A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 2 Part 2

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

A parting of the ways

War’s end postponed resolution of questions regarding the chaplaincy and inter-Lutheran cooperation, but by the mid-1930s threats from overseas dictators forced the issue to resurface. Delegates to Missouri’s 1935 convention instructed newly elected president John Behnken to appoint a committee to investigate whether calling men as chaplains into the army and navy could be done without violating scriptural principles, and if so, to appoint an Army and Navy Commission for Chaplains.

Three years later, the five-man committee appointed by Behnken reported that in “reliable testimony” from pastors who had served as chaplains and from the army’s Chief of Chaplains it was emphasized “again and again” that “the chaplains are to function according to their respective creeds or conscientious practice in each case.” Though under authority of their commanding officers, chaplains received no “dictation as to their spiritual ministry,” and so “the conscientious Lutheran chaplain can avoid all unionistic practices.” The committee was also convinced that offering their pastors to become chaplains did not violate the Missouri Synod’s “accepted Scriptural position” on the separation of church and state. Although the government contributed “a stipulated allowance” toward maintaining the chaplaincy, individual chaplains remained free to perform their duties “in conformity with the teachings of denominational beliefs.” Men were appointed as chaplains by the government but called by their respective church bodies. “They represent us only as long as they conform to the principles and practices of our Synod as members in good standing.”

Thus the arrangement concerning external cooperation with the National Lutheran Commission, which President Pfotenhauer in 1918 “drew a line through,” became by 1941 the approved modus operandi for conducting chaplaincy work.

footnote: Theodore Graebner, in a paper entitled “The Burden of Infallibility: A Study in the History of Dogma,” published in Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly July 1965, but written and circulated privately in 1948, wrote that during World War I, Professor Edward Pardieck of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, “denounced chaplaincies with exactly the same arguments now employed by the Wisconsin Synod. We went ahead in World War II and called chaplains. We never admitted that in World War I our position had been a mistaken one.” end footnote

“It can only be viewed as the Lord’s guidance,” Behnken later reflected, that the 1935 synodical convention passed this “seemingly minor resolution.” Working closely with government and military authorities, the Army and Navy Commission processed and called qualified pastors who filled the chaplaincy quota allowed to the synod, distributed them among the branches of the military, and built up a chaplains’ reserved corps. “Our church’s slogan, ‘They Shall Not March Alone,’ was more than a pretty slogan.” The service of more than 236 Missouri chaplains, cooperating with the National Lutheran Commission’s motto, “You serve your men, we serve ours,” moved Behnken to conclude, “I am convinced that our church body did as much, if not more, than any other church body to hold the war’s spiritual casualties to a minimum.”

President John Brenner reported to Wisconsin’s 1937 convention that he and the synod’s district presidents had been asked for names of Wisconsin pastors to serve in the chaplaincy program. “My stand has been that we have no authority to do this,” Brenner replied, “as long as our Synod has not included such work in its program.” Faithfulness to the divine call would prevent a minister from looking for a new field of labor on his own initiative. Brenner referred the matter to a committee, charging it to answer three questions: 1. Was there need for this work? 2. Would such service employed by the government be compatible with scriptural principles? 3. Should not the church body take on the obligation of paying its own missionaries?

Wisconsin’s 1937 Proceedings also included a brief report of the Committee on Chaplaincies. Acknowledging their inability to make a specific recommendation on the chaplaincy due to insufficient information, committee members nonetheless held that “any pastor entering into such service is doing so without the sanction of the Synod until the Synod has definitely decided in this matter.”

An expanded Committee on Chaplaincies reported more definitively to Wisconsin’s 1939 convention. After thoroughly studying armed forces literature, it was “of the unanimous opinion that we do not commission pastors to function in this capacity according to governmental regulations.” Answering President Brenner’s three questions, the committee noted: 1. There was no need to call Wisconsin pastors specifically to that work, because “any ordained minister is at liberty to minister unto the men in service.” 2. To submit to government regulations and to accept government remuneration would violate the separation of church and state. Despite official assurances that commissioned chaplains would be permitted to practice sound doctrine and confessional Lutheranism, the committee feared that “it will become a practical impossibility for them once in the service.” 3. Feeling ill-equipped to offer definite cost proposals, the committee recommended that respective mission boards survey stateside army camps and navy zones to determine whether such action was needed.

In 1941, the committee repeated its stand that “the commissioning of Army and Navy chaplains by our Synod would conflict with Scriptural principles and Lutheran practice.” To participate in the government’s chaplaincy program would “conflict with Wisconsin’s understanding of the divinity of the pastoral call,” create “a violation of the principle of the separation of Church and State,” and expose pastors to “the spirit of doctrinal indifferentism” pervading the War Department’s regulations. Wisconsin’s 1943 convention authorized publication and distribution of New Ulm professor Carl Schweppe’s paper on the chaplaincy to all pastors and teachers of the synod, as well as to all convention lay delegates, with the encouragement that the paper be studied “under the leadership of a member or a representative of the [synod’s recently formed] Spiritual Welfare Commission.”

footnote: Schweppe concluded that by the government’s chaplaincy regulations “we are bound and limited in our preaching over and beyond the bounds set for us by Scripture, and that is something that we can, under no condition, submit to.” Regarding the call, Schweppe maintained that the government makes a chaplain “overseer over a definite flock,” which was not as God intended it, and so “the Lutheran ministry and the chaplaincy are incompatible, not identical, and for us impossible.” end footnote

At war

After the outbreak of World War II, President Brenner reported, “We do not find that the present emergency demands a change in the character of true leadership in the Church or in the nature of its work.” The work of the church remained “purely spiritual in nature,” and its leadership had “but one objective, that of ‘bringing every thought to the obedience of Christ.’ ” But Wisconsin’s decision not to participate in the military chaplaincy program had now grown less theoretical and more unpopular. “The stand our Synod took on this question in 1939,” Brenner remarked, “is not shared by other Lutherans, and, it seems, by some of our own members.”

footnote: Dorn wrote that with the outbreak of war the chaplaincy became “a prominent and highly emotional issue” and remained so throughout the war. “The patriotic fever of the day made the Wisconsin Synod position unpopular among its own members, particularly with those who had children in the military.” end footnote

Chaplains’ ministries were highly regarded by members of other church bodies. Men were recruited energetically, and the chaplains’ work was widely publicized in print and film. From 1939 to 1945, nearly ten thousand men served as chaplains in the army, army air corps, navy, and air force.

A widely circulated story “The Silver Cord” told the heroic account of four chaplains—Reformed and Methodist pastors, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi—who died aboard the USS Dorchester after their ship suffered repeated torpedo fire from a German submarine. As panic swept the vessel, the chaplains remained on deck quieting the doomed men. Suddenly four young sailors appeared, all without life belts. After giving up their own belts, the chaplains knelt together in prayer and linked arms as the ship went down. Though they were “as far apart theologically as the poles are apart,” wrote the author of the account that appeared in the Christian Herald, among them “ran that silver cord of the Spirit which binds true men of God together in that spiritual camaraderie which only they and God can ever understand.

They serve one Church, and one alone, the Church Christ wants upon this earth. In that wild moment on the deck they swept away those senseless barriers between “the churches,” that make us purely, pitifully “denominational.” They knew no creed here but the universal creed of faith unrationed, the common property of all men who believe, the mystic union which exists between Christ and the children of God whether they worship in Protestant meeting houses, Catholic cathedrals, or Jewish synagogues.

The story illustrates the correctness of Wisconsin’s contention that a spirit of unionism and doctrinal indifferentism pervaded the chaplaincy. Yet the cooperation of these four chaplains of differing beliefs only heightened the story’s appeal for many readers. Church leaders understood how influential the chaplaincy ministry was. By recruiting and dispatching chaplains, churches demonstrated their patriotism, kept their own servicemen attached to the church, and expanded their denomination’s influence beyond its boundaries.

footnote: In 1942 the Lutheran Companion related a similar story about three soldiers— one instructed by a chaplain of the Norwegian Lutheran church, the other two by an Augustana Synod minister—who received Communion together for the first time at the Lutheran Service Center in Alexandria, Louisiana. Two of them subsequently joined a United Lutheran Church of America church, the other an American Lutheran Church congregation. “The holy moment the soldiers experienced at the altar would have been lost” had Lutherans not been discussing and working toward union and had they not been working together in the military chaplaincy. “Dare we then endanger the welfare of souls by giving anything but our best effort in the cause of greater united Lutheran action?” end footnote

“Some veterans of World War II were turned off decidedly because of our stance,” wrote one Wisconsin Synod pastor, who himself served in the army during the war. “It was the Baptists that honestly served us in the 101st Airborne and the 82nd.” Wisconsin’s doctrinal position was clear, but “in serving our men we did not do enough.” Another remembered attending a Milwaukee area pastoral conference at which one of the older pastors “made quite an impassioned plea for sending chaplains, and criticized our pastors severely.” Referring to Missouri, he thanked God “that there was a synod which provided chaplains for our boys.” Another pastor recalled stronger emotions. “Do not minimize the pain, even anger and disgust, caused to many of the lay people of the synod, and the same to some of us younger ministers,” he wrote. “[Lay people said], ‘They take our boys to the battlefield to die while our preachers can stay safe at home!’ ”

Wisconsin was not the only church body, however, that opposed the chaplaincy program for doctrinal reasons. Congregational, Presbyterian, and Disciples of Christ leaders were reluctant to subordinate their churches’ spiritual ministries to government control. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church United States of America urged chaplains to “strive to make their ministry distinctively spiritual so that it be kept from becoming an appendage to the military establishment.” Other church leaders feared their spiritual integrity was being compromised to wartime exigencies. The Christian Reformed Church petitioned President Franklin Roosevelt to address the flagrant violations of the Sabbath that military and industrial defense work forced on soldiers as well as civilians. One editorialist warned that America could win the war militarily but still lose it spiritually if the Lord’s Day was not protected.

Other religious leaders challenged the chaplaincy’s policy on open Communion. When an anonymous writer in the Reformed Banner insisted that bringing the gospel to the men defending our country was “more important than maintaining the rule on closed communion,” Banner editor H. J. Kuiper countered that the Sacrament would be profaned if it were distributed to unbelievers. Because chaplains were unable to conduct church discipline in the military, Christian Reformed pastors could not in good conscience serve as chaplains unless they were allowed to administer closed Communion according to the policy of their denomination.

The Baptist Watchman-Examiner remarked in 1943 that “the meeting of all sorts of churches in war efforts is to be commended,” but churches “should not forget nor abandon the principles for which they have long stood and the doctrines which they have long advocated.” Wisconsin’s John P. Meyer called it “gratifying” that the Watchman writer clearly discerned “the dangers of indiscriminate coordination of war efforts,” yet Meyer wondered what kind of war efforts the writer would commend. “If he is referring to strictly spiritual work, is any cooperation with other church bodies possible at all without denying the truth?”

With more restrained approval Meyer cited another Watchman-Examiner report, involving a Baptist chaplain’s dismissal for “his extremely zealous evangelistic inclinations.” The Watchman concluded, “Baptist chaplains under such restraints are not free to fulfill what they believe to be the functions of a chaplain, and we are informed that many of them who have entered the chaplaincy have resigned.”

Meyer cited disapprovingly an item in the News Bulletin of the National Lutheran Commission. Its editor praised the “regiment’s finest” Lutheran chaplain for accompanying a group of Jewish soldiers 150 miles to enable them to celebrate Passover in their own synagogue. “Brotherhood,” remarked the editor, “the companionship of all men, has and always will be the backbone of our Army.” The Lutheran chaplain, said the News Bulletin, “is minister, father, and rabbi to all the men in this area.” “Is such an attitude of confessional indifference inherent in the army chaplain?” Meyer asked. According to The Lutheran of July 14, 1943, the chaplain “is a clergyman, priest, minister, or rabbi who, having been given the ecclesiastical endorsement of his own religious group,” conducts worship, offers spiritual leadership, and facilitates educational conferences to provide “religious ministration to men of faiths other than his own.” This is not proselyting, Meyer concluded, but the demand that a chaplain practice “personal accommodation [in military life] to a religious confession which in civilian life he rejects.”

Even the Christian Century warned that “the proverbial camel was poking his nose under the tent.” C. Stanley Lowell wrote in 1944 that “denominational exclusiveness was out” because the chaplaincy program “cut across denominational lines.” While Roman Catholicism was allowed to maintain its distinctive practices and services, “the rest must work together as a unit.” A practice such as closed Communion was “impossible,” according to Lowell. “Chaplains who feel they cannot administer communion to all Christians are properly dropped from the chaplaincy during the training period.”

A paragraph from the Presbyterian Guardian warranted careful attention, Meyer advised, by anyone considering the chaplaincy:

The strange sight of a Roman Catholic chaplain conducting Protestant services, a Protestant chaplain conducting Jewish services, and a Jewish chaplain conducting both Romish and Protestant services, is not only provided for in the rules, but is frequently seen. . . . A chaplain must be willing to conduct such a “general service,” reading from a book to fill the air with neutral though perhaps Biblical words. It cannot be called worship.

Missouri’s chaplains

The effect of participating in the chaplaincy program on Missouri’s 236 chaplains was profound, as it was on the Missouri Synod as a whole. Milwaukee pastor William Kohn recalled how his army chaplaincy experience, beginning in 1943, fostered an ecumenical vision:

My growth in attitude and outlook started. No longer were there just professors and pastors around. My experiences broadened. I became acquainted with chaplains of other denominations. I met young men in combat who were injured, and there was no place for asking them about denominational distinctions.

Kohn said he discovered that “not every Baptist is a jerk who doesn’t really know about baptism,” that not every Catholic is “a full-blown heretic,” and that “there are a lot of good Christians about, and they weren’t all Lutherans.” The Missouri Synod needed to get more fully involved with other Christians “with whom they were hardly acquainted.”

Missouri took seriously Wisconsin’s warning that participation in the chaplaincy would lead to diminished confessionalism and disloyalty to Lutheranism. In 1941, Missouri chaplain Arthur Carl Piepkorn charged that “the prophets of doom who have been forecasting the collapse of confessionalism in our circles would have been disappointed” if they had attended a chaplains’ training conference. As numerous experiences were recounted, “it was plain that it is not only possible for a chaplain to be uncompromisingly Lutheran but that our chaplains have been and are unwaveringly loyal to our Church’s confessional doctrines and Scriptural practices.”

footnote: While the Lutheran Witness claimed that Missouri’s chaplains upheld their synod’s confessional practice, the Confessional Lutheran, an unofficial journal published by a conservative faction within the Missouri Synod, reported on lapses in practice by Missouri chaplains. In one incident Missouri pastors joined United Lutheran Church of America, American Lutheran Church, and Augustana Lutheran pastors and a Methodist chaplain in dedicating a military service center; in another, a Missouri chaplain officiated together with a Roman Catholic priest at the dedication of a new chapel. Yet the Confessional Lutheran reporter supported the view that it was possible for chaplains to maintain their confessional principles under the chaplaincy regulations. “No chaplain is compelled to do anything that is contrary to the recognized doctrine and practice of his denomination. If we hear of a Lutheran chaplain, a Congregationalist and a Jewish rabbi taking part in a joint service, it is a matter of their own arrangement,” not something demanded by the government. end footnote

Articles in the Lutheran Witness throughout World War II headlined the virtues of Missouri’s chaplaincy involvement. Pastors became more concerned about evangelism, and church literature contained more articles discussing the pastor’s service as evangelist. Rather than provoking doctrinal compromise, the chaplain’s duties provided opportunities to witness to non-Lutherans who appreciated solid doctrinal instruction. A Baptist major told a Missouri Synod chaplain at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, “You Lutherans definitely have something on the ball!” Others reported swelling church attendance at camp worship services and exemplary work among German prisoners of war. The chaplains’ heroic deeds and promotions to positions of responsibility bolstered Missouri’s public image.

When the war was over, Martin Sommer wrote that the Lutheran church in the United States had never received as much publicity as it had in the previous ten years. Along with Dr. Walter Maier’s preaching on the Lutheran Hour and many more English publications from Concordia Publishing House, “the activity of our chaplains has been very effective in directing the eyes of many toward the Lutheran Church.” Missouri chaplains were “now in key positions” and had “come in contact with important men. . . .

Those who have come in contact with these our clergymen, who have listened to their sermons, profited by their advice, submitted to their guidance, their influence will prove of immense value to the Church. As sure as God’s Word does not return void, so sure we may be of the fruits of the chaplains’ work.

A survey of 198 Missouri clergymen who served as World War II chaplains, conducted by Dale Griffin in June 1963, confirmed the wide-ranging effects this service had on the men involved. Almost half of the 118 respondents reported that their contacts with pastors of other denominations helped them gain greater understanding of those clergy, and 24 of 54 respondents reported having gained a greater appreciation of Lutheranism. “I had a narrow theological environment through youth,” one respondent wrote. “[The chaplaincy] had [a] tremendous broadening effect without [causing me to lose] appreciation of doctrine.” Said another, “I certainly received a broader outlook of the Christian Church as a whole and that in other churches there are just as devout and dedicated individuals— both lay and clergy—as our own.”

Regarding relations with other Christians, one respondent feared that “too often our people get the idea that the Presbyterians or Roman Catholics are to be shunned more than unbelievers.” When these men returned to stateside ministries, the chaplaincy experience “has certainly helped to move the Missouri Synod into the mainstream of American church life.” Missouri had much to give, but much also to learn. “I do not believe that obedience to Scripture demands that we act as though other Christian churches do not exist.” Said another:

Our chaplains saw what was on the other side of the woods and [it] convinced them that one has to go over there and talk with the “other guys” to do any witness- ing. It could have been the chaplaincy that changed our church’s position on relations with other churches, maybe not. But Wisconsin had no chaplains.

At least some in Missouri were concerned, however, about the negative effect the chaplaincy might have. A 1945 editorial in the Lutheran Herald predicted that the chaplaincy experience would result in “the loosing of a progressive spirit in the church that we can well use.” These Lutheran chaplains considered it “simply ridiculous having so many groups as we have today working separately.” They were finding “a real harmony together” and declared, “So it should be at home; it will be if we half try.”

footnote: Robert Lee later affirmed what the Lutheran Herald editorial suggested. Lee said there were hints that clergymen with chaplaincy experience felt “emancipated from denominational ties” and found it “difficult to return to a local denominational church setting.” end footnote

To this an observer in Missouri’s unofficial conservative journal the Confessional Lutheran responded that such a comment “substantiates the fears we have had” about Missouri’s chaplaincy participation. “If our chaplains returning from the war share the opinion that it is simply ridiculous to have church bodies working separately, then it will become increasingly difficult to discuss the doctrinal differences which keep us apart.”

End Chapter 2 part 2