June 24, 1937 – My Memories of the Convention of the Western District of the Missouri Synod in St. Louis in 1876

This article by G. Birkmann, pastor emeritus, and translated from German by Ray Martens, first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt on 24 June 1937 and Part 2 on 1 July 1937.

            The congregations in Texas at the time also belonged to the Western District of the Missouri Synod, four in Lee County, three in Fayette County, one in Washington County (Wm. Penn), and four in Harris County. A number of these were taken in for the first time at this convention, but already earlier they were cared for by pastors of the synod.

            For that reason, it may not be totally without interest if I report something in what follows about that convention, especially about persons and events which are of greater importance to the history of the Missouri Synod. Almost one hundred years have gone by since Walther and the other Saxons came to America, those who eight years later became the main component of those who formed the Missouri Synod founded in 1847.

            This Saxon emigration occurred in 1838 under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Stephan. Over 700 persons on four ships came across the sea to New Orleans in December of 1838. A fifth ship was lost with all its passengers. In February of 1839, the emigrants reached St. Louis. A part of the people remained in the city, but most of them founded a settlement a substantial distance south of St. Louis in Altenburg, Perry County, Missouri. In this colony there soon arose a major calamity, bringing harm to both bodies and consciences. Rev. Stephan had shamefully abused the trust of the flock in his command; he had to be deposed, and a great challenge descended on the people. They were afraid that God was angry with them and that they were no longer God’s children, and that he wished no longer to live and wander among them.

            At this time, it was the Rev. C. F. W. Walther who taught and lifted them up with the Word of God. Like Luther once, Walther in his student days at the university after great pangs of conscience found the right foundation. Also, because of illness, he had to remain in the home of his parents for a long time during which he diligently studied Luther’s works and came to a clear understanding of the truth. He was richly gifted, quite competent in the original languages of the Holy Scriptures, thoroughly trained in history and philosophy, of sharp mind, and eloquent and skilled in speech and writing, and so it was through the grace of God that he succeeded in calming their minds and filling them with joy and peace.

            The first pastor of the congregation of those Saxons who stayed in St. Louis was Walther’s older brother, Hermann. He died after about two years, and then the aforementioned brother C. F. W. Walther followed him in that ministry. From 1841 to 1850 he served this congregation exclusively. Sample sermons which he preached at that time fill four or five volumes, and earlier these were often read in our circles and diligently studied by pastors, as it is indeed proper to use such gifts as God gives to his church.

            He also performed in an unforgettable way as pastor. Demands were made on him especially during the years of a cholera epidemic, a plague which snatched away thousands in the city, more than seventy in Walther’s congregation alone. He also took care of the congregation’s school. There it served him well that a number of candidates who had emigrated with him helped in the school before they were called into parish ministry. Among these were J. F. Buenger, who at first managed a large school in Walther’s congregation and, along with that, helped with the preaching. So also C. L. Geyer, later a pastor, with whom many of my readers are well acquainted. It is said that he was the first parochial school teacher in the western part of our country, which is to say, already in Altenburg in 1840 and then for quite some time in St. Louis.

            In Altenburg already in 1839, what is called a college was founded. Candidates Buenger, Brohm, and O. Fuerbringer shaped the logs and built the log cabin, our first college. This was intended to serve as a school for boys whom one wanted to prepare for the pastoral or teaching ministry. Some of the older pastors of our Synod were prepared here: Biltz, J. A. F. W. Mueller, Wunder. In 1850 this institution was given over to the synod, C. F. W. Walther was elected to be its professor, and it was moved to St. Louis. This institution brought together within itself, as had the one earlier in Altenburg, what was called a Gymnasium, which one now calls a college, and a seminary, in which the students are prepared theologically. It was Walther’s task primarily to provide the theological instruction, and Schick, Saxer, and Biewend divided the instruction of the younger students.

            Walther was a teacher at the seminary from 1850 until the year of his death, 1887, so almost 37 years.

            What he was for us as our teacher, we who were allowed to listen to him for three years, I would like to express with words like wonderful, delightful, unique. The sharpest attention stretched throughout the hour from start to finish. Walther’s name was known to everyone, both the Norwegians and those who belonged to the Wisconsin Synod, for we had students from both bodies named. Pastors and teachers from the city, as well as occasionally congregation members, came to what was called Luther Hours, occurring on Friday evenings, because one wanted to avail himself of every opportunity to hear the man.

            Walther began to publish the Lutheraner in 1844, a periodical which gave witness to the truth of the Word of God in the midst of the religious confusion in America and to serve as an introduction to the Lutheran church and doctrine. In 1847 the Lutheraner became the church paper of our synod, but Walther remained its editor, and he wrote many articles for it as long as he could guide his pen. In 1854 he was commissioned by the synod to publish the monthly journal Lehre und Wehre, directed more nearly toward theologians, likewise with many contributions supplied by Walther’s pen, although it stopped appearing in his 76th year.

            The friendly reader of these lines will now, if he has had the patience to read this far, ask, “Where has the report about the convention in St. Louis in 1876, promised in the title to this article, remained?” I must confess that the horse which I mounted ran away with me. I shall come back to the subject which I wished to treat next time and then report more about what Walther did with reference to the founding of the synod and as its president and chiefly what may be reported about him in connection with the aforementioned convention in St. Louis in 1876.

Part 2

            The convention about which this report is being given took place in the school of Trinity Lutheran Church on Barry Street. The opening service was held in the beautiful church of the congregation, located on 7th Street. This church was built in 1865 and cost $80,000, at the time the largest and most beautiful in the synod. The previous church of the congregation, which had served them for about twenty-five years, was sold and rebuilt into a mill by the buyers and named Saxon Mill.

            Prof. Walther had the opening sermon at the convention. He was president of the Missouri Synod, first from 1847 to 1850 and then again from 1863 to 1878. He deserves most of the credit for the founding of the synod, for the fact that it got such an excellent constitution, and then that it developed in such an amazing way that it always remained true to its principles. “Paul planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” [I Corinthians 3:6-7]

            At the convention in St. Louis in 1876, Walther preached on the basis of the words of Jesus to his apostles, “I have sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” [John 4:38] He pointed to the good things that we have inherited from our fathers, the Holy Scriptures and the confessional writings of our church based on them, etc.

            Whoever wants to form an opinion about the power and clarity and loveliness of his sermons let him read any one of the many that have been collected and printed. Walther’s message was altogether appropriate with regard to the content of the sermon. He spoke in a lively way and used his hands and arms, but nothing overdone. His voice was vigorous and pleasing to the ear as he avoided any yelling and remained calm, as one is pleased to experience in a speaker.

            At this convention, at which I was able to attend a number of sessions, Walther also presented theses which dealt with the doctrine of conversion, which, at the time, was a matter for discussion. I remember that at one time he compared the natural state of the person whom God converts to a besieged fortress. Just as the people in the fortress defend themselves as long as they can, just so the natural man opposes the grace offered to him until God overcomes the opposition, gives him a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone, and makes willing the one who at first was unwilling. The conversion is entirely God’s gracious work, and the person cannot say that he contributed a little something to his conversion, that he opened his heart to grace, or anything like that. Rather, he must recognize, “You alone have accomplished the fact that I am now converted.”

            In one of the afternoon sessions, the colloquy examination of the Rev. Casper Braun of Houston, Texas, took place. This man had already worked as a pastor in Houston for over twenty-five years without attaching himself to a synod—he had belonged to what at the time was called the Texas Synod for a year, but then left it. Walther examined this Rev. Braun with respect to the catechism before the gathered convention, as was the custom at the time. Then Braun had to leave for a while as the convention discussed the result of the examination. Finally it was agreed that he be taken in with the advice that he continue to study diligently.

            A service was held during this week in memory of the venerable patriarch of our synod, the Rev. Wyneken, who died while with his son-in-law, the Rev. Buehler, in San Francisco, California, about a week earlier at the age of 66. The corpse was brought to St. Louis right during the week of the convention, and the service was held in Trinity’s church because Wyneken had served this congregation as pastor for a time. That happened immediately after Walther was elected professor at the seminary.

            Wyneken had come to our country already before the Saxons, first serving as pastor in Fort Wayne, and, at the time, seeking out many Lutherans in Indiana. Then he composed an article about the spiritual need of the Lutherans without a church in America, and went overseas himself to try to enlist pastors for such churchless Lutherans in America. Later he served as pastor in Baltimore. Then in 1850 he was elected president of the Missouri Synod, an office which he held for thirteen years, traveling from one congregation to another, managing to visit and to get to know virtually all of them. By 1863 he had become tired and sickly, and Walther become president. In the following years, Wyneken served a congregation in Cleveland. Wyneken, along with his nephew, President H. C. Schwann (president from 1878 to 1899), were both in Cleveland, both of the same disposition and of similar character, both full of evangelical conviction. They also had great importance and respect in our synod.

            I also attended a service held on Sunday afternoon at Holy Cross, one in which the Rev. Frank preached on the Epistle lesson for the Sunday (Jubilate). He described Christians for us as strangers and pilgrims in this world. The sermon was very simple and instructional. At the end of the service I saw that Walther sat down on the organ bench, very interesting to me because it was said that he was an excellent organist, but I had never had the opportunity to hear him. For that reason, this was for me and for others a big surprise, and how powerfully the organ resounded, as one is seldom able to hear. He played without music, and his face gleamed from the way in which he was moved by playing.