C.F.W. Walther turns 200 today, and this is why you should know who he is. By Travis Scholl
Many American Lutheran Christians will be marking the 200th birthday of one C. F. W. Walther today. Outside of those circles, very few will even know his name. But there are more than a few reasons why St. Louisans shouldn’t forget him.
Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther was born on October 25, 1811 in Saxony, Germany. After studying theology at the University of Leipzig, he became a pastor in the town of Bräunsdorf, Saxony, and quickly became disenchanted with what he saw as coercive political entanglement with religion. Hence, he involved himself with other religious leaders and followers who coalesced into an immigrant movement to America.
They landed at the port of New Orleans in 1839, where a small group stayed and remain even today a vital part of the culture of the city. Most of the group landed in St. Louis, with another portion establishing farming settlements further south along the Mississippi River in eastern Perry county, Missouri.
Walther quickly took roots in his new Missouri home, and particularly in the burgeoning city of St. Louis. He started the first Lutheran church west of the Mississippi River, Trinity Church, which remains a thriving part of the Soulard neighborhood. He was pastor of Trinity for 46 years. Trinity Church soon spun off three other large congregations, Holy Cross in south city and Zion and Immanuel on the north side. Yet, they all wanted Walther as their pastor. So for decades Walther spent every Sunday preaching and teaching at all four places.
Before returning to St. Louis from Perry county, Walther founded Concordia Seminary, was its first professor and president, and oversaw its move to St. Louis. He taught there from 1850 until his death in 1887. He played the central role in organizing likeminded Lutherans throughout the United States in forming the church body now known as The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, serving as its founding president from 1847 to 1850, and again from 1864 to 1878.
In his spare time, Walther was a quintessential entrepreneur. He started, wrote, and edited three different magazines. He wrote numerous books, including one of the landmarks of American Lutheran theology, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. He established a publishing house, Concordia Publishing House, which still operates out of its offices on Jefferson Ave. in south city. All of which was considered the “new media” of its day.
In the midst of all this, he considered himself a proud citizen of both the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri.
He died on May 7, 1887, and was buried in Concordia Cemetary in south St. Louis, where a mausoleum now honors his gravesite. He died as the unquestioned cultural and religious leader of the largest immigrant community of nineteenth-century St. Louis.
My own personal ties to Walther are as thick as blood. My forebears were among the immigrants who traveled with Walther to America, eventually becoming part of the settlements in Perry county.
He was, of course, not without his faults. He arrived in the United States just a few years before the Civil War. And although he would have thought it inconceivable to personally own slaves, he badly waffled on the issue of slavery as an institution. And in churchly circles, his theological stridency gave him a number of enemies just as it won him many friends.
Yet, perhaps in a nod to his strict German sense of modest restraint, amid all of the institutions and communities of St. Louis that are still his heir, not a single one of them bears his name. Not even a street in his old neighborhood.
And I am certain he would have it no other way. Which is perhaps the best reason St. Louis should remember him anyway.