The Biography of Wilhelm Loehe: Insights into His Life and Work
Geiger, Erika, Currents in Theology and Mission
Who was Wilhelm Loehe? Today in Germany his name is hardly known outside of theological circles. Many people, however, are familiar with Neuendettelsau, the place of his work, where the "Missions work" and "Diakonie" are located, some of the largest social services in Germany. Both of these institutions trace their founding back to Wilhelm Loehe. His work is thereby much more well known than his name. Therefore it is very welcome that now in Iowa an International Loehe Society should be founded that allows the remembrance of this significant man to be revived. Loehe not only achieved great things in the areas of mission and diaconal work but also left behind a comprehensive theological corpus of writings and almost has become a kind of "church father" for the Bavarian Landeskirche.
For my work on the biography of Wilhelm Loehe the most important sources were his letters and diary in which one encounters a fascinating and impressive personality but also a person with a changing and difficult destiny.
He was born on February 8, 1808, in Furth. His father, Johann Loehe, was a businessman, and his mother, Maria Barbara, was the daughter of Mayor Walthelm of Furth. Wilhelm and his six siblings (five sisters and one brother) thus stemmed from a notable middle-class family. When he turned eight years old his father died, and his mother took over the business. She was a very pious woman whose great wish was that her gifted son would study theology, although that meant for her great financial sacrifices. Loehe was grateful to her for this his whole life long. He attended the Latin school in Furth and later the Melanchthon School in Nuremberg.
After his graduation he began his theological study at Erlangen in 1826. Here two professors were especially important for the student: Reformed pastor Christian Krafft and natural scientist Karl von Raumer. Both belonged to the so-called "revival movement," a counterpoint to rationalism, which after the age of the Enlightment had spread through the Bavarian Landeskirche. The Bible had come to be read according to the standards of human reason, so that all that remained of Christianity was a valued moral teaching.
Loehe already as a child had endured religious instruction according to this reductionism. Now through the revival movement he came to know people who spoke of religious experience and a new life in Christ and who witnessed to their Christianity in deed. The diaconal and missional activities of both professors--the founding of a safe house for children and a mission society--deeply impressed the young Loehe. It was typical for him that he also wanted to become active: he founded a mission circle among family and acquaintances in Furth for the support of the Basel Mission and a Literature Society for Christian writings and tracts.
Inwardly, as a theological student he struggled with severe doubts about the faith. Again and again he questioned whether he was worthy to proclaim the gospel as a preacher. Only as he, like Martin Luther, gained the experience "that one must be and remain a sinner and become blessed by grace" (1) did he discover peace with God. Luther's writings became his most important readings during this period.
After a semester in Berlin, Loehe completed his studies in Erlangen and in 1830 performed very well on his exams, which earned from church authorities the comment "Capable of high ecclesial offices." However, his trial sermon was evaluated as too "mystical" by the examiner, although his exposition was based entirely upon the Lutheran doctrine of justification. Because of the rationalistic school to which the examiner belonged, this fell completely into the background. Such an evaluation of his sermon meant for Loehe that from then on he would be judged as a "mystic and pietist," which was not advantageous for his ecclesial career.
Loehe was ordained to the pastoral office on July 25, 1831, in the St. …