Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Keeping the message pure

Historians sometimes debate which is more important; the great and powerful mass movements rolling like tidal waves through history (like the French Revolution), or the great and powerful individuals who stand in the midst of these forces and transform them (like Napoleon).

When considering American Lutheran history, one can name any number of great and influential leaders. Regarding the leader who put the most definitive stamp on his denomination, the answer would be clear; that man is C.F.W. Walther, the founding father of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. 2011 is his 200th birth anniversary and, even after 200 years, Walther’s legacy can clearly be seen, both in the denomination he founded, and within the larger realm of American Lutheranism.

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born October 25, 1811, in the German state of Saxony, the eighth of 12 children. His family contained a number of prominent pastors going back several generations, and so he entered the University of Leipzig to study for the ministry, graduating in 1833.

Mark Granquist

By 1841 he had emerged as one of the leading theological voices within the colony and took a position as pastor of the first Lutheran congregation in St. Louis.

He was ordained in the Lutheran ministry in 1837. This was a time of considerable turmoil for Lutheranism; new intellectual and theological currents were pushing through Germany, as well as a conservative Confessional reaction to them.

After some personal turmoil, Walther found assurance of faith from a dynamic Lutheran pastor in Dresden, Martin Stephan. Stephan was in direct conflict with the government in Saxony over the religious direction of the State Church (a concern that Walther shared), and when Stephan led a party of 665 emigrants to leave Germany in 1838, Walther was among them. This group arrived near St. Louis in 1839.

Walther was initially assigned as pastor to two small Lutheran congregations, but the whole colony was thrown into an uproar in May 1839, when Stephan was accused, and then convicted, of personal malfeasance, and was exiled from the colony. During the next two years Walther struggled to find his theological bearings within the turmoil from the Stephan affair.

By 1841 he had emerged as one of the leading theological voices within the colony and took a position as pastor of the first Lutheran congregation in St. Louis. From this base Walther began to reach out to a wider Lutheran audience through a new publication, “Der Lutheraner,” founded in 1844, and through the establishment in 1847 of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (now the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod).

A man births a synod

Though Walther only served as president of the new synod from 1847 to 1850 (and later from 1864 to 1878), his personal influence on this group was strong, especially as editor of its newspaper, and of its theological journal, “Lehre und Wehre,” begun in 1855. But his primary platform was as professor at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where he taught from 1850 until the end of his life in 1887. From this position Walther sought to influence the whole of American Lutheranism, and it was from here that he put his personal stamp on hundreds of young pastors, who became the core of the newly-organized Missouri Synod, which rapidly grew to become one of the largest Lutheran church bodies in the United States.

Walther represented and defined a form of deeply confessional Lutheranism that stood in opposition to many contemporary religious movements: against the theological liberalism found in Germany, against other forms of Protestantism as found in North America, and against any form of American Lutheranism that seemed to him to have compromised with these other movements.

Standing on a firm adherence to the Lutheran confessional documents found in The Book of Concord, 1580 (Concordia), Walther defined a strict, uncompromising Lutheranism, and a position that any cooperation between Lutheran groups must be founded on complete theological agreement. He strongly urged the formation of local parochial schools in Missouri Synod congregations, as a means of maintaining and extending pure Lutheranism in America. He wrote a number of important theological works, but none more influential than The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, published in 1897, after his death.

Walther was a strong leader and a strong personality. He attracted many pastors and congregations to join the Missouri Synod, but he also made enemies from within the leaders of other conservative Lutheran denominations, especially the leaders of the Ohio and Iowa Synods.

In 1877, as a reaction against Walther’s criticism of another Lutheran theologian’s position on predestination, a bitter theological controversy erupted, with Walther’s own theological position at the center of the controversy. As a result, a number of these other Lutheran denominations pushed away from Missouri, which was left relatively isolated, though this did not stop Missouri’s internal growth.

Walther died on May 7, 1887, acknowledged as the premier leader of the Missouri Synod, and one of the most important figures in American Lutheran history.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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