Ordination and WordAlone

by Jim Kittelson (Professor of Reformation history, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

February, 2000

How did the earliest Lutherans ordain?  Jim Kittelson provides a never-before-translated look at the process in this short note from February 2000.

The question of how a Wordalone seminary graduate gets ordained is important and needs to be considered now. It is also relatively easy if we were to choose the models of Wittenberg, Saxony, and most of Lutheran Germany during the entirety of the 16th century and beyond.

The basis for the following very brief description of how to ordain in this fashion comes from two weeks of work with the manuscripts at the City Archive and the City Church Archive in Wittenberg that I completed between January 7 and January 20 of this year. Three versions (there are others) of one of the relevant texts may be found in WA 38: 423-433. It exists in Early New High German and in Latin. There is no English translation. The same is true of the other manuscripts, but these have no modern editions.

To continue with the order for ordination that is in WA 38, the process began by the candidate's passing an examination by the theological faculty of Wittenberg or, later, Leipzig. Then, in an ordinary worship service, the candidate pledged to be true to the Confessions and the prescriptions in Acts 20:17ff and Timothy 3:1. Then, with the laying on of hands, sometimes by a named "ordinator" more commonly by the elders of the congregation that issued the call, the Lord's Prayer was recited, often with added petitions appropriate to time and place, and concluded with the benediction. The Lord's Supper was optional, depending on the version.

Two points need to be made:

  1. The surrounding ms. documentation makes it clear that there was tremendous variety in the process (Note that Article 7 was a matter of practice as well as formal confession) and even in the terms used to designate the ordinand.
  2. The only constant, the only necessity was passing the examination on doctrine and confessions before the theological faculty or its designees from its number.

In addition, it should be observed that the "ordinator" was not an official of the church or of the prince but a practicing member of the clergy. To put a point on it, the "Superintendent" of the territorial church had little or nothing to do with the process.

I offer the above for the benefit of whoever might find the information useful. In the course of using it, please remember that I have a certain proprietary interest (call it sweat equity) at stake here and do intend to publish my findings. In addition, I need time to fill out the story with other sources that are available to me here at the Luther Seminary Library and the Lutheran Brotherhood Foundation Reformation Research Program. Hence, there is for the present a limit to the number of additional questions that I will entertain. I merely thought that this much would be useful and appropriate now.