Remembering Concordia Senior College (1957—1977)
and the Burning Question of the Free Pursuit of Truth
Stephen C. Krueger (a 1971 alumnus of Concordia Senior College)
One way of addressing the issue of LCMS synodical identity today is to focus on the question, “Who were we once?” The closure of an institution barely twenty years old, still lively enough an event to be remembered by those who participated and are alive today, should qualify as giving us a glimpse of ourselves. Thus, the topic at hand powerfully suggests itself: “Why was Concordia Senior College closed?”
I will suggest that, practical issues aside (although those will be noted in fairness), Concordia Senior College of Fort Wayne, Indiana, once the terminal school for the synod’s pre-seminary pastoral formation, was closed chiefly because of a change it represented for the synod. And while to be sure, the senior college was caught up in the events of the 1970s synodical wars, which led to the exile of 45 out of 50 professors from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and over 90 percent of that seminary’s student body, nevertheless, the change represented by the senior college is an issue that deserves to be looked at in its own right. That change, we propose, had to do with a new philosophy in the synod’s higher education: that Christian higher education could be open to the norms of general higher education and embrace the scholarly free and uninhibited pursuit of learning and truth. It was this change, dramatically shifting paradigms from an earlier view of higher education in the synod, that virtually necessitated the school’s closure. The synod, after CSC’s acclaimed but short-lived tenure, was not willing to embrace at that time this more open view of higher education and, arguably, persists in its same attitudes to this day.
The value of looking at the fate of the senior college is that the question is reopened: “Is it the purpose of synod’s goals of higher education to hold learning captive to promotion of a certain point of view and belief system, or is it the purpose of the church’s higher education to risk its belief system to the free pursuit of truth, confident that the synod’s system of beliefs will only be strengthened by the questions, issues and tentative answers that come from the entire body of higher education?”
One of the stress points in this lively question was discussed in a recent issue of The DayStar Journal as this publication tackled the matter of science and faith (Vol. 1, No. 3). The issue, precipitated by Resolution 2-08A of the synod’s 2004 convention (To Commend Preaching and Teaching Creation), surfaced the tensions the synod obviously feels about many of the assumptions of science when they are taught in synodical schools. Yet as a number of authors argued, are these tensions real or contrived? Do people realize that many of the conclusions of science, which produce incredible breakthroughs in medicine that benefit them directly, are built upon the very research against which some believe Resolution 2-08A was directed? And so on.
While not explicitly about the science vs. faith debate, the attitudes about learning that were represented by Concordia Senior College, Fort Wayne, especially in the formation of the synod’s future pastors, were seen as a direct threat to a former philosophy of how the synod’s future workers would be shaped through the church’s higher education. To put it simply, when it came to theology, future synodical servants were to be taught what to think, not how to think, as the synod decided CSC’s closure. To open the possibility of independent thought, which CSC represented, albeit an independence normed by the Christian gospel, was unthinkable. Higher education for synodical workers was to serve its historic purpose: to vindicate and apologize for the synod’s doctrinal position through its operating court theology in all things.1
Twenty-five Years in the Making
Two Years to Accomplish Its Demise
Although planned to be closed by September 1, 1976, as mandated by Resolution 8-01A of the 1975 Anaheim Convention of the LCMS, because of a glitch in the resolution, Concordia Senior College remained open until commencement on Saturday, May 21, 1977. In its rush to close the college, the convention action had forgotten about the fate of the entire class of entering seniors for the 1976-1977 academic year. Unable to find acceptable accreditation for the baccalaureate degree through any other school, other than the Senior College itself for the class, the school operated for an “illegal year” so that its pre-ministerial seniors could graduate with an accredited degree.
What is incredible is that this institution, which had received national renown and attention for the unique quality of its educational programs, was barely twenty years old when the synod decided to close the school. What is even more incredible is that it had taken a quarter century of careful debate, planning, thought and fund-raising to bring about the birth of Concordia Senior College in 1957. Nevertheless, in spite of that, it took only two years, and really only a little more than one year of discussion, to decide to bring CSC to its termination. It was almost as if the Task Force on the Senior College, authorized in 1973 in July at the New Orleans Convention (the same convention which accused 45 Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, faculty of teaching “not to be tolerated in the church of God”), but which did not begin meeting as a full committee until the spring of the following year, was little more than a rubber stamp for something foreordained by the then circle of power in the LCMS. Twenty-five years of planning and twenty years of operation notwithstanding, Concordia Senior College represented something that clearly had to be eliminated. Of course, the abiding question is, “What was that something?”
Perhaps part of the answer lies in the formative history of planning for the birth of CSC to begin with. It involved the perceived need for a better trained pastor than the old synodical system enabled, at least, so some said, as they saw the synod face challenges to move beyond its isolated, ethnic ghetto and involve itself in mission to its still new American culture. Some visionaries all along had questioned the synod’s isolation from culture. One of those visionaries was a man named Martin Neeb.
The Need, the Vision and Martin J. Neeb
As early as 1923 the synod began to discuss the notion of a “senior college” to supplement its traditional preparatory school program.2 Familiar to former generations of LCMS pastors, “the system” of pastoral formation then normally involved a six-year pre-seminary program at one of the Concordias, analogous to high school and junior college, followed by the seminary program at Concordia, St. Louis. For the next twelve years, various models were considered to upgrade pastoral education at the time due to petitions from pastoral conferences and other quarters, including the faculty and Board of Control of Concordia, St. Louis, and the synod’s Board of Directors. According to senior college historian, Dr. Oscar Walle:
There was a strong and ever growing feeling of dissatisfaction with Synod’s pre-ministerial education program … a realization that with the transfer to and absorption of the American culture, the possession of a Bachelor of Arts degree would eventually give seminary applicants a more ready access to graduate schools and chaplaincy positions …the conviction always resurfaced that the pre-seminary education should be extended into a four-year college program.3
By 1935, the synod was ready to make some slight modifications in its ministerial track. The old six-year “gymnasium”-style prep schools would continue, but a seminary curriculum, involving the addition of one academic year, would reshape the curriculum of Concordia, St. Louis. A baccalaureate degree would be granted to seminarians after completion of the seminary’s first two years. The “downside” was that the new baccalaureate degree was recognized by the University of Missouri but was not regionally accredited. It was not possible to balance courses that were culturally rich and academically credible, on the one hand, with a demanding full curriculum of more church-related studies. The 1944 Saginaw Convention took note of this dilemma, which is readily apparent from a typical first-year seminary transcript from the year 1952-1953:
Hebrew – 5 semester hours
Symbolics – 2 semester hours
Orientation I – 3 semester hours
Music in the Parish Ministry – 2 semester hours
Homiletics – 2 semester hours
Psychology – 3 semester hours
Seminary chorus – ½ semester hour
Hebrew – 5 semester hours
New Testament Greek – 3 semester hours
Biblical Theology – 2 semester hours
Church History – 2 semester hours
Orientation I – 2 semester hours
Pastor’s speech – 1 semester hour
Homiletics – 2 semester hours
Seminary chorus – ½ semester hour4
Oscar Walle quips about this arrangement: “Unless Elementary Hebrew and New Testament Greek were taught in a rather non-seminary fashion, the cultural liberal arts aspect of this program was limited to psychology, history of education, and Seminary Chorus.”5
The training of pastors continued to be reviewed and discussed further, enabled by a Committee on Higher Education authorized by the synod’s 1935 Cleveland Convention. By the 1944 Saginaw Convention, having seen the committee evolve into a permanent Board for Higher Education (1938), the synod asked the BHE to study disentangling the seminary from the college level degree and move into a four-year college requirement for entering seminarians. The seminary then would have three additional academic years. The burden of shepherding this proposal fell upon Professor Martin J. Neeb on the faculty of Concordia College, Austin, Texas. Neeb was initially called as the first permanent executive secretary of the BHE in 1946.
Neeb took on the task with enthusiasm, ironically at first unconvinced about the wisdom of a “senior college” being advanced in 1946 by other members of the BHE. Nevertheless, once the idea took hold in Neeb, he began to lay out careful plans for a “senior college,” anticipating the 1947 convention to be held in Chicago where the idea was accepted.
As it was developed by Neeb, the vision for a “senior college” centered less on all the many considerations one might imagine in organizing a new school (funding, buildings, etc.) and more on the outcome of the kind of student the new school would seek to shape. This singular focus would determine all else. Initially the description of the goal involved things one might expect:
Strengthening of spiritual life, cultivation of desirable intellectual traits and viewpoints, extension of cultural knowledge … “development of the student’s personality, especially in the area of social habits and social attitudes, so as to form a socially competent Christian gentleman.”6
Yet perhaps unique to the developing “senior college” vision was that all other objectives reported to the 1947 Chicago Convention were “examined in light of the earlier stated objectives” as well as the “practical implications for the church’s future welfare, the effectiveness of the product, and the existing system of synodical education.”7
As the purpose of a “senior college” evolved further, by 1950 the philosophy that was to shape the curriculum would even more clearly focus on developing a kind of student who would competently relate the Christian gospel to the contemporary world around him. The goal of the curriculum would be three-fold:
- (The student will be competent for) A wider and better understanding of the Word of God and a deeper consecration to its Gospel, and by it to its Law, for the sake of Christ, the Savior.
- A wider and deeper understanding of man in society, for whom the Word is intended.
- The cultivation of knowledge, skills, and attitudes which will facilitate his competence in bring together the Word and man.8
The concern for openness to culture matured even more fully through subsequent years as the concept of a “senior college” gave way to the reality of Concordia Senior College in 1957. After Neeb was called as the first president of the college in 1954, additional faculty were added. With Martin Neeb, a principle shaper of the philosophy of the senior college was Richard Jesse (1956) who, as the first dean of students, developed a fifty-two page operating document titled The Function and Form of the Senior College. The ideas expressed in Function and Form remained intact throughout the operating history of the college and are expressed in the “Objectives” from the school’s catalog (which did not change, except for a few minor adjustments, throughout the history of CSC):
Concordia Senior College seeks to develop mature Christian personalities in whom knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures and Christian truth and of the history and functioning of the church are joined with personal faith in Jesus Christ as God and Savior. Its resources are directed to the cultivation of Christian living and all Christian virtues and to the strengthening of the ministerial student’s intent to serve in the Lutheran ministry.
In the academic program emphasis is placed on the development of sound habits of reasoning and judgment together with a high level of ability in the use of the English language for oral and written communication. A broad acquaintance with chief fields of knowledge, i.e., the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences, is to lead the student to an understanding of the world and of human nature and of the basic problems of man and society.
Special attention is given to the development in the ministerial student of proficiency in the use of foreign languages for theological study and research and for cultural enrichment.
Habits and attitudes making for social competence and personal leadership; a discriminating understanding and appreciation of the cultural heritage in literature, music, and the fine arts; and the promotion and conservation of physical and mental health are matters of fundamental concern in the total program.9
As the college moved from concept to reality through the 1950s from faculty appointments to property acquisition to the unique construction of CSC along the pattern of the European village led by internationally renowned architect Eero Saarinen, all decisions were intentionally designed to serve the above described objectives of the school. Students were to be actively engaged in encountering the contemporary world of thought for the sake of the Word and that Word’s gospel. That was the vision which was to drive Concordia Senior College for its twenty years of service.
A Victim of Its Own Success?
How successful Concordia Senior College was during its twenty year tenure can only be answered by the thousands of students who constitute its alumni and by the many others whose lives and ministries those graduates impacted and continue to influence today. Without question, however, that CSC developed a unique program for pre-ministerial study which embraced all the ideals of competent and scholarly higher education, open to the world of contemporary ideas, of that there can be no doubt. The question of this brief essay, however, is whether the LCMS was prepared to live with the result or not? The speed by which the Missouri Synod proceeded to close the school and almost completely abandon its extraordinary faculty would suggest the answer was no. It is too compelling not to state the obvious. The Missouri Synod decided it could not live with the kind of graduate CSC produced.
In fairness to those who claimed that it was simply cost-inefficient to produce pre-seminarians with the senior college idea when there were the other “Concordias,” most having sought to evolve into four-year colleges or universities, the senior college emerged during a time of optimism and growth in the synod, and the assumption prevailed that the synod would be able to justify an independent track for pastoral formation. Amusing today as the projections surely were, in 1958 a Synodical Survey Commission projected future membership in the LCMS to explode from 1,534,500 in 1959 to 4,311,400 by 1982. These projections seemed to justify a need for a senior college enrollment by 1973-1974 of 630 (an average year would be typically 450 students) in order to feed the seminary with enough students to serve the church at subsequent seminary graduation.10
Yet each of the other Concordias would ultimately develop other programs and schools as their “bread and butter,” hardly relying on their schools or departments of theological studies as their major purpose. It is not convincing, therefore, that a specialty school, especially one as successful academically as was Concordia Senior College, could not hold its own and continue to justify its independent existence.
Dr. Oscar Walle, whose privately published history of the senior college, Lest We Forget! Lest We Forget! A History of Concordia Senior College, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1957-1977, is the only full book-length study of the CSC story, finds that each of the arguments used to close the senior college simply does not stand up to the test of reason or logic.
- It was argued at the time that decreasing enrollment justified the closure. Walle believed this argument fails because it ignored the fact that even with the shroud hanging over theological education in the synod at the time (the Seminex crisis), the senior college easily outpaced any of the other pre-theological programs at the other Concordias by a considerable margin. Even in its last “illegal” year with only one class of seniors, the senior college still enrolled almost half the number of all pre-theological students at all the other Concordias combined (80 compared to 179).11
- It was argued at the time that the senior college constituted a financial burden that the synod could ill-afford. Walle calls this argument “dubious” because the synod freely committed itself to subsidize three other Concordias at the time at a level of over $1,000,000, to commit even more funds to open a new college at Irvine, California, and to retain the senior college campus for moving Concordia Theological Seminary, Springfield, Illinois, to its site, using the Fort Wayne campus, built to house 600 residential students, to house the seminary’s 78 in-coming residential students. Given those fiscal obligations, cost cannot be seen as all that significant a factor after all.12
- It was argued at the time that Neeb and the senior college visionaries had miscalculated the direction of the senior college as all-too-limiting for the other Concordias, which wanted to jettison their “junior college,” community college images and move into a four-year university models. Why couldn’t the other Concordias take over the task assigned to the senior college? Yet, Walle argues, twenty years earlier the synod had applauded the unique and specialized approach of CSC, whose celebrated curriculum was uniquely able to equip pastors-in-training for serious graduate school education designed for service to the church. By contrast to the senior college, one can ask today whether any of the Concordias that now offer pre-theological education even begin to replicate what CSC was distinctly able to accomplish in pre-seminary preparation?13
- Last, and probably far closer to the political truth, it was argued at the time that CSC faculty and students alike showed far too much sympathy to the faculty majority of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, which was condemned at the synod’s 1973 New Orleans Convention and subsequently moved its operation into a seminary-in-exile (known at the time as “Concordia Seminary in Exile” or Seminex). Yet while that may be somewhat true, Walle counters by noting that CSC students were never pressured by the faculty into deciding which seminary to attend at the time and that less than half of CSC’s graduates chose the “in Exile” option (and, even at that, a significant number of graduates who chose Seminex ended up serving within the ministry of the LCMS).14
For the purpose of this essay it is important to note that none of the arguments advanced to close CSC really ring true enough to bring about the abrupt demise of an institution built on twenty-five years of planning and twenty years of operation, especially predicated on a process of discernment that lasted little more than a year. It therefore begs the search for the deeper reason that, we suggest, is more nearly the truth of the matter. Concordia Senior College produced a kind of student who did not serve the purposes of those in synodical power at the time.
Concordia Senior College, Fort Wayne, by design brought to the table of synodical higher education something new that was unattached to an institutional tradition. It was able to start from scratch by building its own tradition. It should be argued that Martin Neeb’s vision did not merely add several additional years to the synod’s pastoral preparation but introduced a vigorously attentive model of liberal arts education to the best and most contemporary learning of modern academic arts and sciences. While certainly with its rich devotional life in chapel and dorm and the intentionally exemplary Christian models provided by the faculty, the school was extremely conscious of its purpose to train future pastors of the church, CSC nevertheless advanced a model of scholarship that included and even necessitated all the principles of academic freedom and scholarly detachment from ideology. This attitude, we suggest, was inculcated into the lives of its students so successfully that it, ironically, was the school’s chief Achilles heel in a church body like the LCMS. In that sense, Concordia Senior College was a victim of its own success.
In 1960 the CSC faculty under Neeb’s leadership was required to undergo a thorough self-study for the purposes of applying for accreditation and preparing for a visit from the North Central Association examining team. The team’s visitation report raved about what it saw:
It would be difficult to imagine a college in which the institutional purpose is more clearly understood and universally accepted.
Not many institutions could match the assurance with which Concordia Senior College answers the question: Are the curriculum and instructional program adapted to the goals of the institution? The Committee is convinced that this is an institution that knows what it is doing, and how, and why, and with what consequences. Indeed, a conspicuous feature of the College is the extent and the quality of its self-evaluation and self-criticism.
The visiting Committee was unable to think of one education issue of consequence that had not been identified, studied, and reflected upon by the faculty and administration.
Since it is less than five years old, its faculty has had more than the usual responsibility for educational planning. Few colleges know so much about themselves.15
It was not surprising that at its March 29, 1962, meeting, the association acted to grant CSC accreditation.
As not only CSC’s historian but also as a professor of science through all twenty years as Neeb’s colleague on the faculty, Oscar Walle, with obvious pride and yet hurt, begins his account of the CSC story:
A college which in 1966 was singled out as one of 13 of a total of 817 colleges and universities studied and which was adjudged as being in “the vanguard of educational improvement,” which was named as one of “three church-sponsored institutions in the United States which were ‘notable exceptions’ to the general failure of American colleges to integrate an effective spiritual life program with high quality academic performance,” and which was described as making “constructive attacks on the problems facing church-sponsored higher education” by its “innovative two-year Senior College academic arrangement” was terminated ten years later by official action of a regular convention of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Incredible as it seems, this nevertheless happened.16
It was incredible, indeed. Yet, given what the college’s notable achievements were, and precisely because of what they were and represented, the school’s demise ought not have come as any great surprise.
The Burning Question about the Free Pursuit of Truth
The question the termination of Concordia Senior College raises will be an on-going one for church-related institutions of higher education. To what extent can those institutions engage in the pure pursuit of truth, teaching those attitudes to their students, without that process threatening the ideological biases of their sponsoring churches?
The argument used to justify CSC’s unique role assumed that the very truth that is being sought freely in the academy will ultimately lead to the God of all truth. There is no truth nor any free method to seek it that ultimately does not find its home in the Lord. Thus, so the argument assumes, there is no threat in the truth-seeking that accompanies pure academic scholarship and critical self-examination. In this view the only threat to truth is the effort to seek to control the seeker born in fear and nervous ideological prejudice.
With the closure of Concordia Senior College, however, the question is called for all the other centers of higher education in the synod. Need academic freedom threaten the faith confessed through those same institutions? A recent history of charges against faculty members on several theological faculties in the synod signifies that the question is far from resolved in the LCMS. Recent resolutions, such as 2004’s 2-08A, show that the synod is still nervous in its trust that all truth ultimately leads to God. The questions represented by Concordia Senior College will remain with us for a long time to come.
As an alumnus of CSC (1971) blessed by its unique education, I echo Dr. Walle’s concluding words about Concordia Senior College. Requiescat in Pace.17
1 I do not seek to imply that this same dilemma wasn’t true at sister Concordia institutions at the time. Surely one can argue that other Concordias in the “system” experienced in their own ways the tension between promoting the synod’s court theology, on the one hand, and the desire for true academic freedom, on the other. Nevertheless, because of its newness, including the ability to select an entirely new faculty “from scratch,” the senior college represented a unique ability to embody the new ideals of what higher education ought to accomplish in the training of synodical workers who were ideally better attuned to the questions and issues in contemporary culture.
2 Proceedings of the Thirty-Second Regular Convention, Fort Wayne, 1923, p. 13.
3 Oscar T. Walle, Lest We Forget—Lest We Forget!: A History of Concordia Senior College (1957-1977). (Privately Published by the Author, Springfield, IL, 1978), p. 3.
4 Walle, pp. 3-4.
5 Walle, p. 4.
6 1947 Synodical Proceedings cited in Walle, p. 5.
7 Walle, p. 5.
8 Cited from Proceedings, Milwaukee, 1950, p. 225 in Walle, p. 24.
9 Concordia Senior College, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Announcements for 1975-1976.
10 Walle, p. 54.
11 Walle, p. 157.
12 Walle, pp. 157-158.
13 Walle, p. 158.
14 Walle, pp. 158-160.
15 Report of an Accrediting Examination of Concordia Senior College, January, 1962, pp. 2, 14, 19, 28 cited in Walle, p. 57.
16 Walle, p. 1.
17 Walle, p. 160.