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A gospel ranger

DeAne Lagerquist

William A. Passavant’s life provides a wide window into 19th century American Lutheranism. In those years from his birth in 1821 to his death in 1894, Lutherans were adapting themselves and their churches to the landscape of American Protestant Christianity. They debated theology and religious practices. They reconsidered alliances and reorganized church governance. They devised ways to meet their members’ needs and to serve their neighbors. Passavant had his hands on all of this.

Born to German immigrants in Zeleinople, Pennsylvania, he lived in that state most of his life, including service as pastor of Christ Lutheran in Baden for 21 years. However, his work and travels took him from Maryland to Minnesota. He ministered to the Americanized grandchildren of colonial German immigrants, to newly arrived Scandinavians, and to African Americans. His ministry included preaching, teaching, publishing, and founding educational and charitable institutions.

In his 20s, Passavant left Gettysburg Seminary for Baltimore. Immediately he began editorial and pastoral work, a combination he continued elsewhere. Along with his responsibilities at The Lutheran Observer, he conducted neighborhood evangelistic meetings and organized Sunday Schools.

He not only gathered scattered Lutherans; but also preached to new audiences. Each day he read German to improve his ability to reach immigrants. The loud, extravagant response he received from African Americans required him to adjust his style further.

Founding congregations was the next step. After six, busy months he was invited to stay permanently.

Passavant encouraged and modeled collaboration between English-speaking Lutherans and new immigrants.

The young pastor, however, had other ambitions, which he expressed in a letter to his mother: “… the idea of sitting down in one spot and becoming as other ministers, having the same round of duties from week to week and year to year, is to me now, as it always has been, very melancholy. You may think me foolish on these subjects, and perhaps I am, but my feelings are unchanged on these matters. I have always longed to be a gospel ranger, to go from place to place assisting my companions in labor, or laying a foundation on which others might build.” Passavant’s feelings on these matters remained unchanged for five decades during which he left his mark in many places.

A journalist, an activist — mission and mercy

In his youth Passavant was influenced by the so-called “American Lutheranism” at Gettysburg Seminary. He admired John Wesley and was eager for revival. By mid-century his views aligned with the moderate Confessionalists who established a seminary in Philadelphia and founded the General Council.

When the Definite Synodical Platform (with its call for corrections to the Augsburg Confession) ignited heated conflict, Passavant took sides even as he tried to calm the flames. He was persuaded to expand his magazine, The Missionary, to a weekly that provided an English outlet for the moderates.

Passavant used The Missionary to promote mission work in the western territories and abroad. He raised funds for specific efforts and appealed for workers.

Nonetheless, joining his publication with The Lutheran in 1861 freed him for his other activities, particularly mission and mercy. These two he regarded as the central work of the church. He advocated for city missions, and also traveled to rural settlements. Passavant encouraged and modeled collaboration between English-speaking Lutherans and new immigrants. He was a friend and trusted advisor to pastors, such as the Swedish leader Eric Norelius in Minnesota.

In 1846 Passavant represented the Pittsburgh Synod at the Christian Alliance convention in London. He also visited Germany. In Kaiserswerth, Theodore Fliedner introduced him to the deaconess institute and its associated programs. Back in the United States, Passavant set about replicating several of them.

The Pittsburgh Infirmary (later Passavant Hospital) opened in 1849. It was the first Protestant hospital in the nation. Four deaconesses, sent from Germany, were on its staff. Passavant also helped found hospitals in Chicago and Jacksonville, Illinois, as well as in Milwaukee. This work continues, both through local institutions and in Lutheran Social Service organizations.

Preparing future leaders

From his student days, Passavant was involved in education as an extension of faith and for the preparation of leaders. Thiel College (now in Greenville, Pennsylvania) counts him among its founders. He supported the seminary in Philadelphia and was involved in starting another in Chicago to serve the church as it expanded westward. When the General Council took up this proposal in the late 1860s the delegates expressed their hope — and Passavant’s — that the school would educate together pastoral candidates for all the churches.

The seminary opened in 1891. Its charter stipulated that the school would: “Educate Together, men of a pure faith, of a holy life, and of the requisite gifts and education, so that by all necessary learning and practical skill, they may be fitted for the ministry of the Gospel, especially in connection with the Evangelical Lutheran Church.” In other words, its goal was to raise up leaders to build on the foundations Passavant laid.

L. DeAne Lagerquist is professor of religion at St. Olaf College. She is the author of From Our Mothers’ Arms: A History of Women in the American Lutheran Church and The Lutherans.

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