Walter Gunn: A Biographical Sketch

“Some there are, whose names will live,
Not in the memories, but the hearts of men.
Because those hearts they comforted and raised.
And where they saw God’s images cast down,
Lifted them up again, and blew the dust
From the worn features and disfigured limbs.”

Table of Contents

Walter Gunn (1815-1852)

There is a more than ordinary interest associated with the memory of Walter Gunn, from the fact that he was the first missionary from the American Lutheran church, who fell in the foreign field. He was a man of faith and love, a missionary in its best and highest sense, of whom the world was not worthy. His career was brief, but he rendered important service in the cause, to which he had dedicated his life. He exerted an influence in India, which still lives, and in our own land he awakened an interest in foreign missions deep and permanent. His example may serve to stimulate others to engage with zeal and earnestness in the great work, to which he was devoted, and arouse the church to continued and increasing efforts in a cause, upon which the blessing of heaven has so signally rested.

Missionary Calling

The subject of our sketch was born at Carlisle, Schoharie County, N. Y., June 27th, 1815, and was, at the time of his death, in the thirty-seventh year of his age. It was in the year 1837, at a religious meeting held in his native place, that his attention became interested in spiritual subjects. His mind was arrested by the truth, and he professed a hope in Christ. Soon after, he united with the Lutheran church at Schoharie, of which the Rev. Dr. Lintner was, at the time, pastor. From this period his thoughts were particularly directed to the heathen. His mind was deeply impressed with the idea that he was called, in the providence of God, to declare the glad tidings of redemption to those, who were perishing in distant lands. He retired to some secluded spot, and there, alone, in the presence of his Heavenly Father, consecrated himself to the work of foreign missions; he resolved, if the Lord would open the way, he would preach the unsearchable riches of Christ to the benighted heathen.

When his pastor was made acquainted with his determination, he was surprised that a young man, just awakened from a sinful life, should be exercised, immediately upon his conversion, so intensely in reference to the salvation of the heathen, particularly as at that time, there was scarcely any interest manifested in the subject by the church, with which he had connected himself. The Lutheran church had not yet established a foreign mission.

She had done comparatively little for the cause; her sympathy and her interest were directed to the destitution at home, her contributions were expended upon the waste places in our own widely extended land. The increase of immigration rendered it necessary to make constant provision for the wants of our brethren from Europe, who very naturally looked to the older congregations for aid in their new settlements. Mr. Gunn’s decision upon this question excited the general attention of ministers and people to foreign missions within the bounds of the Hartwick synod, and produced the conviction that it was the duty of the church to engage in the work. It was regarded as a clear indication of providence, that the time had come for our denomination to extend its efforts to a foreign held, and to take part in the work for the evangelization of the world. The sentiment began to prevail, that God would have us to embark in the cause of foreign missions.

Mr. Gunn was, however, in indigent circumstances. He was without the necessary means to secure an education, requisite for the work in which he longed to engage. Although the prospect was gloomy, his confidence in God was strong. He felt that a way would be provided, and whatever difficulties might be encountered, all would ultimately be removed. At the annual convention of the Hartwick synod, held at Cobleskill, N. Y., in the year 1837, some five or six ladies, the wives of clergymen there present, united in the plan of educating a young man for the Christian ministry, for the missionary work in heathen lands. They had met without any preconcerted arrangement, and while their husbands were engaged in synodical deliberations, they spent a season in prayer. Bowed in deep humility, and bathed in tears at the mercy seat, they committed their cause to God, resolving in his strength to commence the enterprise immediately. The Great Head of the church seemed to approve of their noble doings. Their efforts were crowned with success. Mr. Gunn offered himself as a candidate for the sacred office, and for the foreign field, and during his whole course of study, was sustained by the association, which had undertaken to educate him.

From this period Mr. Gunn commenced his studies with the ministry of reconciliation in view. After passing through a preparatory course in the academy at Schoharie, he entered Union college, at which he was graduated as Bachelor of Arts in 1840. His theological studies he pursued at the Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pa. During the entire course of his academic and theological training, he was distinguished for his diligence in study, and his attention to duty. He was extremely conscientious, and appeared constantly to realize his responsibility to God. He was ever anxious to be useful. He did not feel satisfied with himself, unless he had reason to believe that he was exerting an influence for good. He desired to live for some purpose, to diffuse human happiness, and to extend the kingdom of Christ.

 Ille potens sui
Lætusque deget, cui licet in diem
Dixisse, “Vixi”

That man lives happy and in command of himself,
who from day to day can say I have lived.
 Horace – Carmina. III. 29. 41.

Influence on Other Students

His uniform kindness and consistent deportment won all hearts and made him a general favorite. The fact too of his having dedicated his life to foreign missions, which idea appeared prominent in all his actions, awakened the sympathies of his fellow students, and filled them with missionary zeal. His influence was salutary. A decided impulse was given to the cause, and those, who could not feel that it was their duty to go, became interested in the work, and exerted themselves to uphold the cause.

In the fall of 1842, Mr. Gunn was licensed as a candidate for the ministry, by the Hartwick synod. After his licensure, for a brief period he labored by appointment of Synod, as a missionary in the domestic field, with instructions to preach on foreign missions in the different churches he visited. How much his mind was taken up with the work, to which he had given himself, may be inferred from the following extract from his journal, written at this time:

“From the indications manifested in our churches, it must be very evident to the discerning, that it is high time to engage actively in the foreign missionary enterprise. It is true, there are some who are ever ready to utter the hackneyed expression, ‘we have heathen enough at home, we have no men to spare, etc., etc.,’ but there are many others, who have taken a view of the wretchedness and misery of the guilty and degraded heathen, and their hearts have been touched with compassion: they have read the last command of Christ to his disciples, ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,’ and they feel that a portion of the great work of disseminating the gospel belongs to them. They look at the blessedness of their own condition, living as they do, within the sound of the church going bell, in the midst of the ministers of reconciliation, possessed of the hopes and joy which the religion of Jesus Christ inspires, and they cannot, they will not, remain indifferent, while the calls to help from the heathen world are so loud and impressive. They will not make the wants of the church at home an excuse for withholding their aid in spreading the gospel in heathen lands.”

Appointment to India

In the spring of 1843, at the time of the meeting of the General Synod, in Baltimore, he received his appointment as missionary to India from our foreign missionary society. During the summer he was married to Miss. Lorena Pultz, of Columbia Co., N. Y., a woman well qualified for the work of missions, to which she had devoted herself in early life, and whose labors among the heathen were so greatly blessed.1 Mr. Gunn, prior to his departure for India, was directed by the society to spend some time in visiting the churches, and in preaching on missions, for the purpose of diffusing a missionary spirit, and collecting funds in aid of the society. This service he faithfully and satisfactorily performed.

The following autumn he was ordained as a missionary to the heathen in the Lutheran church, at Johnstown, by the Hartwick synod. The exercises on the occasion were particularly impressive. The ordination sermon was preached by Rev. J. Z. Senderling, from the words:

“Drop down ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together: I the Lord have created it.”

Mr. Gunn parted with the brethren amid scenes of thrilling interest and the deepest solemnity. Said the chairman of the committee: “Brother Gunn, we love you, but we love Christ more. We are anxious to have you go, that you may the sooner get to your work. We will not let you perish; we will hold you up, and we pledge you, that sooner than let you fall, one hundred dollars shall be annually given of our own salary if our ability remains what it is at present.” A member of the synod writes, “who, that was there, can forget that night, that missionary, that noble cause, and best and most of all, that Savior?”

In the month of October, 1843, he received his instructions from the Executive Committee of our foreign missionary society, convened for the purpose in St. Matthew’s church, Philadelphia. The corresponding secretary, Rev. Dr. Morris, read the instructions of the committee, and Rev. Dr. Kurtz delivered the charge. The missionary made a reply. In the course of his remarks he said: “If it is our duty to go to heathen lands,“it is yours to uphold us there. You give your money — we give more — we give our lives!”

In the following month Mr. Gunn, with his wife, sailed for India. In a communication to his pastor, on the eve of his departure, he says: I have preached my last sermon in my native land. We feel cheerful in view of the prospect before us, and trust that the Lord will sustain us in that hour, when we shall bid adieu to the last of our friends. The promises of God are exceedingly precious to us, and we find near approaches to the Savior in prayer.”

Our missionaries arrived at Guntoor the ensuing spring, June 18th, 1844, just seven months after they had left their native shores, and immediately entered upon the duties of their mission, in connection with Rev. C. F. Heyer, who had been previously commissioned by the Pennsylvania synod, and had selected this point in India, as most favorable to our operations.2 The sequel has shown the wisdom of the choice. No location could have presented stronger inducements for missionary labor, or offered greater advantages for the prosecution of the work. Mr. Gunn was cordially received by Dr. Heyer, who had been actively engaged in the field for two years. They now labored harmoniously together, and by their united energies and faithful cooperation, the work was successfully carried on, and the mission strengthened. In a letter written to Rev. Dr. Lintner, soon after his arrival in India, he says:

“Here I am now in Guntoor, with my beloved wife, engaged in our labors among the heathen. Our principal work is the study of the Telugu language. At family worship each day, we have eight or ten persons in attendance, some of whom can understand English, and to these I have the privilege of unfolding the gospel of Christ. Mrs. Gunn has a small class, whom she is teaching the elements of the English language. One is a man of forty years old, two are females, who appear to be interested in the truth. A few nights since, after we had retired, we heard a low voice in an adjoining apartment: it was the voice of prayer from one of these females. O, my dear brother, you cannot imagine how cheering these tokens of the Divine favor are to our souls in this land of darkness.”

In a subsequent communication he writes:

“Our schools are now in quite a flourishing condition, and I trust much good will result from them. The care of the boys is divided between me and Mr. Heyer. The girls’ school is under the superintendence of Mrs. Gunn, and numbers thirty-two. Considering the opposition of the natives to the education of females, this is quite encouraging.”

It is true, they were called to pass through various trials, they had to contend with inveterate prejudice, and meet with bitter opposition to the truth, but they did not despair. They were sustained by the promises of the gospel, they trusted in God. Mr. Gunn describes the condition of things in the following language:

“The indifference of the ungrateful people, among whom we are wearing out the energies of our bodies and souls, often makes our hearts bleed. We remember, however, that it was for just such that Jesus came to suffer, and that it is only the grace of God which makes us to differ from them. In the midst of our cares and delights, we often find delight in looking forward to our eternal home. The rest, that remaineth for the people of God, is just before us. A few more months and years, our trials will be over, and the glories of heaven burst on our vision; and then, if we should be so happy as to meet around the throne of God some heathen, saved through our instrumentality, our joy will be full.”

Mr. Gunn’s attention, during his early residence in India, was chiefly directed to the acquisition of the language. While thus employed, he preached to the English residents, and also to the natives, through an interpreter. This was to him very satisfactory, as it furnished him with an opportunity for doing good. But he burned with an ardent desire to be more useful, and exceedingly longed for the lime when he could address the natives in their own language. He writes to his former pastor:

“How I long to speak to the heathen in their own language. I can now express myself with considerable ease, on common topics, in short sentences, in the Telugu language: but have to resort to an interpreter, when I wish to make myself understood in a public and continuous discourse. I am thankful to my Heavenly Father that I am now able, to a certain extent, to make known the great truths of the gospel to those who are willing to hear, and I trust, with the Divine assistance, I shall be permitted, in a few months, to preach more effectually to the heathen in their own tongue.”

Mr. Gunn continued to labor in faith and with perseverance, and he had the satisfaction of seeing the work of the Lord prosper through his instrumentality. The work steadily advanced. The seed sown was blessed, and yielded a precious harvest. Souls were hopefully rescued from eternal ruin, and introduced into the fold of Christ. His hands were encouraged, and his heart rejoiced. In a private communication to a friend in this country, he writes:

“There is an old grey-headed Telugu here, who is a servant of Christ, and often prays the Lord of the harvest to send more laborers into the field. Another native Christian and his wife, walked ten or twelve miles yesterday, over a bad road, with a child in their arms, to attend the service on the Sabbath, and walked home again in the afternoon. Another young man I baptized yesterday, who seems to be truly taught of the Holy Spirit. Others are coming regularly to me from villages ten or fifteen miles distant, to be instructed in the principles of Christianity. O, dear brother, is it not a privilege to do something for the heathen? Could you have seen the joy that beamed from the countenance of the young convert I baptized yesterday, and heard the expressions of Christian feeling he uttered, you might have formed some idea of the blessedness of laboring among the heathen, notwithstanding the trials and difficulties, with which we have to contend.”

In his report to the Executive Committee for the year 1847, our missionary states:

“The number of scholars in connection with our four schools at Guntoor, is one hundred. I have preached twice on the Sabbath regularly to our native congregation throughout the year, with one or two exceptions. The number in attendance has been from fifty to one hundred and fifty. I have had many opportunities of addressing persons coming from a distance, upon the great doctrines and truths of Christianity, and placing in their hands tracts and parts of scripture on their return to their homes. Thus the seed of the word has been sown. How much of it will hereafter spring up and bear fruit, is known only to God, in whom we trust.”

The efforts of this man of God were not in vain. The mission was strengthened, and gained upon the affections of our people. Churches were established and schools gathered; the word steadily progressed amid the many obstacles it was compelled to encounter, and souls hopefully converted to God. The seven years labors of our departed missionary were productive of the most glorious results, both among the benighted Telugus and among the churches at home. The prayers and toils, the counsels and the example of this faithful servant, are connected with events in the church of God, which the future alone can unfold.

Health Concerns

Mr. Gunn’s health now began to decline. By repeated attacks of fever, his constitution became impaired, so as to unfit him to resist the organic disease, with which he had long been threatened. He was visited with hemorrhage of the lungs, and his strength gradually failed. His physicians advised a cessation from labor, and a journey to the seashore. In the spring of 1850, he accordingly repaired to Madras, and sojourned for a season in the family of Dr. Scudder. Here beseemed to gain a temporary relief; and the hope was entertained that he might speedily resume his duties. On his return, however, he found that he was not able to perform much active labor. Yet his heart was still in the work, and he was anxious to accomplish all that he could. When he was no longer able to preach, he labored to do good to the souls of those who visited him at his house, and embraced every suitable opportunity of engaging in religious conversation with the heathen. The converts often assembled in his chamber, and poured out their hearts in prayer to God for their shepherd and the mission; and those seasons of prayer with those, whom God had given him as seals to his ministry, he regarded as the happiest seasons he spent on earth. In the last letter he wrote, when near his end, he says:

“How many mercies and trials have I experienced since I stood up in the church of Schoharie, and declared my determination to preach the gospel to the heathen. Three or four times I have been within a step of death, but I am still alive, and deem it a blessed privilege to exert my strength in this blessed cause. I was thinking a few days since what a privilege it was, in the midst of bodily weakness and languor, to listen to the fervent prayers and praises of the converts, whom the Lord has given in Guntoor from the Telugus. What will be our joy when we shall meet these converts in heaven? O! it is delightful to meet with these first fruits of our mission, round the throne of grace. They are the happiest seasons I have ever experienced.”

The extracts from his letters, we have given, illustrate his constant habit of mind, the daily current of his thoughts. The earthly pilgrimage of Mr. Gunn appeared to be rapidly approaching its termination. He himself was conscious that he was on the threshold of the eternal world. He was, however, in a most happy frame of mind, and patiently waited for his change. He frequently spoke of the work which he was about to leave, and trusted that God would raise up laborers to succeed him. His interest in the salvation of the heathen, as he drew near his end, seemed to increase, and he urged all, who had been associated with him in the mission, to consecrate themselves more fully to the work. On one occasion, when he was suffering from great physical debility, he remarked to a friend, that he felt the frail tabernacle rapidly giving way, but he rejoiced that when it did fall, he had “a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” He referred to the evils, with which he had to contend in his own breast, and mourned over his sins, but he reposed unlimited confidence in the merits and righteousness of his Savior, and was happy in the bright prospect before him of everlasting perfection and bliss. He regretted that he bad accomplished so little in the cause for which he had been permitted to labor, but he hoped that the work would go on, and God be glorified in it. In a conversation one day, on the approaching change, his wife inquired how it appeared to him, and how he thought he should be able to meet it. He referred her to his favorite hymn,

Rock of ages, cleft for me!
Let me hide myself in thee;

and remarked that its sentiments described his feelings much better than he could express them. On the 27th of June Rev. Messrs. Heyer and Greening, our missionaries from the neighboring stations, convened at his house. The day was devoted to religious conversation and devotional exercises. It was a solemn occasion. They had come to unite their prayers and sympathies with their departing brother, and to commend him, and the cause he loved, to the God of missions. The following Lord’s day, the little band of missionaries commemorated the love of their dying Redeemer. It was the last communion season on earth Mr. Gunn enjoyed. He experienced from this sacred ordinance much comfort and peace. He was favored with rich manifestations of the divine presence. He continued to grow weaker, but his mind remained unimpaired. His faith was unwavering. On being asked if he had any fears of death, he replied, “None at all — all is bright and glorious!”’

“Yes, Jesus is with me.”

“I have been,” said he, “an unprofitable servant, but it is a comfort to know that we are accepted in Christ, the beloved.” On the day preceding his death, he said to Judge Robde, who had called to see him, “I know in whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him, against that day.” On the day of his death, just before his departure, he folded his hands and distinctly prayed, “Lord Jesus come, come quickly, and take thine unworthy servant to glory.” Although tenderly attached to his family, he gave them up without any reluctance. He knew that God would take care of them. “I can now,” he said, “leave you to the protection of him who is a father to the fatherless and the widow’s God.” He called his children to his bedside, and laid his hands upon the head of each, and with his dying admonition, gave them a father’s blessing. After which he composed himself to meet the last enemy. There was no struggle! His countenance was serene, his mind calm and peaceful. The possession of his powers he retained till the last. When asked whether Jesus was with him, he faintly whispered, “Yes, Jesus is with me,” and with these words on his lips, his spirit took its flight to mansions in the skies, on Saturday evening, July 8th, 1S51.

Some of the heathen were present at the mission house, to witness the last moments of him, whom in life they loved so well. After he was dead, four of the native converts begged that they might remain and watch with his body during the night. They wished to testify their affection for him, whose voice was now silent in death. During the stillness of the night, they were gathered around the corpse reading the New Testament, and engaged in singing the favorite stanzas of their beloved pastor in the Telugu language.

The funeral exercises look place on Sabbath afternoon, and were conducted by Rev. C. F. Heyer, our missionary at Gurzal, in the English language, and Rev. C. W. Greening, at Ellore, in Telugu. The native Christians, and the children of the mission schools sang in Telugu, the hymn “Rock of ages, cleft for me.” The services were attended by the District Judge, the Chief Magistrate and other English residents at the station, also by a large number of natives, both Christian and heathen. The coffin was placed in a palakeen, and carried from the house to the grave yard by twelve bearers; at the graveyard gate it was taken up by twelve invalids, native sepoys, and borne to the silent tomb. There he will sweetly slumber,

“Till the last trumpet’s joyful sound;
Then burst the chains with sweet surprise,
And in his Savior’s image rise.”

His Character and Achievements

Mr. Gunn was a man of good natural abilities and respectable attainments. Although his talents were not brilliant, his intellect was sound, and enriched by a liberal education. He had diligently improved his advantages. His views were evangelical, his conduct irreproachable, his piety humble, ardent, devoted and enlarged. His Christian attainments were above the ordinary standard. He was distinguished for his humility; he was always ready to acknowledge his own deficiencies, and disposed to profit by the advice and counsel of those more experienced. He enjoyed communion with his God, and often repaired to the throne of grace. He never engaged in a work without imploring the divine direction. He knew that the blessing of heaven was essential to the success of any enterprise. The word of God he read with devout attention. He studied its holy precepts, cherished its heavenly hopes, and sought to exemplify in his conduct, and experience in his heart, its purifying, its saving influence. To its teachings he always yielded implicit obedience. No sacrifice, which it required, was regarded by him as too great. In the discharge of his duties, he was truthful, upright, faithful, courageous and persevering. His preaching was instructive; it was eminently practical and earnest, and usually made a deep impression upon those who heard him. “Christ and him crucified,” was the theme upon which he delighted to dwell, and with which his discourses abounded. He had an ardent love for souls, and a predominant desire for the salvation of the heathen. He was convinced that they were lost, and could only be saved by the gospel. He devoted himself to the work of foreign missions from a principle of attachment to his Divine Master, and a sincere regard for his glory. He looked upon the employment as a great and glorious employment. “Who can,” said he, “estimate the dignity and glory of this enterprise?” In it he engaged with his whole soul, and labored for its advancement patiently and cheerfully as long as his strength continued. In his severest trials and most painful conflicts, he would not have exchanged it for any other employment on earth. Its interests were, in his opinion, identified with the glory of God and the highest welfare of the human race. The human soul he regarded of priceless value, and for its salvation he was willing to endure any labor, or practice any self-denial. He never grew weary in well doing.

Universally Beloved

Mr. Gunn was universally beloved. He had the power of securing the esteem of all who came under his influence. All who knew him felt, that a good man had fallen, and sincerely mourned his removal. No tribute to his memory, no expression of regard for his worth, was withheld. The subjoined extract from a letter written by Hon. Henry Stokes, a pious gentleman in the service of the British government, and a warm friend of the mission in India, shows how highly he was esteemed by the English residents:

“Our grief for the loss of so dear and valuable a friend, and so useful a laborer, may well be tempered with thankfulness for the grace given to him, both in life and death. His light shone clear and steady, and many have reason to glorify God in him. How pleasing it is to recall the time he spent among us! His pure and lender spirit, his hearty love for his brethren, his meekness, his patient labor, his unrepining sufferings, in all he has left us a bright and valuable example. The memory of the just is blessed.”

His work is finished, his mission accomplished. He has gone up to join Schwartz, Ziegenbalg, Vanderkemp, and a host of other worthies who died in their master’s service on India’s shores. He rests from his labors, but his works do follow him. The last great day alone will reveal the multitudes who were, under God, conducted to the throne of the Lamb through his instrumentality. Let us fervently pray that his spirit may fall upon those who are in a course of preparation for the ministry in the schools of the prophets, that others may rise up and take his place. Let us acknowledge the goodness of the Great Head of the church, in furnishing us with so lovely an example for our encouragement and our imitation! May his life furnish us with additional incentives to renewed exertion in our Christian course, animate us to more vigorous effort and more earnest prayer, and a more entire consecration of soul in the work of disseminating the gospel and converting the world. Let us keep distinctly in view the parting command of our risen Savior: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” remembering the promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world!”

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

  1. Mrs. Gunn survives her husband, and is, at present, in this country, superintending the education of her two children. ↩︎

  2. Vide History of our foreign missionary operations in the Evangelical Review, Vol. V. p. 104, ↩︎