A Tale of Two Synods Introduction

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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents A Tale of Two Synods, by Mark E. Braun, published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 2003.

Please note: citations to sources for information in this book were not included in this audio version.

A Tale of Two Synods


On each generation a date is imprinted. That date and the events that occurred on it become embedded on a generation’s consciousness and define its era.

Every American alive on December 7, 1941, remembers hearing that Japanese warplanes brought sudden death and undisclosed destruction to the Hawaiian islands in a sudden raid on Pearl Harbor—a day President Franklin D. Roosevelt predicted would “live in infamy.” No one old enough to remember November 22, 1963, can forget where he or she was when news came that a gunman with a high-powered rifle had assassinated President John F. Kennedy from the fifth floor of a textbook warehouse in Dallas, Texas. Millions more can tell where they were on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger exploded in a boiling ball of flame about 75 seconds after blastoff from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe and her six crewmates. And the present generation of Americans—and citizens of the world—will never forget September 11, 2001.

Few Americans remember anything significant about Thursday, August 17, 1961. According to the morning newspaper published in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the next day, Communist rulers in East Berlin were preparing to fight to preserve their “barbed wire barricades,” more than 89,000 guests visited the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis, and a Whitefish Bay boy was killed playing “pirates” when he was crushed by falling sand and gravel in an 8-foot ditch.

But the third headline on the front page of the Milwaukee Sentinel announced, “Wisconsin Synod, Missouri Split,” and a front-page article in the afternoon paper, the Milwaukee Journal, heralded a most traumatic event for what was then the fourth largest Lutheran church body in the United States.

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod voted late Thursday to sever relations with The Lutheran Church— Missouri Synod.

The action was hailed as the “hour of decision” for the Wisconsin Synod. It was approved, 124 to 49, by delegates in the final session of their 36th convention which dragged on eight hours past expected adjournment at Wisconsin Lutheran High School. . . .

The Reverend Werner Franzmann, chairman of the floor committee that introduced the resolution, said the step was essential to avoid confused and troubled consciences in the synod.

“We have gone the long mile of Christian love with the Missouri Synod with the course and kind of admonition we have given until now,” he said. “Today a sterner kind of admonition and love is required.”

A little more than four decades later, Wisconsin’s decision to sever fellowship with the Missouri Synod remains a crucial milestone in its history. Church members old enough to remember refer to it simply as “the split.” Younger men and women with little knowledge of the issues involved and no personal recollection of the antagonism aroused nonetheless come to realize its gravity. For those who can recall, wrote Edward Fredrich, “the loss of the battles and of the war will always remain the most significant and traumatic episode in their own personal version of their church body’s history.” Most of the synod’s pastors and teachers and many of its members felt particular losses in the disruption of cherished relationships. Painful as it was, the split “could have been tragic in the extreme,” as “dire prophecies from without and within” warned that breaking with Missouri would spell the demise of the Wisconsin Synod.

Do Lutheran Church Missouri Synod members regard the break from Wisconsin and the dissolution of the Synodical Conference with an equal sense of regret and loss? Certainly during the quarter century before 1961, a powerful and vocal constituency within Missouri also detected changes occurring in its synod. This constituency regarded Wisconsin as a valued ally and lamented the loss, fearing Missouri’s “theological liberalism” would increase without the restraining effect of Wisconsin’s protests. For example, in a letter read to Wisconsin’s 1961 convention, the Church of the Evangelical Lutheran Confession (in the Dispersion in Germany) expressed fears that “the once sturdily confessional Missouri Synod might consort with lax and compromising Lutheran bodies if she became separated from her confessional sister, the Wisconsin Synod.” Such fears, wrote Wisconsin’s Carleton Toppe, “imply that the Wisconsin Synod has been a confessional anchor in the Synodical Conference.” But Toppe added: “As long as God’s Word permitted its testimony to serve as a confessional anchor, our Synod was willing to be that anchor. But a dragged anchor we could not be.” The anxiety of that overseas church mirrored the dilemma of conservatives who remained in Missouri. “If a synod has drifted in spite of confessional moorings, what will be its course without them?”

The split appears to have had a much smaller impact on Missouri, however, than on Wisconsin. Few Missourians feared their synod could not survive without Wisconsin; indeed, members of both synods recall the caustic question some Missourians posed, “How long must the tail wag the dog?” Missouri’s President John W. Behnken wrote in 1964 that he found it “difficult to express in words the deep sadness” he felt over the break. Wisconsin’s action was, in his view, “certainly premature.”

A more revealing indicator of Missouri’s reaction to the break— or lack of it—may be found in the first issue of the unofficial journal Dialog, which likened the Missouri Synod’s regret over the dissolution of fellowship with the Wisconsin Synod to the sadness one feels when a long-ill relative has finally died. Insisting that doctrinal unity in the Synodical Conference had been “a pious fiction” for some time, the Dialog editorialist added, “It was no secret that, among other things, the Wisconsin Synod had been a drag on Missouri’s moves toward ecumenical participation.”

An American Lutheran editorialist in 1962 wrote that “deference to Wisconsin Synod objections” had “stood in the way of many a Missouri attempt to do something about the divided state of Lutheranism.” The editorialist questioned whether Missouri would continue to back away from union efforts “for the sake of our Wisconsin brethren” now that the synods were no longer in fellowship. In 1963 another American Lutheran editorialist insisted that “for much too long” The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod had “allowed the objections of Wisconsin Synod members to determine its relation to other churches.” It was now “high time for Missouri to do what it ought to do” rather than what Wisconsin wanted it to do.

Just as indicative of Missouri’s seeming lack of regret at severed fellowship with Wisconsin was the way the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod communicated the split to its delegates at its 1962 synodical convention at Cleveland. Behnken referred to Wisconsin’s suspension of fellowship in his report to the synod, as did the convention’s Floor Committee No. 3 on Doctrinal and Intersynodical Matters. Delegates, however, were never presented with the text of Wisconsin’s resolution from the previous summer, which expressed “the hope and prayer to God” that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod would “hear in this resolution an evangelical summons to ‘come to herself’ (Luke 15:17)” and “return to the side of the sister from whom she has estranged herself.”

Perhaps the most blatant admission of Missouri disregard for the effects of its break with the Wisconsin Synod came from Missouri’s Richard Koenig in 1962. Responding to one of seven questions posed by E. Clifford Nelson regarding the future of inter-Lutheran relations following Wisconsin’s convention resolutions, Koenig wrote that Nelson “overestimates the influence of the Wisconsin Synod on Missouri. To be quite candid a good part of Missouri probably couldn’t care less about what the Wisconsin Synod did or did not do.” Wisconsin’s suspension of fellowship “hardly had the power to evoke ‘a profound sense of humility.’ ”

Wisconsin’s only official account of the story frames the demise of the Synodical Conference as a purely doctrinal disagreement. Wisconsin has insisted repeatedly that church fellowship doctrine and practice as carried out by the Synodical Conference was and remains correct, and Wisconsin maintains that it still practices what the Synodical Conference once preached. Wisconsin seminary Professor John P. Meyer cited a statement by Otto Geiseman in The American Lutheran in 1962 to demonstrate that “we of the Wisconsin Synod are the ones who are preserving the position and spirit of the Synodical Conference, and thus are the genuine representatives of that church body.”

Missouri protested at the time, sometimes in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that it had not changed. “It is my honest conviction,” Behnken wrote in a 1955 letter, “that the Missouri Synod has not changed its doctrinal position.” An American Lutheran editorialist wrote that Missouri Synod members “resent and reject the charge that their synod has departed from ‘the historical doctrinal position of the Conference.’” Citing agreement between the Synodical Conference constitution and the Missouri Synod constitution regarding the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions as the basis for its doctrinal position, the editorialist added, “Those faulting the Missouri Synod will be hard put to prove that the Synod as an organization or any of its members has departed from the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.”

Later Missouri historians, however, freely acknowledge the transformation their synod experienced. Martin Marty stated flatly after the synod’s 1962 convention that “Missouri is changing and knows it.” Wisconsin’s attacks on the Missouri Synod hurt, Marty suggested, “because they were reminders of a cozy world of a century and less ago when Missouri had held some of those positions.” In 1964, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod First Vice President Roland Wiederanders admitted: “We have not dealt honestly and openly with our pastors and people. We have refused to state our changing theological position in open, honest, forthright, simple, and clear words. Over and over again we said that nothing was changing but all the while we were aware of the changes taking place.” In 1973, Richard John Neuhaus observed with greater insistence, “Leadership of recent decades kept telling the people there were no changes in the Missouri Synod, when any village idiot anywhere in the church knew there were changes.” People felt “lied to and cheated.” In 1974, Leigh Jordahl wrote that whatever one may think of the doctrinal issues that divided the synods, it was “abundantly clear” that “Missouri had changed its position.” History has confirmed the validity of Wisconsin’s repeated charges that Missouri had indeed changed.

The following study presents the stages of the intersynodical debate that led the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod to exit the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference during the 30 years, 1931–1961. Official source material is abundant. The synod’s theological journal has presented a consistent viewpoint regarding the Scouting movement, the military chaplaincy, applications of the synod’s teachings regarding church fellowship, and the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, all of which played key roles in Wisconsin’s exit.

The synod’s first magazine for lay readers, the Evangelical Lutheran Gemeinde–Blatt, was launched in 1865 and continued publication until 1969. Its English counterpart, the Northwestern Lutheran, appeared in 1914. Hoping to preserve intersynodical harmony, the Northwestern Lutheran seldom printed news articles regarding the controverted issues that arose between the synods beginning in the late 1930s. On April 13, 1947, however, a Northwestern Lutheran editorial writer announced that the time had now come to speak, “not for the purpose of disrupting now the fellowship about which we were so concerned” but because “our members are surely entitled to know where our Wisconsin Synod stands, and why it stands as it does.”

As turmoil increased, the Wisconsin Synod responded with additional publications: a series of eleven tracts in 1953 and 1954, a point-counterpoint series of pamphlets—A Fraternal Word on the Questions in Controversy between the Wisconsin Synod and the Missouri Synod from the Missouri Synod in October 1953, “A Fraternal Word” Examined from Wisconsin in early 1954, and A Fraternal Reply in July 1954—as well as numerous study papers and conference essays. Many pastors who lived through that era have files bulging with yellowed copies of conference papers, folders filled with personal and professional correspondence, and homemade presentations developed to interpret the issues in dispute to their congregations. Pastors from that era also share rich memories of the issues, personalities, and events involved.

In addition to these many printed resources, this study is based on the results of a questionnaire addressed to 105 Wisconsin Synod pastors in April 1997. These pastors graduated from the seminary as early as 1926 and as recently as 1962. Many served on key district or synodical committees or were present or participated in emotionally charged Wisconsin Synod or Synodical Conference conventions. Eighty-two of the 105 pastors surveyed responded—78 percent, an extraordinary response—many within days of receiving the survey. Respondents were especially generous in opening their personal files, forwarding conference essays, newspaper and magazine clippings, letters, study papers, and other artifacts, all of which serve to transport the reader back to those tense years.

The survey format offered respondents the option of maintaining the anonymity of their comments, but more than 90 percent chose the option “You may use my name in connection with all of the comments on this survey.” There was a sense throughout that this “great debate with Missouri” constituted the weightiest battle of their lives, though in the 1940s and 1950s many were relatively young, inexperienced pastors. For this study the identity of all survey respondents has been kept confidential; responses are referenced by number, arranged chronologically in the order in which they were returned.

Some respondents apologized for “slipping memories,” yet their recollections contain numerous specific details fixed in their minds decades ago. The individual recollections of some respondents are contradicted by those of other respondents; occasionally, comments even questioned or challenged official synodical positions. Some differences may be attributed to regional variations as intersynodical debate unfolded. Most significantly, their memories reflect their perceptions of what happened, and it was on the basis of those perceptions that they served their congregations and their synod and, ultimately, made the decision to break fellowship with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

Chapter 1 presents a brief review of pertinent details in the synods’ intertwined histories up to 1931. The Missouri and Wisconsin synods came to acknowledge each other’s orthodoxy in teaching and practice, yet they retained distinctive synodical personalities and resisted efforts to be joined into a single synodical organization.

Chapter 2 traces the development of initial disturbances between the synods. Disagreements over the doctrine of church and ministry provoked meetings, theses, and spirited correspondence in the early 1930s, although observers then and since have not regarded those disagreements as divisive of fellowship between the two bodies. Changes in Missouri policy regarding participation in the United States government’s military chaplaincy program and acceptance of the Boy and Girl Scout programs jeopardized the harmonious relation of the synods and provoked initial responses of hurt and betrayal by Wisconsin Synod spokespersons.

By the late 1940s the Wisconsin Synod recognized that the common denominator underlying its disagreements with the Missouri Synod was the doctrine of church fellowship—especially prayer fellowship. Changes in fellowship practice and teaching, in fact, had been brewing in Missouri since World War I. During the 1950s the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod moved toward a revised presentation of church fellowship that came to be expressed in The Theology of Fellowship, which was granted formal approval at its 1965 and 1967 synodical conventions. This story is told in chapter 3.

Chapter 4 concentrates on the Wisconsin Synod’s response to these changes. Wisconsin refined and expanded its presentation of church and prayer fellowship and, by the late 1950s, summarized its doctrine and practice of fellowship under the term unit concept. In 1960, Wisconsin declared that an “impasse” had been reached between the two synods, which led to the convention vote in 1961.

Beginning in the 1950s, fears arose in both synods that some of Missouri’s leading theologians were abandoning their synod’s traditional teaching regarding the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. The doctrine of the Word of God was never the presenting issue in Wisconsin’s determination to leave the Synodical Conference, yet chapter 5 shows that this issue nonetheless aggravated Wisconsin’s misgivings about Missouri’s theological position and contributed to the split.

This study concludes with brief observations on Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod development since its formal exit from the Synodical Conference in 1963.

End Introduction