A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 1 part 1

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Chapter 1

Sister Synods

Milwaukee historian John Gurda has described the 1930s as “a decade of deepening darkness, a nightmarish descent into a totally unforeseen state of worry and want.” Neck bones and spareribs replaced more expensive cuts of meat at evening meals, and “one-meatball casseroles” became a popular staple. Many people deferred medical care as long as possible and ignored dental care entirely. More than 53 percent of Milwaukee’s 1932 property taxes went unpaid, and public works crews that had paved 52.7 miles of city streets in 1929 reduced their output to less than two-thirds of a mile in 1933. Some even suggested that the heavier eaters at the Washington Park Zoo be slaughtered for their nutritional value.

Churches suffered along with the rest of the nation.

footnote: Wisconsin Synod historian Edward Fredrich liked to point out, however, a bright spot in those difficult times: “In the depth of the Depression, in 1932, experts in economics tell us, the share of ‘total personal consumption expenditures’ spent for religious and welfare activities stood higher than it ever has been since.” While the figure was at .02 percent in the 1930s, it dropped below .01 percent in the more prosperous 1950s and in 1970 it was .014 percent. Fredrich concluded that people “seem to need an economic setback to put a brake on their selfishness and materialism.” end footnote

Researchers H. Paul Douglass and Edmund S. de Brunner reported that 20 of 35 “leading denominations” compared in 1934 had reduced their total expenditures by 30 to 50 percent, and 5 [denominations] more than 50 percent. From 1930 to 1935, Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches suffered a 38 percent decrease in giving, and the Episcopal church experienced a 35 percent decline in receipts between 1929 and 1934. In the dollar equivalent of the time, contributions to missions in the Episcopal church declined from $2.25 per person in 1930 to 96 cents in 1940.

In the two largest synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, the Depression was also felt. At Missouri’s 1932 convention, pleas to improve and expand colleges and seminaries in the synod’s school system had to be rejected or postponed. Delegates proposed an “Emergency Collection” because they considered it “absolutely necessary” that a special effort be made to bring receipts up to budget requirements “by a Synod-wide self-denial offering.” In the Wisconsin Synod, only 38 new congregations were organized during the 1930s, the lowest total for any decade in the synod’s history. Only half the members of its 1931 seminary graduating class received calls. By 1933, synod president G. E. Bergemann reported that the salaries of professors had been reduced by 36 percent during the previous biennium, and those of missionaries by 28 percent.

Yet the September 25, 1932, issue of the Northwestern Lutheran featured a glowing report of that summer’s Synodical Conference convention, held at Mankato, Minnesota. Convention days were “pleasant and profitable.” The “best hours of each session” were devoted to a paper presenting “Christ as our King,” in which Wisconsin’s Professor Joh. P. Meyer “drew beautiful word pictures” and his listeners were “stimulated anew to loyal service to such a King.” Mission reports noted that joint efforts among the “colored people” were being richly blessed. The hospitality of the host congregation “cannot be too highly praised,” and delegates transported to Wisconsin’s Dr. Martin Luther College at New Ulm and the Norwegians’ Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato came away with “a most favorable impression.”

That summer also marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Synodical Conference. Missouri’s Ludwig Fuerbringer, conference president, credited the grace of God for keeping the four constituent synods “still true to the original ideals and principles” the conference adopted at its founding.

Different foundings

These sister synods had been established as part of the vast wave of German immigration into North America during the previous century. Between 1820 and 1929 almost six million German settlers arrived in the United States, a million and a half before the Civil War. By 1900, German stock in the United States (immigrants and their children) numbered more than eight million. At the turn of the century, three-fourths of the foreign-born population of Cincinnati, two-thirds of that of Milwaukee, and more than half of that of St. Louis were German. The numbers were even higher in rural areas: 90 percent of the foreign-born in Franklin County, Missouri, and 80 percent of the foreign-born in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, were German.

Included in this wave of migration were pastors and mission workers, eager to gather or reclaim their countrymen for the faith. Serving these new arrivals was not for the faint of heart. A missionary visiting the Norwegian settlement at Dane County, Wisconsin, in 1850, remarked, “Such gross immorality I had never witnessed before.” A minister in the state of Missouri described the members of his church at Deep Water as “so unaccustomed to attend on the means of grace, their minds so little cultivated, their feelings so blunted,” that he sometimes felt himself in “a land of darkness and death.” Many who left the Old World wanted to leave the old faith behind. An Evangelical pastor at Belleville, Illinois, complained that Germans there were “most all infidels or rationalists” who disparaged the Bible as “an old rusted book.” An American pastor agreed that the German church in Belleville was “almost entirely made up of skeptics and loose moralists.”

Coming from the European state church, German immigrants were unaccustomed to the bewildering array of denominations and the voluntary nature of American religion. Many would join any church that wasn’t Catholic. An Iowa minister’s 11 members included 3 who had been Congregationalists, 2 Associate Reformed Presbyterians, 1 Lutheran, 2 Methodists, 2 Cumberland Presbyterians, and 1 “person reared under Presbyterian influences.” Pastors of both the Missouri and Wisconsin synods seem to have shared (with Lutherans in general) a particular distaste for Methodists, accusing them and other aggressive sects of sheep-stealing immigrant Lutherans.

footnote: Walther once wrote that “the Methodists are thieves who gladly break in when the shepherd is not there. They do not come except to steal, to seize, and to destroy.” Martin Marty remarked that Lutherans “never tired of telling stories like the one about a Methodist ‘spiritual vulture’ who conducted a communion service for immigrants in Michigan and boasted, ‘Look here at all the money the dumb Germans have given me for the little bread and wine I gave them!’ Methodists were ‘wolves and hucksters’ who ‘plied their wares of false doctrine.’” Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America. end footnote

Neither Johannes Muehlhaeuser, founder of the Wisconsin Synod, nor Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, key figure in the formation and early development of the Missouri Synod, could be regarded as faint of heart. Both conducted their ministries amid rugged circumstances on the western edge of the American frontier. Both brought to America fiercely held convictions regarding Lutheran teaching and practice. Both brought a zeal to serve souls with the gospel. Yet their differences, rather than their similarities, impacted their church bodies and set their respective synods on parallel but disparate courses.

footnote: E. Theodore Bachmann, remarked, “The usual interpretation in the Missouri Synod has made Walther the guiding genius of the Synod. Sihler, Wyneken, and others are said to have read the early issues of Der Lutheraner and rejoiced, urging upon Walther a union of like-minded pastors. Indeed, the testimony of these men praise Walther.” This one-sided emphasis was preserved in such standard works as W. H. T. Dau, editor., Ebenezer: Reviews of the Work of the Missouri Synod during Three Quarters of a Century. end footnote

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Walther’s theological acumen, evangelical spirit, and compelling personality to the development of the Missouri Synod. He has been called “the American Luther,” and his theology and career were shaped by a crisis of faith similar to that of the Great Reformer.

footnote: Preaching at Concordia Seminary on May 14, 1887, one week after Walther’s death, Rev. H. Birkner called him “this most gifted son of the great Reformer” and “the Luther of our American Church.” end footnote

When he left the Gymnasium at age 18, Walther lamented that he had “never heard a sentence of the Word of God coming from a believing heart.” He considered all but three of the members of the theological faculty he met at the University of Leipzig to be “coarse rationalists.” By his own estimate he spent more than eight years of his student life unconverted.

Searching for theological certainty, Walther read the pietist classics. “The less a book invited to faith and the more legalistically it urged contrition of the heart and total mortification of the old man before conversion,” the better he held it to be. Yet by his own admission, “praying, sighing, weeping, fasting, struggling, was of no avail.” He found no peace of God. It was through the correspondence and preaching of Dresden pastor Martin Stephan that Walther was pointed away from himself to Christ. His exuberant spiritual relief echoed Luther’s joyful tower experience: “I felt as though I had been translated from hell to heaven. Tears of distress and sorrow were converted into tears of heavenly joy.” Stephan “applied the Gospel to my own soul.”

Understandably, Walther maintained a lifelong aversion to Pietism. Among Lutherans in the New World he emphasized Luther’s teaching on justification as expressed in the Lutheran Confessions. Pietists, Walther wrote in an 1846 letter, “emphasize repentance and crushing of the heart” and “identify so many signs of a truly penitent heart, which can then first dare to approach Christ.” The result is that “Christ with His grace and mercy is pushed very much to the background,” and Christianity becomes “a serious burden.” Remarking on Walther’s 40-year career and influence on Missouri, his student and successor Franz Pieper wrote:

We believe that it is not saying too much when we declare that after Luther and Chemnitz no other teacher of our church has attested the doctrine of justification so impressively as did Walther. It was particularly in this doctrine that he followed Luther, and he united into one shining beam of light all other bright rays on this doctrine radiating from our later dogmaticians.

Born eight years before Walther, Muehlhaeuser was trained at the Pilgermission in Basel, Switzerland, as a traveling missionary and distributor of evangelical tracts. He acquired only a fundamental knowledge of the Bible and never possessed exegetical proficiency in the biblical languages. Muehlhaeuser’s training did not include an understanding of the Lutheran Confessions as a clear exposition of scriptural teaching. Indeed, Muehlhaeuser once dismissed the Lutheran Confessions as “paper fences” and appears to have resisted requiring a quia subscription to the Confessions in the articles of organization of the Wisconsin Synod.

footnote: the wording of the synod’s constitution according to the “original authentic manuscript” followed an old European Lutheran form prescribing that it be “based on the Scriptures, [the] Unaltered Augsburg Confession and the other Lutheran symbols.” But those terms had been crossed out and inserted in their place was “reines Bibel christentum” or “reines Bibelwort” (true Bible Christianity or true Bible word). In the questions to the candidate for ordination, “the fundamental doctrines of holy Writ and the Articles of Faith of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession” were left undisturbed. Koehler was uncertain who made the insertions. Muehlhaeuser would have preferred a milder confessional statement in the constitution. end footnote

But Muehlhaeuser was “sound in regard to justification,” once criticizing a Lutheran pastor in New York for being “unclear and inexperienced in the main matter of the gospel, namely, the righteousness which is granted to men by grace through faith.” He modeled “a personal living faith, child-like trust in his Savior, and a burning zeal to build His kingdom and spend himself in the work.” But Muehlhaeuser also practiced a “relaxed” brand of confessionalism. In the articles of incorporation of Grace congregation, which he founded in Milwaukee in 1849, Muehlhaeuser included a provision that “never may or shall a preacher of the said congregation use the rite of the Old Lutheran Church, whether in Baptism or the Lord’s Supper.” At the congregation’s cornerstone laying in 1851, six English-speaking preachers of various denominations, a German evangelical preacher, and a Methodist preacher were present to give addresses and offer the closing prayer.

While Walther found theological assurance in the doctrinal tenets of “Old Lutheranism,” Muehlhaeuser disdained “Old Lutherans” he met in the Missouri and Buffalo synods. As he saw it, doctrinal controversies were often mere disputes over words, fomented by contentious spirits, which accomplished little but often hindered the work at hand. The real battle was against rationalism and unbelief. Muehlhaeuser regarded as his ally any pastor who shared the message of “the righteousness which is granted to men by grace through faith,” regardless of denominational label. He urged his fledgling Wisconsin Synod at its very first convention to support a traveling missionary (Reiseprediger) and vigorously collected money for heathen mission work. Grace congregation’s church minutes report that in the first dozen years of its existence the congregation was instrumental in helping to establish more than 20 other Lutheran congregations.

In an oft-quoted letter from 1853, Muehlhaeuser voiced his theological leanings:

Just because I am not strictly or Old-Lutheran, I am in a position to offer every child of God and servant of Christ the hand of fellowship over the ecclesiastical fence. Have quite often been together with English preachers of the various denominations in ministerial conference and we respected and loved each other as brethren and deliberated on the general welfare of the church. So I am not, dear Methodist brother, withdrawing the hand of brotherhood from you if you are a Methodist in the spirit of the Methodist church’s founder.

Yet Muehlhaeuser chided the recipient, a fellow Basel-trained missionary who had “defected” to Methodism.

As a non-theologian I am wondering how you, a theologian pledged to the confessional books, could take the step [to Methodism] without a struggle. You won’t expect me to believe that the teaching of the Methodist church, especially regarding the Sacraments, yes, even pertaining to justification and sanctification, is Lutheran?

End Chapter 1 part 1