The Exceptional Justinian Welz Makes Plans to Send Missionaries to “the Regions Beyond.”

The Church Came Down Hard on Him.

Justinian Welz was a Lutheran, born in 1621 in Austria. When he was reading the Bible the zeal of the Lord came on him to organize “a society that promoted 1) the brotherhood of all Christians and 2) the mission to the heathen.”[1] The Lutheran church came down hard on him. Here is the story of Justinian Welz.

As an idealistic university student Justinian Welz had written a fiery critique against the social injustices of his day and the need for political reform.[2] But following his student years Welz took up with bad company and spent 20 years among carefree and sensuous friends. When he writes again it is to tell of his repentance and zeal for the love of God. In 1663, at the age of 42, Welz published A Brief Report on How a New Society is to be Established Among Orthodox Christians of the Augsburg Confession. It was to be called The Jesus Loving Society.

Three kinds of members would comprise this organization:[3]

  • Providers: Wealthy patrons and sponsors, including kings and princes who would subsidize the major cost of the society’s work.
  • Governors: Full-time supervisors of the society, some living abroad, some in Europe.
  • Missionaries: Volunteers to be trained and sent out. Welz compared his mission society to others which existed long ages before:

You should not, gracious reader, put the wrong construction on the term “new society,” and imagine that I am trying to bring to pass something entirely new. No, that is not my intention. Rather, I seek to renew the ancient and honorable enterprise of propagating the gospel through a society, and that I call new.[4]

Another mission enthusiast, Johann Gichtel (1638-1710), soon joined Welz. But Welz had to persuade the leaders of the Lutheran Church. To that end Welz canvassed the members of the Austrian Imperial Diet, laying the groundwork for a presentation and proposal. His proposal was neither rejected nor accepted, by which the church leaders meant to let Welz’s idea drop. But Welz would not have it; he wrote a scathing attack on his opponents, uttering a series of “Woes” upon the Lutheran clergy, scholars, and rulers of his day, and losing any chance of further influencing his opponents.[5]

One clergyman, the well-regarded theologian Johann Heinrich Ursinus,[6] wrote a reply, leaving no doubt as to the position of the Lutheran Church on the matter of Justinian Welz and his Jesus Loving Society. “Dear Justinian,” he wrote, “stop dreaming, lest Satan deceive you”:

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![7]

Blincoe: Pause. A church leader just accused the founder of The Jesus Loving Society of being led by Satan. We would be glad if those bad old days were behind us. Let’s take another run at love and respect in regard to any difference of opinions.

Ursinus advised Welz, “Stay in the land, in the calling to which God has called you.” Ursinus continued:

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.[8]

Ursinus’ objection, Bosch observed, “contains virtually all the features of orthodoxy’s interpretation of mission”[9]:

  • 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.

As for Welz’s Jesus-Loving Society, Ursinus wrote, “Such an agency is clearly un-Christian and against God and our Savior, since Jesus can tolerate no partners. All that is called for is for everyone to “mind his own door, and everything will be fine.”[10] 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.”[11] The church “was by its very nature a kind of missionary structure.”[12] Each Christian layman is a priest before God, each Christian “is obligated to make the name of Christ known among non-Christians. God needed no professional missionary agents.”[13] But “Luther’s great missionary insights did not, unfortunately, come to fruition in the church of his own time.”[14] 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.”[15]

Here is a timeline, beginning in 1517 and continuing to 1700. I counted all the notable Lutheran missionaries in the timeline, taking the data from Gerald Anderson’s massive book, The Biographical Dictionary of Christian Mission. The total number of Lutheran missionary entries in Anderson’s book: One, Peter Heyling. Heyling was the first Protestant missionary to Ethiopia. You can read about Heyling here. One Lutheran missionary sent in the first 170 years of the Reformation did not seem to bother Johann Ursinus. The genius of Justinian Welz proposal was to establish a Lutheran version of the Catholic mission organizations. The name of the mission society that Justinian Welz proposed was inspired by The Jesus Society (the Jesuits).

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 sold his possessions and 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 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.” [18] We wrote about the Wittenberg mission statement here. 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]  

Blincoe. A “Mission Ice Age” descended on the Lutheran church as soon as the Reformation began. It did not have to continue for 275 years; Justinian Welz could have set in motion the beginning of an era of mission in 1663, but Lutheran doctrine came down hard on him. “Because Martin Luther believed in the priesthood of all believers,” Mulholland explained, “he saw no need for the monasteries. Thus by closing down monasteries he dismantled a potential sending structure for Protestant missions [emphasis added].”[20] Protestantism “failed to develop a missionary structure that was reproducible and sustainable. Protestants had no structure through which to send missionaries.”[21] The “Protestant mission ice age” continued until 1792 when William Carey proposed a new operating system that would enable Christians everywhere to organize mission societies for the purpose of sending missionaries to “the regions beyond.”

[1] Welz, Justinian Welz: Essays by an Early Prophet of Mission, 15.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 41. See 63-4.

[4] Ibid., 76.

[5] Ibid., 19.

[6] Ibid. The pamphlet condemning Welz was written anonymously but is thought to have been penned by the Lutheran theologian Johann Heinrich Ursinus (d. 1667). Ursinus, writes James Scherer, “was considered one of the most enlightened leaders of Lutheran orthodoxy in his day. Yet even he failed to recognize the moment of truth in Welz’s proposal.”[6]

[7] Ibid. 107

[8] Ibid., 102.

[9] Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. 252

[10] Ibid. 252

[11] Welz, Justinian Welz: Essays by an Early Prophet of Mission, 26.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Scherer, “Lutheran Missions,” 586.

[17] Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 251-52. Welz’s name is not mentioned in the four volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation.

[18] Mulholland, “From Luther to Carey: Pietism and the Modern Missionary Movement,” 90. Welz, Justinian Welz: Essays by an Early Prophet of Mission, 28.

[19] Mulholland, “From Luther to Carey: Pietism and the Modern Missionary Movement.” 90

[20] Mulholland, “From Luther to Carey: Pietism and the Modern Missionary Movement,” 87. There were Protestant mission structures before William Carey; Carey praised as early adopters the Danish-Halle Mission and the Moravian and Wesleyan missions. Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens, 10, 35, 36.

[21] Mulholland, “From Luther to Carey: Pietism and the Modern Missionary Movement,” 87.

Next: “In This Corner . . .” Two Reformed Theologians Express Opposing Opinions on the Great Commission and the Validity of Mission Agencies.

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