William Passavant was a Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor who left an uncommonly rich legacy of service. He was driven by a desire to see the consequences of the Gospel worked out in practical ways in the lives of people in need. For Passavant, the church’s commitment to the Gospel must not be spiritual only. It must be visible. For him, it was essential that Gospel principles were worked out in clear missionary actions.
Passavant was a parish pastor at heart and served in that capacity for much of his ministry even while pursuing other duties. Passavant was the founder of numerous hospitals, orphanages, and other charitable organizations, principally in Western Pennsylvania, but the reach of his efforts extended from Boston and New York in the east to Chicago and Milwaukee in the mid-west. Many of these institutions continue to this day.
On a visit to Germany, Passavant came into contact with Theodor Fliedner, the founder of the reconstituted deaconess movement amount German Lutherans, and in 1849 he invited Fliedner to come to Pittsburgh and bring four of his deaconesses to serve in the hospital there. A year later, in 1850, the first American Lutheran deaconess was consecrated by Passavant and thus began the renewed deaconess movement among American Lutherans.
Passavant also knew the importance of education and was the founder of a number of church schools scattered across the mid-west, principal among these being Thiel College, a Lutheran-affiliated college in Greenville, Pennsylvania.
In addition to his charitable, philanthropic, and education work, and his guidance of the early years of the deaconess movement, Passavant was also a cutting-edge communicator of his time. He founded two church newspapers, The Missionary and the Workman, both designed to interpret the church’s mission, in consonance with the Lutheran confessions, for the purpose of provoking the desire of the faithful toward loving service to those in need without concern for race, color, creed, or national origin. Later generations of Lutheran communicators look to Passavant as one of the trailblazers of their vocation. Passavant died on January 3, 1894.
A commitment to a Gospel that was not only spiritual but also carried out in missionary actions. Provoking the desire of the faithful toward loving service without concern for race, color creed or national origin…. It strikes me that these are concepts we are still struggling with today right here at Grace, New Market. We’ve been talking about the need to be a presence in our community (missionary actions), a need to be a welcoming open doored church (without concern for race, color creed or national origin). But HOW??? That’s a really big question. How do we become missionaries without leaving our homes? Could it be as simple as being open to new concepts? As simple as an idea that makes us a little uncomfortable but that might spread the word that Grace Church is here and that we are waiting to welcome anyone who walks in our door. Can we put the messages that we receive from the Gospel into a missionary practice of spreading our love of God and of each other to everyone we meet? I once read that going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car. It is action, folks! Actions make us Christians. We don’t need to start hospitals or publish newspapers. We just need to be open to walking the path God has laid out for us.
Compassionate God, we thank you for William Passavant, who brought the German deaconess movement to America so that dedicated women might assist him in founding orphanages and hospitals for those in need and provide for the theological education of future ministers. Inspire us by his example, that we may be tireless to address the wants of all who are sick and friendless; through Jesus the divine Physician, who has prepared for us an eternal home, and who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen
Psalm 147:1-7 Isaiah 29:17-24 Revelation 3:14-22 Luke 13:10-22