Professor Hermann Sasse came to Australia in 1949 with the post-war migrant wave. Notwithstanding his call to lecture in Church History at Immanuel Seminary, he was still to some extent a refugee—with push factors perhaps stronger than the pull factor.
Born in July 1895, Hermann Sasse began theological studies at the University of Berlin in 1913. War interrupted—or as he would say, was part of and deepened—his theological training; in 1916 he was sent to fight in the trenches of France.
[Sasse] was nominated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer to draft a Lutheran statement of confession, responding to the rising havoc of Nazism … It bravely included statements defending the Jews against rampant rising anti-Semitism.
As a young pastor at Oranienburg (1921) and later as Sozialpfarrer for Berlin, he knew the plight of ordinary people amid post-war economic depression.
Alongside his pastoral work Sasse took his licentiate (equivalent to a doctorate) in New Testament studies and then studied for a year at Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut, USA in 1925/26.
In 1927 Hermann Sasse participated in the first world conference on Faith and Order at Lausanne. The great confessional families of Christendom—except Rome—were represented, and Sasse edited the 640 pages of documents, also writing an 80-page introduction, which provided the first history of the ecumenical movement to that point. He contributed to English/German theological forums and publications for the rest of his life.
In April 1933, after Hitler had seized power on 31 January, Sasse moved from his pastoral work in Berlin to the theology faculty at Erlangen University, having warned church and world (in 1932) how impossible the Nazi Party official platform was for Christians. This platform required churches not to offend ‘the German race’s sense of decency and morality’. Sasse, however, warned that ‘the Protestant church’s doctrine constitutes a deliberate, permanent insult to the “German race’s sense of decency and morality”’, and: ‘We are not much interested in whether the Party gives its support to Christianity, but we would like to know whether the church is to be permitted to preach the gospel in the Third Reich without let or hindrance’.
Sasse remained anti-Nazi. Most remarkably, he stayed at Erlangen for the twelve years of the Hitler regime, aware that in every Church History class and every preaching service he gave, a spy of the Party lurked. He was protected by the dean of faculty, Professor Werner Elert and also had some friends in military circles.
In Berlin Sasse had belonged to a germ cell of the Confessing Church movement, with people like Gerhard Jacobi and Martin Niemoeller. About the time of his transfer to Erlangen he was nominated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer to draft a Lutheran statement of confession, responding to the rising havoc of Nazism and the so-called German Christian Movement (Deutsche Christen, who were nationalists and ready to support Nazism). So the Bethel Confession was drafted. It bravely included statements defending the Jews against rampant, rising anti-Semitism. But this draft was submitted to other theologians and quickly watered down to such a degree that neither Bonhoeffer nor Sasse would attach their names to it.
By then the Barmen Statement was in the offing, a theological declaration of the growing, dissenting Confessing Church, sponsored by Reformed theologian Karl Barth, but also worked on by Lutherans, including Professor Sasse. Barmen, in 1934, was a synod-like assembly of 140 Christians from the main sections of German Protestantism: Lutheran, Union and Reformed. Wanting the Declaration to carry the full weight of their churches, a good number of the conference saw it as a unifying confessional basis for a ‘generic Protestantism’, overarching old divisions.
Hermann Sasse’s sharp questions as to the how, what and wherefore of such a compromising ‘unionism’ were not given due regard. He left the assembly the morning before the enthusiastic acceptance of the Declaration. Barmen then came to be treated as a church-uniting document when, in 1948, the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKiD) was constituted. Sasse joined the small Lutheran Free Church in protest. In 1949 he accepted a call to teach in the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia, under the leadership of his former student, Dr Siegfried Hebart, principal at Immanuel Seminary.
Dr Sasse crossed the equator with no intention to retire from teaching or writing. From 1948 to 1969 he wrote
a series of Briefe an Lutherischen Pastoren (Letters to Lutheran Pastors). These were 62 duplicated full-length essays, written every eight weeks or so and sent to Lutheran clergy across the world. Written in German, they were published almost immediately in English. Thus Sasse did not shrink into a little Adelaide Lutheran ghetto but maintained his worldwide interest in the full ecumenical spectrum of Christendom.
Sasse was an eager contributor to union negotiations between the two Australian Lutheran synods, putting his theological weight into bridging the gap between them. In letters to his Vatican friend, Stephano Schmidt SJ (in 1969) he wrote of the LCA union as ‘the one success of my ecumenical efforts … after 40 years in the [ecumenical] movement’.
A productive author, Sasse also wrote many other letters; copies of a large number of these are held by Lutheran Archives. He retired from Luther Seminary in 1969 and died in 1976 in North Adelaide, aged 81 years.
Rev Dr Maurice Schild is a former student of Hermann Sasse and succeeded him as lecturer in Church History at Luther Seminary from 1970 until 2000. This article is condensed from Dr Schild’s 2014 Fritzsche Oration, Dr Hermann Sasse, Lutheran theologian.