The first two-thirds of the nineteenth century was a period of growing secularization in Germany, particularly among the educated Protestant middle class. In contrast to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, this secularization did not take the form of opposition to Christian revealed religion; rather, it emerged from within Christianity itself. A prime document of this development is the 1835 book The Life of Jesus, by the Protestant theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74). Applying the methods of the "higher criticism" devised by German Protestant theologians to develop a better understanding of the Bible, Strauss concluded that Gospel accounts of the miracles and of the death and resurrection of Jesus were later, mythical interpolations to the life-story of a mortal figure. Even more, he asserted that the ideals of Jesus's teaching would be more appropriately expressed in a secular humanism than in Protestant doctrine. The book cost Strauss his position at the University of Tübingen. His appointment as Professor of Protestant Theology at the University of Zurich in 1839 was thwarted by a mob of angry devout Protestants, but the ideas he expressed continued to exert an influence throughout the nineteenth century.
If the years 1815-66 were a period of growing secularization, they were also, paradoxically, a period of religious revival. Among the Roman Catholics of Central Europe, there developed a growing belief in the validity of religious practices and beliefs rejected by the Enlightened eighteenth century: veneration of the Virgin Mary, saying the rosary, pilgrimages and processions, and divine intervention in human affairs in the form of miracles. The great pilgrimage to the Holy Shroud of Trier was an early example of this form of piety. Perhaps a half million pilgrims went to the Trier cathedral that year to see the shroud (the seamless garment worn by Christ before his crucifixion, in the Gospel according to St. John) publicly exhibited. Jacob Marx (1803-76), Professor at the Trier Theological Seminary, described the pilgrimage in terms of a revival of Catholic piety.
Many of Germany's Protestants were also experiencing a religious revival at this time, which contemporaries called the Awakening. The Awakened, who strongly rejected the rationalist ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as well as their nineteenth-century continuation in the doctrines of the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and his followers (such as David Strauss), were born-again Christians who experienced a personal relationship to Jesus and placed Biblical revelation above human reason. As a group, they were very active in founding organizations and societies for charitable and pious purposes. Missionary societies to bring the Gospel to "heathens" and Jews were a favorite project of Awakened German Protestants. This account of the founding of missionary societies in Elberfeld and Barmen – two industrial cities in western Germany where the Awakening was very influential – shows both the theological and intellectual context of the Awakening. Its first adherents, often few in number and gathering in conventicles, saw themselves as part of an international Protestant movement of religious revival and rejected both eighteenth-century Protestant rationalism and the ideas of the French Revolution.