A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 1 part 2

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Barely cousins

Small wonder, then, as David Schmiel has remarked, that the casual observer in the 1850s “would hardly have imagined two more disparate groups of Lutherans than the Wisconsin and Missouri synods.” Their differing theological positions shaped their development, as did circumstances that brought the two together. The Missouri Synod “stemmed from an unusual movement, a rebellion against the existing union of Lutherans and Reformed in Germany.”

Schmiel’s reference is to the attempt by Prussian King Frederic Wilhelm III to unite Lutheran and Reformed believers into a single church. By inserting the phrase “Our Lord Jesus says” into the words of institution for Holy Communion, Frederic’s liturgy relinquished interpretation of the words to the individual worshiper. Lutherans could insist that Christ’s true body and blood were present in the Sacrament, but the Reformed were free to profess that the elements were something else or something less than Christ’s true body and blood.

Instead of uniting Lutherans and Reformed, however, Frederic Wilhelm produced a third non-Catholic church: uniert (union) congregations. Seeing little hope of resolving their difficulties peacefully, yet refusing to abandon their religious convictions, some “dissident” pastors and congregants chose to leave Germany for America and Australia. Among those convinced of the impossibility of maintaining Lutheran convictions on German soil was Martin Stephan. “Will it not come to this that we must leave Babylon and Egypt and emigrate?” Stephan asked in 1833. “Everywhere there is great hatred and deprecation of the pure Lutheran doctrine.” Stephan was directed to North America “where there dwells not only political freedom, but love for the pure Lutheran religion as well.”

Forming an emigration society in 1836, Stephan led a five-ship flotilla from Bremen for New Orleans in November 1838. Four of the ships, almost seven hundred passengers, and most of their supplies arrived in New Orleans in January 1839, then settled on a ten thousand–acre parcel in Perry County, Missouri. Others journeyed farther north, settling in and around St. Louis. Among them was C. F. W. Walther.

Some aspects of the migration were distasteful to later readers,

footnote: Pastors sometimes encouraged the separation of spouses who could not agree on leaving Saxony. They even helped several underage girls disguise themselves as boys, in effect smuggling them out of the country. One woman followed Walther to Missouri, leaving her husband and four children behind. Her husband eventually brought suit against Walther. Walther also was accused of kidnaping his orphaned niece and nephew. end footnote

and Stephan himself was later disgraced and deposed from the community.

footnote: On May 5, 1839, three young women confessed to their pastor, Gotthold Loeber, that Stephan made improper sexual advances toward them. On May 30, Stephan was excommunicated and shipped across the Mississippi River to Kaskaskia, Illinois. One week later, a fourth member of the colony, Stephan’s housemaid, signed a confession stating that she had illicit sexual relations with Stephan for a period of seven or eight years. end footnote

Yet the Saxon immigration became a major piece of synodical hagiography—“a romanticized type of Missouri Synod history, not always consistent with fact”—which provided the young synod with important self-definition. Marking Missouri’s 75th anniversary in 1922, W. H. T. Dau placed a retelling of the Saxon migration at the head of a collection of celebratory pieces about the synod’s history, doctrine, and growth. The author, Theodore Buenger, regarded the Saxons as one of the few groups united by common motives and glorious purpose:

This noble band came to America not to gain more of this world’s goods than they were to acquire in the land of their birth, but to seek freedom of conscience; they did not come as hunters of fortune, but because “they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Many gave up advantages that they could not hope to find here and severed connections that were dear to their hearts. The majority emigrated in the conviction that, if they remained at home, they would lose something greater and more valuable than anything that fatherland, prosperity, and a happy home could offer.

Walther and Missouri’s other founders articulated a distinctive self-awareness of their church body as the lone voice of true Lutheranism in a sea of rationalism and American Protestant subjectivism. Der Lutheraner, which began publication in 1844 (three years before the founding of the synod in 1847), seized upon any shift toward firmer confessionalism it detected among Lutherans in America and Germany. By 1850, it noted with pride that the seed of discord it was sowing within the “American Lutheran” camp was bearing abundant fruit.

Walther insisted that all doctrinal issues had been settled long ago. Luther’s understanding of the Word was correct and Missouri was in complete possession of it. Der Lutheraner’s epigram reminded readers:

Gottes Wort und Luthers Lehr’
vergehet nun und nimmermehr.

“Thus we say with Saint Paul,” Walther wrote, quoting Luther, “in most certain and unmistakable terms, that all doctrine not agreeing with ours is damned and diabolical.”

Marking Missouri’s silver jubilee in 1872, Walther and Vice President Theodore Brohm expounded the theme of Missouri’s doctrinal correctness and, as a consequence, its persecution. At its founding, the synod occupied a solitary position, was “looked at askance, or even despised by other church bodies,” Brohm wrote. As it testified to “the pure truth” Missourians had to “battle ceaselessly with old and new enemies of our Church,” Walther recalled, “who seem to have gathered here from all parts of the world into one vast army. . . .

I seem to hear all the enemies say sneeringly, “Yes, yes,” “Reine Lehre,” “pure doctrine,” “orthodoxy,”—that’s it, and that’s about all you glory in. Vainglory? But, my brethren, let them mock us if they will; by such mockery they reveal what manner of spirit they are.

At Missouri’s 75th anniversary, a half century after Brohm and Walther’s sermons, Martin Walker observed:

We are deeply impressed with the sturdy orthodoxy of our fathers, their unswerving loyalty to the divine Word, and their holy determination to continue unto the end “to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.” In these documents we find much holy joy, but no sinful pride; much glorying in God, but no boasting in self. . . .As Elijah’s mantle fell upon Elisha, so may the faith and love, the courage and confidence, the zeal and self-sacrifice of our fathers come upon us of the third and later generations!
“Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to Thee till death.”

Everything that embodied Missouri from the start— “an internally homogeneous and compact group” united by convictions of pure Lutheran doctrine combined with freedom in church government, the “thorough academic education” of its pastors and pastoral candidates, the “fiery and dynamic leadership” of the “exceedingly able and unusually energetic” Walther, who “surpassed all the others intellectually, had good practical insight, and was a person to whom the rest at once deferred”—was utterly lacking in the “conglomeration of pastors” who formed the Wisconsin Synod in 1850 and the Minnesota and Michigan synods in 1860.

J. P. Koehler attributed Wisconsin’s divergent character to the fact that the synod had not been shaped by the Prussian persecutions or molded by the Saxon migration. Because its founders hailed from locations in Germany where unionism was more commonly accepted, the Wisconsin Synod maintained ties to the Prussian church for most of its first two decades. Wisconsin’s leaders went about their task with what Koehler described as “Lutheran open-mindedness.”

Unlike Missouri, wrote August Pieper, “Wisconsin was not of one mold.” At its beginning “it was a conglomeration of people of various confessional leanings,” unschooled in Lutheran doctrine and unknown to one another because they came from different parts of Europe. Upon arriving “they had no outstanding or even authoritative leader and no strong unifying force.” Though working faithfully with “whatever pastoral insight they had,” Wisconsin pastors and members “did not really know what they were, what they wanted to be, or how to go about doing something useful.” Yet one thing they were sure of: “they wanted synodical independence and autonomy.” Thus Wisconsin’s personality stood in marked contrast to “the enormous synodical energy of the Missourians.”

From its beginnings, the Wisconsin Synod was “a house divided” in its doctrine and practice. Eager to bring the gospel to one of the many little settlements sprouting up around the state, a Wisconsin pastor would find in a given location some Lutherans, some Catholics, and some Reformed. He knew where lines were to be drawn between Lutherans and Catholics, but demarcation between Lutherans and the Reformed was less clear. Such a pastor learned he could increase his preaching opportunities by advertising, “Kann auch Evangelisch predigen” (“I can also preach Evangelical”)

At first the Wisconsin Synod seems to have escaped Missouri’s notice, but because the two synods established congregations close to one another in locations such as Watertown and Milwaukee, “Wisconsin began to be looked upon as an opposition synod.” Disputes between the synods were often doctrinal: Muehlhaeuser considered the Missouri, Buffalo, and Iowa synods as “Romanizing sects,” while they regarded the Wisconsin Synod as “unionistic.” Yet Koehler remarked that “on the whole, the argumentation in the controversial cases seems to reveal that the real issue, then as later, was the territorial rights of the congregations concerned.”

By the mid-1850s, Buffalo and Missouri were well aware of Wisconsin’s existence, and their church papers—Buffalo’s Das Informatorium and Missouri’s Der Lutheraner—began sounding warnings and leveling accusations. John Deindoerfer, pastor in Frankenhilf, Michigan, castigated “the deceptive and lying nature of [this] union church,” later labeling the Wisconsin Synod “thoroughly unionistic.”

In 1860, a young preacher published a heated attack in Der Lutheraner against a Wisconsin Synod pastor in Oshkosh, then recklessly applied his charges to the synod as a whole. In 1861, a Missouri writer criticized Wisconsin for receiving subsidies from Germany and Pennsylvania, commenting, “These gentlemen are bound to have their comfortable living assured, in order to missionize where the Gospel is already being preached.” The writer charged further that “the preachers of the Wisconsin Synod like to gather to themselves a crowd of all kinds of people; the worst of it is that they are not very scrupulous in the choice of means to augment their numbers.” Charges of “unionistic synod” and “exclusive Lutheranism” flew back and forth between the two synods.

In 1862, Missouri’s J. N. Beyer reported that Wisconsin’s Johannes Conrad in Racine had sent mission offerings to seven other preaching fields, all of them unionistic. During an espeially vexing dispute between Missouri and Wisconsin churches in Watertown, one Wisconsin Synod official was quoted in the Lutherischer Kirchenbote of July 18 as saying it was “high time that our Synod came to Watertown” because “Methodistic enthusiasm” was rampant on one hand and “the rigoristic exclusivism of the [Missouri] Old Lutherans” on the other. “The poor hungry souls didn’t know where to turn.” Missouri’s Lehre und Wehre responded that Wisconsin leveled such accusations because of Missouri’s “unrelenting adherence to Christian doctrine and practice.” Yet “when one knows what the congregational practice of such gentlemen is like,” Lehre und Wehre continued, it is not surprising that those who are lukewarm in doctrine or eager to avoid church discipline “find a refuge for their sensitive skin in such a congregation” under the pretense of still remaining Lutheran.

While granting that even Missouri’s harshest critics acted in good faith, Koehler maintained that an unbiased reader can’t help feeling such strictures “overshot the mark.” It did not have “the right ring” when Missouri continued warning Wisconsin “not to fail to appreciate the love” contained in their sharp rebukes. “They were right about their protest against unionism, but the question keeps popping up whether they could not have rendered their testimony in a better manner, in view of the situation at the time.” In an essay delivered to Wisconsin’s 1861 convention, Gottlieb Reim was clearly referring to Missourians when he chided “that loveless contentiousness” that believed “Christ resides only within its chambers, and indulges in hairsplitting and wars of words” to cast suspicion on other Lutheran synods. “The Wisconsin Synod does not know, nor does it want to know” that sort of Lutheranism.

A century later, a Wisconsin Synod professor maintained that if Missouri had shown greater understanding for Wisconsin’s different backgrounds and regarded its members as weak brothers but brothers and fellow Lutherans nonetheless, Wisconsin undoubtedly would have sought and accepted Missouri’s help.

As it was, the almost contemptuous treatment Wisconsin pastors received at the hands of the Old Lutherans, the haughty condescension with which they were occasionally met caused hurt and confusion, and kept them away from the synods already at work in Wisconsin. These early Wisconsin men certainly did not lay claim to being perfect; they were no angels, but neither were the Old Lutherans.

Right turn

As Missouri attacked, it failed to notice that Wisconsin was undergoing a theological change. In less than two decades, Wisconsin’s doctrinal position came to coincide so completely with Missouri’s that the two synods recognized each other’s orthodoxy, called each other “sisters,” and declared organic union that formed the basis of the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America for more than 90 years.

While Muehlhaeuser preferred a milder confessional stance for his new Lutheran synod, Wisconsin’s two other chief founders, Johannes Weinmann and especially William Wrede, insisted on clearer confessional statements. Quite likely they overruled Muehlhaeuser, causing the “Unaltered Augsburg Confession and the other Lutheran symbols” to prevail in Wisconsin’s constitution.

When the synod’s 1854 convention resolved to allow a congregation at Schlesingerville to use both bread and wafers in the Sacrament, Pastor Goldammer “violently opposed” this “double offering,” calling it “contrary to the essence of the Lord’s Supper, which should demonstrate the communion and oneness of the Lord’s Supper guests.” At its 1856 convention, Wisconsin “categorically rejected” Samuel Schmucker’s Definite Platform, maintaining that “the Unaltered Augsburg Confession is based on the Word of God” and warning that acceptance of the Definite Platform would amount to “nothing else but a definite suicide of the Lutheran Church.”

footnote: Fredrich remarked that the resolution was “sandwiched between routine decisions that regulated convention preaching assignments and established a treasury for pastors’ widows.” The Proceedings provide no other clue as to why the synod was moved to make such a resolution. end footnote

Thus the seeds of stronger confessionalism existed in Wisconsin from its beginning. New pastoral arrivals from Europe embraced more vigorous confessional commitment. In 1853, Johannes Bading came from a mission school in Hermannsburg, where, under Ludwig Harms, he had received a more confessional training than had Muehlhaeuser. Moving to Theresa (northwest of Milwaukee) in 1855, Bading soon met other like-minded pastors—Gottlieb Reim in Ashford, Philipp Koehler in West Bend, and Elias Sauer in Schlesingerville. Together they formed the Northwestern Conference, working where they could to bring about more confessional Lutheranism in Wisconsin.

footnote: Wisconsin’s numerous Northwestern namings were granted to honor the confessional leadership of this conference: Northwestern Preparatory School and Northwestern College at Watertown, Wisconsin, 1865–1995; Northwestern Lutheran Academy in Mobridge, South Dakota, 1928–1979; and the synod’s English magazine, the Northwestern Lutheran, 1914–2000. end footnote

The synod’s choice of Bading to succeed Muehlhaeuser as Wisconsin’s president in 1860 was in itself an indicator of Wisconsin’s growing confessional stand. In his first two presidential addresses in 1861 and 1862, Bading stressed the importance of adhering to the Lutheran Confessions in practice, not just on paper. Also in 1862, in another incident involving the Schlesingerville congregation, synod delegates censured its pastor for using both bread and wafers to please its Reformed communicants—thus reversing its 1854 admonition.

Most significant was the service of Adolf Hoenecke, who arrived in 1863 and became Wisconsin’s leading theological teacher until his death in 1908. Possessing neither the inner fire nor the outward energy of Walther, Hoenecke was blessed instead with “utter seriousness, genuine fear of God, firm stand on Scripture, sound Lutheranism, superior mind, theological perception and depth.” Averse to any display of pomp or greatness, Hoenecke “wanted to work solely on people’s hearts, persuading, winning and edifying them through God’s Word, through the gospel, without using any outward force.” Bading possessed gifts of natural leadership, but Hoenecke was “in the good sense the power behind the throne.”

Muehlhaeuser accepted Wisconsin’s theological shift gracefully. August Pieper, who knew Muehlhaeuser only from the recollections of others, called him “an exceptionally fervent disciple of the Lord” who showed “great modesty, humility, a love for his fellow-man, and a capacity for self-sacrifice.” Koehler, who knew Muehlhaeuser through his father, Philipp, said Muehlhaeuser “did not resent correction on the part of the younger men, and even when of another opinion would lend his support.” For their part, these younger, more confessionally-minded pastors (Bading was more than 20 years Muehlhaeuser’s junior, Hoenecke more than 30) accorded Muehlhaeuser fatherly respect during his presidential tenure and to the end of his life in 1867.

footnote: At the first synodical convention following Muehlhaeuser’s death, Bading praised the “great self-denial” Muehlhaeuser showed and the “personal sacrifice” he made in establishing his congregation and the synod. “Most of us know with what love and patience he nurtured the synod and how faithfully he labored and prayed for it.” end footnote

When some member bodies of the General Synod withdrew in 1866 to form a more confessional body, the General Council, Wisconsin was alert to the opportunity. It was represented at the Council’s founding convention in Reading, Pennsylvania, and became, with 12,741 communicants, its second largest body.

Delegates to the Council’s convention in late fall, 1867, at Fort Wayne, Indiana, were faced with questions raised by the Ohio and Iowa synods regarding the “four points”: (1) millennialism: acceptance of a physical thousand-year reign of Christ; (2) pulpit fellowship: only Lutheran pastors for Lutheran pulpits; (3) altar fellowship: only Lutheran communicants at Lutheran altars; (4) lodge membership: church members belonging to secret or anti-Christian societies. Wisconsin’s delegates considered the Council’s reply to Ohio and Iowa evasive and ambiguous. Though President Bading hoped the General Council might offer more substantive answers to the “Four Points,” the Council’s 1868 resolutions still proved unsatisfactory. Wisconsin reaffirmed its withdrawal from the Council in 1869.

After terminating its membership in the General Council and severing its relations with the Berlin Mission Society, Wisconsin expressed willingness in 1868 to meet with Missouri to seek a common understanding. Walther and other Missouri representatives met with Wisconsin men in Milwaukee in October and were clearly pleased with the outcome: “We must admit that all our suspicions against the dear Wisconsin Synod have not merely disappeared but were also put to shame,” said Walther. “God be thanked for His unspeakable gift.” By 1872, arrangements among Wisconsin, Missouri, and four other Midwestern synods were approved, and the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America was officially formed July 10 through 16 at Saint John’s Church in Milwaukee.

It has been persistently maintained that Missouri’s public attacks and private persuasion provided a key element in Wisconsin’s turn to the right. The Missouri Synod, Walther, Lehre und Wehre, and Der Lutheraner are frequently invoked as a blessing God gave Wisconsin when Wisconsin needed it most. That said, Wisconsin historian Edward Fredrich has insisted, “It was much less the polemical writing in Missouri periodicals, often given to exaggeration and based on misinformation, and much more the personal and brotherly example and encouragement of a good Missouri neighbor” that helped move Wisconsin to the right.

footnote: That this reading of events has endured for a long time is illustrated in a comment made to the author in September 1996 by a third-generation Wisconsin Synod member who lived all his life in east central Wisconsin. During his young adult years, in the 1930s and 1940s, it was still commonly repeated that Wisconsin owed Missouri a debt of gratitude because “in the early days, Missouri had to set Wisconsin straight.” end footnote

Bading, Hoenecke, the Northwestern Conference pastors, and other factors brought about a change in Wisconsin long before Missouri ever noticed the existence of the Wisconsin Synod or directed “loving” criticisms its way. Over the intervening years “there has been a tendency to exaggerate the Missouri role in Wisconsin’s improvement.”

footnote: This was especially true in the 1950s, Fredrich added, “when Wisconsin admonitions to Missouri for liberal and unionistic tendencies were so often and so emphatically prefaced by the assertion that Wisconsin in 1955 was only trying to repay what Missouri had provided Wisconsin a century earlier. That approach was overplayed.” See, for example, Edmund Reim, “As We See It: A Bit of History,” who wrote that Wisconsin always recognized its “deep obligation to the Missouri Synod for its service in the early days of our Synod in leading us away from gross unionistic practice and showing us the way to honest Biblical teaching and practice.” Missouri’s criticisms were “bitter medicine, needlessly so,” yet they offered “a most valuable” service. “Missouri was upholding the idea of sound confessionalism, against unionism and indifference.” end footnote

End Chapter 1 part 2