King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden

In America and in particular within the Missouri Synod, we do not usually give much thought to Swedish kings such as Gustavus Adolphus. The primary descendants of the Missouri Synod were of German background not Swedish, as it seems the Scandinavians with a few exceptions primarily gravitated toward other Lutheran church bodies in America.

King Gustavus Adolphus played an important role in Lutheranism, particularly in defending Lutheran territories from invasion. In fact, some of Missouri Synod’s founders might not have been Lutheran were it not for the work of King Gustavus Adolphus.

Yesterday, 6 November is the feast day of Gustavus Adolphus. As many Missouri Synod congregations celebrated All Saints’ Day yesterday, it is fitting today to remember the sainted Gustavus Adolphus.

Pastor Eric Andrae a few years ago preached a fine sermon on the commemoration of Gustavus Adolphus provided below.

— Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver, Director of Church Relations

First Trinity Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Pittsburgh, Penn.

The Chapel of the Resurrection

The Divine Service, 6 November A+D 2003

The Rev. Eric R. Andræ

St. Mark 8:34-38

Feast of Gustavus Adolphus, king and martyr, 1632;

Eve of John Christian Frederick Heyer, missionary and pastor, 1873

In the name of + Jesus.

Let us pray:

Praised be you, O God, and blessed in eternity, who with your Word comforts, teaches, exhorts, and warns us. May your Holy Spirit confirm the Word in our hearts, that we may not be forgetful hearers,  but rather daily grow in faith, hope, love, and patience unto the end, and be kept unto salvation. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.[1]

Dear Friends,

How do we proclaim Christ crucified, whose birth heralded peace on earth and who indeed is the Prince of Peace, how do we proclaim this Christ and his Gospel while commemorating an earthly King of War?

Well, in our modern day and culture, it is simply unseemly, offensive, politically incorrect so to do; even within the Lutheran Church, some claim that the “exploits and fame [of Gustavus Adlophus] are entirely military” and, as such, “offer little edification for today” (Pfatteicher, Festivals and Commemorations, 474).

Indeed, secular military historians glorify Gustav the II’s earthly conquests.  Michael Lee Lanning, author of The Military 100, ranks the Lion of the North as the sixth greatest military leader in history, with only an early death preventing a higher ranking.[2] Others have called him the first tactician and the first disciplinarian of the age, the most innovative battle strategist and captain, exhibiting the patience of Hannibal, the persuasiveness of Caesar, the boldness of Alexander, and uniting in one person the art of both monarch and soldier.  He was hailed as the most powerful king of the earth and the most brilliant person of his time.  As one historian put it, he is “the Founder of Modern War.”

So why on earth, and how, do we commemorate the “Founder of Modern War”!?!  This sounds and seems like a theology of glory, not of the cross – not of Christ’s cross, not of the one he bids us to take up in following him, not the one Paul so eloquently describes in his epistles, especially in 1 Corinthians 1.

So why then does his biographer, William Dallman, call Gustav the greatest Lutheran layman? Why does our Concordia Seminary have a large plaque in his honor? Why does the sainted, great historian of the Missouri Synod, my professor, August Suelflow, say that we as Lutherans owe a greater debt to Gustavus Adolphus than any other, save Luther himself?!  Why?  Because looks can be deceiving.  A cursory glance can give a false impression.

The historical context is necessary.

Beginning in the 1560’s, less than 50 years after the posting of the 95 Theses and just over 30 years after the Augsburg Confession was publicly read, the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation wreaked military havoc in Lutheran lands and towns.  For a period of over 65 years Romish forces methodically devastated our forefathers: the closing of churches and the slaughtering of Lutherans and Protestants was the norm. However, Gustavus Adolphus, having already called for a national day of prayer for the Lutherans on the continent, having already opened Sweden as a refuge for all oppressed and exiled Protestants, now Gustavus Adolphus fully enters the fray.  Exactly 100 years to the day of the reading of the Augsburg Confession, on 25 June 1630, the Golden Midnight Lion of the North landed on the continent, at Pomerania, promptly falling on his knees and praying aloud to God. In deciding to enter the war, Gustaf told the House of Knights: “I take the all-highest God, in whose presence I am sitting, to be my witness that I am not taking on me this contest of my own free will or out of any lust for war, but that for several years I have been notably moved and driven thereto…. Moreover, we are likewise called to this task by our grievously oppressed neighbors, friends, and supporters….  But what above all else weighs with us is our hope that by this means we may free our suffering brethern in the faith from the yoke of the papists, as will, with God’s help, shortly come to pass….  The greatness of our fatherland and of God’s Church…are things well worthy that for their sakes we should endure hardships, yea, even death itself” (18).[3] Later he would further explain, saying, “The fight is between God and the devil, and there is no third side.  What sort of thing is neutrality?  I know not the word” (28).

Subsequently victorious in one battle after another, while inspiring great loyalty and love from his men, urging them always to remain faithful to the Lord above all, the decisive victory came one year later, in the fall of 1631 at Breitenfeld, near Leipzig.  Writes Dallman, “Knowing that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong, the king kneeled on the bloody ground to give thanks to God for the victory, and all near him joined him.  ‘With Gustav such sincerity was inbred….’  At the evening meal the whole army joyously sang… ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’”(36).  “In [that] one memorable year the lone Swede…freed forever the Lutherans of Northern Germany” (37).  “Now for the first time since the days of Martin Luther there was displayed before the eyes of the people the figure of a man towards whom all must look either in love or, [for his defeated enemies], in hate” (37).  On the field of battle there was placed a plain gray sandstone which reads:

Gustav Adolf, Christ und Held,

Rettete bei Breitenfeld

Glaubensfreiheit fuer die Welt:

“Gustav Adolf, Christian and hero, at Breitenfeld saved religious liberty for the world!”

But though the war had turned decisively, the battles continued.  In November of 1632 the opposing forces would meet at Luetzen.  The Handbook to TLH describes the scene:  The morning of the 6th the king “summoned his court preacher Fabricius and commanded him…to hold a service of prayer.  During the service the whole host sang the pious king’s battle hymn,  [authored by Fabricius, and our hymn of the day, “O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe”].  Gustav himself was on his knees and prayed fervently. …  When the host had now been set in battle array, he gave them as watchword for the fight the saying, ‘God with us,’ mounted his horse, drew his sword, and rode along the lines of the army to encourage the soldiers for battle.  First, however, he commanded the tunes [“A Mighty Fortress”] and [“May God Bestow on Us His Grace”] to be played by the kettledrums and trumpets, and the soldiers joined as with one voice. … Then, after a short prayer, he cried out: ‘Now will we set to, please God,’ and immediately after, very loud, ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, help me today to fight for the honor of Thy holy name!’  Then he attacked the enemy at full speed …

About 11 o’clock in the forenoon the fatal bullet struck him, and he sank, dying, from his horse, with the words [to his enemies, ‘I am the king of Sweden, and I seal the liberty and religion of the German people with my blood’] and to his Lord, ‘My God, my God.’

Till twilight came on, the fight raged and was doubtful.  But at length [victory was obtained].”[4]

“Our [Lutheran teaching explicitly] approves honors to the saints, [in the Augsburg Confession and its Defense]. For here a threefold honor is to be approved. The first is thanksgiving. For we ought to give thanks to God because He has shown examples of mercy; because He has shown that He wishes to save men; because He has given teachers or other gifts to the Church. And these gifts, as they are the greatest, should be amplified, and the saints themselves should be praised, who have faithfully used these gifts, just as Christ praises [his good and faithful servants], Matt. 25….. The second service is the strengthening of our faith; when we see, [for example,] the denial forgiven Peter, we also are encouraged to believe the more that grace truly superabounds over sin, Rom. 5…. The third honor is the imitation, first, of faith, then of the other virtues, which every one should imitate according to his calling” (Ap. 21.4-6).

Gustavus Adolphus was indeed such a humble and devout saint as should be honored, as we give thanks to God for the mercy and grace shown to him and through him.  His work, life, and death are greatly edifying for us today.

“He held with fidelity to the Augsburg Confession and the Lutheran religion…; when some proposed a union of the Lutherans and Calvinists…, Gustav repelled the suggestion with firmness” (52, 19).  As such, it is no surprise that he had the Small Catechism translated into Russian and Finnish.  But perhaps the jewel of his kingdom was his mission work in this country, yes, in America.  Only a few days before his death he drew up a charter and urged the bishops to commend mission work among the Native Americans.  Consequently, a full forty-four years before William Penn came to this country, New Sweden was founded on the Delaware: the first Lutheran church was built and the first Lutheran minister was sent.  The first book ever to be translated for the Indians was, you guessed it, the Small Catechism.  Another first under Gustavus Adolphus included being the first king to commission military chaplains, who preached every Sunday and led the troops in prayer every morning and evening.  As Gustav would say in conjunction with the three services he attended every Lord’s Day: Though war might be our amusement, religion is our business.

Historians have adjudged this to be true.  A Roman Catholic historian speaks of him “as a king warmly devoted to his Lutheran faith, as a man of untiring activity, of rare personal courage, and of a condescension and affability which charmed.”  A British military critic adds, “As a man he ranks even higher [than as a soldier], if possible; for his motives were perhaps the noblest and purest that inspried any of the great captains, his pursuit of them so…humane as to shine like a solitary beacon amid the dark deeds and hideous ravages of the Thirty Years’ War.”  Furthermore, “His religious fervor was as honest as his courage was high-pitched.  The Bible was his constant companion and guide.  He began all his acts with unaffected prayer and ended with thanksgiving.  The Christian virtues never resided in a more princely soul.  We cannot rate Gustavus Adolphus too high.”  And finally, a scholar states: “He was simple, brave, passionate, truthful, devout, with the highest sense of his great mission on earth.  It is not unfair to say of him that he had a single eye to the work God had given him to do.  More cannot be said of any man.” (58-60).

Especially, this man knew well – and lived and died – the words of our Lord in today’s Gospel: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

And so, after the aforementioned victory at Breitenfeld, all advised him to go on and conquer Vienna, to seek the kaiser’s crown that was there for the taking.  But, according to Dallman, “He would not leave the pleading Protestants in the West and South to the mercy of the papists.  Again, showing of what stuff he was made, he avoided the path of gain and glory and chose the path of duty and honor” (39), the path that led to his death, the way of self-denial and the cross that leads to true life.  Likewise, upon entering Naumburg, where the people kneeled before their deliverer, he exclaimed, “These people honor me as a god – [and so] I fear God will punish me.”  But “his piety was honest, outwardly and inwardly; he prayed as openly and unreservedly as he spoke.  Even in his campaigns he read his Bible daily and at length.  What for? [Said he:] ‘I seek to fortify myself against perverse flatterers by meditating on the sacred Word.  A person in my position has a multitude of temptations against which we are never enough on our guard.’”

Indeed, his was the way of the Christian cross, not of individual glory.

As the plaque at the seminary proclaims, simply and profoundly:

“Gustav the Great died that the Reformation of the Church might live.”

The Lion of the North was indeed great. But there is a lion who is indeed greater.  The Lord, the one for whom Gustav fought and endured hardship as a good soldier (2 Tim. 2:3); the Lord, the valiant one who fights for us and for our liberty from the enemies of sin, death and devil; the Lord, he is the lion, the lion of the tribe of Judah who has triumphed for us, bringing us peace with God (Rev. 5:5).   Jesus Christ died, he gave his wholly innocent life that we, along with Gustav, may be baptismally re-formed into his image and have eternal life.

As true as God’s own Word is true. Not earth nor hell with all their crew Against us shall prevail. A jest and byword are they grown; God is with us, we are His own; Our victory cannot fail.  Amen, Lord Jesus, grant our prayer; Great Captain, now Thine arm make bare, Fight for us once again! So shall Thy saints and martyrs raise A mighty chorus to Thy praise, World without end. Amen.[5]

In the name of the Father of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.


[1] Homiletical prayer from the Swedish hymnal; this preacher’s translation.

[2] Michael Lee Lanning, The Military 100: A Ranking of the 100 Most Influential Military Leader of All Time (New York: 1996).

[3] Page numbers in parentheses correspond to William Dallman, “The Midnight Lion” Gustav Adolf–The Greatest Lutheran Layman (Malone, Texas: Repristination Press, 1997); originally published by CPH in 1930.

[4] W.G. Pollack, The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal (St. Louis: CPH, 1958) 194-95.

[5] “O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe,” TLH 263:3-4. Cf. LSB 666:3-4.