Wilhelm Loehe on the Christian Life

[1] Johann Konrad Wilhelm Loehe (1808-1872) served from 1837 to the end of his life as a village pastor in Neuendettelsau, Germany, in the vicinity of Nuremberg. This was a call that Loehe did not covet. However, from this out-of-the way place, Loehe engaged in a ministry and mission that had monumental influence, not only in Germany, but as far away as the United States, Australia, and Papua New Guinea — places to which Loehe and his successors in Neuendettelsau sent missionaries.

[2] Loehe encountered serious resistance to his ministry early in his career due to his pietistic leanings and for his serious exercise of church discipline against offending church members. He was at the same time a strict Lutheran confessionalist who exercised sharp criticism against the state church. However, Loehe became renowned for his preaching and zeal for mission. Among his many initiatives from Neuendettelsau, he organized a training institute that sent missionaries and pastors to German immigrants in the U.S. Through this initiative, Loehe is considered one of the founders both of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod and the Iowa Synod. Loehe also founded diaconal institutions for the handicapped and other people in need that continue to operate to this day, not only in Bavaria but throughout Germany.

[3] Loehe was an influential author who engaged in historical study of the liturgical traditions of the early church, implementing reforms to the liturgy through the publication of a worship book, which included a strong emphasis on private confession and more frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Loehe published a body of work from a pastoral perspective on many themes, including sermons, devotional writings, works on liturgy, and ecclesiology. But it was primarily through his abilities at organizing — particularly the founding of the mission society and diaconal institutions — that his influence continues to this day.

[4] The theology of Loehe has been aptly described by David Ratke as an “ecclesial theology.”1 This core insight goes to the very heart of Loehe’s vision. Loehe’s theology was oriented toward church praxis. In Three Books About the Church, Loehe vividly described the place of the church in history: “Springing up on Pentecost and Calvary, the church flows through the ages like a river, and that same river and no other will flow unchangingly on through the ages until that great day when it will empty completely into the famed sea of eternal blessedness.”2 Loehe entertained a vision of the catholic church through the ages and dared to claim that the Lutheran church, with its confessional clarity, was the fullest expression of that church. As the river named church has continued to flow from the 19th century to the present, what has been Loehe’s legacy to the church in our time?

Five Dimensions of Loehe’s Ecclesial Theology
[5] The ecclesial theology of Loehe has several distinct dimensions that deserve elaboration, for they are themes that inform the influence of Loehe on the churches in America. Five aspects of this ecclesial theology are of particular significance: pietism, confessionalism, liturgical renewal, diakonia, and mission.

[6] First, the ecclesial theology of Loehe was pietistic. Loehe was influenced by the pietistic revival of his time. His favorite professor at Erlangen, Christian Krafft, was a strong representative of 19th century pietism. Loehe’s pietism gave birth to an early and persistent interest in mission. From his earliest service as a pastor, Loehe became notorious for organizing circles of the pious for the purpose of supporting foreign mission.3 Throughout his ministry, Loehe gave energy to the preparation and publication of devotional materials. This interest continued through his involvement in preparing pastors and teachers to serve the German immigrants in the American Midwest. Pietism gave Loehe a vivid sense of the living God’s activity in human life. Pietism has always been a motivating force for missionary outreach. Loehe is a prime example of how pietism affects the heart to give itself to others.

[7] Second, the ecclesial theology of Loehe was confessional. Reacting against the pressure toward unionism (the unification of Lutherans and the Reformed) placed on the Protestant churches in Prussia and other parts of Germany in the 19th century, Loehe became a strong defender of Lutheran confessional identity. Loehe valued the Lutheran tradition for preserving the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its purity. He feared the loss of doctrinal purity should the Lutheran church become forcibly reunified with the Reformed. Moreover, he resisted the imposition of such reunification at the hands of the government. Loehe was deeply convinced that the Lutheran church most perfectly preserved the essence of Christian teaching.4 This was a conviction he shared with other Lutheran leaders of the period.

[8] Third, the ecclesial theology of Loehe was liturgical. Loehe engaged as a scholar in serious study of the liturgical traditions of the early church. These studies became the basis for the liturgical order he developed for use not only in his own congregation but which also was published for use throughout the Lutheran church in Germany and the U.S., commonly known as Loehe’s Agende.5 Loehe had a deep appreciation for the liturgical pattern of worship and believed this form facilitated the encounter of the worshipping assembly with the living God.6 His efforts to reconstruct the historic liturgical rite were an original contribution to the renewal of parish life in his time. This included a strong emphasis on the sacraments and the reintroduction of a weekly service of Holy Communion. Loehe even implemented the rite of private confession as preparation for coming to the Lord’s Table. God is the primary actor who comes to us in Word and sacrament at worship. This conviction fed Loehe’s imagination that the God who comes to us in Word and sacrament also is the God who is at work saving the world. Loehe’s contributions to the field of liturgical renewal continues to exercise an influence on the development of worship materials to the present day.

[9] Fourth, the ecclesial theology of Loehe was diaconal. Loehe’s understanding of the church’s ministry included the recovery of its diaconal function. He took initiative in the founding of a deaconess order and the charitable institutions that continue to minister in Germany to this day.7 Building upon the restoration of diakonia by August Francke in the 18th century, the implementation of a deaconess order by Theodor Fliedner in the 1830s, and informed by the model of his contemporary, Johann Wichern, Loehe forged a distinctive contribution to the service of the church in the world. He viewed the diaconate as a vital dimension of the work of the church in the New Testament and reclaimed it as core to the “inner” mission of the church. Organizing this work into a deaconess institute, the ministry of the church was extended to many persons in need, including the sick, dying, poor, the handicapped, and the elderly. Neuendettelsau deaconesses were also active in education of the young.

[10] Fifth, the ecclesial theology of Loehe was missional. The church of God through the ages is a church in motion: “For mission is nothing but the one church of God in its movement, the actualization of the one universal, catholic church…. Mission is the life of the catholic church. Where it stops, blood and breath stop; where it dies, the love which unites heaven and earth also dies. The catholic church and mission — these two no one can separate without killing both, and that is impossible.”8 Loehe exercised a profound imagination for the church in mission. In fact he fundamentally viewed all the work of the church as mission, either Inner Mission or Outer Mission. The focus on Inner Mission came to clear expression in his parish ministry among the people of Neuendettelsau and in his efforts to organize ministry for the German immigrants to the United States. The focus on Outer Mission came to expression in an exceptional way in his desire to see the Gospel proclaimed to Native Americans.9 One might assert that all the other characteristics of Loehe’s ecclesial theology — the pietistic, confessional, liturgical, and diaconal dimensions — all finally served this interest in mission.

Open Questions: Loehe and the Formation of the Iowa Synod
[11] Loehe (who never travelled to the U.S.) and some of his missioners became embroiled in an intense, long-distance controversy with C.F.W. Walther and other leaders of the LCMS in Michigan over the understanding of the pastoral office in the late 1840s.10 In fact, Loehe was seeking to mediate a conflict between Walther and Johannes Grabau, the leader of the Buffalo Synod. When the controversy became intractable, those loyal to Loehe were forced to depart from Michigan to Iowa, which eventuated in the founding of the Iowa Synod in 1854.

[12] In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Loehe’s followers in the Iowa Synod were provoked to engage in debate with the LCMS concerning a number of other theological controversies, including chiliasm, the anti-Christ, Sunday worship, usury, and especially predestination. Periodical articles, tracts, and books contributed to a fierce discussion of these issues.11 Not only was each of these issues in itself highly contested. Even more, the fundamental theological stance of the Iowa Synod in relationship to these questions was attacked. This theological stance was that of “open questions,” which the synod inherited from Loehe. Loehe had argued against Walther in the controversy over the office of ministry that holding different views about ordination should not be understood as church dividing. For those issues where neither Scripture nor the Lutheran Confessions warrant a definitive and exclusive stance, it is permissible that a range of theological viewpoints and differences may exist among Christians. Loehe’s defense of open questions became itself another basis for theological controversy.

[13] The Iowa Synod from its origin adopted Loehe’s approach to open questions.12 In 1858 the theological position of the Iowa Synod was firmly established. With reference to the letters of Paul and to the writings of Luther, the theologians of the Iowa Synod defended open questions:

[14] About this there is no question, that Luther in the great and pointed questions which concern the salvation of souls and the way of blessedness tolerated no differences in doctrine…. That does not contradict that in the subordinate questions he allowed for differences.13

[15] Granted, one must proceed with conscientiousness in determining which teaching is (or is not) a matter of essential doctrine or an open question.14 Yet in contrast to many other American religious groups, “the Iowa Synod admitted that they knew too little.”15

[16] One of the defining characteristics of the Iowa Synod which traces itself to the influence of Loehe was its conciliatory posture toward other churches, deeply grounded in its allowance of open questions. This allowed the leaders of the Iowa Synod, even after being pushed to the limit by their critics, to state:

[17] We want to bear patiently by Jesus’ power what you have done to us unjustly and
continue to acknowledge you as our closest neighbors in the faith and brothers, and to pray for you. We also want to hold ourselves at all times to peace and brotherly understanding with you, and not become too weary thereby to sigh and to implore. However, we would rather die, than that we would abandon and betray the truth, which [God] has granted us to preserve and which we have represented against you.16

[18] The heritage of Wilhelm Loehe in the Iowa Synod had been embedded deeply into its very fiber.

[19] What does Wilhelm Loehe have to say to us today about the Christian life? First, Loehe is instructive about how theological tendencies usually considered as opposites can coexist within the Christian life. Loehe was at the same time a devoted pietist and strict Lutheran confessionalist. The pietism gave rise both to his focus on Christian devotion and to the impulse for mission. His confessionalism led him to criticize the state church and to defend the central doctrinal commitments of the Lutheran Reformation. In a parallel way, Loehe was simultaneously a serious liturgical scholar and an avid missiologist, interests often considered divergent in the life of the church. Loehe sought to retrieve the liturgical wisdom and practices of the early church, while at the same time he was active organizing a mission society to send pastors and missioners to the U.S. What we often hold as mutually contradictory impulses appear in Loehe as integral parts of the whole. Even more, Loehe’s witness is instructive about the importance of seeking deeper truth beyond what may first appear to be contradictions.

[20] Second, Loehe instructs us in the importance of a commitment to mission. Loehe had deep passion about spreading the Gospel. He was moved by the conditions facing German emigrants in the U.S. and understood the importance of sending pastors and teachers to minister to their spiritual needs. Likewise, Loehe was profoundly committed to mission among Native American people, desiring the church to organize itself for sharing the Gospel with them. While many of the methods of evangelization advocated by Loehe may today be considered misguided, the fundamental mission impulse remains noteworthy.17 Loehe’s commitment to mission also manifested itself in the founding of the diaconal institutions in Germany, which ministered to the needs of the women who became deaconesses, even as it reached out to care for the needs of many neglected members of German society — the mentally and physically handicapped, orphans, the aged, etc. Loehe continues to witness to us about the mission of God as the church’s core activity.

[21] Third, Loehe and his missioners in the Iowa Synod have contributed to ecumenical understanding through the idea of “open questions.” In an ecclesial climate that is often characterized by polarization and bitter conflict over a host of issues (both within denominations and between them), Loehe shows us that every difference of opinion does not need to be church dividing. While agreement on the Gospel and other core doctrines of the Christian faith are certainly necessary for church fellowship, there remain many other issues on which Christian people can maintain divergent views without jeopardizing their basic unity in the faith. Without necessarily calling it such or acknowledging Loehe as a predecessor, the advances in the ecumenical movement in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been fostered in many ways through the recognition that there are “open questions” that do not need to be settled before entering into full communion.

[22] Lastly, Loehe teaches us that God can and does work even from places that appear remote and nondescript. It has become legendary that Loehe commented about the village of Neuendettelsau that he would not even want his dog to be buried there. Loehe desired to serve in a city church, not in a village where the poverty and living conditions were dismal. Yet from this unlikely place, God through Loehe launched reforms to the liturgy and mission to the world whose influence continues to this day. The history of the church in the U.S., Australia, and Papua New Guinea would each be significantly otherwise without the influence of Loehe in humble Neuendettelsau. Furthermore, one can only begin to imagine the healing impact on countless human lives made by the diaconal institutions founded by Loehe that have ministered in Germany since the middle of the 19th century to this day. God is no respecter of place when it comes to accomplishing mission. No matter where we are, God can and does further divine purposes in and through us.


David Ratke, The Ecclesial Theology of Wilhelm Loehe: (St. Louis: Concordia, 2001).
Wilhelm Loehe, Three Books about the Church, ed., trans. and intro. James L. Schaaf (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), p. 55.
See Christian Weber, Missionstheologie bei Wilhelm Loehe: Aufbruch zur Kirche der Zukunft (Guetersloh: Guetersloher Verlagshaus, 1996).
Wilhelm Loehe, Three Books about the Church, pp. 152-155.
Wilhelm Loehe, Agende fuer christliche Gemeinden des lutherischen Bekenntisses, in Klaus Ganzert, ed., Wilhelm Loehe: Gesammelte Werke (Neuendettelsau: Freimund-Verlag, 1953), 7.1.
Thomas H. Schattauer, “The Reconstruction of Rite: The Liturgical Legacy of Wilhelm Loehe,” in Nathan Mitchell and John F. Baldovin, eds., Rule of Prayer, Rule of Faith: Essays in Honor of Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996), pp. 243-277.
Anne Stempel-de Fallois, Das Diakonische Wirken Wilhelm Loehes: Von den Anfaengen bis zur Gruendung des Diakonissenmutterhauses Neuendettelsau (1826-1854) (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 2001) and Harald Jenner, Von Neuendettelsau in alle Welt: Entwicklung und Bedeutung der Diakonissenanstalt Neuendettelsau/Diakonie Neuendettelsau 1854-1891/1900 (Neuendettelsau: Diakonie Neuendettelsau, 2004).
Loehe, Three Books about the Church, p. 59.
Gerhard M. Schmutterer, and Charles P. Lutz, “Mission Martyr on the Western Frontier: Can Cross-cultural Mission Be Achieved,” in Charles P. Lutz, ed., Church Roots: Stories of Nine Immigrant Groups that Became The American Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985), pp. 117-142.
James L. Schaaf, “The Controversy about Kirche and Amt,” Chapter 5 in “Wilhelm Loehe’s Relation to the American Church: A Study in the History of Lutheran Mission,” Doctoral Dissertation, University of Heidelberg, 1961, pp. 121-162.
Siegmund and Gottfried Fritschel, Iowa und Missouri: Eine Verteidgung der Lehrstellung der Synode von Iowa gegenueber den Angriffen des Herrn Prof. Schmidt (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, n.d.).
For this and the following, see Lohrmann, ., “A Monument to American Intolerance.”
George J. Fritschel, ed., Quellen und Dokumente zur Geschichte und Lehrstellung der evangelische-lutherische Synode von Iowa und anderen Staaten (Chicago: Wartburg Publishing House, n.d.), p. 312 (own translation).
See ibid., p. 317.
Lohrmann, p. 8.
Ibid., p. 280 (own translation).
Craig L. Nessan, “Lernendes Begleiten: Die Arbeit der Iowa Synode unter Indianern im 19. Jahrhundert.“ Confessio Augustana: Special Edition for Loehe Year 2008: 36-38.

Craig L. Nessan

Dr. Craig L. Nessan is Professor of Contextual Theology and Ethics, and the William D. Streng Professor for the Education and Renewal of the Church at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.  He teaches courses in the areas of leadership and theological ethics. He holds degrees from Michigan State University, Wartburg Theological Seminary, and the University of Munich.  His theological interests include diakonia as a paradigm for the future church.