Professor Adolf Hoenecke

Professor Adolf Hoenecke

Professor Adolf Hoenecke

Adolf Hoenecke

Director, 1866-1870, 1878-1908


By James L. Langebartels


Gustav Adolf Felix Theodor Hoenecke was born in Brandenburg on February 25, 1835, to Wilhelm and Amalie (nee Liebchen) Hoenecke. His father was a rationalistic unbeliever, but his mother taught him to pray. At the end of his secondary education at the local schools, he had not yet decided on a career. He considered horticulture, in which he maintained a lifelong interest. One of his teachers, the music director Thomas Täglichsbeck, suggested offhand that Hoenecke study theology. August Pieper reports that Hoenecke had been invited to the Täglichbecks’ for the evening after his final theological examinations. An old friend of the music director, Pastor Soergel, had also come. In the course of the conversation, the music director slapped the well-fed pastor on the knee and said to Hoenecke, “Look, Adolf, become a pastor, and then you will have a good thing.” The young man followed the suggestion, entered the University of Halle in 1856, and was graduated with a degree in philosophy before he began his theological studies at the same institution.

A century before Hoenecke’s education, Lutheranism had nearly disappeared in Germany, drowned under the flood of rationalism brought on by the plague of pietism. Claus Harms (1778–1855) began the reawakening of true Lutheranism when he published his own Ninety-Five Theses in 1817 against the Prussian Union, an attempt at a forcible merger of Reformed and Lutheran Christians. Although much of the university education was still permeated by rationalism, some of Hoenecke’s teachers inclined toward the reawakened Lutheranism; among them were Hermann Hupfeld (1796–1866), Julius Mueller (1801–1878), and especially August Tholuck (1799–1877), who showed special care for Hoenecke and other students, and for whom he provided special instruction during walks. According to John Ph. Koehler, Hoenecke later recalled, “Tholuck did all the talking when he took you along for a walk, and at the parting thanked you for the interesting conversation.” Hoenecke later suggested that his Christian faith was truly kindled during that time. Tholuck was also instrumental in pointing the young theologian to study the orthodox Lutheran teachers, especially Abraham Calov and Andreas Quenstedt.

Since there were few vacant parishes in Germany, Hoenecke spent the next two years as a private tutor for a Mr. von Wattenwyl near Bern, Switzerland. While there, he met Matilda Hess whom he married two years after coming to America. He also did some required teaching at the Luther School in Wittenberg before taking his final ordination examination in Magdeburg. Since vacant parishes in Germany were still limited, Hoenecke volunteered for temporary service in America, with the view that he could then possibly return to Germany for a position there. He was appointed pastor of a congregation in La Crosse, Wisconsin, ordained for that position in Magdeburg, and sent to America. When he arrived in Racine, Wisconsin, in February 1863, he found that the vacancy in La Crosse had already been filled. After a short stay in the Racine congregation, he was called to Farmington, a few miles south of Watertown, Wisconsin.

As is quite evident from his Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics, Hoenecke read deeply and widely in Luther and the orthodox Lutheran dogmaticians, to say nothing of his wide knowledge of dogmatic works not authored by confessional Lutherans. Hoenecke undoubtedly began this intense study during his two years as a private tutor in Switzerland and continued during the first years of his ministry in America. His time in Farmington was very pleasant, with the opportunity to serve the people there, to read deeply in the dogmaticians, and to marry Matilda, who immigrated after his arrival. The wedding service was performed by Pastor John Bading, who was serving a parish in nearby Watertown.

Hoenecke served as pastor in Farmington only a few years. From 1866–1870, he was busy with work at the school in Watertown, in a new building dedicated on September 14, 1865, first as assistant to the first director of the school, Eduard Moldehnke, and then as professor and inspector. At the time, the school served as preparatory school, college, and seminary, all in one. During these years, Hoenecke was also able to contribute to the movement of the Wisconsin Synod toward a more confessional position, away from connection with the unionistic mission societies and to church fellowship ties with the Missouri Synod. In a very real sense, Hoenecke can be listed as one of the founders of the Synodical Conference in 1872. His influence in the Wisconsin Synod had grown rapidly. He was elected secretary of the Wisconsin Synod the year after he arrived, became editor of the Gemeinde-Blatt in 1866, and served as a synodical delegate to the second and third meetings of the General Council in 1867 and 1868.

Just before the Synodical Conference was founded, it was decided that the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods should combine their seminary work on the St. Louis campus. It was envisioned that Hoenecke would move to St. Louis and be the Wisconsin Synod professor there. Due mainly to financial difficulties, the Wisconsin Synod was unable to send Hoenecke to St. Louis. Instead, Hoenecke accepted a call to St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, which he served 1870–1890. During the years when the seminary was in St. Louis (1870–1878), Hoenecke presented doctrinal essays at seven of the nine synod conventions.

The joint seminary project ended in 1878, and the Wisconsin Synod reestablished its own seminary, this time in Milwaukee so that Hoenecke could serve as professor and director, along with work in his congregation. This arrangement continued for twelve years, until he finally had to give up his pastorate to become full-time professor and president of the seminary. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the reopening of the seminary in 1903, Hoenecke was made an honorary doctor of theology by the faculties in Watertown and St. Louis. He died January 3, 1908.

The Milwaukee seminary was first located at Thirteenth and Vine, not far from where Interstate 43 stands today, just northwest of downtown. The property was purchased along with the buildings there, which were adapted for school purposes. The arrangement continued until the buildings were in need of extensive repairs. In 1892, the synod purchased three acres at Sixtieth and Lloyd where new school buildings were erected. This was the location of the seminary for the remainder of Hoenecke’s life and until the Thiensville seminary was built in 1929.

One of the difficulties in these years was the election controversy, which began in connection with one of Walther’s conference presentations and involved the Missouri Synod much more than the Wisconsin Synod. Yet many in the Wisconsin Synod wondered where they should stand. It was Hoenecke’s firm theological leadership – not only through the pages of the Gemeinde-Blatt but especially through his clear presentation of the doctrine of election at the synodical convention in 1882 at La Crosse – that kept the Wisconsin Synod standing firmly at the side of the Missouri Synod on the basis of Scripture. In his obituary, Koehler quotes him as saying, “We must stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers in the Missouri Synod, since they are advocating the correct doctrine.”

Early in the 1870s, Hoenecke “for some reason” attended a Missouri conference that was held in Watertown. Stellhorn presented his erroneous viewpoint on election, but the attempts to correct him were unsuccessful. Koehler reports: “Then Hoenecke asked for the floor and in his trenchant way showed in short order that the approach was all wrong. The Missouri conference at once decided to make Hoenecke its spokesman, and in the ensuing debate between him and Stellhorn the latter, by Hoenecke’s animated gestures, was literally backed up against the wall of the church, where he sat down and admitted his defeat.”

Hoenecke was not fond of theological controversy nor of the constant controversies carried on in the theological periodicals of the day. Yet he lent his aid to the founding of the Theologische Quartalschrift, just a few years before he died. He served as editor from the founding of the Quartalschrift in 1904 until his death and wrote several articles for the early years, only one of which has been translated into English. In those same years, he made the difficult journeys to Detroit and Fort Wayne to participate in the free conferences held there in 1904 and 1905.

Hoenecke was very fond of preaching. Whenever a text was being discussed, he quickly had a theme and parts ready. During his Milwaukee pastorate, he met every Saturday afternoon for many years with the pastors at Grace (Theodore Jaekel) and St. John (John Bading) to compare sermon outlines for the next day. Two volumes of his Lenten sermons were translated into English by Werner Franzmann as A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth (1939) and Glorified in His Passion (1957).

Adolf Hoenecke will be remembered for many years to come as the author of the four-volume Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics, published by his sons in German, usually in fascicle form (80 pages at a time), in the years after his death. The English translation appeared recently (1999–2009). Curiously, both the German and the English were published in reverse order, starting with volume 4. Adolf Hoenecke spent many years preparing these volumes, but they were not yet completely ready for publication when he died. His sons, Walter and Otto, resolved to make as few changes as possible to the material their father had prepared.

Every seminary student and graduate should inform himself about the contents of Hoenecke’s Dogmatics. He reveals there his thorough knowledge of the dogmaticians and of the confessions, but especially of Scripture. The volumes of his Dogmatics contain much exegesis of Scripture and faith-building proclamation of the gospel. They also contain more quotations from orthodox Lutheran dogmaticians than most readers desire, along with more quotations from German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher than most Bible-believing Christian can stomach. Hoenecke always sets forth first what God says in his Word. Then he shows that this is also the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions and of the seventeenth-century dogmaticians. He also reveals where other dogmaticians have gone wrong. In a review of one of the fascicles, Franz Pieper wrote, “Although Hoenecke had a thorough knowledge of the old Lutheran dogmaticians, he valued them only as witnesses to the truth, and adhered to Holy Scripture as the only source of knowing God and the only norm of doctrine.”


For Further Reading: 

  1. August Pieper, “The Significance of Dr. Adolf Hoenecke for the Wisconsin Synod and American Lutheranism,” trans. Werner Franzmann, The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. III (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997), 347-418.
  2. Walther Hoenecke, “Dr. Hoenecke in Private Life,” trans. Christopher Doerr, Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 106, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 275-284.
  3. John Ph. Koehler, The History of the Wisconsin Synod, passim.
  4. Adolf Hoenecke, “Agreement on the Correct View of the Authority of Scripture as the Source of Doctrine: The Way to Unity in the Church,” trans. Martin Westerhaus, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
  5. John Ph. Koehler, “Dr. A. Hoenecke,” Theologische Quartalschrift 5, no. 1 (January 1908): 1-6.
  6. Adolf Hoenecke, Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics, Vols. I-IV (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House).