Wilhelm Loehe in the Context of the Nineteenth Century

By Schwarz, Hans | Currents in Theology and Mission, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Wilhelm Loehe in the Context of the Nineteenth Century


Schwarz, Hans, Currents in Theology and Mission


In a paper commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod James L. Schaaf wrote: "Wilhelm Loehe deserves all the gratitude we Lutherans who live on this side of the ocean are capable of expressing." (1) Even C. F. W. Walther, with whom Loehe certainly had some disagreements, wrote about Loehe in 1852: "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." (2) Indeed Wilhelm Loehe was the co-founder of the Missouri Synod, sending many future pastors to that synod, and also established the seminary in Fort Wayne. He also founded an educational institution in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1852, and moved it to Dubuque, Iowa, the following year because of problems with the Missouri Synod. He then helped to pay for Wartburg Seminary in what was to be the Iowa Synod. As Schaaf correctly stated in his doctoral dissertation, "Without Loehe there would be no Lutheran church in America as we know it today." (3)

Who was this person who, though he never set foot on this continent, still influenced the Lutheran Church in the nineteenth century as much as Henry Melchior Muhlenberg did a century earlier?

A child of his time

Loehe grew up in the time of Romanticism. As a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, Romanticism considered the romantic as the beautiful without boundary or the beautifully infinite. In the first variety, beauty without boundary, Romanticism led to pantheism, as we notice in the British poets John Keats (1795-1821) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and their appreciation of Roman and Greek antiquity. The other variety, the beautifully infinite, proved more interesting for theology. It led back to the classical ideal of the medieval period and its Christian roots, as can be seen in the conversion to Roman Catholicism of representatives of the Romantic Movement such as Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829) and the development of the art style of the Nazarenes which until today influences popular piety in Europe and North America. It is not accidental that Loehe's hairstyle resembled that of the Nazarenes. The pietistic awakening in Germany, in which Loehe participated, was influenced by idealism, romanticism, confessionalism, and neo-Lutheranism. It attempted to stem the tide of rationalism and liberalism as can be seen in the case of the Prussian Union.

The Prussian Union of the Lutheran and Reformed churches proclaimed in 1817 was the result of the endeavors of King Frederick William III (1770-1840) to overcome inner-Protestant division. It also was advocated by those coming from the Enlightenment and who saw in confessionalism a relic of the past. The idea was to leave behind the divisive confessionalism among the Protestants and to form one united church. This enforced union led at once to emigrations of Prussians of conservative Lutheran persuasion to found the Lutheran Church of Australia and of like-minded Saxons to establish what later became the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod in North America. Both laity and clergy were involved in this exodus. Also, in the same year that the Union was proclaimed, Pastor Claus Harms (1778-1855) from Kiel published anew Martin Luther's 95 theses and added 95 of his own. He rejected rationalism and advocated an ecclesial doctrine guided by Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions as its norm.

These theses, published at the 300th anniversary of Luther's own theses, intensified the discussions about unionism and made Harms popular far beyond Germany. He received a theological and a philosophical doctorate from the University of Kiel (1834) and was even called to be bishop of St. Petersburg in 1819, a call he declined, as well as a similar call in 1843 to become successor to Schleiermacher at Berlin's Trinity Church. (4) He was by no means a narrow confessionalist but considered Roman Catholics as brothers, though in error. …

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