On-site research by appointment not necessary but recommended

John W. Behnken (1857-1968) Family Collection, c.1875-1973.

John W. Behnken
  • Collection Number: M-0003
  • Collection Size: 10.4 linear feet


The collection is open for research under the normal access policies of the Institute.


John W. Behnken

John W. Behnken

The Rev. George William Behnken was born on 30 March 1857 in Baden, Hannover. Both of his parents died when he was a young child: his mother when he was age three and his father when he was age eleven. In 1874 George traveled to the United States and lived with his brother-in-law. His schooling began in Germany where he attended the Aspiranten-Anstalt at Daverden and schools at Fenteln and Bassen. George continued his education in America at Northwestern College in Watertown, Wisconsin (1874-1878), and at the Wisconsin Synod seminary near Milwaukee (1878-1880). George contracted tuberculosis while he was studying at the seminary, and his doctor advised him to move to Texas before completing his courses. George completed his colloquy in 1882 and was ordained on 7 May 7 at St. John Lutheran Church, Cypress, Harris County. He spent his short career at St. John as a teacher (1880-1882) and as a pastor (1882-1887).

In Texas George met and married Helen Wunderlich. Three children were born to this union: John William (19 March 1884), Meta, and William (1888). On 25 February 1888, at the age of 30, George’s bout with tuberculosis claimed his life, just one month before the birth of his youngest son. Helen and her children lived with her widowed mother in Klein, Texas, after George’s death. Five years later, Helen married the Rev. Gotthilf Birkmann (1854-1944), a widower with three children and the future president of the Texas District of the Missouri Synod. This union produced seven children.

John W. Behnken began his education in Texas parochial schools: at Klein from 1890 to 1893 and at Fedor from 1893 to 1897. In 1897, at the age of 13, Behnken entered St. John’s Academy in Winfield, Kansas. He graduated in 1903 and continued his education at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He graduated from the seminary in 1906 and was ordained on 12 August. In addition to his academic work in Kansas and St. Louis, Behnken received honorary degrees from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1934 (Doctor of Divinity) and from Valparaiso University in 1953 (Doctor of Laws).

Behnken undertook his first pastoral service substituting for his stepfather from July to October 1906. He then moved to Houston, where he performed mission work until April 1908. While doing this work he organized the Redeemer Lutheran Church. In April 1908 he became pastor at Houston’s Trinity Lutheran Church, where he served until August 1935.

Behnken married Gertrude Geisler on 13 August 1909. She died on 27 July 1910, shortly after the birth of their son, Victor Louis (21 July 1910). On 22 April 1914 Behnken married Hilda Anna Grassmuck (b. 4 Sept. 1890). The second marriage produced seven children: Ruth Lucille (Droegemueller – 5 Sept. 1915); John William Jr. (25 October 1917); Donald Edward (25 January 1920); Lester Lloyd (19 August 1921); Lois Marie (Roehrs – 5 Aug.1924); Kenneth Wayne (29 Oct. 1927); and Helen LaDelle (Schmelder – 26 Nov. 1932). All eight of the Behnken children entered church service as pastor, chaplain, parish school teacher, or pastor’s wife. Hilda (Grassmuck) Behnken died at the age of 64 on 20 January 1954.

John W. Behnken held offices in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod throughout most of his career. He served as vice-president of the Texas District from 1919 to 1926 and as district president from 1926 to 1929. He was second vice-president of the Synod from 1929 to 1932 and first vice-president from 1932 to 1935. In 1935 he became the sixth president of the Synod. He remained in the office for 27 years (9 terms) until his retirement in 1962. On this occasion Behnken was named honorary president.

Retirement did not end Behnken’s service in the Synod. From 1962 until his death, he served as chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Foundation. He served on the executive committee of the “Faith Forward” Movement initiated in 1962. Behnken continued to represent the Synod at district conventions as long his health permitted. He died at the age of 83 on 23 February 1968 in Hollywood, Florida.

For more information on John W. Behnken and his role in the LCMS, please consult the LCMS, Office of the President Records, John W. Behnken Administration, 1935-1962.


The John W. Behnken Family Collection contains primarily materials created and collected by John W. Behnken. There are also items that belonged to his father, George W. Behnken, and to his wife Hilda. The collection has been arranged into seven series: Profile, Correspondence, Sermons/Addresses, Subject Files, Photographs, Family, and Music.

The Profile series consists of materials that give a brief overview of Behnken’s professional and personal life, such as anniversary and birthday celebrations, school notes and biographical information. In 1973 Mary Mittelstaedt wrote a paper titled “John William Behnken: Head vs. Heart,” which is just one example of the additions that have been made to the collection through the years. There are also newsclippings about Behnken dating from the 1910s through the 1960s. The miscellaneous documents folder contains such information as sample poll tax receipts, a 1923 automobile document and insurance papers. The funeral folder includes his death certificate, newsclippings on Behnken’s funeral, copies of memorial service programs and memorial addresses by friends and synodical officials.

The pocket diaries begin with his election as president of the Synod until the end of his life, 1935-1968. Some of these diaries hold little more than appointment information, while others contain his notes on meetings with individuals or concerning certain topics. There are also enclosures such as clippings, photos and business cards, which have been kept with the diaries.

The Correspondence series is arranged into four subseries: Family, Calls, Alphabetical, and Dr. D. Hermann Sasse. The Family subseries contains primarily general letters written by Behnken to all eight of his children. They begin “Dear Children” and date from 1943 to 1968. These letters appear consistently through the years with many dating from his travels abroad in the 1950s, during Hilda’s illness, and after his retirement. There is also a small number of “round robin” letters that Behnken’s siblings used to keep in touch with one another. The Calls subseries contains correspondence regarding the calls that Behnken received from 1922 to 1929. His Trinity congregation declined some of these calls. Two calls of note that he declined were to the presidency of St. John’s College and as executive secretary of the International Walther League. Appearing in addition to the calls are opinions and advice from friends and colleagues regarding the prospects of these opportunities.

The Alphabetical subseries is divided into two groups: alphabetical files and individuals. The alphabetical files consist of one or two letters arranged in alphabetical order within each folder from various individuals on a variety of topics. The individuals folders are arranged in alphabetical order while the letters within each folder are arranged chronologically. Behnken used these when he had a substantial amount of correspondence with or about one person.

From 1945 to 1967, Behnken corresponded with Dr. D. Hermann Sasse, a Lutheran theologian in Germany. Located in the Sasse subseries is their correspondence on a variety of topics related to the Lutheran church and to the Missouri Synod’s role in world Lutheranism. Following the correspondence, and sometimes appearing with it as enclosures, are copies of Sasse’s essays that he sent to Behnken. The Sasse materials are arranged in chronological order. For more information on Dr. Sasse, please consult the Sasse Papers. The Sermons/Addresses series consists of John W. Behnken’s sermons and addresses. The folders in this series are arranged alphabetically by topic or by type of address with the sermons arranged chronologically within each folder. Behnken kept his festival sermons separate from the rest of his sermons, and that order has been maintained. He also separated his funeral, wedding, special occasions, jubilee and radio sermons. Behnken delivered a series of sermons on various topics (Ten Commandments, e.g.) and these have been separated and arranged in alphabetical order under the heading, Series.

The general sermons (f.106-141), 1905-1967, are arranged in chronological order. One folder of the miscellaneous undated sermons is arranged in church year order. Most of this section comprises his sermons from Trinity Lutheran Church in Houston, 1907-1935. Many sermons/addresses dating from 1935 to 1967 are not labeled by type or by topic and therefore have been placed in this subseries. Behnken delivered some of these sermons at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Chicago from 1937 to circa 1951. This was the period of time during which the Behnkens resided in Oak Park, Illinois. He also delivered other general sermons dating from 1952 to 1962 at St. Peter Lutheran Church, St. Louis, after the Behnkens relocated there from Oak Park.

The Behnken Subject Files series is arranged alphabetically by topic. Most of the materials found here date after Behnken retired as synodical president in 1962. Some correspondence, informational newsclippings, ephemeral items and essays on topics like Lutheran union, the LCMS Foundation and doctrinal affairs comprise the files. Manuscripts for his autobiography, This I Recall, and for a proposed work titled “Notations on the Book of Acts” are also located here. There is also correspondence and ephemera regarding Behnken’s travels in the 1940s and 1950s. One folder of photos from the Lutheran Laymen’s League Holy Land Tour of 1953 is located in this series and consists primarily of four tourist photo packets purchased there. There is also one folder of Holy Land photos in the Photograph series (f.294). The Photograph series contains over 500 photos of Behnken and his family. It is divided into four subseries: Family, Professional, Travel, and Other Sources. The Family, Professional and Travel folders and the photos within are arranged chronologically. The Other Sources folders are arranged alphabetically while the photos within the folders are arranged chronologically. Many of the photos were not dated, so an approximate date was assigned whenever possible.

The Family photos include images of George Behnken, the Wunderlich family, the Behnken-Birkmann family, Gertrude Geisler (J.W. Behnken’s first wife), Hilda Anna (Grassmuck) Behnken and her family, J. W. Behnken portraits and many photos of J. W. Behnken’s eight children. In addition, there are many photos of the Behnken children as adults throughout the Professional subseries that were taken at special synodical events and celebrations. In the photos one may notice that J. W. Behnken struck the same pose over the years. As a seminary student in 1905 he lost sight in his right eye during a game of handball. In 1932 the eyeball was replaced with an artificial one. The Travel subseries chronicles J. W. Behnken’s trips abroad. Of special interest are the photos and picture postcards from Germany in 1945 and 1948 that show the devastation and rebuilding effort after the Second World War. The people and places are identified in most of the photos from South America, Japan and India. There is one folder of photos from the 1953 Holy Land Tour in this series, and there is also one in the Subject Files series (f.263).

The Professional subseries is the largest component of the Photograph series. Located here are photos of J. W. Behnken with classes as pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Houston and at special synodical events, such as conventions and anniversary celebrations. Most of these are 8×10, black-and-white photographs. Efforts have been made to reduce duplicates throughout the Photograph series but most of the weeding happened in this subseries. Some of the people/places are identified, and some are dated, but many are not. These photos are filed as undated items.

The Other Sources folders contain photos identified as coming from a source other than J. W. Behnken or a member of his family: The Lutheran Witness, Der Lutheraner, and the Lutheran Laymen’s League. It is very likely that many of the photos in the Professional subseries came from these sources, but there is no identification on the prints to determine from which source they came. The photos in this subseries are identified as belonging to the groups and often reveal in which issue of the publications they appeared. The Family series contains school notebooks and sermons written by George W. Behnken. Also located here are two folders containing items that belonged to Hilda (Grassmuck) Behnken. A scrapbook titled “My Graduation” holds notes, autographs and photos of Hilda’s classmates from Houston High School. Stored in the mementos folder is the Behnken-Grassmuck wedding invitation, a wedding keepsake booklet, a letter, various certificates and a funeral program.

The Music series consists of song books and sheet music. It is arranged alphabetically by topic. It is unclear to which member of the Behnken family this music belonged.

There is an audio recording of an interview of Dr. Behnken conducted by Dr. August R. Suelflow in November 1965. This recording is included in the Concordia Historical Institute. Oral History Collection (M-0014).


Profile Series

  • f.1-3 Anniversaries
  • f.4-5 Biographical Materials
  • f.6 75th Birthday Wishes/Souvenirs
  • f.7 Awards/Certificates/Diplomas
  • f.8-13 Clippings, 1910-1969
  • f.14-18 Diaries (pocket), 1935-1967
  • f.19 Funeral, 1968
  • f.20 Miscellaneous Documents
  • f.21-21a Retirement
  • f.22-24 School, 1898-1932
  • v.1-10 School Notebooks

Correspondence Series

  • f.25-34 Family
  • f.25-31 Letters to Children, 1943-1968
  • f.32-34 Family Letters
  • f.35-40 Calls, 1922-1929
  • f.41-48 Alphabetical
  • f.49-59 Individuals
  • f.60-73 Dr. D. Hermann Sasse, 1945-1967

Sermons/Addresses Series

  • f.74 Bad Boll, 1948
  • f.75 Confessional, 1908-1916
  • f.76 Confirmation and Catechetical Questions, 1908-1935
  • f.77-81 Conventions, 1912-1961
  • f.83 Dedications, 1921-1964
  • f.84-85 Devotions
  • f.86-100 Festivals, 1907-1963
  • f.101 Fiscal Conference, 1938-1963
  • f.102 Frontiers of Faith (requests for copies), 1954
  • f.103-105 Funerals, 1908-1965
  • f.106-141 General, 1905-1967
  • f.142-145 Jubilee, 1922-1967
  • f.146-147 Lutheran Building Devotions, 1953-1965
  • f. 147a-d Lutheran Hour, 1943-1950
  • f.148-149 Missions, 1907-1966
  • f.150 New Year’s, 1907-1951
  • f.151 Ordination/Installation, 1913-1966
  • f.152-156 Radio, 1919-1958
  • f.157 Reformation, 1907-1964
  • f.158 Schools, c.1907-1964
  • f.159 Scrapbook, c.1920s
  • f.160-183 Series
  • f.184-189 Special Occasions, 1909-1967
  • f.190 Stewardship, 1921-1932
  • f.191 Tent (West End and South Side), 1923-1927
  • f.192-193 Thanksgiving, 1908-1965
  • f.194 Weddings, 1907-1963, no date
  • f.195 “Wisdom for Today,” (lessons 1-52)
  • f.196-197 By others

Subject Files Series

  • f.198 Bible Class Outlines, 1935
  • f.199 Camp Logan, 1918-1919
  • f.200 Christmas Cards, 1930-1961
  • f.201 Committee on Theology and Church Relations, 1962-1966
  • f.202 Committee Resolutions, 1967
  • f.203 Communism, 1936-1937
  • f.204 Cross of Merit, 1953
  • f.205-211 Doctrinal Affairs
  • f.212 The Drosche Affair, 1927-1928
  • f.213 Duties of Husband and Wife (notes), 1965
  • f.214 Ecumenical Movement
  • f.215 “Ecumenicity and The Church”
  • f.216 Dr. John H. Elliot Matter, 1967
  • f.217 Essays – miscellaneous
  • f.218 Evangelical Lutheran Synod – “The Union Movement,” 1959
  • f.219 Evangelism Materials and Correspondence, 1963-1967
  • f.220 Fellowship, 1961-1965
  • f.221 The (Reinhold H.) Goetjen Problem, 1962
  • f.222-223 Norman C. Habel
  • f.224 Invitations to Speak in Indiana, 1966-1967
  • f.225 Iowa District’s Retreat (9 Feb. 1964)
  • f.225a Know Your Synod’s Work – Note
  • f.226 Kurt Koehler, 1967
  • f.227 LCMS – Texas District, 1914
  • f.228-231 Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Foundation, 1961-1968
  • f.232 Lutheran Church in America – Convention, 1962
  • f.233 Lutheran Council in the United States of America, 1965-1966
  • f.234 Lutheran Laymen’s League, 1947-1965
  • f.235 Lutheran Unity Papers by JWB, 1965
  • f.236 Lutheran World Federation, 1956-1967
  • f.237 Lutheranism in Germany, 1946-1962
  • f.238 John Warwick Montgomery, 1966
  • f.239 “Notations on the Book of Acts,” 1948
  • f.240 Oberursel, 1958-1962
  • f.241 Herman Otten Case, 1952-1967
  • f.242 Printed Materials by/about JWB, 1926-1963
  • f.243 Publications/Brochures (miscellaneous)
  • f.244 St. James (Imperial Beach, Calif.) Affair, 1961-1962
  • f.245 Scandinavian Churches, 1947-1964
  • f.246 “Some Questions Concerning Some Statements in God’s Holy Word,” 1966-1967
  • f.247 Sunday School Teachers Institute – Psychology Notes, 1926
  • f.248 Synodical Conventions, 1953-1965
  • f.249 Synodical Schools
  • f.250 Tägliche Andachten, 1965-1967
  • f.251-255 This I Recall
  • f.256 “To All Members of the Council of Presidents,” 1967
  • f.257-263 Travel, 1945-1956
  • f.264 Trinity Church (Houston), 1909-1935
  • f.265 Union and Unionism, 1940-1964
  • f.266 Vatican II Materials, 1962-1966
  • f.267 C. F. W. Walther Materials, 1961
  • f.268 Walther League Camp, 1928
  • f.269 Wills and Testaments (of others), 1922, 1951
  • f.270 World Council of Churches, 1963

Photograph Series

  • f.271-275 Family, c. 1875-1967
  • f.276-291 Professional, 1909-1967
  • f.292-299 Travel, 1945-1957
  • f.300-303 Other Sources, 1937-1968

Family Series

  • f.304-306 George W. Behnken, 1878-1888
  • f.307-308 Hilda (Grassmuck) Behnken, 1909-1954

Music Series

  • f.309-317 Music


Portions of the John W. Behnken Family Collection were donated to Concordia Historical Institute by Dr. J. W. Behnken in July 1960 and in December 1961. Additional donations were made by The Rev. William J. Schmelder in May 1968 and at various later dates. Some photographs were added to the collection from various donations made by Der Lutheraner, The Lutheran Witness, and by the Lutheran Laymen’s League.

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