C.F.W. Walther and a Vision for Education in the Early Days of the LCMS

As a member of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), many of us are preparing for the upcoming LCMS Convention, a gathering that occurs every three years, one where major issues are discussed and upon which many are voted. Several resolutions are related to the Concordia University System. There are also many competing visions for Lutheran higher education and its future. At such a time, there may be wisdom in looking at our history, even to the early years of the LCMS. As such, I offer a few thoughts for your consideration. At the end of this post are suggested readings from which I extracted the following notes and quotes (although the sources are challenging to locate). Most of the quotes referenced here are collected in one wonderful source that I cite at the end.

  1. The value for Lutheran schools of all levels goes back to the Reformation, even as it was an influential motive for some Lutherans to immigrate to the United States, a place that offered the promise of freedom of religion adequate to educate our youth according to our faith and conscience.

“They considered it their duty not to leave the founding of institutions for the training and education of faithful teachers and ministers slothfully and carelessly to the future. Had not the solicitude for the children’s future concerning church and school been the strongest motive for their immigration to America? Though the greatest efforts were required from day to day to supply the daily bread for the poor body, yet the question and the most important task, as they firmly clung to the Word of the Lord: ‘Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat or what shall we drink, or with what shall we be cloathed?’ Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
-Life of J.F. Buenger by C.F.W. Walther, p. 69

  1. C.F.W. Walther, the first LCMS President, placed a high priority on all levels of Lutheran education.

“May God preserve for our German (and English) Lutheran Church the treasures of its parochial schools! Humanly speaking, everything depends on that for the future of our church in America. As all church bodies in America have worked for their dissolution from the time when they permitted the state to care for the education of their children, so the most careful cultivation of our parochial schools is and remains, after the public ministry, the chief means for our preservation and our continuation.”
-C.F.W. Walther in Der Lutheraner, February 15, 1873

  1. C.F.W. Walther and early LCMS leaders saw Lutheran schools of all levels as vital for preparing future church workers, but also for the mission of the church, as well as the well-being of society across many vocations and stations of life.

“The Church, as well as the State, needs wise, skillful, and cultured people, well informed and experienced in all matters, who are at the same time Christians, to whom one can entrust a vital position, and from whom good advance can be obtained; is it not, therefore, your parental duty to figure on leaving children behind who can be used by State and Church, able to serve as officers of the congregation, secretaries, treasurers, justices, postmasters, and representative of the people in the Legislature and Congress, etc.?
-C.F.W. Walther in Der Lutheraner, July 26, 1859

  1. Those who contributed to the formation of the LCMS valued education so much that the first Synodical Constitution required all member congregations to provide schooling for the congregation’s children.
  2. Even some of the most beloved theological works of the LCMS grew out of our commitment to creating higher education communities.

C.F.W. Walther, as a professor and first President at Concordia Seminary, hosted Friday evening gatherings with students and faculty in his home, where he delivered various informal lectures. What you may know as the beloved and classic work, Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, was published ten years after Walther’s death and taken from 39 informal lectures that Walther gave on these Friday evenings between September 1884 and September 1885.

  1. The vision for Lutheran education was expansive and inspiring.

For a glimpse into the early vision for education, check out this 1839 advertisement in the St. Louis German Newspaper, Anzeiger des Westens [Gazette of the West, the first German-language newspaper in St. Louis, not just for Lutherans but for all German speakers in the area]:

We, the undersigned, intend to establish an institution of instruction and education that distinguishes itself from ordinary schools, especially by this, that it comprises, besides the common branches, all college sciences necessary to a faithful Christian and scientific education: as religion, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, German, French and English languages[Walther, like Luther, saw language as central to a great education], history, geography, mathematics, physics, natural history, elementary philosophy, music, drawing. The pupils of our institution are to be so advanced in the studies named above that, after absolving a complete course of study, they will be qualified for university studies [note that going to university was the rare exception in those days]. The esteemed parents who may desire to place their children into our institution are requested to inquire about the plan and arrangements of Pastor O.H. Walther in St. Louis, 14 Poplar Street, between First and Second Streets. Instruction is to begin, God willing, on October 1 this year.

The settlement of the German Lutherans in Perry County, near the Obrazo, August 13, 1839.

C. Ferdinand W. Walther
Ottomar Fuerbringer
Th. Jul Brohm
Joh. Fr. Buenger

  1. Such a broad vision, including serving families from different backgrounds, also extended to higher education, even from our earliest years in the LCMS.

The following are well-cited and gathered in Dr. Mary Hilgendorf’s insightful dissertation from the 1990s:

When “The Log Cabin College” moved to St. Louis in the early years of the LCMS, taking on the name “Concordia Collegium,” we learn a bit more about the early vision for the future of Lutheran higher education.

Walther’s vision for a Gymnasium included the classics, English, geography, history of the US, chemistry and other sciences, political science, and private instruction in French, Spanish, Italian, art, and music to the non-ministerial students. This was a six-year course of study, the modern equivalent to high school plus two years of college. Non-Lutheran students were also welcome at the Gymnasium.

It was held in high regard in the St. Louis area, not only for German families but also for English families. A roster of students listed in Der Lutheraner from 1880 to 1855 showed that over 80% of the students were not church work students (although there was stated concern that the non-church work population, at such a high percentage, could take away from the church worker preparation purposes of the school).

Granted, this was later transformed into a seminary, but the vision for such institutions persisted even if the resources were lacking.

  1. Being a President of a Synod school was hard in the 1800s as well.

When President Lindemann was struggling with doubts about his competency and thought about resigning as President of the Addison Teachers Seminary (now Concordia University Chicago), C.F.W. Walther wrote this in a letter to him:

“Therefore, for God’s sake, do not assume the responsibility for nullifying your call. God does not tolerate our fooling around with these things… You had better abandon that nice little dream of the quiet life of a literary man in a small town far removed from all those people who make life miserable for us. As much as you would be suited for this and as much as you would create a great benefit for the people in this kind of role, you are not called to this…”

[Six months later, at 52 (I happen to be 52…gulp), Lindemann died suddenly of a heart attack.]

[Another interesting aside: Lindemann was the author of a book called American Lutheran School Praxis or Amerikanisch-Lutherische Schul-Praxis (not that far from my edited work called Pedagogy of the Faith…but his book was far better.).

  1. Walther had a vision for Missouri Synod schools that rivaled the universities of Germany.

His vision for education included schools of fidelity to the confessions and Scriptures that well-equipped young people, prepared future church workers, served and equipped people beyond the Lutheran church, and that created truly robust and world-class comprehensive universities that compared to and rivaled what he experienced at the top universities in Germany.

  1. If you’ve read this far, I will grant you the courtesy of some candid personal commentary.

I share Walther’s vision and consider it short-sighted, historically reductionistic, and harmful to the church’s future to think somehow that now is the time to cloister our colleges and ourselves. Now is the time to expand our commitment to being and becoming faithful, Christ-centered, world-class, comprehensive Lutheran universities. These are not easy times to live in, but being part of a 500-year-old legacy of global Lutheran education is an incredible honor. Imagine for a moment what might happen if we lean into this legacy and learn from the vision of our wise predecessors rather than let fear fuel our efforts and decisions. Should we choose to be bold and courageous in this regard, Lutheran universities have promise to be an immense blessing to the church and world for generations, even far beyond what we have experienced so far.

“The LORD is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?” – Pslam 27:1

Do you want to check out some of the sources I referenced? Here they are, although they are only easy to find if you can access a Lutheran university or seminary library (yet another decisive contribution of the Lutheran higher education system).

Log Cabin to Luther Tower: Concordia Seminary During One Hundred and Twenty-Five Years. Toward a More Excellent Ministry, 1839–1964. By Carl S. Meyer

Chapter 12 of C.F.W. Walther: The American Luther. By Arthur Drevlow.

Scan old copies of Der Lutheraner from the 1870s (you might need a translator, although there are English translations available)

100 Years of Christian Education. By Arthur C. Repp and from 1947

Schools of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. By August Stellhorn.

Small portions of Zion on the Mississippi: The Settlement of the Saxon Lutherans in Missouri 1839-1841. By Walter O. Forster

I was first introduced to almost everything noted in this post by reading Dr. Mary Hilgendorf’s 1997 doctoral dissertation, C.F.W. Walther and Education in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. If you can find a copy, it is well worth a Saturday to read.