John Schaller (1859-1920)
Seminary Director (1908-1920)
By Jeremiah J. Gumm
The story of Johannes Schaller begins on a cold December day in the parsonage of Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Louis, where his father, Gottlieb Schaller, was serving as pastor. It had been a difficult year for the Schaller family. Earlier in the year the Lord had called home their one-year-old daughter, Pauline, but on December 10, 1859, the Lord blessed Gottlieb and Bertha (nee Volck) with a healthy baby boy.
Little is known about Schaller’s childhood in the Trinity parsonage, but we do get glimpses into his early family life. The Schaller home was a cheerful place, always welcoming to visitors who arrived frequently. Johannes was the seventh of ten children; four did not survive their first year. In spite of their resulting grief, the peace of God was always present to grant them comfort and joy in Christ. The Word of God was never far away.
Gottlieb developed in his children a keen interest toward artistic pursuits, instructing them on the piano and violin and teaching them to value poetry and other art. He also inspired a love for the beauty of God’s creation that he developed during his own childhood in the Franconian mountains. Family accounts suggest that John later passed these same interests on to his children.
Schaller’s father was a quiet, respected voice for confessional Lutheranism in the early decades of the Missouri Synod. As an adolescent, he had come under the tutelage of Wilhelm Löhe, a leader of confessional-leaning Lutheranism in Germany. Gottlieb eventually became known as “Löhe’s Timothy,” and in 1848 he answered Löhe’s call to take the gospel to America, arriving that November.
Already before the Schallers’ arrival a serious doctrinal controversy between Löhe and the leaders of the Missouri Synod had developed involving the doctrine of church and ministry. By 1850, it came to a head. At first, the elder Schaller sided with Löhe, contending that Christ gives the keys directly to his called ministers, apart from the Church, while C.F.W. Walther asserted that Christ gives the keys first to his Church, that is, to all Christians, and that ministers of the gospel are then called by God through the Church to administer them publicly. Walther and Schaller publicly debated at the 1850 Missouri Synod convention, but Walther finally won the young pastor over to the side of the Holy Scriptures, Martin Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions.
In 1854, the Schallers arrived in St. Louis, and the elder Schaller soon became president of the Missouri Synod’s Western District. In 1872, he was called to serve as a professor of church history and other subjects at Concordia Seminary. He worked diligently to master his subjects. With a cheerful manner, he sought to instill in his students a sincere zeal and love for the truth of God’s Word. He was beloved by both students and faculty, especially by his dear friend Walther.
In 1872, John began his training for pastoral ministry at Northwestern College in Watertown, Wisconsin. His future Wauwatosa colleagues, August Pieper and John Ph. Koehler, were already students on campus when he arrived. During his time in Watertown, Schaller’s two brothers-in-law, Theodore Brohm and August Graebner, served as professors at Northwestern. John was a rather reserved student who lived off campus with family, but he developed a close friendship with classmate Carl Gausewitz, a relationship that would have a major impact on Schaller’s future ministry in the Wisconsin Synod.
From Northwestern, Schaller matriculated at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, where he sat at the feet of Walther, Stoeckhardt, and his own father for three years. He soon demonstrated fluency in English at a time when it was a foreign language among German Lutherans. As a result, the faculty often called on “Hans” to serve as an English speaker.
When Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia, appealed to Walther for a bilingual pastor in June 1880, he recommended Schaller for a one-year resident vicarage. While there, Schaller offered German and English services. That same year his love for smoking pipes introduced him to a local tobacco dealer who had a lovely stepdaughter named Emma Sophia Mumm. They quickly fell in love and were married on September 19, 1883.
Following his year in Virginia, Schaller graduated from Concordia Seminary, delivering the English oration at his graduation. He was assigned to a congregation in Alexander, Arkansas, where his English skills were put to good use in the mission field. In 1885, he accepted a call to Trinity, Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Grief visited the Schallers when their first child, Elsa, was called home to heaven as an infant. A couple months later, son Adalbert was born, a future professor at Dr. Martin Luther College (DMLC) and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, like his father. In the years that followed, four more sons and three more daughters were born. All five sons became Wisconsin Synod pastors; two daughters married pastors, including a future seminary president, Edmund Reim. One daughter became a Lutheran school teacher.
In 1889, John accepted a call to teach in the theological department of DMLC in New Ulm, Minnesota, when it still served as the Minnesota Synod’s college and seminary. He brought vigorous energy and enthusiasm to the school, which led to a developing scholarship among the faculty. When a federation of the Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan Synods took place in 1892, DMLC became the teacher-training college of the Joint Synod, and in 1893 Schaller became the director. Over the next fifteen years, Schaller’s influence would leave DMLC completely transformed in purpose as a teacher-training college.
Christian education became a lifelong hallmark of Schaller’s writing and teaching as he urged congregations to start and maintain their own schools and high schools. With the faculty, Schaller began to implement changes to strengthen teacher training. Students were required to undergo a period of student teaching. The music curriculum was systematized, and the use of the English language was encouraged. Schaller also published Kurze Bibelkunde as a textbook for Old and New Testament studies; he later updated and translated it into English as The Book of Books. The most notable change took place in 1896 with the first admission of young women to be trained as Lutheran school teachers. The faculty was also responsible for publishing Lutherische Schulzeitung (Lutheran School Paper), a predecessor of today’s Lutheran Educator. Schaller served as editor until 1905. The modern reader will find the Schulzeitung and the post-1908 Theologische Quartalschrift strikingly similar, both in their format and in the publication of English articles and reviews. The campus was also expanded and modernized during his directorship.
Not only was Schaller a prolific writer, he soon became a sought-after essayist. In 1900, he delivered the Synodical Conference essay on “The Necessity of the Christian Parochial School for the Christian Family, the Church, and the State.” By the time of his death, Schaller delivered twelve essays to district and synod conventions, more than either of his future Wauwatosa colleagues.
Early in 1908, tragedy struck the seminary with the unexpected death of Adolf Hoenecke. A brief controversy ensued concerning Hoenecke’s replacement, leaving both Koehler and Pieper, among others, out of consideration. Finally, Carl Gausewitz, who was serving as president of the Joint Synod, recommended his old friend, Schaller. He received and accepted the call, and with heavy hearts the Schallers left New Ulm and moved into the former Hoenecke home on the Wauwatosa campus.
The new man had big shoes to fill as director and professor of dogmatics, homiletics, and pastoral theology, and it seems that student expectations were rather low. However, Schaller soon proved himself quite capable. Like his father, he devoted himself diligently to mastering not only dogmatics but the other theological disciplines as well. He directly connected the seminary’s dogmatics courses to an honest and exegetical study of the Holy Scriptures, as can be seen from his Biblical Christology, the first volume of what was intended to be a complete set of English dogmatics. In homiletics, he taught his students that every sermon must be immersed in the doctrine of salvation in Christ and ably demonstrated that principle as a gifted preaching assistant at Grace, Milwaukee. Schaller also provided an important seminary textbook when he authored his inimitable pastoral theology, Pastorale Praxis in der Ev.-Luth. Freikirche Amerikas (Pastoral Practice in the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church of America).
The Theologische Quartalschrift, launched under Hoenecke, became a source of excellence in theological writing. The faculty addressed the controversies of the day involving the doctrines of election and church and ministry, while remaining undeniably practical for the parish pastor by providing homiletical resources, exegetical studies, and hundreds of book reviews. Schaller himself wrote 121 reviews in either German or English, including the Quartalschrift’s first English review in 1912 on the book The Pastor in the Sickroom. He was also the first to publish English articles in the Quartalschrift.
Schaller’s arrival brought a calming effect to the Wauwatosa campus that encouraged an atmosphere of harmony and teamwork, allowing the faculty to flourish and pursue academic excellence. His colleagues, who had studied under his father in St. Louis, recognized Gottlieb’s cheerful, gentle spirit in their new director. This spirit not only applied in the classroom and dormitory, where his fatherly, pastoral heart made him particularly beloved by the students, but also in the faculty room, where he maintained and restored peace with an appropriate word when debate turned into heated conversation. His colleagues regarded him as both a gentle gospel man and firmly uncompromising when it came to the Word of God, a true Seelsorger.
Like his father, Schaller was also not above being corrected, particularly on the doctrine of church and ministry. In 1908, the new director presented a paper entitled, “The One Office of the Pastor” with the conclusion that there was only one divinely Instituted office in the church, the pastoral office. Koehler publicly corrected him, and an earnest study of the Scriptures began among the faculty. By 1912, the entire seminary faculty stood united, and from 1912-1918, they presented the comprehensive, Scriptural doctrine of the church and ministry in the Quartalschrift. Schaller’s writings on the subject are still foundational to a proper approach and understanding today.
The Wauwatosa Seminary flourished during Schaller’s presidency until influenza struck in early 1920. On Thursday, February 5, Schaller taught his regular classes in good health, joked with his colleagues in the faculty room, and enjoyed time with his family in the evening. Earlier he had visited an ill student. Early Friday morning, Schaller awoke with a high fever and was diagnosed with influenza, which quickly developed into pneumonia. His colleagues ministered to him, but Schaller offered them comfort even as his condition worsened. On Saturday morning, February 7, he slipped into a coma and entered eternal rest that evening. The sudden loss of the seminary’s director left the seminary family devastated.
Pieper preached on John 5:35 at the funeral held at Grace. After the funeral, leaders of the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods, including both presidents, offered comfort to the family. The earthly remains of President Schaller were interred at Union Cemetery in Milwaukee. The inscription on his tombstone was in English, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25).
With Schaller gone, storm clouds soon gathered on the horizon. No longer would there be a calming voice in the faculty room, and the classroom would no longer have a cheerful, pastoral spirit quite like Schaller’s. Pieper’s obituary for President Schaller described him as “the soul and heart of the Seminary.” Sadly that was gone, but Schaller’s pastoral influence and Christ-centered heart remain a hallmark of seminary training to this day.
For Further Reading:
- John Schaller, Biblical Christology (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1981), 9-14.
- Martin Westerhaus, “The Wauwatosa Theology: The Men and Their Message,” The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. I (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997), 13-98.
- John Schaller, “The Origin and Development of the New Testament Ministry,” trans. Wilbert Gawrisch, The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. III (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997), 73-94.
- John Schaller, “The Need of Christian Education by Means of Parochial Schools,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.