The Altenburg Debate…..What Does This Mean?

College Monument

One hundred seventy-five years ago, the Altenburg Debate began.  The debate took place over two days, April 15 and April 20 in 1841, and it took place in the location pictured above where a monument has been placed to mark the spot where the Log Cabin College was originally constructed.  It is my honor to own this property.  Just why was there a debate?  What were the issues debated?  And what was the end result of the Debate?  These are some questions I will attempt to answer.

After Rev. Martin Stephan was exiled to Illinois in May of 1839 for his mismanagement and misbehavior, the new settlement in Perry County was in disarray.  There developed a complete lack of trust among the people for their leaders, the pastors.  They questioned among themselves whether they had committed grievous sins in following who they now believed was a false leader.  They wondered if they ought to return to Germany, beg for forgiveness, and hope that their previous congregations would have them back.  They questioned whether there was a legitimate church here in the wilds of Missouri after such events as the exile of Stephan and the loss of one of their ships, the Amalia.  After almost two years of dissension, two men decided that the issues might be resolved through a debate.  These two men were Rev. C.F.W. Walther and Adolph Marbach, an attorney from Dresden.

The people were expecting the debate to be about power.  If there was a legitimate church here, who was to have the power?  Should it be the clergy, who had previously perceived themselves as being the leaders.  Or should it be the lay people who were disillusioned with the leadership of the clergy?  Rev. Martin Stephan had himself named the Bishop of the new church in America on the journey over here.  Now he was gone.  He had more or less declared himself to be the sole person who was qualified to lead this church.  Thus the people attending the debate expected the conversation to be mostly about which people should be in control of the church…..the clergy or the laity?

It was pointed out to me in a presentation I attended this past week that Rev. Walther made a brilliant move to begin the debate.  Instead of arguing about which people should be in charge of the church, he chose to point out that the real authority in the church was God.  He would go on to argue that as long as people were gathered around the Word of God and His sacraments, and these were taught properly, then there was a legitimate church.

We have no transcription of the words that were spoken by either of the participants at the Log Cabin College during the debate.  We can only surmise what may have been said there.  We do know that Rev. Walther wrote down some theses which were the basis for his arguments.  What does appear to come out of the debate is that Rev. Walther must have had a change of heart about who was to control the church.  There seemed to be a willingness on his part to compromise.  He appears to have reached the conclusion that the lay people in a congregation should have some voice in how congregations should be operated.

It is commonly stated that Rev.Walther won the debate.  However, we could also give some credit to Adolph Marbach for achieving some success as well.

There were a couple of results of this debate which I think were important.  First, as time went by, we see that the polity of the church was dramatically changed.  There was to be a sharing of the control within a congregation.  The clergy would continue to be responsible for the spiritual workings of the church while the laity would carry the responsibility for the temporal workings.  Pastors would be responsible for preaching and teaching the Word of God in its purity and administering the sacraments faithfully.  The lay people would be responsible for the day-to-day operations.  They took care of the “books”.   Thus became what has become what we now know as something we call a voters’ meeting.  I might add that this type of church government was more in line with the American way of doing things.

The other major result of the debate was that it brought peace to the community in Perry County.  It more or less brought closure to a few years of much distress.  It was a turning point.  The settlement in Perry County began the road to success, both as a community of believers and as a civil community.  It was a pivotal event and is certainly worthy of remembering on a day such as today.


One thought on “The Altenburg Debate…..What Does This Mean?

  1. Warren Schmidt: “It is commonly stated that Rev.Walther won the debate. However, we could also give some credit to Adolph Marbach for achieving some success as well.”

    In his Zion on the Mississippi (CPH, 1953, p.520), Lutheran History Professor, Walter O. Forster gave credit to another person

    Warren Schmidt: “It is commonly stated that Rev.Walther won the debate. However, we could also give some credit to Adolph Marbach for achieving some success as well.”

    In his Zion on the Mississippi (CPH, 1953, p.520), Lutheran History Professor, Walter O. Forster gave credit to another person:

    “It was in these dark days [prior to the Altenburg Debate] that C.F.W. Walther came forward with a series of propositions which were to prove the fundamental factor in saving the colonies. The idea he advanced was by no means a new one, for it was contained in more than an embryonic state in Vehse’s writings. Walther was ready to admit his indebtedness to the Dresden archivist. Keyl and Burger joined in this acknowledgment. Later writers with a less meticulous sense of fairness, however, have given Vehse little credit.”

    C.F.W. Walther gave this credit:

    “With deep gratitude I must here recall that document which, now almost a year and a half ago, Doctor Vehse, Mr. Fischer, and Mr. Jaeckel addressed to us. It was this document, in particular, which gave us a powerful impulse to recognize the remaining corruption more and more, and to endeavor to remove it. Without this document — I now confess it with a living conviction — we might have for a long time pursued our way of error, from which we now have made our escape. I confess this with an even greater sense of shame, because I first appeared so ungrateful toward this precious gift of God.”
    (from A. Baepler, A Century of Grace, CPH, 1947, pp.47-48, translated by Dr. P.E. Kretzman, Concordia Theological Monthly, XI, 169ff, from J.F. Koestering, Auswanderung der saechsischen Lutheraner in Jahre 1838, ihre Niederlassung in Perry-Co., und damit zusammenhaengende interessante Nachrichten, A Wiebusch u. Sohn, 1867, p. 43)


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