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Carl Manthey Zorn, 1846-1928

Category Articles
Date November 17, 2005

When Carl Manthey Zorn died in Cleveland, Ohio, the renowned Lutheran theologian, August Pieper wrote a 73 page biography of him, saying, “When he died one of the great ones of Israel fell.” Zorn was not even a member of Pieper’s own denomination. Who was this local minister who was to remain a pastor throughout his life? Robert J. Koester has written a biographical introduction to Zorn found in the newly translated devotional commentary on the Psalms written by Zorn (725 pages, $27, Northwestern Publishing House). Koester writes as follows:

Zorn was not a complicated or profound man in a worldly sense. He was a “what you see is what you get” sort of person. His early life had stripped him of any claim to take pride in his own eloquence, or wisdom. Zorn was born in Germany in 1846. He was brought up in a Christian home. Zorn’s father was a pastor, who, like many in his day, joined the “union” church, which was a joint church body supported by the government, made up of the union of Lutheran, and Reformed congregations. The fruits of the Age of Reason, or Enlightenment, were all around. It was a time when rationalism was in full sway and when many pastors were more philosophers than shepherds. At age 15, Zorn fell from faith. His last years of high school and his college years were a time of rebellion. In spite of this, at the urging of his mother, he went to the University of Keil to study theology. This was in 1865. A year later he transferred to Erlangen. His spiritual journey continued downhill. While at Erlangen, he never attended church. More and more he estranged himself from his mother. One of Zorn’s professors at Erlangen said, “With God nothing is impossible, but for Zorn to be converted-that is impossible”.

One time when his mother encouraged him to remain faithful to Christ, Zorn replied, “Mother, I believe in God. I also believe in Jesus Christ. But I don’t believe in them as the Bible teaches. The Bible is an obsolete book. You can’t expect a nineteenth century man to believe it.”

Zorn became increasingly hostile toward Christianity but he was just as bitter against what he saw as the hypocrisy of his teachers at the university. He continued to attend lectures in theology, listening to a mix of Bible-believing teachers and unbelievers. He relates what happened one day in class: “A pious professor proposed to us that the Bible could not have been given word for word by the Holy Spirit, as the old theologians maintained. Then he said: ‘Sirs, I will give you a test from the Bible. From this you will see that the Bible could not have come from the Holy Spirit. Proverbs 11:22 says, “A beautiful wife without discipline is like a pig with a golden hair band.” Could the Holy Spirit have said that?’ Everyone laughed. Except me. I thought, ‘You yourself are a pig with a golden hair band, you who make yourself look smart at the expense of the Bible. You hypocrite!” Yet Zorn’s own life was no better. Drinking with his friends, singing at the tavern, and sword fighting remained his favorite pastimes.

Zorn graduated from the university. Without his friends and diversions and on his own, the emptiness of his life began to weigh on him. “And what about the judgment,” he wondered? At the advice of his mother, he became a private tutor. It was there that the Lord began to work on his heart and soften it.

The wife of the house where he was serving encouraged him to go to church, which he did. The next morning he went to see the pastor – he confessed that he did not really know why. Zorn started talking about various things, proudly describing his views on the foundation of religious instruction. At the right time, the pastor came over to him, put his hand on his shoulder, and said to him, “Mr. Zorn, if you really believe, and teach, and hold to these ideas, you will certainly be lost eternally and you will take others along with you.” The pastor became still and Zorn says it was as though he were “struck by thunder.” He couldn’t believe his ears. He thought: “Why you old, stupid preacher. I visited you this one time, and it will be the last.” Laughing bitterly he stood up and said: “Pastor, that’s your opinion. Would you please have my horse brought around. It’s time for me to go home.”

Some time later, Zorn, whose religious instruction was intended to prepare him for the ministry, preached his first sermon. When he was climbing up to the pulpit, the city pastor placed his hand on his shoulder and said, “Mr. Zorn, have you given any thought to what I said to you a while ago?” Zorn made it seem like he sloughed this off too, but inwardly he struggled to put down his anger. Afterward the wife of the house praised his sermon, but Zorn got no satisfaction from her compliment, for his conscience had been awakened.

Finally, the Lord convicted him of his sin and enabled him to know his Saviour. We will let Pieper explain: Zorn found no peace and no joy. One evening as he went to bed at his usual time, the Lord’s hand came over him in the most powerful way. He saw before himself his whole wasted life lying under the judgment of God. With terrifying clarity; he saw what an atrocity he was before God. Terrifying anxiety grabbed hold of him. He spent the entire night in the anxiety of doubt and unspeakable pain. He began to cry for mercy and set his mind on Christ, but his rationalism made this seem like foolishness and it warned him against crying out to God. Oh, if only it were true! But still he lay in unbelief. He lay there whimpering for God’s kindness. He spent the night like that, but in the morning he passed it off as weariness or a fit of nerves.

But the next night the experience returned, and this time he couldn’t dismiss it. He got his horse and rode to the pastor’s house. He asked the pastor if he had had any experience in this, and the pastor pointed him to Christ. But Zorn replied that he could not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God’s Messiah and his Savior from sin. The pastor said, “But salvation can be found in no other, and you would like to believe it if you could. Christ already has you; you just don’t realize it. You must try to understand more clearly who Jesus is” “How do I do that?” asked Zorn. “Read the four gospels, and read with the prayer that God would teach you to know Jesus. That is the only thing that will help you. Will you do that?” Zorn was disappointed, but said he would try. Every evening until late into the night he studied the gospels with the prayer that God would lead him to the truth. But still he found no comfort. He returned to the pastor. But the pastor stuck with his original advice, “Read the gospels, again and again. . .”

So Zorn did that. Physically he ran himself down; a sense of powerlessness came over him. Again doubts flooded into his heart. He felt himself cast to the ground by God, and he began to feel spite and hatred toward God for condemning him and others. Zorn relates what happened: “Oh God, help me relate what happened, even though it might seem unbelievable or a product of religious delusion. All at once scales fell from my eyes and the chains of my heart were broken. I knew Jesus in his divine glory as my Saviour. I believe in him-that he was my Savior, yes mine, mine! I laughed at my reason and how it had made all this seem impossible. Christ was in fact the Lord of glory, the Saviour of sinners. With a shout I jumped up, praised God, and rejoiced: Now I have found my foundation.”

The next day he visited the pastor, who in spite of everything, warned him yet again, “The flesh lusts against the Spirit.” In other words: “Don’t think, the battle is won. You have many struggles ahead.” Zorn took his warning and continued to read God’s Word. In the days ahead, his sinful nature and his human reason offered all the resistance they could, but through reading God’s Word, Zorn overcame these temptations. He said: “The power of God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, the message about Jesus, had come over me. I was still inclined to believe every imaginable error. But in the midst of my lack of understanding and my inclination to error, I stood firm on two basic truths. First, that all my sins were forgiven by God’s grace for Jesus’ sake. Second, that the Bible is God’s Word, for it had shown me my Saviour and would continue to do that. What’s more, the Bible itself claims to be God’s Word.”

Pieper is quick to point out that he records Zorn’s experience not to make it a pattern that everyone must copy, for “God has a thousand different ways of winning over our hearts to his Word.” Nevertheless, God sometimes lets a person wallow in his unbelief, rebellion, and guilt for a long time before showing him his wretchedness and then leading him to know his Savior. The Lord can use his law and gospel in such a way to impel one of his servants forward in his ministry and enable him to encourage and strengthen his flock (and in Zorn’s case also his fellow pastors) in a special way.

We must pass over the rest of Zorn’s life quickly. He decided to enter the university at Leipzig and train to be a missionary. His first assignment was to India. He remained there several years but was troubled by the fact that this mission was part of the “union” church. This had also troubled him in Leipzig where Reformed and Lutherans had united into a single church body. As Zorn’s faith continued to grow and as his knowledge of Scripture increased, he became more sensitive to the compromised position of his church. He and four other missionaries decided to leave the mission in India. During these years, Zorn had come to know about C. F. W Walther and the Missouri Synod. The idea of working in a confessional Lutheran church appealed to him. Evidently it also appealed to Walther. Zorn telegraphed Walther for help in booking passage so he and his wife could return to Germany and then come to America. Walther telegraphed him the funds.

Zorn’s first congregation in America was in Sheboygan. It was during his service there that he became friends with pastors and professors in the Wisconsin Synod. After five years he received a call to Cleveland, Ohio. He served there until he retired in 1911 and lived there with his son Carl’s family until his death in 1928. It was during his retirement years that he wrote many of his books.

For Pieper, the life of Zorn was itself theology-theology working itself out in the life of a man, and a powerful way of teaching about God’s grace and power. My opinion is that Pieper felt Zorn’s story would inspire pastors in the Wisconsin Synod to continue aspiring to a living and active faith. In any case it shows us where Pieper’s own heart lay. As he brings his biography of Zorn to an end Pieper writes:

“What was so great about Zorn that we have spent so many pages telling the story of his life? It was not his precise theological learning. It was not the offices he held. It was not his many writings. From a purely human standpoint, Zorn was a richly gifted and blessed individual. He was one among ten thousand. In his youth he was driven by sin. His sins did not lead to obvious shame and wretchedness, but to any number of misdeeds that flowed from human pride, and finally led him to revolt against his God. But just as with the apostle Paul, the Lord powerfully broke into Zorn’s life and led him to know his sins. Then he poured an uncommonly rich measure of his grace and Spirit into this individual who had a unique and special combination of natural gifts . . . and prepared him to suffer the scorn and misery he would endure for the sake of the Word. . . . In uncommon measure, Zorn was a practical outworking of Luther’s writing, “On the Freedom of the Christian Man.”

In Zorn’s commentary on the Psalms you will find three themes which were composed in his soul as he experienced God’s blessings in his own life. The first theme is a deep understanding of the guilt of sin and a simple, childlike joy in the gospel. The second is a personal realization of the divine nature and power of God’s Word and of the honour we owe, its author. The third is an understanding of the nature of the enemies of the church, which is one of the most prominent, but often overlooked, themes of the Psalms.

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