NICHOLAS OF BASEL, generally called by his friends the Great Layman or the Great Friend of God, was the founder of a singular widespread association of pious people who, in the age of monastic fraternities, lived in special religious fellowship in a fashion altogether different from the common usage of the time. They did not renounce their property, they took no vows of celibacy or of obedience, but they met together for pious conversation, they corresponded with each other, they had common ideas about conversion, holy living, and Christian faith and duty. They were the Quietists of the 14th century, and called themselves the "Friends of God."
Nicholas was the son of a rich merchant of Basel, and was born in that town about the year 1308. Left his own master at the age of twenty-four, by the death of his parents, and possessed of considerable wealth, he went out into the world to enjoy life and seek adventures. He became engaged, burgher as he was, to a maiden of noble rank. The night before his betrothal, as he was praying, he had a vision which resulted in his breaking off his marriage, leaving home and friends, and devoting himself to an .ascetic life. After some years spent in solitude, severe bodily mortifications, and deep soul struggle, Nicholas gained the religious peace he sought, and from this time devoted himself to turning men around him from sin to God. He did not enter any religious order ; he remained, what he loved to call himself, a layman ; he neither preached nor heard confessions, but by means of a singular gift of personal influence he drew round him disciples from all classes of society. His followers did not form themselves into a sect or into an order. Some of them were priests, monks, and nuns, but some of them lived in the world, were nobles, knights, rich merchants, and their wives. Their religious opinions were what are commonly called mystical; and indeed all the more notable mystics of the 14th century were under the influence of Nicholas and belonged to the Friends of God. They did not break loose from the outward order of the church; they observed, though with no great scrupulosity, sacraments, fasts, and festivals ; but they looked on all such things as unimportant compared with that absolute resignation to the divine will in all things which was their leading principle.
The most striking event in the life of Nicholas is his meeting, in 1346, with Tauler, the Dominican preacher of Strasburg, which had the result of entirely changing the character of Tauler's religious views and of his preaching.
In the society of the Friends of God there came to be a small inner circle of thirteen, who attached themselves to Nicholas, lived in community, and were sent by him on long journeys to maintain communication among the brethren in the different countries of Europe. In 1380, two years after the beginning of the "Great Schism," these thirteen friends met together for the last time, coming from Italy, Hungary, and different parts of Germany. The state of the church at the time seemed to fill them with despair. Nicholas had long, by the many secret means he had at his command, exercised a great though invisible influence on church appointments and ecclesiastical affairs, but now he seemed to feel it hopeless to strive any longer against the increasing wickedness of the times, and he broke up the society he had formed, releasing his followers from their obedience, and went with two friends into Austria. Ten years later one Martin of Mainz, a follower of Nicholas, was burnt as a heretic, and in the act of accusation there are allusions to Nicholas which show that he was still living. But, as he must have been then nearly eighty-five years of age, it cannot have been much later, though the actual date is unknown, when, with two companions, he was burnt as a heretic at Vienna, the chief crime of which he was accused being that "he audaciously affirmed that he was in Christ and Christ in him."
Our information about Nicholas comes to us chiefly through Rulmann Merswin, a banker of Strasburg, who with his wife belonged to the Friends of God. Merswin collected many leters and documents relating to the society, and bequeathed them to a convent of the Knights of St John which he founded in Strasburg. They lay hid for centuries, while the memory of Nicholas perished ; even his name was forgotten, and medixval students were aware only of a mysterious presence who was sometimes referred to as " the Great Friend of God." At last Professor C. Schmidt discovered the documents in the library of the university, and was able to identify Nicholas with Tauler's mysterious visitor and with the Great Layman.
See Carl Schmidt, Nicolaus von Basel, Leben and Wirlen, Vienna, 186G; Die Gottesfreunde im vierzehnlen Jahrhundert, Jena, 1854; and Miss WInkworth, Ilistory and Life of Johann Tauter, London, 1857.