Justinian Welz: Essays by an Early Prophet of Mission

Featuring Justinian Welz’s proposal to organize a “Jesus-Loving” Mission Society, and a response from his principal opponent, Johann Ursinus.

As a university student at the age of 20, in 1641, Justinian Welz wrote an attack on social injustice and political reform. [1] Following his student years he took up with bad company and spent perhaps 20 years living in a carefree and sensuous mode. When he writes again it is to tell of his repentance.

Late in 1663 Welz published A Brief Report on How a New Society is to be Established Among Orthodox Christians of the Augsburg Confession. In it Welz states his intention to found a new society for the purpose of sending missionaries abroad.[2] It was to be called the “Jesus-Loving Society.” James Scherer writes that in the spring of 1664 Welz published another tract, A Christian and Sincere Admonition to All Orthodox Christians of the Augsburg Confession Concerning a Special Society Through Which with the Help of God our Evangelical Religion May Be Spread.[3] The money needed to train and send the missionaries would be his own; but he was soon joined by another enthusiast, Johann Gichtel (1638-1710).

Welz sent his proposal to the Imperial Diet, as there did not exist a law by which citizens could start voluntary agencies (a legal advantage that William Carey enjoyed a century later in England as we wrote about here). Unfortunately for Welz, his proposal was neither rejected nor accepted by the Imperial Diet, and this prompted him to write a scathing attack on his opponents. Now even the theologians who had supported Welz turned against him. The church leaders also received an anonymous appraisal of Welz, probably written by Johann Heinrich Ursinus (1608-1667), the Lutheran church superintendent at Regensburg. Ursinus strenuously objected to Welz’s proposal. “Thus Welz suddenly found himself isolated, except for the staunch support of Gichtel. Welz then wrote a series of “Woes” and hurled them upon the clergy, scholars, and rulers of his day, but by this time he had lost the chance to influence his audience.[4]

Johann Ursinus “was considered one of the most enlightened leaders of Lutheran orthodoxy in his day.”[5] “Lutheran orthodoxy was more flexible and open to ideas of reform than in earlier years,” writes Scherer, and “Ursinus represented this reformist attitude. Yet even he failed to recognize the moment of truth in Welz’s proposal.[6] Ursinus, if he is the author of the anonymous response to Welz written in 1664, wrote,

Dear Justinian, stop dreaming, lest Satan deceive you. Stay in the land, in the calling to which God has called you; do not think beyond your ability. Be merciful; always love your neighbor as yourself. But act according to the example of the faithful Samaritan, who represents the image of love to us, who did not wander around the world to bind up all the wounded, but only those whom God set before his eyes as he went on his way.[7]

The Jesus Society sought by you has a nice appearance but is un-Christian, without command, promise, precedent, yes, clearly against God and our Savior Jesus. O Justinian! May the dear Lord God preserve us from your Jesus-Society! Those who truly love Jesus already see where Satan is leading, and because they love Jesus they guard against allowing their reason to be maddened by the roguishness and deception of men and of the devil himself![8]

Now isolated from any friends in high places, Welz sold his possessions and left his home and his native land and sailed for Surinam. In the spring of 1668 he was reliably reported to have died. There is no record of his activity in Surinam or of the cause of his death.[9] That would have been the end of his story, except for the mission theory that Welz challenged, a theory that was all “Lighthouse” and no “Flint.”

Ursinus’ objection derived from his understanding of Luther’s idea that the instrument of mission was from first to last the active Word, which, as Scherer wrote, “traversed the world and awakened faith wherever it went.”[10] The church, as the congregation gathered by the Holy Spirit throughout the world, “was sui generis a kind of missionary structure.”[11] Scherer explains Luther’s idea further:

As Christians assembled regularly for worship, they bore public testimony to the baptismal sign of the cross and gave their witness to the nations. Each Christian layman, as a priest before God, was obligated to make the name of Christ known among non-Christians. God needed no professional missionary agents.[12]

But “Luther’s great missionary insights did not, unfortunately, come to fruition in the church of his own time.”[13] In terms of mission beyond the state church, ”The priesthood of believers, despite the fine theory, became largely a dead letter. Thus we cannot speak of missions in this period as arising out of the life of local congregations, or the concern of ordinary Christians.”[14] This is because ecclesiastical leaders, such as Ursinus, opposed the plans of ordinary Christians, such as Welz, to organize any Protestant version of the structures that served the Catholic version of Christian mission so ably. Welz was probably recommending a Lutheran version of the Jesuits—The Society of Jesus—when he made his own plans to form a “Jesus-Loving Society.”

Ursinus’ objection, Bosch observed, “contains virtually all the features of orthodoxy’s interpretation of mission”[15]:

  • Obstacles to the conversion of pagans are insurmountable and the task is impos­sible.
  • God has already made himself known to all nations, in various ways.
  • The “Great Commission” was for the apostles only and it is presumption on our part to arrogate it to ourselves; the pagan nations are, in addition, impervious to the gospel since many of them are savages who have absolutely nothing human about them.

The Lutheran Church condemned Welz as a heretic and excommunicated him. [16] In those days an “excommunicated” person was no longer a Christian and would go to hell. But “driven by the passion of his convictions,” Welz left for Surinam in South America in 1666 “where he died, probably in that same year, a sacrifice to orthodox intransi­gence. No trace was left of his missionary ministry.”[17]

The Wittenberg Statement on Mission. The Lutheran Church invested considerable energy suppressing imitators of Justinian Welz from organizing mission initiatives. In 1651, just three years after the Peace of Westphalia, “the highly influential and respected Lutheran faculty of the University of Wittenberg issued a classic statement about the continuing validity of the Great Commission.” The Wittenberg Statement contained three points:

First. Only the early apostles were privileged to fulfill the Great Commission. Therefore, missions are not the responsibility of the church.

Second. No non-Christian is excused before God because of ignorance of the gospel. Those who do not believe are presumed to have rejected the gospel when it was preached to them by the apostles during New Testament times. Therefore, European Christians have no need to assume responsibility for the lostness of non-Christians.

Third. Rulers are responsible to propagate the gospel in their own territories alone. The Wittenberg fathers were satisfied that the rulers had faithfully carried out this duty.

Blincoe. What does the reader think about the The Wittenberg Statement? I think it is not biblical and should be rejected. “Luther, where are you when we need you?” Luther would have taken his stand on Scripture and plain Reason. The Wittenberg Statement is a man-made system imposed on the Bible by misguided church administrators. It is an embarrassment. In any case, the Wittenberg mission statement became the dominant view—the mission paradigm— in the Lutheran Church and many of the Reformed churches for the next 150 years.[19]

[1] Justinian Ernst von Welz, Scherer, James A., Justinian Welz: Essays by an Early Prophet of Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969). 13

[2] Ibid. 15

[3] Ibid. 16

[4] Ibid. 19

[5] Ibid. 20

[6] Ibid. 20

[7] Ibid. 102

[8] Ibid. 107

[9] Ibid. 22

[10] Ibid. 26

[11] Ibid. 26

[12] Ibid. 26

[13] Ibid. 26

[14] Ibid. 26

[15] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991). 252