A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 1 part 4

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“Amalgamation would mean disbanding the Wisconsin Synod”

With such similarities in culture and background, and with mutual admiration for one another’s doctrinal purity, why did the two synods never become one?

Had Walther had his way, they would have. Following Missouri’s recognition of Wisconsin’s orthodoxy, Walther sought to persuade congregations belonging to the various member synods of the Synodical Conference to relinquish their synodical affiliation, in order to form united state bodies. Such a “state synod plan” was outlined at the 1873 Synodical Conference convention. Wisconsin initially expressed enthusiasm for such a plan, hoping it would aid in “the more powerful unfolding of the gifts and powers” given to the church; soon, however, Wisconsin objected to Missouri’s presumption that such territorial division was “the one correct and normal method, and that every other one is per se disorderly.” By 1875, Missouri claimed apostolic warrant for dividing territories into geographic parishes. To have two church bodies in doctrinal agreement competing against each other, Missouri maintained, militated against love and gave offense.

In essence, Wisconsin was being asked to “die a graceful death in favor of Missouri.” If a “state synod of Wisconsin” were to be formed, and if Missouri Synod members in the state of Wisconsin were to join that state synod, and if that “state synod of Wisconsin” were then to vote in favor of joining the larger Missouri Synod, soon there would no longer be a Wisconsin Synod. Wisconsin remained unconvinced of the necessity and the advisability of forming one organizational body. “One should guard against the allegation that territorial division is the only true order, and everything else is disorder.” Wisconsin’s
August Ernst advised, “Do not put too much stock in constitutional projects.”

The showdown came at Wisconsin’s 1877 convention at Watertown. When Missouri’s district president Karl Strassen insisted that two church bodies inwardly united must necessarily form an outward union, and that Wisconsin’s unwillingness to do so revealed that “the Wisconsin Synod does not love the Missouri Synod,” Wisconsin’s Adolf Hoenecke was quick to respond:

It is no more necessary for two church bodies which agree in doctrine and practice, to desire to be united in one body, than it would be for two Christian persons who love each other to want to marry. We love each other as two church bodies, yet it is not necessary for us to be joined organically.

August Pieper, in attendance at that 1877 convention, recalled hearing one delegate remark, “We have a history of our own behind us, and we do not intend to deny that.”

According to Roy Suelflow, Wisconsin’s “stubbornness” could be explained only by its fear of “losing prestige if it were to get too close to the larger and more important synods of Missouri and Ohio.” Walther even accused the Wisconsin Synod of committing a widergoettlich (ungodly) trespass against Christian liberty. According to Koehler, the intersynodical animosity occasioned by Wisconsin’s rejection of the state synod plan “did not abate in smaller Wisconsin and especially Minnesota circles for years.” Wisconsin “acquired a not altogether deserved image of an isolationist and individualistic church body.”

footnote: While this observation appears justified, Suelflow’s continued discussion of the failure of the state synod plan turns unduly harsh. Suelflow recalled Walther’s repeated warnings at the first Synodical Conference convention against the dangers of seeking to win souls for the attainment of individual synodical honor. Citing no supporting evidence for his claim, Suelflow then wrote, “Probably Walther knew the character of the Wisconsin men quite well, and tried to avoid just such a display of petty jealousies”; emphasis added. Schmiel, though acknowledging that such an attitude “can be categorized as nothing other than sin,” charged that “it was to be found in individuals of both synods.” To blame one synod but not the other is “questionable historiography.” The original wording of the state synod plan indicated that the Missouri and Ohio synods were to remain intact, and each state synod to be organized could affiliate only with those two synods. “Wisconsin’s objections always pointed to this, and that the final formulation of the Synodical Conference recognized the validity of this objection by removing the offending stipulation, seems to be ample evidence that Wisconsin’s hesitation was justifiable.” end footnote

footnote: Hans Moussa wrote in 1925 that “there was at all times a healthy opposition” in the Wisconsin Synod to anything like the state synod plan. Some might view such opposition as the application to the church of the axiom that “competition is the life of trade.” Others may emphasize the importance of allowing organizations to follow their historical transitions. Still others may warn against the dangers inherent in mere size and hugeness of organization. “It is debatable,” Moussa concluded, “whether desirable uniformity is not better served by having a number of independent units rather than by having a huge, unwieldy mass, that can be taught the goose-step—at the sacrifice of initiative and individualism.” end footnote

Admittedly, the Missouri Synod had grown more rapidly to become considerably larger than the Wisconsin Synod. Missouri grew 58 percent during its first three years, 343 percent during the 1850s, and another 154 percent during the 1860s, so that by its silver anniversary in 1872 it numbered 415 pastors serving 77,832 members in 26 states. During the next quarter century, it grew more than 800 percent to 687,334 baptized members in 1,986 congregations and 683 additional preaching stations. By the turn of the century, Missouri had members in all but three states in the United States, plus 42 congregations in Canada. Add to that the synod’s burgeoning efforts in foreign missions, its extensive establishment of Christian day schools and its system of Concordia colleges, and the prodigious output of its Concordia Publishing House—all combined to produce what some observers called an extraordinary synodical esprit de corps and others labeled “triumphalism.”

footnote: Missouri writers admired Catholicism’s commitment to parochial education. Noting the “surprisingly rapid progress” of the Catholic Church in America, a Lutheran Witness observer remarked that “whenever parochial schools have been established, the church has grown.” The reason for “the unparalleled growth” of the Missouri Synod was “chiefly because the founders of our Synod have from the beginning seen the necessity and benefit of parochial schools wherever they were placed.” Christian day schools proved to be powerful missionary agencies. Through its schools Missouri churches contacted and then incorporated thousands of new immigrants. The pastor of St. James church in Chicago baptized 586 children in 1883 alone, and more than 13,000 during his 27-year ministry. end footnote

Missouri’s sense of esprit de corps stood “unsurpassed by any American denomination at any time in its history.” Reaching its peak in the 1930s, it was, in Leigh Jordahl’s estimation, a synodical loyalty “not always indistinguishable from chauvinism.” August Pieper characterized Missouri’s spirit as “remarkably intense,” a “strongly pronounced synodical patriotism, a strong tendency to stick together, not only against all enemies, but also over against friendly synods.” Though “essentially a Christian, spiritual thing,” Pieper also recognized “quite a human element in all of this” and noted “some things that are offensive.”

Leigh Jordahl suggested that “a sharp motif of triumphalism” pervaded Missouri history. Analogous to Manifest Destiny in American political history, triumphalism has been defined by Jack T. Robinson as “that deep and abiding motivating force, unarticulated,” coloring the life of the Missouri Synod, that “looked for the final conquest of all opponents” and “required perfect harmony among those who would conquer.”

footnote: A more recent chronicler of Missouri Synod history, Robert M. Hess, criticized Robinson’s selective research: “While it may appear to Robinson from his very selective choice of material that Missouri came at fellowship with an overpowering spirit of conquest, the fact is that Missouri was quite aware of its shortcomings. . . . Robinson is guilty of the type of research which comes at research only to find material to support his presuppositions. This biased approach not only enables him to fit presuppositions and conclusions snugly together, but causes him to ignore material which might get in the way of his conclusions, or even cause him to alter them.” end footnote

Although Adolf Hoenecke held Walther in high personal regard and appreciated his doctrinal orthodoxy, he acquired a certain dislike for some of Missouri’s methods and manners. Hoenecke felt it better that Wisconsin carry on its own work according to its own inclinations in peace with Missouri. In 1878, Hoenecke also remarked to J. P. Koehler, “There is something sectarian about Missouri.”

footnote: Koehler, explained: “Neither Hoenecke in making the remark nor Koehler reflecting upon it intended to fault the doctrinal position of the Missourians, but both rather had reference to a certain mind set.” end footnote

Koehler sometimes directed harsh words at Missouri’s “cock-sureness.” Synodical literature “since the very founding of the Synodical Conference” revealed that the relationship between the two synods “was not entirely as it appeared on the surface.” Missourians followed Walther’s lead on such ideas as the state synod plan because they were his “devoted disciples.” The desire for a large, uniform church organization “was the nature of such a well-disciplined, single-minded, large, successful body.” Wisconsin, Koehler said, felt just the opposite “because of an inferiority complex, superinduced by its continued insecurity.”

August Pieper remarked on “the Missouri Spirit” that grew out of “the extreme narrowness” of its almost exclusive use of “dogmatic-practical education” learned from Walther. “It was psychologically inevitable that a bad attitude became entrenched in many in the synod.” Missourians boasted they were “the only ones who are completely orthodox and competent,” manifesting that attitude not only toward Lutheran bodies outside their fellowship “but also toward those which in the course of time were recognized as sufficiently Lutheran”—undoubtedly a reference to the Wisconsin Synod.

footnote: Nevertheless, Edward Fredrich remarked that, as his seminary teacher, Pieper “could wax eloquent when describing his debts” to his teacher Walther. end footnote

Though Wisconsin grew more slowly than her big sister (Missouri was half again as large in 1897 as Wisconsin is more than a century later), its emergence from unpromising beginnings was nonetheless impressive. The 1915 statistics of the four synods that merged to become the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States two years later show Wisconsin to be by far the largest of the bodies with 306 pastors, 150,000 baptized members, and 438 congregations and preaching stations. An additional 46,555 baptized members came from the Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska synods—Minnesota being twice as large as Michigan, and Michigan being almost five times as large as Nebraska.

footnote: James P. Schaefer, noted the changes in name the Wisconsin Synod has experienced: “The original name adopted in 1850 was the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin (Das Deutsche Evangelische Ministerium von Wisconsin). In 1892, when the synods of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan formed a federation, the name was changed to the General (Allgemeinen) Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Other States. In 1917, when the three synods merged, the name was shortened to the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States. The final change to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod was made in 1959.” end footnote

In contrast to Missouri’s energetic world mission efforts, Wisconsin left a mixed legacy. Its mission policy, as enunciated by Johannes Bading in 1883, was to “stay close to home and establish a firm base.” The flood of German Lutheran immigrants into Wisconsin each year, “filled with a preoccupation for physical advancement” but “neglecting their spiritual needs,” provided the synod with “a holy and important mission,” which Bading felt the synod “will not be able to finish in our whole lives.”

footnote: Moussa wrote, “They were themselves missionaries but they established a treasury for foreign missions just the same. It is true, no very great sums were realized, but it was more than a mere gesture; it was an act of the same fibre as the widow’s mite.” end footnote

Yet congregations celebrated mission festivals, as the Gemeinde-Blatt noted in 1884, “not because God commands them but because we are driven to it by our love to the heathen and our thankfulness to God.”

footnote: Hartzell provides, some thought-provoking financial computations to illustrate his contention that the Wisconsin Synod was far more mission-minded than generally given credit for. In 1886, the annual salary of a Reiseprediger was listed at $300 a year; a $30,000 salary for a called worker today is one hundred times greater than the Reiseprediger’s salary. According to Wisconsin’s 1880 Proceedings, the synod’s outstanding debt on its institutions totaled $19,662.91; a comparable synodical debt today would be one hundred times greater, $1,966,291. Add to that the poverty of many of Wisconsin’s members in 1880, then add the far smaller number of members in the synod, and Hartzell concluded, “In view of just that fact alone, who would dare or care to ask why there was not more flashy mission endeavor?” end footnote

In view of such circumstances, Wisconsin’s mission endeavor among the Apache Indians in Arizona, begun in 1893, was truly remarkable. “The early men who stepped off the Southern Pacific [Railway] at San Carlos or the Santa Fe in Holbook were absolutely untrained and unprepared for what they were about to undertake,” wrote Arthur Guenther, a veteran in the Apache mission work. “The only job description was simple: ‘We need a man in Arizona—will you go?’ No special training—no linguistic studies. No philosophy of Indian missions. Just, ‘Go, and, prayerfully, do the best you can.’” Some failed “and got back on the train as soon as the opportunity presented itself.” Others “tried, gave their best,” but still failed. Others “tried, failed, tried again, improved, gave of time, talent, love, patience, health, and even life, and succeeded.”

But it was in that very context that some remarks made by Koehler caused a lasting impact on the synodical personality. “There are organizations, like people,” Koehler wrote, “that remain small in number” and are meant to do “intensive rather than extensive” work. “The Wisconsin Synod had a college that was off to a good start,” and to maintain and develop that “was mission enough for a while.” There was something “not entirely sound” about the Apache mission effort. The very notion that Wisconsin failed to live up to its obligations unless it did “foreign” mission work was to Koehler “dogmatism, with a streak of pietism.” Despite the synod’s Apache work and its efforts to assist World War I refugees in Germany and Poland, Koehler’s comment remained “a formidable factor” for the next half century and was invoked even when the Wisconsin Synod became more aggressive about overseas missions following World War II.

“Basically,” remarked W. F. Dorn, “the relationship [between the synods] was a good one.” In several locations a “gentleman’s agreement” existed, under which each synod refrained from opening congregations in the other’s area, particularly in the cities.

footnote: This “agreement” may never have been as formal as such a comment makes it appear. According to respondent 39, the agreement regarding the division of labor between the states of Arizona and California may have occurred when Wisconsin Synod pastor E. Arnold Sitz met a Missouri Synod pastor from the area on board a train and suggested that each synod work in the corresponding area. end footnote

By general consensus “Missouri did the towns and [Wisconsin] did the country.” A recently retired Wisconsin pastor admitted that Wisconsin and Missouri Synod churches often lived “side by side in a love-hate relationship” and offered recollections of two anecdotal feuds, yet “you could write a book about all of the evidences of Christian love members of the two synods once felt among and displayed among themselves.

Ministers met in mixed conferences, socialized, preached at each other’s festivals, accepted calls interchangeably. As I remember, we got along well. The Missourians were cordial lovers of cigars and good humor. They looked and talked like good Christian men, as indeed they were. In 1929, I recall, some five thousand of us joined together in a service of praise at Oshkosh Fairgrounds, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Luther’s Catechism. In Milwaukee members of the two synods got together to start Milwaukee Lutheran High School. One thing that bound us together powerfully in love and fellowship was the then-famous Lutheran Hour, and preacher Walter A. Maier. At two o’clock on every Sunday afternoon it was broadcast on countless radio stations across the country and beyond, including pricey first liners like WGN in Chicago. In its palmy days the program was called, “Bringing Christ to the Nations,” and nobody laughed. Everyone we knew sat down and listened. . . .When I was a member of Winnebago Academy choir in the early thirties we were proud to sing at a Lutheran Hour rally in an Oshkosh theater, and WAM, as he was known, was the preacher. . . . Missouri churches everywhere were happy to emblazon “Church of the Lutheran Hour” on their bulletin boards, to the envy of us of Wisconsin. Maybe the best part of every broadcast, though, was when the smooth as silk student choir of “Concordia Lutheran Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri” immediately opened the hour with the lovely strains of “Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, Son of God and Son of Man. . . .” In those days the Missouri Synod stood for something, and thanks to the Lutheran Hour everybody knew what that was.

Another recently retired Wisconsin pastor remembered growing up in the Saginaw area, where a close harmony existed between the two synods. At Michigan Lutheran Seminary, a Wisconsin Synod school, many of his classmates came from Missouri Synod congregations. “I came and went in [the home of an area Missouri pastor] almost as though it were my own.” Joint Sunday afternoon Lenten services held in the city auditorium regularly attracted up to four thousand worshipers. “The farthest thing from anyone’s mind was that this could all one day come to an end.”

Yet there was on both sides an innate understanding that the synods retained distinctive personalities. One Wisconsin Synod pastor recalled how his grandmother, born in a well-to-do Missouri family, used to remark about the spiritual house she left, “Dieser Missourianer, sie hatten schliff!” (“These Missourians— they were polished!”). By contrast, August Pieper was fond of saying, “Wir sind in der Wisconsin Synode; wir machen kein ‘show’” (“We are in the Wisconsin Synod; we don’t put on a show”).

Wisconsin “was not so exposed to the rapid Americanization process” and “rooted more in traditionally Lutheran and even German areas.” Its membership was “still more inhibited by the habits of the German, often Pomeranian, farming communities, who are not inclined to move very fast.” In addition, Wisconsin’s comparative lack of modern synodical machinery may have slowed the growth of its missions.

footnote: According to 1926 statistics assembled in “Our Rural Field,” 67.3 percent of Wisconsin Synod members lived in rural areas or in towns with a population of 2,500 or less. That figure compared with 58.3 percent for all Lutherans in the United States and Canada. Seven Lutheran bodies had a still higher percentage of rural or small town residents, among them the Eielsen Synod (80 percent),the Finnish Apostolic Synod (86.4 percent), and the Icelandic Synod (93.4 per cent). Missouri’s membership was also predominantly rural and small town, 59.3 percent. A half century later, the WELS continued to have “a small town or rural flavor.” Two-thirds of its membership lived in cities with a population of less than 50,000, in small towns, or on farms. end footnote

And “some Wisconsin pastors were no great friends of Missouri.” Philipp von Rohr, pioneer Minnesota pastor, apparently empathized in 1875 with those in Wisconsin who “resented the pressure (real or inferred) that Missouri was applying” toward the formation of a single synod. Though he could have joined the Missouri Synod, von Rohr chose not to.

In a particularly acerbic comment, Koehler lamented the parliamenteering tactics of some Wisconsin pastors at the 1908 Synodical Conference convention, yet he insisted the Wisconsin men “were still novices” at such practices. Wisconsin’s behavior “did not shock the Missourians out of their coma of orthodox infallibility; in four instances later, of the same rawness, the writer had occasion to observe their employing such tactics, no doubt with the firm conviction that it is best so for the church of God.”

Two attempts early in the 20th century to unite the synods into a single organization made little headway. A movement that came to be known as the Laienbewegung began when a layman from Racine, Wisconsin, convened a meeting of church members at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. A committee of 12 appointed at that meeting submitted a written proposal for union to all congregations of both synods. On March 9, 1913, almost five hundred people met at St. John’s Church in Milwaukee, and despite objections from Wisconsin’s professor August Pieper (who later likened the movement to the Peasant’s Rebellion in 1525) and President Bergemann, the group overwhelmingly supported union of the two synods. Missouri’s 1914 and 1917 conventions reacted favorably, but a previous proposal initiated in 1911 by the Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska synods, federated since 1892, was already in process of implementation. The result was the formation of the Joint Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin and Other States.

footnote: Fredrich, concluded that the Wisconsin Synod reacted favorably in 1915 only because the synod was “biding her time to see whether the plan to form the Joint Synod would be brought to completion.” Once that plan was carried out, further considerations about joining with Missouri ceased. “The Wisconsin Synod,” Schmiel remarked, “was building its own empire.” end footnote

In 1931, a Wisconsin Synod church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, petitioned its convention to consider the question of merging the Synodical Conference bodies and to invite other member bodies of the conference to do the same. A committee was directed to consider the question. Several Missouri Synod congregations presented a memorial to Missouri’s 1932 convention calling for amalgamation of the synods; Missouri in turn appointed a Committee on Organic Union, instructed to work with other synods to determine if such a union were possible. Wisconsin’s July 1932 Quartalschrift reported on the proposed merger, and the Northwestern Lutheran noted conference papers and discussions in 1932 and 1933 regarding a possible merger of the synods.

footnotes: Joseph. P. Meyer noted without comment that the Missouri Synod “favors an amalgamation of the synods now federated in the Synodical Conference” and “has taken definite steps to open negotiations with the Wisconsin, the Norwegian, and the Slovak synods with a view to consolidation.” The following April, in reviewing the Proceedings of the 1932 Synodical Conference convention, Meyer added: “A movement was begun by the Missouri Synod at its last convention, aiming at an amalgamation of the synods affiliated with [the] Synodical Conference. It would seem that the Conference, organized more than sixty years ago, and functioning smoothly since its inception, would be the logical instrument, should any closer union be desired.” Pastoral conference listings in the Northwestern Lutheran included several conference papers or informal discussions scheduled regarding the possibility of this amalgamation. end footnotes

In 1935, however, Missouri reported that only the Norwegian Synod had appointed such a committee. The Norwegians and Slovaks both cited language differences as a barrier to possible merger, and the report of Wisconsin’s Committee on Amalgamation at its 1935 convention was tabled until the next convention. The next summer various districts of the Wisconsin Synod accepted the determination of the synod’s Conference of Presidents not to pursue the proposed synodical merger. “Amalgamation would mean disbanding the Wisconsin Synod,” the presidents wrote, “something that would sadden us deeply. For our Synod has become very dear to us and has a deep meaning for us. It has its own history and has gone through some fiery struggles for the truth.” Fifty years later, retired Missouri president Jacob A. O. Preus remarked that “despite some pious statements and resolutions I don’t think there was ever a serious intent on the part of anyone to merge the synods.”

At the Wisconsin Synod’s 75th anniversary in 1925, Hans Moussa admitted with some chagrin that “synodical consciousness was never strong in Wisconsin.” Pastors who came from other Lutheran bodies “soon learn to bear this easy yoke of Wisconsin affiliation.” Yet Moussa insisted that this “spirit of individuality” did not betray a lack of loyalty to the synod but revealed instead “a manner of asserting independence of all mass influences.” It was “ordinarily enough” for Wisconsin Synod members “to say they were Lutherans,” yet they were not indifferent to the service their synod provided in maintaining the purity of the gospel message. In what may have been an oblique jab at the Missouri Synod, Moussa concluded, “Provincial prejudices can hardly thrive in the soil of the Joint Synod [of Wisconsin and Other States]; the soil is not of that sort.”

Such differences of size, history, and personality allowed these sister synods to maintain separate identities, even as they worshiped and worked together, attended each other’s schools, inter-married, and formed lasting friendships. It would have been all but impossible to predict that the synods meeting together so congenially in Mankato in 1932 would soon be embroiled in argument and division. The catalysts of those divisions, however, were already at work.

End Chapter 1