Skip to content

David Henkel (1795–1831)


As We Approach The 500Th Anniversary Of The Reformation, We Take A Brief Look At The Lives Of Influential And Important Lutheran Leaders And Theologians

Everyone knows that to work efficiently, you should use the right tool for the job. Throughout the Lutheran Leaders series, we have seen how God made use of exactly the people He needed to preserve the true faith in a particular time and circumstance. We give glory to Him for His skill and wisdom. Nowhere are the practices of church and ministry more strange (at least to our eyes), and the challenges to the legacy of the Reformation more perilous, than the scene of early 19th century American Lutheranism. During his brief earthly life, David Henkel was just the right man for the job.

David Henkel was born to Paul and Elizabeth Henkel in Staunton, Virginia, in 1795. His father was a well-loved and respected hero of orthodoxy in his own right. He and his many pastor-sons left a legacy of confessional preaching, teaching, and publishing that preceded even C.F.W. Walther on the page of American Lutheranism.

Some of the first settlers to come to America were Lutherans. During the 18th century, Henry Muhlenberg was called from Leipzig to America, where he helped establish the first synod of Lutherans here. There was something of a golden age of orthodoxy during this period when the Lutheran confessions were held in high regard. Sadly, the influence of both pietism and rationalism quickly began to erode the right teaching. David Henkel was born into a time when, for many, feelings were held to be more important than scriptural doctrine. Others disdained any Bible claims that went beyond what could be explained by science or observed in nature. Maybe the biggest threat to right teaching was the pressure for all Christians of the Reformation to unite, not under the banner of right teaching, but instead by “agreeing to disagree.”

What about the “strange ministries”? You’ll note I said strange, not wrong. There were synods back then, but they seem to have been more like associations than church bodies, and many clergymen belonged to more than one, like one might belong to various clubs. In many circles seminaries were distrusted. The pastors in the Henkel family, for example, were trained by themselves and by other pastors. First, pastors would be licensed, which meant they could preach and teach. This “level” of pastor was often called a catechist. Catechists were required to serve a certain period of years, then a synod would declare them to be candidates, and finally they would be ordained. Working, it would seem, just from the instruction received from his father, David Henkel began his ministry at the age of seventeen or eighteen in the year 1812 in South Carolina. He was then named a catechist by the Lutheran Synod of North Carolina, where he served many small churches in Lincoln County. He expected to be ordained by the same body, but was rebuffed because his public teachings and writings went against the type of unionism and rationalism popular among the synod’s leaders. A synodical official named Gottlieb Shober, in particular, attempted to keep him from ordination.

The Tennessee Synod is Born

1819 was a big year for David Henkel. He anticipated ordination with the blessing of the North Carolina Synod at its convention which, according to its constitution, was supposed to meet on Trinity Sunday. Shober very much wanted to be at the founding conference of the General Synod in Pennsylvania, which was supposed to happen at the same time, so he arranged for the North Carolina Synod to meet early. David Henkel attended this meeting, which he later considered to be out of order, and was more or less put on trial. He didn’t back down from his biblical teachings, but did accept being “broken” from a candidate back to a catechist.

The North Carolina Synod next met on Trinity Sunday as planned and as called for in the constitution. Shober wasn’t there, but others who opposed Henkel’s teaching were. After contentious sessions, the church doors were locked, whereupon Henkel was ordained by his brother Philip under an oak tree in the church yard.

After contentious sessions, the church doors were locked, whereupon Henkel was ordained by his brother Philip under an oak tree in the church yard.

In July those who sided with Henkel and his faithful teaching founded the Tennessee Synod. Henkel remained an officer and leader in this group for the rest of his life.

Besides local parish work, Henkel went on frequent missionary trips to Kentucky and Indiana, and was a prolific writer.

After a year-long illness, David Henkel died on June 15, 1831, at the age of thirty-six. During his brief life, he is said to have delivered 32,000 sermons, baptized 243 adults and 2,997 infants, and confirmed 1,105 people. His opponents called him a rabble-rouser and accused him of being uneducated. Many said that he was stuck in the ways of the past and couldn’t see beyond the Augsburg Confession that he often carried under his arm. We thank God that the Holy Spirit used His instrument, David Henkel, to keep the flame of Reformation truth burning in at least one corner of American Lutheranism!

James Naumann is pastor of Our Savior’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jamestown, North Dakota.