As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we take a brief look at the lives of some of the most influential and important Lutheran theologians.
C. F. W. Walther (1811-1887) was the first president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (1847-1850). He also served a second time (1864-1878). Except for Martin Luther, perhaps no one is more quoted among confessional Lutherans than Walther.
Walther was born in Langenchursdorf in Saxony, Germany, one of twelve children. He was instructed in the faith by his pastor father. At the age of eight, he attended a Latin school. He confessed his faith in the Lord Jesus, though by his own later description he remained “unconverted.”
While in college in 1829, he began to read the book of Acts for its examples of unmovable faith. When he entered the university in Leipzig he felt himself “. . . born for nothing else than music.” His father changed the young man’s mind.
In Leipzig he joined a group of pietists. Pietism originated in the 17th century in the Lutheran Church. It emphasizes personal behavior and intense feeling. It stresses piety over orthodox doctrine. Within Pietism lie the seeds of work-righteousness. While at Leipzig, Walther was overtaken by spiritual despair. He also suffered a severe lung disease that forced him to leave school. His mother nursed him back to health. Surely the hand of the Lord was evident. At home, an intense reading of the works of Martin Luther formed his confessional position. He was ordained in 1837.
Opposed by rationalists as well as beset by government interference, he determined that he could not remain in Germany and fulfill his call as an orthodox Lutheran pastor. He left for America in 1838. Even his departure from Germany was plagued with problems. Authorities tried to discredit him, even charging him with the abduction of two children. 1Walther finally sailed to America under another name and on a different ship from the one on which he had been booked originally. He looked forward to being able to practice his Lutheran orthodoxy in America, where he arrived in January of 1839. He was twenty-eight when he arrived. Initially Walther was called to a dual parish in Perry County, Missouri. Later, in 1841, he accepted a call to a St. Louis church, filling the vacancy created by the death of his brother, Herman.
Walther and his wife, Emilie, had six children, one of whom became a pastor and served in the ministry until 1922. Emilie was called to her eternal rest in 1885, two years before her husband.
Primarily, Walther was a student of Scripture and a teacher of God’s truth. Besides his profound respect for Scripture, he valued the Lutheran Confessions. “The
Book of Concord should also be in every Lutheran home.
. . . Pastors should see to it that every home has one. . . . If a person isn’t familiar with this book, he’ll think, ‘That old book is just for pastors. I don’t have to preach. After plowing all day, I can’t sit down and study in the evening. If I read my morning and evening devotions, that’s enough.’ No, that is not enough! The Lord doesn’t want us to remain children, blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine; instead of that, He wants us to grow in knowledge so that we can teach others.” 2 The foundation of his teaching and preaching, as well as of his personal hope, was justification by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. This love of God in Christ bore him up when he, like Luther, suffered fits of depression.
One of Walther’s passions was music—he played the piano and organ. At one of the churches he served, an organ was constructed. The congregation had resolved that “only pure Lutheran hymns and worship forms” were to be used. To this end a new hymnal was produced with Walther as the editor-in-chief. He wrote a number of hymns and hymn tunes, one of which is in The Lutheran Hymnal (Hymn 198: “He’s Risen, He’s Risen, Christ Jesus the Lord.”)
“The ‘log cabin’ college [started in large part by Walther’s efforts] was moved from Perry County to St. Louis in 1850 and developed into Concordia Seminary. Walther became its first president, and held this position until his death in 1887. He also founded the St. Louis Lutheran Bible Society in 1853, and started two important publications: Der Lutheraner (in 1844) and Lehre und Wehre (in 1855). He was author of many books and periodical articles, among which the most noteworthy are Pastoral Theology, Church and Ministry, and his classic treatise on The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. While holding synodical and seminary positions as well as editing and publishing several periodicals, Walther was also the head pastor of the four Saxon Lutheran congregations (called Gesammtgemeinde) in St. Louis (Trinity, Holy Cross, Immanuel and Zion).” 3
From his youth, and throughout his years of education and ministry, Walther endured heartache. Satan sifted Walther, but by the grace of God he endured and left a legacy still appreciated by confessional Lutherans. A synopsis of Thesis XXIII (from Walther’s book, The Evangelical Lutheran Church The True Visible Church of God on Earth) reads, “Those only are orthodox churches in which correctness of doctrine and practice is found.”4 Praise the Lord for providing this stalwart confessor of the Word of God to the cause of Lutheran orthodoxy in America.
Daniel Fleischer is a retired pastor and former president of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. He lives in Oakdale, Minnesota.
1 Wm. Dallmann, W.H.T. Dau, Th. Engelder , Walther and
the Church (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1932) 2.
2 C. F. W. Walther, Essays for the Church, Vol 2
(St. Louis: Concordia, 1992) 51.
3 No author, “C.F.W. Walther—Biographical Note,”
no publication date, May 5 2015 <http://lutheranhistory.org/collections/fa/m-0004.htm#BIOGRAPHICAL>
4 Dallmann, et al., op.cit., 32.