Chasing Loehe's Ghost
by Jerry L. Schmalenberger (March / April 1998 — Volume 14, Number 2)
Wilhelm Loehe was one of 19th Century Germany's finest preachers. His approach has lessons for all preachers today
In the tiny Franconian village of Neuendettelsau, Germany, one finds a Loehe house, Loehe memorials, Loehe liturgies, Loehe archives, and even streets named Wilhelm-Löhe-Straße after the 19th century parish pastor who spent almost his entire ministry there.
Two congregations in the village bear the stamp of his ministry to this day. Institutions begun by him in Neuendettelsau include Gesellschaft für innere Mission in 1849, Lutherischer Verein für weibliche Diakonie in 1853, and a whole host of homes for the mentally challenged, hospitals for men and women, orphanages, schools, homes for unwed mothers, hospices, and workshops for the preparation of paraments and communion elements.
While spending a sabbatical at the Augustana-Hochschule which is located in a former World War II munitions factory facility in Neuendettelsau, I decided to chase the ghost of this famous preacher whom writers variously call "among the greatest preachers of the 19th century"1 and "no exaggeration to call him the Chrysostom of his century."2
In order to prepare the obligatory color slide show from returning sabbatical professors, using fast film, and with the help of faculty and students at the Augustana-Hochschule, I have chased the ghost, camera in hand, to: Fürth, where Loehe was born the fifth of six children; Erlangen, where he did his theological studies; Berlin, where he found Schleiermacher's lectures boring but was tremendously inspired and influenced by his preaching; nearby Ansbach, where he was ordained in the cathedral; Kirchenlamitz, where he served as vicar for a two-year period and then was asked to leave; Nürnberg, where he served briefly in several churches as administrator; Behringersdorf, where he met and confirmed his wife-to-be, Helene; and to the village of Neuendettelsau where he served for 35 years beginning in 1837 and converted the tiny Bavarian village into a busy Christian colony.
And, finally, in the Franconian village cemetery here, a slide of his and Helene's burial place — she having died and left him with four young children.3
Now, on my return to the United States in order to complete the man's life, I'm chasing his ghost to places where he never traveled but had a profound influence such as: St. Louis, Missouri, where along with C.F.W. Walther, he founded the Missouri Synod; Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where he founded and began a Lutheran seminary; Columbus, Ohio and Trinity Seminary, where he sent students to be prepared for ordained ministry4; Frankenmuth, Michigan, where he established one of several colonies with a mission to the Native Americans5; and Dubuque, Iowa, where he is considered the father of Wartburg Seminary.
As a preacher of many years and a professor who has the privilege of teaching an occasional course in homiletics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, I have asked the question over and over, valiantly trying to bridge the gap of culture and language, "What made this man the great preacher who could motivate Bavarian farmers to walk all day Saturday in order to hear him preach on Sunday, or, move their entire family across Germany in order to live near where he preached?"
While most of his theological training was at nearby Erlangen, Loehe learned preaching by example from his four months of sitting at the feet of existentialist and Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, who preached regularly at Trinity Cathedral while professor in Berlin from 1809 to 1834.
Martin Redeker writes in his Schleiermacher: Life and Thought: "According to his own admission, Schleiermacher was accustomed since the time of Schlobitten not to write out his sermons in advance except for notes on a few pieces of paper. He wrote down many sermons only after he had preached them."6
Redeker continues with the appraisal: "His sermons signify as much a new start in the history of preaching as his theology did within the history of theology."7 He saw the sermon as feeling event as well as teaching and learning experience.
He adds, "The sermons arrive at the submissive tone of humility before God, the deepening self-judgment, the peace and serenity which spring from trust in God."8
In other words, young Loehe, at a time when he was developing his preaching style, saw a preacher who preached from the heart not bound by a manuscript. He was moved by it and no doubt preached in similar fashion in Neuendettelsau.
Another way Schleiermacher influenced Loehe's preaching was in a bold style of addressing social ethics from the pulpit. One of Schleiermacher's biographers gave his patriotic sermons a special place in the history of the Protestant sermon. He considered Schleiermacher "the first political preacher in the grand style produced by German Christianity."9
|"What made this man the great preacher who could motivate Bavarian farmers to walk all day Saturday in order to hear him preach on Sunday, or, move their entire family across Germany in order to live near where he preached?"|
Failure and Success
As a young intern in Kirchenlamitz, Loehe enthusiastically preached in this fashion much to the amazement and consternation of the congregation and village authorities. He was asked to leave before completing his internship. But in Neuendettelsau, such preaching was eagerly anticipated and received!
According to Redeker, Schleiermacher's unique preaching style grew out of his four underlying assumptions of his sermons:
(1) "The preacher turns to the church as the community of Jesus Christ which continually lives in communion with the Redeemer.
(2) "It is the confession and witness of the Christian community which enjoys a lively relationship with Christ and which, through the preacher, brings this relationship to expression in representative communication.
(3) "He bound together the Christian and the human, the gospel and the concrete life.
(4) "The fourth typical aspect is his molding of the sermon into a work of art...the shaping of the sermon according to the rules of content and style in rhetoric."10
Loehe based his Neuendettelsau sermon preparation and delivery on the same assumptions.11
Christian Weber, who completed a doctoral thesis on Loehe in 1994,12 claims that, in terms of his sermons, Loehe was a much better preacher than writer, which means he understood oral communication. He says that Loehe always preached for conversion. Translated into homiletical terms, this means that he was careful to answer the "so what?" in all his preaching.
In an interview, Weber also claimed that Loehe pronounced the law fervently seeing his role as prophet as well as priest. He spoke personally and intensely and without a manuscript. He included both the heart and brain in his sermon content and like Martin Luther, used very graphic personifications. (He likened a sinner to a cow.13)
Albert Hauck writes in the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia: "Originality of conception, vivid imagination, and prophetic fervor, were his chief characteristics in the pulpit."14
The late James L. Schaaf, of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio piqued my interest in Loehe with his translation of Loehe's Three Books about the Church — a monumental and very influential publication in Europe and the United States in 1845.
Schaaf writes in the introduction: "Gifted with a powerful voice, piercing eyes, and an imposing physique, Loehe developed into an outstanding preacher, attracting outsiders as well as members of his own parish to his service, giving them in his sermons solid, biblical exposition emphasizing the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith."15
Schaaf continues, "Yet his sermons were not merely masterpieces of oratory. The characteristic that made them great was that they were such expositions of the Scriptures that both the simple farmer and the learned scholar came away with a feeling that they had been confronted by God. That was in marked contrast to the style of rationalistic preaching common in his day, and his was one of the influences which helped to bring the church back to an appreciation of biblical, confessional preaching."16
By far the best source to describe what ignited fire in the pulpits of his churches is found in his own writing giving advice to young preachers.
In volume 3 of his Three Books about the Church, he claims that "Among the means which the church uses for the salvation of souls, preaching occupies the first place. It is the means for calling those who are far off and for confirming the call and election of those who have been called and have drawn near."17
Loehe advises "...the way of simplicity...a way which may not seem as learned and as acquainted with the Bible as some other ways but which proves itself and stands the test."18
He proves his point for simplicity by comparing the sermons of Luther and Calvin, claiming Calvin precise and comprehension of Scripture his chief goal, with Luther trying everywhere to confirm anew the rule of faith. Loehe says Luther proceeded eclectically, greatly concerned about the care of souls.
He advises us preachers to speak what we ourselves believe in order that there is a faithful witness and the preacher and the works seem as one. We are not to reject people's feelings but arouse them by "...quietly holding up the heavenly light, or rather by letting the light shine and knowing that its beams will be accompanied by warmth."19
Loehe finished his admonitions to preachers of his day by saying that the great secret of preaching is "...to use what is familiar to create an entrance for the unfamiliar....all new ideas are received easily and gratefully when they appear as fresh approaches to the old truth."20 Everywhere, he says, there are passages he uses to confirm what the congregation already knows and to present it in a new way.
As I chased his ghost those days, I believe there were other life factors which deeply affected his preaching. He put a very high value on congregational worship, developing an extensive set of liturgical services and rubrics. He was personally a very devout man, practicing a pious private spiritual life, and placing a strong emphasis on Christian education and especially ministry with the youth.
Care of Souls
The task of the pastor, as he saw it, was to practice seelsorge, i.e., to care for the soul of the congregation and for the individual souls of each of its members. Everything a pastor did was to serve this purpose.
Loehe was a very forceful supporter of missionary endeavor who took his own words seriously: "Mission is nothing but the one church of God in its motion."21 Thus his fiery preaching ignited a great missionary activity on behalf of the Germans in America. From his little village better than 1,000 missionaries have been sent to at least three continents of our world. Loehe was decisive, on the edge of egomanic, outspoken, and very confident in his proclamation.
So, we have an imposing preacher by stature, a strong voice, and one who was deeply involved in mission, with a pastor's heart and very pious personal spiritual life who took seriously communication of the gospel simply for the educated and uneducated alike. He carefully based his message on the confessions and the Scripture, preaching with passion and integrity.
But looking at the ghost of Loehe and his preaching would not be complete without looking at his young wife Helene. She was the daughter and granddaughter of the Andreas family of theologians and a theologian in her own right who heard and must have helped shape the sometimes brutal use of the law into a softer grace of gospel, mission, and ministry.
In a letter to him accepting his proposal of marriage when she was 18 and he was 29, Helene writes: "The Lord should give to me, his weak tool, that I will give honor and not shame to my God and to you. Yes, the parish house of Neuendettelsau shall become a house of God among the congregation through God's blessing and help. The Lord shall further guide us with counsel and afterward receive us with honor. The Trinitarian God should unify more and more with us, so that we both shall be God's temple, where his honor dwells. In our bond/union Christ shall be the third."22
What does Loehe's ghost say to our preaching today? Some would claim nothing as he was of a different century and culture. But I would like to venture 12 ideas that still may be instructive for our preaching 150 years after this pulpit giant and parish pastor lived and influenced so many. I have no doubt at all that my own prejudices will affect this summary of suggestions, but that Loehe's ghost will also delight in their listing:
(1) A strong, confident presentation in the pulpit is still very important.
(2) The preacher's personal witness is crucial to the effectiveness of the proclamation.
(3) We must keep the message simple so that all may understand it.
(4) We ought to work to move the heart and feelings, as well as the intellect.
(5) We should use the familiar story, metaphor, and personification to make our message graphic and keep it close to the ground.
(6) We ought to paint word pictures including smell and taste that people can experience during the preaching event.
(7) We are urged to find new ways to present the old truths, especially in letting our imagination flow freely.
(8) We ought to break loose from the manuscript and talk directly to our people, eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart.
(9) We should preach for a result — always answering the "so what?" question.
(10) We ought to enlist the help of others in preparation and critique of delivery.
(11) Seeing that the entire liturgy supports the sermon message is crucial to its affectability.
(12) An exciting congregational ministry and mission will help produce exciting preaching.
The remaining question which needs to be addressed is whether Loehe's preaching inspired his congregation's extraordinary mission or whether what and how he preached moved him to be in mission (for preachers are often dramatically changed by what and how they preach).
That is, did the proclamation change him or did he change the congregation with his preaching? I'll need to consult his ghost on this issue.23
Jerry Schmalenberger is the retired president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California, where he continues to teach as professor of parish ministry.
1. Albert Hauck, "Johann Konrad Wilhelm Loehe," New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1951-55), VII, 10.
2. Kressel, Wilhelm Loehe, Ein Lebensbild, 42. John Chrysostom (354-407), whose name means "golden mouth," was the most famous preacher of the ancient church.
3. The standard biography of Loehe, on which all later writers depend, is J. Deinzer, Wilhelm Loehes Leben: Aus seinem schriftlichen Nachlass zusammengestellt (3 vols., Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1929).
4. See Willard D. Allbeck, A Century of Lutherans in Ohio, (Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1966), 57-83 for an account of the founding of the seminary.
5. Beginning in 1842 and continuing until his death in 1872, Loehe sent a constant stream of workers for the church in America, most of whom, until 1853, joined the Missouri Synod. He projected plans for colonizing the forests of Michigan, which resulted in the establishing of Frankenmuth, Frankentrost, Frankenlust, and Frankenhilf. He opened the mission among the Chippewas in Michigan through Pastor Craemer. He was founder of the Practical Seminary at Fort Wayne, Indiana, and later of a teachers' seminary at Saginaw, Michigan. Walter A. Baepler, A Century of Grace (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1947), 142-143.
6. Martin Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 201.
7. Ibid., 201.
8. Ibid., 202.
9. Dilthey, Leben Schleiermachers, vol. 1, 2nd ed., p. 829.
10. Redeker, 206-7.
11. On Loehe's preaching, see Hans Kressel, Wilhelm Loehe als Prediger (Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1929)
12. Christian Weber, Missionstheologie bei Wilhelm Loehe: Aufbruch zur Kirche der Zukunft, a 576 page volume published by Gütersloher Verlagshaus.
13. This footnote may sound like I'm kowtowing to the editor but I am utterly unable to recall why Luther likened the sinner to a cow. Perhaps because of our tendency to suffer from hoof-and-mouth disease, our predisposition to dry up when we have the opportunity to witness to the gospel, the occasional disposition to kick the one who has need of our milk, or our incessant mooing about our circumstances. But while our hide is tough, our sacrifice of it makes soft leather for others, and with God's help we can jump over the moon! All kidding aside, I'm guessing it had something to do with a cow's four stomachs and the habit of its cud.
14. Hauck, op. cit., 10.
15. James L. Schaaf, Three Books About the Church by Wilhelm Loehe (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 7-8.
16. Schaaf, op. cit., 14-15.
17. Wilhelm Loehe, Three Books About the Church, (Drei Bücher von der Kirche), Gütersloh, 1845.
18. Loehe, op. cit.; in English see Schaaf, op. cit., 168.
19. Loehe, op. cit.; in English see Schaaf, op. cit., 169.
20. Schaaf, op. cit., 17.
21. Schaaf, op. cit., 17.
22. Wilhelm Loehe, Biography of a Holy Handmaid of God, translation by Katrin Grossman, unpublished.
23. While I was preparing to write, colleague James L. Schaaf died of a heart attack. He had been so helpful in preparing me to get ready to chase the ghost of Loehe. I treasure his memory and celebrate his scholarship.