Feast of Bertha Paulssen (January 15)   Leave a comment

Above:  Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Image in the Public Domain



German-American Seminary Professor, Psychologist, and Sociologist


Modern men and women suffer most deeply from their inability to love their neighbors.  How can they love their neighbors if they know nothing of God?

–Bertha Paulssen; quoted in G. Scott Cady and Christopher L. Webber, A Year with American Saints (2006), 38


Bertha Paulssen devoted most of her life to helping “the least of these” in the name of Christ.  She, born in Leipzig, German Empire, on January 15, 1891, grew up in a wealthy, cultured, and Lutheran family.  She internalized the Christian faith and concluded that the church of her youth was too dogmatic and insufficiently addressing human needs.  Our saint, educated at a Moravian school then at the Universities of Leipzig and Göttingen, earned her doctorate at Leipzig in 1917.  Next, Paulssen worked as a librarian and a teaching assistant.  She moved to Frankfurt in 1919, to manage a home for girls who had dropped out of school.  After a few years, our saint worked with children, with prostitutes, and with prisoners in Kiel and Stettin.  Starting in 1923, Paulssen assumed a supervisory role in Hamburg.  She, a state employee, supervised 800 social workers.  Our saint replaced top-down management with tactics that emphasized individual solutions.  The rise of the Third Reich ended Paulssen’s career in Germany in 1933.

Paulssen, who fled Germany, spent most of her life after 1935 in the United States.  She headed first for England, before departing for New York City.  Our saint worked with youth in the “Big Apple” before teaching at Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Next, she taught at the (Lutheran) Deaconess Motherhouse, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before teaching at Wagner College, Staten Island, New York City.  Paulssen, legally an “enemy alien” after early December 1941, had to leave the United States.  She settled in Cuba, naturalized as an American citizen in 1944, and returned to the United States.

From 1945 to 1963, Paulssen was a professor jointly at Muhlenberg College, Gettysburg College, and Gettysburg Theological Seminary.  She became the first woman and lay person to hold a tenured professorship at a Lutheran theological seminary in the United States.  Our saint’s social ethic informed her presentation of the Christian faith and brought sociology and psychology to bear on theology.

Paulssen, aged 82 years, died in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on April 2, 1973.





O God, your Son came among us to serve and not to be served,

and to give his life for the life of the world.

Lead us by his love to serve all those to whom the world offers no comfort and little help.

Through us give hope to the hopeless,

love to the unloved,

and rest to the weary,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Hosea 2:18-23

Psalm 94:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

Luke 6:20-36

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), 60


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