The Library of America (LOA) is commemorating the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) in four volumes, plus one.
The Civil War: The First Year Told By Those Who Lived It was published in 2011. Companion volumes, covering the second and third year of the war, were published in 2012 and 2013. The final year of the war will be covered in a volume planned for next year. Each book contains letters, diaries, speeches, articles and other documents that give a firsthand account of “our greatest national drama…our Iliad.” This publication is comparable to Ken Burns’ PBS series, The Civil War, surpassing Mr. Burns in primary sources, but lacking the beguiling voice and visage of Shelby Foote.
In addition, the LOA published American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation in 2012. This anthology presents theological, moral and economic arguments that were made against slavery by obscure colonial Quakers, Founding Fathers, slaves, clergy, novelists and philosophers.
What will not be found in the above anthologies is any writing by the Reverend Dr. Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther (October 25, 1811 – May 7, 1887), the founding president of what now is known as The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.
Dr. Walther’s writings will not be found in the Library of America’s Civil War series because as an immigrant from the Kingdom of Saxony, he wrote exclusively in German and for the most part addressed only the adherents of his obscure Lutheran sect. Dr. Walther’s name does not appear in the LOA antislavery volume either. Dr. Walther thought “the Abolitionist-Republican party” was the instigator of the Civil War. As he understood it, states had a right to secession under the United States Constitution. Most importantly, Dr. Walther saw nothing in Scripture that forbade slavery.
The late Dr. August R. Suelflow documents Dr. Walther’s position on nineteenth-century American slavery in his essay, “Walther the American.” The essay is in C. F. W. Walther: The American Luther; Essays in Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of Carl Walther’s Death.
Dr. Suelflow was the series editor for Selected Writings of C. F. W. Walther. That series is comprised of six slender volumes of Dr. Walther’s letters, treatises, essays and sermons, translated, edited and in many cases, condensed, for the edification of the faithful. Selected Writings may be viewed as The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod’s “official edition” of Walther’s work. At 126 years after his death, no critical, scholarly edition of Dr. Walther’s writings exists.
In 1978, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS) published The Word of His Grace: Occasional and Festival Sermons. This book presents translated and edited sermons that Dr. Walther had previously published in German. One of these sermons the editors indicate was preached “On The Annual Day Of Humiliation And Prayer” during the Civil War. No date is given, but Dr. Walther states therein that “…nearly two years of war …” had transpired.
The above are the chief, but not exclusive, sources for the following discussion of Dr. Walther’s ostensibly Christian response to the greatest political and moral issue of his day.
Dr. Walther’s Stand
C. F. W. Walther was part of an immigrant Lutheran sect from the Kingdom of Saxony. They arrived at the port of New Orleans on 5 January 1839. These Saxons together with other recent German immigrants formed Die Deutsche Evangelisch-Lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio und anderen Staaten, on 26 April 1847 in Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Walther was the first president. He would serve in that office from 1847 to 1850 and again from 1864 to 1878. In addition, Dr. Walther would serve as head pastor of four St. Louis congregations, professor and president of the Synod’s seminary, and editor of two German language journals. For many years, he would serve these several offices simultaneously.
Dr. Walther opposed the Unionists and the policies of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, on theological, Constitutional and political grounds.
“Walther maintained two positions which, to him, appeared completely Scriptural. First, on the basis of Romans 13:1-7, he upheld the principle that the Christian owes obedience to the state. On the other hand, however, he felt that Scripture nowhere says that slavery in itself is a sin” (Suelflow, p. 24).
With regard to slavery, Dr. Suelflow quotes from a late 1869 letter of Walther: “What God permits the Christians in the New Testament to do and does not command them to put aside, but rather to control, cannot be sinful in itself. That is what God does with regard to slavery…. Insofar as this was ordered by law in America, American slavery was not sinful” (Suelflow, p. 25). Note this is after the end of the Civil War in 1865. (Unfortunately, the full letter and most of what Dr. Walther wrote concerning the Civil War and slavery are missing from the official Selected Writings of C. F. W. Walther edited by Dr. Suelflow.)
Dr. Walther’s idea of “obedience to the state” is closely bound up with his understanding of the state. Dr. Suelflow cites one of Walther’s letters: “I am a Missourian and therefore will never be moved to separate my fortune from that of my state unless I am forced.” Dr. Walther, as a recent immigrant from the Kingdom of Saxony, had no understanding of the Union formed by the U. S. Constitution.
“Walther’s European homeland consisted of disunited states, churches, and kingdoms such as the Kingdom of Saxony, the Kingdom of Prussia and many others” (Suelflow, p. 25). There would be no united Germany until 18 January 1871. For this reason Dr. Walther’s Scriptural understanding of his loyalty as a citizen ended at the borders of the state of Missouri.
Scripture and the Constitution contended with politics in the mind of Dr. Walther.
Not all nineteenth-century German immigrants were pious Lutherans… or even devout Roman Catholics. There were the “48ers,” socialist and communist revolutionaries. There were in fact “godless communists” who settled in German enclaves in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and St. Louis, Missouri. These radicals became the Red Republicans, opposed to slavery and a whole lot more. Among these Reds was Heinrich Boernstein, the St. Louis publisher of the Anzeiger des Westens. Dr. Walther often complained of Herr Boernstein’s influence on his flock.
“Very slowly our congregation members themselves began to read the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Missouri and thus to compare this state of affairs and to form their own convictions. Up to now most of them have only been influenced by the Boernstein politics” (Suelflow, p. 22).
Dr. Walther and the Reds
Dr. Walther’s observance of the presence of “atheistic communism” in the Republican Party cannot be gainsaid. Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) looked upon the American Civil War as an expression of the struggle of the working class against Capitalist Southern landowners. On 17 October 1862, Marx’s “On Events in North America” appeared in the Viennese newspaper Die Presse. Marx wrote, “The figure Lincoln is sui generis in the annals of history. No initiative, no idealistic eloquence, no buskin, no historic drapery. He always presents the most important act in the most insignificant form possible.” Marx called the Emancipation Proclamation “… the most significant document in American history since the founding of the Union…” (The Lincoln Anthology, LOA, p. 49).
Upon Abraham Lincoln’s reelection in 1865, the International Workingmen’s Association sent congratulations. “If resistance to the slave power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your reelection is ‘Death to slavery’” (The Annals of America, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., vol. 9, p. 543). The officers of the First International, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, signed this declaration of support.
In addition to Karl Marx and the Red Republicans that surrounded Dr. Walther in St. Louis, mention should be made of Carl Schurz (1829 – 1906). Mr. Schurz was a “48” revolutionary who fled Europe for the United States in 1852 to settle first in Wisconsin. There he campaigned for the Republican Party and was an early supporter of Abraham Lincoln. He served as minister to Spain in 1861. In 1862, he joined the Union Army and commanded divisions at Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Chattanooga. In 1864, Major General Carl Schurz resigned his commission to campaign among the German-Americans for Mr. Lincoln’s reelection. After the war, Schurz served as a Republican Senator from Missouri from 1869 to 1875 (The Lincoln Anthology, LOA, p. 330. John C. Waugh, Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency, p. 311).
Let this suffice to demonstrate that the first Republican president, the cause of the Union and abolitionism were all promoted by socialists, communists and even Karl Marx himself. It is understandable that the pious Dr. Walther had little in common with these radicals. Unfortunately, he did not see beyond these “atheistic” participants in the public square to understand that slavery was wrong. Dr. Walther failed to understand that the defense of the Union was the defense of the rule of law under the Constitution.
Dr. Walther and the Constitution of the United States of America
We have already noted that Dr. Walther was an immigrant from the Kingdom of Saxony, well before the establishment of the Second German Reich. Some might think it would be presumptuous to expect that he would know the history of the United States from the Revolution to the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (1781) and the subsequent adoption of the United States Constitution (1789).
However, Dr. Walther made his own presumptions. “[W]e cannot see why the state does not have the right of secession according to the United States Constitution and according to their own constitution; and partly we have declared that if a state secedes from the Union, naturally the individual citizens will not revolt but will either immigrate or will subject themselves to the seceding state government, according to the Bible passage: ‘Be obedient to the power that has authority over you’”(Suelflow, pp. 23, 24).
Dr. Walther here presumes to know the Constitution and proceeds to sanctify his understanding with a passage of Scripture. Later he would preach and teach against the Union. Since he used the Office of the Holy Ministry to promote his political views, he had an obligation to know the Constitution and arguments for the Union. In this, he failed.
First, he failed to understand that the South had no just cause to secede. Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election on 6 November 1860. Immediately secession began in South Carolina. Before Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration on 4 March 1861, Federal forts were seized throughout the South and the Confederate States of America formed, with Jefferson Davis elected president and Alexander Stevens vice president.
“Mr. Lincoln has been constitutionally elected and, much as I deprecate his success, no alternative is left me but to yield to the Constitution,” wrote Sam Houston, the hero of Texas independence (The Civil War: The First Year, LOA, p. 39). The secessionists were not fighting against any unconstitutional law. No move had been made to free slaves. No Federal force had come against them. Mr. Lincoln had done nothing to incur their wrath. The secessionists were rebelling against a constitutionally legal election. When Sam Houston refused to pledge allegiance to the Confederate States of America, he was removed from office on 16 March 1861. On 12 April 1861 the rebels fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and the Civil War began.
Even without a thorough knowledge of the Constitution, Dr. Walther should have understood that the South had no just cause to instigate rebellion.
Secondly, Dr. Walther failed to understand that under the Constitution no single state had the right to secede without the consent of the whole. After the Revolution, the original thirteen colonies existed as independent states. Those colonies voluntarily joined under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (1781). Later, it became necessary to “form a more perfect Union” with the Constitution of the United States. The colonies that voluntarily joined in “perpetual” union under the 1718 Articles strengthened that perpetual union with the ratification of the Constitution of the United States.
This is not merely an “Abolitionist-Republican” argument against secession. This argument was published by the Democratic, and consistently anti-Lincoln, New York Daily News on 16 November 1860 (The Civil War: The First Year, LOA, p. 34). If Dr. Walther had studied the Constitution as he claimed, he should have known this argument.
Thirdly, while the original thirteen states had surrendered whatever right of secession they might have had with the ratification of the Constitution, the states that followed never had such a right. The territories for those states had been purchased by the treasury of the whole nation. Dr. Walther was a loyal citizen of Missouri. He failed to understand that the state of Missouri was brought into the Union as a consequence of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. He owed allegiance to both the state and the Federal government. The case of the secession of Texas was exceedingly reprehensible as it was purchased by “both blood and treasure” of the Federal government in the Mexican-American War and peace treaty that followed (Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters, LOA, p. 146).
Dr. Walther claimed to have studied both the U. S. Constitution and the constitution of Missouri. He clearly understood neither. His ignorance is excusable. His animus toward the Red Republicans is understandable. It is reprehensible, however, that his animosity toward political opponents and ignorance of American polity shaped his preaching of Scripture. On the greatest moral and political problem of his day, Dr. Walther was thoroughly wrong.
Dr. Walther, Slavery and Scripture
It has already been noted that Dr. Walther, finding no prohibition in Scripture, declared that slavery “cannot be sinful in itself.” Sadly, Dr. Walther was not the only Christian to hold this view.
James Henry Thornwall of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in The Confederate States of America held much the same view. “Slavery is no new thing,” he wrote for the General Assembly. “It has not only existed for ages in the world, but it has existed, under every dispensation of the covenant of grace, in the Church of God.” Mr. Thornwall, in the same address, stated, “As long as [the African race] in its comparative degradation, coexists, side by side with the white, bondage is its normal condition” ( Annals of America, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., vol. 9, p. 301).
Vice president of the CSA Alexander Stephens preached much the same sermon.
“Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so the negro. Subordination is his place. He by nature, or by the curse of Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system” (The Civil War: The First Year, LOA, p. 228).
The South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery did not exist “in itself” as Dr. Walther termed it. It was not some benign category for scholastic discussion. Slavery in the United States of America was racist.
Dr. Walther appears to have been ignorant of racism and the other attendant evils of slavery.
In the undated sermon preached “On The Annual Day Of Humiliation And Prayer” during the Civil War, Dr. Walther states that God uses war to chasten and punish nations. Those nations that are chastised and do not repent are punished. Then he accuses his congregation of not receiving the war as chastisement. “Have we not rather applauded those who in this war saw nothing but the birth-pangs of a new age of complete freedom and equality? Instead of fashioning our views of this war according to the infallible Word of God, have we not rather derived them from ungodly, atheistic newspapers?” He then warns them of God's punishment (The Word of His Grace, ELS, pp. 149, 150).
On a later National Day of Humiliation and Prayer, 4 August 1864, late in the war, Dr. Walther preached, “Isn’t it known within our city and throughout the land that there are unscrupulous people who actually do not want peace? Who want to continue the war? Some want to continue the war in order to further their party politics” (Suelflow, p. 27).
We must be clear. In the first sermon Dr. Walther attacks those who look for “a new age of complete freedom and equality.” While he is obviously attacking Abolitionist-Republicans, there is no evidence that he subscribes to the racism of Mr. Thornwall and Mr. Stephens. In the second sermon, it is clear that Dr. Walther did subscribe to the propaganda directed against President Lincoln by his opponents in the 1864 election. President Lincoln was constantly accused of aspiring to tyranny. In sum, while no evidence has been presented here that shows Dr. Walther to be a racist, he was willing to be associated with their noxious, Scripture-perverting doctrines rather than have any connection with Red Republicans.
What Does This Mean?
Disciples of the Reverend Dr. Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther often present him as “The American Luther.” In fact, he was nothing more than a German pietist who aspired to Lutheran Orthodoxy and failed.
Martin Luther was a Biblical theologian who rejected the Scholasticism of his day and influenced the development of Western Civilization in the process. He was the last man of the Middle Ages and the first man of the Modern Age. Whatever one finally thinks about Martin Luther, he cannot be ignored when attempting to understand our time.
Walther was a Saxon who aped the Scholasticism of the second-generation Lutherans and had little influence beyond nineteenth-century German-American immigrants. This is the reason much of Walther’s writing remains untranslated. The cost-cutting effect of advancing technology may bring more of his work into publication. However, this will only prove that Dr. Walther is less than what his disciples think him to be. One can ignore Dr. Walther and still achieve a comprehensive understanding of the history of the United States of America.
What Dr. Walther presents us with is failure. He failed to preach an uncompromised Word of the Lord concerning the most important moral problem of his day. He failed to bring a Christian witness to the public square. His failure is a caution to faithful Christians today… who will listen.