Baron Justinian Von Welz
There are few who know anything about the profound contribution that Baron Justinian von Welz made to worldwide missions. He was born 100 years too soon for his ideas and proposals to be appreciated and accepted.
Welz, the son of Austrian nobility, was born in 1621 into a Lutheran family in a Catholic-dominated country. Because of the severe Roman Catholic persecution during the 30 Years War, his family migrated to Lutheran Germany. His school days were spent in the Netherlands. At about the age of 20, he returned to his home in Germany and wrote a number of treatises on various subjects, the earlier ones on political reform and social justice.
From about the age of 20 until his early 40s, he led a rather profligate life but toward the end of that period began to read the Bible and orthodox Lutheran teaching, repented of his sins, and was genuinely converted. He avidly read the Scriptures and church history, particularly that of the martyrs.
So it was that at the age of 40 his values and goals were completely changed by the experience of conversion, and he was ready to emerge from a period of isolation. He believed and practiced aestheticism and lived a life of separation from the world and dedication to that which would glorify God. He called his contemporaries to self-examination and conversion. Bewailing the expensive habits of food, dress, and entertainment, he counseled that people should be serious-minded and live a life separated from the world as pilgrims and strangers. He avoided worldly society as much as possible. He taught and meditated on what he called the four last things, namely,
- The certainty of approaching death
- The pain and suffering of the condemned
- The glory and privilege of the elect
He proposed the formation of an organization called the "Jesus Loving Society." He urged candidates for the ministry to go out and preach to the heathen rather than sit about idly while waiting for a call. His was a global vision, and he felt responsibility for a global evangelization.
At that particular time in the Lutheran Church, the Great Commission was being taught as territorial, not universal, and was often carried out by political rather than spiritual methods. Thinking that the heathen had already rejected the Gospel sometime in the past and that efforts to evangelize should be local rather than global, some of the theologians actually taught that it was wrong to take the Gospel to the heathen.
Welz felt that schools for training missionaries should be set up in the universities and students trained in language, world religions, and other subjects related to missions. When this was not done, he deposited 12,000 German thaler from his own personal resources into two different banks for that purpose. A friend contributed a similar sum of money. He felt that these training schools should provide pre-field orientation. He also felt that there was a great deal of spiritual indifference and advocated spiritual renewal at home and Gospel preaching overseas. His ideas, however, were not accepted.
He wrote a number of treatises propounding his ideas and rebuking the cold, indifferent legal orthodoxy of the Lutheran Church. The Jesus Loving Society, which Welz proposed, was to be composed of three groups:
- The promoters-wealthy patrons and sponsors
- The full-time mission directors and secretaries
- The missionary volunteers-young unmarried men who would volunteer for two or three years.
Prior to leaving for the field, they were to have studied geography, history of the church and earlier missionaries, Paul's journeys, evangelism, and Oriental languages. Once on the field, volunteers were to study local customs and religions, learn the vernacular language, translate portions of the Bible, and send back regular reports to the home supporters.
Welz, in his Jesus Loving Society, reveals some of his deepest insights and especially his thoughts on prayer-the one activity he deemed most essential and should take precedence over all other activity. He also stated that missionaries should be content with what God provides. He asked the questions: "Is it right for Christians to keep the Gospel to themselves rather than sharing it with others? Is it right for so many theological students to sit around awaiting suitable appointments or perhaps becoming schoolmasters rather than venturing forth to preach to the heathen? Is it right for Christians to spend so much money on amusement, expensive habits of food and dress, give no thought or money for the dissemination of the Gospel?" The dead orthodoxy of the church of Welz's day considered his proposal most impractical. Actually, some of the leaders thought it was satanic; and because the leadership of the Lutheran Church took this position, his ideas were not accepted.
Unsuccessful in interesting others, Welz finally decided that he himself must go; and he persuaded a friend to ordain him as "Apostle to the Heathen." He renounced his inheritance and his title of nobility and sailed for Suriname, South America, in 1666. By the spring of 1668 it was reliably reported that he was dead-a martyr to his own cause.
Thus died Justinian von Welz, lonely and forsaken, a sacrifice to his own self-elected calling, an enlightening model for all times of faithful courage and joyful readiness to give all, even one's life, for the sake of Christ.
There is no record of his ministry in Suriname extant; but as far as is known, he did not win a single convert and a church was not planted. Some reported that he was killed by savage beasts, but the more likely fact was that he died of malaria.
Later in the century, in 1694, there was at the University of Halle a division of missionary training that very closely followed the principles and proposals laid out by Welz and his Jesus Loving Society. In 1732 the Moravians sent their first missionaries to the Caribbean. One of their early fields was Suriname, where Welz had died. Some modern missions historians believe that Welz greatly influenced William Carey, who established a Baptist Mission Society in 1792.
So the life of Welz was one of rejection. He was a man born too soon; but his ideas were, within a century, implemented and continue to the present. His Jesus Loving Society sounds very much like a modern 21st century mission society. Welz is kind of a pivotal figure in the history of Protestant missions. He occupies a symbolic place of great respect as a forerunner of greater things to come. The orthodox teaching of the Lutheran theologians of his day was that the apostolic command had died with the death of the apostles. For Welz, the Great Commission continued to have unqualified validity. He argued that missionary obligation was permanent and continuous.
Welz was a man who, through study of the Word of God, had caught a vision of world evangelism in an age when it was thought impractical and too expensive. The world was not ready for his teaching. He actually was condemned as an agent of Satan for his outspoken advocacy of world missions. He died a martyr to his own cause. He had renounced his nobility, his wealth, his home, and his life in order to carry out the Great Commission. Where are those today who are willing to be as self-sacrificing as was Justinian von Welz?