Printer Friendly

The biography of Wilhelm Loehe: insights into his life and work.

Who was Wilhelm Loehe? Today in Germany his name is hardly known outside of theological circles. Many people, however, are familiar with Neuendettelsau, the place of his work, where the "Missions work" and "Diakonie" are located, some of the largest social services in Germany. Both of these institutions trace their founding back to Wilhelm Loehe. His work is thereby much more well known than his name. Therefore it is very welcome that now in Iowa an International Loehe Society should be founded that allows the remembrance of this significant man to be revived. Loehe not only achieved great things in the areas of mission and diaconal work but also left behind a comprehensive theological corpus of writings and almost has become a kind of "church father" for the Bavarian Landeskirche.

For my work on the biography of Wilhelm Loehe the most important sources were his letters and diary in which one encounters a fascinating and impressive personality but also a person with a changing and difficult destiny.

He was born on February 8, 1808, in Furth. His father, Johann Loehe, was a businessman, and his mother, Maria Barbara, was the daughter of Mayor Walthelm of Furth. Wilhelm and his six siblings (five sisters and one brother) thus stemmed from a notable middle-class family. When he turned eight years old his father died, and his mother took over the business. She was a very pious woman whose great wish was that her gifted son would study theology, although that meant for her great financial sacrifices. Loehe was grateful to her for this his whole life long. He attended the Latin school in Furth and later the Melanchthon School in Nuremberg.

After his graduation he began his theological study at Erlangen in 1826. Here two professors were especially important for the student: Reformed pastor Christian Krafft and natural scientist Karl von Raumer. Both belonged to the so-called "revival movement," a counterpoint to rationalism, which after the age of the Enlightment had spread through the Bavarian Landeskirche. The Bible had come to be read according to the standards of human reason, so that all that remained of Christianity was a valued moral teaching.

Loehe already as a child had endured religious instruction according to this reductionism. Now through the revival movement he came to know people who spoke of religious experience and a new life in Christ and who witnessed to their Christianity in deed. The diaconal and missional activities of both professors--the founding of a safe house for children and a mission society--deeply impressed the young Loehe. It was typical for him that he also wanted to become active: he founded a mission circle among family and acquaintances in Furth for the support of the Basel Mission and a Literature Society for Christian writings and tracts.

Inwardly, as a theological student he struggled with severe doubts about the faith. Again and again he questioned whether he was worthy to proclaim the gospel as a preacher. Only as he, like Martin Luther, gained the experience "that one must be and remain a sinner and become blessed by grace" (1) did he discover peace with God. Luther's writings became his most important readings during this period.

After a semester in Berlin, Loehe completed his studies in Erlangen and in 1830 performed very well on his exams, which earned from church authorities the comment "Capable of high ecclesial offices." However, his trial sermon was evaluated as too "mystical" by the examiner, although his exposition was based entirely upon the Lutheran doctrine of justification. Because of the rationalistic school to which the examiner belonged, this fell completely into the background. Such an evaluation of his sermon meant for Loehe that from then on he would be judged as a "mystic and pietist," which was not advantageous for his ecclesial career.

Loehe was ordained to the pastoral office on July 25, 1831, in the St. Gumbertus Church in Ansbach. He was required to complete a five-year vicariat, during which he was sent to positions in twelve locations. For example, he spent 2-1/2 years as vicar in Kirchenlamitz and almost a year in Nuremberg where his sermons soon became renowned and some appeared in print. After his employment exams, completed in the summer of 1835, he applied for a position in Erlangen where his professor friends lived. After his good experiences in Nuremberg, he would have been glad to become a pastor in the city. But his application in Erlangen remained without success, as did all of his later inquiries into urban pastorates. The ecclesial authorities always stood with a certain mistrust over against Loehe and wanted to see him not in an influential position but rather in an unimpressive country pastorate.

There remained nothing else possible than for Loehe to apply for such a position. Without great excitement he inquired about Neuendettelsau, where the farmers knew him and gladly would have him as their pastor. Neuendettelsau, located southwest of Nuremberg, was at that time an unknown and remote village. Through Pastor Loehe's thirty-eight years of ministry it became famous far beyond the borders of Germany.

Before his installation in his office, Loehe married on August 1, 1837, his former confirmand, Helen Andreae, the daughter of a businessman he knew in Nuremberg. She was eleven years younger than he. Although Loehe would have preferred to remain single and married only because of practical reasons and pressure from his family, the marriage was very happy and was characterized by deep love. In the Neuendettelsau parsonage four children were born, three sons and one daughter. Then, after six years of fulfilled family life, Loehe faced the most difficult blow of his life: Helen died on November 24, 1843, after a brief illness at the age of 24. Loehe never got over her death and could not ever again decide to get married, although all of his friends and relatives advised him to do so, above all on account of the care for his young children. The youngest son died a year after his mother. Loehe himself raised and educated the other three children.

Alongside his congregational work in Neuendettelsau Loehe undertook intensive theological study. The revival movement out of which he came concerned itself very little about confessional boundaries, and it now appeared to him too much determined by feeling. Through his experience and through the study of Luther's works and the confessional writings of the Lutheran church, he arrived at the conviction that the faith must not rest solely upon feeling but rather finds its strength in the "promises of God's Word," which stand "outside us." (2) The Lutheran church and its confessions became increasingly important to Loehe. In 1845 he published Three Books about the Church, in which he described the Lutheran church as the "unifying center of the confessions." (3) According to his view it stands in the center between the Roman Catholic and the Reformed churches. It had the "purest truth" because its confession most corresponds to the Holy Scriptures.

Loehe had become through his inward development a convinced Lutheran. This had implications for his relationship to the Basel Mission, which he had supported since his time as a student. This institution understood itself as a "free society" and held the view that a missionary in the work among the "heathen" must not be committed to one particular confession. The confessional differences in Germany could be neglected in the mission field. Loehe held a different opinion: the heathen clearly should not only be brought "to the origins of Christianity" (4) but also be assembled into congregations where a clear confession is important. For this reason Loehe took leave of the Basel Mission in 1842.

At this time he had already begun his own "missionary" work, namely, to educate preachers for the German emigrants in North America. There was at that time a large wave of emigration from Germany where many people could find no employment due to the onset of industrialization. They lived in the widely scattered settlement regions of North America without a connection to their church and without the possibility of schooling for their children. In 1840 Loehe read the "Call" of the German-American Pastor Friedrich Wyneken, who pleaded in moving prose for preachers from the native country. Loehe immediately felt himself summoned. Together with his friend Friedrich Wucherer, he took action. After the publication of Wyneken's "Call," donations flowed in. In addition, two craftsmen, shoemaker Adam Ernst and weaver Georg Burger, reported that they wanted to go to America as preachers. Loehe housed both in Neuendettelsau and undertook their education as teachers and chaplains. Already in July 1842 they were ready to travel to North America. There arose for both the possibility of further preparation at the seminary in Columbus, Ohio. The synod of Ohio was so enthused with both of these "emergency workers," as Loehe called them, that it requested fifty more students for their seminary, who would already have a similarly good preparation. Thus Loehe built up from these beginnings a "Mission Preparation Institute" whose direction was overtaken by his friend, Friedrich Bauer, and which later would become the "Mission Institute." Support for this institute and many other activities was borne by the "Society for Inner Mission in the Sense of the Lutheran Church" (Gesellschaft fur Innere Mission im Sinne der lutherischen Kirche), founded by Loehe and his friends in 1849. Loehe called the work among the emigrants, who were baptized Christians, "inner mission" in contrast to "outer mission" among the "heathen."


Through his written works in this period Loehe had in view both his own congregation in Neuendettelsau and the congregations in North America. He had studied many ancient orders of worship and soon constructed an Agenda for Christian Congregations of the Lutheran Confession, above all for the "brothers on the other side of the sea." He introduced many portions of this new liturgy in Neuendettelsau. Moreover, Loehe published a Book for Home, School and Church that also was designated for use both at home in Germany and in America. It could serve as an aid for parents who wanted to instruct their children in the Christian faith, a kind of "agenda for the laity."

Loehe had never forgotten his original concern about the mission to the "heathen." He had plans to undertake mission among the Native Americans from the base of the Lutheran congregations. Toward this end he configured a "mission colony," and a group of young people eager to emigrate founded the colony, Frankenmuth, south of the Saginaw Bay in Michigan, under the direction of the young pastor, August Cramer, at the border of the Native American areas. Similar colonies, Frankentrost and Frankenlust, followed later. After challenging beginnings, the colonies developed well. Even the mission among the Native Americans had a promising beginning, above all through the work of the missionary Beierlein. It was not, however, to have a lasting result.

The cooperative work with the seminary in Columbus did not run as smoothly as Loehe had hoped. His "emergency workers" separated from the Ohio Synod and made connections with the Lutheran congregations in Missouri. The Missouri Synod was founded in 1847 with a new seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. To Loehe's great distress there was in 1853 a controversy between him and the Missouri Synod over questions about the pastoral office. Only a few of his former students remained with Loehe. Following his advice, they moved to Iowa under the direction of Georg Grossmann and Johannes Deindorfer. With them came the teachers college, supported by Loehe, that found a new home in Dubuque and from which Wartburg Seminary originated. One year later the Iowa Synod was founded at St. Sebald "at the spring."

During the years 1849 to 1853 Loehe had ongoing difficult exchanges with the authorities of the Bavarian Landeskirche, the Oberkonsistorium. For Loehe it had to do with the separation of the Lutheran and the Reformed churches. He took offense that many of his clergy colleagues too carelessly neglected the confessional differences with the Reformed Church. In Bavaria there was a minority of Reformed Christians who belonged to the Lutheran Church, even partaking of Holy Communion, but who wanted to receive the sacrament according to the Reformed ritual. Many Lutheran pastors were ready to fulfill this desire. Even the authorities of the Landeskirche saw no great problems with this. According to Loehe's conviction, however, there was a profound distinction between the doctrine of communion in the Reformed Church, where "the true body and the true blood of Jesus Christ are not truly present and distributed," (5) and the Lutheran doctrine, so that he strictly opposed table fellowship between the two confessions and fought against a "mixed table fellowship." (6) Loehe could not even imagine table fellowship among the "united" church that in Prussia and the Pfalz consisted of the union of the Lutheran and Reformed churches.

Several times Loehe and his friends were very close to leaving the Landeskirche and either joining an existing Lutheran free church or founding their own. The church board became increasingly irritated by the "Loehe circle" and finally filed a charge against the group aimed at their removal from office. A split in the Landeskirche could now only be avoided by a change in the leadership of the Oberkonsistorium. Adolf von Harless, a childhood friend of Loehe, became president of the board in 1852 and was able to smooth out the argument. Loehe and his friends stayed in the Landeskirche.

Besides the emigrant work, Loehe initiated a second social project: the founding of the Deaconess Institute in Neuendettelsau in the year 1854. He was responding, as in the case of the emigrant aid, to an immediate social problem. Care for the sick in rural areas was very bad; there were no suitable hospitals and no educated caregivers. In the same way many mentally handicapped children were neglected; no one cared about their welfare. On the other hand, many unmarried women lived in the country, daughters of pastors, teachers, and craft workers, who had no opportunity to learn an occupation. Here Loehe saw a necessary and important ecclesial responsibility: he wanted to prepare these women as deaconesses for "a female Christian service of charity" (7) toward those in need of care, i.e., care of the sick, care of the handicapped, child care, and so on. He founded in 1853 the "Lutheran Association for the Female Diaconate" in Neuendettelsau, which according to his vision should be followed by many other local associations.

Preparation of the young women was to take place in Neuendettelsau, where the Deaconess Institute was founded on May 8, 1854. Loehe did not want to organize a new "sisterhood," as Theodor Fliedner had done eighteen years earlier in Kaiserswerth. He wanted the educated deaconesses to be engaged in the congregations as independent coworkers. This concept, however, never took hold. It was not normal at that time for a woman to live alone, and the idea created many problems. Loehe therefore decided already in 1856 to undertake elements of a "Diaconal Motherhouse." The Motherhouse in Neuendettelsau would from this time on not only provide the education for the deaconesses but should also be their home and place of retreat in times of illness and old age. The title of "sister" was introduced among the deaconesses, and they also introduced a unified dress.

Soon new houses circled the Motherhouse with its schools: an institution for the mentally handicapped, a prayer chapel, a workshop, a men's hospital, a women's hospital, and so on. The work in Neuendettelsau steadily grew larger. On account of their solid and well-rounded education, the deaconesses were everywhere appreciated. Loehe could not begin to fulfill all the requests for deaconesses from congregations and medical facilities.

Loehe suffered a slight stroke in 1863. Thereafter he could continue his ministry as a pastor in Neuendettelsau and rector of the Deaconess Institute, but his energy steadily declined. He also experienced two wars. The first was the "German War" in 1866 in which Bavaria fought on the side of Austria against France. Many deaconesses were employed in the care of the wounded. After the war Loehe received a medal from the Bavarian king as director of the Deaconess Institute, which generated public notice in all of Bavaria and in the Landeskirche. In the German-French War of 1870/1871 there were again many deaconesses in service in the military hospitals.

After 1870 Loehe became ever weaker. The doctor forbade him to preach; finally he needed to be transported with a wheelchair. He died after a second stroke on January 2, 1872. Written on his gravestone in the Neuendettelsau cemetery are the words "I believe in the communion of saints."

Loehe's significance for church history can be summarized as follows:

He saw contemporary social problems and without hesitation engaged in their solution. He always viewed this as a matter for the church and its missional and diaconal service. This was the motivating force behind all his activities.

The church of God, "the communion of the saints," now and in eternity was Loehe's great love and passion. He often employed for the church the image of the pilgrimage to the heavenly city, Jerusalem.

The "one" church was divided, however, into different confessions. Although Loehe put the Lutheran confession above the others, he was nevertheless not a narrow-minded confessionalist but open to ecumenical developments. Particularly in his later years he repeatedly emphasized that the doctrine of the church would never be "finished." It was his conviction that "As long as the church remains, it will be necessary to study God's Word." (8) Loehe saw a tension between "stability and movement within the church," which remains stable in certain "unchangeable things" but in others "is capable of movement, changeable, and in need of development." (9)

His theological insights and convictions, his writings on mission and diaconal ministry, his liturgical contributions, sermons, and prayer collections were recorded by Loehe in a comprehensive body of work. His collected works that have appeared in print encompass seven volumes printed as twelve books. The first volume of a planned supplemental series has been published.

--Translated by Craig L. Nessan

Erika Geiger

Grafelfing, Germany

1. Wilhelm Loehe, "Briefe 1815-1847, in Gesammelte Werke (GW), ed. Klaus Ganzert (Neuendettelsau: Freimund, 1951-1986) 1:292.

2. Loehe, "Von dem gottlichen Wort als dem Lichte, welches zum Frieden fuhrt," in GW 3/1:38.

3. Loehe, "Drei Bucher von der Kirche," in GW 5/1:162. This appeared recently as Wilhelm Loehe, Studien-Ausgabe Band 1: Drei bucher von der Kirche 1845, ed. Dietrich Blaufuss (Neuendettelsau: Freimund, 2005).

4. Loehe, "Die Mission unter den Heiden," GW 4:50.

5. Loehe, "Kirchliche Briefe," in GW 5/2:848.

6. Loehe, "Bruderliche Klage," in GW 5/2:911.

7. Loehe, "Bedenken uber weibliche Diakonie," in GW 4:273.

8. Loehe, "Kirchliche Briefe," in GW 5/2:861.

9. Loehe, "Meine Suspension im Jahre 1860," in GW 5/2:834.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Lutheran School of Theology and Mission
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Geiger, Erika
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Previous Article:Wilhelm Loehe and his legacy.
Next Article:Wilhelm Loehe in the context of the nineteenth century.

Related Articles
The future of Loehe's Legacy.
Confession and Mission, Word and Sacrament: The Ecclesial Theology of Wilhelm Loehe.
Wilhelm Loehe and his legacy.
Wilhelm Loehe in the context of the nineteenth century.
Saint and heretic: Wilhelm Loehe in German historiography since 1872.
"Sung, spoken, lived": worship as communion and mission in the work of Wilhelm Loehe.
Wilhelm Loehe and the Missouri Synod: forgotten paternity or living legacy?
Loehe and his coworkers in the Iowa Synod.
The church in motion: Wilhelm Loehe, mission, and the church today.
Wilhelm Loehe, disciple.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters