishing and maintaining Journeymen’s Societies and their social programs. His own modest origins as the son of a shepherd, his vocational training, and his own experiences as a shoemaker’s apprentice made him a trustworthy and capable advocate of the cause and the notion of Journeymen’s Societies quickly spread. In many places, the Journeymen’s Societies built hospices for journeymen. The meetings and activities of the Societies provided the journeymen with a family-like community that offered spiritual support far away from home along with opportunities for personal growth by way of education.
Adolph Kolping’s biography underlines his passion for writing in the following years. He expressed his thoughts and convictions in numerous articles and books with the backdrop of major social upheavals during his time. Adolph Kolping traveled extensively throughout Europe to establish Journeymen’s Societies and to have an impact on society as a writer and journalist. Kolping died on December 4, 1865, shortly before turning 52.
“Humans need to join forces with other humans as soon as they want something that simply exceeds the capacities of the individual.”
With these words, Adolph Kolping already showed over 150 years ago that he had understood how important it is for every human to take their lives into their own hands and to follow their ideals and convictions. By promoting your own talents and skills and the experience of a community, he encouraged the journeymen to live their values and to make their own contribution to a peaceful and fair society. Adolph Kolping was a true visionary in this regard.
This turned Adolph Kolping into one of the most influential social reformers of the 19th century and a key pioneer of Catholic social teaching which found its origin in the encyclical Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII. The value of human work and its priority over capital, the right to a share of a society’s earned wealth as well as the primacy of man in the working process as well as the sustainable use of the earth’s resources are today convictions of the Catholic social doctrine that traces its roots back to this time.
It is no wonder that Kolping’s example is particularly well received in poorer countries. His profound knowledge of the life of craftsmen and his commitment to the place of the individual in the community make him a universal role model for people from all cultures. This is more relevant today than ever – in a globalized world with an increasing imbalance, lack of orientation, refugee movements and an endangered environment. The Kolping associations face these challenges throughout the world. Their objective is to contribute to shaping a fairer world. Adolph Kolping was a Christian out of conviction. Today, he is a role model for more than 400,000 Kolping members all over the world.