Adolf Hoenecke (1835-1908)
Many Wisconsin Synod Lutherans would be surprised to know that our church was not always a confessional body. The Wisconsin Synod began as a mission of the Prussian state church. When Kaiser Wilhelm III formed the Prussian Union, he combined the Lutheran and Reformed churches. This state church had its roots in both pietism and, even more so, rationalism. John Muehlhaeuser, a missionary from the Prussian church, was the first pastor for the mission in Wisconsin. He was better than most pastors in the Prussian church, but still had some doctrinal errors. Our synod was founded in 1849 with Pastor Muehlhaeuser as its first president. The constitution that was drawn up claimed the synod’s goal was “true Lutheranism.” While the intention was good, the first years of the synod did not bring really meet that goal. The Wisconsin Synod’s doctrine needed much guidance. Adolf Hoenecke, a pastor from Prussia, was the man who would lead the Wisconsin Synod to the true doctrine found in the Word of God.
Gustav Adolph Theodor Felix Hoenecke was born on February 25 1835 in Brandenburg, fifty miles southwest of Berlin. Religion was not a large part of the Hoenecke household. His father served in the Prussian army and spent his time training his boys to become soldiers instead of instructing them in the Word of God. His mother was somewhat religious and taught him to pray, but really nothing more. Adolf was a weak boy, but was smart and planned on pursuing a career as a botanist. He changed his mind when the family of a classmate convinced him to pursue the career of a pastor. When he enrolled in the University of Halle in 1856, he had a very small amount of theological knowledge. Moreover, his only real reason for entering this study was to do something good with his life.
The most influential man in Adolf Hoenecke’s young life was a professor at the University of Halle named Friedrich Tholuck. The University of Halle had been founded by the pietist Philip Spener. After Spener’s death, rationalism had become the new theme of the university’s theological training. Despite these influences, some professors remained very confessional. Tholuck, the Dean of Students at the time of Hoenecke’s studies, was one such man. This professor was known for taking a personal interest with students and teaching scriptures with warmth and Gospel motivation. Hoenecke was one of the students that Tholuck took under his wing. The dean introduced him to church fathers such as Calov and Quenstedt and helped him understand the scriptures. Hoenecke often credited Tholuck with bringing him to faith.
After graduating in 1859, Hoenecke chose not to pursue further studies at a university. Instead, Hoenecke would be blessed with many opportunities throughout his life to spend hours on his own studying the Scriptures and the confessions. Since there was no parishes open for a pastor, Tholuck set him up with a job as a tutor for the Major family in Bern, Switzerland. The job was not very stressful and Hoenecke continued to grow in his knowledge and understanding of the true doctrine of God’s Word. Hoenecke was also blessed in Bern with meeting the woman he would eventually marry, Matthilde Hess, the daughter of a local reformed pastor.
However, while this laid-back job allowed Hoenecke to amass a great deal of spiritual wealth, the sparse pay did not allow Hoenecke to gain much money. When the time came to move on from this job, he was virtually broke. With no money to go to school and too long of a wait for a call in the state church, Hoenecke considered the offer to serve as a pastor in America from the Berlin Missionary Society, a function of the state church. With this position, he would have the option to come back to Germany whenever a call was available in the state church and still have the same seniority as if he had been serving in the state church that whole time. To Hoenecke, this was a no-brainer. He would be able to gain some experience as a pastor, make some money and come back to Germany to marry Matthilde. His mentor Tholuck, however, condemned his decision as “a lust for material gain.”1 Despite his disapproval, Hoenecke stuck with his decision and made his way to America, arriving in Wisconsin in 1863. He was 28.
Many vacancies were available when he arrived, but he ended up at a small congregation in Farmington, Wisconsin, just outside of Watertown. As stated before, the Wisconsin Synod was not a confessional church at this time. However, the thousands of miles that separated Wisconsin from Prussia allowed our synod to not be under the yoke of the state church. Farmington proved to be a great place for Hoenecke to serve for two reasons. First of all, the small size of the church gave Hoenecke extra time away from his pastoral duties to further his understanding of the scriptures. Secondly, Farmington’s close proximity to Watertown (about 10 miles) brought him into close contact with John Bading, the pastor there. Bading was a confessional theologian who had been elected president of the synod after John Muehlhaeuser had died. Hoenecke had already begun to see the doctrinal errors of the state church in Prussia. His understanding of the differences came full circle in his first year in America. The two became good friends and teamed up to spearhead the effort to bring their synod to a confessional stance. “Hoenecke and Bading worked well as a team. Though amiable, Hoenecke possessed a more reserved nature. Bading was outgoing. Hoenecke’s deep humility caused him to shy away from taking the initiative in most situations. He was a ‘leader from behind’ and ‘the power behind the throne’ type of person.”2 Soon, Hoenecke and Bading separated themselves from Prussian state church.
Soon, Hoenecke sent for his bride-to-be Matthilde. The two were married by Bading and would have a loving marriage that produced nine children. In 1866, Hoenecke took a call to Northwestern University in Watertown to serve as a professor. Three years before, a seminary had opened there with Bading as president. A prep school was added a year later. Now a college had been added for pre-seminary training. The college and seminary were very grateful to have Hoenecke, because of his expertise in biblical languages, which he had gained at the University of Halle. Hoenecke would serve at Northwestern until the seminary joined with Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 1869.
Although his time in Watertown was short, many important events happened during his tenure. During his first year Hoenecke was named editor in chief of the Gemeinde-Blatt. This German “churchpaper” was used by Hoenecke to instruct pastors and congregations in true Christian doctrine. As the Wisconsin Synod grew in its confessional stance, they began to realize the implications that would arise in regards to fellowship issues. Many key conventions would ensue involving many different synods.
At the Wisconsin Synod’s convention in 1867 our synod rejected the false doctrines that Iowa Synod presented. Our synod had almost considered agreeing with this synod on the matter of “Open Questions” until Hoenecke spoke up and pointed out their false teachings. The General Council was formed in Fort Wayne, Indiana that same year by the Pennsylvania Ministerium, who broke off from the General Synod. Ironically, the Iowa Synod participated in the convention. They along with the Ohio Synod put forth “Four Points” of contention against the General Council’s proposed doctrinal stance. These conflicts were never resolved, but despite Hoenecke’s misgivings, the Wisconsin Synod decided to join the General Council. Still weary of the synod’s decision, Hoenecke outlined his own statement of Christian doctrine at its
convention in Racine the next year. All 50 pastors of the Wisconsin Synod agreed to this confession. Hoenecke, Bading and other synod leaders met at the General Council convention that same year. They were still unable to reach a resolution on some of the “Four Points,” namely altar and pulpit fellowship. The next year the Wisconsin Synod formally withdrew from the General Council.
Hoenecke and the Wisconsin Synod now turned its focus to the Missouri synod. Hoenecke had long admired the confessional stance of this synod and C.F.W. Walther, their leader. Walther, however, was critical of the unionistic Wisconsin Synod. The split with the General Council began to change Walther’s view on our synod. He realized that it had become a confessional synod, saying “All our reservations about [the] Wisconsin [Synod] have been put to shame."3 The first act of fellowship was the joining of the synods’ seminaries. The second was the formation of the Synodical Conference. Led by Hoenecke and Bading, the Wisconsin Synod joined this group of synods that included the Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio and various other small synods in 1872. Its purpose was to join in joint ministerial education and mission work.
After serving as a pastor at Saint Matthew’s in Milwaukee, Hoenecke took a call to serve as a seminary professor for the reopened Wisconsin Synod Seminary. This time the campus was in Milwaukee. It would move to Wauwatosa in 1893. During his first years at the seminary, the “Election Controversy” arose in the Synodical Conference. Some pastors, particularly from the Ohio Synod, were teaching that God elected us because of something we had done. C.F.W. Walther is often credited with leading the Synodical Conference to reject these errors. However, although he was not as outspoken as Walther, Adolf Hoenecke played a very important role. August Pieper, a future seminary professor and biographer of Hoenecke, writes, “Hoenecke was no fire-breathing warrior who pressed recklessly forward and broke through enemy lines so that others might follow… Rather, with great care he had worked his way through this article of Christian doctrine, thoroughly and over a long period.”4 In fact, it was after Hoenecke’s presentation of this doctrine that the Synodical Conference finally accepted the true doctrine of election and rejected the errors of the Ohio Synod and others.
After the “Election Controversy”, the Synodical Conference and the Wisconsin Synod enjoyed a peaceful time free from major controversy. This allowed Professor Hoenecke to spend time instructing his students in the Word of God and writing books. “His tenure did not produce a lot of flashy history. He was content to be the humble, faithful and quiet professor instilling in his students the love of the Gospel.”5 By the time of his death in 1908, there were 250 pastors in the Wisconsin synod; 200 of them were Hoenecke’s students.
His most famous and important work was the Evangelische Luterische Dogmatik (Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics). This four-volume work goes step by step through Christian doctrine and is still considered one of the greatest contributions to Confessional Lutheranism from our Wisconsin Synod. The original German and the English translation are available in the MLC library. Hoenecke also published several sermon books. Several of these books are available in the MLC library in both English and German. They include Glorified in his Passion, A Lamb goes Uncomplaining Forth and Wenn Ich Nur Dich Habe. He also was a regular contributor to the Gemeinde-Blatt and the Quartalschrift.
Adolf Hoenecke was a humble man and knew as well as anyone that our synod has become what it is today only by the grace of God. God controls history and sees to it that his church endures. We thank God for this humble servant of the Gospel, who by God’s grace led our synod to a better understanding of the Word of God.
- Fredrich, Edward. The Wisconsin Synod Lutherans. Northwestern Publishing House: Milwaukee, 1992
- Graeber, Th. The Story of Our Church in America. Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1922
- Kowalke, Erwin. You and Your Synod. Northwestern Publishing House: Milwaukee, 1961
- Reckzin, Dale. Three Doctors of the American Lutheran Church. Raleigh, 1994
- Schroeder, John. “The Contribution of Adolf Hoenecke to the Election Controversy of the Synodical Conference.” Date and Publisher Unknown. Found at: http://wlstheologia.net/node/71.