The Altenburg Debate: Who Won?

An event took place on this day that had a great impact on the immigrants here in Perry County, but also had results which are evidenced today throughout the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  And that event occurred here in Altenburg (although I still argue that it took place in Dresden, Missouri and should be called the Dresden Debate).  In fact, it took place right behind my barn.  That is where the Log Cabin College was built in 1839.

First Site of Log Cabin College monument

If you ever get to Altenburg, please look me up.  I love taking people out to this spot to experience this special location.

A year ago, I wrote about this debate, so I need to have a new focus for this post.  I choose to discuss the impact that was had on the debate by someone who was not even here when it occurred.  He was a member of the Gesellschaft, but by April 15, 1841, he had already returned to Germany.  His name was Dr. Carl Eduard Vehse.

Dr. Vehse was born in 1802 and lived in Dresden, Germany.  He was a very well-educated man who had become the curator for the state archives in Dresden.  He was a staunch supporter of the Gesellschaft and its leader, Rev. Martin Stephan, at first.  However, especially after the revelations came out about Rev. Stephan’s improprieties, he changed his opinion.  In fact, he was one of the signers of the document which officially deposed Rev. Stephan from the community at the end of May in 1839 and resulted in Rev. Stephen being removed across the river into Illinois.

Before I continue with the story of the debate, I think it is helpful to look into some of the events that took place in the life of Dr. Vehse in Germany before the immigration.  Plus, I am too excited about finding some German documents on that I just have to share them.  In 1828, Carl Vehse married Emilia Friederica Bernhard in Dresden.  Here is a portion of that record.

Carl Eduard Vehse Emilia Friederica Bernhard wedding 1828

I am not even close to being an expert on reading this German script.  I hope that if I mistakenly identify anything in these documents that someone will set me straight.

There was a Franziska Vehse born to this family in 1834.  Here is that baptism record.

Franziska Vehse baptism 1834

One thing that I could identify in a few of these documents is the word “archive”, which indicates to me that we are talking about the right person.  I also found a baptism record for Heinrich Vehse, who was born in 1837.

Heinrich Vehse baptism 1837

I like this handwriting better.  I can actually read the name Vehse.  However, in that same year, 1837, it appears that Dr. Vehse’s wife, Emilia died.  I think this is her death record.

Emilie Vehse death record 1837

This would explain why Dr. Vehse came to America with no wife.  There still remain some questions.  What happened to Franziska and Heinrich?  Also, Zion on the Mississippi records that Dr. Vehse came to America with one daughter, Mathilda Charlotte.  According to her age (9), she would have been born in 1830.  Why was I unable to find her baptismal record?

Carl Eduard Vehse came to Perry County with tragedy in his recent past.  It is also possible that he may have had to leave a few younger children in Germany.  I think his sadness may have contributed to his disappointment during the hectic months after arriving here.

After the removal of Rev. Stephan, three men, one of which was Dr. Vehse, began corresponding with some of the members of the clergy that were part of the immigration.  The other two were Heinrich Ferdinand Fischer and Gustav Jaeckel.  They expressed their great dismay with the leadership of the pastors, both in spiritual and temporal matters.  They also expressed the desire that the immigrants should return to Germany.  It was a time of great turmoil in Perry County.

While we do not have a transcript of any sort of what was said during the Altenburg Debate, I think we can have a pretty good idea of what the topics discussed were by looking at what was being discussed in the time period leading up to the debate and the what resulted afterwards.

Dr. Vehse wrote a lengthy document which was presented to the clergy.  It had the following title.

PUBLIC PROTESTATION against the False, Medieval-Papal and Sectarian Stephanistic System of Church Polity

There were three main topics covered in this document.  These topics were also likely the topics that were discussed during the debate.

  1. Statements concerning the rights of the congregations over against the clergy in religious and churchly affairs.
  2. Positions against the false Stephanite system, in which the rights of congregations are disregarded and suppressed.
  3. Statements from Luther and Our Private Opinion about the Legitimacy of the Emigration.

This is how I would describe these topics put in question form:

  1. Is there still a legitimate church among the Gesellschaft?  Do the pastors still have a legitimate call to serve their congregations?
  2. Is the system of governing the church which was done exclusively by the pastors the correct one?  Should the lay people have a voice in how the church operates?
  3. Did the Gesellschaft sin grievously in coming to America?  Should they return to their homeland?

Dr. Carl Eduard Vehse and his daughter left the colony toward the end of 1839 and returned to Germany.  It is interesting to note that he returned aboard the Johann Georg.  This ship had carried a load of passengers to New Orleans and landed there in January of 1839.  It then returned to Germany and then brought another group of Lutherans to New Orleans……the so-called Gruber Group.  They landed at the end of November in 1839.  When the Johann Georg once again returned to Germany, it was carrying Dr. Vehse and his daughter.

Even though Dr. Vehse was not around in April of 1841 for the Altenburg Debate, his influence was certainly there.  His topics and arguments were taken over by the chief debater who went up against Rev. C.F.W. Walther……Franz Adolf Marbach.

Now, on to the question asked in the title:  Who won?  You will probably read in most accounts that Rev. Walther won the debate.  Adolf Marbach (and thus, Dr. Vehse) usually get described as losers.  The reason for that is probably the result of the fact that the account of the debate has almost always been written by pastors.  I would argue differently.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Rev. Walther won the portion of the debate that had to do with the first topic listed above…..the one which addressed whether there was a legitimate church in Perry County.  Even Adolf Marbach stated this.  As far as the third topic, it really became a moot point because almost all the people could not afford to pay for a return trip to Germany.

However, I think you would have to say that Dr. Vehse’s arguments about how the church should be governed won the day on that topic.  Even before the debate occurred, Rev. Walther was admitting that the Stephanite form of church polity was wrong.  In the end, a sort of compromise resulted.  The clergy would still be responsible for the spiritual aspects of the church, but the laity would end up with the temporal responsibilities.  The lay people would have a voice in how the money would be spent.  In other words, you could say that the Altenburg Debate gave us voters’ meetings.

When the Synod was formed in 1847, this would be the way Lutheran congregations would be governed.  It is still that way today.  Contrary to other church bodies, like the Papal system of the Roman Catholic Church, congregations in the LCMS have a balanced approach.  Both the clergy and the lay people are involved in the operation of a congregation.

I happen to think that everyone “won” in this debate.  In matters of both spiritual and temporal concerns, the right decisions were made.  Dr. Walther won.  Adolf Marbach won.  Dr. Vehse won.  I think we can all be thankful for the results of the Altenburg Debate.  Let’s not forget the contributions of the archivist from Dresden.

Preview of a coming blog:  On Easter Monday, I will be on the road most of the day, and Fred Eggers will be contributing a great guest post about the Log Cabin College.  He has once again done some outstanding research.  You are going to want to read that one.

2 thoughts on “The Altenburg Debate: Who Won?

  1. Warren Schmidt: “What happened to Franziska and Heinrich? Also, Zion on the Mississippi records that Dr. Vehse came to America with one daughter, Mathilda Charlotte. According to her age (9), she would have been born in 1830.”

    From a 2003 paper, “Vom Hörer physikalischer, chemischer und mineralogischer Vorlesungen zum promovierten Juristen, Historiker und Archivar. Der ungewöhnliche Bildungsweg des Freiberger Bergakademisten Carl Eduard Vehse 1802–1870,” by Herbert Kaden (, Dr. Carl Vehse married Friederica Emilie Bernhard, a daughter of Ludwig Carl Philipp Bemhard, on February 1, 1828. (BTW, Emilie’s sister, Louise, married Adolph Marbach.)

    Vehse’s first daughter, Matilda Charlotte, was born on December 22, 1828. Thus Matilda was 9 years old when she left Bremen on November 18, 1838, with her father on the Olbers bound for New Orleans ( However, according to Sächsische Biografie (Saxon biography) of Carl Eduard Vehse (, Vehse’s second daughter, Franziska, born in 1831, died in 1834. There is no mention in the Sächsische Biografie about a son named Heinrich. If there was a son he died the same year along with Vehse’s wife Emilie, who died on July 3, 1837.

    Based on information from the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Volume 11, Part II , Statistical Society of London, 1848, p. 177 (, influenza and cholera were widespread in Dresden during 1837 and that may have been the cause of death for Louise and Heinrich.

    It was around this time that Carl Vehse became associated with Martin Stephan and his Stephanite group.


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