Carl Manthey-Zorn was born March 18, 1846 in Sterup, Germany, not far from the border of Denmark. His father, Hans Zorn, was a Lutheran pastor and his mother, Lina Manthey, was from a Danish noble family (when Carl was born his Manthey grandfather wanted him to have his surname, since he himself had no sons). Carl received a good German education as a child while he lived in Hochspeyer and Odernheim, in western Germany. Despite his confirmation and upbringing in a pastor’s household, religion did not have a big impact on him at this time in his life.
At the age of 15 he attended the gymnasium in Kreuznach, where his already weak faith was attacked from all around. The rationalism of the 18th century had infiltrated the educational system in Germany, and even among Lutheran and Reformed pastors there were few who had not in some way succumbed to “enlightened” thinking. Zorn’s classmates insulted, isolated, and even hazed Zorn, who was physically weak and prone to fainting. One of his professors even humiliated and mocked him in public for his faith. In 1862, after his father had passed away, his mother and he moved to Erlangen, where he continued his education. The deterioration of his faith, which had already begun in Kreuznach, intensified as he spent much of his time with immoral, liberal-minded people.
In 1865, at the request of his mother, who constantly expressed her concern for his spiritual condition and urged him to abandon his wild living, Zorn went to the University of Kiel to study theology. But even this change was not enough to deter him from a life of immorality and partying. If anything, his university years here, and later at Erlangen, were the most corrupt times of his life. He had no interest in his classes and frequently skipped, he joined student fraternities (Burschenschaften), took up dueling, and never attended church—and his conscience was all the while undisturbed. Zorn later said of this period of his life, “The path on which I wandered as a poor, young man led more and more downhill” (Pieper, 238).
The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 brought Zorn to the University of Erlangen to continue his theological education. His relationship with his mother became even more strained as she continued to plead with him to remain faithful to Christ. He once told her, “Mother, I believe in God. I also believe in Jesus Christ, but not as the Bible teaches about him. The Bible is an antiquated book. You can’t expect that I, a man of the 19th century, should believe it” (Pieper, 239). Zorn was also deeply troubled by the hypocrisy he perceived among many Lutherans. At Erlangen Zorn studied under some of the most famous German Lutherans of his time, Luthardt, Kahnis, Delitzsch, Thomasius, and others. But Zorn was convinced that none of them fully and earnestly believed what they confessed. He had no problem when they taught that the Bible was not the Word of God, but, he reasoned, they should not also say it was inspired and teach its doctrines.
Once Zorn completed his university education, his extravagant lifestyle started to catch up with him. He became disgusted with the way he lived and found no purpose in his life, just emptiness and despair. He seriously considered suicide, but was too afraid of the judgment he knew he would face. His mother implored him to return to Christ, but he said that he did not know how. Without resolving his issues, he eventually decided to become a tutor for the children of a wealthy family in Schwerin, in northeastern Germany.
Although to Zorn things seemed bleak and hopeless, God in his mercy did not abandon him—but that did not mean his path back to faith in Christ would be easy. Zorn had to confront the sin he had earlier embraced and loved, and only when the hammer of God’s law came down and crushed him was he able to find God’s grace in Christ his Savior. As August Pieper notes about Zorn’s conversion, “God has a thousand different ways to win hearts through the Word” (Pieper, 245). The mother of the children he was tutoring encouraged him to go to church, and he did. He went to the local Lutheran church and spoke with the pastor, who already knew Zorn’s past. After some casual conversation the pastor asked him about the religious instruction he gave the children. Zorn told him what he believed about religion and all the great things he was teaching the children, to which the pastor replied: “If you really believe and teach and remain in this, then you will certainly be lost in eternal destruction and drag others down with you.” Zorn was, as he described it, “struck by thunder”—he could not believe his ears! He thought to himself “You old, stupid, rude pastor! I came to you once, and never again!” But all he said to the pastor was that it was a difference of opinion, and asked for his horse to leave (Pieper, 242).
The next attack on Zorn’s hard shell came when he gave his first sermon. Before he went into the pulpit, the pastor reminded him of what he had said to him earlier, and Zorn’s conscience was struck again. He gave him sermon (which Pieper called “pure straw”), and the mother of the children even praised it, but his conscience was beginning to wake up, and peace of mind evaded him.
One night the guilt of his sinfulness became too much for him and “with terrifying clarity he saw that he was an atrocity before God” (Pieper, 243). Overcome with his anxiety, he called out to God for mercy, but his reason resisted and told him it was utter foolishness to do so. This struggle continued the whole night, until he woke up and dismissed it as over exhaustion. The next night the same feelings overtook him, but this time he went to his pastor for help. He pointed Zorn to Christ and told him to pray and read the gospels over and over. Zorn did this daily to the point of exhaustion but found that it was not working. His doubt and fear began to turn into hatred for God’s condemnation, when, as Zorn describes it, “suddenly scales fell from my eyes and chains from my heart. Then I knew Jesus in his divine glory as Savior. Then I believed in him, that he was my Savior. I laughed at my reason and at how it all seemed impossible: he was truly the Lord of glory, the Savior of sinners. With a shout I jumped up, praised God and rejoiced: Now I have found my foundation” (Pieper, 244).
After his conversion, Zorn stuck with the pastor’s advice and dug deeply into the Bible, Luther’s Small Catechism and the Confessions. He was reconciled with his mother and they rejoiced in his renewed faith, but now Zorn was unsure of what course to take next. He came into contact with a Pastor Platz in the town of Serrahn, who recommended that he go to the University of Leipzig and the mission society there. Platz discouraged him from becoming a parish pastor in his homeland, because doctrinal discipline was weak in almost all of Germany. Zorn was of the same opinion and knew that it would be difficult for him to avoid interacting with the hypocritical pastors he disdained so much.
The change in Zorn’s life after his return to God is remarkable. He now was fully devoted to God’s Word and he showed amazing zeal in his studies. He gained the respect of everyone at Leipzig and forged lifelong friendships there, in particular with Director Hardeland. It was also during this time that he met his future wife, Marie Hengstenberg, whose uncle was Professor E. W. Hengstenberg of Berlin. He met her while visiting his mother on Christmas vacation in Erlangen. As Zorn instructed her in Luther’s Small Catechism through correspondence, she began to recognize the problems with her own Reformed faith (she was the daughter of a Reformed pastor) and wanted to become Lutheran deaconess. Instead, Carl and Marie unintentionally fell in love and were engaged and later married.
In 1871 Zorn was ordained and sent to India to serve as a missionary. Their mission at that time was centered in the southeastern part of India, with about 20 missionaries at a dozen sites. Zorn was assigned to the district of Pudukottai, which had about 350,000 inhabitants. It was quite a challenge for Zorn to adjust to the tropical climate, the monsoons, and the dangerous wildlife, but Zorn grew to love India and its people. The Lord blessed his ministry there in a number of ways. He mastered the complex regional language of Tamil and delivered his first sermon in it after seven months. He was loved and respected by everyone in Pudukottai, and he even became acquainted with the local king. Zorn had a tough time reaching out to the natives who were brought up to believe in false, idolatrous gods. Often his efforts were in vain and the people refused to listen to him. Yet overall Zorn conducted a successful ministry as a missionary and considered himself blessed that he had the privilege to preach God’s Word even when he did not see clear results.
Zorn’s stay in India would not last, however. Zorn and several of the missionaries had developed a close bond as they studied together God’s Word, Luther and the Confessions. As they did so they became ever aware of the unionistic tendencies among their fellow missionaries and the mission society. At a conference of missionaries in 1874 Zorn read a paper entitled “Our Position on our Confession” and was met with fierce opposition. Zorn had heard of Walther and agreed with his doctrinal stance position, so he sent his paper to him for critique. Walther’s response was that he agreed with what he said, but not how he said it. His two main criticisms were that Zorn was too abstract. Theologians, as ones who handled the truth of Scripture on which man’s salvation depended, needed to speak more clearly and concretely than anyone else. His points were also based primarily on long, logical, man-made reasoning rather than being derived directly from Scripture (Pieper, 34).
Zorn and his friends were encouraged by Walther’s response and faced their opponents with confidence. They earnestly sought to remain in India with the mission, but when the other missionaries and leaders in Leipzig refused to give up their unionism, they publicly declared their support of Walther and his position. They could not in good conscience remain in fellowship with the Mission Society and had no other choice but to leave. Zorn especially took the split difficultly, because he was so close with Director Hardeland and was unsure what would happen to his family. But he and Director Hardeland reconciled just before he left, and Zorn’s wife encouraged him to trust in God to watch over them, which he did—soon after Zorn decided to leave, Walther sent a telegram asking him if he needed money to reach America.
In April of 1876 Zorn and three other missionaries returned to Germany. Zorn went to Erlangen and was coldly received by everyone but his relatives and a few others—he knew for certain now that he should go to America and join the Missouri Synod. After reaching New York on July 4, he made his way to the Synod’s Northwestern District Convention in Minneapolis, where he personally met Walther. His next stop was Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where he would serve his first call as a parish pastor in the Missouri Synod.
Zorn faced a number of obstacles and even hostility as he began his ministry in America. One of the problems was that Zorn had a personality that took some getting used to. He was very personable, down-to-earth, cheerful, and even liked to joke around, but he was also very blunt and straightforward. If he disagreed he was not afraid to make it known, and he never said “yes” just to please anyone. His preaching was also a concern for some. Ludwig Fuerbringer recalls that as a youth he more than once heard Zorn’s preaching style being discussed in pastors’ homes. This European’s preaching methods were unfamiliar and strange, but in time he actually became quite popular as a preacher.
Another issue was the building of a youth center for the people of his congregation. It had a reading room, a gymnastics room, and even a bowling alley, and in general it was a place for the people of his congregation to enjoy fellowship. Yet some pastors disapproved of the building and at the next conference they attacked him for building it, especially the bowling alley, which, according to Zorn, they exaggerated as being too worldly (Pieper, 90).
Some accused Zorn of heresy and wondered why this Indian missionary with unsound doctrine had been allowed in. He did in fact make a couple of statements in his sermons that he probably should have worded differently—one dealing with Christ’s being forsaken by God, and the other with the state of the soul between death and resurrection. Zorn was in need of help and turned to Walther for guidance. Walther found no real heresy in Zorn, but he did admonish him to sharpen his way of speaking and learn to word his phrasing better. As for the youth center, Walther said it was not the best idea, but it was a matter for him and his congregation, not for the other pastors to get involved in. Walther’s approval and support of Zorn was a large factor in easing the tension of the controversies that had arisen in his first years of ministry.
Over time Zorn gained the acceptance and respect of everyone in the Missouri Synod. He became most well-known for his literary activity. He wrote numerous articles for Missouri publications and over 60 books, mostly devotional works and commentaries. Zorn also was close with many Wisconsin Synod pastors and members as well. He became friends with the professors at the Wisconsin Synod seminary and even went to speak to the students there on occasion. He wrote articles for the Theologische Quartalschrift (today Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly) and even had some of his books published through the Wisconsin Synod, including Der Heiland (The Savior, which Pieper calls his best work), Das Gesetz (The Law), and Christenfragen (Christian Questions). Zorn also joined the side of Walther and Hoenecke in the election controversy.
In 1881, after five years in Sheboygan, Zorn accepted a call to Cleveland, Ohio, where he served until his retirement in 1911. Although he could have continued serving as a pastor long after this time, he told his congregation that once he reached age 65 it would be time to let someone younger take over, and he kept his word. His wife died in 1907, and after his retirement he lived with his son Carl in East Cleveland for the remainder of his life. On June 29, 1928 he suffered a stroke, and on July 12, at the age of 82, he entered into eternal glory. He had nine children, one of whom entered the ministry, and two of his grandsons went on to become missionaries in India like their grandfather.
Carl Manthey-Zorn may not have been a distinguished systematic theologian, an influential synodical leader, or even a name one hears much in the history of Lutheranism in America. But it is clear that anyone who learns about his life and takes the time to read some of his writings will not regret it. They reveal the fruit of thorough devotion to the study of Scripture and a diligence to serve God’s people that is rare indeed. His life is a clear example of the amazing ways in which God works to bring people to faith and to use them as instruments for his glorious purpose.
Fuerbringer, Ludwig. “Erinnerungen an Dr. C.M. Zorn.” Der Lutheraner. 84.17 (August 14, 1928): 290-291.
Pieper, August. “Carl Manthey-Zorn.” Theologische Quartalschrift. 25.4 (October 1928): 230-253; 26.1 (January 1929): 16-39; 26.2 (April 1929): 81-105.
Zorn, C.M. The Psalms: A Devotional Commentary. Translated by John F. Sullivan. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Northwestern Publishing House, 2005.