Ezra Keller, D.D.: A Biographical Sketch

Moral courage was a striking trait in Dr. Keller’s character. He was adequate to any emergency, requiring its exercise. He never shrunk from the performance of any work to which duty called him. He was bold and fearless in the advocacy of such measures as he thought were right, regardless of the praise or the censure of his fellow men.

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Ezra Keller
Ezra Keller, D.D. (1812-1848)

Multis ille bonis flebilis occidit:
Nulli flebilior, quam mihi

He fell lamented by many good men,
By none more lamented than by you (or by me)
 —Horace, said of Quintilian

It is nearly twenty-two years, since we became acquainted with the subject of the present sketch. We met him for the first time in the fall of 1833, and we remember most distinctly the impression he made upon our mind. We felt that we were in the presence of a good man, who was under the influence of Christian principle, and who realized the deep responsibilities of life. His countenance indicated some degree of sternness, yet there seemed beneath much tenderness of feeling, and great kindness of heart. The tone of his conversation was elevated, his manner sedate and dignified, his intercourse affable and pleasant. Subsequent communication and more intimate relations produced no change in the opinion we then formed of his character. Our estimate of his great moral worth was rather strengthened, as our acquaintance increased. The more we saw of him, the more were we impressed with the purity and devotion of his Christian principle.

At Pennsylvania College

Mr. Keller was, at the time, a member of the Junior class in Pennsylvania College, holding a high rank in the institution, and exerting an influence, which it is seldom the privilege of a student to exert. He commanded the respect of all, and possessed the warm esteem of those, who were admitted to more familiar intercourse. He was earnestly conscientious, and most faithful to his convictions, appearing never to lose his sense of the Divine presence, and continually seeking and relying upon the Divine direction and support. His very appearance was a check to levity or thoughtlessness; his sobriety forbade all hilarity and foolish jesting. He never connived at what was wrong. No one, when he was present, advocated a measure of questionable morality, or indulged in that which was sinful, without receiving a stern rebuke. His Christian character was such as to inspire universal confidence; it was not marred by the glaring inconsistencies, often so common in those who call themselves Christians. His religion he carried with him into all places, and on no occasion did he make any compromise with principle. He was always ready for “every good word and work,” and actively engaged in usefulness as he had opportunity.

In the Sabbath School, at the social meeting for prayer, in the visitation of the sick, his labors were most assiduous. He was punctual in the performance of every obligation which was incumbent upon him, and most prompt in fulfilling all his engagements. We never knew him to be absent from a college exercise, or delinquent in the observance of any regulation required by the authorities of the institution. The same traits of character he afterwards exhibited, when he entered upon the public duties of life. In every position, in which he was placed, he stood forth as a model of Christian activity and consistency. He was much beloved while he lived, and when he died there was great lamentation made over him.

Character: Unaffected Piety and Prayer

In endeavoring to recall to our mind the various features in Dr. Keller’s character, his unaffected, demoted piety, seems to have been the most prominent. It exerted a controlling power, and influenced all his movements. It was constantly operative, giving direction to his whole life. No one was more diligent than he in the acquisition of religious knowledge and the culture of the devout affections. All who came in contact with him were struck with his spirituality.

“He was a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and of faith.”

He was a man of prayer; he loved to pray, and had great faith in prayer. His confidence in God’s promises never wavered. His mind was contemplative. He was constitutionally thoughtful. He loved with Isaac to meditate at evening, and to commune with his own heart. He understood the workings of the human heart. He had himself met with many difficulties in the divine life, and had passed through severe conflicts in his religious experience. His temperament was warm, his passions were strong, but he had obtained a mastery over himself. He loved the church, devoted himself to her elevation, labored for her extension, wept over her desolations, prayed for her prosperity, and devised liberal things for her advancement. He was deeply interested in the furtherance of evangelical truth and piety, and in every effort designed to spread the knowledge of God. He was attached to the cause of missions, the Sunday School enterprise, the Colonization scheme, and all those great and noble institutions of the day, which are accomplishing so much, in the providence of God, for the diffusion of Christianity. The cause of beneficiary education was dear to his heart, and enlisted his earnest efforts and fervent prayers. He was not unmindful of the important aid which he had received from this source, in the prosecution of his studies, and frequently expressed his gratitude to the church.

He sympathized deeply with the poor and pious youth, struggling with poverty, and enduring other trials in the course of their preparation for the sacred office, and was always ready to afford them counsel and assistance. He possessed great benevolence of heart. It was his practice to set apart, regularly, a portion of his pecuniary means for religious objects. He gave from principle, and in his benefactions was unostentatious. He was willing to make sacrifices for the cause, to which he had consecrated himself, and which he felt in duty bound to promote. He was the warm friend of revivals of religion, and during such seasons labored with great acceptance and success.

Moral Courage

Moral courage was a striking trait in Dr. Keller’s character. He was adequate to any emergency, requiring its exercise. He never shrunk from the performance of any work to which duty called him. He was bold and fearless in the advocacy of such measures as he thought were right, regardless of the praise or the censure of his fellow men. He never inquired, whether this course of action would please or offend, is this measure popular or impolitic, but the simple question with him was, is it authorized by the word of God, can I invoke upon it the benediction of heaven? He was willing to incur the displeasure of the world, provided his conduct secured the approbation of his own heart, and the approval of his God. Nothing could tempt him to swerve from principle, or to forsake the path of rectitude. He was a man of stern integrity, and unflinching adherence to the truth.

Dr. Keller possessed great force of character, which gave him more than ordinary influence over those, with whom he was associated. He was also remarkable for his untiring energy and indomitable perseverance. His was an iron will and a resolute purpose. In youth he had formed habits of self-reliance, which he carried with him through life. When an enterprise was undertaken by him, it was sure to succeed. Difficulties were speedily overcome, the greatest obstacles surmounted. His interest in the work never flagged, his patience never tired, his zeal was unwearied. No matter how uninviting the field, or how gloomy the prospect, or how arduous the toil, or irksome the duty, he never despaired. His life was emphatically a life of severe and constant labor.

Pater ipse colendi haud facilem esse viam voluit,
Primusque per artem movit agros, curis acuens mortalia corda

The father of tillage himself, did not wish the way to be easy;
He was the first to raise the soil by art,
 Inciting the human heart by anxiety – Virgil

He met with formidable discouragements, and encountered violent opposition in his efforts to prepare for the gospel ministry, yet he did not despond. He was firm in his purpose, and decided in his course. In all his difficulties and trials he exhibited the most wonderful fortitude. He was hopeful. He knew that light would arise out of darkness, that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”


As a preacher, Dr. Keller possessed considerable ability. From the beginning of his career, he cherished the hallowed desire to excel as a minister of Christ. To this object his constant and steady efforts were directed. He never failed to fix and hold the attention of his audience. He was plain and lucid, solid and biblical, appropriate and practical. In his exhibitions of truth, he adapted his language to the humblest capacity. His illustrations were simple and pertinent, his allusions tender and touching. He usually made a copious use of scriptural language, and frequent reference to scriptural narrative. He never searched for hidden mysteries. He did not introduce into his sermons metaphysical subtleties, abstract generalizations, or philosophical speculations. The great doctrines and duties of the gospel were stated and urged in all their importance; and erroneous doctrines and sinful practices received their deserved condemnation. The salvation of the soul was, all the time, kept prominently in view, and what was uttered showed a heart glowing with the genuine fervor of evangelical piety.

His manner was solemn and impressive, earnest and affectionate; the tones of his voice were clear, full and commanding, his enunciation easy and distinct, his gestures natural; his personal appearance, the contour of his face and the expression of his countenance, produced a deep impression upon the mind of the hearer, and increased the effect. There was an evangelical unction pervading all his discourses. He spoke as he felt, without any studied affectation. Every word he uttered seemed to come from his inmost soul. It was not his practice to write out his sermons at length, but, after having prepared a skeleton, to get a train of thought fixed in his mind, and then trust to the moment for the language. He was never at a loss for words. His diction was remarkably full and expressive. In public prayer he was most felicitous in his language, and always devout in his manner. There was none of the hurry or the irreverence, which so often characterizes the devotional exercises of the sanctuary. No one, who heard him, could resist the conviction, that the spirit which he breathed was imbibed in the closet, and that the petitions ascended from a heart, in which the Sanctifier and Comforter had his constant dwelling place.

Dr. Keller’s services, during a series of religious meetings, were generally in demand. His labors, on such occasions, were owned of God and made instrumental in the conversion We heard him several times in the Spring of 1843, during a season of religious interest, and the impression he produced will not soon be forgotten. We heard him from the words:

“O Lord, revive thy work, in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy;”

and again, from the text:

“O do not this abominable thing that I hate,”

and also from the passage,

“Ye are of your father, the devil.”

We likewise listened to him, when he presented the reasonableness of religion, and the duty of surrendering the heart to the Lord, as well as when he discoursed on the love of God, as evinced in the gift of his Son, and our recollection of the occasion, the preacher and the services, is as vivid as the occurrences of yesterday. The earnest expostulation of this man of God, his tender and thrilling appeal, the deep concern he manifested in the sinner’s welfare, excited an interest, such as we have rarely witnessed, and crowded the place of worship with attentive hearers. The effect of this memorable period was overwhelming, the influence most expensive and salutary.

 “The infidel believed;
Light-thoughted mirth grew serious and wept;
The laugh profane sunk in a sigh of deep Repentance;
the blasphemer kneeling, prayed,
And prostrate in the dust for mercy called.”

The wild and the reckless were subdued by the truth; the idle, the dissipated, the profane, the scoffer and the despiser of religion were among the first to yield their hearts to the gracious influences of the Spirit. We saw those, who were hitherto unconcerned, and living regardless of their highest interests, arrested in their course, and turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart. Frivolous amusements and trifling conversation were laid aside; the voice of prayer and praise was heard; conscience became more tender, duty was discharged with increased fidelity — every bosom seemed to swell with emotions of gratitude, every heart was vocal with praise. It was indeed a precious visitation. There was no noise, no undue excitement. During the whole of the interest, the most perfect order, and the greatest solemnity pervaded all the public exercises, such as are wont to accompany those deep emotions, which spring from the agitated soul. The work was deep and permanent. And when the time came for those who had been the subjects of a change, to make a public profession of their faith, it was a most interesting spectacle to see them surround the altar and enter into an everlasting covenant with their Heavenly Parent.

Of the large number, who at that time expressed their attachment to the Savior, many have since been called to stand as a watch upon Zion’s tower. They are now zealously engaged in their Master’s vineyard, ornaments to the church, and the guides of others to glory. To this season of spiritual refreshing they trace their Christian experience, the spirit that animates their toils, and the sweet hope that brightens life. In the faithful memory of the past, they have found a much needed guide, a priceless peace. A letter is now lying on our table, recently written by one, who was then brought to a consideration of his eternal interests, and who is now successfully laboring in the Episcopal ministry. He says:

“It is now twelve years since I was arrested by the Spirit of God in my course of depravity and vice, and made to feel the quickening power of the Divine Spirit, to see the mercy of God, and to own and love my Savior. The eventful scenes of that memorable Spring never, in time or eternity, can fade from my remembrance. I try every year, on my knees in fervent prayer, to recall them and fix them in my mind, and to reproduce all the associations and events that make up that sacred season.”

Others were associated with the subject of our narrative in his labors of love on this solemn occasion, whose ministrations were owned and blessed, yet, as they are still among us, no reference is made to any part they performed in the services.

Dr. Keller was a very successful pastor. He was indefatigable in this department of his responsible vocation,

“With all of patience and affection taught,
Rebuked, persuaded, solaced, counseled, warned,
In fervent style and manner.”

He kept a faithful watch over his flock. He was instant in season and out of season. He imitated the example of his Master, who went about doing good. He was fitted for a seat in the sick chamber, and in the house of mourning; he was welcomed as a visitor to the fatherless and the widow in their affliction, and as a guide to the doubting and the erring. His words were “fitly spoken,” they were “like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Although regarded by some as stern, he possessed warm sympathies and great tenderness of heart. He swayed equally with the law of kindness and the law of firmness. He usually obtained a strong influence over those, with whom he w r as brought into contact. Whithersoever he went, he awakened a lively interest, and was fondly remembered.

Common Sense and A Clear Mind

Dr. Keller was a man of good natural abilities. His mind acted with great directness, clearness and force, readily grasping the strong points of every subject, which engaged his attention. He never sought to enlighten others on what he did not comprehend himself. He possessed strong common sense, an accurate judgment, and a penetrating foresight. Had it been the will of God to spare him, he would have developed as a man, and as a minister of the gospel, and occupied a foremost rank in his profession. His studies were confined almost entirely to one department. His life was too active, and his pastoral labors too numerous, to afford him leisure for literary or scientific research. Nothing from his pen was ever published, except a discourse, delivered before the Alumni of the Theological Seminary, Gettysburg, in the autumn of 1844. The Doctorate of Divinity he received from Jefferson College, Canonsburg, Pa., at its annual Commencement in 1845.

Early Life

The subject of our sketch was the son of Jacob and Rosanna Keller, and was born in Middletown Valley, Frederick County, Md., June 12th, 1812. Of his early life we know very little. At the age of twelve he was sent to the school of a pious German teacher, whose religious influence was very salutary, and to whom Mr. Keller, in after life, often referred with the most affectionate recollection. This good man was deeply interested in the spiritual welfare of his pupils. He instructed them in the catechism, and endeavored to impress upon their minds the duty of seeking God’s blessing in daily prayer. The impressions thus received were not lost upon young Keller. Although after he left school, for a season, they seemed to have passed away, yet they were subsequently revived under the influence of his pious grandfather, who often conversed with him respecting the interests of his soul. The reading of the Holy Scriptures, and attendance upon the house of God, deepened his impressions and awakened thoughtful attention. His mind was more or less exercised upon the subject of religion, for the space of three years, but it was not brought to a decision, until he had reached his fifteenth year. About this time his father had in his employ a lame laborer, a most exemplary Christian, who took a lively interest in Ezra and frequently urged upon his consideration the great question of eternity. In the winter of 1828 he was induced to accompany the man to a religious meeting, to hear an aged minister preach. The subject of the discourse was the “Christian life, and its blessed reward the truth powerfully arrested the attention of the youthful hearer, and produced the most pungent convictions. These, at first, he attempted to resist. His unrenewed heart seemed unwilling to submit to the influences of (he Holy Spirit. Whilst he was in this state of mind, one Sabbath morning his mother gave him a volume of sermons to read. Taking it with him, he retired to his father’s barn, and there, after serious meditation and earnest prayer, he resolved, with the Divine aid, to surrender his heart, fully and unreservedly to the Lord. The prayer of faith was heard, “the peace of God which passeth all understanding,” was experienced; the young disciple rejoiced in his Savior, and in the hope of everlasting life. He soon after made a public profession of religion, and united with the church, of which Rev. A. Reck was then pastor, well known as an acceptable and useful minister in the Lutheran church.

Having now cordially embraced the Savior as his only hope and portion, he was led to inquire with Paul, “Lord what wilt thou have me to do?” Desirous of testifying his love to the Redeemer, and of doing good to his fellow men, he believed that it was his duty to serve Christ in the gospel ministry. So strongly was he impressed with the conviction, that he regarded it as a call from God, and determined to obey it. When he disclosed his conviction to his father, he received from him no sympathy or encouragement for the prosecution of his design. The requisite pecuniary aid for obtaining an education was withheld by the parent, in consequence of the improper ideas he entertained of the work of the ministry. This did not, however, turn aside the son from the object he had in view. Influenced by an unquenchable desire to preach the gospel, he was not to be deterred from his purpose; he resolved to make any sacrifices or put forth any effort, that was necessary in qualifying him for usefulness in the church. He consulted his pastor, who encouraged him in the work, and for several months gave him private instruction, preparatory to his departure from home. In the autumn of 1830, when he bade adieu to the scenes of his childhood, and directed his face towards College, he traveled without funds, to Gettysburg, the whole distance, on foot. The education society here proffered its friendly aid. For its benefactions he ever seemed most grateful, and in after years, when the privations of his youth had passed away, and he received his patrimony, he cheerfully refunded all that he had received. During his collegiate course he had to contend with adverse circumstances, yet with the blessing of heaven resting upon him, his perseverance and habits of economy, enabled him to attain the object of his wishes. At the age of eighteen he was willing to sit down to an academic curriculum of several years, and fit himself for the responsibilities of the ministerial office.

These responsibilities he deeply felt, and whilst he most ardently desired to be a preacher of the gospel, he was too conscientious to rush into its duties without the mental discipline and acquisition, which would justify him in going forth as a teacher of others. Whilst a student he never lost sight of the great object after which his heart panted, and in the preparation for which he was diligently engaged. He passed through the dangers and trials incident to college life, without sustaining any injury. Although the position is regarded by some as a trying one, and unfavorable to the cultivation of high-toned piety, he lost none of his spirituality. In the fall of 1835 he finished his college course, and received the first degree in the arts. The exercise assigned him by the Faculty, on the occasion of Commencement, was a dissertation on Conscience. His theological studies, which he had begun during his senior year in college, he continued industriously to pursue, and entered the Seminary at Gettysburg, at the commencement of the winter term. On the completion of his studies, he devoted himself to the arduous work of an itinerant missionary for the Western states, under the auspices of the synod of Pennsylvania. In this tour to the West his labors were very much blessed. He gathered together many scattered sheep of the household of faith, who for a long time had been without a shepherd, and were destitute of the means of grace. The service in which he was engaged was also of great advantage to himself. It proved to him one of the best schools, and furnished him with valuable experience. It aided him in attaining those excellences which he possessed. He preached in the humblest and most destitute places, and learned to accommodate his language and manners to minds, that needed the simplest kind of instruction.

Pastor of Taneytown and Emmitsburg, and Hagerstown

During the summer of 1837, he settled down as pastor of the Taneytown and Emmitsburg charge. It was a large field of labor, but he was enabled to make full proof of his ministry; his services were such as to secure the blessing of God in frequent refreshings. The congregations increased in numbers and in spirituality. His labors were held in high estimation, not only by his own people, but by the whole community. Whilst here he suffered from a bronchial affection, and the apprehension was entertained, that he would be compelled to suspend his official duties, but in the providence of God he was restored to health, and permitted to resume his labors. He very reluctantly, and with some pecuniary sacrifice, in the autumn of 1840, relinquished this charge, and accepted a call to Hagerstown, Md., impelled by a sense of duty, and a desire to promote the general welfare of the church.

Here his ministry was equally efficient. His labors were crowned with signal and abundant success, and he enjoyed, in an eminent degree, the attachment of his members. The pastoral tie was, however, soon again broken. A literary and theological school had been called into existence, for the wants of our western Zion, and Dr. Keller was regarded by the brethren as peculiarly fitted to take charge of the infant institution. Although he would much rather have remained pastor of the congregation, to which he was ministering with satisfaction and success, yet in obedience to the call of the church, and in compliance with the urgent wishes of the directors, he removed to the West in the spring of 1844. The expectations, that had been formed in reference to the qualifications of Dr. Keller for the post, were not disappointed.

Founding of Wittenberg College

Wittenberg college was founded under his fostering care, and suddenly rose to an unexampled degree of prosperity. He displayed an energy and a zeal requisite for such an undertaking, the influence of which was infused into the friends of the rising institution. He possessed the confidence of the community among whom he resided, to an unwonted extent, and was gaining very much upon the sympathies and affections of our western brethren. At the time of his death, few men in the church gave greater promise of efficient, extensive and permanent influence. He was called away in the prime of life and in the midst of his usefulness. His death was a serious loss to the institution over which he presided, and a calamity to the church at large. That he, whose qualifications seemed so well adapted to subserve the interests of religion, and build up the church of Christ, was so soon cut down, in our urgent wants, from an important sphere of usefulness, which he had begun to occupy, is a mystery, for the solution of which we must wait, until we arrive at that place, where we shall not know in part, but as we are known. The ways of providence are frequently dark and mysterious! They baffle our wisdom, and conflict with all human calculations. When the prospects of an individual are often the brightest, and he is, humanly speaking, the most needed, he is removed by the hand of death, whilst so many cumberers of the ground are left in the way of others. “What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter.”

His Passing. Typhus.

The work of our brother was finished, his destiny fulfilled! He had faithfully served his Master on the earth, he was called, perhaps, to perform higher services in the church triumphant, than can be rendered by man in this militant state. He died of Typhoid fever, December 29th, 1848. He was conscious of his approaching dissolution, and requested some one to read to him the twenty-third Psalm. He feared not as he went down into the valley; he found no darkness, he met no terrors there. He, in whom he had believed, was by his side, and his soul was stayed upon him. On the evening before his death he told his family he was going home, he would fall asleep in Jesus. He had hoped to live, but he was prepared to die. Life had attractions, but death no sting. His wish was to live and labor for Christ, but he was ready to depart and be with Christ, which was far better. He could say with the apostle,

“I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge,shall give me at that day.”

His end was in perfect harmony with his life, and a beautiful illustration of the power of Christian principle. He did fall asleep in Jesus, and went up to swell the number of those “who came out of great tribulations, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

“Servant of God! well done.
Rest from thy lov’d employ,
The battle fought, the vict’ry won,
Enter thy Master’s joy!”

The funeral solemnities were conducted by Rev. Messrs. D. P. Rosenmiller and S. Ritz, the latter delivering a discourse from the words:

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

The tears shed on that day were an appropriate testimony to his exalted worth. Christians of every communion mourned, and the Baptist church appointed a meeting of humiliation and prayer, as an improvement of the occasion. His remains were buried in the College Cemetery, a beautiful spot on the grounds, a short distance from the College edifice. His grave could not have been made, where it would have been more frequently, reverently, and gratefully visited. Although comparatively brief were the years of his pilgrimage, and less than twelve in the ministry, his name is written too deeply upon our hearts to be effaced. He has left behind him a character too precious to be forgotten. “The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”

Reminiscences of Lutheran Ministers Series

"Among our earlier ministers, the fathers of the American Lutheran Church… we can point to many bright names, which Christians of any denomination might be proud to recognize as their own…

“Men distinguished for high talent, great learning, devoted piety, ardent zeal and noble spirit, who were appreciated by their contemporaries, and labored assiduously for the elevation of the race, and the extension of the Redeemer’s kingdom.” – Charles Krauth

Lutheran Biographical Sketch

Publication Information

  • Author: “Krauth, Charles P.”, Editor.
  • Journal: “The Evangelical Review.”
  • Originally Published: 1854.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0