A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 2 part 4

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“We were shocked beyond measure”

Here, however—perhaps for the first time—Missouri made a decision without regard to its sister synods of the Synodical Conference, which the Wisconsin and Norwegian synods could not readily excuse. Synodical Conference opposition to Scouting was difficult for many to understand, but Wisconsin could at least take comfort that its big sister was also willing to wage this unpopular battle. Missouri’s abandonment left Wisconsin with a sense of hurt and betrayal which, from the perspective of a disinterested observer, may seem out of proportion to the importance of the issue.

Initial reaction to Missouri’s decision was restrained. John Brenner maintained at Wisconsin’s 1945 convention that “the Scout program still contains elements of religion.” George Lillegard of the Norwegian Synod remarked, “The change in position regarding the Scouting movement was seen as a weakening of the Missouri Synod stand against unionism, which would ultimately cause it to lose its true conservative character.”

But Northwestern Lutheran editor William J. Schaefer, almost a year after the decision, in a rambling, emotional editorial, voiced the hurt he (and presumably many others) felt over Missouri’s action:

We were shocked beyond measure to read in the Lutheran Witness that the Missouri Synod reports having 187 Boy Scout troops and 35 Cub packs—the third highest number among the Lutheran bodies. We were more than shocked that the Lutheran Witness, the official publication of the Missouri Synod, would publish this fact, especially at a time when other sister synods in the Synodical Conference, the Wisconsin Synod in particular, are taking strong issue with the Missouri Synod on the question of Scouting. . . .

To publish such a tabulation and commitment at this time on the part of the editors of the Lutheran Witness, when this movement is causing untold confusion and offense in certain localities, is most shocking. Is it an attempt to violate and force the consciences of these men and to create disruptions? We dare not permit ourselves to draw this conclusion. But—what conclusion is one to draw from this inexcusable publicity? It seems daring to us for the editors of the Lutheran Witness to flaunt this announcement into the face of their own brethren—and there are enough of them—who do not see eye to eye with them on Scouting. It does not seem to be a fair thing to do; it is not brotherly. . . .

This action of the Lutheran Witness hurts beyond the ability of expressing it. Knowing the position of some of them [Missourians who still opposed Scouting] we at least had a right to believe that they would honor our sincere opposition and so say or write nothing that might embarrass us. Brotherly love demanded this. And the well known fact that within the Missouri Synod there are many who disagree with their synod’s policy in this matter, ought to have prompted the editors to use caution. We are sick at heart. We can’t imagine the Missouri Synod doing such a thing under the rugged leadership of the godly and valiant men of a few decades ago. We deeply deplore the incident, sick at heart.

footnote: Since the Missouri Synod could claim so many Scout troops and Cub packs within its congregations less than a year after its convention decision granting their approval, either many congregations had quite quickly organized local troops and packs, or many congregations had, in fact, maintained troops and packs prior to the decision. The latter explanation is far more likely. One lifelong Lutheran in the Milwaukee area told the author in April 2000 that he was certain that the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod congregation Sherman Park Lutheran Church in Milwaukee already had established Scout troops in the year he was confirmed—1938. end footnote

Wisconsin also deplored what it saw as Missouri condescension. One pastor recalled a meeting with representatives of both synods, at which the Scouting issue was discussed. Wisconsin’s Carl Lawrenz asked the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod contingent, “Since you now support the Scouts, who has changed? The Scouts, the Missouri Synod, or both?” The reply he received was, “No one has changed. We have become enlightened.” This respondent also remembered that Theodore Graebner had written “an excellent brochure on the unscriptural stance of the Boy Scouts,” but when the respondent tried to reorder the brochure from Concordia Publishing House in the late 1940s, he was told that “Professor Graebner had disavowed everything he had previously written about the Scouts.”

Graebner may have argued that enlightenment was precisely what Wisconsin needed—on Scouting and other subjects. After several meetings with Wisconsin representatives proved fruitless, Graebner charged Wisconsin’s pastors and professors with suffering from “a complete hardening of their doctrinal arteries.” On a manuscript critical of Scouting for its failure to mention the forgiveness of sins, Graebner penciled: “Exactly. Because it does not presume to give spiritual guidance.” To the objection that Lutherans compromised their faith by joining organizations such as the Scouts, uniting them with people of other faiths, Graebner replied that consistency would also require Lutherans to avoid courts of law because they permitted differing concepts of God when witnesses were placed under oath.

Graebner criticized Wisconsin for refusing to accept the positive contributions made by civic righteousness and the natural knowledge of God. He once complained that the Wisconsin Synod wished “to have both the natural knowledge of God and the natural knowledge of the law hang suspended somewhere in a vacuum,” much as they “have accorded a space somewhere in the stratosphere to the doctrine of the Una Sancta.”

All synods of the Synodical Conference were encouraged to restudy the Scout question. Unmoved in its opposition to Scouting, Wisconsin directed a memorial to Missouri’s 1947 convention:

We confess that we find it difficult to reconcile the Saginaw report [of Missouri’s 1944 convention] with the 1938 resolution of your synod on this subject, particularly paragraph 3 in which you speak of “naturalistic and unionistic tendencies still prevalent in the Boy Scout movement.” . . . That those unionistic features have not been eliminated, even now, is indicated, we believe, by the book Scouting in the Lutheran Church, which to us is a plain instance of unionism with Lutheran synods with whom we are not in fellowship.

The presentation of this memorial and the ensuing discussion prompted little reaction from Missouri. In fact, the next day a Missouri delegate “expressed himself during the session concerning the impropriety that a member of the Wisconsin Synod should have spoken on the floor of the convention and influenced its action. His remarks were not rebuked by the chair.”

footnote: Lawrenz recalled this detail “to show the difficulty which confronted those who were to act in the name of our synod in bringing its convictions concerning the Boy Scout issue to the attention of our sister synod.” end footnote

Over the next decade, Wisconsin repeated and amplified its position against Scouting. Arthur Voss reviewed the history of the “Theses on Scouting in the Lutheran Church,” drafted by the Mixed (Missouri and Wisconsin) Pastoral Conference in the Milwaukee area beginning in 1930, to demonstrate that Missouri and Wisconsin had not only agreed in their opposition to Scouting but that “in 1934 a motion prevailed in the Mixed conference that the respective pastoral conferences of Milwaukee should deal with such congregations whose position with regard to Scouting differed from that of the Mixed Pastoral Conference.” The same issue of the Northwestern Lutheran contained the full text of those theses, which were adapted into the tract Scouting in the Light of Scripture.

Numerous detailed studies of Scouting were now widely circulated in the Wisconsin Synod, among them What Should Be Our Attitude Toward Boy Scouts? and Scouting in the Light of Holy Scripture. Articles concerning Scouting appeared frequently in the Northwestern Lutheran. Carleton Toppe’s essay, “A Time-Honored Warning against Present Dangers to the Church from Pharisaism,” delivered in 1948 and reprinted in the 1951 Quartalschrift, contained a lengthy analysis of Scouting. Wisconsin faulted the “Pro Deo et Patria Award,” conferred by the Lutheran church on Boy Scouts who “have fulfilled a prescribed course of spiritual improvement” and “given outstanding service to [their] local congregations.”

footnote: Peters cited the entire news article from the National Lutheran Commission’s News Bureau to show “how close the alliance between the American Federation of Lutheran Brotherhoods and the Boy Scouts of America really is.” While maintaining that the award was “not a merit badge in Scouting but an award of the Church in recognition of spiritual achievement,” the report acknowledged that it “is intended to stimulate a Boy Scout to more zealous fulfillment of the Scout Promise and the Twelfth Scout Law”— which, in Peters’ view, constituted a distinction without a difference. end footnote

A statement of the Christian Reformed church, “discouraging” membership in the Boy Scouts because of the Scout oath and the “pagan religious influence” in Scouting ceremonies, caused Edmund Reim to call it “heartening to see another group taking a stand on this question and braving the opposition and ridicule they will no doubt encounter.”

By 1952, a report of the Synodical Conference Committee on Scouting concluded that differences between the synods had become entrenched. “Scouting is not agitating the Missouri Synod,” the report declared, “nor is it a problem in the Slovak Lutheran Church.” The eight Missouri and Slovak members of the committee considered Scouting “a secular boys’ organization designed to promote good citizenship” but maintained it “does not teach religion.” Scouting “does not promise spiritual blessings such as forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.” The Scout oath “is not an oath in the religious sense.” In their view, objections stemmed from false views of Scouting principles, false scriptural applications regarding the natural knowledge of God, and “an apparent unwillingness to accept documented evidence in support of principles under which Scouting is now conducted in its relation to the churches.”

The seven Wisconsin and Norwegian members of the Committee on Scouting objected that “in some of the fundamental features of the Scout program there are religious elements with which a Christian cannot identify himself without offending against the Word of God.” Scouting’s objectionable features had “not been removed by any changes that have been made in the organization and program of Scouting.”

Anti-Scouting = Anti-American?

It was not easy maintaining opposition to Scouting on the local level. During the early months of 1950, as the Boy Scouts celebrated their 40th anniversary, the Princeton Times–Republic in Princeton, Wisconsin, praised Scouting as “an American institution” in which “boys of all races and all creeds play and learn together, which is the American way. Now more than any time in our history,” the paper continued, “it is necessary to avoid all religious and racial discrimination, to the end that all will become fine American citizens with the great Democratic ideal that all men are brothers.” The same issue of the local newspaper reported that Scouts had sold Liberty Bonds during World War I, distributed walnuts and fruit pits used in gas masks, and brought assistance to flood and hurricane victims. “It is estimated that over four million men in the Armed Forces were once Boy Scouts or leaders.”

footnote: A large ad, also on page 1 of the February 2 newspaper, announced, “Boy Scouts of Today Make Better Citizens of Tomorrow.” Additional stories in the local paper also praised the Scouts: “U[nited] B[rethren] Church Will Honor Boy Scouts,” “Camp Fire Girls Make World Their Back Yard for Good Work,” “Large Crowd Attends Girl Scout Banquet,” end footnote

During those same early months of 1950, however, Walter Strohschein, who only recently had become the pastor of the Wisconsin Synod church in Princeton, was taking a hard line against Scouting. Strohschein’s—and the synod’s—position was challenged by a Princeton attorney, Philip Lehner Jr., who was both the president of Strohschein’s congregation and the leader of a local Scout troop. Lehner rejected Strohschein’s demand to resign from the Scouts, claiming support from laymen, ministers of other denominations, and Scout executives in Princeton and nearby communities. A Lutheran minister from nearby Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, in a letter to Lehner and Strohschein, charged that “God will be more lenient on Judgment Day than your congregation is now in condemning an American Scout.” The minister, whose synodical affiliation was not revealed, added, “All other Lutherans are becoming more and more ashamed that there are so-called Lutherans with attitudes such as prevail” in Princeton.

The week before Memorial Day, a front page editorial in Princeton’s newspaper clearly placed itself in opposition to the synod’s Scouting position:

For the record the Times–Republic is wholeheartedly for scouting as an American institution. This newspaper is an American newspaper, ever struggling to protect and encourage the institutions, organizations, and the government that make this country great.

To put it bluntly, the Wisconsin Synod of the Lutheran Church has struck a low blow to the very heart of American Youth. They could hardly have done a more damaging act if they had boycotted the Congress of the United States. Congress, too, opens each session with a prayer.

Scouting was accorded “tolerance and support” throughout mainline denominations, in Russian Orthodox churches, Jewish synagogues, and among Mormons in Salt Lake City. While it flourished “from north to south, from coast to coast” under “the appreciative eyes” of 150 million Americans, “only in the eyes of some 192,000 Wisconsin Synod Lutherans is scouting boycotted—and they are divided. Can so many be wrong and so few be right?”

Calling it “not a church question” but a “civic question” open to public discussion, the Times–Republic said:

Here is a clear cut issue. You can’t straddle the fence. You are either for or against scouting. You must either uphold scouting and the American way of life or go back to the narrow teachings of the church and oppose American ideals as embodied by Scouting, the American Legion, Rotary, and many other organizations which continue to support the community, which encourage the mixing of nationalities, the melting of all our peoples into a strong and united America.

The Lutheran Church as represented by the Wisconsin Synod does not have the right to oppose these American organizations. It cannot do so and still enjoy the respect of the people in this country. With every right there is a responsibility.

There is an answer to this question of scouting and the church, and it can be answered by the laymen in the church. Ask yourselves as Lutherans, does scouting in any manner conflict with the teachings of Christ? Then ask yourself, does scouting encourage disrespect to the church, to the American way of life? Examine the issue fully and when you have your answers, instruct your leaders to take the action necessary to purge the church from its anti-American stand.

The next week the Times–Republic reported that the editorial, reprinted in the Milwaukee Journal, had raised “a storm of comment from people throughout the state.” The newspaper in this tiny central Wisconsin town received so many letters that it was unable to publish them all, but exhibited them in its front office window for those along the sidewalk of the main street who wanted to read them. A Milwaukee man who signed his letter simply “An American” charged that any preacher or any man who thought the Boy Scouts’ oath represented false doctrine “does not belong in this country.” Because clergymen receive special protection and churches were exempt from taxes, “they should be among the first to support Americanism.”

footnote: In an ironic twist, the Wisconsin Synod’s Northern Wisconsin District at its district convention the next month elected Strohschein as district president, apparently for the strong stand he took. According to a Milwaukee Journal report on the conference, much of the opening session was devoted to “an examination of conscience, apparently pricked over the scouting issue.” Without referring directly to the Scouting issue, outgoing district president Irwin Habeck remarked: “If ‘strict’ means enforcing man-made ecclesiastical laws, then we are wrong. But if it means being forthright and honest, then thank God we are strict.” end footnote

This unpleasant incident suggests a powerful reason why Wisconsin’s opposition to Scouting was so volatile at the midpoint of the 20th century. With patriotism at an all-time high following the United States victory in World War II and with the rise of anti-Communist paranoia (kindled, ironically, by a Republican senator from Wisconsin), widely considered a wholesome, patriotic group seemed clearly out of step. Certainly it was no light matter, wrote Edmund Reim, for Wisconsin members “to read about themselves in news reports” drawn from hostile sources and “to find themselves denounced as ‘un-American’ because in matters touching their faith they insist on the right of free judgment instead of bowing to the pressure of an uninformed but violent public opinion.”

footnote: Wisconsin did garner some support for its right to take a religious—albeit unpopular—stand. Milwaukee Sentinel religion columnist Paul Gustafson declared, “Of all our possessions, religion is the one that is the most answerable to a man’s pride and conscience.” As Gustafson saw it, the Princeton incident came down to some from outside the church trying to “beat the rules.” The Wisconsin Synod’s stand against Scouting “has long been an established fact.” Were dissenters in the church there only to create an ugly situation? While admitting he did not know whether Strohschein was at least partly to blame for the Princeton trauma, Gustafson wrote, “I happen to like these men of the cloth who are interested enough in their work and the oaths they take to defend the doctrines of their church.” end footnote

For others, the battle against Scouting seemed to summon misdirected energy and to kindle misplaced outrage. Weren’t there many other more dangerous evils confronting Lutheran young people?

I believe that in this day and age the Devil is going “all out” to win young people away from the church, what with so many distractions in the way of TV murders, smutty literature, sex-packed movies etc. Some times I wish the Lutheran church would speak out more emphatically on moral issues such as Birth control, divorce, adultery and the like and leave issues such as Boy Scouting and Masonry for secondary consideration, my own synod included.

Did the Wisconsin Synod blow the Scouting issue out of proportion to its significance? Reim admitted that opposition to Scouting could appear to others to be “almost trivial.” He asked, “Are we guilty of creating issues where by all the standards of Scriptures there are none? Are we permitting a side issue to throw us off the track?”

Whatever negative press or public criticism Wisconsin suffered was dwarfed by the greater agony that came from the knowledge that its sister synod, once its ally on the Scouting issue, had now become its adversary.

footnote: In 1947, Wisconsin’s President John Brenner remarked on “the many years in which our Synods were united in their stand against participation . . . in either the Boy or the Girl Scouts of America.” end footnote

Reim sought to view this disagreement in its larger perspective:

Time was when there was agreement in our Synodical Conference on this matter. It was generally recognized that neither the code of Scouting nor its method of character training fit into the pattern of Christian education. Where individual cases occurred nevertheless, they were handled by the pastors in conjunction with their congregations. The aim was to do this by patient instruction and evangelical persuasion. Many were the warnings against the mechanical application of “rules,” and other legalistic measures. Where differences of practice did occur, they were usually discussed privately between brethren.

Scouting became a controversial issue, however, when the theory was developed that the character training of Scouting can be fitted into our Christian education provided the group can be under the supervision and control of Lutheran leaders and congregations. This theory then received the official endorsement of the Missouri Synod, a view which we have found ourselves unable to share. . . .

We have unfortunately come to differ seriously with a sister synod over the question of whether to endorse or not to endorse a system of training which is so foreign to the Gospel as Scouting, and whether to accept or decline the integration of such methods into a system of Christian education that has done so well without this addition. It is not a matter of Wisconsin against some poor little Scout. It is Wisconsin standing for a certain principle of Christian education, holding out against a widely held modern opinion, against an almost universal popular trend.

It is a serious matter, Reim wrote, “when sister synods which should stand shoulder to shoulder in these trials, each strengthening and encouraging the other, are found to be divided; when one condones what the other rejects.” Trivial as the issue may have appeared to many, the Wisconsin Synod saw this issue as a test of its theology. “On an issue as simple as this, and with answers that differ so widely, we cannot both be right. Someone is wrong!”

In many ways the Wisconsin Synod emerged from the Great Depression “relatively unharmed.” Between 1928 and 1944, synodical membership grew 37 percent. At the end of the 1940s, the synod embarked on an ambitious mission program destined to transform the synod into an international church body. But intersynodical difficulties that arose in the 1930s and escalated through the next two decades regarding the chaplaincy and Scouting would drive a wedge into the Synodical Conference, as it became clear that the common denominator causing the disturbance between the synods was the doctrine and practice of church fellowship.

End Chapter 2