Claus Harms, Pastor, Theologian, Confessor and Renewer of the Church
Our liturgical calendar has Feasts, Festivals and Commemorations. Commemorations are intended to inspire us to research and discover some of the outstanding figures of the Faith that have gone before. One name that isn’t on our calendar, but well worth remembering, is Pastor Claus Harms. Without him it is doubtful that the LC-MS would exist.
The theology of CFW Walther (the first president of the LC-MS and remembered on our calendar on May 7) stood much closer to the Lutheran confessional awakening in Europe led by Harms than to the American religious landscape. In Europe, the nineteenth century saw confessional Lutherans rediscovering historic Lutheran doctrine from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, spurred on in 1817 by the lone voice of Pastor Claus Harms in Kiel, Germany. The doctrinally lax, rationalist Lutheran establishment called the confessionals “Neo-Lutherans” in order to lower their status. The confessionals called themselves “Old Lutherans” because they held to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, which the Rationalists had abandoned in favor of false, human doctrine. Every confessional Lutheran church body today comes from this awakening, which sent a wave of immigrants from Germany to North and South America, South Africa, and Australia, during the Prussian Union (a government effort to make all Protestant churches conform to the theology of the successors of John Calvin).
Harms was born at Fahrstedt in Schleswig, and in his youth worked in his father’s mill. At the University of Kiel he repudiated the prevailing rationalism and became a fervent Evangelical preacher, first at Lunden (1806), and then at Kiel (1816).
Harms’ forceful style made him very popular, and he did great service for his cause especially in 1817, when, on the 300th anniversary of the Reformation, he published side by side with Luther’s theses, ninety-five of his own, attacking reason as “the pope of our time” who “dismisses Christ from the altar and throws God’s word from the pulpit.”
As a musician, Harms sought to restore Lutheran hymns back to their original state. To this end, he researched the original texts from people such as Luther, Gerhardt, and others, hoping to find the original texts for the hymns his people were singing. In this he was mostly successful – the textual reforms he made still remain in hymnals today. He was unsuccessful, though, in restoring the tunes to their original states. The Renaissance-style tunes employed by the early Reformers had largely been smoothed out, such that the lively syncopations common to music of that era had been replaced by simple meters. His attempts met with early resistance, and he abandoned the project.
Besides volumes of sermons Harms published a good book on Pastoral theology (1830). He resigned his pastorate on account of blindness in 1849, and died on 1 February 1855.
Concerning Harms, Walther once said:
My Dear Friends: —
During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Rationalism rushed in upon the so-called Protestant Church with the force of a spring-tide. In the lecture halls of universities it was held up as a new and great light to young theologians, who afterwards preached it to the common people as true Christianity — Christianity purified. Thus Rationalism gradually became the dominant type of religion. The inevitable consequence was that the conviction that it is not a matter of indifference whether a person is a Lutheran or a Reformed or a Catholic vanished completely. The small remnant of sincere Christians who still believed and confessed with their mouths that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God, that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, that man is justified before God by faith in Christ alone, — these few Christians extended to each other the right hand of brotherly fellowship, like persons saved from a great shipwreck, who, having seen most of their fellow-passengers go down to a watery grave, now embrace each other with tears of joy though they had been perfect strangers before. In this state of affairs the thought had to arise in all hearts that the time had come for putting an end to the abominable church quarrels (that is what doctrinal controversies were called) and to let down the bars that divided the churches from one another. Especially the confessions, it was held, must be removed, because, like toll-gates along a highway, they hindered progress, and, to sum up, a great universal union of the churches, at least of the Protestant churches, must at last be instituted.
But, lo! what happened? In the year 1817, when this plan was to be executed, Claus Harms, in whom there was still some Lutheran blood flowing, wrote ninety-five theses against Rationalism and the union of churches, which he intended as a counterpart to the Ninety-five Theses of Luther. In these theses he said to the advocates of church union: “You purpose to make the poor hand-maid, the Lutheran Church, rich by a marriage. Do not perform the act over Luther’s grave. Life will come into his bones, and then — woe to you!” This glorious prediction was fulfilled. When the union of churches was actually put into effect in Prussia, multitudes of Lutherans suddenly awoke from their spiritual sleep, remembered that they belonged to the Lutheran Church, and declared that they would never forsake the faith of their fathers. In fact, they chose to see themselves evicted from their homes, imprisoned, and expatriated rather than consent to a union of truth with error, of the Word of God with man’s word, of the true Church with a false Church.
(C.F.W. Walther, “Law and Gospel, Thirty-second Evening Lecture,” delivered June 19, 1885)
Prayer: Almighty God, we praise You for the men and women You have sent to call the Church to its tasks and renew its life, such as You servant Pastor Harms. Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by Your Spirit, whose voices will give strength to Your Church and proclaim the reality of Your kingdom; through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Blessings in Christ
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