Sasse's Entry: Australian Dictionary of Biography

SASSE, HERMANN OTTO ERICH (1895-1976), Lutheran pastor and theologian, was born on 17 July 1895 at Sonnewalde, Lower Lusatia (Lausitz), Germany, eldest of five children of Hermann Sasse, pharmacist, and his wife Maria, née Berger. Young Hermann began reading theology and ancient philology at the University of Berlin in 1913. He later maintained that war was his tutor in practical theology: in World War I he was one of only six from his battalion to survive trench warfare in Flanders.

Ordained on 13 June 1920 in St Matthew's Church, Berlin, Sasse worked in several Brandenburg parishes and in 1923 took the licentiate in theology (Berlin); in 1926 as an exchange student at Hartford seminary, Connecticut, United States of America, he obtained a master's degree. On 11 September 1928 in St Nicolai's Church, Oranienburg, Germany, he married Charlotte Margarete Naumann (d.1964). They had three children. During the Depression, Sasse was Sozialpfarrer (pastor with social duties) ministering especially to factory workers in Berlin.

A participant in the ecumenical movement, Sasse was also a delegate and interpreter at the first world conference of the Faith and Order Movement (Lausanne, Switzerland, 1927) and attended the disarmament conference in Geneva (1932). Among the earliest to speak out against Nazism, he was an active if critical member of the Confessing Church Movement, promoted by Martin Niemoeller. In 1933 Sasse and his younger colleague Dietrich Bonhoeffer were among the small but growing church opposition to Hitler. Together they produced the Bethel Confession, which clearly addressed discrimination against the Jews. Next year Sasse left the synod that produced the Barmen Declaration, objecting that the Confessing Movement was wrongly arrogating church authority for itself. In 1933 he had accepted a professorship in church history at the University of Erlangen, Bavaria. His passport was withdrawn in 1935 but his popularity as a lecturer and protection from the dean of the faculty helped him to retain his university post through the Nazi era.

In 1948 Sasse protested at the formation of the Evangelical Church in Germany. His opposition to its policy of restoration rather than renewal, and unease over state-supported university faculties of theology led him to join the Lutheran Free Church. Receiving a call to teach at Immanuel (Luther) Seminary, North Adelaide, he migrated in 1949 to South Australia, where he swung his weight behind efforts to unite Australia's divided Lutheran churches. He devoted his energy and his teaching and writing skills to this cause, and was deeply involved in formulating new agreed doctrinal bases; the church union occurred in 1966. Involved in the German Lutheran community in Adelaide and Melbourne, he assisted many immigrants with pastoral advice and care.

Sasse retained his wider connections and perspectives—he was known as 'Mr Lutheran' in the U.S.A. A correspondence including regular doctrinal and pastoral 'Letters to Lutheran Pastors' across the globe was supported by continuous research, particularly in Scripture as Word of God, and the Eucharist. His reputation for strongly defended conservative stances was balanced by lively personal contacts across denominational boundaries. He involved himself in the Australian Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue from its inception. Retiring from the seminary in 1969, in 1972 he was appointed to the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany.

Among Sasse's 479 publications were Here We Stand, published in translation in Minneapolis, U.S.A., in 1946, and This is My Body (Minneapolis, 1959), written in English. He died on 9 August 1976 in a fire at his home in North Adelaide and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery. Two sons survived him. An obituarist described Sasse as 'Australia's most distinguished acquisition from the Continental theological scene'.

Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://adbonline.anu.edu.au/adbonline.htm

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Note: This entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, published by the University of Melbourne Press, was authored by Dr Maurice Schild, Sasse's successor in the chair of church history at Luther Seminary, Adelaide. Dr Schild, who completed his doctorate at Heidelberg University in the early 1960s, was my lecturer in church history and Lutheran Confessions at Luther Seminary 1998-2002; I must say that for all his eccentricities, or perhaps because of them, he was one of my two favourite lectuers at the seminary.

During those years at the seminary my family and I lived 50 metres from the site of Sasse's accidental death. As I passed the site almost every day, I often thought of obtaining permission to place a commemorative plaque at the site (historical sites and personages are thus commemorated in Adelaide), but never had the funds to bring this idea to fruition...one day, perhaps. Incidentally, a visit to the seminary today would never indicate that Sasse ever lectured there, although several lesser lights are commemorated; it is almost as if he is a persona non grata. I was once asked, on the grounds of the seminary, by Matthew Harrison, Sasse's LC-MS champion and translator, why this was the case. I responded that I thought it was because Sasse pricked the consciences of the powers that be; his ardent confessionalism conflicts with the course the LCA has charted since Sasse's death in 1976. This course, in my opinion, is explained not so much by theological imperatives as by the mind-set of German-Australian Lutherans, who value nothing so much as acceptance by and recognition from the Anglo mainstream culture in this country.

Be that as it may be, to my mind, the most intriguing aspect of Sasse's life mentioned here is that which we necessarily know least about, his pastoral work with German migrants to Australia in the post-war years.


  1. Thank you for this post, and your comments about our dear Dr. Sasse. Would that many more Lutheran churches had listened to him while he was alive, and would pay more attention to him now.

    I am grateful for the amount of material by Dr. Sasse we do have in English, to read and to study.

    Thanks for this blog site.

  2. Thank you Pr McCain for your kind words.

    What can we say about Sasse that does him justice? Australia was privileged by his presence here, and not just the Lutherans either.

    As you can see, I'm doing my best to direct people to CPH for Sasse's books.

  3. We could use truly confessional leaders in the various synods. That is sorely lacking today.


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