Eduard Moldehnke (1836-1904)
Seminary Director (1863-1866)
By James F. Korthals
During the first decade of its existence (1850-1860) the Wisconsin Synod struggled to find solutions to a number of problems. At the top of the list was the shortage of capable pastors. Congregations associated with the synod frequently experienced pastoral vacancies. At the same time the pastoral shortage prevented the synod from serving the many German settlements in Wisconsin which were without pastors and organized congregations. The newly organized synod watched helplessly as German Methodists and Baptists made inroads among the Lutheran immigrants who were hungry for church services. Equally distressing was the influence of Freethinkers who caused shepherdless Lutherans to drop their connection with Christianity.
In an attempt to provide limited service to vacant congregations and scattered Lutherans in the state, the Wisconsin Synod at its 1858 convention authorized the synod’s secretary, Pastor Wilhelm Streissguth, to request assistance from Lutheran church bodies and mission institutions in Germany in providing a Reiseprediger. A Reiseprediger is described as a “traveling vacancy preacher.” He was to be a preacher, not a pastor. His time was spent preaching, administering the sacraments, and occasionally holding confirmation classes. The Reiseprediger’s first obligation was to serve vacant congregations associated with but not necessarily members of the synod. His secondary task was to find and to serve German Lutherans in the Wisconsin area who were not members of an organized Lutheran congregation.
While the search for a full-time Reiseprediger was conducted, newly arrived Pastor Gottlieb Fachtmann was called to serve on a part-time basis. Through the offices of German mission societies, applicants for the position were sought. Fachtmann drafted the initial letter requesting help and mailed it to the committee assigned with this task, consisting of Synod President Johannes Muehlhaeuser, Secretary Wilhelm Streissguth, and Pastors Christian Stark, Philipp Koehler, and Carl Goldammer. Koehler objected to one sentence in that letter, “The Reiseprediger would be in the service of the Berlin or Langenberg Societies and would carry out his duties for and be supported by the preachers and congregations of the synod.” Koehler wrote that he believed a Reiseprediger in the service of a union or united society could not carry out his duties and be in agreement with a Lutheran synod. He insisted that the Reiseprediger must be in the service of the synod, or definite harm could result. Such concerns were not appreciated in Germany. When a pastoral candidate was sent to Wisconsin in 1860, a request was made that he not be placed near Koehler because he was too strict a Lutheran.
The principal of the Berlin Gymnasium replied to the Wisconsin Synod’s letter in the name of the Society for Emigrated Germans in North America and suggested that the synod furnish its own Reiseprediger because very few men were even interested in going to America to work among the Germans. They were too comfortable where they were presently serving. Eventually three men applied for the position and Fritz Meyeringh, the agent for the Evangelical Society for the Protestants in North America, suggested three additional theologically-trained men. Among the latter group was Eduard Moldehnke.
Eduard Friedrich Moldehnke was born at Insterburg, East Prussia on August 10, 1836. He was the son of Franz August and Justine (Kessler) Moldencke [sic]. His father, an excise official and amateur inventor, was a descendant of an officer in the army of Gustavus Adolphus. His mother was descended from one of the exiled Protestants of Salzburg, Austria. Sadly, she died when Eduard was nine years old and life under his stepmother was less than happy.
Young Eduard received a classical education in the gymnasium at Lyck, from 1845-1853. He then matriculated at the University of Königsberg as a student of philosophy and theology. When Dr. Justus L. Jacobi, professor of church history, left the university in the spring of 1855 and went to the University of Halle, Moldehnke followed. He remained there until 1857. At Halle he lived with Friedrich Tholuck and served as his secretary.
Although he admired Hegel’s philosophy for a time, he later preferred the critical method of Immanuel Kant. While at Halle Moldehnke, along with six other students, founded a Christian society, “Tuisconia,” which took a stand against the practice of dueling. His tendency to overwork led to illness and forced him to return home in the spring of 1857. Later that year he passed his first examination, pro licentia concionandi (licensed to preach), and in the fall of 1858 at Königsberg he passed his second examination, pro ministerio (licensed for ministerial tasks).
Having passed his examinations with distinction he was headmaster of a parochial school for a few months at Eckersberg, East Prussia. Following the custom of the day he also assisted the pastor of the congregation. In the spring of 1859 he passed an examination in order to retain his place as principal of the school, but in July he was called to teach religion, Hebrew, Latin, and German in the gymnasium at Lyck. In that same year he married Elise Harder, a descendant of a noble house.
Although Moldehnke was happy at Lyck, he was eager for the work of the ministry and in 1861 agreed to come to the United States for five years of mission work. He was ordained at Königsberg on July 23, 1861, and sent to Wisconsin in answer to the synod’s call for a Reiseprediger. Accompanied by his wife and child, he arrived in August 1861. Initially the family settled in Watertown, Wisconsin. Because of the conditions required by the German societies that the Reiseprediger be given a permanent place for the winter, and because there were no vacant homes in Watertown, the Moldehnkes soon moved to Germany, Town of Oakland, a few miles west of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.
The life of a traveling preacher among the scattered Lutherans in Wisconsin and Minnesota was hard and at times dangerous. He regularly reported his activity to President Muehlhaeuser and to mission society officials in Germany where his reports were published at Berlin in the monthly Ansiedler im West (Settlers in the West).
The extent of his travels becomes clear in his annual report to the Wisconsin Synod convention. In 1863, for example, he reported that he had established fourteen new preaching stations in western Wisconsin and that he served a total of twenty-two stations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Whenever possible, he began reading services and Sunday Schools in the hope that these places could be served more frequently as additional pastors became available.
When the Wisconsin Synod decided to open its own seminary at Watertown, Moldehnke was called as the seminary’s first president and sole professor. In the fall of 1863 the seminary was opened in a rented house that also served as its professorage. The beginning was less than auspicious. The school’s only student was dismissed before the end of October. Fortunately another student enrolled in November, so the school year ended with the same student population with which it had begun. By the 1864-1865 school year there were eleven students enrolled.
In June 1866, the Wisconsin Synod met in Watertown, where the synodical college was also founded the previous fall. Moldehnke submitted a report on both institutions. In his report he referred to the difficulties his institutions were facing, including the debt that was strangling the schools. Besides this, he said the three enemies Luther mentions in the Small Catechism – the devil, the world, and the flesh – were very active within and without the institutions. It becomes apparent that he never favored locating the college in Watertown, and he remarked that the college was harvesting the bitter consequences of the mistake that was made in placing the school in a small city.
Besides his work in the seminary, Professor Moldehnke taught college classes. In 1865 he also became the first editor of the Wisconsin Synod’s official newpaper, Gemeinde-Blatt. In that same year the University of Rostock made him an honorary Doctor of Philosophy. From Christmas until Easter he had served as vacancy pastor at Columbus, twenty-four miles from Watertown. He had also made a fruitless trip soliciting funds for the upkeep of the schools. Even with all his responsibilities, it is evident that Moldehnke’s heart was still in the pastoral ministry. After the heavy workload he had carried, he sought “relaxation,” as he put it, by taking a nine-week mission trip into southern Minnesota. Since he used his vacation time for this trip, he pointed out that the seminary classes had suffered only a five-week interruption during his absence.
The 1865-1866 school year was a discouraging one. There were four students in the seminary and three students in the college who were preparing to be pastors. But two students had to be dismissed during the year, one because of behavioral problems and the other because of his inability to handle academic work. With his heavy teaching load, the discipline at the seminary suffered. The synod considered it absolutely necessary to call an inspector, a dean of students. Adolf Hoenecke was called to be inspector and to share in the teaching. Although there is no direct proof that Moldehnke resigned his office because of resentment over Hoenecke’s appointment, it is thought that in an era of extreme manpower shortage Moldehnke believed two professors at the seminary to be an extravagance. The synodical proceedings report that when Hoenecke’s appointment was made Moldehnke submitted his resignation. He resisted all pleas to reconsider his resignation, and the synod accepted his resignation with regret.
Perhaps Moldehnke believed that with Hoenecke’s arrival at the seminary, he could now devote himself wholly to mission work. It seems certain he preferred that work to teaching and trying to maintain order in the dormitory of a school. It may also be that all these challenges had led him to welcome the completion of the five-year period to which he had obligated himself when he accepted the assignment from the Berlin Mission Society to serve in America. He had arrived in America in August, 1861. In August, 1866, after one last mission trip, Moldehnke returned to Germany. In one of his last acts before returning, he prevailed upon the Wisconsin Synod to accept the invitation of the Pennsylvania Ministerium to participate in the formation of the General Council.
Back in his homeland he became pastor at Johannisburg, East Prussia. This parish reportedly numbered 11,000 German and Polish members. Moldehnke’s responsibilities included the oversight of 33 schools, as well as several prisons, poorhouses, and hospitals. Epidemics of cholera and typhus made his work even more difficult. At one point he was stricken and erroneously pronounced dead by his physician. Although he eventually recovered, the illness, overwork, and dissatisfaction with the Prussian State Church, led him to resign in 1869.
By April 1869, he went back to America with his family. In New York he started a new congregation, Zion, which later merged with the older St. Peter Congregation. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of St. Peter in 1887, Muhlenberg College of Allentown, Pennsylvania, honored him with the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology. He served St. Peter Congregation until his death in 1904. Moldehnke was remembered as a man of commanding presence and personal charm. Fluent in German, English, Latin, Polish, French, and Italian, he was a noted orator in German.
He was the first editor of the Lutherisches Kirchenblatt (1884) and edited Siloah, a paper which dealt with German home missions, from 1883-1888. He served on the editorial committee of the General Council’s service book and hymnal, Kirchenbuch (1877), and was president of the Council from 1895 to 1898. He wrote for various journals in Germany and in the United States. Although he was theologically conservative, Moldehnke was engaged in doctrinal disputes with the Missouri Synod for many years.
Heart disease ultimately forced him to retire from participating in responsibilities outside his own congregation. Eduard Friedrich Moldehnke died on June 25, 1904, at his summer home in Watchung, New Jersey, while preparing a sermon for the following Sunday.
For Further Reading:
- Adolf Hoenecke, “The History of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, 1863-1903,” trans. Wilbert Gawrisch, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- Mark Porinsky, “Edward Frederick Moldehnke: The Wisconsin Synod’s First Seminary Professor,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- James Witt, “Wisconsin’s Pioneer Mission Developer,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 13 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943), 78-79.
John Ph. Koehler, The History of the Wisconsin Synod, 77-79, 89-92, 108-109, 112, 118-122, 128.