Review: For the Life of the Church

Title of Work:

For the Life of the Church: A Practical Edition of Pastor Walther's Prayers and Addresses

Author of Work:

C.F.W. Walther


Pastor Jeremiah Gumm

Page Number:

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For the Life of the Church: A Practical Edition of Pastor Walther’s Prayers and Addresses, by C.F.W. Walther. Edited by Charles P. Schaum. Translated by Rudolph Prange. St. Louis: Concordia, 2011. 194 pages.

SS.7.For The Life Of The Church.LgC.F.W. Walther (1811-87) has long been regarded as the “American Luther” due to the important role he played in the establishment of confessional Lutheranism in America. Walther helped to found the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Concordia Seminary (St. Louis), and the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America. He led the publication of Der Lutheraner and Lehre und Wehre besides countless other articles, booklets, and publications including Church and Ministry and the posthumous work The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. Walther served two separate terms as president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its infancy, yet for 46 years, he also served as head pastor (Oberpfarrer) of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Congregation in St. Louis.

“When Pastor Walther spoke and wrote, he always expressed something worthwhile” (xix). Many who have spent time studying the writings of C.F.W. Walther would strongly agree with that statement. Even translated into a language he did not know, Walther’s wisdom based on Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions still comes across as relevantly today as when he wrote or spoke it decades ago. As true as it is for English-speaking readers today, it was all the more true for the German-speaking parishioners he served for 46 years in the city of St. Louis.

In spite of his many other responsibilities, Walther cherished most his task as pastor. After his brother died in 1841 while serving Trinity congregation in St. Louis, Walther succeeded him as pastor and served there until his own death in 1887. In the years that followed, Trinity daughtered three other congregations—Immanuel, Holy Cross, and Zion, which then formed the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Congregation in St. Louis. Walther was tasked with preaching on a quarterly basis, offering prayers to open various congregational and elder meetings, making addresses when new members were accepted into membership, and providing materials on doctrinal topics for discussion.

When Walther entered eternal glory, the Joint Congregation sought a way to commemorate the faithful service of their departed shepherd. So in 1888, the Joint Congregation published a collection of Walther’s opening prayers and congregational addresses entitled Addresses and Prayers Spoken in the Assemblies of the Ev.-Luth. Joint Congregation and Its Board of Elders. They offered “this brief collection of addresses and prayers for publication, wishing by it to set up a memorial of gratitude to their beloved sainted pastor, who served them most faithfully and with such unmistakable success for nearly half a century, but hoping that the Church may continue to reap the blessings sown by that great man” (xxv).

In 1930, Rudolph Prange put Walther’s German text into “contemporary English” (i.e. “formal English that one would expect to hear in worship services around 1930” influenced by the King James Version [xxi]) rather than a “literal rendering of the book”, so that “the outstanding productions of that great man will be appreciated by those not familiar with the German language” (xix). As part of the 2011 bicentennial celebration of Walther’s birth, Concordia Publishing House (CPH) published a revised and reformatted edition of Prange’s translation to provide today’s readers “a refreshing addition to their arsenal of prayer that will help defend against the evil foe as they receive again the fresh, daily mercies of God” (xxi). This reviewer would agree that they have done so admirably.

Following a helpful prefatory section on the historical background of both the original collection and the translations of that collection, the reader will find that nearly 2/3 of the rest of the book is comprised of prayers on a wide spectrum of subjects for gatherings of God’s people. The last forty pages are comprised of Walther’s addresses to new members of the congregation.

In his “Prayers for Meetings During the Festival Season”, we find examples of Walther’s prayers during various seasons of the Christian church year. Already in this rather brief section of prayers, we begin to see a clear picture of Walther as parish pastor. Nearly every prayer exudes the two basic teachings of Law and Gospel with an undercurrent of deep pastoral care for the souls of those Walther served. Each prayer also brings out the richness of Walther’s understanding of Holy Scripture and the life of the Church in the context of the Christian church year. As one would also expect from any pastor who cares about the specific situation of his flock at any given time, one finds that Walther’s prayers are often specific to what was going on in the joint congregation.[1]

While we clearly see Walther as faithful Seelsorger, he also tends to display certain characteristics or attitudes which may not be so admirable. At times in his prayers and addresses, he displays a tendency often seen in his sermons. Walther would specifically address with extremely harsh, blunt Law preaching those whom he perceived to be “hypocrites” in his congregation. While there is a place for preaching the Law as a club to kill the sinful nature, in some cases, Walther comes across so bluntly that one wonders what impact such bluntness had on the “bruised reeds” and “smoldering wicks” in the joint congregation. While a preacher should never be so foolish to think that there could be no hypocrites among his hearers, unless the Lord reveals their hypocrisy, he will never truly know. For that reason, a confessional Lutheran preacher will preach in such a way that he views his hearers as both sinners and saints (simul iustus et peccator), a fact that Walther occasionally ignored in his preaching and prayers.

The next three sections—“Prayers Dealing with the Word of God”, “Prayers Regarding the Christian Church”[2], and “Prayers When Pastors or Teachers Are Called”—are particularly loaded with excellent prayers. For example, in a prayer on “Divine Pardon and Power”, Walther prays, “Lord, unless Your hand holds us fast, we cannot remain steadfast; unless You defend us against our spiritual enemies, we are defenseless; unless You give us strength to fight, we cannot be victorious. Oh, lift up our hands, which hang down, and make firm our feeble knees; revive and strengthen us unto a new life of love, of love that flows from a pure heart, a good conscience, and unfeigned faith, until we finally appear before Your presence to behold and enjoy Your glory forever and ever. Amen” (45). I particularly enjoyed the section “Prayers When Pastors or Teachers Are Called”. Here you see Walther shine as parish pastor shepherding congregations who had lost a pastor to death or who were calling a new pastor or teacher. When I came to a prayer entitled “The Ministry of the Word, A Holy Office”, I wondered how his Amt terminology would be translated and was quite pleased with the translation of this prayer.

Walther’s “General Prayers” comprises 81 pages of prayers on a wide spectrum of subjects. There simply is not enough time or space in this review to cover the broad breadth of subjects on which Walther prayed. One truly gets the impression that he viewed all of theology as practical. For the reader’s sake, here are two examples where we see this.

  • On Preservation from Spiritual Decay: “Lord Jesus, to properly feed and lead Your flock is a task that under all conditions exceeds the wisdom and power of man; but in our day the task is exceptionally difficult. The words that You one day addressed to one of Your disciples: ‘Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat’, without a doubt apply also to all Your disciples on earth today, including this congregation. Temptations to fall away are growing ever greater and fiercer, the assaults of the devil are becoming ever more subtle, and the way leading to eternal life is being beset with ever more dangers. We humbly pray You, therefore, not to forsake us in these dangerous times, not to deal with us according to our sins nor to reward us according to our iniquities. Give the thunder of Your Law power to terrify the secure and the balm of Your Gospel power to soothe and strengthen the faint hearts. Cause Your Church to grow also among us until You will deliver Your own. Oh, come quickly, Lord Jesus, and forever put an end to all misery and woe. Hear us for Your own sake. Amen” (63-64).
  • Living as God’s People: “Faithful God and Father, we humbly thank and praise You for Your abundant goodness and grace in temporal as well as spiritual matters, which despite our unworthiness You have shown to us. We realize full well that You alone can help us further and that, without Your help, we are lost. Therefore continue to show us Your grace and goodness. Let the gracious fountain of Your Word and Your Sacraments continue to flow freely, free from every obstruction or adulteration. So that sinners may be converted and rescued, continue to provide us with Your Holy Spirit. Through Him grant understanding to the ignorant, concern about their salvation to the secure, humility to the self-righteous, certainty to the wavering, comfort to the sorrowful, strength to the weak, peace to those assailed by temptations, and a peaceful departure to the dying. Make of our homes temples in which You are served day and night, in which husband and wife dwell together in love and faithfulness, in which parents rear their children in Your fear, in which masters and mistresses govern their help in a godly manner, and in which our children and our household may walk in true obedience according to the Fourth Commandment. Make of our schools nurseries for church and heaven. Make of our sickbeds scenes of triumph over the world, the cross, and death. Draw us ever closer together through unity of faith, genuine brotherly love, and the common battle against the common foe. Let us not stand still nor go backward, but take all things to Him who is our Head, which is Christ, Your beloved Son, our Lord. Direct at this time our hearts, understanding, tongues, and mouths that our gathering may result in eternal blessings. Hear us for the sake of Your promise. Amen.

The one section that was somewhat disappointing was the final section—“Addresses to Members of the Congregation”. This is a collection of addresses which Walther made when new members became part of the voting membership. While certain addresses are excellent statements on what “church membership” means (cf. especially #4, 5, 10, 15), a majority of the addresses are predominated by the Law and are at times nothing more than warnings for new members about falling away. Considering that these addresses are touted as useful for explaining to people what it means to be an active church member, the discerning pastor should be careful about what he uses from Walther’s addresses when doing so. In these addresses, we also see evidence of Walther’s strong views about what he considered to be adiaphora and what he did not. For example, he forbids members from attending the theater, dancing, sending their children to a public school, and getting life insurance (159, 185). Some of the pietistic influences of Walther’s past seem to come out in requirements made for church membership. (e.g. Address #8 and footnote – pg. 163).

For the Life of the Church is a unique treasury of prayers. The reader will need to keep in mind that the prayers collected in this book were not meant for individual prayer, but for the gathering of God’s people. That emphasis gives a very different feel from other collections of Lutheran prayers and meditations. At the same time, this emphasis proves to be terribly practical. Here you have a pastor, whom the Lord was using to lead the new wave of confessional Lutheranism in America, pray for the particular flock Christ had placed under his care. Admittedly, the depth and richness of his prayers surely put many of our ex corde pastoral prayers to shame. For that reason, this book would be an excellent resource to enrich a pastor’s prayers for his own congregation.

One other unique feature of For the Life of the Church is that this is one of the few works of Walther that shows him speaking as a pastor rather than as a Seminary professor, Synod president, or national Lutheran leader. Walther, warts and all, seems to this reviewer to be more relatable to a fellow pastor like myself than in some of his other publications. A 21st century Lutheran pastor would do well spending some time with this Seelsorger of centuries past through For the Life of the Church. Therefore, in spite of its occasional shortcomings, I strongly recommend this book as a useful resource for pastors both for use in congregational meetings and to enrich one’s personal prayer life.

[1] For example, Walther’s prayers during the Civil War or during times of epidemic.

[2] For readers interested in prayers that offer a glimpse of the broader historical context of Lutheranism in America, the reader should check out “10. Taking Christianity Seriously” in the “Prayers Regarding the Christian Church” section. This prayer had to have been written in the midst of the Election Controversy of the late 19th century.