A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 1 part 3

Permission granted for use by the visually impaired audience only on listen.wels.net.

When they were young

On the eve of the formation of the United Lutheran Church in America in 1918, the Northwestern Lutheran boasted that “the Synodical Conference still easily holds first place” as the “biggest Lutheran body in America.” Wisconsin and Missouri comprised the largest share of Synodical Conference members until the demise of the conference in 1967. After discovering their doctrinal agreement, they enjoyed nine decades of joint fellowship, harmonious working relationships, and shared ministries.

footnote: According to 1927 statistics, the Missouri Synod, with 1,034,404 baptized members, was second in size only to the United Lutheran Church of America among American Lutheran bodies. The Wisconsin Synod had 229,242 baptized members, the Slovak Synod 14,759, and the Norwegian Synod 8,344. end footnote

The most obvious feature of the two synods during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was their Germanness. Jay Dolan has traced the importance of the use of German by Roman Catholics for preserving the faith and for maintaining the old culture and keeping memories of the past alive. It was all right to learn English, one priest counseled, because “in English you must count your dollars, but in German you speak with your children, your confessor, and your God.”

German Lutherans encountered the same cultural uncertainties, and in the familiar phrases of their faith, they found a measure of reassurance they may not have yearned for as intensely in the old country. For some, “the comforting assurances of religion took on deepened meaning in America.” Religious rites such as Baptism, confirmation, Communion, marriage, and burial “took on added value, especially when observed in the old, familiar language.”

In a 1939 festival address marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of Concordia Seminary, Theodore Buenger insisted it was never Missouri’s policy “to preach only in German.” The accusation that Missouri’s fathers had feared pure doctrine could not be preserved if preached in English was dismissed by Buenger as “one of the silliest slanders” he had ever heard.

Early leaders in both synods advocated the transition to English. In a note to his brother Otto around 1840, C. F. W. Walther expressed the urgent need for translating excerpts of the Lutheran Confessions into English. In 1852, the Missouri Synod discussed establishing an English college at Fort Wayne, Indiana, because “it was self-evident that such an institution would be needed.” A year later Der Lutheraner advocated the establishment of English academies so that well-trained youth of the church “might exert a positive influence on the general public.”

F. W. Foehlinger charged in 1865 that the argument that it was impossible to preach the gospel as fruitfully in English as in German “cannot be meant seriously,” because the gospel was not originally preached in German. One might as well argue that “since the Holy Ghost on the first Pentecost did not preach in the German language, consequently also the Gospel could not be preached as well in the German language as, for instance, in the Greek language.” In the first doctrinal paper presented to the Synodical Conference in 1872, Ohio professor Matthias Loy insisted that “without question” the Evangelical Lutheran church had as its mission “to proclaim the great deeds of God in the English language in this country.” The Conference could not claim to be relieved of this obligation by ministering only to Germans and Scandinavians, or even by leaving the field to other Lutherans, because “they disseminate false doctrine with disdain.”

An extended series in the Lutheran Witness in 1886 and 1887 pleaded:

If we wait till Americans are willing to learn German or Norwegian or Swedish, before we approach them with the pearl of great price, we may as well label our doctrine, our churches, our periodicals, our semi- naries, our colleges, our normal schools with the motto: For Germans only and always. This would prove that we are German Levites and Priests, and not Lutheran Samaritans.

Yet early leaders in both synods—Walther, Muehlhaeuser, Hoenecke, August and Franz Pieper, Koehler—worked almost exclusively in German, well into the 20th century. It was not uncommon for Missouri and Wisconsin churches to require worship and instruction be conducted “in German forever.”

footnote: Lueking comments, that this requirement was contained in the 1840 constitution of Trinity congregation in St. Louis, served by C. F. W. Walther’s brother Otto, only a year after the Saxon colony had come to America. The original constitution of Emanuel First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansing, Michigan, in 1856, said that services “should forever be conducted” in German. end footnote

German pastors feared a “tricky translation” of pure Lutheran doctrine. English congregations that gained many new members were suspected of proselyting.

As late as 1911, when 95 percent of communicants in the United Lutheran Synod of the South and 80 percent of General Synod churches used English exclusively in their worship, only 13 percent of churches in the Ohio Synod, 3 percent in the Synodical Conference, and 1 percent or less in Norwegian bodies used English. A Missouri pastor wrote in 1914 that “the German language is here still the everyday language.” He repeated the argument that “experience demonstrated” that “the loss of the German language is frequently accompanied by the loss of true Lutheranism.”

In the Wisconsin Synod, August Pieper granted that “dogmatic concepts can be expressed with clarity and precision in English just as well as German.” Yet he considered the King James Version more the product of Calvinism than Lutheranism and characterized English as “the language of a people whose prominent characteristic was a practical materialism, a desire to make money.” Pieper was reported to have remarked, “Ich will deutsch selig werden” (“I want to be saved in German”).

Even after harsh anti-German sentiments of World War I, the transition to English came slowly in the Wisconsin Synod. In 1920, only 54 of 737 congregations held any English worship services and only 9 used English exclusively. In Wisconsin’s Dakota- Montana District, where pastors were willing to switch to English, congregational members would object, “Der Heilige Geist kann kein Englisch” (“The Holy Ghost cannot speak English”).

In 1932, seminary professor August Zich wrote, “We are under necessity to present our faith, the most glorious faith on earth, to the masses of the American people in their language, clearly and faultlessly spoken and written.” Zich urged that Luther’s writings, doctrinal texts, and church history books be translated into English. Yet in that very 1932 volume of the seminary’s Theologische Quartalschrift, only 75 of the volume’s 304 pages contained any English writing; more than a third of those 75 pages were devoted to book reviews. Old fears remained. “Why not translate all these German works into English?” asked Gustav Westerhaus in 1936. That would solve the problem “if such a translation were possible,” but Westerhaus remained skeptical. Translators “clearly do not realize and see what a vast amount of time and effort it would require to translate only the most essential and valuable of these works into English.” As late as 1940, many lectures at Wisconsin’s Thiensville seminary were still given in German.

Many German immigrants came from a tradition of rural stability, with a strong desire to restore and conserve the “old” way of life they saw being destroyed at home. “Ministers and synods of immigrant churches,” observed Marcus Lee Hansen, “have always been less liberal in theology and ecclesiastical practice than the brethren they left behind.” With few exceptions, immigrants did not possess faith in human progress or optimism regarding human nature, as did their American-born neighbors. “Their European antecedents had taught them to be pessimistic, resigned, unhopeful of changing the existing order of things,” wrote Maldwyn Jones. Government was regarded primarily as an evil to be kept at arm’s length, rather than as a good to be embraced for social improvement.

The Missouri and Wisconsin synods’ churches and their leaders exhibited immigrant conservatism regarding the role of government; such subjects as dancing, the theater, and worldliness; and the role of women in church and society. According to Frederick Luebke, it was only through maintaining its conservatism and emphasizing its differentness from the surrounding culture that Missourians believed they could preserve their religious identity. August Graebner likened the Christian in the world to a passenger on a train that becomes unwillingly thrust into an impromptu race with another car on a parallel track. The passenger is unavoidably involved but not responsible for the outcome of the race or the catastrophe that may result from it. Likewise, a Christian is present in the world but not accountable for injustices that occur there. A Wisconsin Synod critique of the social gospel accused “one of the strongest denominations in our country” of being, like Martha, “cumbered about much serving.” Busying oneself with tasks that did not serve the gospel only resulted in wasted time, diminished strength, and loss of standing in the community.

To the social gospel slogan “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,” Missouri’s Theodore Graebner countered that there is a fatherhood of God through faith in Jesus and a brotherhood among believers, but “outside the invisible Christian church there is neither fatherhood nor spiritual brotherhood.” Forsaking the church’s primary mission of saving souls, the social gospel seeks to make society better “by teaching the advantage of window screens, germless cess pools, and painless dehorners to the farmers, and to the city dwellers the necessity of wide-topped nursing bottles for infants, playgrounds for the children, and properly chaperoned dances for the factory girls.”

Quoting playwright Emile Zola, Missouri’s Martin Sommer charged that any discussion of innocence on the stage was “useless” because “it does not exist.” At the theater “modesty and purity are laughed at,” evil desires considered “but a jest,” and marriage employed as “merely a source of ridicule.” A 1927 Lutheran Witness editorialist argued that “the chief motive for dancing, as a rule, is to satisfy the lust of the flesh.” Professor Muenstenberg, whose book Psychology and Sanity contained chapters “dealing with the craze for dancing,” was cited as an authority that “license, eroticism, and imitativeness in high degree” were stirred up “by dancing movements.”

Franz Pieper opposed women’s suffrage in 1913 as “contrary to the natural order,” warning that “wherever this order is perverted, His punishments are sure to follow.” In 1925, Pieper cited the inauguration of a woman governor in Texas as proof “that even before its end the world has completely lost all common sense.” A woman was to obey her husband, although her obedience was to be that of a wife, not a servant or a child. Contraception made the marriage bed “far filthier than a pigsty.” Preventing conception was “the sin of the age.” Recalling how Onan had practiced conception prevention, only to be slain by the Lord, the writer warned that although God “may not visit that dire punishment at once on such as perpetrate the same wrong today, still: ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die.’ ”

The Missouri and Wisconsin synods’ stand on dancing, the theater, and other social “ills” put them in good company with Puritanical Protestants. But the synods parted company with these Protestants on the issues of drinking and smoking. Early writings consistently warned against drunkenness, but total abstinence was never considered a biblical command. Pastors knew many of their parishioners drank beer and wine in their homes, at restaurants, and in beer gardens. They did point out that saloons abounded with temptations and Christians were wise to avoid them. Richard Jensen called the Missouri Synod “the most thoroughly wet denomination in America, or in the world, for that matter.” Smoking was a popular habit at Concordia Seminary. When asked whether it was proper for a seminary student to smoke, Friederich Bente replied, “Don’t you smoke?” When the student answered, “No, sir,” Bente lit a cigar and told him, “You are not yet a real Missourian.”

footnote: Hugo Hanser, a student during Walther’s time, wrote in his diary that seminary students smoked long Studentenpfeifen as they studied at their desks before classes. At five minutes before nine, “the pipes were set in a corner, and all the windows were opened so as to clear the air for theological debate” when Walther arrived.

Herman Otten, in an undated clipping in Christian News, said he was told that “C. F. W. Walther smoked so much that his parrot couldn’t live in his study. Past theologians did not know what modern science has shown about the dangers of cigarette smoking.” end footnote

The certainty of their convictions

Real Missourians and Wisconsinites were known most for the certainty of their doctrinal convictions. They were convinced that they alone possessed the entire truth of Scripture, and they would practice church fellowship only with those churches that were in full agreement with them.

In an 1871 tract, Walther defended the claim that the Evangelical Lutheran church was “the true visible church on earth.”

To be sure, our opponents are much offended by this statement and say: “Yes, we hold that the Lutheran Church is a church of Christ, but not the church.” This objection obviously rests upon the idea that there is not only one, but a number of true churches and therefore the Lutheran church has no right to claim this name. . . . But with this sweet dream of many true churches, whereby they quietly comfort themselves, they only soothe their consciences which cry out. Thus they openly testify of themselves that they are a sect and not the church of Christ.

In Walther’s funeral sermon in 1887, George Stoeckhardt announced, “We are in possession of the truth—the entire, undiminished truth—because we know Christ crucified, and desire to hear nothing beside Him.” Ten years later, at the synod’s golden anniversary, Friederich Bente wrote that Missouri occupied “the very same doctrinal position as the Christians of the first century”—maybe better: What “the congregation in Rome or Corinth knew in the year of our Lord, or should have known, just that and not one whit more Trinity Church in St. Louis in 1897 knows.” Franz Pieper insisted in 1905 that “as certainly as Holy Scripture is God’s Word—which it is—so certain is it that our doctrine is correct.” Therefore, “whoever contests our doctrinal position contends against the divine truth.”

footnote: Meuser also cited Friederich Bente’s editorial marking the 50th anniversary of Missouri’s Lehre und Wehre in 1904, in which Bente insisted that Lehre und Wehre had been kept untarnished by false teaching and had therefore no cause to repent or seek forgiveness for what it taught because “that would be to accuse God Himself, indeed, to mock God, who has commanded that these very doctrines be taught.”

Meuser observed that the new Concordia Seminary in St. Louis dwarfed all other Lutheran seminaries in beauty, excellence and cost, calling it “a monument to the Missouri Synod’s reaffirmation of its heritage and confidence for its future.” Its 1926 dedication, widely covered by the press and attended by 75,000 people, was preserved on film for posterity to mark “a new stage in Missouri’s sense of permanence and mission.” Having built the best, the Missouri Synod “was determined to remain the best as far as strict Lutheranism was concerned.” end footnote

There was in Missouri “a deep-seated belief that it had never undergone theological change,” coupled with an extremely high respect for the synod’s fathers and “a heavy emphasis on reine Lehre [pure doctrine].” A pastor who entered the ministry in 1920 remarked on how “it soon became evident that the doctrinal stance of the Synod rested quite heavily upon the opinion of the fathers.” Walther, Stoeckhardt, Pieper, and Lehre und Wehre were “constantly quoted as authorities in theological matters.” Anyone who quarreled with their stand or questioned their authority “was immediately labeled as ‘liberal’ and even ‘heretical.’ ”

The Wisconsin Synod praised Missouri’s orthodoxy and sought to emulate it. Northwestern Lutheran editorialist John Jenny called it “a wonder of God before our eyes” that Missouri and Wisconsin as “separate synods” testified to “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” rejecting any compromise of their teachings to liberalism and “refusing to fraternize with any church body that will not accept our Evangelical Confession.”

Wisconsin also demonstrated the certainty of its convictions. The Lutheran, the magazine of the General Council, reported on Pastor Beer, who applied for a colloquium to the Wisconsin Synod in 1898 in order to become a professor at its college in Watertown. A member of the Wisconsin Synod commented:

We are somewhat at a loss to discover his unity in the faith with us, and have consigned him to the relay depot [auf die Wartebank gesetzt]. He does not want to become an Ohioan or Iowan, but neither does he want to become an out and out Missourian. . . .Then we had private discussions with him in Watertown, which showed that B. did not occupy a correct position with regard to the power of the Word. At the second colloquium here in Milwaukee, B. changed his position in regard to the State to our satisfaction, but a yawning chasm between him and us remained in regard to the doctrine of the efficacy of the Word.
B. declared our position—that Scripture in all doctrines produces in us a divine conviction, or makes us infallibly certain, so that we can with infallible certainty state in regard to all doctrines: “So Scripture teaches,”— . . . to be deficient logic and a piece of Papism. Scripture doctrine, he held, is objectively certain, but as soon as it passes through the mind of man and is reproduced by man in the form of a doctrine, infallibility can no longer be predicated of it; we can, in that case, speak only of the conception of individuals. In short, Beer is an Erasmus; he refuses to come to any definite conclusion, as Luther says; he really has a different spirit from us. . . . His greatest material defect is this, that he does not draw his knowledge directly from Scripture, and his conscience is not yet in entire captivity to the Word of God, so as to cause him to know nothing but the Word.

The Lutheran’s editor, G. F. Krotel, considered such declarations of “divine conviction” and “infallible certainty” to be “cut out of the same cloth as the doctrines of papal infallibility.”

footnote: Although The Lutheran cited this story from an account in Missouri’s Lutheran Witness and referred to alleged “anti-Missourian fervor,” it was clear to The Lutheran’s editor that an identical doctrinal spirit existed in both synods: “The colloquium would have been the same, of course, if he had applied to Missouri.” end footnote

There was no practicing fellowship with other Christians, or even with non-Synodical Conference Lutherans. Complete doctrinal agreement was a prerequisite for any expressions of church union. Article 4 of the Synodical Conference constitution rejected “all ecclesiastical union and cooperation that is not based upon the pure Lutheran faith,” including mixed congregations, exchanging pulpits, open Communion, and the formation of religious societies with sectarians. “Missouri and Wisconsin were not known for peculiar teachings about justification by faith,” Martin Marty has observed, “but for their refusal to pray with others.”

The signal event that solidified Missouri’s narrow practice of prayer fellowship was the bitter rupture between Missouri and Ohio over the predestination controversy. After enduring charges of Calvinism from F. A. Schmidt in his publication Neues und Altes, Missouri resolved at its 1881 convention: “We can no longer walk together. We also cannot pray with one another any longer. For you [the Ohio Synod] will pray for our and we for your conversion.” Such joint prayer “is an abomination in the sight of God.” Missouri then instructed its delegates to the next year’s Synodical Conference convention neither to sit with nor to recognize any synod that had publicly accused the Missouri Synod of Calvinism.

Two decades later, following the third of five free conferences held between the Iowa and Ohio synods and the Synodical Conference in 1904 at Detroit, Friederich Bente explained why Missourians had so resolutely refused Ohioan and Iowan requests to open these free conferences with prayer. “The disagreements between the Synodical Conference and their detractors,” Bente wrote, “certainly cannot be classified as nitpicking, but as of great and evident doctrine, clearly revealed in God’s Word and of utmost importance to the welfare of the church.” Missouri would “consider it treason to the divine truth” to sit “with hands in lap” while Ohioans and Iowans forged ahead. Bente cited various doctrinal errors in these two “adversary” church bodies, along with chief scriptural references forbidding “all communion of faith and prayer under these circumstances.”

Speaking specifically to prayer fellowship, Bente argued that Ohioans and Missourians could not pray together because “their teachings are as far apart as the earth’s poles” and so “their prayers drift apart and against one another.” Not even the Lord’s Prayer could be offered together “with the same implication.” Missourians could never join in worship with an Iowan or Ohioan because he “would pray publicly for God to dissuade [Missourians] from their ways and convert them to the Ohioan synergism.” Prayer union with “adversaries” in the Iowa and Ohio synods would inevitably involve “lies and deceit, controversy and inconsequence.”

Bente also regarded the practice of joint prayer as a slippery slope that would inevitably lead to other expressions of fellowship:

It follows logically that the Synodical Conference could not have stopped at liturgical prayer services. The Conference would have had to push on inexorably, further even than the Ohioans and Iowans would have wanted to go. Those who say “A” and join the Ohioans and Iowans together in prayer and worship must also say “B” and institute joint preaching and the Lord’s Supper. Anyone who offers joint prayer with the Ohioans has granted them the deepest and most intimate fellowship a Christian can give; he cannot deny them any other form of brotherly harmony. There is no closer communion on earth than when people come together in the name of Jesus to pour out the common desires of their heart before God. . . . If we unite with the Ohioans in prayer, we must also invite them to our altars and bring them to our pulpits and recommend their churches, pulpits and altars to our pastors and lay people, and must silence all polemics.

Wisconsin’s Adolf Hoenecke wrote in his Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatik that “to refrain completely from all prayer fellowship and fellowship in worship with those who are of a different faith” constituted the only proper course of action in agreement with God’s Word. Prayer fellowship with errorists sets aside the duty to confess Christ, “and this confession includes everything that Scripture teaches about Him, His person, His office, His work.” Citing injunctions in First Thessalonians 5:22 and Second Corinthians 6:14 to “abstain from every form of evil” and to avoid being “unequally yoked” together with unbelievers, Hoenecke argued that unionism “opens the doors wide to indifferentism. . . .

All unionism is based on the assumption that the truth of Scripture will not be urged in earnest, especially not in so far as it condemns all errors, even the smallest, and warns against them as poison to the soul. For as soon as this would be done, such a union would collapse.

End Chapter 1 part 3