John Philipp Koehler (1859-1951)
Seminary Director (1920-1929)
By Peter M. Prange
John Philipp Julius Koehler was born at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on January 17, 1859, to Pastor Christian Philipp and Mrs. Apollonia (Schick) Koehler. The previous September his father had followed a divine call from Addison, Wisconsin, where he was first assigned, to serve as pastor at First German Lutheran Church in Manitowoc. In July 1867 the Koehler family moved to Hustisford, Wisconsin, where Pastor Koehler served Bethany Lutheran Church until his death in 1895.
Early in his pastoral ministry, the elder Koehler confronted unionistic practices in the congregations he served when the key differences between Lutheran and Reformed teaching were not adequately recognized by church members. As a result, he quickly developed a reputation as the most determined foe of unionism in the early Wisconsin Synod and has been recognized since as a prime catalyst in moving the synod away from its unionistic ties with the German mission societies toward a confessional Lutheran stance.
When the senior Koehler joined the synod in 1854, he was rather unique among the earliest Wisconsin Synod pastors because he had gained a proficiency in the biblical languages under the tutelage of Inspector Johann Christian Wallmann at the German missionary school in Barmen. As a result, he and other members of the original Northwestern Pastoral Conference were given the assignment of instructing pastoral students for the infant synod in the late 1850s, prior to the seminary’s founding in 1863.
Upon his arrival in Hustisford, Koehler began having weekly get-togethers with Pastor Edmund Multanowski, a Missouri Synod man from neighboring Woodland. During these gatherings the two pastors would study the Scriptures exegetically. Pastor Koehler wrote, “It was a joy to both of us to see that, through God’s grace, we were one in spirit. This made it all the more painful for us that our respective synods were on a war footing. We therefore promised each other to work in our own synod to bring about a better relationship.” By October of the following year, Philipp Koehler was one of six Wisconsin Synod pastors to meet with Professor C.F.W. Walther and seven other Missouri Synod pastors in Milwaukee. At that meeting the two synods officially recognized their agreement in doctrine and practice and sought cooperation in ministry endeavors, especially the training of future pastors.
Young John Philipp Koehler was undoubtedly shaped by the principles and practices inculcated in his family’s parsonage. Besides acquiring an acute theological awareness, he learned to play the piano, organ, and violin at an early age, setting the foundation for a lifetime pursuit of musical interests, particularly the study and use of the Lutheran chorale. Already at the age of eight, the young Koehler was accompanying his father’s congregation on the organ during worship.
Not only did his father encourage the study of music, but he also developed his son’s appreciation for drawing and painting. Koehler would later recall that one of his earliest memories was receiving a case of watercolors for his fifth birthday from his father, who served as his first instructor. Later on, Koehler would receive more formal training in drawing and painting from Northwestern Professor John Kaltenbrunn and three well-known Milwaukee artists. His large triptych depicting Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, which once hung on the walls of St. John Lutheran Church, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, is now displayed in the seminary library.
On September 12, 1869, at the age of 10, Koehler was enrolled at the recently-founded Northwestern University in Watertown, Wisconsin. The next oldest student living in the dormitory that year was four years Koehler’s senior. The 1869-70 school year also saw the advent of a new college president, Professor Lewis Thompson, who replaced the recently resigned Adam Martin, and a new inspector, Pastor August F. Ernst, who would remain the guiding light of Northwestern for the next fifty-five years. In addition, it would be the last year that the Wisconsin Synod seminary was located in Watertown, under the directorship of Adolf Hoenecke, since the synod had agreed to have its seminarians trained at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, beginning in 1870.
Koehler applied himself diligently to his pre-seminary studies. In addition to his required academic work, he wrote poetry, read ancient classics during vacations, and developed a keen interest in ancient and modern German poetry and history. He graduated from Northwestern on June 27, 1877, at the age of 18, with especially high marks in Latin and Greek.
He enrolled that fall at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where Professor Walther was the grand old man. After his first year, Koehler served for a brief time as Pastor Adolf Hoenecke’s vicar at St. Matthew, Milwaukee, while the latter was recovering from a breakdown. Koehler attended the opening service of the Wisconsin Synod’s new seminary on September 4, 1878, in the company of Hoenecke, who would again take up the reins as seminary director at that time. Koehler, however, would return in October to the St. Louis seminary, where Professor Franz Pieper, Walther’s heir-apparent, had been called to teach dogmatics at the tender age of 26. More important in terms of Koehler’s theological development was the calling that year of Professor Georg Stoeckhardt to teach exegesis. Stoeckhardt is rightly credited with emphasizing the importance of undertaking a serious and independent exegetical study of the Scriptures to establish Lutheran doctrine and practice. His approach would have a deep impact on Koehler and his future seminary colleagues, August Pieper and John Schaller.
Upon seminary graduation in 1880 at the age of 21, Koehler assisted his father at Hustisford because he believed his son was too young to serve a congregation alone. Then in December 1881, J.P. Koehler received a call to serve as pastor at St. John, Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Shortly before taking up his service there, he married Ms. Amalia Rohfling of St. Louis on January 4, 1882. The couple had ten children, four of whom died in infancy.
During his time at Two Rivers, Koehler became the first Wisconsin Synod pastor to supply a mixed group of English Christians with a regular English service. In sermons to this group, Koehler would annunciate some of the same important principles he would later champion at the seminary. “It is not our buissness [sic] to … arrange any religious system so as to make it fit for this or that denomination & then to ornate & decorate it with bible passages. But we should try to find out what God says to us in the bible. & in order to do so, we must look right into it as such who listen, who wish to hear & learn.” Koehler would leave an indelible mark on the Two Rivers congregation when he designed the new sanctuary that was constructed in 1889 and is still in use today.
In 1888, the young pastor was called to serve as professor and inspector at his college alma mater, and Koehler returned to Watertown to begin his long career as a synodical professor. Besides teaching history and the classics, Inspector Koehler was responsible for discipline in the dormitory, which often put him at odds with the student body. He attempted to employ the services of upper classmen to help with discipline, but their authority was not respected. Later on, Koehler would suggest the system of graduate tutors to assist with dormitory discipline, a practice still in place today on synodical campuses. After five years, Koehler requested to be relieved of the inspector responsibilities for fear of a nervous breakdown. He spent a year in Arizona, largely on horseback, recovering his health, when in 1900 he was called to replace Professor Gottlieb Thiele at Wisconsin’s Wauwatosa Seminary and to teach church history, New Testament exegesis, hermeneutics and liturgics.
Installed on September 4, 1900, Koehler brought a fresh perspective to the work being done at Wauwatosa. He introduced changes to classroom procedure, providing textbooks to relieve the students’ burden of copying down dictated notes in his classes. Koehler eventually authored and published his own textbooks for his exegetical course on Galatians and church history course in 1910 and 1917, respectively. Students were now expected to come prepared for daily quizzes and write weekly essays. The new professor also took the lead in developing and organizing the seminary library. In addition, he became involved in promoting the Lutheran chorale and good church music when he founded the original Seminary chorus in 1909 and arranged a series of lecture-concerts in local churches to further that cause.
Most significant, Koehler emphasized the importance of the historical disciplines (exegesis and history) in theological pursuits and in the training of future pastors. Koehler identified the temptation of falling back on what our theological fathers have said in the past without doing fresh work in the Scriptures ourselves to re-mine anew the same, unchanging truths and apply them to new ministry settings and situations. He worked tirelessly to expose the dangers of legalism, formalism, and “sacramentalism” in church life and pastoral practice and wrote eloquently on the spiritual freedom the gospel gives to Christians in all areas of sanctification. On the other hand, he was careful to teach how Christian freedom is also bound by the law of Christian love, echoing Martin Luther’s important thesis: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (LW 31:344).
After the sudden passing of Seminary Director John Schaller on February 7, 1920, the Seminary Board called Koehler to become the fourth director in seminary history. Three significant events marked the years of his presidency. First, Koehler consented to write an extended edition of his History of the Wisconsin Synod, which he had first undertaken in 1899. By 1900 he had produced a short history covering only the earliest years of synodical history. In 1924 he traveled to Germany to find original documents in the mission society archives so that he could expand his work. The first volume of this new edition was printed in German in 1925 and an English translation of the entire work, which roughly covered the first seventy-five years of synodical history, was published by the Protes’tant Conference in 1970. Koehler’s history remains the benchmark source for Wisconsin Synod history through 1925.
Koehler’s trip to Germany also gave him an opportunity to study firsthand the architecture of the Wartburg Castle and other German Romanesque and Gothic structures which aided him in providing conceptual drawings for the new seminary buildings that were eventually constructed in Thiensville. The move from Wauwatosa to Thiensville took place in 1929, a second significant event during his tenure as director.
The most significant and dramatic event during the Koehler presidency was the Protes’tant Controversy that embroiled the synod and seminary faculty beginning in 1924. Koehler’s attempts to calm the waters and urge the combatants back to their respective corners were to no avail, and eventually Koehler himself reluctantly joined the fray. In 1929 the Seminary Board ruled that Koehler should take a year’s sabbatical to deal with what they called “a nervous condition.” After many months of attempting to resolve the intra-faculty conflict, the board finally relieved Koehler of his presidency in June 1930 and terminated his professorial call. He and his wife retired to a home that their son, Karl, had built in Neillsville, Wisconsin, and the elderly Koehler lived out his days in continued study, writing essays for the Protes’tant journal Faith-Life and pursuing his long-held, theological ideals. He also continued to paint and pursue music. He was suspended from synodical membership in 1933 because of his ongoing church fellowship with suspended members of the Protes’tant Conference. He died on September 30, 1951 at the age of 92, his mortal remains laid to rest at the Neillsville City Cemetery. His personal and professional papers and other archival materials are held at the Concordia Historical Institute in St. Louis.
For Further Reading:
- Christian Philipp Koehler, “Autobiography,” trans. Marcus Koch, Faith Life 72, nos. 4-6 & 73, no. 1.
- John Ph. Koehler, “Retrospective,” trans. Carl Springer, Faith-Life 75, nos. 4-6 & 76, nos. 2-6.
- John Ph. Koehler, The History of the Wisconsin Synod, (Sauk Rapids, MN: Sentinel Publishing for the Protes’tant Conference, 1981).
- John Ph. Koehler, A Commentary on Galatians and Paul’s Rhapsody in Christ: A Commentary on Ephesians (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2000).=
- John Ph. Koehler, August Pieper, & John Schaller, The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. I-III (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997).
- John Ph. Koehler, Kirchengeschichte (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House for the Author, 1917).
- John Ph. Koehler, “Liturgics: A Design for the Instruction of Liturgics at Wauwatosa Seminary,” trans. Carl Springer, Faith-Life (Eastertide 2013).
- Joel Fredrich, “John Philipp Koehler and the Church Fellowship Issue,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- Keith Wessel, “A Brief Introduction to the Artistic Thought and Work of John Philipp Koehler,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.