by Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison
On a sultry St. Louis day in June 1892, several thousand German Americans gathered at the grave of Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther. The patriarch of the Missouri Synod had died five years earlier in 1887. Walther’s successor as seminary president, and in 1899 as Synod president, Francis Pieper delivered an address after the reading of 1 Corinthians 15 and the singing of “Jesus Christ, My Sure Defense.”
Those in attendance were mostly people Walther himself had pastored for decades. Pieper recalled first Dr. Walther’s profound care for souls and described it at some length.
When his office compelled him to speak with an individual, he had already previously spoken to God regarding that person. The need of the member of his congregation was his own need and drove him to prayer; their joy was his joy and moved him to pray in thanksgiving (At Home in the House of My Fathers, CPH, 2011).
Pastor Hermann Bartels had read the text: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10). This text profoundly describes Walther’s life, and precisely because there were times when he profoundly doubted it. In fact, many who celebrated Walther’s life that day recalled a struggle their pastor revealed to them some 30 years earlier.
Walther, at the height of his productivity, suffered what we might call today clinical depressiona complete emotional, spiritual and physical breakdown. The death of a child, exhaustion from overwork, fundraising responsibilities for a seminary addition, the sheer weight of the travel schedule and leading free conferences around the country were all too much. He wrote to his congregation on February 3, 1860:
I may and must now reveal to you that the last half of the previous year has been one of the most difficult times of my life. I was physically incapable of attending to even half the office that I am dignified to carry out among you in unworthy fashion. Even more, the prospect that I would again be capable of the same became gloomier and darker month by month. I owe it to you to be transparent. . . . My own relationship with my God and Lord filled me with deep aversion and vexation. God placed before me, as never before, my entire past. He let me see my misery as I had never seen it before. I was filled with misery and distress. . . . My only hope was a blessed death. For I hoped that in spite of my deep sense that I deserved [God’s] curse, I would not let go of the Lord Jesus. I hoped to hold fast to the fact that God can never repudiate His promise to a poor sinner, if only that sinner be saved and righteous before Him through the grace of Jesus. Indeed, God more and more granted grace to me according to His faithfulness. This grace brought it about that I could never doubt the truth of that which I have taught, preached, and written for seventeen years. . . . But what happened? When the distress had reached its greatest intensity, help came.
Wilhelm Sihler and Friedrich Wyneken came to Walther in St. Louis, reassured him of the Gospel and convinced him he needed to step away for a time. He was wise enough to take their advice. His letters to his wife, asking her to greet the list of beloved members of his congregation who had made it possible for him to return to Germany for a sabbatical, are among his most touching. By March 8, he’d reached his friends in New Orleans and wrote to Wyneken:
I felt better day by day, except that I could not sleep well. . . . My throat is almost completely restored. Metzes and Hoppes have done everything imaginable for me to nurse me and to make me a real bum who does nothing but eat and drink, go out on strolls, or lounge around even more, who flops down on the bed and occasionally smokes a good cigar.
Walther had suffered at least two similar breakdowns. One, while a student at Leipzig, had forced him to return to his father’s rural parsonage where he read Luther extensively. A second occurred in the year after the ouster of Bishop Stephan from Perry County and again threw him into Luther’s writings. Luther wrote that the study of God’s Word, prayer and trials really make the theologian. But, said Luther, it is especially trials that pull it all together.
No doubt it was precisely Walther’s great physical, mental and spiritual struggles that drove him to uncompromising clarity of orthodoxy as his consolation. Walther suffered the kind of weakness and challenges that we all suffer, and these weaknesses drove him to Christ Jesus and the Gospel of free forgiveness. These trials made him a compassionate pastor and person and caused him to emphasize also the importance of the church’s role and responsibility to care physically for its members.
Walther’s greatest accomplishment by the grace of God is singular. The church body he helped to found has retained doctrinal fidelity to the Book of Concord from its founding to the present. And yet it is also this very same Walther who was deeply concerned with caring for the suffering in the body of Christ.
May it be said of all of us at the last: “I am what I am” (weaknesses and all), “but His grace toward me was not in vain.”
About the Author: The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison is president of The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod.