Columns, Faithful and Reforming

The man who wouldn’t take no for an answer

Try to imagine this: You arrive at Christmas Eve worship at your local Lutheran congregation and hear the gospel story about shepherds arriving at the manger. But on the basis of that text, the pastor preaches about the care and feeding of animals!

These sorts of things occurred during what church historians call “The Age of Rationalism.” That was the kind of world, in 1808, into which Johann Konrad Wilhelm Löhe was born. An outgrowth of the secular “Age of Enlightenment” in Europe, rationalism seemed to take the churches captive. It emphasized that if you can’t prove it, don’t believe it. Miracles were out of favor, as was any thought of the supernatural.

Michael L. Sherer

In that climate, it is not difficult to understand why young Pastor Löhe came to embrace and become a cheerleader for the Lutheran confessions (documents that Lutherans embraced in the generations after Martin Luther’s death to help them remember their distinctive identity). Such “Confessionalists” had no use for rationalism.

Sent to the boondocks

The spirit of the times in the German Lutheran Church of the 1800s was such that Löhe’s superiors didn’t like the young upstart pastor/theologian very much. They thought he was hopelessly old-fashioned and decided to deny him a position in a prestigious congregation anywhere in his native Bavaria. (Such coveted parishes would have included historic St. Sebald Church or equally desirable St. Lorenz, both in Old City Nuremburg.)

Instead Löhe was consigned to a hamlet (a mudhole, some would have said) with a nearly unspellable and almost unpronounceable name — Neuendettelsau. The Lutheran congregation there was marginal and its members largely uneducated.

Clearly his superiors believed they had successfully taught Löhe a lesson by sending him to “the Bavarian boondocks.” What they were really saying to him was, “Wilhelm, you’re not pastoral material. You don’t belong on the clergy roster.”

But Löhe wouldn’t take no for an answer.

During his long ministry in Neuendettelsau, this brilliant, thoughtful, passionate, frequently German-stubborn churchman worked a miracle — in an age when miracles were out of fashion! Empowered by the Holy Spirit, he grew the small parish church into a thriving ministry center. But that wasn’t all.

Under Löhe’s leadership, the community and the congregation founded agencies of mercy — a Lutheran deaconess motherhouse, an orphanage, an improved local school system, and a Lutheran Society for Inner Mission.

Footprints in the New World

And Löhe’s vision extended far beyond Neuendettelsau. He had a heart for people in lands where Christianity had not yet reached. Under his direction a Lutheran mission field was planted in faraway New Guinea, an island north of Australia.

Löhe became aware that German Lutherans were immigrating to the American frontier. He recruited and sent to North America an impressive number of clergy — all committed to the confessions of the Lutheran Church. He also identified revenue sources to provide salaries for the overseas clergy and to help fund new schools on the other side of the Atlantic.

Miracles were out of favor, as was any thought of the supernatural.

Named for the Franconian region of Bavaria, a series of Löhe-sponsored settlements sprang up in Michigan, in the region east of present-day Saginaw. They had names like Frankentrost, Frankenlust, and Frankenmuth. The latter community is the home of St. Lorenz Lutheran Church, one of the five founding congregations of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).

In Saginaw, some of the “Löhe men” founded a school to train pastors and teachers. This fledgling institution, begun in 1852, after several starts and stumbles, would give rise to what eventually became Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. But there was soon a falling out between the school’s founders and pastors loyal to the LCMS. It quickly became clear there was to be no reconciliation, so the Löhe contingent packed up their school — teachers, books, and students — and moved to Iowa.

With this stormy and uncertain beginning, the “Joint Synod of Iowa and Other States” came into being. Until his death in 1872, Löhe, who never came to North America, sent pastors and money to the German Lutherans in Iowa.

The Iowa Synod grew into a sizeable church body. A pair of gifted theologians, Sigmund and Gottfried Fritschel, taught for generations at its seminary in Dubuque. During their tenure, theological conflict with the LCMS became intense. At stake was the interpretation of Scripture. The Iowa Synod theologians made a lasting contribution to American Lutheran church life with their contention that Holy Scripture does not definitively settle everything where faith and life are concerned. There are, they maintained, “open questions.”

In 1930 the Iowa Synod merged with the Ohio and Buffalo synods to create the American Lutheran Church (a German body). Thirty years later, this denomination combined with Norwegian and Danish Lutherans and, 28 years after that, became part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Michael L. Sherer, editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran, is a retired Lutheran pastor living in Waverly, Iowa.

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