Lutherans Making a World of Difference: Missionary on Two Continents

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When Joy and I made our first trip to India in 2009, to visit our companion synod the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC), we noticed how intentional our Indian sisters and brothers were about remembering their heritage as Lutheran Christians. Predictably, we visited memorials to Martin Luther, the Great Reformer of the 16th century.

But we were also exposed to a historical personality who was unfamiliar to us: the Rev. John Christian Frederick Heyer (1793-1873) whom the AELC members revered as the founder of their church. Both in 2009 and again in 2012 when nineteen NW MN Synod folks went to India, we posed by plaques with busts of “Father Heyer”—an American who was much beloved in far-off India.

This summer I read a book entitled They Called Him Father: The Life Story of John Christian Frederick Heyer by E. Theodore Bachmann (Muhlenberg Press, 1942). To my surprise, this book was a veritable a “page-turner” that was hard to put down. Think of this August column as something of a book report regarding this world-changing Lutheran, J.C. F. Heyer.

Heyer’s Early Years

Born in Helmstedt, Germany in 1793, young “Fritz” Heyer was sent to America in 1807 to be apprenticed to his uncle, a furrier in Philadelphia. At that time Lutheranism had already been planted in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, thanks to the earlier missionary work of the colonial pastor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg.

Although Heyer had come to America to learn the trade of making hats from beaver pelts, he began to sense a calling into pastoral ministry. Upon joining Zion Lutheran Church, he fell under the influence of its pastor Justus Henry Christian Helmuth (1745-1825) who encouraged Heyer to serve the church.

As was the practice at that time (there were yet no Lutheran seminaries in America) Pastor Helmuth apprenticed Heyer into ministry. Young “Fritz” preached his first sermon in 1813, and two years later—at Helmuth’s urging–traveled back to German for formal theological studies at the University of Goettingen.

Upon returning to America late in 1816, Heyer met and married a young widow, Mary Webb Gash, was accepted the by Ministerium of Pennsylvania (the first “synod” which had been founded by Muhlenberg) as a candidate for ministry, and began to preach in the “wilds” of western Pennsylvania. By 1820 he was ordained and began a ministerial career that would continue for over five decades.

Globe-Trotting Missionary

During his 53 years of ministry Heyer wore many hats: parish pastor, synodical leader, writer for church publications, educator, medical doctor, and seminary chaplain. But through it all his primary role was that of missionary/church planter.

Not unlike the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts, we could describe J.C.F. Heyer’s life as a succession of missionary journeys alternating between two countries—the United States and India:

  • 1820-1840: Domestic missionary on the “frontier” of western Pennsylvania and adjacent states.  During this period he was instrumental in founding not only congregations but Sunday Schools that not only inculcated Christianity but also provided basic education to frontier children—especially reading and writing.
  • 1841-45 and 1847-1857 (two journeys): Global missionary to India, specifically the Telegu-speaking region known today as the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. July 31, 1842–the day that Heyer arrived in the city of Guntur (which is still the headquarters of the AELC)–is still observed as the day the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church was established.
  • 1857-1869: Domestic missionary on the “frontier” of the new state of Minnesota. In addition to founding a congregation in St Paul, Heyer planted other faith communities in southeastern Minnesota. During his decade+ in Minnesota, he ministered to German immigrants caught up in the Dakota-Settlers War of 1862.
  • 1869-1873: Global missionary to India (his third trip, undertaken when Heyer was 77 years old), specifically to revive the mission station in Rajahmundry. Upon returning to the United States in 1871 Heyer tried to retire, but was called to serve as chaplain and “housefather” at the new Lutheran Theological Seminary in Phildadelphia. Following a short illness he died in Philadelphia on November 7, 1873 and was buried beside his wife in the cemetery of one of the congregations he founded in Somerset, Pennsylvania.

How Did One Missionary Accomplish So Much?

During his half-century of ministry J.C.F. Heyer accomplished an amazing amount of “kingdom work” both in America and India. Case in point: the AELC, our companion synod which was founded by “Father” Heyer, has some 3 million members and 5000 congregations. What factors enabled him to be so effective and fruitful?

First, he was endowed with fabulous health, energy and resiliency. In the era when Heyer lived, the average life-span was in the mid-30s; yet he lived to the ripe old age of 80. He coped with the dangers and health risks of life both in frontier America and tropical India.

Second, Heyer had a life-long wanderlust. He resisted settling down in any one place for long. He was always eager to explore new territory and meet new people. This character trait suited him well for missionary activity in the 19th century. What’s more, Heyer’s wife Mary (who bore him 6 children!) supported him in his missionary travels, willingly keeping the home fires burning at their home in Somerset, PA.

Third, he was highly intelligent with a special knack for learning languages. Having immigrated to the United States as a teenager, he mastered English so well that one could barely detect his German accent. He also learned the Telegu language spoken in the Andhra Pradesh region of India rather quickly and thoroughly—to the point that he could not only speak and understand the language, but could also translate English documents (e.g. hymnals) into Telegu.

Fourth, Heyer had a contagious personality, a love for people, and a capacity to preach and teach in ways that others found compelling. Nowadays we might say that Heyer had a very high “EQ” or emotional intelligence.

Fifth, he practiced a holistic approach to his church-planting, missionary work. That is, he tirelessly old the story of Jesus in ways that called forth Christian faith—while also attending to his hearers’ needs for physical health (he was a medical doctor) and education. To this day the AELC continues Heyer’s practice of establishing both congregations and schools in India.

Sixth, he displayed an ecumenical, cooperative spirit. Though throughout his life Heyer served at the behest of the Lutherans of Pennsylvania, he did not hesitate to join forces with Anglicans and other Protestants. Although Heyer participated in the theological debates within the Lutheran church of his era, he steered his ministry between the extremes of theological progressivism and theological conservatism. Example: he participated in the founding of Gettysburg Seminary in 1826 and concluded his career in 1871 at its rival seminary in Philadelphia—two ELCA seminaries which finally have come together in 2017 as the United Lutheran Seminary.

Seventh, Heyer had great gifts for organization, administration and fund-raising. He carried out his church-planting, border-crossing missionary work at a time before North American Lutherans were highly organized. When one reads his biography, it seems miraculous that this man who led a hand-to-mouth existence for 80 years still managed to bequeath (in 1873) a $7,000 estate to his heirs as well as to beloved institutions of the Lutheran church.

Eighth, and most importantly, Heyer never wavered in his sense that God had called him to expend himself in proclaiming the Gospel and building up Christ’s church. Late in his life, when the news came to him that the beleaguered Lutheran mission station in Rajahmundry, India, might need to be handed over to the Church Missionary Society of the Anglican Church, Heyer made a dramatic appeal to the convention of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania: “Twelve thousand miles lie between us and our objective. But let no distance alarm us. If there is someone else who would be more capable of restoring order in our Rajahmundry station, may he be sent forth by this Ministerium. But if not, then, Brethren, I repeat, I am ready go to….[reaching down to pick up his ever-present suitcase] ‘I am ready now!’”[1]

For Reflection and Discussion:

  • In our Lutheran liturgical calendar we commemorate J.C.F. Heyer on November 7. Here is a prayer that is appropriate for remembering him: “God of grace and might, we praise you for your servant John Christian Frederick Heyer, whom you called to preach the Gospel in the United States and in India. Raise up, we pray, in this and every land, heralds and evangelists of your kingdom, that the world may know the immeasurable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. [2]
  • Which of J.C.F. Heyer’s personal traits and commitments are still evident in our church today? Which of Heyer’s traits and commitments could we use, in fuller measure?

How are you and your congregation involved in the global mission of the ELCA? How could you and your congregation deepen your involvement?


Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.


[1] Bachmann, They Called Him Father, pp. 303-304.