Mental illness is common. Depression is common, and very treatable when diagnosed. Great Christians have been afflicted with depression.
The father of the Missouri Synod, our own C.F.W. Walther, was overwhelmed with work and tragedy when he succumbed in 1859. His close friends and LCMS leaders intervened and convinced him to step away from his mountains of work and responsibility to rest. His beloved congregation sent him on a sabbatical to Germany. It’s comforting to know that even the greatest of Christians suffer from mental illness.
I pray that this letter by Walther to his congregation, describing his clinical depression and the beginning of a respite for healing, will embolden church workers, congregations and individuals to take action for wellness, to seek treatment and to rest confident in the love of Jesus.
— Pastor Matthew Harrison
Concordia College, February 3, 1860
… I may and must now reveal to you that the last half of the previous year has been one of the most difficult times of my life. I was physically incapable of attending to even half the office that I am dignified to carry out among you in unworthy fashion. Even more, the prospect that I would again be capable of the same became gloomier and darker month by month. I owe it to you to be transparent. I was tormented night and day by the thought that through my fault in many different ways, our congregation would withdraw with quick strides from the path of the first love and simplicity. And more than that, my own relationship with my God and Lord filled me with deep aversion and vexation. God placed before me, as never before, my entire past. He let me see my misery as I had never seen it before. I was filled with misery and distress. It appeared to me as though God had cast me away from His countenance. It seemed as though He regarded me as a rejected instrument, as if I were not a worker but a stumbling stone in His vineyard, which He must finally cast aside. It appeared to me as though God desired to take away all the blessings that He had thus far brought about through my witness to His truth, and this through a horrid end of my effectiveness. My only hope was a blessed death. For I hoped that in spite of my deep sense that I deserved [God’s] curse, I would not let go of the Lord Jesus. I hoped to hold fast to the fact that God can never repudiate His promise to a poor sinner, if only that sinner be saved and righteous before Him through the grace of Jesus. Indeed, God more and more granted grace to me according to His faithfulness. This grace brought it about that I could never doubt the truth of that which I have taught, preached, and written for seventeen years. But the thought that I had preached others to salvation and finally would be condemned myself martyred my heart. I was vexed by countless sighs and tears in very difficult struggle with our God and Father in heaven.
But what happened? When the distress had reached its greatest intensity, help came. When I thought I would be forgotten like the dead, God finally directed His friendly countenance toward me again. I still do not know how it happened, and often doubt whether I was awake or dreaming. It is not the joy that with the help of my brothers, I would again see the old home and could begin to recover that had such a reviving influence upon me. Oh! I would rather be spared this trip a thousand times over and serve Him here who has bled to death for me and for those whom I am not worthy to serve! It was the flood of words of consolation and acts of brotherly love and care that fourteen days ago began to flow over me. These kindnesses irresistibly moved my weakened heart. They compelled me to open myself to the divine consolation that the Lord has not rejected me and still recognizes me as His poor servant. He deals with me not according to my sins, nor does He desire to repay me for my misdeeds. And you, eternally faithful brothers and members of our congregation, I am filled with angst when I consider the guilt that I bear over against you. But you are the ones whose words and deeds have raised me up from the ashes in which I sat deeply afflicted. Oh, how shall I now repay the Lord for all His goodness that He demonstrates to me? How shall I repay you for the mercy that you have shown me? I say with David, “I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the LORD now in the presence of all His people” [Psalm 116:13–14, KJV]. I will plead that He reward your kindness. For I, weakest man that I am, have nothing but the treasure of the Word. This Word renders righteous and holy those who hear me speak it and believe it. And I have a feeble prayer. Indeed, I will still often be severely troubled that you, dear brothers, have brought forth a great offering for my recovery. In accord with God’s will, you could have perhaps used these gifts for something much more important and necessary. But you have demonstrated your love in this way. Now I am confident that this is the way God glorifies His goodness to those who could make the least possible claim [upon Him], so that every mouth be stopped and all the world be accountable to God [Romans 3:19].
Therefore may the Lord bless you all, you faithful brothers, your honorable workers in the Word, your highly honored elders, your teachers in your wonderful school, your elderly folks, youth and young boys, your mothers and daughters, your divine service and the assemblies of your council, your teaching and hearing, your work, toil, and diligence, your days of joy and suffering! …
His holy will be done! To Him be praise and honor in the congregation, which is with Christ Jesus always, from eternity to eternity! Amen.
Your Pastor, Brother, and Friend, also in spirit with you though far away:
Excerpted from “Walther’s Breakdown: To the German Evangelical Lutheran Gesamtgemeinde of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession in St. Louis, 1860,” in Matthew C. Harrison, At Home in the House of My Fathers: Presidential Sermons, Essays, Letters, and Addresses from the Missouri Synod’s Great Era of Unity and Growth (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011), pages 142–45.