A Man for the Ages

by Rev. Brian Saunders

The Rev. Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther and the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison have more in common than their love of music and singing. Both have filled the role of president of The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod. Indeed, Harrison sits in the same office that was held by Walther in the mid-19th century. This is worth noting because this year on Oct. 25, we celebrate the 200th birthday of our first Synod president. In our current setting, it is good that we take this issue of The Lutheran Witness to pay homage and tribute to C. F. W. Walther, a leader who rose from meager beginnings but left behind the legacy of a faithful church body.

The cultural context

The conditions of Germany at the time of Walther’s birth in 1811 were chaotic. The Napoleonic Wars were drawing to a close, and Europe had been devastated by death, plaque and financial hardship due to those wars. By 1813, Napoleon had been driven back to France, but the consequences of war had left Europe in ashes. It was amidst these ashes that Walther was brought into this world.

Born at a time of suffering, Walther was no stranger to difficult times and struggles, both in life and faith, for the remainder of his days on earth. From inner conflict with his relationship with Christ to his struggle to defend the orthodox faith from false doctrine and practice, Walther was labeled a “Servant of the Word.” According to LCMS historian August R. Suelflow, “Walther was a devoted scholar of Martin Luther’s writings and had mastered the Lutheran Confessions as well as or perhaps better than anyone in America during the 19th century.” It is as a student of Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions that Walther’s voice articulated the clarity of the universal church here on earth for all the ages, including our church today.

The religious climate

The Lutheran Church in Germany at the time of Walther had many of the same characteristics as the religious climate in America today. The climate was and is a climate of Pietism. Simply defined, Pietism attempts to secure a Christian’s relationship with Jesus based on personal experience or an inner feeling. Pietism claims a dedication to the Bible but does not rest the certainty of salvation on an objective promise of God, such as Baptism, Absolution or the Lord’s Supper. Walther suffered a spiritual crisis in this climate of Pietism. He questioned whether he truly believed in Jesus, and worse yet, he wondered whether God truly loved him.

Walther’s college and seminary training were wrought with teachings of Pietism that eventually gave way to Rationalism. During the prevalence of Rationalism, Christ’s atonement, justification by faith, the fall into sin and related doctrines were rejected. Sermons became mere discourses on current events, science, hygiene and the necessity of planting trees. They were profoundly lacking in the comfort of the Gospel.

Walther found solace in the counsel of the Rev. Martin Stephan, a Lutheran pastor in Dresden, Germany. Stephan pointed Walther to the promises of God and encouraged him to take comfort in the work and merit of Christ for him rather than Walther’s efforts to create and identify an experience with God. This had a profound impact on Walther, such an impact that when a colony of Germans from Saxony, led by Stephan, emigrated to America, Walther sailed across the ocean with them.

But conflict soon plagued this Lutheran colony. When it reached a critical status, Walther was asked to settle the issue with the publication of what would become known as The Voice of the Church on the Doctrine of Church and Ministry.

Walther knew if he was going to produce a document concerning the Lutheran understanding of the doctrine of church and ministry, he could not rely on the scholars of the Americas, perhaps because he realized already what anthropologist Margaret Mead later noted. She characterized America as a place where first-generation immigrants strive to cling to old country traditions, the second generation is compelled to reject the old traditions and the third generation accepts the American way of David M. Potter’s “upward mobility” and “the pursuit of happiness.” Of these, Walther was more concerned about the pursuit of faithfulness to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions. For Walther, it was not about achieving something spectacular but more about being Lutheran. That may very well be our challenge as Lutherans in America and around the world today.

Walther’s work

The most important work of Walther was bringing a new understanding of what it means to be Lutheran to America. He located the origin of Lutheranism in the Word and found the explanation of the Word in the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord). In an essay delivered to the Western District Convention in 1858, Walther said:

A subscription to the Confessions is the church’s assurance that the teachers have recognized the interpretation and understanding of Scripture that is embodied in the symbols as correct and will therefore interpret Scripture as the church interprets it. If the church therefore would permit its teachers to interpret the symbols according to the Scriptures, and not the Scriptures according to its symbols, the subscription would be no guarantee that the respective teacher understands and interprets Scripture as the church does. (Matthew C. Harrison, ed. At Home in the House of My Fathers [Lutheran Legacy, 2009], 128.)

Walther was making a point: that the Lutheran Confessions are a true exposition of Holy Scripture and a correct exhibition of the doctrine of the evangelical Lutheran Church for all time. He was very careful not to elevate the Confessions above the Bible. Instead, he said that whatever the Bible declares to be true, that is truth, even if the whole world would declare it to be false. On the other hand, whatever the Bible declares to be false and erroneous, that is false and erroneous, even
if the world would declare it to be true.

At the same time, Walther made it clear that Lutherans understand the Word through the Lutheran Con-fessions. Walther brought to the American Lutheran scene the ability for the Lutheran Church to say what is true and what is false. That declaration differed from others in his time because it was not founded on contemporary opinion but on the eternal truth given by God to His Church. As Walther once published in the Der Lutheraner, a Lutheran periodical:

The Bible is the question of God to man: do you believe My Word? The symbolical writings (Lutheran Confessions) are the answer of men: Yes, Lord, we believe what you say! The Bible is the chest in which all treasures of wisdom and the knowledge of God lies hidden. The symbolical writings are the jewel room in which the church has deposited as in a spiritual storeroom all the treasures which in the course of hundreds of years she has with great effort drawn and dug out of the treasury of the Bible. The Bible with its teachings is the handwriting of God concerning our salvation, which Satan always wishes to falsify and declare as unauthentic. The symbolical writings contain the records which have been laid down, from which one can see how the church has believed these teachings from time to time and has ever held fast to them. (Jan. 23, 1849)

Walther’s ongoing influence

Walther answered that very question in the same issue of Der Lutheraner:

Oh, let us, then be on guard against those who refuse to build on the building of the church’s past but would build something new. Consider what the apostle wrote in Ephesians 4 that there is one body, one faith, one baptism, hence also one true church and one correct doctrine, which does not have need to be found for the first time, but which always was and will continue unchanged until the end of days, so that all new doctrines and new churches are false doctrines and false churches. . . . Thus we participate in the victory of all true contenders for the unadulterated Word of God and become fellow heirs to the full blessings of the Reformation.

Walther’s clear thinking and confessional, biblical focus remain vitally important for the church today. The path he followed in a culture that was not sympathetic to a confessional, biblical view also points the way for us.

When a church body such as the LCMS stays focused on Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions on a regular, daily, devotional basis, then a unity of confession is followed by a unity in practice. True unity is found only in the true Word of Christ. It is centered in and predicated on that which does not, will not and cannot change. It is the same in every period of history. Thanks be to God that He raised up a man like Walther whose intense focus on Scripture and the Confessions can continue to guide the church today.

Quick Facts

    • Born: Oct. 25, 1811, Langenchursdorf, Saxony, Germany
    • Died: May 7, 1887, St. Louis, Mo.
    • Educated at the University of Leipzig.
    • Ordained on Jan. 15, 1837, and briefly accepted a parish in Brunsdorf before sailing to America in 1838 with the Saxon Immigration.
    • Married Emilie Buenger,also one of the original Saxon immigrants, on Sept. 21, 1841.
    • Served as pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Louis for 46 years.
    • Taught at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, from 1850 until his death.
    • Served as the president of the Synod from its founding in 1847 to 1850 and from 1864 to 1878.
    • Edited two publications: Der Lutheraner in 1844 and of Lehre und Wehre in 1855. He worked on both of these publications until his death.
    • Authored several books, including Church and Ministry and The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel: 39 evening lectures.

Did you know…

> The LCMS commemorates Walther on May 7.

> Walther lived from 18111887 and served as LCMS president from 18471850 and 18641878.

> Listen to the Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III discuss Walther and Witness, Mercy, Life Together at http://media.ctsfw.edu/3292.

> Go to http://media.ctsfw.edu/3298 to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Noland speak about Walther and the Revival of Lutheranism.

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A Church in Mourning

by David Fiedler

Walther had been in declining health in the last year of his life, but his passing still sparked a great deal of somber reflection and commemoration of a man who had served in the ministry for more than 50 years.

The Synod was meeting in convention at Fort Wayne, Ind., from May 414, 1887, when news came of Walther’s death on Saturday, May 7. In a special session the next day, the delegates petitioned the Walther family and the St. Louis-area congregations to delay his funeral until Tuesday, May 17, to allow those desiring to attend the funeral sufficient time to travel to St. Louis.

In St. Louis, student pallbearers from Concordia Seminary carried Walther’s body from his home to the center corridor of the seminary, where it remained with a student honor guard around the clock.

But it was not just Missouri Synod Lutherans who were saddened at losing this faithful pastor. St. Louis residents mourned his passing, as evidenced by the four funeral services that were held for C. F. W. Walther. Attendees at these services numbered in the thousands.

Of the final service held at Trinity Lutheranthe parish where Walther served for more than 45 yearsone St. Louis newspaper journalist wrote:

So impressive and dignified a funeral St. Louis has not seen in a long time. There were about 2,000 persons in the church, and the streets . . . were so dense with people for blocks around that Captain Frangel and his police detail had difficulty keeping a path open for the mourners.

The funeral procession from Trinity to Concordia Cemetery in south St. Louis where Walther was to be laid to rest was about two miles long and included approximately 240 carriages. Bells tolled along the way, and people lined the streets to pay their last respects. Rev. C. J. Otto Hanser spoke these final words about Walther before his body was committed to the earth. They reference Dan. 12:13 and the marvelous promise it gives: that those who sleep in death will be awakened yet again.

Therefore, dear mourners, let us remember our Dr. Walther with gratitude. Let us remember his peaceful end and follow him in his victorious faith until we see him again face to face in eternal joy and blessed life in Jesus Christ. Amen, that will be true for all of us, Hallelujah. Amen, amen.

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The Lutheran Witness — Providing Missouri Synod laypeople with stories and information that
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contemporary world from a Lutheran Christian perspective.

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