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Commemoration of Wilhelm Loehe: Pastor and Missionary

January 2nd, 2014
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Today is the day set aside in the calendar of commemorations in Lutheran Service Book to remember and praise God for the life and ministry of Pastor Wilhelm Löhe. He is remembered among us chiefly as the founding father of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, an institution he gave as a gift to The LCMS. But we do well to recall what Dr. C.F.W. Walther said about Loehe: “Next to God it is Pastor Loehe whom our synod must almost solely thank for the happy increase and rapid strengthening in which it rejoices; it must rightly honor him as its real spiritual father.”

Although he never left Germany, Johann Konrad Wilhelm Loehe, born in Fuerth in 1808, had a profound impact on the development of Lutheranism in North America. Serving as pastor in the  Bavarian village of Neuendettelsau, he recognized the need for workers in developing lands and  assisted in training emergency helpers to be sent as missionary pastors to North America, Brazil,  and Australia. A number of the men he sent to the United States became founders of The  Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Through his financial support, a theological school was established in Fort Wayne, Ind., and a teachers’ institute in Saginaw, Mich. Loehe was known for  his confessional integrity and his interest in liturgy and catechetics. His devotion to works of  Christian charity led to the establishment of a deaconess training house and homes for the aged. Löhe, through study and reading of the classic sources of Lutheran theology: Scripture, the Confessions, Luther and the orthodox dogmaticians, reclaimed a deep love for the Lutheran Confessions, the liturgy and the chuch’s sacramental life and call to works of mission and charity. He was an ardent advocate of the primary place of the Small Catechism in the life of the Lutheran congregation, school and home and is perhaps most well known among us today as a catechist and founder of the Lutheran deaconess movement. Source Löhe’s most well known work is his Three Books About the Church. You can read more about Löhe’s theology and life in this book. There is an interesting overview of Löhe’s life and times available in this article.
Löhe, like all of us, had his faults and failings. His emphasis on the divine institution of the Office of the Holy Ministry led him to some excesses in how he explained its powers and duties. He was wrong on the millennium. He is today in some of our circles often dismissed in a ham-fisted manner by those who often do not understand well what Walther taught on the ministry. It is a continuing point of conversation as to what extent Walther misunderstood and even misrepresented Wilhelm Löhe, viewing him through the controversies he had with a Lutheran pastor in New York, Grabau. Löhe’s own assessment of conversations with Walther and Pastor Wynken is interesting to read. When he gave Concordia Theological Seminary to The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Löhe issued a caution to The LCMS that we do well to consider today: 

In closing we want to share with you what is making our hearts
heavy, especially since it is of the utmost important to the seminary
in Fort Wayne. With much regret we have noticed that your first
synodical constitution, as is set now, did not completely follow the
example of the first congregations. We fear, and most likely rightly so,
that the basic, strong mixing of democratic, independent,
congregational principles into your church constitution will cause
more harm than the meddling of the princes and authorities did in our
church at home. Careful study of the apostles’ many lessons concerning
organizing the church and ministry, would have better and differently
taught the dear brothers from among the laity. Constitution is a
dogmatic, but not a practical adiaphoron. May that which the NT
teaches of constitution, organization and ministry at large, be the
right locus of the new seminary, and may the results of new research
done by Lutheran theologians in the home country not be considered
inferior and be ignored by the professors and teachers at Fort Wayne.
If a large, interconnected church is to be assembled which is to be a
haven for harried souls, care must be taken that she be endowed in
holy form and shape by which she can be recognized and grasped.

Signed with heartfelt, loyal love and esteem your devoted friend
and Brother,

Johann Conrad Wilhelm Loehe
Pastor at Neuendettelslau in Franconia

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  1. MarkE
    January 2nd, 2008 at 09:48 | #1

    Pastor Loehe also played a leading role in organizing the Franconian colonies that were established in the Saginaw Valley of Michigan: Frankenmuth, Frankenlust, Frankenhilf, Frankentrost.

  2. John Frahm
    January 2nd, 2008 at 13:41 | #2

    Another good overview of the life and work of Loehe:
    CTS Fort Wayne also reprints Three Books About the Church (call the sem bookstore) and they also reprint Kenneth Korby’s doctoral dissertation on Wilhelm Loehe. To borrow a title from a book about Walther, Korby was “The American Loehe.”

  3. John A. Frahm
    January 2nd, 2008 at 13:48 | #3

    Speaking of LSB, we cannot forget the Loehe hymn in LSB – “Wide Open Stand the Gates.” This is a hymn well work teaching and learning for the congregation and personal piety.

  4. Brian Westgate
    January 2nd, 2008 at 13:54 | #4

    I’ll have to look for those in the bookstore; I haven’t seen them so far. I think Lutheran Legacy may republish the Three Books in the future; their brochure in the bookstore with their other reprints mentions it.

  5. Michael Zamzow
    January 2nd, 2008 at 22:26 | #5

    I have Löhe’s Gesammelte Werke on my shelf. His sermons have been an inspiration for years. The Three Letters on the Church are a gem, but one must be careful to remember the influence of Moehler on them. There is a strong dose of “organic” thinking in them which was in vogue in the late Romantic period. That can be problematic.
    It is also important not to overemphasize the chiliastic issue. As I remember, the pastor of Neuendettelsau was called upon to judge between two positions (and personalities?) and ended up not coming down for or against Chiliasm, thus in effect siding with the chiliast (whose name eludes me right now).
    What one notices is his magnanimous spirit. Fort Wayne was given to the Missouri Synod and those who stuck with Löhe moved west to Iowa.
    No lawsuits. One does have to wonder if the relationship with Löhe or even Grabau would have been different had Missouri not had its unfortunate experience with Stefan.
    The sending of missionaries to New Guinea is also a part of his heritage.
    Disclosure: I studied at the two Wartburgs before they turned from Loehe’s heritage to what they have become. An early indication of that departure took place when the Löhe Chapel was made more “contemporary” by abandoning the chancel for a tasteless free-standing altar and the pews were unbolted so we could gaze at one another rather than focus on the crucifix on the venerable altar. Somehow I doubt Löhe would have approved.

  6. Michael Zamzow
    January 2nd, 2008 at 22:28 | #6

    We might also turn our attention to Louis Harms this year, although his influence was stronger in the Ohio Synod through the Hermannsburg Mission. SELK is joining in commemorating his work this year.

  7. January 3rd, 2008 at 21:54 | #7

    Forgive my changing the tone of the conversation here, but don’t you think Loehe was a strikingly handsome looking fellow? I’ve always thought so. Snappy dresser too. Maybe it just seems that way because CFW is such a contrast.

  8. J.A. Frahm
    January 7th, 2008 at 17:02 | #8

    I thought I had heard that some professor from Brooklyn has been known to refer to our beloved first president as “C.F.W. Ugly.” But as Will Smith said to Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black, as he first put on the black suit, you know the difference between you and me, I make this look good. But then again, God has chosen the lowly things to shame the wise (cf. I Cor. 1).

  9. Mollie
    January 2nd, 2012 at 14:44 | #9

    Great write-up. Found the whole thing fascinating, particularly his admonition regarding our constitution. And yes, Pr. Stiegemeyer, much better looking than some of our forebears!

  10. Ken Howes
    January 6th, 2012 at 10:40 | #10

    Loehe rendered LCMS some great services. His theology of ministry is not one of them. He acknowledged in one of his own books (the 1851 *Kirche und Amt*) that he did not draw it from the Confessions but from the writings of “anglikanische Hochkirchler” (High Church Anglicans–those were the days of the Oxford Movement). He admitted that the best he could claim about the Confessions was that they did not necessarily exclude what he had written, and that the weight of Luther’s writing was against him. Pieper called him a “romanisierender Lutheraner”–a Romanizing Lutheran.

    This is without getting into Loehe’s later milliennialism and synergism after he had left Missouri and co-founded Iowa; there are good reasons that Missouri and Iowa were not in fellowship. So let’s not over-celebrate Loehe. It is distressing to observe that LCMS is splitting into two factions–one that wants to rehabilitate the pastoral theology of Loehe and Grabau and one that wants that of Feucht, McGavran and Hunter. On the Walther bicentennial, almost no one adheres to Walther’s theology any more–and Walther had it right.

    • January 6th, 2012 at 10:56 | #11

      Ken, I think you are overstating things, just a tad, but you have some valid points.

  11. Jack K
    January 3rd, 2013 at 00:25 | #12

    Snappy dresser? What’s with the second button not being done?

  12. January 2nd, 2014 at 09:50 | #13

    Ken, you are correct. The Waltherian view is the official position of the LCMS. But what is actually found in Synod? High church popery or low church functional ministry! Where is Walther?

    • January 2nd, 2014 at 10:59 | #14

      David, would you please provide examples of the “popery” you speak of?

  13. January 2nd, 2014 at 15:04 | #15

    I attended for a few years in the 90′s the small SELK congregation in Nuremberg, our only one in that region of Franconia. I witnessed first hand the differences at the congregational level between the constitutions and bylaws as practised in Germany and in Brazil, where they (IELB) follow somewhat the LCMS model. I am sure that “the basic, strong mixing of democratic, independent, congregational principles into our church constitution” did NOT cause more harm than the meddling of the State in the German church. I actually find the more democratic system much healthier for the church and the ministry, especially in times of crisis.

  14. January 3rd, 2014 at 13:31 | #16



    Unfortunately, I have come across Pastors who teach that they alone can interpret the Scriptures for their congregations. What about “Grandma Schmidt” who has been reading her Bible with the aid of the Small Catechism for decades? Also, I have come across those who claim that they alone can forgive sin. What about my wife who forgives me in the name of Jesus when I sin against her? These false teachings are probably overly zealous responses to a perceived threat to their Office (to put the best construction on things). But, unfortunately, I have heard these arguments too many times.

    Also, recently, there has been “a change in the winds” in the Synod. The fad is to look to Rome for religious piety and liturgical expression. One Pastor stated that he is combating the Reformed/Church Growth Movement by going the other way. Some of these things (e.g., genuflecting, elevation of the host, calling a Pastor “Father”, etc.) are not (in an of themselves) wrong or sinful. And most are adiaphora.

    But why the change? Do we want to combat the “winds of Church Growth” with “winds from Rome”? What about the laity? And those who are weak in the faith?

    I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for your work for the Church!

    Blessings in Christ,
    Rev. David Tilney

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