Martin Franzmann was born on January 29, 1907 in Lake City, Minnesota; a town situated on the bank of the Mississippi River between Wabasha and Red Wing. The son of Pastor William Franzmann and his wife Else, Martin Franzmann was brought up in the raucous atmosphere of a Lutheran parsonage filled with nine children (six sons and three daughters). He was an avid reader, and he showed a remarkable ability to retain what he’d read. Although not an athlete, Martin enjoyed swimming, and the inevitable Minnesota pastime of ice hockey.
Martin’s father took great joy in his pastoral duties, and that spirit had its effect on young Martin. From early days he determined to follow his father into the pastoral ministry. He attended high school and college at Northwestern, the Wisconsin Synod school at Watertown, Wisconsin. Already here he displayed a remarkable scholarship. He also had a sense of humor: as editor of the student newspaper, the Black and Red, Franzmann wrote, “There are two ways of representing the student body in this column: 1) As they are, and 2) as they ought to be. If you represent them as they are, everybody’s shocked; if you represent them as they ought to be, everybody’s bored.” It was also during this time that Franzmann met his future wife, Alice (née Bentzin). The two were married in 1933, a union that God blessed with three children.
After brief stints of travel and teaching, Franzmann entered the Wisconsin Synod seminary at Thiensville, Wisconsin. Upon graduation in 1936, he returned to Northwestern College to teach Greek. His students remember him as a brilliant but exacting professor; his classes required much preparation, but the students were happy to exert the effort. One biographer recalled, “He mastered his work, and presented it masterfully.”
Franzmann’s academic skills and publications began to be widely recognized. In 1946 he was called to teach at Concordia, the Missouri Synod’s seminary in St. Louis. Here the young professor displayed a knack, much-coveted by fellow theologians, of expressing timeless scriptural truths in a uniquely fresh and compelling way. Among his most notable works were a collection of sermons entitled Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, commentaries on Romans and Revelation, and a historical introduction to the New Testament called The Word of the Lord Grows.
Beside his scholarly abilities, Martin Franzmann also had remarkable gifts as a composer and translator of hymns. Many of his compositions may be familiar to present-day Lutherans, hymns such as “Preach You the Word,” “Our Paschal Lamb that Sets Us Free,” and “Thy Strong Word Did Cleave the Darkness.” His poetic skill is evident in the following simple, yet poignant, table prayer from his book Pray for Joy:
We live not, Lord, by bread alone;
Without Thy blessing bread were stone.
For bread and for Thy kindly Word
We thank and praise Thee, God, our Lord.
Franzmann eventually rose to be head of the Exegetical Department at St. Louis. He was weak on the doctrine of church fellowship, a fault that would show itself in (and perhaps contribute to) the breakup of the Synodical Conference in the early 1960’s. On the other hand, Franzmann proved a staunch defender of Biblical inerrancy, particularly when the so-called “higher critical” view of Scripture was making inroads among the St. Louis faculty in the 60’s and early 70’s. Franzmann would write, “What of ‘verbally inspired, infallible Word’? This is Biblical and Lutheran and not to be surrendered!” (Concordia Theological Monthly, 1969, p. 244).
In 1969, Franzmann left St. Louis to take up a tutor’s position at Westfield House, a training institution in England affiliated with the Missouri Synod. He retired two years later. Martin Franzmann died in Wells, England, in 1976.
Paul Naumann is a professor at Immanuel Lutheran College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and editor of The Lutheran Spokesman.