A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 3 part 4

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Why wasn’t Wisconsin invited?

Wisconsin declined the 1935 invitation to enter negotiations with the ULCA, according to Reim, because those negotiations were “based upon the premise that no real difference existed between the various Lutheran bodies of America.” At its 1935 convention, however, Wisconsin “publicly mentioned the need of taking up the abandoned efforts toward intersynodical agreement [with the former Ohio and Iowa synods] at the point where they were dropped, and stated a readiness for such a step at any time.”

If Wisconsin declined only the United Lutheran Church of America invitation, why was it not involved in discussions with the American Lutheran Church? “It was entirely without our fault” if Missouri and American Lutheran Church committees resumed union discussions without Wisconsin representatives present. “Nor was any American Lutheran Church invitation rejected by our Synod. None was received.” Reim added, “I know whereof I speak, having been in closest contact with the developments of that time.”

Soon, however, Wisconsin learned more about its “non-invitation” to these meetings. “For years it seemed as though this had been an unintentional oversight, or perhaps the result of a letter being lost in the mails, and we took it as such.” But in “a passing remark” the American Lutheran Church’s J. Michael Reu wondered in 1941 “whether perhaps our church did not have good reasons to refrain from extending an invitation to Missouri’s sister synods” in its union negotiations. “Perhaps even stronger reasons” existed in 1941 than in 1935 or 1938 to “make such an invitation even more difficult.”

footnote: At a meeting in Milwaukee on July 19, 1954, attended by the American Lutheran Church Committee on Union and Wisconsin’s Standing Committee on Church Union, the American Lutheran Church’s Henry Schuh intimated that Wisconsin’s opposition to Missouri-American Lutheran Church negotiations was rooted in “hurt feelings” stirred by Reu’s remark. American Lutheran Church representative Bernard Holm volunteered his own understanding that Reu’s remark was a reflection of his personal views, not an official statement of American Lutheran Church policy. The Wisconsin Synod was right to understand Reu as saying he had deliberately withheld an invitation to Wisconsin in 1935. “Report on the meeting of the Committee on Union and Fellowship of the American Lutheran Church with the Standing Committee on Church Union of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States, Milwaukee, July 19, 1954”. end footnote

Reu’s remark suggested that Wisconsin’s failure to be included in the union discussions “was not so innocent as we in our good nature had assumed.”

footnote: Reim charged that Reu subsequently admitted that the omission had occurred “perhaps not without purpose” (“vielleicht nicht ohne Absicht”). Meyer recalled that Reu in the January 1940 Kirchliche Zeitschrift remarked on the trend of those in Wisconsin and some in Missouri of “wilfully obstructing any union endeavors” (“die ‘Einigungsverhand- lungen zu stoeren’ suchen”).
Edward Fendt, in his memoirs, remembered an “enlightening experience” when Lutheran Church Missouri Synod professor William Arndt was “anxious” for Fendt to become acquainted with Reim. When the three—Fendt, Arndt, and Reim—met in Chicago, Reim “readily admitted” that Wisconsin’s criticism of the Missouri-American Lutheran Church union negotiations “was not doctrinal, but in reality an expression of ‘sour grapes.’ Those were his words.” Fendt recalled Reim’s explaining that Wisconsin had been an active participant in the Intersynodical Theses, and he “didn’t think it proper for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and American Lutheran Church to try for a settlement by themselves.” As Reim recounted the story of Reu’s comment and its alleged meaning, “Dr. Arndt and I [Fendt] listened patiently to Reim’s recital of how it felt to ‘be left out.’ ” end footnote

President Behnken, reflecting two decades later, termed it “extremely unfortunate” that the Wisconsin Synod received no invitation. Missouri’s committee on Lutheran Union was “definitely under the impression during the 1935–1938 round of talks that such an invitation had been issued,” and did not learn otherwise until 1938. Behnken was convinced “the whole situation both in the Synodical Conference and in the entire area of Lutheran union would be altogether different today if the Wisconsin Synod had taken part in the discussions from the outset.”

Three meetings of Missouri and Wisconsin representatives between 1939 and 1941 produced no change. At the 1940 Synodical Conference convention, the Wisconsin and Norwegian synods criticized Missouri’s actions, asking Missouri to frame future agreements into a single document. Missouri’s 1941 convention subsequently requested that a single union document be drafted and that Wisconsin and other Conference bodies be granted an opportunity to consult before it appeared. Wisconsin’s 1941 convention urged Missouri to suspend negotiations with the American Lutheran Church because continued negotiations under present conditions would “turn into ‘dickering’ in confessional matters,” would “confirm the opponents in their ‘unfirm attitude,’” and would “continue to cause confusion and disturbance in the Church.”

footnote Wisconsin rejected Missouri’s appeal to First Peter 3:15 (“Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” [King James Version]) as a basis for continued negotiations with the American Lutheran Church. The passage, Wisconsin said, “does not refer to doctrinal discussion” but “speaks of the proper attitude of Christians in times of persecutions.” Titus 3:10 and Romans 16:17 were quoted to demonstrate that “the obligation to discuss doctrine with others does not apply in every case,” but “the cessation of verbal testimony is called for under certain circumstances.” end footnote

In 1943, Wisconsin declined a belated invitation to participate in Missouri-American Lutheran Church negotiations. Wisconsin drafted a memorial for Missouri’s 1944 convention, in which President John Brenner agreed with a Lutheran Witness article of May 11, 1943, which stated that the American Lutheran Church’s continued membership in the American Lutheran Conference constituted “a very real obstacle to the proposed union.” Brenner asked whether Missouri was in fact “definitely committed to the Resolutions of 1938 as a settlement of the doctrinal controversies between the two synods.” In view of the “unionistic attitude” of the American Lutheran Church, which was becoming “increasingly evident,” would Missouri agree that “further negotiations for establishing church fellowship could only undermine the testimony that has been previously given [to the American Lutheran Church], and should therefore be discontinued for the time being?”

But Missouri-American Lutheran Church fellowship was being cultivated on other levels. The Lutheran reported on a testimonial dinner for Missouri’s Lutheran Radio Hour speaker Walter A. Maier, sponsored by 225 Lutheran laymen and pastors “representing every one of the larger Lutheran groups and several of the smaller ones”— including the United Lutheran Church in America, American Lutheran Church, and the Missouri and Augustana synods. “Back of the purpose of the meeting,” The Lutheran said, “was the thought that if all the major Lutheran groups would cooperate, a long step forward would be taken in the further development of a more intimate fellowship among both laity and clergy.” This group brought together Missourians who confessed the inerrancy of Scripture, United Lutheran Church in America members who did not, and American Lutheran Church members who offered fellowship to Missouri but reserved its right to “supplement” the Brief Statement, prompting John P. Meyer to remark, “Since the gathering was sponsored jointly by representatives of the various bodies as a ‘testimonial dinner,’ we cannot suppress within ourselves the anxious question, Who testified what?”

The Lutheran reported that, at the United Lutheran Church in America’s biennial convention in 1942, “it was a very pleasant surprise when President Knubel announced the presence of Dr. Theodore Graebner of the Missouri Synod.” Another article in the same issue of The Lutheran hailed his appearance as signaling “a new day in Lutheranism.” Invited to address the convention, Graebner remarked that a “cheerless attitude” regarding Missouri-United Lutheran Church in America fellowship was unwarranted because “we have found it possible to join our efforts with yours” through chaplaincies and other ser- vices. “Lutheran bodies must act together if they will make their contributions” to the world.

The National Lutheran Commission proposed an All-Lutheran Federation and a National Lutheran Editors’ Association convention. Meyer felt both placed “the matter of Lutheran solidarity on an unsound basis, and for that reason we on our part must continue to raise a warning voice.” The American Lutheran cited the Lutheran Standard’s editorial assertion that “a growing sense of togetherness” characterized the annual meeting of the Lutheran Editors’ Association in September 1943 at Blair, Nebraska—“not a forced together- ness nor a feigned togetherness but a genuine togetherness” that was “substantial and meaningful” because it recognized and grew out of “our minor peripheral differences as well as our major central agreement.” The editorial said further:

We prayed together. The Lutheran Editors’ Association has never lost any time in finely spun discussion of the propriety of joint prayer at our meetings. That is taken for granted—and acted upon. That such a practice has had much to do with our growing togetherness and with the full measure of Christian joy that crowns our meetings is beyond question. Moreover, the editors (representing the five synods in the American Lutheran Conference, the United Lutheran Church in America, and the Missouri Synod) are convinced that wide, fervent use of joint prayer will do much to promote togetherness throughout the Lutheran Church in America.

The Lutheran Companion for June 30, 1943, reported on a three-day session of the Lutheran Theologians’ conference, at which 17 Lutheran seminaries from the United States and Canada were represented, but Wisconsin’s seminary at Thiensville was not. The conference was applauded for providing evidence that “a new day of good will and understanding is dawning for the Lutheran Church.” A “spirit of tolerance” and “wide latitude” on the expression of individual opinions was also highlighted.

footnote Wisconsin received but did not accept an invitation to this conference. “In my estimation,” Meyer wrote to conference organizers, “the basic problem that we all have in common lies in the serious doctrinal differences that now separate the various Lutheran groups, and the resultant deplorable lack of unity.” If conference participants were prepared to recognize frankly and discuss those differences, with the intention of bringing about agreement in teaching at their seminaries, Meyer would be “glad to accept [their] invitation on behalf of our faculty.” Meyer received no reply. end footnote

According to Missouri’s William Arndt, discussions among the professors made it “evident” that “the Lutheran Church of America is not yet united in doctrine and practice and that a good deal of earnest, prayerful work was still required” to remove doctrinal differences. Yet Arndt was also “filled with hope” at witnessing “the desire of all these representative men to be loyal to the Lutheran Church” and to Scripture. Meetings of various Lutheran faculties “with a frank exchange of views must be productive of much good.”

Later in 1943, J. F. E. Nickelsburg contended that when Lutherans join in carrying out such “external matters” as conducting home and inner missions, not only is duplication avoided and misunderstanding removed; such efforts also “contribute much toward Lutheran unity.” Lutherans not in doctrinal fellowship nevertheless “receive strength and encouragement” as they “reason together with one another” over the common problems they faced. Nickelsburg acknowledged he was “an officer of an intersynodical welfare board which opens its sessions by a petition to our God” that he would grant the group his blessings. “As Lutheran Christians we pray for guidance and counsel.”

footnote: Nickelsburg admitted he was “fully-conscious of [the] importance” of his closing statement, well aware of “the challenge it may receive.” end footnote

But such incidents also illustrated precisely what Wisconsin’s President Brenner protested to the Synodical Conference on August 1, 1944: “We feel constrained to state at this time that we have been seriously perturbed by numerous instances of an anticipation of a union not yet existing, or, as it has been put, not yet declared.”

footnote President Behnken acknowledged in 1946 that “indescribable harm has been done the cause of Lutheran fellowship when men become guilty of unionistic services, whereby they create impressions that after all there is no difference” or that differences are “of little moment” to union.” end footnote

The Missouri civil war

Missouri’s official magazine, the Lutheran Witness, favored union with the American Lutheran Church, and still greater support was expressed in an unofficial Missouri publication, the American Lutheran. Published since 1918 as the voice of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, the American Lutheran soon became popular and was viewed as a great help by those both inside and outside the synod. Time magazine praised the American Lutheran in 1934 for laboring “unceasingly to assist pastors with the problems of finance, publicity, sermonizing, church architecture, and decoration,” and noted that the magazine was “sympathetic with a liturgical movement which currently is exciting Lutherans almost as much as the Oxford Movement excited Anglicans a century ago.” By 1920, in only its third year of publication, the American Lutheran had numbered more than three thousand subscribers. After World War II, it was read by half the synod’s pastors.

footnote: Theodore Whittrock, circulation and business manager of the American Lutheran, 1949–1965, said in a telephone interview on April 9, 1980, that although circulation records had been destroyed in a fire, he was “certain” that about 50 percent of Missouri clergy received the magazine immediately after World War II and that this percentage remained constant in the years following the war. In another interview, on September 13, 1994, Whittrock estimated the circulation of the American Lutheran in the 1950s to be between seven and eight thousand, 40 percent of which was non-Missouri Synod Lutheran. end footnote

The American Lutheran was linked to Missourians in the east eager to present their synod in a more favorable light. Carrying the slogan “A Changeless Christ for a Changing World,” it offered practical suggestions on community outreach, publicity, use of the radio, improved worship services, and more efficient congregational and synodical administration. According to Alan Graebner, the American Lutheran “introduced the Missouri Synod to the concept of a loyal opposition in an ecclesiastical organization.” Though experienced in confronting theological opposition, the synod was largely unaccustomed to discussion or resistance over theologically neutral ideas. At least at the beginning, the ALPB’s practical program was fairly neutral theologically. “By articulating previously vague or unpublicized feelings, and by presenting a vigorous reform program, the magazine not only represented, but enlarged the reform party” in Missouri. The existence of this unofficial voice served to hold inside the synod “the most discontented, the very group necessary” to force changes.

The American Lutheran treated doctrinal matters primarily in a negative tone. The need for complete agreement, if not ignored entirely, was minimized. Loyal Missourians “who are also friends of true Lutheran union” were “cheered” at the possibility of closer affiliation with the American Lutheran Church. Impressive was “the impatience of the laymen who were anxious to cast their ballot in favor of ” the 1938 Union Resolution. News of the move “looking towards the elimination of doctrinal differences and eventual fellowship and union of the two great Lutheran church groups” was greeted with “sincere joy and deep gratitude.”

Wrote Otto Geiseman, “Never before have we heard so many enthusiastic comments about a meeting of Synod as we have heard concerning the sessions held at St. Louis early this summer.” A new spirit was arising in Missouri, leading the synod between “both the Scylla and the Charybdis of dead traditionalism and hopeless liberalism.” The synod would enjoy “a growing appreciation of the meaning of love” and be guided “not by the principle, ‘Thus saith the Fathers,’ but by the principle, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’” Clergy and lay members alike were “anxiously looking forward” to the union of “these two great organizations.”

But American Lutheran editor Paul Lindemann knew the union movement faced opposition. Privately he criticized “the hidebound men who have entrenched themselves behind a very high wall of traditionalism,” which was “beginning to cause a rift in our church.” He had grown “so depressed by the legalistic and uncharitable attitude” of some pastors that he stopped attending pastoral conferences. Publicly, Lindemann was convinced the devil was “opposed to any movement which may bring health and strength to the Church,” and that he would “make serious attempts to frustrate the plans that look toward a more unified campaign of the forces of light against the powers of darkness.” In particular, the devil might “utilize the fears and prejudices of those who have come to accept strife and division as the normal status of the Church” and regard any move toward peace with suspicion.

A year later, and only months after Lindemann’s unexpected death, an unnamed American Lutheran editorialist identified “a number of influences in the Synodical Conference” that had begun trying “to destroy the spirit of the 1938 convention of the Missouri Synod.” The entire question of Lutheran unity “has been moved into an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust which is neither Lutheran nor Scriptural.” While there were no doctrinal differences within the Synodical Conference, the writer concluded, “there is, however, a very notable difference in attitudes.”

First opposition came from Wilhelm Oesch, pastor of Immanuel Church, Kentish Town, London, who in early 1939 mailed to all Missouri Synod pastors the first issue of a self-published paper entitled The Crucible. In the only article in the first issue, Oesch wrote, “Plainly our Church is at the parting of the ways.” His aim was not polemics but “intelligent, Biblical, God-wrought unity.” Calling American Lutheran Church ties to the American Lutheran Conference “an insuperable obstacle to union,” Oesch wrote, “No church can say Yes and No at the same time.” The Augustana Synod, a member of the American Lutheran Conference, “harbors notorious Modernists and Liberalists,” but the American Lutheran Church “seems neither willing to withdraw from the American Lutheran Conference nor to make the elimination of scandalous errorists a condition of its own further cooperation.” As long as this state of things continued, “there is no basis for honest pulpit- and altar -fellowship between Missouri and the American Lutheran Church.”

Oesch acknowledged that the old Ohio and Iowa errors were probably no longer practiced in their present form. But the “greatest deadweight” pro-union advocates must carry is “the unionistic practice inherited from the Iowa Synod in the prolific germs of which the American Lutheran Conference was conceived and born.” If progress toward spiritual agreement has been achieved, it would show, Oesch argued, when the American Lutheran Church removed every doctrinal ambiguity from the Declaration and demanded the same from its American Lutheran Conference partners.

After receiving “a chorus of heartiest approval” for his first issue of The Crucible, Oesch published two more issues. He cited with approval the Norwegian Synod’s essay, Unity, Union and Unionism, which described false teachers as “shrewd, cunning, crafty” and “bent on deceiving”—not only those who attack the foundations of Christian faith, but “all false teachers.” Scripture “does not distinguish between great and small error.” In “The Great Illusion,” an unnamed author condemned the inadequacy of formulating Missouri-American Lutheran Church union on the basis of two documents, the Brief Statement and the Declaration. As long as this was done, some portions of the truth would necessarily be confessed at the expense of others. To sit with, accede to, and pray with ALC representatives would not only create de facto agreement with the ALC but would also open the door to other members of the American Lutheran Conference and then the United Lutheran Church of America.

Oesch promised to “yield the editorial pen to an abler writer” should a sufficiently complete organization be formed to combat Missouri-American Lutheran Church union efforts. In January 1940, the first issue of the Confessional Lutheran appeared. Published by the newly formed Confessional Lutheran Publicity Bureau, fashioned after the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, its masthead proclaimed: “Now, I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment” (First Corinthians 1:10). Editor Paul Burgdorf, pastor in Lake Falls, Minnesota, wrote that he “prayerfully and humbly” desired “to make a contribution to the cause of Confessional Lutheranism and to Lutheran Confessionalism.” Though admitting that subjects to be discussed in the Confessional Lutheran would “necessarily be largely of a controversial nature,” the editor promised they would be “dealt with in as wholly an objective way as at all possible.” He would “welcome criticisms and suggestions” and “give careful consideration to every deserving stricture that may possibly be made.”

After only seven years, the Confessional Lutheran reported that its more than one thousand subscribers included synodical officials, editors, professors, pastors, teachers, students, and institutions, as well as doctors, lawyers, and university profes-sors from among the laity. Subscribers lived in 46 states and territories of the United States, the District of Columbia, Canada, Australia, Europe, and Asia. Most were Missouri Synod members, a few were from other church bodies.

The monthly magazine was unequivocally opposed to union with the American Lutheran Church. Every issue of the Confessional Lutheran during its first two years of publication featured the slogan “Acceptance of the St. Louis Union Article of 1938 must be rescinded.” The Lutheran church had “its prophets who prophesy out of their own hearts, and whose work, whether they know it and acknowledge it or not, [was] like that of cunning foxes” destroying the church’s “already partially ruined confessional walls.” The Declaration contained “neological subjective fantasies” in almost every statement, and there were those among Missouri all too ready to join in “seducing God’s people.”

For the Confessional Lutheran, disagreement between church bodies, even over “minor” doctrines, was unacceptable. Though some teachings “lie further from the center of the faith than others,” every doctrine belongs “within the compass of saving truth.” Agreement “in the whole sphere of doctrine” provided the only acceptable prerequisite of church fellowship. Because “we do not encounter error in the abstract” but in actual persons, and because error and truth both have their “apostles,” one can “disavow error in this world in no other way than by simultaneously disavowing those who proclaim error, those who teach error.” A situation in which a person rejects error but fellowships with disseminators of error “does not exist.”

The appearance of the Confessional Lutheran opposite the American Lutheran set the stage for a civil war in the Missouri Synod over the doctrine and practice of fellowship. The Confessional Lutheran became the vehicle for conservative, largely Midwestern Missourians who opposed fellowship with other Lutherans unless founded upon their complete acceptance of the Brief Statement. The American Lutheran served as the voice of Missouri’s “eastern element,” advocating fellowship without submission to every phrase of the Brief Statement. The Lutheran Witness (and Der Lutheraner) expressed Missouri’s official position, though many suspected the Witness was moving toward the American Lutheran position.

footnote: One indicator that the Lutheran Witness was moving closer to the American Lutheran came in a letter from Witness editor Theodore Graebner to Michael Reu. After the Confessional Lutheran denounced Reu as a “pseudo-Lutheran” in 1942, Graebner wrote to him: “Whatever can be done through the pages of the Lutheran Witness to bring our churches closer together during 1943 will certainly be done. You mention Reverend Burgdorf, the editor of the Confessional Lutheran. Possibly you overestimate the importance of his efforts.” Graebner did not believe Missouri would be “largely influenced by that kind of polemics.” end footnote

The American Lutheran seldom reported differences in practice between Missouri and the American Lutheran Church. Without explicitly stating it, the American Lutheran intimated that the two synods were already essentially united and that the alleged differences between them were petty and meaningless. Assuming the existence of a problem —a divided American Lutheranism hampered their witness and hindered their work— the American Lutheran proposed greater Lutheran union as a solution to the problem.

The two periodicals used differing arguments to support their claims. Confessional Lutheran writers anchored their presentations on documented facts. Arranging their arguments in tight, logical sequence, they “appear to have been satisfied to leave their case utterly dependent upon its logical force to compel assent.” American Lutheran authors, however, showed no desire for debate. They refused to refer to the Confessional Lutheran by name and seldom responded directly to its attacks. By creating the appearance of objectivity and by providing an “open forum,” the American Lutheran sought to present itself as “middle of the road” Lutheranism.

footnote Paul Burgdorf rejected the notion that the American Lutheran offered an open forum. “Truth cannot be accorded merely an equal place alongside of error.” Conflicting opinions were no more necessary or beneficial for a church body than “for an individual to swallow pellets of poison with his food or to imbibe a bit of hydrochloric acid with every drink he takes.” end footnote

Distancing itself from the viewpoints of Confessional Lutheran authors, the American Lutheran showcased writers from other synods, thus intimating agreement between Missouri and those who used to be their enemies. Union advocates were more likely to turn to the American Lutheran Church than to other member synods of the Synodical Conference for approval. Subtly, we became they and they became we.

footnote: For its part, the American Lutheran Church found much in common with the American Lutheran but criticized the Confessional Lutheran’s attack on other Lutherans. “We do not warm up to this latest evidence of bull-dogmatism,” said the Lutheran Standard in 1942. “This branding of those fellow-Christians and fellow-Lutherans who differ with us on points of theology as ‘false prophets’ and as those ‘who cause divisions and offenses’ leaves us cold.” The CLPB stood “in grave danger of becoming a sect” if it continued attacking those they ought to regard as brothers. end footnote

Because the Synodical Conference and other conservative Lutheran elements regarded participation in union services as a compromise of the truth, “they, therefore, will have nothing to do with them.” In another, more obvious example, an author wrote:

We have grown extremely tired of a certain group of defenders of the faith. They are constantly being offended and other people are always giving offense. Perhaps we might take time out to declare that we are offended by their utterly loveless approach to the subject of union, by the atmosphere of suspicion in which God’s will cannot be done. . . . What we need is to surround ourselves with the atmosphere of the Upper Room, where He who gave His followers the new commandment of love prayed so earnestly that “they all may be one.

End Chapter 3 part 4