For forty-nine years, John Phillip Koehler had faithfully served the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) as a parish pastor, a professor at Northwestern College, and a professor and president of the Wauwatosa Seminary. Then, in 1929, the seminary board suspended him from teaching and administrative duties, and in 1930 fired him. He then had to leave seminary housing, so he moved to Neillsville, Wisconsin, to a house which his son had built for him. In 1933, the WELS met in convention and formally severed its relationship with Koehler because Koehler was in fellowship with those with whom WELS was not; namely, the members of the Proteśtant Conference.
J.P. Koehler was born on January 17, 1859 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to Pastor Christian Phillip Koehler and his wife, Apollonia (neé Schick). Five years previously, Koehler’s father, who was a confessional Lutheran, had been sent by the Langenberger Mission Society in Germany to North America.
Koehler, along with John Schaller and August Pieper, attended Northwestern College in Watertown, Wisconsin; and then Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, where all three studied under C.F.W. Walther, Franz Pieper, and George Stoeckhardt. Their years overlapped at both institutions, and all were appreciative of Walther. However, after the three had joined the WELS seminary in Wauwatosa, they developed what became known as the Wauwatosa Theology, partly in reaction to Walther’s heavy emphasis on dogmatics and citation theology. By contrast, they emphasized the importance of careful, original exegesis of God’s Word.
Koehler graduated from St. Louis in 1880 and then served with his father for two years. From 1882-88 he served St. John Lutheran in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, and then accepted a call from Northwestern College. In 1900 he joined the seminary at Wauwatosa, where he taught New Testament exegesis, church history, hermeneutics, liturgy, and church music—he was talented in many fields! President John Schaller died in the influenza epidemic of 1918-1920, and Koehler became college president.
In 1924, Koehler was granted a year’s sabbatical. During his absence, the faculty of Northwestern College expelled some students who had been stealing from town businesses. The board reinstated them over the faculty’s objections, and Koehler’s son was among those who resigned in protest of the reinstatement. There were also other problems elsewhere in the synod. In 1926 a certain Pastor Beitz penned a conference paper that called on the synod to repent of legalism. Synodical officials strongly disagreed and asked the seminary to prepare an opinion. August Pieper wrote a response that accused Beitz of slander, mixing justification and sanctification, and false doctrine. Koehler had signed the opinion with the understanding that the opinion would not be made public, and that Koehler would speak with Beitz. The opinion, however, was made public. Koehler revoked his signature, and then issued an opinion that Beitz was careless in his use of language but was not guilty of false doctrine. Pieper and J.P. Meyer wrote a response condemning Koehler’s “historical viewpoint.” Koehler wrote a clarification in 1929, whereupon the seminary board suspended him. He subsequently left Wauwatosa, and eventually aligned himself with the Protes’tant Conference.
Koehler’s two most notable publications are his Lehrbuch der Kirchengeschichte (Textbook of Church History, 1917) and The History of the Wisconsin Synod (published in 1970). Historian Jaroslav Pelikan rated the Kirchengeschichte as “the outstanding work of its kind to come out of American Lutheranism, regardless of synod.”
Koehler died in Neillsville on September 30, 1951; he was preceded in death by his wife in 1938 and his eldest son Karl in 1948.
Steven Karp is pastor of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Hayward, California.