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Adolf Hoenecke (1835-1908)


What would you expect from a child born to a religiously indifferent father, whose body—weakened by typhoid fever—made a military career impossible, who then chose the ministry only after being told by someone teasing a corpulent pastor, “Look, Adolf, become a pastor and then you will have a good thing”?  Who then studied in a school more known for its scientific methods than its Lutheran orthodoxy? Whose father-in-law was a Reformed pastor? And who then turned to the Berlin Mission Society, which represented the “mild and moderate Lutheranism” of the Prussian Union, to be assigned a parish in America? And who, finally, was sent to an infant synod itself still struggling to find its Lutheran bearings?  This doesn’t sound promising, does it? But God made Adolf “the one great theologian” of the Wisconsin Synod.

How did God do this?  He gave him a professor at the University of Halle, August Tholuck, who took pains to take him under his wing and nourish his soul and not just train his mind. Tholuck gave his students not only academic meat, but also valuable spiritual counsel. And seeing his gifts (Adolf had taught himself enough Hebrew in twelve weeks to pass the entrance examination!), he encouraged Adolf to read deeply in Lutheran dogmatics. This Adolf did, to his great profit.

Since there were no immediate opportunities for a position in Germany, he was willing to go to America, still hoping eventually to return for a position in the Prussian church. He arrived at Milwaukee in the middle of our Civil War, in 1863, and was called to a small congregation at Farmington, near Watertown, Wisconsin.

What a time of confusion! The Wisconsin Synod, only thirteen years old, was associated with the General Synod, “a hodge-podge of individual synods whose leaders fought each other to the death,” and many of those leaders were quite unionistic. Adolf was able to watch the situation from the sidelines for a time.

But only a short time.  In 1864, he was elected secretary of the synod, and thus was thrust into the thick of inter-synodical activities. Then he was made associate editor of the church periodical, the Gemeindeblatt, and was busy writing sorely-needed, clarifying, confessional articles. Next he was appointed to a committee to screen ministerial candidates for the new school at Watertown, to prevent unsuitable students from enrolling. Later he was made dean of students at the school and was to teach theology. Finally, Hoenecke became sole professor of the seminary and editor-in-chief of the periodical. He had been in the country just four years, and was only thirty-one years old.

Hoenecke was now in a position suitable to his talents and quiet temperament, and except for a few years when the seminary was closed, remained there until his death forty-two years later.  As a professor, he was able to train up a generation of thoroughly Lutheran pastors.  As a writer and editor (later also of the Quartalschrift, a journal intended for pastors), he was able to wield the powerful sword of the Word throughout his fellowship and far beyond.  He was in a position to correct the errors from within and to combat the errors from without.  In an age when polemics were often harsh and cutting, he was “able by sound doctrine, both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9), and to do so in a convincing but gentle manner. He was a reluctant warrior, “combat-ready in any debate,” but “a quiet, peace-loving man”—fully armed, but never rejoicing in the fight.

His greatest literary work, Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics, was published by his sons after his death. Fortunately, it has been translated, and the author—who never learned much English—can now speak to us through these four volumes.

Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.