Why Seminex – Lutheran Zionism
Editor: The divisions within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) predated The New Orleans Convention and the events leading up to Seminex. Eugene Brueggemann, digs deeply into the history of the church body, naming names, delineating theology, pointing out the politics, and expresses his love, admiration, and dismay to what has happened to a great American denomination.
Attached is the longest article ever published by the Daystar Journal. It should be read, however, by anyone interested in American Lutheranism or the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Of particular value are the author’s own experiences which illuminate the history he so ably recounts. It is truly a masterpiece which needs to be widely read and shared. Since this may be of interest to those preparing for ministry in the Synod, permission is granted to print and circulate this article as needed.
The Missouri Synod’s Pursuit of Purity
The history of the Missouri Synod can be read as the narrative of a Lutheran form of Zionism: the establishment of a pure Lutheran Church in a land of promise. This church would be a transplant from the sterile religious soil of Germany to America, the fertile land of religious freedom. The name Zion denotes a place where pure religion is practiced. From their captivity in Babylon to the pogroms and holocaust in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Jews pursued a Zionist vision, the restoration of Israel in a promised land. The Mormons in 1838 found their Zion in present-day Utah. The Saxons who set out in 1838 to re-establish a pure Lutheran Church in North America used Zionist imagery to express their vision of a church uncompromised by doctrines and rites which were not true to their Old Lutheran faith. It was no accident that so many Missouri Synod congregations in the nineteenth century chose the name Zion for themselves.
On the cusp of preparations for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, and forty-plus years after the convulsions of the New Orleans Convention, it is a fitting time to ask, “How’d that vision thing go?” What I hope to demonstrate in this essay is the interplay of the pursuit of doctrinal purity (reine Lehre) in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in tandem with and sometimes in conflict with the parallel mission of the church – church building and outreach. The interplay of these two goals are the yin and yang of Missouri Synod history. I would like to sketch that interplay culminating in the trauma of the Synod’s New Orleans Convention in 1973. As I see it, there was general agreement on the meaning and the goals of doctrinal purity and the parallel mission of the church building and mission outreach during the first half of the Synod’s history, roughly defined as the Walther-Pieper era (1847-1931), and significant change and internal controversy in the Pfotenhauer-Preus era (1911-1981). The tensions created by these changes and controversies were resolved, for better or for worse, by the actions of the New Orleans convention in 1973, the final chapter in this survey.
Background of the Lutheran Zionist Movement
Following their liberation from the spiritual tyranny of the papal church, Lutherans in the state churches of Germany experienced first the stifling effect of Lutheran orthodoxy and then the refreshing but controversial reaction of Pietism. Pietism worked from within the German and Scandinavian Lutheran churches to revive the sense of Christian community in small group worship and Bible study. They stressed strict codes of Christian behavior and established missions of mercy at home and missions of evangelism abroad. They were faulted by the traditionalists for working outside the structures of the parish and beyond the control of the state church. In Scandinavia they morphed into new denominations and in Germany they became Free Lutheran churches (free, that is, from state support and control).
Both Orthodoxy and Pietism were found wanting by the emerging secular Enlightenment. The rationalism it spawned centered in the universities, where students were trained for ministry in the state churches and were increasingly influenced by the rationalism which challenged biblical authority. The state churches were governed by the prince and his appointed consistory. The prince held the position of ultimate authority in the church by default: Luther had proposed the arrangement at the birth of the Reformation when he called on the princes to serve as emergency bishops in those states and territories where Lutheran reforms took hold. There was, alas, no end to the state of emergency.
In the early nineteenth century a conservative reaction rose in response to the growing influence of rationalism in the universities from whence it trickled down into the theology and preaching of the Lutheran churches. The people in this movement were called Old Lutherans by their peers, because they insisted on preaching and teaching according to the doctrinal standards of the Lutheran Confessions and orthodox seventeenth-century theologians, whose massive works gained quasi-confessional status among the Old Lutherans.
The Old Lutherans were outraged and energized when Prussia, the dominant German state, forced its Lutheran congregations to compromise their confessional position on the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament. Frederick Wilhelm III thought it would be a fitting way to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Reformation in 1817 by coercing the two dominant Reformation churches (Lutheran and Reformed) to adopt a common liturgy which obscured their differing theological positions on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Himself a member of the Reformed Church, Frederick’s goal was to unite the Lutherans and Reformed into one body, the Evangelical Church (die evangelische Kirche).
Lutherans who insisted that the two Eucharistic doctrines were incompatible called this forced fellowship unionism. The concern of the Old Lutherans for the preservation of the distinctly Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence in the Sacrament mushroomed into a passion for absolute doctrinal purity in the Missouri Synod, the cantus firmus in most of the history of the Missouri Synod. The Old Lutherans in Prussia and other states reacted in several ways: some practiced civil disobedience and were jailed or went into exile. Some formed denominations free from government control and thus used the designation Old Lutheran or Free Lutheran Churches. Still others planned to immigrate to America.
Shaking the Dust off Their Feet
Emigration was the strategy which emerged among people who gathered at St. John’s Church in Dresden under the leadership of Pastor Martin Stephan. Pastor Stephan had a charismatic personality which attracted people looking for an Old Lutheran preacher who worked and worshiped with people in small group meetings as well as Sunday worship. A number of those people were candidates for ministry who felt they would never be assigned to a parish because of their Old Lutheran views. One of these pastors was Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, whose tortured conscience was comforted and set aright by counseling with Pastor Stephan.
Pastor Martin Stephan, had a record of strained relations with church authorities, which gave this set of Old Lutherans a sense of urgency for their mission of transplanting the German Lutheran Church in the new world. Saxon church officials investigated Stephan’s unorthodox ministry several times. He was unhappily married, with a family of ten children, and aroused suspicions of extra-marital relationships because of his pattern of late-night walks with members, including female members. While he was officially cleared of those charges, he was finally suspended from office by the Superintendent of the Saxon Church in 1837.
His followers felt that his ministry and their hope for a revival of Lutheran confessionalism in their homeland were in jeopardy. So in 1838 they organized a Society (Gesellschaft) to immigrate to The United States to establish a Lutheran Zion there. Some 700 Lutheran Zionists chartered five ships to sail from Bremen to St. Louis by way of New Orleans, intending to purchase property in Missouri as home for their noble mission, following a well-worn path of Germans to the mid-western United States. One of the ships, the Amalia, sank en route.
The leadership cadre of the mixed group which left Germany for the United States was composed of the pastors and pastoral candidates among them who elevated Martin Stephan to the office of bishop en route to New Orleans. They signed a document which gave him unlimited authority in matters spiritual and temporal. There was not a trace of lay input in this transaction; for one thing, it was done on board the ship transporting the Bishop and the clerics. It was a remarkable document, produced under the pressure of having to define authority in the colony in the absence of traditional church governance. They decided that the practice of appointing bishops like they did in the early church was the way for them to go.
The Lutheran Zionists disembarked in St. Louis. They had contacts there with other German emigres, through whom Bishop Stephan purchased acreage on the Mississippi River in Perry County, approximately 75 miles south of St. Louis (as the crow flies), deliberately isolated from close association with American citizens and fellow Germans. There was a group which preferred to remain in St. Louis, however, while maintaining close ties with the Perry County colony. The St. Louis group formed Trinity Church.
Crisis in Zion on the Mississippi
Things did not go well in the Lutheran Zion in its earliest years. It was hard work building homes, clearing forest and making it through the transition time before their crops would sustain them. Money was controlled completely by the Bishop, who spent a considerable chunk of it on vestments to replace the ones lost at sea when the Amalia sank. Before long people began to question the decision to give the bishop complete authority in temporal matters. There was discontent and discouragement.
Then the bomb burst: a woman in the group confessed to an affair with the Bishop. It turned out that the rumors of his infidelity in Saxony were true. (His wife, not so incidentally, had refused to come to America with him.) It was a confused and somewhat messy scene as the colonists struggled with both the legal and the spiritual ramifications of Bishop Stephan’s fall from grace. Did he have control of the colony’s money and property under American Law? And how much money was in the treasury? There was no church authority to deal with his public offense. What should they do?
The first thing they did was take control of the finances and depose Martin Stephan as their bishop, escorting him to a small boat waiting to carry him and his belongings across the Mississippi River to Illinois. The second thing they did was redefine who they were in the wake of this disaster and what they should do next. Their original vision of a Lutheran Zion had popped like a bubble.
A series of debates were held in Altenburg, the name they had given to their first settlement in Perry County. Some felt they had sinned by leaving their Dresden church without the blessing of the authorities, so they should return to Germany, ask for forgiveness and, not incidentally, return the ecclesiastical equipment and supplies they had brought with them, such as the jeweled communion chalice. A few did return (without the chalice, still in occasional ceremonial use at Trinity, St. Louis). Others believed they should make a new beginning in America, but without the heavy-handed control of the clergy among them who had signed the document granting Martin Stephan the office of bishop and giving him total control of the management of the colony. The word hierarchy and its derivatives signaled all that was bad about church governance for the disillusioned Saxons.
The underlying issue they had to face was both existential and doctrinal: were they a legitimate church? The Constitutions of the United States and the State of Missouri allowed any group to call itself a church. But were they legitimate in the eyes of God? Did they have standing to call themselves a Lutheran church in the valued judgment of their peers, especially the pastors and conferences in Germany which supported their Old Lutheran cause?
A Great Debate followed in the Saxon colony, held in the log cabin college in Altenburg. Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther emerged out of the cauldron of the Altenburg debates as the one who could best define who they were and what they should do next. He convinced a majority of colonists that though they were small in number and without any tie to any official Lutheran Church, they were a Christian congregation, and a Christian congregation has authority from God to call men to publicly preach the word of God and administer the sacraments. Neither a hierarchy nor a ministerium is essential to the process of establishing congregations or calling ministers.
As important as Walther was in this whole process, overlooked in most tellings is the role of the laity, especially Dr. Eduard Vehse (who had been Curator of the Saxon State archives) and Franz Marbach. Vehse wrote a lengthy Protest against clerical rule in the colony in which he affirmed the doctrine of the universal priesthood of all believers and drew this conclusion: “The office of the ministry is no more than a public service, when something is enjoined upon a person by the whole congregation.” Walther adopted this point of view; it became the key to his doctrinal position in his later book Kirche und Amt (Church and Ministry).
The geographic center of this Lutheran Zion moved from Perry County to St. Louis when C.F.W. Walther accepted the call to succeed his brother Otto Herman Walther as pastor of Trinity Church after Herman’s untimely death. The year was 1841, and Ferdinand Walther’s energy inspired the St. Louis congregation to build its own house of worship and school and establish branch schools and congregations in the city. (They had been worshiping in the cathedral of the Episcopal Church.) The Perry County College (equivalent to a German Gymnasium) moved to St. Louis in 1843 and was chartered by the State of Missouri as a college/university.
Trinity congregation adopted a constitution based on the principles which Walther enunciated at the Altenburg Debate in 1843. It became a model constitution for Missouri Synod congregations. In St. Louis Walther began the publication of Der Lutheraner in 1844, inaugurating the second act in the Saxons’ effort to establish a Lutheran Zion in America.
The Formation of the Missouri Synod
The emergent leader of the Saxons, C.F.W. Walther, pursued the vision of a Lutheran Zion with vigor. He recognized that a kairos moment had arrived for Lutherans in America. There were thousands of Lutherans immigrating to America and very few pastors to serve them. His primary concern, of course, was the German Lutherans. In 1844 Walther began publishing Der Lutheraner, which was read by many of them. The Stephanites had made news in Germany and in America (not always the best news, to be sure), and Der Lutheraner was evidence that they had emerged from the Sturm und Drang of their leadership and identity crises in Perry County chastened and renewed to pursue their vision of a pure Lutheran Church. The Perry County colony faded into the background as the vision expanded from St. Louis to the many places in North America where German Lutherans were settling.
One of the first respondents to Walther’s appeal was Pastor J.A. Ernst, Löhe’s first missioner to America and a member of the Ohio Synod (more about Löhe later). Walther wrote to Ernst that his intention was “[T]hat the chief function of the Synod be directed toward the maintenance and furtherance and guarding of the unity and purity of Lutheran doctrine.” But Walther’s call for a new synod published in the first issue of Der Lutheraner was not limited to German Lutherans. He wrote: “The Lutheran Church is not limited to those people who from their youth have borne the name ‘Lutheran’ or have taken that name later on. To every person who honestly submits to the whole written word of God, bears the true faith in our dear Lord Jesus Christ in his heart and confesses it before the world, we extend our hand, regard him also as a fellow believer, as a brother in Christ, as a member of our church, no matter in what sect he may lie concealed and captive” – a large, you might say grandiose, vision of a Lutheran Zion.
A further respondent to Walther’s appeal was another Old Lutheran from Germany, J. A. A. Grabau, a pastor in the Prussian church who had been imprisoned for his resistance to the union of the Lutheran and Reformed churches there. Grabau had established settlements in Buffalo and Milwaukee a year earlier and published an earlier pastoral letter (Hirtenbrief) addressed to German Lutherans, warning them to avoid the services of untrained and unauthorized men who were willing to serve them as pastors. Grabau insisted on preserving the traditional forms of ministry, giving the pastor supreme authority in the church in any matter relating to the word of God. Like Martin Stephan, Grabau favored an Episcopal form of governance, a hierarchy.
So it was no surprise that Grabau and Walther could not agree to work together. Grabau denounced the novel doctrine of the church as Walther formulated it in Perry County and applied it in Trinity Congregation. Walther, having gone through the spiritual/theological trauma of accepting the pattern of the hierarchy and then rejecting it in the Stephan debacle, totally disagreed with Grabau’s hierarchical formula. Grabau called Walther a heretic. Walther went to Buffalo to meet with him and presented himself at the altar to receive the Sacrament from his hand. Grabau communed him. But they were not reconciled theologically. There was no way, finally, that they could cooperate in the mission of establishing a Lutheran Zion in America.
Two other men worked with Walther to establish a German-American church faithful to the Lutheran Confessions: Friedrich Conrad Dietrich Wyneken and Wilhelm Konrad Löhe, who represent the strong second strand in the history of the Missouri Synod, the evangelical mission strand. Wyneken came to America in 1838 with a pastoral passion to gather German Lutherans into congregations in what was then called the American West – the area between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. He arrived in Baltimore and served a mixed congregation of German Lutheran and Reformed membership and then was called and sent by the Pennsylvania Ministerium to serve scattered German Lutheran communities in Ohio and Indiana. Wyneken’s health problems took him back to Germany in 1841 where he wrote an impassioned appeal for men and money to relieve the dire spiritual conditions in German Lutheran communities in the Midwest.
Wilhelm Löhe was among many who responded to Wyneken’s appeal. Löhe was a Lutheran pastor in Neuendettelsau, a village in the Franconian part of Bavaria who was sympathetic to the Old Lutherans, but was not one of them. His response to Wyneken’s Appeal was to train and send minimally-trained missioners (Sendlinge)to America. He had a vision for a colony in North America with a mission to bring the gospel to the Indians there. His vision included training and sending missioners to serve German Lutherans in America and Australia. He also sought renewal in the Lutheran Church in Germany. To that end he established a deaconess training school in Neuendettelsau.
Löhe partnered with Walther and the Missourians in the run-up to the founding of the Missouri Synod. The academically-talented Wilhelm Sihler responded to the Wynken-Löhe appeals in Germany and came to America where he was ordained in the Ohio Synod. He was pastor of St. Paul’s, Fort Wayne, Indiana and worked with Löhe in establishing an institution in that city for the training of missioners and teachers in 1846 to the fledgling synod. The building is now a national historic site.
Die deutsche evangelisch-lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio und andern Staaten was born in Chicago in April, 1847, following a series of meetings in Cleveland, Fort Wayne and St. Louis initiated by pastors associated with Löhe and Wyneken in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan in response to Walther’s appeal. They first got in touch with Walther in 1845 and together made common cause for a truly confessional German Lutheran Church in America. C.F.W. Walther morphed fromde facto to de jure leader and was elected President. The early Synod was largely composed of congregations and pastors from the existing Joint Synod of Ohio and the Michigan Synod who were dissatisfied with the lax theology and practice of Eastern Lutheranism. The Ohio men (Löhe”s missioners) seemed especially alarmed at the trend to displace German with English at the Columbus seminary of the Ohio Synod.
Roughly two-thirds of the membership of the Missouri Synod at its founding came from the ministries of Wyneken and Löhe, and the word deutsche (German) in the name of the Missouri Synod carried a lot of weight. These early leaders were agreed that Luther’s teachings could not be properly understood and taught except in the German language. This conviction would cause problems later on, but at the beginning it helped to advance the cause of the Synod.
Löhe’s Break with His Michigan Colonies and Missouri
Walther acknowledged that Löhe was one of the founders of the Missouri Synod from his base in Neuendettelsau, which he never left. But Walther’s partnership with Löhe didn’t last. The issue – again – was the doctrine of church and ministry. It was a muted issue, more background than foreground, but it was the primary reason for the Break. Löhe, like many other German Lutheran theologian, questioned Walther’s unique transference theory of the office of the ministry, defined in the crucible of the debacle in Perry County. This doctrine defined the ministers of the gospel as those men to whom the congregation transferred its authority to publicly preach, celebrate the sacraments and forgive or expel sinners. Löhe held to the tradition that other church agencies and officers have that authority. Löhe also feared that the Synod’s Constitution opened the way for mob rule (Pöbelherrschaft) in synodical assemblies because it mandated an equal number of lay and pastoral delegates.
Walther insisted that his position was true to the Confessions, and that when Lutherans debated doctrine with Lutherans, they did it on the basis of the Confessions; when they debated with other Christians, they did in on the basis of Scripture. From this it followed that Löhe’s appeal to the scriptures which record the appointment of bishops (episkopoi), while true, did not have more authority than Walther’s appeal to the Confessions which regarded the Episcopal office as an adiaphoron.
Löhe once summed up his position this way: “We are not Lutherans in the sense of the Missourians, also not in the sense of the Old Lutherans. We are very ancient and very modern: a progressive movement of Lutheranism toward [the goal of] an apostolic-episcopal church of brothers – that is what we wanted in the final analysis.” The episcopal concept served as a poison pill in discussions between Walther and Löhe and, as it turned out, so was Löhe’s notion of an historical interpretation of the Confessions. Walther clearly won over the men whom Löhe had sent to America. His doctrine and the American spirit against hierarchy of any kind proved to be a powerful combination of ideals and an incentive for church growth and mission outreach.
The differing political climates in the United States and Europe also played a role in the debate: In America the love of democracy was very contagious and the German immigrants embraced it willingly. In Europe, the fear of democracy was widespread among state and church leaders: the Revolutions of 1848 were a contemporary phenomenon, and Löhe was one of those who resisted the democracy tide.
It appears that Walther and Löhe agreed to disagree on the subject of church and ministry until dissension in the colonies persuaded Löhe to pull out of their united enterprise. Trouble came when Löhe attempted to extend his mission in Michigan independent of the Missouri Synod. He sent men faithful to him, Georg Grossmann and Johannes Deindoerfer, to establish a teachers’ seminary and pilgrim house in Saginaw without consulting with the Synod or with his Michigan colonies. A nasty dispute arose in the colonies over this action. Most of the pastors there resented his action and questioned whether the new arrivals could be brothers if they clung to Löhe’s views on the doctrines of church and ministry. Löhe’s response in 1853 was a farewell letter to the pastors in his Michigan colonies, edged in funereal black, in which he broke his important but geographically-remote relationship with his Michigan colonies and the Missouri Synod. In his mind it was not a break in fellowship but a changed managerial relationship. This appears to be the opinion of synodical President Wyneken, too, who promised not to establish an opposition altar (Gegenaltar) in Iowa, should they follow his suggestion and relocate there.
In his letter of farewell to his Michigan colonies, Löhe spoke as their spiritual father and reprimanded their pastors because [“You] tolerate no one as your neighbor who does not share your doctrine of the ministry, even though he agrees with you in essentials.” He affirms his love for them, insists that they are still in fellowship, and reassigned Grossmann and Deindoerfer to head a group faithful to him from Michigan to Iowa, where, in 1854, they founded the Iowa Synod and Wartburg Seminary in St. Sebald, a community close to Dubuque, their ultimate destination.
The break with Löhe was an important episode in Synod’s history and its pursuit of doctrinal perfection. It is significant that neither Walther nor Löhe considered their differences on the church and its ministry to be an obstacle to their partnership until Löhe judged that it affected his pastoral relationship to his colonies in Michigan and undermined his authority there. As grateful as Walther and the Synod were to Löhe for his gifts of men and money and the Fort Wayne seminary, the prospect of a drawn-out disagreement between these leaders was not one they wanted to face. Realistically speaking, one charismatic leader is better than two. The Michigan colonists made that decision for the Synod.
It is worthy of note that Walther did not break the partnership with Löhe; it was the other way around, with Löhe’s decision to avoid further dissension in Michigan by moving his mission to Iowa. It was Löhe’s colonists who adopted Walther’s doctrine of church and ministry and wanted Synod to be united on this issue and move ahead under Walther’s leadership. Wyneken was synodical President when the Break occurred, and his promise to Löhe that Missouri would not establish opposition altars in Iowa indicates that in Wyneken’s judgment their differing opinions on church polity would not prevent them from remaining in fellowship. The opposite happened. Theological warfare between Missouri and Iowa commenced shortly after the move to Iowa, not so much on the doctrine of the church but on a number of other issues. Missouri refused to recognize church fellowship with the Iowa Synod and its successor for one hundred and fifteen years, until 1969.
Walther’s stature and influence grew rapidly as several German mid-western synods merged with Missouri, attracted by his leadership and insistence that the Synod was designed to merely “advise one another, that we have only the power of the Word, and of convincing.” The St. Louis theoretical seminary fed by graduates of its pre-seminaries modeled after the German Gymnasium grew to meet many of the pastoral needs of scattered German Lutheran congregations. Another path to pastoral ministry was the establishment of a practical seminary modeled on Löhe’s school for the training of missioners. The only major American denomination with its origins in the Midwest, the Missouri Synod spread rapidly to both coasts and by 1866 was the largest Lutheran church body in the United States, eclipsing the eastern synods which had a hundred-years head start.
Missouri Calls for Free Conferences
Lutherans arrived in droves in the middle and late nineteenth century from Scandinavia and Germany and settled mostly in Midwest and prairie states. The resources of existing Lutheran churches were stretched to the limit and beyond. Many small synods were established – at one time there were over forty synods in the United States.
At the same time there was theological ferment in the land. The older, eastern Lutheran groups, like the Pennsylvania and the New York Ministeria were struggling with the transition from ethnic outliers to mainstream American life. There was a strong impulse to Americanize their churches, capped by the presentation of the Definite Platform to the General Synod in 1855 containing an American Recension of the Augsburg Confession. That body never adopted it; but it came to symbolize a watershed moment in American Lutheranism. It was authored by S. S. Schmucker, President of Gettysburg Seminary 1855 and was an attempt to move the Lutheran and Reformed churches in the direction of a single American Protestant church. American nationalism following the Revolution played a part: the old European controversies would be put aside and a strong, new church would emerge in a strong, new nation. The Roman Church fought this trend as well and called this nationalist movement the Americanist heresy. Their reaction is reflected in the Syllabus of Errors published by the Vatican in 1864.
The Definite Platform was anathema to Walther and the Missouri Synod, as you would expect. One of the proposals in the American Recension was to delete the article on the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament — shades of Prussia and the forced union of Lutheran and Reformed churches! But it was not only Walther and Missouri who reacted negatively. Walther knew a kairos when he saw it, as he had in Perry County. When he and five other editors of Lehre und Wehre called for a Free Conference in 1856, they identified themselves as “Ministers of the Ev. Lutheran Church in the United States, convinced that the unity and welfare of our Lutheran Zion [sic!] will be greatly promoted by the free interchange of views upon the various interests of our Church in this country, between brethren agreed in the faith, hereby extend an invitation to all members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the United States who acknowledge the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a faithful presentation of the doctrine of the Word of God,” it was a bold attempt to inspire other Lutheran leaders to rally to the cause of building a truly confessional Lutheran Church in America (italics added). Walther wrote these words in 1856 before the first conference: “Ought not the occasional gathering of such members of the various synods which call themselves Lutheran such as acknowledge and confess without reservation the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 as the pure and faithful expression of the teaching of Holy Writ and of their own faith, be profitable and helpful in an attempt to bring about eventually just one Evangelical Lutheran Church of North America?” (Lehre und Wehre II [Jan. 1856], 4. Original in double-spaced type, the German equivalent of italics.) What a soaring vision, based on nothing more or less than discussion and agreement on the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
Four free conferences were held between 1856 and 1859. They were designed to be forums for discussion of issues related to the Augsburg Confession with the understanding that the attendees represented only themselves. They were attended by clergy and laymen from the Missouri, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania Ministeriums, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Norwegian Synods. Iowa and Wisconsin sent regrets. Things seemed to be going well, but Walther couldn’t attend the fourth conference and the fifth was cancelled when the Ohio Synod pulled out of the discussions. Walther was having some health problems, but something more was probably going on. He had been the dominant figure in the first three conferences. There seems to have been some personality issues between Walther and men from the Ohio Synod, and the appellation “Proud Missouri” began to appear in the Ohio Synod periodicals. President Wyneken noted that in his presidential address in 1860, when he referred to them as “opponents,” an indication of a change in the relationship.
Colloquies were held between the Missouri and Iowa synods in 1867 and 1868 designed to reach agreement on their doctrinal differences. Limited progress was made with the Iowa Synod, but there was no follow-up. At the conclusion of the colloquy with Iowa, which had made progress in addressing a variety of doctrinal issues, Walther most significantly refused the hand of fellowship extended him by the representatives of the Iowa Synod. The Buffalo Synod, began to split. The majority congregations joined the Missouri Synod but a significant remnant remained.
After the failure of the free conferences to achieve their goal of consensus among conservative Lutheran, other leaders from the older synods of the East emerged who shared Walther’s vision of a genuinely confessional Lutheran Church initiated a program to achieve union. Charles Porterfield Krauth, of the Pennsylvania Ministerium was the most prominent leader of a movement subsequent to Walther’s to establish a single Lutheran Church faithful to the Lutheran Confessions in America. He was first president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, designed to counter the American Lutheranism of the Gettysburg Seminary. When the Pennsylvania Ministerium was excluded from the General Synod in 1866 they issued a call to all synods in the United States and Canada “which confessed the Unaltered Augsburg Confession inviting them to unite with us in a Convention, for the purpose of forming a Union of Lutheran Synods.”
The mid-western synods were among those who accepted the invitation to a first meeting in Reading, Pa. called in 1866 by Krauth and the Pennsylvania Ministerium. Walther was there, which indicated his continuing interest in the goal of a union of Lutheran synods based on the Confessions. The second meeting of what became the General Council was held in Fort Wayne in 1877 and Missouri was not represented. It is worth noting that they communed together at St. Paul’s Church there, a Missouri congregation, without first arriving at doctrinal agreement.
Missouri’s (Walther’s) judgment was that acceptance of the Confessions as the basis for fellowship was not enough as long as other Lutherans tolerated differences in opinion on a number of issues such as unionism, lodge membership and observance of the Sunday Sabbath. The Missouri Synod explained that more than confessional subscription was required, namely, pure doctrine (reine Lehre) and church practice consistent with it. Pure doctrine was eventually defined as every teaching drawn from the Scriptures.
A number of Midwestern Lutheran synods joined Missouri in their anxiety about fellowship with the older American Lutherans bodies. They gave up on the attempt of the General Council to form an association of conservative confessional Lutherans. Instead a number of them, under Walther’s leadership, formed the Synodical Conference in 1872. The founding members were the Ohio, Norwegian, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri Synods who judged themselves to be united in doctrine and practice. They elected Walther as their first president.
Missouri’s original quest was for a Lutheran Zion standing firm on the Confessions, in particular the Unaltered Augsburg Confession. The General Council agreed with that standard, but Missouri’s standard had expanded. Missouri’s quest for a Lutheran Zion culminated with the establishment of the Synodical Conference. It held out hope for a larger grouping of confessional Lutherans via an on-going process of free conferences as defined by Missouri: that attendees not be official representatives of the synods where they hold membership. This condition was deemed unreasonable and unnecessary by the General Council. It was a principle Missouri/Walther would not budge on. Not budging would become a pattern Missouri followed in refusing to tolerate what it deemed inconsistencies between doctrine and practice in the churches uniting in the General Conferences.
Perfect agreement didn’t last long in the Synodical Conference. Friedrich August Schmidt, a professor from the Norwegian Synod who had been sent by them to teach at Concordia Seminary, accused Walther of teaching false doctrine in an essay he had presented to a district convention on the subject of predestination in 1877. Professor Fritschel of the Iowa Synod had already made that judgment, but Schmidt’s charge in 1879 came from within the fellowship of the Synodical Conference. (Incidentally or not, a common opinion at the time held that Schmidt harbored a grudge against Walther for not calling him to serve on the faculty at St. Louis.)
The details of the theology in the controversy are many, but are not the focus of this essay. A quick summary is to say that Walther’s Thirteen Theses on Election insisted that only the unmerited grace of God is the source of a Christian’s election to eternal life. Professor Lehmann of the Ohio Synod and Professor Stellhorn of Missouri’s College (Gymnasium) at Fort Wayne believed that God elected his saints to eternal life in view of the faith which the elect would demonstrate. Missouri called this synergism (cooperating with God), ultimately a form of work righteousness. The Ohio Synod called Walther’s views Crypto Calvinism.
The upshot of the Election Controversy was the withdrawal from the Synodical Conference of both the Ohio and Norwegian Synods. The Wisconsin and Minnesota Synods agreed with Missouri and the fundamental principle that perfect agreement on every doctrine was necessary for fellowship was made clear when Schmidt was refused a seat at the Synodical Conference meeting in 1882. They resolved: “We no longer acknowledge Professor Schmidt as our brother in Christ and cannot grant him seat or voice in this organization so long as he does not penitently recognize these his sins and make public apology.”
The death of C. F. W.Walther on May 7, 1887, occurred in the 40th year of the Synod’s founding. A grateful Synod gave thanks to God for his extraordinary life and influence on American Lutheranism. He was a charismatic founding father whose unchallenged leadership (after Löhe’s Break) fostered a spirit of unity and loyalty unmatched in American Lutheranism, a zeal usually associated with sects. Luther’s vision of the Reformation was that it be a movement to restore the gospel as the true and only center of the faith of the church catholic. Walther (who was regarded as the American Luther by his grateful peers) had a vision defined in his essay The Evangelical Lutheran Church the True Visible Church of God on Earth published in 1866. Such a church teaches and practices pure doctrine, and that vision was realized by the establishment of the Missouri Synod and the Synodical Conference. Walther’s heritage would both inspire and trouble the Synod for years to come.
Walther’s charism was a passionate pursuit of the Stephanite goal to establish a true Lutheran Zion in America, a goal which not only survived the trauma of Bishop Stephan’s fall from grace but was re-energized by the process of soul-searching and theologizing which followed. The man and the moment and the flood of Germans into the Midwest made history and resulted in a great church. Walther’s charism included the certainty that he was right in his unflinching positions in controversies. The Missouri Synod was made in his image and he was constantly strengthening that image in his role as the undisputed teaching authority in Synod. Walther’s energy was unflagging and resulted in an incredible amount of writing in Der Lutheraner and Lehre und Wehre. His insistence that the congregation is the essential church meant that he had not the slightest interest in the traditional trappings of ecclesiastical office and inspired congregations, their pastors and members, to take the lead in building the church.
To his credit, Walther strove to keep the gospel (the doctrine of justification by grace, through faith) at the center of his theology. Pure doctrine, the yin in Missouri’s history, was impossible without this gospel center. His position in the Election Controversy demonstrated that feature of his theology most convincingly, as does his classic work on the subject. The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel (1863). His informal evening lectures on this subject to students about to become pastors made a lasting impression on the ministerium of the Synod during his life time.
Walther’s gospel-centrism was not perfect – no one’s is – but it was much in evidence in his early-on insistence that persuasion was the Missouri way to go in growing the church. The power of the word, he profoundly believed, would persuade congregations and synods to come together and stay together in fellowship. That theorem would be sorely tested in years to come.
Walther’s doctrine of the church and ministerial office was a perfect fit with the American sense of grass-roots democracy. But his embrace of the theology of the visible and invisible church was seriously flawed, in the estimation of many subsequent theologians both in and out of the Missouri Synod. To begin with, it is not drawn from the Lutheran Confessions; it has a Reformed origin. “Invisible church,” in Dr. Caemmerer’s memorable phrase, “means invisible love.” It meant that there was in the Missouri Synod, a strong and mutual bond of love with those in the true visible church of God, and a tough love of total exclusion from fellowship with those others in the erring visible churches, including the many Lutherans who disagreed with Walther’s theological judgments, as Löhe observed in his Farewell Letter to his Michigan colonies. This encouraged the growth of loveless legalism in Synod in respect to church fellowship (“my way or the highway”) and to pride of perfection.
Walther’s successors would divide into two groups: those who believed that Walther’s formula of pure doctrine was the last word on the fellowship issue, and those who believed that gospel-inspired change in doctrinal formulations and church building was the way to achieve the Zionist dream in the Missouri Synod, whether they used that language or not.
The expressed bedrock of Missouri’s doctrine and practice is the word of God defined as the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The catholic creeds and the Lutheran confessions are affirmed to be true and faithful expositions of that word. Walther insisted that only the word of God could be used to convince the church to agree on the truthfulness of any doctrine. The Synod states in Article VIII of its Constitution that in its Synodical meetings “All matters of doctrine and of conscience shall be decided only by the word of God. All other matters shall be decided by a majority vote.” This means that synodical assemblies are NOT the forum for resolving doctrinal controversies. For over a century this was honored. Synodical doctrinal resolutions were an expression of a consensus in Synod’s public doctrine that had emerged from a process of study and prayer in faculties, conferences and congregations of the Synod, not by majority vote at a convention.
This carefully-worded Constitution was the result of the Saxons’ experience in Germany and in Perry County. Walther/Vehse’s doctrine of the congregation as the essential church made them leery of any centralized authority. Pressure came from the traumatized Saxon lay people, particularly the members of Trinity, St. Louis, to deny the Synod final authority over their congregations. They insisted on those principle as a condition of joining the Synod. The Synod was advisory to its members, and its members agreed that Scripture and the Confessions were the doctrinal norm of the synod.
The question, Who decides what the word of God teaches in case of doctrinal disagreement?, was unasked and unanswered, except in the negative: bishops, superintendents, consistories and ministeria do not have that authority. The authority assumed by the synodical Constitution is the unconstrained consensus of its members, the congregations and pastors/teachers of the Synod. How is that consensus arrived at? Walther insisted it came about through persuasion. How that works institutionally is not defined in the Constitution. For the better part of a century the faculty of the St. Louis seminary functioned as de facto primary persuader. This was undisputed until after the Walther-Pieper era.
Pastoral conferences were expected to function as sounding boards for the opinions of Walther’s faculty, but in practice they more closely resembled echo chambers. Of special note is the function of the pastoral conferences which were held at the beginning of every District or General synod. The strong, nearly unanimous, support of the pastors was regarded as necessary when the President addressed the doctrinal controversies de jour in his report. In later periods these pastoral conferences were more ceremonial than anything else, and no longer are a scheduled part of the General synods. But regular pastoral and teachers’ conferences are required by the bylaws, where doctrinal questions are to be addressed. Smaller, circuit-based pastoral conferences, called Winkel, i.e., “corner” conferences, are an important part of ministerial life, where more practical pastoral questions were discussed.
A part of the process of maintaining consensus in doctrine and practice was the custom of either accepting or receiving a doctrinal paper at an official conference or convention. Accepting a paper meant approving its contents as conforming to the position of Synod and thus to the word of God. Receiving a paper meant that the essayist was thanked for his labors but the group regarded it as somewhat defective. To reject the paper was to judge that it contained false doctrine. To no one’s surprise, conference essayists consistently strove to prove their concordance with Synod’s positions. The result was the shriveling of the role of the clergy in the formation of Synod’s doctrinal consensus; to be critical of a synodical position was to be disloyal in the battle against error. To be labeled an errorist or heretic (Ketzer) was to wear the scarlet letter of opprobrium. The clergy pretty much marched in step with Walther’s (later, Pieper’s) definition of biblical doctrine.
A personal note: The first District Pastoral Conference I attended (in 1951) was the occasion for a gentle, but definite presidential rebuke of the Conference for receiving a paper at its last session on the Antichrist which he deemed contrary to Synod’s position. He insisted that if an essayist discovered in the process of preparation that he was coming to a conclusion different from a Synodical position he was morally obliged not to present it to the conference. The Conference majority disagreed, which is what was beginning to happen in the post-Walther/Pieper Synod, a subject for later development.
The doctrines which were unresolved in negotiations with other synods — and which Missouri/Synodical Conference insisted must conform to their judgment — included things like chiliasm (end of the world speculation), Sunday (as a prescribed Sabbath), usury (charging or paying interest on loans), masonry, life insurance (usurious speculation and lack of faith in God). They even debated whether lightning rods on their homes and barns were tempting God. I mention these not to hold the Synod up to ridicule, but to illustrate how serious, even obsessive the Synod was about defining doctrines. Other contemporary theologians were also doing this, but other synods usually did not consider agreement on these doctrines essential for church unity.
In respect to questions of doctrines in dispute and church fellowship in the church at large, Walther believed in the power of the word to lead to the truth through the mechanism of free conferences. In church history this is called the conciliar method of settling controversies. But when Walther could not get others to agree with his definition of a free conference, he opted out. The perfect, once again, was the enemy of the good, and short of that perfection doctrinal agreement and church fellowship with the Missouri Synod was not possible.
Missouri’s answer to the question, What gives special status to the doctrinal opinions of Walther and his faculty?, was the assertion that these opinions were in accord with the pure word of God. When other Lutheran theologians disagreed with some of Missouri’s/Walther’s doctrinal positions, that was prima facie proof that they were clinging to false doctrine. The pursuit and definition of reine Lehre, (pure doctrine), became Missouri’s magnificent obsession. The broad consensus model of free conferences had failed. A narrower model, agreement in all doctrines, took its place, and was realized with the formation of the Synodical Conference in 1872.
A pure visible church, reasoned Missouri, would lose its purity if it ever associated with impure visible churches. It was enough to confess mystical unity with the invisible church. The first task of the pure visible church was to avoid worshiping with, praying with or working with any other Christian group lest it compromise its virginal purity. The second task was to persuade other visible churches of the rightness of its positions so that the pure visible church might grow and spread. The charge of “proud Missouri” and the formation of the Anti-Missouri Brotherhood in 1887 were some of the responses to Missouri’s perceived arrogance in doctrinal negotiations.
But it is hard to argue with success. The only major American denomination with its origins in the Midwest, the Synod spread rapidly to both coasts and by 1866 was the largest Lutheran church body in the United States. Walther’s theological acumen and prodigious literary/journalistic output were an important component of this success, as was his steely refusal to compromise in a time and place where compromises were common. His articles in Der Lutheraner (the popular journal) and Lehre und Wehre (Teach and Defend — the theological journal) persuaded many German Lutherans in North America that the Missouri Synod and Synodical Conference were the real thing, the standard by which all other churches should be measured. His sermons were printed and widely distributed, and his picture was in every Missouri Synod parochial school classroom along with pictures of Martin Luther and George Washington. Zion Church in Cleveland has him in stained glass along with Luther, a monument to a universal sentiment in Synod.
Franz Pieper and the Close of an Era
Walther’s chosen successor was Franz Pieper, born in Germany and educated in Wisconsin and Missouri Synod seminaries. He taught dogmatics in a way totally consistent with the Old Lutheranism of Walther. He served both as Seminary President (1887-1931) and Synodical President (1899-1911). He was essentially a caretaker leader, preserving and continuing the theology, policies and style of his predecessor. He served in a difficult time of transition from German culture/language to American/English. Like Walther before him, Pieper inspired a generation of seminary students with his erudition, orthodoxy and piety. His major writing was the three-volume Christliche Dogmatik, a recapitulation of Old Lutheran theology based on the writings of the orthodox fathers of the seventeenth century. Heretofore dogmatics had been taught in Latin; now it could be studied in German, just as the Synod and its seminaries were moving inexorably into the English-language future. But an English translation made decades later is a standard text in Missouri’s seminaries today.
An unsuccessful effort was initiated by a pastor of the Wisconsin Synod in 1903-1906 to resume the effort to hold free conferences in order to advance the cause of Lutheran union. A large number of pastors from several synods attended, but nothing came of it. The pressure of the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in 1917 gave impetus to major changes in American Lutheranism, such as the formation of the United Lutheran Church in America in 1918 from the three Eastern synods (the General Synod, the General Synod, South and the General Council and a merger in 1917 of several Norwegian synods based on a document called the Settlement (Opgjer). A group of thirteen pastors dissented from this Settlement and were received into fellowship by the Synodical Conference as the Norwegian Synod, a move that would have a powerful impact on the future of the Missouri Synod.
Missouri was not immune to the imperative to recognize the 400th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation. Certain as it was with the correctness of its positions, Missouri felt constrained to continue negotiations with the Ohio, Iowa and Buffalo Synods to seek agreement on the questions which divided them. These synods, as well as the Norwegian and Augustana synods had found the Chicago Thesis of 1919 to be inadequate as a formula for further Lutheran union. The Chicago Theses of 1919 were an outgrowth of the formation of the United Lutheran Church in America, proposing fellowship with all Lutheran synods on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions. On the surface of it, this looked like an answer to Walther’s and Missouri’s appeal in 1844. But times had changed. Missouri was convinced that the United Lutheran Church’s appeal had two major flaws: it allowed for conditional subscription to the Confessions and it tolerated church practices which were contrary to the Confessions.
The doctrine of the word of God was moving to the fore as the major bone of contention in ongoing doctrinal controversies among Lutherans. Contemporary liberal German theologians were promoting theories of the Bible’s source, history and message which were a far cry from Lutheran Orthodoxy. Their influence was felt in the United States and the response of the conservative Lutheran synods was to insist on a doctrine of the word of God which protected the Bible from such subversive changes. The Bible was defined by the Missouri tradition as divinely inspired (every word), inerrant (even in matters of history and science) and infallible (unerring — a word also used to define the papacy at the First Vatican Council in 1871). Both Catholics and Protestants were alarmed by the claims of science which challenged the veracity of their teachings and responded by defining or defending their infallible authorities: the papacy for Rome, the Bible for Protestants. A subsequent generation of Missourians would propose re-definitions of these terms consistent with the gospel and a scientific worldview. Sparks would fly.
The Missouri and Wisconsin Synods agreed to meet with representatives of the Ohio, Iowa and Buffalo Synods to see if agreement could be reached on outstanding doctrinal disagreements, like unionism, chiliasm, predestination, open questions, Sunday observance and the identification of the papacy as the antichrist. It was during one of these meetings that some Missouri delegates raised objections to praying together with other delegates since it could be seen as a unionism. In spite of this, and the withdrawal of the Wisconsin Synod from the process, the assembled representatives of Missouri, Ohio, Iowa and Buffalo subscribed a document of agreement called the Chicago Theses of 1928 which were presented to the Missouri Synod’s convention in 1929 as sufficient grounds to declare fellowship with the other synods.
But the Synod refused to accept the Chicago Theses of 1928 and referred the matter to a special review committee which found them to be inadequate, because they did not reproduce perfectly the Missouri Synod’s positions. Doctrinal agreement meant total surrender of other synods to Missouri’s formulas in the eyes of many Missourians. It was significant that the faculty of the seminary at Springfield raised objections, a foretaste of things to come.
The Synod asked Pieper to summarize Missouri’s positions on disputed doctrines and he responded with a pamphlet-sized document entitled (in English translation) A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod which he wrote shortly before his death in 1931. It may be the case that the greatest impact Pieper would have on the Synod was not his three-volume tome Christliche Dogmatik, but this Brief Statement. It was received by Synod at its convention in 1932 and was considered by some in Missouri as a standard by which all pastors and teachers must be measured. It was destined to play an important role in the Missouri Synod’s future doctrinal controversies, most notably at Cleveland in 1962 and New Orleans in 1973.
The success of Missouri in the Walther-Pieper era combined doctrinal certainty and uniformity with an aggressive pastoral outreach to German Lutherans flooding into the country, especially the Midwest. The transition to English was painful and slow. The Synod in 1887 refused the request to form an English Conference. Advocates of English language serviceswere forced to form their own English Synod in 1890 which was received as the English District with non-geographical status in 1911. They were often viewed with suspicion, as a variant of Missoouri’s strict orthodoxy. They functioned as an institutional safety valve as it were, allowing for practices not always in step with mainline Missouri. Many German-speaking congregations granted transfers to spin-off English District congregations. It wasn’t always a peaceful transaction, but it kept them in the Missouri Synod. The English District was a church building yang in Missouri’s history, in tension with mother Missouri, with a mission to be an advance guard in the Americanzation of Synod.
Missouri’s church building was decentralized: districts and congregations started new congregations and charitable agencies. The yin and yang of doctrinal purity and the mission of church building were pretty much in sync. The parochial schools and German language helped to maintain this Missouri distinctiveness until World War I as did the establishment of preparatory schools for the St. Louis Seminary modelled on the six-year German Gymnasium. A second seminary at Springfield, Illinois continued the Löhe pattern of preparing men for ministry with a shorter, more practical course of study. Colleges for general education were not built, but two teacher-training institutions, at Addison, Illinois and Seward, Nebraska, were established to supply teachers for the parochial schools.
Perhaps nothing defined Missouri’s exceptionalism as much as its passion to avoid the original sin of unionism which led to the emigration of the Saxons in 1838. The definition of unionism was expanded in the Walther-Pieper era to include practically any visible expression of spiritual unity with other Christians, including praying with other Lutherans in doctrinal discussions. Table prayer with family and guests who were not members of Synodical Conference congregations was defined as unionism by some extremists.
Another distinctive characteristic of Missouri in this era was the total lack of humility displayed by many of its theologians, the attitude that they had nothing to learn from other Lutherans. One of their theologians on the occasion of Walther’s funeral said that the Synod “was in possession of the truth – the entire, unvarnished truth,” and that “as certainly as Holy Scripture is God’s Word – which it is – so certain is it that our doctrinal position is correct. . . . Whoever contests our doctrinal position contends against the divine truth.” From this position we can understand the difficulties inherent in meeting with other Lutherans in the hope of resolving doctrinal disagreements. Nothing less than unconditional surrender of their opponents was the expectation of many – by no means all — in the Synod when these committees met. Even when the committees achieved consensus, as they did in 1928, there were loud protests in Synod which prevented ratification of these agreements.
The era of Missouri’s history which closed with the death of Pieper in 1931 was the era of dominant theologians leading the Synod, the unquestioned authorities in the movement to establish and expand a Lutheran Zion in America built on the foundation of German Old Lutheranism. The strong sense of identity as the true Lutheran Church permeated the Synod and its congregations. While strong theological fences were built which discouraged or prevented fellowship with Lutherans outside, the members within those fences were fiercely loyal to their church and to each other. Some disagreements arose within the Synod, as is inevitable in any organization, but they were tolerated as long as conformity to its core mission was unquestioned. A common culture developed and was found in Missouri’s churches in the city and country, in the heartland or on the coasts.
The Pfotenhauer Transition, 1911-1935
(A personal note: I have been both a passive and active member of the Missouri Synod in the Pfotenhauer – Preus period of its history. Baptized in 1926, graduated from Concordia College, Fort Wayne in August, 1945 and from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1950, I was ordained in 1951 and served in full and part-time pastoral ministry in the Missouri Synod until 2003. I followed a call to part-time ministry at an ELCA congregation in 2006 and retired in 2012. Therefore what follows is both history and memoir.)
[Johann] Friedrich Pfotenhauer was the last of the German-born presidents of the Missouri Synod and was highly-regarded for his German peaching skills. He presided over the Synod’s transition from a German-language church to an English-language church. The transition was not easy; the passions in World War I America directed against German Americans caused a lot of pain but hastened the transition. German schools were a special target and legislation in Nebraska resulted in a Supreme Court decision to strike down a law proscribing the use of the German language in Lutheran schools.
The Walther League, a youth and young adult society was organized in 1893 and the Lutheran Laymen’s League came into being in 1917. Both groups assisted the process of the Americanization of Synod. The LLL Launched the Lutheran Hour in 1931 and under Dr. Walter A. Maier it became a successful evangelism tool as well as making the Synod much better known in the country. Social service agencies also sprang up during this period, and a number of them were inter-synodical in nature.
The Chicago Theses were presented and rejected during Pfotenhauer’s presidency, illustrating how strong the bond with Walther’s theology was in the minds of a cadre of true believers who viewed the fellowship agreement as a compromise with errorists. Their influence was such that the decision was made at the synod at River Forest in 1929 that the Chicago Theses hadn’t resolved all the doctrinal differences separating the Missouri Synod from the Ohio, Iowa and Buffalo Synods. The matter was referred to a committee for further study — study and meetings and documents which would continue for several decades. To reject the recommendation of a synodical committee on church relations was unprecedented. It appears that there was a majority who would vote for the fellowship recommendation, but a policy of delay was adopted to give the minority with objections time to make their case. A shadow of disagreements to come was the opinion of the Springfield faculty which found the Chicago Theses wanting.
Consequently the Ohio, Iowa and Buffalo Synods decided to merge and formed the American Lutheran Church in 1930. They went further and together with The Augustana Synod (Swedish), Evangelical Lutheran Church (Norwegian), the Lutheran Free Church (Norwegian), and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (Danish) formed the American Lutheran Conference.
The unanimity which marked the Synod for eighty years was showing signs of strain between the uncompromising doctrinal purists in the Walther tradition and the new generation of English-speaking pastors and lay people who wanted to advance the fellowship cause in American Lutheranism which was now an English-speaking denomination. This generation wanted to build on the Missouri tradition and expand its mission. They were doing this by such things as promoting Sunday School and an openness to American styles of church building. An institutional expression of this was the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau founded in New York City in 1914. Their publication, The American Lutheran, gave information and inspiration to pastors and congregations of Synod moving more deliberately in the direction of Americanization without compromising its doctrinal positions.
This was easier said than done. Tolerance of masonry and the herd of animal lodges began to appear, especially in the English and eastern districts. Picking up other habits of American Lutheranism led to a stretching of the traditional limits on unionism at public events like the Fourth of July and high school graduations. Boy Scout rituals were increasingly allowed in the Missouri Synod, but were disallowed in the Wisconsin Synod. But the yin and yang of doctrinal purity and church building proved to be elastic enough to maintain the integrity of both.
The Behnken Years, 1935-1962
The 1935 synod also saw the election of the Rev. John W. Behnken of Houston, Texas, as President of Synod, succeeding the incumbent, Friedrich Pfotenhauer. (According to Dr. Julius Friedrich, a member of the election committee, Pfotenhauer actually won the election by a few votes, but under that circumstance graciously and privately deferred to Behnken. The election committee publicly reported that Behnken was the winner.) So it wasn’t so much a matter of rejecting President Pfotenhauer which the assembly did, but choosing a younger and American-born and-bred leader. It was in the midst of the Great Depression, and change was an expression of hope for better times.
An example of Synod’s openness to change came at the synod in Cleveland in 1935, where a missionary to the Moslems in India, Dr. Adolph Brux was not suspended from Synod on the recommendation of the Foreign Mission Board for having prayed once with Protestant missionaries. The 1938 Synod upheld the decision of the 1935 convention, but the Foreign Mission Board would not send him back, insisting he retract his essay supporting his position. Dr. Brux resigned from Synod. Synod apologized for its action in 1977.
The goal of altar and pulpit fellowship with the American Lutheran Church was almost attained at the 1938 synod which met in St. Louis. The floor committee on inter-synodical and doctrinal matters (whose chairman was Dr. Walter A. Maier) recommended to the synod that it accept the report of the standing committee on church union that it had reached doctrinal agreement with the ALC on the basis of Missouri’s Brief Statement and the Declaration of the ALC. This resulted in a spontaneous singing of the Common Doxology and the expectation of the majority of delegates that fellowship with the ALC would be formally declared at the next day’s session.
But a strong-enough minority followed the example of the 1929 convention and pleaded for more time for Synod to take seriously their objections (and the objections of other members of the Synodical Conference) to the ALC’s Declaration. The synod deferred to their request, and resolved “that the Brief Statement and the Declaration be regarded as the doctrinal basis for future church-fellowship between the Missouri Synod and the American Lutheran Church.”
Having thwarted official efforts to sanction altar and fellowship with the ALC and the synods which preceded it in 1929 and 1938, a group of conservative Missourians used the extended time to organize. The Confessional Lutheran Publicity Bureau was formed in 1940 and began to publish The Confessional Lutheran. Study clubs were organized in various places, Chicago being the most prominent. The Confessional Lutheran spawned a number of small conservative papers (like The Okabena Lutheran) who together sounded the alarm that Missouri was abandoning its traditional positions and compromising its doctrine of the word of God. From this time on the conservative groups within Synod used the word confessional specifically to refer to Synod’s public doctrine in addition to the Lutheran Confessions. To them, Synod’s public doctrine was defined by the Brief Statement and convention resolutions.
This was a watershed moment in Missouri’s history. The Zionist vision of a pure Lutheran Church was compromised, in the judgment of the confessionals, by efforts to advance union with the ALC without total, unconditional agreement with Missouri’s positions on disputed issues. Rephrasing the issues in order to reach agreement was, in effect, a 20th century betrayal of the cause which Walther had led so triumphantly in the 19th century. As evidenced by the quote from Walther’s funeral cited above, the most zealous proponents of Walther’s theology felt that it was so true as to be indistinguishable from its source, the Holy Scriptures. Why change any of the formulas used in disputations with the Ohio and Iowa Synods? They were perfect. Fellowship with others simply required their agreement. The fact that the ALC agreed with Pieper’s Brief Statement was a step in the right direction, but perhaps the statement was too brief. It did not include specific denunciations of the errors which the ALC and its predecessor synods were accused of.
Two distinct agendas were emerging in Synod, and the organization of the Confessional Lutheran Publicity Bureau was a step toward open, public partisanship. Henceforth in the Missouri Synod there would be increasing debate over the definition of pure doctrine. If the yin stream of Missouri’s history is doctrinal purity, it appears that there no longer was perfect consensus on doctrine, in the first instance on the meaning of unionism. Unionism in the view of the Conservatives (as they came to be known) was any working or worshipping together with those who were not completely in agreement with Missouri’s public doctrine. The growing support for fellowship with the ALC was based on the conclusion that the ALC had changed their position so as to conform to Missouri’s demand for scripture-based fellowship.
There is a historical parallel between this stage of Missouri’s history and the history of the Wisconsin Synod. In the 1920s a movement arose within Wisconsin’s seminary in Wauwautosa to balance the rigidity of its dogmatics with insights from a more historical perspective. Evidence of this appears in a letter written by the faculty of the Wauwautosa seminary to the faculty of the St. Louis seminary during WW I on the subject of Liberty Bonds and whether pastors should oppose their sale. A minor matter, to be sure, but it led to this judgment of the Wisconsin faculty, that Missouri was zu dogmatisch, nicht historisch. Professor John P. Koehler signed the letter as Secretary of the Wauwautosa faculty.
A controversy in Wisconsin arose in the 1920s over this contextual method of defining doctrine raised by Professors Koehler and others. Wauwautosa theology as it was called ended with the excommunication of Koehler and the pastors who agreed with him at a district convention. They formed the Protestant (Pro-TEST-ant) Conference to continue their witness and fellowship, and the Wisconsin Synod has had no major internal controversies ever since. While Missouri agreed that Wauwautosa theology was wrong, it disagreed on the legitimacy of excommunication by a district convention. Missouri and Wisconsin did not resolve their differences on Church and Ministry until 1932. Other doctrinal differences on the definition of unionism continued on subjects like military chaplaincy, Boy Scouts and cooperation in externals with other Lutherans.
War began in Europe in 1939 and morphed into World War II when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Unlike WW I the members of the Missouri Synod were in complete agreement that this war was a just war and required the patriotic support of all Americans. The Synod supplied its full contingent of chaplains, a doctrine-based disagreement with the Wisconsin Synod, and very much a demonstration of its yang impulse to expand its parochial mission. After the war, it worked side by side with other Lutheran to provide relief for many thousands of war victims and to bring displaced persons to the United States.
Change Comes to the Missouri Synod
The change from a German mind-set to an American one was overwhelmingly accomplished by 1945, the end of WW II. The war fostered a climate of change on many levels. It had destroyed not just the lives of millions of people and many cities in Europe and Japan, it had also destroyed the business-as-usual mode of mission and ministry of the churches in Europe and America. The Missouri Synod’s members were looking forward with renewed energy to advance the mission of the church.
An important earlier sign of change in doctrinal rigidity was signaled by the Synod’s doctrinal committees’ recommendations to both the 1929 and 1938 conventions that fellowship with Ohio, Iowa and Buffalo be established. Doctrinal issues were not front and center during the war. The inter-synodical committees were hampered by travel restrictions, for one thing, and the fine points of agreement or disagreement with the ALC paled in comparison with the issues posed by the war. If doctrinal issues were not discussed much in the Lutheran Witness, they were being stirred up by the Confessional Lutheran which attacked the ALC for its errors and warned the Missouri Synod not to heed the siren song of false fellowship, contrary to Synod’s traditional interpretation of Romans 16:17.
A cadre of true believers in the de facto infallibility of the Walther/Pieper formulas inspired the confessional Lutheran movement. Any change in Walther’s doctrinal formulas was viewed as compromise with error. Their critique allowed for no changes in traditional interpretation of the Bible. They represented a dominant theme in the Walther/Pieper era of Missouri which Prof. Theodore Graebner addressed in a trenchant (unpublished) essay entitled The Burden of Infallibility.
The confessional Lutheran movement inspired a counter movement which surfaced in September, 1945 with the publication of A Statement signed by forty-four pastors and professors who were very conscious of its timing, a few weeks after the end of WW II. The signers knew a kairos when they saw it, a time for repentance, stock-taking, and fresh initiative. So they affirmed in their manifesto that “We believe in its message and mission for this crucial hour in the time of man” (italics added).
The significance of this moment in Missouri’s history cannot be overstated. The Zionist ideal of a pure Lutheran church united in doctrine and practice was based on an unshakable confidence that Synod’s doctrine was pure. This solidarity characterized Missouri for most of a century. A Statement was both an affirmation of “our unswerving loyalty to the great evangelical heritage of historic Lutheranism,” but it was also and pointedly a public critique of the lovelessness and legalism which prevented the Synod from implementing the resolution of the 1938 synod regarding church fellowship, asserting “such fellowship is possible without complete agreement in details of doctrine and practice which have never been considered divisive in the Lutheran Church.”
While affirming “our faith in the great Lutheran principle of the inerrancy, certainty, and all-sufficiency of Holy Writ,” the signers of A Statement went on to “deplore a tendency in our Synod to substitute human judgments, synodical resolutions, or other sources of authority for the supreme authority of Scripture.” It was their conviction “that sound exegetical procedure is the basis for sound Lutheran theology. We therefore deplore the fact that Romans 16:17-18 has been applied to all Christians who differ from us in certain points of doctrine. It is our conviction, based on sound exegetical and hermeneutical principles that this text does not apply to the present situation in the Lutheran Church of America (italics added).
Missouri’s doctrine of unionism had used Romans 16:17-18 as the foundation text for its stubborn refusal to pray, worship and work together with other Lutherans, much less other Christians. A Statement was public proof that Missouri’s vaunted universal agreement in all things doctrinal was no longer the case. This was underscored by the signatures of five St. Louis Seminary professors among whom – shockingly – was Theodore Graebner, who for years as the editor of The Lutheran Witness had defended Missouri’s position on unionism and who had co-authored with Prof. P. E. Kretzmann the book Toward Lutheran Union in the 1940s which was faithful to Missouri’s traditional stance on unionism. (Graebner and Kretzmann parted company soon after, and Kretzmann resigned from the faculty.)
A Statement challenged the use of Romans 16:17-18 as the essential proof text of Missouri’s position. The theological discipline of exegesis (interpretation of the Bible) had served for many generations as the handmaiden of systematics (definition of doctrine). A Statement was evidence that the theological tide was turning within the St. Louis faculty, so that exegesis would be an equal partner with systematics in defining doctrine. This meant that the background and original meaning of Romans 16:17-18 had to be taken seriously, that its historical context could not be ignored. The belly servers in verse 18 (King James Version) were like the Judaizers in Galatians 1 and 2 who subverted the gospel by insisting that Moses’ laws must be observed by Gentile Christians. To compare those first century “belly-servers” with 20th century ALC and Missouri Lutherans who wanted to pray with each other about their doctrinal differences was, in the opinion of the Forty-four, an act of lovelessness. Many pastors and laypeople agreed with them.
Public disagreement with a synodical consensus began with the publication of The Confessional Lutheran, which found fault with the fellowship resolution of the 1938 synod. A Statement was public disagreement with the positions and agenda of The Confessional Lutheran. I entered the St. Louis Seminary the same week that A Statement was published. A majority of students appeared to appreciate it for addressing the fellowship issue. A small minority of students openly opposed it. It wasn’t a divisive issue because the faculty did not publicly dispute over it. Their silence was golden; it created an atmosphere in which the students could feel free to discuss the issues raised by A Statement with each other and with the professors as they pursued their studies. Much credit for the faculty’s posture must go to the president of the Seminary, Dr. Louis Sieck, a parish pastor who was elected to succeed a stalwart and evangelical traditionalist, Prof. Ludwig Fuerbringer. President Sieck’s pastoral approach and openness to change matched the challenge of this kairos moment in Missouri’s history.
Change is a key word to describe the climate within Missouri at this time. Change was viewed with suspicion by synodical conservatives, and not without cause. The temptation to uncritically bless the new thing comes to the church in every generation. (Cf. the German church and Nazism.) A healthy church must have conservative genes in its DNA and must not allow either conservatism or progressivism to become a dominant ideology. I agree with Pope Francis who wrote that “when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith; he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought.” It seems to me that there was and is a conservatism in Synod which qualifies as an ideology, and that is what the signers of A Statement were getting at when they identified legalism and lovelessness as the doctrinal/moral problems in the conservative resistance to fellowship with the ALC and the misuse of Romans 16:17.
The Missouri Synod has always been a conservative church, determined to conserve “the faith once entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:4). But that faith is a dynamic faith, a faith that works change. Change is a good thing when the Spirit moves the church to conform more and more to the mind of Christ in its faith and mission in every generation and in every culture. One of Missouri’s theologians, Dr. Martin L. Kretzmann, wrote an article entitled “What on Earth Does the Gospel Change?” In Lutheran World, Vol. XVI, No 4, which articulates the theology of change from the perspective of someone whose career was spent largely in the mission field in India. His thesis is that the gospel has the power to change anything but itself, including theology among other things.
Conservatism is good when it questions and rejects changes inspired by an alien spirit on the authority of another gospel. Conservatism is bad when it resists changes inspired by the Holy Spirit and consistent with the apostolic gospel. Hence the advice of St. John “to test the spirits to see whether they are of God” and to follow Paul’s example and condemn every teaching and practice which does not conform to the gospel (Galatians 1 and 2). When St. Paul wrote that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1) he set the theological stage for evangelical change. The moderates in the Missouri Synod wanted to be seen as advocates of Spirit-inspired and gospel-defined change.
One of the professors who signed A Statement was Dr. Richard Caemmerer, who taught homiletics (preaching). Evangelical to the core in his teaching, preaching and relationship with students, he was a major influence in the lives of many seminarians. He was a student of Franz Pieper and defended Pieper’s theology in public and private, the point being that Walther’s and Pieper’s theologies were cast in the mode of the 16th and 17th century Orthodox Lutheran theologians. Caemmerer believed in building on Missouri’s doctrinal heritage in a way responsible to the Scriptures/Confessions and the mid-twentieth century. That way was indicated in A Statement: a gospel-centered and scripturally-based way which affirms the past and at the same time is open to change inspired by the Spirit. A point of historical comparison is John XXIII and his call for opening the windows to let the Spirit renew the Roman Church.
The Confessional Lutheran group reacted with a call for Synodical authorities to discipline the professors for violating their solemn oath of office to conform their teaching and writing to the standard of Synod’s public doctrine. Pity the president of Synod! John Behnken had another kairos in mind: the centennial of the Missouri Synod would be observed with appropriate thanks and praise at the upcoming convention to be held in Chicago in 1947. He hastened to get leaders of The Confessional Lutheran and of A Statement together to work out their disagreements. They met and published responses which did nothing to resolve the issues, so Dr. Behnken pleaded with the Forty-four to withdraw A Statement from public discussion, which they did, and the centennial convention and its Conquest for Christ offering for mission advance and depression-and war-delayed maintenance proceeded.
As noted above, the doctrinal yin of the Missouri Synod was a subject of controversy. The unquestionable unity in all doctrinal judgments which marked the Walther/ Pieper era was gone, but there was no schism. Reputable and honorable men disagreed on certain points of doctrine, and pastoral conferences were urged to discuss these issues in a spirit of brotherly love. The interpretation of Romans 16:17-18 was central for two reasons: 1) It directly affected fellowship with the ALC; and 2) it indirectly introduced a less dogmatic way of reading the Scripture.
The tradition of Old Lutheran orthodoxy included the use of biblical texts out of context, which eventually gave proof-texting a bad name. The emerging tradition indicated by A Statement was influenced by two contemporary European movements: a Luther revival which originated in Sweden highlighting the way Luther interpreted Scripture, and biblical studies from both Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars in Europe. Another background element was the collapse of theological liberalism begun by the Neo-Orthodox movement in theology and ended by the horrors of Nazism and the Second World War.
The church-building yang of Missouri was also in flux. Foreign missions moved from the periphery to the center of the Synod’s agenda, and planting new congregations in the exploding suburbs America was the highest priority for District mission outreach. Planning for home mission start-ups in a non-competitive way with other Lutherans was ventured on an unofficial basis in parts of Synod. At the same time relations with the Wisconsin Synod were worsening over unionism issues, such as Missouri’s attempt at fellowship with the ALC and its post-war relief work done jointly with the major Lutheran synods through Lutheran World Relief. Social service agencies were increasingly inter-Lutheran in management and support.
With the withdrawal of A Statement for public discussion and debate, Behnken’s prayers for a Synod united in doctrine and mission at its centennial convention in 1947 seemed to be answered. Missouri was on the cusp of unprecedented growth and influence in the U.S.A. But the questions surrounding fellowship and unionism were threatening its unity within and without, that is, with sister synods in the Synodical Conference. Another attempt at fellowship with the ALC resulted in a Doctrinal Affirmation which neither Missouri nor the ALC adopted. The centennial convention of Missouri authorized a joint union committee with the synods of the Synodical Conference which met with a matching ALC committee and produced Common Confession I and II. These were endorsed by the 1953 and 1956 conventions but not accepted as sufficient for fellowship. Concern for the dissenting brothers’ consciences in both the Missouri Synod and other synods of the Synodical Conference was a decisive consideration.
The vision of a pure Lutheran Zion patterned after Walther’s description of the true visible church was fading as the Synodical Conference was moving inexorably to a break-up over the doctrinal issues of unionism: fellowship with the ALC and other forms of working together with Lutherans outside the fold of the Synodical Conference. Would fellowship with the ALC mean that Missouri was losing its doctrinal virginity? Every agreed-on doctrinal statement on fellowship with the ALC from 1929 (when I was three) to 1956 (when I was thirty) was found wanting by the purists. When the Wisconsin Synod broke fellowship with the Missouri Synod in 1959 it became clear that Missouri’s purity motif needed either reaffirmation or redefinition.
To the most conservative people, reaffirmation, not redefinition was needed. The Statement of the Forty-four signaled a drift from unconditional acceptance of the public position of Synod on the interpretation of Romans 16:17, a drift supported by five active and one retired faculty member. The Confessional Lutheran made its opinion clear: “May our Synod, by demanding a rejection and retraction of ‘A Statement’ show the world that it wants to continue to go in the strictly biblical direction, also in respect to the doctrine of church-fellowship.” In this view the meaning of passages such as Romans 16:17 was forever fixed in the way the Missouri Synod had used it. There was no going back to re-examine its meaning then and now. Its plain and simple words were the cornerstone of Missouri’s position on fellowship, and to suggest that they could be interpreted differently was an attack on the Bible itself.
So the fundamental question moved from how to interpret Romans 16:17, to how to interpret the Bible. The Conservatives proceeded from the doctrine of divine inerrancy of the Bible to argue that all its statements are equally true and eternally valid, even the scientific and historical statements. The Moderates proceeded from the doctrine of the gospel to argue that every statement and teaching of the Bible needs to be interpreted in its light. The Conservatives would call this gospel reductionism. The Moderates would call the conservative position fundamentalism or biblicism.
An original proponent of Moderate hermeneutics (interpretation) was Dr. Martin Scharlemann, professor of New Testament interpretation at the St. Louis Seminary. He set out to redefine the Synod’s traditional doctrine of the word of God in the light of contemporary biblical studies. He began with a presentation at the Fall Pastoral Conference of the Atlantic District (when it still included New England and New Jersey) in the Poconos, Pennsylvania, in 1957. (I was present as a District pastor and Treasurer of the Conference.) He refused to call his presentation a “paper” because “papers” routinely were received, accepted or declined (cf. above). He spoke from index cards instead. His presentation (technically not a paper) was well received (in a nontechnical sense) by the majority of the Conference. The niceties of Missouri tradition were observed.
Not that it mattered. Scharlemann subsequently made the same presentation to the faculty of the St. Louis Seminary and to the Northern Illinois District Pastoral Conference. Again, he made it a condition when accepting the invitation to speak at the Northern Illinois Conference that he not deliver a paper, but address some issues which needed to be aired. But somebody secretly tape-recorded it and the fat was in the fire of white-hot conservative anger that the heresy of modernism had found its way into what had been, under Walther and Pieper, the bastion of pure doctrine: the St. Louis Seminary.
A mighty ruckus ensued. The theological pot was already simmering at the Seminary following A Statement and the arrival of a number of new professors who had done their graduate work in universities here and abroad where they learned to use the tools of critical historical study. Heretofore most seminary professors had been trained exclusively in the Synodical system. Their teaching was attacked by a cadre of students headed by Herman Otten and Kurt Marquart. They gathered data from lectures and from a variety of other sources (the simplest being waste baskets) which they judged were contrary to Synod’s doctrinal position. Their first quarry was an Old Testament professor named Horace Hummel who was refused tenure when they bypassed Seminary protocol and brought charges against him to the President of Synod. Hummel was consequently denied tenure.
One of the strategies to settle the controversy and restore unanimity to Synod was the passing of Resolution Number Nine at the San Francisco Convention in 1959. This resolution was in response to the question whether the Brief Statement and other statements on doctrine and practice have binding force. It stated that “every doctrinal statement of a confessional nature adopted by Synod as a true exposition of the Holy Scriptures is to be regarded as public doctrine . . . . and that Synod’s pastors, teachers, and professors are held to teach and act in harmony with such statements. . . .”
That strategy failed. The Cleveland convention in 1962 received the decision of the Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) that Resolution Number Nine had in fact amended Article Two of the
Constitution of the Synod (Confession) by giving confessional status to the Brief Statement without following the procedures outlined in the Constitution for constitutional amendments. To his great credit the chairman of the convention, President Behnken, ruled that any motions to challenge the CCM’s ruling would be out of order.
The 1962 synod held special sessions to allow delegates to express themselves on the issues raised by Scharlemann’s paper. Rather than see it come to a vote on the floor of the convention, Scharlemann announced that he was withdrawing his paper, following the precedent set by the signers of A Statement at the request of President Behnken. I was a delegate to the Cleveland convention and so was able to witness both the beginning and the end of the Scharlemann affair, or, to be more accurate, the first act of the Scharlemann affair.
That same synod voted to establish the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) because of its inability to address all of the issues before it. The CTCR was proposed as a kind of in- between conventions floor committee, processing doctrinal and church relation issues and submitting a report to the Synod concerning them. It didn’t work out exactly that way, but that is another story.
John Behnken chose not to run for another term as president and his successor (elected near unanimously) was Oliver Harms, who had succeeded John Behnken once before as pastor of Trinity, Houston. Both turned out to be significant figures in Missouri’s history. The growth of the mission of the Synod under President Behnken was phenomenal. His suppression of the debate over A Statement probably facilitated that growth at the same time as it encouraged the doctrinal tensions to flourish behind the scene.
As charges of false teaching were levelled against the St. Louis Seminary professors, the president of Synod would ask the president of the Seminary for reassurance that the Seminary was not changing, that it remained faithful to its appointed role as teacher and guardian of the synod’s doctrinal heritage. The president of Synod wanted a yes-or-no answer to still the controversy, and that’s not exactly what he got: No, the Seminary had not changed its affirmation of Missouri’s doctrinal position, but perhaps some professors were not careful enough to explain why they were interpreting the Bible in a fresh way.
This didn’t work to calm increasingly troubled waters. The Conservatives called this fresh way of biblical interpretation heresy and accused the Seminary of a cover-up. They equated change with heresy. The traditional way of interpreting the Bible was the only right way. The upshot was that the seminary’s saying “No, nothing really has changed,” was regarded as devious by the conservatives and to some extent by many others in the muddled middle of the emerging controversy.
One more note about the Behnken administration: Just as Pieper’s most important contribution to Synod was his Brief Statement, written almost like an after-thought, so it might be said that Behnken’s most significant decision was quietly enabling the transfer of membership of Jacob and Robert Preus into the Missouri Synod (Robert in 1957 and Jack in 1958), where they were quickly called to serve at Missouri’s seminaries: Jacob (Jack) at Springfield and Robert at St. Louis. They were both well-qualified scholars, and Jack was teaching at the ELS Seminary at Mankato, Minnesota. Their father was an ex-governor of Minnesota and President of Lutheran Brotherhood Life Insurance Co. who, like the Aid Association of Lutherans was giving financial grants to major American synods.
How did it happen that two outspoken opponents of the Missouri Synod’s fellowship practices (i.e. unionism) were brought into the Synod to teach at its seminaries? It was an irregular procedure, to be sure. Before WELS and ELS broke fellowship with Missouri their pastors and professors could be called into the Missouri Synod as if they were on Synod’s roster, and vice versa. But fellowship had been broken. To call someone from a synod not in fellowship with Missouri requires a process known as a colloquy. This was not required of the Preus brothers.
Why not? It’s very possible that Behnken wanted to balance the seminary faculties with conservative candidates and waived proper procedure. The legal rational which Jack Preus personally gave me was that although the ELS had broken fellowship with the Missouri Synod, the Missouri Synod had not broken fellowship with the ELS. Therefore he and his brother could come into the Synod without a colloquy – a legalism which is typical of the way he administered his offices in Synod.
The administration of Oliver Harms as President of Synod (1962-1969) saw the struggle for the soul of Synod grow in intensity to the point where civil war loomed. It happened as the Missouri Synod was beginning to make a significant impact on American Lutheranism and the church at large. That impact was apparent in the area of theology and missions. The St. Louis Seminary had a world-class faculty of scholars which produced a generation of pastors who could understand and proclaim the word of God with the help of historical/critical research which opened up new vistas of understanding of the books of the Bible, their authors and their message. Historical studies and the sciences of archeology and linguistics had uncovered deeper and varied layers of meaning in the Scriptures. What’s wrong with that?
In the minds of the most conservative critics of the Seminary, historical/critical studies undermined the divine character of the Bible. And, indeed, it has been used to do just that. But the seminary had been using it for precisely the opposite purpose: to make the miracle of the biblical witness more accessible to people living in the age of science. The Bible has both a divine and human character. This debate parallels the debate early Christians had about the two natures of Christ. Some held that it was impossible for him to have been truly human. The consensus developed that he was both truly God and truly human. Just so, the seminary argued that understanding the human, historical nature of the Bible did not lessen its divine authority. Its message, inspired by the Holy Spirit through the agency of ordinary men living in ancient times, was God’s word to humankind in every age. Contemporary biblical scholars, using the tools of historical/critical research, help us to understand the Bible better than ever before.
This meant that the traditional wording of Synod’s doctrinal position on the word of God took front-and-center stage in the controversy: That the Bible is verbally inspired, inerrant in its teaching and an infallible source of truth. The Seminary affirmed its belief in this definition, but insisted that there are nuances of meaning to this traditional formula which must be taken seriously. To the Conservatives, this was an admission of heresy. To question the historicity of the prophet Jonah or the scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of creation was the mark of a heretic.
The Synod was also engaging in ecumenical activities at this time, the post-war, post-Second Vatican Council kairos. Drawing on its pool of talented professors in both seminaries, Missouri was an active participant in Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue as well as dialogues with other Protestant churches.
The attacks on the St. Louis Seminary increased in intensity, headed by Herman Otten with his weekly Christian News. His journal was part attack tabloid and part pious devotion, and very effectively put the worst construction on the men and theology he was attacking. Funded by conservative laymen, it was addressed to every congregation in Synod every week. Otten’s enterprise was so successful that James Burkee in his book Power and Politics in the Missouri Synod called him the one most responsible for the success the Conservatives had at the New Orleans convention in 1973
The way to define pure doctrine became the issue. What was the content of Missouri’s yin? The conservative critics of the Seminary clung to the standard of Old Lutheran orthodoxy as summarized in the Brief Statement plus the doctrinal positions in the controversies of the Walther-Pieper era. The Seminary faculty majority insisted that the doctrinal formulations of Synod always had to be examined and endorsed or modified by the constitutional standard of the Scriptures and Confessions in every generation. They wanted to gratefully stand on the shoulders of the fathers, not simply bow at their feet as if the fathers’ words were the last words on the subjects under discussion. The Lutheran Reformation had condemned and dismissed the notion of an infallible church tradition. Ecclesia semper reformanda (the church always reforming) is one of the great themes of the Reformation.
So pure doctrine in this view is doctrine with the gospel as its center, like the sun in the sky, or the hub in a wheel. The gospel being not just the first and most important doctrine, but the power of God’s Holy Spirit to define scriptural truth in the words of every generation and every culture. We are neither first century Semites nor 16th century Germans, as Krister Stendahl famously said. The gospel frees the church to proclaim and define its faith in the context of contemporary culture and language.
An example of this is the doctrine of creation. The Scriptures, Creeds and Confessions affirm that God is the creator of heaven and earth and everything in them. In the pre-scientific era, the Genesis account was understandably regarded as factual history and science. There was a flat earth, a firmament (parabola) above, and sun, moon and stars beyond that. Along come Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin with a scientific worldview light-years removed from the authors of the Bible. The church was wrong when it condemned Galileo; it is wrong and gives offense today when it limits the doctrine of creation to a literal interpretation of the Genesis account.
We can thank God that the Creeds and Confessions affirm that God created the heavens and the earth by his word, without specifying how he created them. Pre-scientific Christians believed that God did it in six days (Genesis One), or, like St. Augustine that he did it in one day (Genesis Two). Most Christians today believe that he did it through the process called evolution and that the biblical record is an inspired account in the genre of ancient literature which explains God’s role and purpose in creation. The gospel frees us from bondage to any worldview to proclaim God’s majesty and grace in every generation. To make any particular worldview, ancient or modern, conscience-binding is legalism, was the consensus of faculty opinion.
Behnken had secured the withdrawal of A Statement and Scharlemann’s essay from the public forums of Synod, but the controversy they generated grew in volume and intensity backstage in the administration of Oliver Harms. Up front, Synod continued to move in the direction of more cooperation in mission with other synods. The church building yang of Synod’s narrative climaxed at its convention in Detroit in 1965 where the Synod received and adopted The Mission Affirmations, proposed a common Lutheran hymnal for all of American Lutherans and agreed to move forward on the formation of the Lutheran Council, USA, which would bring together the Missouri Synod, the ALC and the ULC in common enterprises short of full fellowship and worship together.
The Mission Affirmations were the work of a commission headed and inspired by Martin L. Kretzmann who had spent most of his ministry on the mission field in India. They were very influential in expanding the Synod’s vision of its mission at home and abroad, and broadened the scope of missions dramatically, enabling the Synod to work cooperatively with other Lutherans, indeed, other Christians.
The Detroit convention was the high-water mark of the movement within Missouri to reformulate its relationships with other synods on the basis of the Scriptures and the Confessions. Synod’s stance on fellowship as defined in Common Confession and the practice of cooperating in externals was background music for its actions to promote a common hymnal, The Lutheran Book of Worship, and join LCUSA.
Political Action and Reaction
The up-front success of the Moderate movement in Missouri led to an equally significant behind the scenes decision of the Conservatives to use the questionable techniques and ethics of secular partisan politics to stop the Moderate movement. James Burkee’s book, Power, Politics and the Missouri Synod details how they operated their political campaign to control the upcoming conventions of Synod. This was a first for the Missouri Synod and marks the final end of the tradition of trusting the judgment of a majority of delegates, randomly chosen, to reflect the mind of Synod. More than that, it marked the end of an honored practice of relying on the Spirit to work through the process of prayerful discussions in conferences and congregations.
The election of pastoral delegates to Synodical conventions had traditionally been on the basis of a rotation that gave every pastor and every congregation their turn as delegate. The conservatives had been unable to pass many of their memorials at conventions of Synod because of this random selection of delegates which undoubtedly reflected the mind of the majority of members of Synod. So the first goal was to elect conservative delegates to the conventions of Synod, and to do it as stealthily as possible. The ultimate goal was to elect a man of their choosing to the presidency of Synod.
The conservative activists organized as Balance, Inc., and published the periodical Affirm. Robert Preus became a leader in this organization. Their first success came at the New York Convention in 1967, where they elected a majority of their candidates to a key convention committee, the Nominations Committee, for the next convention. Then they got busy on their goal of electing Jacob Preus to the presidency of the Synod. Preus by this time was President of the Springfield Seminary and his election to that office had the support of President Harms who most likely was trying to be fair by having a Conservative seminary president balance the Moderate seminary president, John Tietjen. Little did Harms suspect that Preus was in on the plot to unseat him at the Denver Convention.
This Conservative political action produced a Moderate political reaction. A group of loosely-organized supporters of Oliver Harms and of the moderate agenda in Synod worked to get moderate delegates elected to the upcoming convention in Denver in 1969. They failed and Preus was elected by a margin of some eighty votes to succeed Harms as President of the Missouri Synod. This was the first time in Synod’s history that an incumbent president was defeated in a contested election.
In one of the great ironies in Synod’s history, that same convention which made Jacob Preus President also voted for fellowship with the ALC and for allowing women to vote and hold some offices in congregations and in Synods. The moderates won on issues; the conservatives won the presidency and continued their political activity to change the course of Synod. The most important course change would be control of the St. Louis Seminary.
Two months before the election of Preus as President of Synod, John Tietjen was elected President of the St. Louis Seminary. Tietjen had been a parish pastor who had taught summer courses at the Seminary and prior to his election was working at LCUSA as Executive Secretary for the Division of Public Relations. He had a Ph.D. degree in church history specializing in 19th century American Lutheranism. He was destined to be an important part in the history of 20th century American Lutheranism. By his own account in Memoirs in Exile, after the election of Preus he was confronted with the reality that “he had been elected to serve a president who wanted to lead the Synod into the future and now would serve under a president elected by people who wanted to turn back the clock.”
And turn back the clock they did. It took two more conventions and the sacrifice of Christian principles and a lot of money and manpower, but the Conservative party who held that doctrinal purity was the static theological corpus of the Walther/Pieper era succeeded in purging the St. Louis Seminary of almost all of its faculty and their faithful students. There was no program of discussion of the issues by theologians on both sides – that would take place after the purge when it no longer mattered — only the focused drive for control of the conventions, boards and committees which had authority over the Seminary and the mission programs of Synod. They made it a partisan “battle,” and they “won.”
How they won has been more than adequately documented in a number of books, notably Tietjen’s Memoirs in Exile and James Burkee’s book cited above. In broad outline the Preus party succeeded by framing the doctrinal issues as a battle for the Bible, organizing in a deliberate partisan way throughout Synod to control the conventions at Milwaukee (1971) and New Orleans (1973). Their labors produced the desired result: the condemnation of the St. Louis’ faculty and total administrative control of Synod. It was essentially a struggle, as I heard President Preus say to the Northern Illinois District Convention in 1972, “to find out who is in charge.” Or, you might ask, “Which spirit will prevail?”
There was resistance. A moderate coalition formed under the eventual leadership of former English District President Bertwin Frey, pastor of Messiah Church in Fairview Park, Ohio and Dean Lueking, pastor of Grace Church in River Forest, Illinois to meet the challenge of the conservatives by electing moderate delegates to conventions and in defining the issues. They lacked a periodical of their own but their cause was fairly reported in the Lutheran Witness and Reporter and the Lutheran Laymen.
I was a member of the Frey/Lueking coalition of moderates. The tactics used against us were alarming and amusing. Dean Lueking’s secretary was recruited to supply confidential information on Dean and the group to the conservatives. When we had meetings there was frequently somebody taking pictures of license plates and people as they arrived and departed. These are symptoms of the sub-Christian tactics and paranoid mindset of the operatives of the conservative party, where the end always justified the means.
Clearly, there was an ideological mindset growing and expanding among the conservatives. Many of their leaders were convinced that there was no room for study and discussion of the issues surrounding biblical interpretation: it was either/or. Either you agree with us on a traditional literalistic reading of the Bible, given its divine origin, or we cannot worship and work together in Christian fellowship.
The Milwaukee Synod in 1971 did not pass the Preus-supported resolution to make synodical doctrinal statements the test of orthodoxy, but they did legitimize a Fact Finding Committee Preus had appointed to investigate the Seminary faculty. The Seminary faculty met with them in 1971 but did it under protest, since the Board of Control had been bypassed. The Board of Control reviewed the findings of Preus’s Fact-Finding Committee, but took no action since that committee had not found anyone guilty of false doctrine. The committee did find evidence of misleading and possibly offensive writings and asked those professors to clarify their positions.
Preus then published his Blue Book in which he more or less ignored the report of the Fact-Finding Committee and accused several faculty members of false doctrine. He also authorized the publication of A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles under his name for the Board of Control to use in their faculty investigation. It was written by Ralph Bohlmann, a Seminary professor on a leave of absence. The Board of Control refused to use it. Like the Brief Statement before it, it had no official standing in Synod. Preus, refusing to abide by the findings of the Fact Findings Committee or the judgment of the Board of Control, proceeded to appoint the members of the Floor Committee for the upcoming New Orleans Convention to review the charges against the faculty and loaded it with well-known, hard line Conservatives.
That committee brought to the floor the resolution to condemn the faculty for teaching doctrines “which cannot be tolerated in the church of God” – the classical wording for heresy. The New Orleans Convention also voted to affirm that convention-adopted doctrinal resolutions are binding and that Preus’s Statement and the Brief Statement are just such binding statements. The conservative majority (roughly 55% of the delegates) worked mainly with voting guides and elected designated conservative candidates to almost every position on the ballot. The conservative voting was directed, decisive and divisive. The newly-elected Board of Control would now have Preus’s Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles as a standard for orthodoxy. It specifically condemned use of historical/critical methods in Bible study.
As a delegate to the convention I was an eye witness to the heavy-handed use of the power of chairmanship to control debate. The march of delegates who wanted their votes registered in opposition to the Seminary indictment was a sign of the protest of 45% of the convention extreme to the betrayal of the unique and treasured Synodical tradition, embedded in its Constitution, of not resolving doctrinal questions by majority vote. It was a funeral march at the death of an evangelical synod.
The Synod would subsequently witness the exile of almost all of its faculty and students from the St. Louis Seminary in response to the actions of the newly-elected Board of Control which suspended John Tietjen from his office and pursued a course to fire professors it would find guilty of teaching false doctrine. The Seminary students demanded to know which of their professors were guilty of false doctrine and, after Tietjen’s suspension, declared a moratorium on attending class. The Board of Control fired the faculty members who supported the moratorium and failed to return to their classrooms. The exiled professors and faculty formed a seminary in exile, to be called Seminex.
This was followed by the decision of 250 congregations (mostly from the English District) to leave Synod and form the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. Not wanting to form a permanent new synod, they issued “A Call for Lutheran Unity” which resulted in the merger of the ULC, ALC and AELC into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Questions and Conclusions
What happened to the vision of a Lutheran Zion in America? The pursuit of doctrinal purity in the mid-twentieth century gave rise to two different definitions of doctrinal purity. The Seminary, and the Moderates who supported them, held that doctrinal purity was defined by faithfulness to the gospel-centered Scriptures and Confessions, which was the view of the Lutheran Reformers, and that the tools of historical-critical methodology were God’s gift to lead the church to a fuller understanding of his word. They “honored and upheld” the public doctrine of the inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible in that context, not in the context of scholastic methodology of Old Lutheranism.
The Conservatives believed that doctrinal purity was and is summed up in the Brief Statement, Preus’s Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles and Synodical doctrinal resolutions. What the Seminary was doing or tolerating was heresy, “teaching which cannot be tolerated in the church of God,” because the Seminary was changing some traditional interpretations of Bible texts. The Conservatives categorically condemned the historical/critical method of studying the Scriptures.
The Moderate, gospel-centric definition of doctrinal purity gave them freedom to embrace change when it was inspired by the Spirit-infused gospel and served the cause of building (that is, strengthening and lengthening) the church. To deny the power of the gospel to change the church is, among other things, to condemn the Reformation as a Spirit-inspired movement. It also calls into question the Saxon emigration to Missouri.
And yet Synod has a record of changing some of its positions, all of which were held to be Bible-based. Walther used to hold that all slavery, including the American form, was approved by God and that the abolitionists were wrong when they used Scripture to justify their cause. He also insisted that charging interest was committing the sin of usury. Pieper held that women should not be allowed to vote or hold office in either civic or church affairs and that women should not be allowed to teach men (boys could be taught until puberty). Some of those positions were perceived to be public doctrine. The conservative mind of the Missouri Synod changed in these cases and others.
The Conservatives cling to the belief that when the Bible’s pre-scientific worldview conflicts with the scientific worldview, the Bible is literally and always correct because it is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God. The Reformed churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses and many sects believe the same thing. All are Bible-believers. What is different about the Lutheran view is encapsulated in the word evangelical. Theologically speaking, Lutherans are gospel-affirmers before they are Bible-believers, which is why we baptize infants and do not wait for “decisions for Christ” in order to be numbered among the saints. The Conservatives, in effect, have made the doctrine of the Bible “the doctrine on which the church stands or falls.” This is contrary to the witness of Luther and the Confessors, for whom the doctrine of salvation (the gospel) is” the doctrine on which the church stands or falls.”
A resolution was passed at the New Orleans Convention to enter into a process of reconciliation, after the irreconcilable motion was passed to condemn the Faculty majority of heresy. A series of regional meetings were held with theologians from both sides presenting papers, and a group of pastors, teachers and laypeople selected to respond. Overwhelmingly these groups came to the non-binding conclusion that it would be possible to reconcile the two theological opinions given enough time and a spirit of openness and trust. Alas! The meetings were designed to make no difference, and they didn’t.
One more very important factor is the cultural dynamics of the period: the already conservative Missouri Synod was joining a growing number of American citizens in moving to the right in civil politics and in social issues. The protests against the Vietnam War, the unrest associated with the civil rights movement, the police at the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, the shut-down of campuses throughout the land protesting the Kent State shootings, the lax sexual culture — combined to frighten many Americans and make them resistant to the rapid changes that were taking place in American culture. When the Moderate position was mainstream throughout the Synod and country, the changes in both the doctrine and mission (the yin and yang) of Missouri’s history were generally supported. The Moderates failed to make the changes understandable and acceptable to many increasingly conservative Missourians.
James Burkee has done a thoroughly objective and exhaustive study of this era in Missouri’s history. In his Politics, Power and the Missouri Synod he comes to the conclusion that the secular strain of conservativism was more important than the theological conservativism in the events leading up to and climaxing in the synod at New Orleans.
The yin of Synod’s vision of a Lutheran Zion was decided by a scant majority (55%) vote at the New Orleans Synod, contrary to Synod’s Constitution and tradition. The yang of Synod’s church building mission was redefined in New Orleans to rule out most inter-Lutheran and ecumenical cooperation. After New Orleans, Synod pulled out of LCUSA, declared fellowship with the ALC ended when the ALC ordained women, completed the purging of its mission staffs and modified the Mission Affirmations to reflect its conservative theological bent.
By its actions, the Synod in effect in effect changed, or at least radically compromised, the fundamental doctrine of Lutheranism: the doctrine of the gospel; replacing it was the doctrine of the inerrant word (inerrant in all matters, including science and history). The Moderates in and out of the faculty at the St. Louis Seminary stood firm on the traditional Lutheran position that the doctrine of the gospel is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. (Which is why the singing of The Church’s One Foundation had so much meaning in the march to the podium at New Orleans.) Paradoxically, this is the historic, conservative position. So who is the true inheritor of the Saxon/Waltherian quest for pure doctrine?
In the end it was clear that the words attributed to Luther at the Colloquy at Marburg with Zwingli were apt: Ihr habt einen anderen Geist als Wir, that is, “You have a different spirit than we.” There were two very different spirits which emerged from the Walther/Pieper tradition, both seeking to represent the founders’ vision of an American Lutheran church faithful to the Scriptures and the Confessions. Two different spirits, both in search of the goal of pure doctrine. Like Walther before them at the birth of the Missouri Synod, the Moderates insisted that persuasion, not coercion was the path to pursue when dealing with fellow Lutherans with doctrinal differences. For Conservatives at New Orleans and after, it was coercion, pure and simple — coercion in a good cause, they would say, and continue to say as the post-New Orleans Synod witnesses and endures their pursuit of perfection.
In the end it comes down to this. The pursuit of pure doctrine in the Walther/Pieper era, flawed as it was, resulted in the creation of a great American church. It had an evangelical spirit and a non-hierarchical modus operandi. The pursuit of pure doctrine in the politically-organized Preus era resulted in the destruction of a great American church. It has a legalistic heart and a hierarchical modus operandi. (The Synod brought its case against Grace Church in River Forest to the Supreme Court, claiming that it was hierarchical when it needed to be, which is why it could claim title to Grace’s property when Grace left Synod and became an independent congregation. The Supreme Court ruled against Synod,)
A final word from Luther. He sagely observed that the gospel comes as a refreshing shower to a nation (or church) once. When it is not joyfully received, it moves on. He feared that Germany would not take the gospel to heart for long, and that the shower of God’s grace would move elsewhere. So it did, to Perry County, Missouri, as one little example. The action of the New Orleans convention was the kind of gospel rejection which Luther feared for his native church.
A requiem for the Missouri Synod as a truly evangelical Lutheran Church is appropriate, coupled with an undying faith in the gracious Lord of the church, to whom we continue to pray that the “word of God, as becometh it, may not be bound, but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people.” There are uncounted numbers of “Christ’s holy people” in the Missouri Synod, which gives hope for evangelical renewal in that part of the Body of Christ whose mother-love has meant so much to me and many others.