A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 2 part 3

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“Our Synod will take care of the spiritual needs of all our boys”

While continuing to oppose participation in the military chaplaincy program on doctrinal grounds, the Wisconsin Synod was especially eager to demonstrate that it could minister to its servicemen with its own resources and without compromising its convictions. Almost no Wisconsin pastors entered the government chaplaincy program, yet Northwestern Lutheran editor William Schaefer stated flatly, “Our Synod will take care of the spiritual needs of all our boys in the training camps of the land wherever they may be located.” Arrangements would be made for this to be done “with the least possible disturbance and consistent with the gravity of the situation.”

footnote: Survey respondent 3, who entered the ministry in the 1940s, could recall only one Wisconsin pastor who entered the chaplaincy during World War II, a pastor from Detroit, who reportedly gave as his reason, “There are no Ladies Aids in the Navy.” Krug estimated that “fewer than a handful of WELS clergy became chaplains, and those who did were dropped from our synod.” end footnote

By April 1941, Wisconsin’s Spiritual Welfare Commission, directed by Pastor Edward Blakewell of Milwaukee, was making regular reports to synod members via the Northwestern Lutheran. “Your Church has appointed a Commission to provide for the spiritual care of those we are serving in the various units of our country’s defense forces,” Blakewell wrote in a letter addressed to 713 men in the armed forces. “The Commission is extremely conscious of its responsibilities.” With soldiers already scattered throughout more than one hundred camps and bases, “it is not an easy matter to find a church and pastor of our confession at or near each camp and base.” Wherever possible, men were being directed to Wisconsin Synod pastors and congregations. President Brenner urged readers to “send the names and addresses of all of your members in training to the Commission.”

footnote: Blakewell’s experience would seem to have made him an ideal candidate for this task. After completing three years of preministerial education at Northwestern College, Blakewell entered the United States Army on September 4, 1917, achieving the rank of second lieutenant of field artillery before being honorably discharged in December 1918. end footnote

In 1942, the parish hall of Salem Church in Milwaukee was transformed into the Spiritual Welfare Commission’s work center. Six full-time employees directed dozens of volunteers—almost all of them women—who answered routine mail, updated address changes, and prepared mailings that went out twice in each three-week period.

Throughout the war the Spiritual Welfare Commission reported on its work and encouraged Wisconsin members to support its effort. “Our Father wants us to recognize the present time of insecurity as one of great opportunity to direct the thoughts of men to spiritual activity,” wrote one author. By 1944, more than 17,000 men and women were listed on SWC files, 9,000 of whom were stationed at over a thousand locations in the United States, the rest overseas. Most were members of Wisconsin Synod congregations, but “there are also quite a few young men and women on our list who are not communicant members of any of our congregations.” In addition, “many of our servicemen have put forth much effort in sharing their spiritual literature with their comrades, by placing it in their rooms, and by sharing God’s Word with others. In this manner we have received many requests from the unchurched to be placed on our mailing list.” Pastors and laymen from other denominations, as well as war workers, wives, and other relatives, received Wisconsin’s mailings.

One serviceman wrote, “I have been receiving the ‘Daily Devotional’ booklets for some time now and I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart. They are really the only attachment to the church that I have.” Wrote another in 1945, “Your last literature reached me in a hospital in England after following me all over France. You would be surprised how many of the fellows wanted me to give them the gospel literature after I was through with it.” By war’s end, the list contained more than 22,000 names, including hospitalized servicemen, soldiers honorably discharged, men listed as missing in action, even German and Japanese prisoners of war.

No cease-fire

The end of this war did not signal a cease-fire in the chaplaincy dispute but, instead, prompted calls for a resolution of the disagreements. An overture to the 1946 Synodical Conference convention urged that since the chaplaincy “appears to be a permanent institution in our nation,” the problem “be studied thoroughly in an attempt to bring about mutual agreement” among the synods. The eight-man Interim Committee appointed to study the chaplaincy question reported in 1948 that it found disagreement on nine questions, including the nature and divine institution of the local congregation, the doctrines of the call and the office of the public ministry, principles regarding separation of church and state, and unionistic practices allegedly unavoidable in the chaplaincy. Most of the 1948 report was then taken up with church and ministry issues.

In 1950, the Interim Committee could report only that it was “convinced that definite progress has been made,” that it was “not deadlocked on any issue,” and that it was “nearer the goal than two years ago.” In 1952, the Committee determined that the chaplaincy question belonged to “problems arising from the application” of church and ministry principles, and the question was referred to the faculties of the synods’ seminaries. Thus, the stage was set for the most detailed and determinative studies of the chaplaincy, to be presented to the Synodical Conference convention in 1954.

In the meantime, Wisconsin Synod literature continued explaining and defending its chaplaincy position. The Committee on Chaplaincies presented a lengthy report to the 1951 synodical convention, offering numerous citations from the War Department Technical Manual and Army Regulations and warning that Wisconsin’s doctrinal stance would be compromised:

Experience and knowledge of the interpretation nationally placed upon the concepts of common sense in religious matters and charitable regard for others warn us that a strictly Biblical exercise of either virtue does not commend itself to the latitudinarian religious ideals popular today and practiced in government as well as in many areas of American life dominated by the spirit of unionism and lodgery. . . .
The government’s expressed attitude toward cooperation in religious practice hardly conforms to the standard of confessionalism required by Romans 16:17-18 and other Scripture. To work conscientiously and without deviation from divine directives in such an environment might well be regarded by one who is under obedience to Christ as an ambition beyond the reasonable hope of attainment.

Wisconsin seminary professor Edmund Reim reported on an agreement between representatives of the National Lutheran Commission and the Missouri Synod, also in 1951, “according to which their respective members in the military service are to be received for communion regardless of their synodical membership.” Considering it “a step of far-reaching importance,” Reim cited one of the agreement’s provisions: “While the pastor may deny communion to an applicant, e.g., for manifest impenitence, he may not bring up the question of the doctrinal issues which still separate Missouri” from other Lutheran synods. “What was introduced as an ‘exception’ is now covered by a rule, a rule which even dares to speak with the mandatory ‘shall.’” Noting that this agreement was “officially sanctioned by the Praesidium of Missouri” without “even a semblance of consultation with its sister synods,” Reim asked, “Who is disrupting the Synodical Conference?”

At the 1954 Synodical Conference in East Detroit, Michigan, Edward Fredrich of the Wisconsin Synod, a Detroit pastor, and Martin Scharlemann, Missouri professor at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, represented their respective synods’ positions. Insisting this was not “a minor difficulty” arising from misunderstanding or lack of consultation but “a serious difference regarding either the application of Bible doctrines or the doctrines themselves,” Fredrich urged that differences over the chaplaincy “be given full and prompt attention and dealt with in all seriousness.” He then offered a sober presentation around Wisconsin’s traditional three objections to the chaplaincy: disregard for the divinity of the call, violation of the separation of church and state, and involvement in religious unionism.

“Though the government is willing to say that the chaplain’s spiritual authority is imparted in ordination,” Fredrich wrote, “yet it jealously reserves for itself the right to say when and where, by whom and for whom this authority is exercised.” The church surrenders its rights to the government, as the government can set standards for chaplains, controls their recruitment by quota, transfer, promotion, or discharge, and enforces numerous specific regulations on them. The principle of the separation of church and state is violated when the state estab- lishes by law the post of chaplain and maintains it by public funds. “No matter what good motive or under what extenuating circumstances or with what attempts at indiscrimination, the fact remains that in the chaplaincy system the State invades the realm of the Church.”

Unionism was “the most serious charge” Wisconsin made against the chaplaincy. Chaplains were appointed spiritual leaders over certain groups with no regard for denominational boundaries. While Roman Catholic and Jewish churches were granted separate classifications, Lutherans were “lumped together” with all others under the heading “Protestant.” Fredrich cited particular incidents where, in Wisconsin’s view, participation in the chaplaincy program not only tolerated unionism but expanded it. “Many a chaplain may be able to report heart-warming experiences he has had,” and listeners could be “swayed by any listing of results or by any proofs that the chaplaincy system is more effective than a mailing program.”

Fredrich seems to have anticipated Scharlemann’s presentation. “Much has been written and said on this subject, and it is not our purpose to repeat all the arguments pro and con.” With that, Scharlemann signaled that he had little intention of granting serious consideration to any of Wisconsin’s reasons for opposing the chaplaincy. Instead, he offered exactly what Fredrich had chosen to avoid. “My approach is a personal one, and has its source in more than a dozen years of service as a chaplain,” Scharlemann wrote. “This is a matter on which I speak from personal experience and, I might add, with very deep feeling.”

The chaplaincy “presents the church with an unparalleled opportunity to carry out its primary mission” of preaching the gospel to all. He repeated and applied to the chaplaincy— though Wisconsin challenged its relevancy— Peter’s declaration after his visit to Cornelius, “What was I, that I could withstand God?” Each year more than 2,500 men were brought into the Missouri Synod through the ministry of its chaplains. Scharlemann’s assignments at Sampson Air Force Base in Geneva, New York, and at the Air Force Weather School in Chanute Field, Illinois, were but two examples of this extraordinary opportunity. To the question, “How about the general Protestant service that is to be held on every base each Sunday?” Scharlemann answered, “When a Lutheran has that service, he makes it a Lutheran service.”

At least approaching the church-state issue, Scharlemann reminded that “the primary concern of the First Amendment and the court decisions made on its basis is to keep any single or any group of church organizations from receiving state sanction and support.” The chaplaincy reflects the same interest in religion that undergirds American life as does reciting “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, displaying the flag on Flag Day, and inscribing “In God We Trust” on our coins.

As promised, Scharlemann concluded with a deeply emotional recounting of Communion services held in North Africa the night before a bombing raid on Romania. The many men numbered among the flight crews of the 70 planes that did not return, “now part of that ‘cloud of witnesses’ referred to in Hebrews chapter 12,” Scharlemann intoned,

must find it very strange indeed that someone should ever have raised the question of my right to be in Benghazi, Libya, as a military chaplain on the evening of July 31, 1943, with the means of grace to comfort men who knew that they would shortly leave this vale of tears to be with the saints of all ages in the presence of their Redeemer.

Wisconsin delegates brushed aside Scharlemann’s presentation as unbiblical and an argument from sentiment. Some Missourians charged that Wisconsin’s view of the separation of church and state went beyond Scripture. Missouri chaplains pointed out that current government regulations honored church bodies that rejected unionism, to which Wisconsin responded that for a chaplain to summon a priest or rabbi to serve Jewish or Catholic servicemen would already constitute an act of unionism.

footnote: Wisconsin made a similar argument in the last of its 11 tracts, The Chaplaincy Question, issued by its Conference of Presidents in 1954. Missouri responded in The Church’s Opportunities in the Military Chaplaincy: An Open Letter to the Conference of Presidents of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States, issued by the Armed Services Commission of the LCMS in June 1955. end footnote

Reflecting on the 1954 Synodical Conference convention almost a year later, Edmund Reim commended Fredrich’s presentation, and those of other Wisconsin men, for displaying “the evidence of careful and thorough preparation,” “sober and factual argumentation,” “constant reference to Scripture for guidance and light,” “quiet and restrained wording of necessary criticism,” and “the warm note of earnest appeal.” Wisconsin’s case was “never more ably and adequately presented than at these most recent meetings.”

Why then did they not persuade the Missouri delegates? One important answer—“quite obvious even to ‘neutral’ observers”— was “the strong organizational loyalty of Missourians to their synod,” combined with “a reluctance to believe that a position could possibly be wrong, and a willingness to defend such a position right down the line.” Reim also recalled a remark Missouri’s vice president Arnold Grumm made earlier that year at a Lutheran Laymen’s League rally in Milwaukee: “As a Lutheran Church we are in the stream of life—why must we always say no- no-no?” Reim believed Grumm’s remark shed much light on the intersynodical debate. Reim considered it a dangerous thing “for a Church to find itself ‘in the stream’ and take pride and find satisfaction in that unaccustomed role.”

The chaplaincy question “is loaded with emotional factors,” when “patriotism runs high” and men are sent on distant, dangerous missions and their families feel deep concern for their spiritual welfare. “It is even more of a problem,” wrote Reim, “when one finds brethren in which one could once look for moral support now leading the chorus of disapproval.” Wisconsin’s stand was “admittedly unpopular,” readily misunderstood, frequently misinterpreted—and, for the past two decades, painfully solitary.

Wisconsin continued to present its case—sometimes as much to convince its own members as to persuade others.

A religious element in Boy Scoutism

The very first issue of the Northwestern Lutheran in 1914 criticized America’s “craze for organizations.” In Boy Scouting and the Camp Fire Girls, “we are confronted with a problem that Christian parents must take cognizance of.” Both were “enjoying a high degree of popularity in our midst and are tolerated if not encouraged in our public schools.” Scouting embodied “an oath-bound order, invading the province of the church,” comprising “a league where boys of all confessions and creeds are banded together on oath to ‘do their duty to God’—unionism in its worst form.” Scouting constituted “a movement for moral uplift in which laws are everything and the Gospel of Christ is at least totally disregarded if not despised.” There is “a religious element in Boy Scoutism,” but not that of the Bible; reverence “to be inculcated, but not reverence for the Triune God”; character “to be developed, but without the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Although Scouting was undertaken “by good men of our country” who understood that the “ailment” troubling the American boy was the development of his character and moral nature, Hans Moussa insisted that “a Christian home that recognizes its responsibility toward its children will not delegate its heaven-imposed duty to any irresponsible agency, including the Boy Scouts.” After the home, “a Christian school will mold the boy and girl by a steady and unremitting guidance into believers in Christ.” American boys do not need “‘Christian principles’ sugar coated by khaki uniforms and leather stocking jargon.”

Observing that the April 1923 Elks Magazine announced that “as many as 200 troops of the Boy Scouts are being looked after by the Elk lodges,” John Brenner remarked, “We are not at all surprised.

When the Elks look after the Boy Scouts they are looking after their own, just as a father looks after his children. The Boy Scout movement is an offspring of the lodge. It has the same ‘undenominational’ religion, the same attempt to effect righteousness without Christ, the common brotherhood of man . . . , an oath, secret signs of recognition, and so forth.

Brenner then cited approvingly Theodore Graebner’s tract “Y” Religion and Boy Scout Morality, in which Graebner noted that Scouts were frequently required to attend the worship services and social functions of other churches.

The most extensive discussion of Scouting in a Wisconsin Synod publication before 1944 appeared in the Northwestern Lutheran in 1929. In seeking to build good moral and religious character, M. C. Schroeder charged that Scouting “has an altogether false view of human nature, because it claims that every boy has by nature within himself the essential qualities and power to be good or godly,” and so was “not in accord with God’s Truth.” There is “absolutely no doubt about the fact that this is a religious movement,” since Scouting recognizes a Supreme Being from whom people earn rewards by their deeds. Thus Scouting “is the religion which is expressed in beliefs of the various lodge systems, especially that of Masonry.” Scouting’s recognition of the “Infinite Creator of the Universe” who “tolerates all religious views” must inevitably lead “to religious unionism where people still want to be considered religious.”

The suggestion that placing Lutheran Scout troops under Lutheran Scoutmasters would alleviate such objections was “pure folly.” Regardless what the individual troop does, “it is a unit of the national organization, supporting it financially and morally,” and thus strengthening “the religiously false, indifferent, unionistic, and humanistic stand of the organization as a whole.” The need for character building and moral guidance that Scouting sought to fill should in fact be provided by Christian parents and the Christian grade school.

Despite persistent official testimony, however, Wisconsin’s Scouting position was not universally accepted nor consistently observed within the synod. The Protestant journal, Faith–Life, charged in 1932 that Synodical Conference pastors formerly could be counted on to oppose the sanctioning of Scout troops in their congregations, “although in most instances their reasons were vague” and “based on either technicalities or generalities.” Now, however, pastors and church leaders had become so “contaminated with the spirit of worldly-mindedness,” so eager “not to offend the influential and prominent members of their respective congregations,” that they had grown “very zealous in their endeavors to harmonize the principles of Scouting and other worldly organizations with the principles of Christianity.

In George Gude’s view, Synodical Conference churches were “very cautious” in their approach to Scouting. “There was not complete agreement, even within the synods, nor did they all follow the same approach” when explaining Scouting’s objectionable features or correcting Scouting supporters in congregations. W. F. Dorn noted a similar disparity, recalling that Wisconsin’s membership, both lay and clergy, “was not in unanimous agreement” on the issue. While some districts and conferences passed resolutions opposing all participation in the Scout program, “the Minnesota District had no such resolution on its books, at least during the first years of the controversy.” Dorn stated unequivocally, “There were Boy Scouts in the Wisconsin Synod.”

Scouting “was not a doctrinal problem for members, but a social convenience for their children,” recalled one Wisconsin Synod pastor. Said another, “We were members of a Wisconsin Synod congregation with a Christian Day School, but also had a Scout troop at that time.” His father would not let him join the Scouts because he had grown up in the Missouri Synod, and “that church was opposed to Scouting.” This same pastor heard a presentation at Wisconsin’s St. Croix Pastoral Conference in Minnesota in which the essayist praised the many good features of the Scouting program and was never criticized for his remarks.

Some of the arguments employed against Scouting “were almost ridiculous,” said one respondent. “The Boy Scout issue was blown way out of proportion” and became “much too important an issue at the time.” Said another, “Many of us felt that ‘Scouting’ was raised to the level of the ‘shibbeloth’ of the Wisconsin Synod. It was a subject used by other Lutherans to make us look bad— and thus it was a deterrent to growth.” Two pastors recalled hearing district presidents suggest that “Scouting was not originally meant to have any religious aspects” and that “the Confessions don’t mention Scouting, so we should not say anything.”

footnoteAt the time, however, Wisconsin pastors appear to have been reluctant to speak out against Wisconsin’s Scouting position. William Schaefer reported that at Wisconsin’s 1947 convention, even “though men were urged and begged to express themselves if they were not in full agreement” with the synodical stand, “not one voice was raised in opposition” to it. “A few had misgivings in regard to policy,” Schaefer said, “but none expressed a variant view in regard to the subject matter.” end footnote

“Scouting should be left to the individual congregation to decide”

Wisconsin appreciated the Missouri Synod’s early opposition to Scouting, but Missouri’s anti-Scouting position had already started to weaken in the 1920s. Missouri’s Theodore Graebner was originally a determined opponent of Scouting, writing a series of anti-Scouting articles for Der Lutheraner in 1916. Over the next three decades, however, Graebner “not only dropped his objections but adopted a rather positive attitude toward the organization.”

footnote: Carl Lawrenz, agreed that the Wisconsin Synod “was strengthened in a firm stand by the warning reports of Missouri Synod committees and by pamphlets issued by some of its leading theologians.” In particular, Lawrenz cited Theodore Graebner’s “pamphlet on Boy Scout Morality, released around 1917 or 1918,” which Graebner referred to in Secret Empire: A Handbook to Lodges Lawrenz also recalled the 1927 Concordia Cyclopedia, which stated: “Considering that the Boy Scout movement seeks to develop character and virtue and love to God, the organization not only has a religious character, but seeks to do on the basis of natural religion what can only be done by means of the Gospel. Such effort is in line with the attempt made by many churches today to develop character without a thorough regeneration of the heart and without considering it necessary to be guided in spiritual matters only by the inspired Word of God.” end footnote

Graebner’s original opposition lay in Scouting’s moral and religious purpose. Scouting ignored essential ingredients of genuine moral development: the recognition of man’s sinfulness and the need for repentance and spiritual regeneration. The Scout Law replaced genuine religious instruction. A daily Good Turn led to pharisaical work-righteousness. Quoting the Scouts’ Official Handbook that there were “many ways of following” the one God, Graebner faulted Scouting for creating a false image of God and religion. Scouting regarded all religions as being on an equal plane. He feared Lutheran Scouts might feel obligated to attend unionistic services and compromise their faith by worshiping with Scouts of different denominations. Graebner considered the Scout oath frivolous, “exacting of boys the common virtues of life which they should be expected to do as a matter of course.” Graebner saw numerous parallels between the Scout movement and lodges and Freemasonry, once labeling the Boy Scouts “a preparatory school for Freemasonry and for the lodges in general.”

Instead of remaining a sideline critic, however, Graebner met with Scout officials and listened as they pleaded for understanding of the true nature of their organization. Because a 1925 handbook Scouting Under Protestant Leadership still made the Scout troop committee advisory to the Scoutmaster, Graebner repeated previous criticisms of Scouting in his Winning the Lodge-Man. Initially disappointed at Graebner’s objections, Ray Wyland, director of relationships, praised Graebner’s spirit of cooperation and promised that Scout officials would put total direction of a Scout troop under the local congregation. By 1927, Graebner wrote:

Our former and principal objection to scouting falls. When a troop is organized within one of our congregations, that troop committee has entire control of the troop. In other words, the boys can no longer, on penalty of losing their good standing as Scouts, be expected to attend rallies in sectarian churches or unionistic Scout service. When in camp, the Lutheran boys are not expected to take part in the general religious service.

In time Graebner abandoned other objections to Scouting. The Scout oath, he decided, was not strictly an oath, and its requirement of a Good Turn was not in itself wrong. Scouting was purely a secular and civic organization, not a religious association. It merely recognized that developing good citizenship included a relationship to God; it did not impose religious standards. Graebner also reversed his objection to Scouting’s character training. Since “Christian character can be trained only through the Christian religion,” a false deduction is made that character cannot be trained by other means. But “there is such a thing as natural ethics,” and “even the pagans possessed their share of it.”

Summarizing his transformed views on Scouting in 1946, Graebner concluded that “charges were made which can no longer be made today.” While encouraging religious instruction as “an ingredient in good citizenship,” Scouting “leaves the choice of church and religion to the Scout’s parents exactly as the public school.”

Under Graebner’s influence, Missouri’s 1932 convention approved the report of its Board for Young People’s Work, acknowledging the willingness of Boy Scout officials to remove objectionable features from its guidelines. Conventions in 1935 and 1938 continued that trend, and the 1938 convention adopted a report concluding that “the national headquarters of the Boy Scout organization have so modified their position as to grant to the individual congregation complete control of its troop.” Members of church groups were “in no wise required to take part in any activities which are contrary to our principles.”

Missouri’s 1944 synodical convention adopted the following report of its Bureau of Information on Secret Societies:

Your synodical committees obtained all the official handbooks both for scouts and scoutmasters, covering every phase of the work, and examined these for any ingredients of the program that would militate against a Lutheran scoutmaster’s committing himself to this program. We were unable to find any factors which would violate our principles and have not been able to discover anything in the practices of scouting, as outlined in these handbooks, to which a Christian parent, scoutmaster, or pastor would take exception. Moreover, a Lutheran Committee on Scouting has issued a manual entitled Scouting in the Lutheran Church, which definitely claims for the pastors and congregations the sole and unrestricted right of the Lutheran church commit- tee . . . to control everything of a religious nature that is to be superimposed upon the official scout program. . . . Accordingly, your Committee believes that the matter of scouting should be left to the individual congregation to decide and that under the circumstances Synod may consider her interests sufficiently protected.

Graebner saw “much more at stake than the Boy Scout issue.” He feared opposition to Scouting was symptomatic of an increasing affinity for quick, legalistic answers. “We are confronted with a churchmanship which operates with a mechanical use of Scripture and which stubbornly ignores the change which has taken place in the attitude of the Scout movement towards religion and the church.” He wished Lutheran clergymen in the 1940s could recognize “as clearly as it was recognized by Dr. Pieper” that the “legalistic demand for uniformity where no Word of God can be quoted is just as far removed from sound Lutheranism as the indifferent, unionistic spirit.” He and others “who have been trained in the free air of Luther’s theology” would resist “being tyrannized in matters that can be construed as being sinful only by giving them an artificial and unnatural twist, as in the Boy Scout controversy.”

End Chapter 2 part 3