August Pieper (1857-1946)
Seminary Director (1929-1937)
By Thomas J. Jeske
Who was August Otto Wilhelm Pieper? His people came from the northern rim of Europe, out of a small village named Karwitz, seven miles from the sea, eighty-five miles west of present-day Gdansk (Danzig). August was born there, about midway through the nineteenth century, on September 27, 1857.
He was given his father’s name. More than a few soldiers and officers in the famous and feared Prussian Army carried that same name. Korporal August Pieper grew tired of the militaristic mindset and life; he resigned. He met a girl. Berta Lohff and her sister seem to have been orphaned and raised by an uncle. These young ladies received in that home the gift of a beautiful and strong faith in the Lord Jesus. Berta brought it into a marriage with August Bernhard Pieper. In time, her “greatly exacting, conscientious and respected” husband became mayor of his village. This ex-soldier desired peace and order so much – and opposed quarrels, even private ones, so much – that he could not commit to “the old sturdy but infinitely tender” Lutheranism of the Reformation. He wanted his children to be highly educated citizens, but he was content to let his wife be the spiritual leader of their home. And what a busy home it was. God gave these parents two daughters and six sons. Little August came in the second wave of boys. Many years later he spoke glowingly of a big sister Wilhelmine. After “Mina” came all those sons: Julius, Reinhold, and Franz; then Karl, August, and Anton.
Picture a row of children. They are sitting in church. At the front of the church is a pastor. Between the pastor and the family lies the still body of the children’s father. He has been killed. What an irony; this man who left a career in the army had been struck down somehow by a troublemaker in the village. To die doing one’s duty? What a powerful, painful picture for an eleven-year-old boy to carry in his mind, heart and will! “My father!”
“And what is to become of our family of 10 now?” Somewhere around this time the two oldest sons disappear from Karwitz and reappear in the New World. Wilhelmina, like her mother, married an ex-soldier and left the house. Back in the village, Mrs. Pieper is fifty years old, her strong and noble Prussian man is in the ground, a new widow with a fragmenting family.
Berta and four sons sailed from Schweinemunde on a paddle-wheeled steamboat. They stopped in Copenhagen to take on passengers. Racially-sparked fights forced the crew to patrol the decks with loaded revolvers and drawn swords. The Ocean Queen moved up the inside passage to dock one last time at Kristiansand, on the bottom edge of Norway. Then land fell away. Violence on board was nothing compared to the violence of the north Atlantic in late winter. Far from port, the craft, loaded with 800 passengers, repeatedly lifted her bow and slammed down. One of her great sidewheels broke on its shaft. The stricken vessel lumbered through heavy seas in circles like a wounded animal. Four boys and their mother had to wonder, “Surely God had not brought them into the dark ocean to abandon them there? Or was it that Satan could see what lay ahead for his kingdom at the hand of this little family?”
The Ocean Queen limped into New York harbor in early spring of 1870; she’d been on the high seas for a month. No Statue of Liberty yet stood on Ellis Island. There was a Missouri Synod mission near the docks that welcomed and helped people like wrung-out mother Pieper and her boys Franz, eighteen years old; Karl, fifteen; August, twelve; and Anton, ten.
A boy looks out of a train window. The Pennsylvania Railroad would have taken them west to Chicago; the Milwaukee & St. Paul, north. Widow Pieper had a relative, a Lutheran teacher, in Jefferson County, Wisconsin. She wanted her sons to continue their educations to the highest levels. Franz had already won spectacular honors in Germany. Berta’s boys entered Wisconsin Synod schools. Here August would be confirmed. Mrs. Pieper found employment as a sort of housekeeper for a fledgling school opened during the last year of the Civil War, called Northwestern University. The family lived near the Rock River bridge on the north side of Watertown.
A little bit later, the Missouri and Wisconsin synods agreed to share a seminary program. August would follow big brother Franz down to St. Louis. In the great river town they each saw the new campus of Concordia Seminary. Here they each studied under Dr. C.F.W. Walther himself. Here they heard him lecture on the proper distinction between law and gospel, on Kirche und Amt (church and ministry). The great man even asked August to proofread Latin, German, Hebrew and Greek for his dogmatics textbook. Early on, the head of the booming Missouri Synod had his eye on August’s brother as a future faculty member and much more.
August was an athlete. He loved to be outdoors. In Germany he learned to fish in a pond behind the mill where Julius was apprentice, but in America he learned to play baseball. August especially loved to pitch. One hot afternoon, he and classmates played, and they were thirsty. Next to a nearby building was a barrel that collected rainwater. They drank their fill and were refreshed.
The young man was cut down at the peak of his strength, for typhus struck the ballplayers. Symptoms of this rodent and flea borne sickness include a high fever (about 105 F), headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, and pain in the abdomen, joints and back. A spreading rash often covers the entire body except the palms of the hands and the bottoms of the feet. Patients may develop additional symptoms: bleeding into the skin, delirium, stupor, hypotension, and shock, which can cause death. August was in a coma for weeks. Once he heard a doctor in the room say that his chances of living were almost zero. He later recalled that the words fell on him like a death sentence. Another time he was aware of a professor’s voice praying Psalm 23; a man was embracing him with both arms. This boy who hung by a thread between life and death, whose own father was torn out of his life when he was only eleven, now felt a man of God take his weak hand, stroke his tear-stained cheeks, and speak Psalm 118:17 over the miserable sickbed: “I will not die, but live … and will proclaim what the Lord has done.” August did live; he would proclaim.
What a chapter of life for Mrs. Pieper and her boys since leaving home. Julius, trained in Germany as a miller, settled in Clinton, Iowa, south of Dubuque on the big river. Reinhold, trained as a botanist, became a pastor in the Wisconsin Synod, then a professor and seminary president in the Missouri Synod. Franz had also been called into the public ministry of the Wisconsin Synod, before Concordia Seminary came knocking. Their first call Franz declined. Shortly thereafter the call came again, and Dr. Walther got his man. Youngest brother Anton also became a Wisconsin Synod pastor.
August, trained in Wisconsin Synod schools like his well-known older brothers, also took a call into the parish ministry. He served in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, beginning in 1879. In 1885, he accepted a call to Menomonie, Wisconsin. He described these five years as “severe strain.”
Imagine the doubts and fear of a young pastor, who is losing his voice. What good is a shepherd who can’t speak? Finally the voice was so completely gone that the man packed up, resigning his call in 1890 and leaving for Texas and its different climate. August Pieper was a doubting young man asking the question, “Will I ever preach again?”
August Pieper was a man with a new wife. He met a certain Emma Koenig in St. Louis. She was the sister-in-law of Concordia Professor George Stoeckhardt. August and Emma were married in 1881. God would garland their home with children: Magdalene, Margaret, Gertrude, Gerhardt, Paul, Lydia and Ruth. The sons would one day follow their father into the pastoral ministry.
It was given to August to return to parish ministry at St. Marcus, Milwaukee; the growing Pieper family spent more than a decade there. A call to the seminary came in 1902. Here August was reunited with Watertown and St. Louis schoolmate John Philip Koehler. In 1903, the two would work together and with others to open an area Lutheran high school in Milwaukee. John Schaller would join the faculty a few years later. The talented Wisconsin teachers determined to bring the historical and original language context of Bible books to a place of prominence. They wanted pastors to think: “How does this specific verse fit into its paragraph, the paragraph into the chapter? How does the chapter fit into the author’s line of thought for the whole book? How does this book fit into the Old or the New Testament? How is the Holy Spirit pointing it all to Christ?”
A torrent of articles came from their pens. Differences in their temperaments and classroom approaches did not impede “a phenomenal number of essays in Quartalschrift, the theological journal of the Wisconsin Synod.” Professor Pieper alone wrote more than one hundred professional papers. He became a popular preacher for congregational festivals. Conferences and district conventions frequently asked for his emotional and moving presentations on a Bible text or topic. Pieper had the gift to move easily between the Old Testament and the New without a drop off in scholarship. He wrote a commentary on the book of Isaiah. A well-known, modern Bible scholar writes on the dedication page of his popular three-volume Isaiah commentary that August Pieper had a greater grasp on the line of thought in Isaiah than any other source.
Professor Pieper became President of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary from 1929-1937. The school had moved to Thiensville, a castle with green slate roofs on top of a hill. A grandchild remembers the seminary family traveling to David’s Star Lutheran Church in Kirchayn to dig trees out of the woods, the enormous Norway Spruce that line the dormitory parking lot are among them. The Piepers were to be the first residents of 11805 North Seminary Drive.
Sadness. Fear. Strain. Never strangers to this man, now they seemed to positively shadow him. He had already stood at the grave of a child in the 1920s, but a heavy blow fell now, here, when his Emma died. To add further bitterness to life, Professors Koehler and Pieper, gifted and even brilliant Christian men who had known each other dating back to the 1870s, found it increasingly difficult to work together. To many looking on, these bigger than life personalities seemed to irritate, provoke, question and undermine one another. While Franz Pieper’s Missouri Synod was the gold standard of Lutheranism, the Protest’ant Controversy rattled relationships throughout the small Wisconsin Synod.
What kind of a will does it require to serve 64 years in the public ministry? Pieper was one of an immigrant widow’s three sons who would serve as Lutheran seminary presidents. These were siblings who might have been emotionally crippled after their father’s death. They could have drowned in the raging north Atlantic. August faced death by the rainwater-induced coma in St. Louis. A pastor’s career might easily have been snipped off during the silent retreat to Texas. He risked losing his will for the battle when Emma left him for her new country in 1930. By God’s grace, he endured.
How fitting that August Otto Wilhelm Pieper was buried on a day with inclement weather. The 89-year-old’s funeral took place during Christmas week, 1946. Over five hundred students came through the seminary while he was a teacher. One obituary mentions, “… in spite of treacherous roads a goodly number of his former students were present to do homage to the memory of their professor.”
How fitting that there were two sermons, one from the Old Testament, “I look for your deliverance, O Lord” (Ge 49:18) and one from the New Testament, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace” (Lk 2:29). One sermon was heard in German, one in English; one was spoken by a professor, one by a pastor. He awaits the resurrection from a Milwaukee cemetery named “Wanderer’s Rest.”
For Further Reading:
- August Pieper, “Reminiscences from Professor August Pieper,” WELS Historical Institute Journal 1, no. 2 (Fall 1983): 48-56.
- August Pieper, Isaiah II, trans. Erwin E. Kowalke (Northwestern Publishing House, 1979).
- August Pieper, “The Judgment of God on the Ungodly,” A paper read before the meeting of the West-Wisconsin District held at Beaver Dam, Wis., June 15-22, 1926 (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1926).
- Max Lehninger, “Professor August Pieper,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 44, no. 1 (January 1947): 63-64.
- John Ph. Koehler, August Pieper, & John Schaller, The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. I-III (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997).
- Martin Westerhaus, “The Wauwatosa Theology: The Men and Their Message,” The Wauwatosa Theology, Vol. I (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997), 13-98.