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.
 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.
 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
 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
Five Dimensions of Loehe’s Ecclesial Theology
 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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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
 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.
 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.
 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:
 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
 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
 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:
 We want to bear patiently by Jesus’ power what you have done to us unjustly
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
 The heritage of Wilhelm Loehe in the Iowa Synod had been embedded deeply
into its very fiber.
 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
 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.
 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.
 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.
Craig L. Nessan is Academic Dean and Professor of Contextual Theology
at Wartburg Seminary.
- 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),
- See Christian Weber, Missionstheologie bei
Wilhelm Loehe: Aufbruch zur Kirche der Zukunft (Guetersloh:
Guetersloher Verlagshaus, 1996).
- Wilhelm Loehe, Three Books about the Church,
- Wilhelm Loehe, Agende fuer christliche Gemeinden
des lutherischen Bekenntisses, in Klaus Ganzert, ed., Wilhelm
Loehe: Gesammelte Werke (Neuendettelsau: Freimund-Verlag, 1953),
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
© February 2010
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 10, Issue 2