The Wittenberg Project: An In-Depth Look at What It Means to Be Lutheran

October 26, 2018 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

The city

Around A.D. 1180, Flemish colonists fleeing persecution and overcrowding in Flanders settled in Eastern Germany along the River Elbe. Perhaps the wide and languid river proved a substantial source of fish while the land was fertile for harvesting and herding. For whatever reason they chose that particular spot, little could these farmers, traders, shepherds, weavers and merchants fathom the historic events that would occur in their humble village.

In spite of the fame, Wittenberg is no Rome, Paris, London or even Berlin. The population hovers around 50,000 people; its youngsters move away to larger cities where education, jobs and entertainment are abundant. It’s a German town struggling to remain relevant.

Sadly, more than 84% of the population in Wittenberg claims to be agnostic or atheist, which seems unfortunate given that 500 years ago God acted in an especially important way in the city. For quite some time it has been the hope of many throughout the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) community to plant a Lutheran presence in this famed city, including LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison.

He said, “The vision of establishing a distinctly Lutheran presence in the very cradle of the Reformation, in Wittenberg, Germany, in time for the 2017 celebration has been on my heart and mind for some time.”

Why not? Wittenberg is the birthplace of Lutheranism. But how? That opportunity arrived in 2006 with the purchase of a decrepit and abandoned four-story building.

The school

In 1564, the Old Latin School was constructed when Prince Elector August I ruled Saxony. Half of the construction cost came out of his treasury. It was built in the churchyard of St. Mary’s (the “Mother Church of the Reformation”). Luther preached more sermons in St. Mary’s than any other church. The school is also close to the Castle Church, where he nailed the 95 Theses. This is the town where Luther spent his entire career as a reformer.

For 250 years the Old Latin School was used to train young men for the university, with a specific focus on the Lutheran faith. Since then the building was used as a printing shop, factory and even a makeshift hospital during Napoleon’s occupation of the town in 1813. The second two floors were added in 1828, but by the 20th century, after decades of neglect, it was a forsaken structure.

“It was a wreck. There was stuff all over. Old office furniture that had been left behind. We had a lot of rotten timbers that had to be replaced, all the windows, too,” said Rev. Michael Kumm, chairman of the International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg (ILSW).

The Old Latin School – Wittenberg, Germany


The plan

That all changed in 2006 when the Central Illinois District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) purchased the building for the price of back taxes plus one euro. Next, the relationship that had been developing between the LCMS, Germany’s Independent Evangelical-Lutheran Church (known as the SELK, abbreviated form of Selbständige Evangelish-Lutherische Kirche) and Concordia Publishing House coalesced into the ILSW, a German non-profit corporation focused on restoring the Old Latin School. The project was called “The Wittenberg Project.”

Support for the project was overwhelming, including one anonymous donor who contributed a $1 million matching grant. In addition, a line of credit loan from Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) allowed for continued construction planning. “Without LCEF involvement, the final price tag for the project would have been much higher,” LCMS Mission Advancement & Mission Advocate Executive Director Mark Hofman said in a recent article by Reporter Online. He added that the line of credit also helped to pay renovation costs as contributions or pledges were secured. The line of credit loan is another example of how LCEF investments are helping build ministry throughout the LCMS.

The purpose

In May 2015, after years of renovation work—such as a new roof, windows, stucco and paint on the outside; new subfloors, drywall, plaster, wires and plumbing on the inside—the Old Latin School was dedicated to God’s glory and the service of the Gospel.

“There was an immense amount of support in every sense of the word,” said Kristin Lange, managing director of the International Lutheran Center and Old Latin School. “That this was purchased and renovated entirely with free will donations is almost inconceivable to many Germans.”

The newly renovated Old Latin School features a chapel (with a sacristy); a lecture hall; classrooms; a bookstore; housing for students, scholars, teachers, researchers and tourists; a small library; and two offices. Visitors can stay for three hours, three days, three weeks or even longer.

Its central location puts it in the highest pedestrian traffic areas. “Now if you can imagine an old, dilapidated, empty building sitting next to one of your town’s two most-visited attractions,” Lange said, “you can imagine the gratitude Wittenberg has that this is renovated and in use again!”

In addition, Lange said the renovation has allowed them to connect with people who have a history with the school. “Countless women who worked in the building during the German Democratic Republic era when it was a children’s clothing factory have come in for the first time in decades, and looked around in amazement, recalling where their sewing station used to be and how it looked then.”

“Our hope,” Lange said, “is that these are positive encounters not only with a piece of their town history but with Christianity.”

The Old Latin School is also an opportunity to help people learn what it means to be Lutheran by immersing oneself in Luther’s world. It’s an opportunity to experience the streets, buildings and rooms where critical events that turned Europe upside down happened. And it’s an opportunity to share the Gospel.

The future

Last year, during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Wittenberg was flushed with visitors. It was an ideal time to have a distinctly Lutheran presence in a historic building like the Old Latin School. Now the next phase of The Wittenberg Project begins: taking the Good News to our unchurched neighbors, within the city limits and beyond. In fact, the ILSW hopes to plant a SELK congregation in Wittenberg one day.

Take some time today to pray. Pray for Lange, ILSW, the SELK and that the call to faith in Christ will be heard and heeded by thousands in and around Wittenberg.

Visit the Old Latin School to learn more about tours, lodging and events at the Old Latin School.

Originally appeared in the 2017 fall issue of LCEF’s official magazine, Interest Time.

Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.