From the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg to the doors of your local church today, there are many ways to study the thread of our Reformation heritage. One of the more prominent ways God’s saving truths have reached us is through educational institutions. Dr. Martin Luther understood that education would be essential to sustain this Reformation. This became the primary focus of mission work in his day.
The transmission of God’s saving truth to the next generation is a delicate process. So much can be lost so suddenly. Early Norwegian settlers in the US recognized the need for seminary and college training. The forefathers of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod developed institutions of higher learning within a decade of their beginnings.
At the first meeting to re-establish the synod in 1918, thoughts were expressed regarding a school for youth and for training pastors. By 1919, the synod established a professorship at Concordia College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where pre-theological students would be trained. Dr. S. C. Ylvisaker filled this post and worked with the eleven synod men enrolled. The first synod graduate from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, would come one year later.
By 1922, the synod established a professorship under Prof. Oscar Leverson at Dr. Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota, for the training of teachers. These connections also strengthened the bonds of the Synodical Conference church bodies. A report to the synod in the mid-1920s stated, “We are very thankful to our German brethren … still we cannot expect that (they) shall bear our burdens forever.” When Bethany College was available for sale, one hundred laymen and pastors organized the Bethany Lutheran College Association to purchase the college on their own. In 1927, the synod voted to “take over” the college.
A committee was formed in 1931 to investigate starting a theological course at Bethany. Though it took a few years, in 1943 the Board of Regents recommended that the synod establish its own seminary. However, this was during World War II and the Selective Service Administration would not allow students to enter a newly established seminary. A few years later, the federal ruling changed, permitting plans to move ahead. In June of 1946, the synod resolved “to establish a full Theological Seminary course at Bethany… to begin in the fall of 1946.”
Rev. N. A. Madson was called as the Dean, and college theologians also served on the faculty. The opening service was held in September. Five students attended the first year. Madson, Ylvisaker, Rev. George Lillegard, and Prof. Christopher Faye formed the faculty in its formative years. Having gone through the synodical battles of retaining the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, these men instilled a love for this essential truth of the Reformation in their students. By 1966, the seminary had graduated forty-eight men into the ministry, including students from England, Norway, and Hong Kong. As of 2016, 230 have graduated our Bethany Seminary.
We are grateful to God that He used Dr. Luther and others to uncover the wonderful doctrine of grace alone. May the thread of Reformation blessings continue to reach the doors of our churches and schools through faithful pastors, professors, and administrators of the institutions of His Church so that the next generation can confess, “God’s Word is Our Great Heritage.”
Chaplain Don Moldstad
Bethany Lutheran College, Mankato, MN