Johann Peter Carl Meyer (1873-1948)
Seminary President (1937-1953)
By John M. Brenner
Few men have had as much impact on the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) as Professor John Meyer. He served in the public ministry for sixty-eight years, taught for forty-four years at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, and served as the president of the seminary from 1937-1953. He trained two generations of WELS pastors. He was a prolific contributor to The Northwestern Lutheran and the Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly.
Meyer’s father, also named Johann Peter Meyer, was a pioneer pastor in the Wisconsin Synod. A graduate of the mission school founded by Louis Harms in Hermannsburg, Meyer originally hoped to serve as a missionary in Africa, but he became convinced of the need for Lutheran pastors in America. In 1870 he came to the United States as an emissary of the Hermannsburg Mission Society. He served a congregation in Caledonia Township west of Appleton/Neenah-Menasha in the village of Zittau. Later he served a congregation in another Caledonia Township west of Racine. In 1872 he sent for and married Anna Meta Behnken, the aunt of Pastor John Behnken who served as president of the Missouri Synod 1935-1962.
Professor Meyer was born in 1873. He had two brothers and four sisters. All of the girls died at an early age; three of them preceded their father in death. The senior Meyer suffered from poor health for some time. He had contracted tuberculosis already in Germany and many thought he would never make it to America. His love for the pastoral ministry led him to faithful service right up until the time of his death in 1884, when son John was eleven years old. His youngest sister was only eight months old at the time.
Meyer’s mother moved the family to Watertown, where John attended Northwestern College (NWC) along with classmate and good friend John W. O. Brenner, future president of the Wisconsin Synod. He was graduated from Northwestern in 1893 and the seminary in Wauwatosa in 1896, having studied under the great Wisconsin Synod theologian, Adolf Hoenecke.
Meyer was assigned to serve the dual Wisconsin parish of St. Stephen in Beaver Dam and St. John in Fox Lake. Sometime later a congregation in the Township of Trenton asked Meyer to serve them as well. This congregation was comprised of a mixture of Lutherans and Reformed. Meyer thoroughly instructed the entire congregation before it was accepted into membership in the Wisconsin Synod.
In 1902 Meyer was called to replace John Ph. Koehler as professor and inspector (dean of students) at NWC at a time when student behavior was less than exemplary. After a year he resigned because of “nervousness” that was possibly fueled by an honest disagreement with his assistant Hans Kollar Moussa over the best way to discipline and interact with students. Following his resignation Meyer was called to teach at Dr. Martin Luther College (DMLC) in New Ulm.
His next two calls demonstrate the respect others had for his leadership and his ability to be a steady, calming influence under difficult circumstances. In 1915 he was called to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, to serve a congregation undergoing considerable turmoil. In 1918 he was called back to DMLC as president, where Adolf Ackerman had been forced to resign because of his poor judgment in participating in anti-draft rallies in southeastern Minnesota during World War I. In each case Meyer’s evangelical leadership served to calm the troubled waters.
The seminary suffered a major loss in 1920 when Director John Schaller and John Meyer’s younger brother Herman were both taken to heaven within a couple months’ time. Veteran professors August Pieper and J.P. Koehler remained. The Seminary Board called Meyer to succeed his brother and added Professor William Henkel to bring the seminary faculty to its full complement.
During his seminary career Meyer was involved in every controversy that plagued our synod. Perhaps the most troubling for Meyer was the Protes’tant Controversy. When Koehler withdrew his support from the faculty’s Gutachten of the infamous Beitz paper, Pieper and Meyer found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to oppose Koehler in a written response to the synod in convention. The synod sided with Pieper and Meyer. Many years later when seminary students finally prevailed on Meyer to speak to them about the controversy, he concluded his presentation with the plea, “Treasure the brotherhood. Treasure the brotherhood.” It was his prayer that they would never let our synod be torn apart by such a controversy again.
The Intersynodical Movement was an attempt to resolve the Election Controversy in the early twentieth century. The movement eventually produced the Chicago (Intersynodical) Theses as an attempted resolution of the doctrinal issues. Meyer was one of the Wisconsin Synod representatives on the committee. The efforts were dashed when the Missouri Synod in convention rejected the theses as inadequate for resolving the controversy. Meyer and others in the Wisconsin Synod believed that the efforts should not be dropped. Later on he revised his thinking in a remarkable public admission on the pages of the July 1936 Theologische Quartalschrift.
The undersigned, as stated before, shares the responsibility for the formulation of the Chicago Theses, and it is not a pleasant thing to admit that they are unsatisfactory, or worse. But on re-reading them after eight years since the last meeting have lapsed, I am forced in the interest of the truth to express my agreement with the above verdict of Rev. Hanssen. The subject matter of these theses having been thoroughly discussed in several meetings of the Committee and the Scripture truths having been established in the discussions, the representatives of the Synodical Conference found these very truths expressed in the proposed theses. In the light of satisfactory oral discussions they seemed to be plain statements of the truth and entirely univocal. To an outsider, who did not take part in the discussions, however, the ambiguities that nevertheless crept into the phraseology are naturally more easy to detect.
In the early 1930s there were discussions between the St. Louis and Thiensville faculties over the doctrines of church and ministry resulting in the Thiensville Theses. Meyer was an active participant in these discussions. In many ways it seemed as if the St. Louis faculty representatives conceded the main issues in the controversy to the Thiensville faculty. For instance, in an exchange of letters, Meyer asked Missourian Theodore Engelder, “What is the prescribed form of the local congregation and where is the direct Scriptural proof for it?” Engelder replied, “What external form, which according to circumstances, the congregation must assume, on that Scripture gives no directives.” Again Meyer asked, “Which form of the local congregation, with its office, did our Savior Institute?” Engelder replied, “I cannot answer.”
Meyer’s presidency spanned the first fifteen years of the Intersynodical Controversy with the Missouri Synod that resulted in a break in fellowship and the dissolution of the Synodical Conference. He provided a steady, calming influence during the heat of the controversy. He was the elder statesman on the faculty and had lived through enough history to put things into proper perspective. President Lawrenz once related that during the height of the controversy there was a discussion in the faculty room with professors ringing their hands out of concern for the future of their synod. Meyer calmly remarked, “Don’t worry. My boys will take care of them.” In other words, we have taught our students to treasure God’s Word and how to mine the truths of Scripture. They are equipped for the battle and for preserving our heritage of God’s truth.
The synod and the church at large often turned to Meyer for service and leadership. He was a vice president of the synod, served on the Standing Committee on Church Union (a forerunner of today’s Commission on Inter-Church Relations), on the Advisory Committee on Doctrinal Matters, on the synod’s Board of Education, on the Northwestern Publishing House Board, and on the Editorial Board for The Northwestern Lutheran (today’s Forward in Christ). He also served as secretary of the Synodical Conference and as a member of the Intersynodical Committee of the 1920s.
Meyer was also a prolific writer, equally at home in German and English. He could write on a scholarly level but also had the ability to put the deep truths of Scripture in language that the average Christian could grasp. He was a regular contributor to The Northwestern Lutheran. By one count he authored more than 250 articles for the Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, usually signing his contributions merely with the letter M. His students often asked him to write a dogmatics text, but Meyer declined. He did not want his students to quote him but to quote Scripture. Only two published volumes bear his name. His commentary on Second Corinthians, Ministers of Christ, was published by Northwestern Publishing House on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the seminary. The commentary is a masterpiece offering, among other things, practical advice on Christian stewardship and insight into the precious doctrine of objective or universal justification. Meyer’s Studies in the Augsburg Confession is a compilation of articles on the Augustana that appeared in The Northwestern Lutheran during the 1940s. In the 1960s seminary students compiled these articles, photographically reproduced them, and had the seminary mimeo company publish them in book form. In 1995 the work was edited and published in hardcover by Northwestern Publishing House. The book remains a textbook for first-year symbolics at the seminary and offers a simple and clear introduction to Lutheran theology.
No doubt, Meyer’s greatest impact on the Wisconsin Synod was through the two generations of pastors he trained during his years at the seminary. He taught nearly every course in the seminary curriculum including Genesis, early church history, and symbolics, but his main subjects were dogmatics and New Testament isagogics. His dogmatics notes still serve as the basis of the notes used at the seminary. His students held him in high regard for his vast knowledge and ability to quote lengthy sections of Scripture in Greek, English, German, and Latin. He lectured without notes with his Greek New Testament in one hand and a pen in the other. He instilled in his students what he had learned from Hoenecke and shared with longtime colleagues Pieper and Koehler – a love of God’s Word, an evangelical spirit, an appreciation for a thorough study of Scripture, precision of expression, and the ability to explain the truths of Scripture clearly and apply them to the lives of God’s people. His students were impressed that even in his old age he spent his evenings in study and rose early to prepare for his classes.
He was blessed with good health and physical stamina. Even in the depths of winter could be seen walking without a hat, scarf or gloves. Fifteen days before he died he preached his final sermon at St. Marcus in Milwaukee where he served as a monthly pulpit assistant for thirty-seven years. He was a faithful servant of God to the end.
Sometimes a man’s character can best be illustrated by an anecdote. When Meyer’s classmate John W.O. Brenner died, Meyer came to the funeral home to pay his respects. The funeral home was filled with many important people, but Meyer did not spend the evening talking with them. Rather he sought out Brenner’s eleven year old grandson and without introducing himself spent the evening telling the boy stories about his grandfather. His kindness will not be forgotten.
Meyer was also a faithful husband and father. In 1903 he married Lydia nee Reinke. God blessed their union with four children: Johan (Hans), Arnold, Henry, and Lydia. His wife preceded him in death in 1948. His three sons, several grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have served in the preaching and teaching ministry of the Wisconsin Synod.
Professor John Meyer was a humble Christian gentleman, a learned scholar, and a faithful minister of Christ. He served as a direct link to the first and second generation of Wisconsin Synod theologians – Hoenecke, Koehler, and Pieper – and was instrumental in passing on to our synod today their heritage of theological approach, faithfulness to Scripture, and confessional integrity.
For Further Reading
- Carl Lawrenz, “In Memoriam: Professor Joh. P. Meyer,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 62, no. 1 (January 1965): 69-71.
- Joel Gerlach, “Two Pastoral Educators: John Meyer & Carl Lawrenz,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- Craig A. Engel, “A Student’s Perspective of Professor John Peter Carl Meyer Based on the Recollections of Some of His Students,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- John P. Meyer, Ministers of Christ: A Commentary on the Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1963).
- John P. Meyer, “Unionism,” Essays on Church Fellowship (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 55-94.
- John P. Meyer, “Prayer Fellowship,” Essays on Church Fellowship (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 95-155.
- John P. Meyer, “Objective Justification,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.