Rev. J.N. Petersen
1972 Synod Convention Essay
“But to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit and trembleth at My word” (Is. 66:2). These words of the prophet Isaiah could suitably serve as the epitaph inscribed on the tombs of the founding fathers of the Lutheran Synodical Conference. That the Synodical Conference proved to be such “a blessing in the midst of the land” for so many decades is attributed in a great degree to the fact that these men of God, under God, undertook the work of forming a genuine confessional federation in our beloved land with true repentance and in awe of God’s inspired and inerrant Word. The spirit of the psalmist truly permeated their thoughts and actions: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give glory, for Thy mercy and for Thy truth’s sake” (Ps. 115:1).
We of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod would be guilty of ingratitude toward our gracious Lord and to the memory of many dedicated servants of the Lord, if we did not pause to commemorate the founding of an alliance, which proved to be a unique blessing for 90 years. Not only were the four constituent synods recipients of the blessings of a truly confessional federation, but also other Lutheran groups beyond the shores of North America. What shall we say on such an occasion, which would do justice to the principles and goals on which the Conference came into being? It is not easy to span almost a hundred years of church history in one paper. Even if time were allotted for a comprehensive history of this alliance, there would still be many things which could never be recorded or placed in writing: the many prayers, which ascended to the throne of Grace on its behalf, the many hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, which the fathers experienced. The purpose, then, of this paper shall not be to present a detailed historical account of the Conference, profitable as this might be. Nor shall it be the purpose of this paper to present a detailed account of the steps which led to the dissolution of the Conference. Why our Synod, together with the Wisconsin Synod, was compelled to withdraw from it, is factually carried out in Pastor Theodore Aaberg’s book, “A City Set on a Hill,” published in 1968. This book brings before us the issues which caused disturbances among the various Synods, and records the results of many committee meetings, synodical conventions, and the final resolution of resignation. Rather the purpose of this paper shall be to bring out as clearly as possible the principles upon which the Lutheran Synodical Conference was founded, what it stood for and by which it labored and was guided for 90 years; the multiple blessings which accrued for Lutheranism through the Conference; and we shall make an appeal to those who wish to continue building on the same foundation, to hold fast to the same principles, ever “asking for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, that they may find rest for their souls” (Jer. 6:16).
CONCERN FOR A SOLID FOUNDATION
In opening the business sessions at the Jubilee Convention of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, April 27 , 1872, Vice President Brohm recounted the manifold blessings which the Lord had bestowed upon that Synod during the first 25 years of its existence. Among the blessings he enumerated was the fact that “fraternal and harmonious cooperation with four like-minded Synods prevailed.” A bond of faith and confession did exist between the Missouri Synod and some other synods, although there was no formal organization. They recognized, however, that they were of kindred spirits. Back in 1856, the Missouri Synod, under the able leadership of Dr. Walther, sought to form an American Lutheran Zion in this country with a solid confessional platform. To that end he proposed that free conferences be held among interested Lutherans “with a view towards the final realization of one united Ev. Lutheran Church of North America.”
At this time in America, however, there were already several Lutheran unions in existence. Back in 1820, the first federation of Lutherans was organized in Hagerstown, Maryland, known as the General Synod. Most of the synods comprising it were from the eastern states of America. There was considerable turmoil and confusion in the General Synod during its initial stages, and, but for the forceful leadership of Pastor Schmucker, it might not have survived as long as it did. Many smaller bodies were in and out of the federation for various reasons. Some of them later were instrumental in forming the General Council in 1866. Those five conservative-minded Lutheran groups, of which Vice President Brahm spoke, must have watched with keen interest the development and course of the General Synod. Despite their interest, why did they remain aloof and apart from this first federation? By the name Lutheran itself they had some things in common, and would not their membership in a large federation have made quite an impression upon the German and Scandinavian immigrants pouring into the new land? Certainly it would not have taken eloquent rhetoric to rally people with the name Lutheran under one flag, surrounded as they were by all sorts of Reformed sects.
The action of the confessionally minded Lutherans to remain apart from existing alliances gained further impetus at a very important meeting of conservative Lutherans in Ft. Wayne, 1870. At this meeting Dr. Sibler delivered a long but clear and forthright paper, known as a Memorial (Denkschrift). In the paper he advanced valid reasons why they could not join either the General Synod or the General Council. According to the opinion of many, this meeting in Ft. Wayne really set up the platform and laid the foundation for the soon-to-be-established Synodical Conference. As the representatives gathered questions such as these pressed upon their hearts: Would a new union of Lutherans be in accord with the Lord’s will? Were they striving to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3)? By thinking of forming a separate body of Lutherans were they making a real contribution toward strengthening Lutheranism in this country? These questions were answered by Dr. Sihler. He exposed the weaknesses and aberrations of the existing alliances and stressed forcefully the fact that full unity of doctrine and practice was essential in building a strong and God-pleasing Lutheran Zion in America. He pointed out that it is not always that which is said or recorded in a confessional statement or document which raises questions, doubts, or even suspicions, but that which is not said or recorded. He wanted a confessional statement which followed the procedure of the Lutheran Confessions: this we believe and accept, this we reject. To draw up a confessional statement, which could serve as an umbrella for all sorts of theological views and opinions, would not serve the cause of the Gospel nor of Lutheranism, but would father prove to be a. detriment, leading to more and more theological anarchy, if the issues were not faced squarely from the very onset.
Since this historic meeting in Ft. Wayne to a great extent laid the foundation for the soon-to-be-born Synodical Conference, it is time well spent to study the assessment and evaluation which Dr. Sibler and his followers placed upon both the General Synod and the General Council, formed in 1867. After the meeting in Ft. Wayne, it was clear that the confessionally minded were not prepared to enter into organic union with any group, of which there might be doubt regarding their orthodoxy. Psychologically, emotionally, practically, it would be comparatively simple to inculcate into the minds of many who bore the Lutheran name the grandeur of one united Lutheran church in America. While confessionally minded Lutherans desired this also, God raised up men to remind others of the words of the prophet Amos: “If two be not agreed, how can they walk together?” Before entering upon spiritual matrimony, it is necessary for the consenting parties to know and understand each other thoroughly, in order to ward off possible misunderstandings and confusion later.
But was the confessional stand of the General Synod so questionable that such caution had to be exercised? What was uppermost in the minds of the forerunners of the Synodical Conference was not only the name Lutheran attached to a given body, but also the essence and character of the same body. A number of things disturbed the more perceptive Lutherans regarding the General Synod. For one thing, it required its member synods and candidates for ordination to pledge themselves to a confession which did not really come to grips with Calvinistic doctrine, that the “fundamental doctrines of the church are taught in a manner substantially correct” in the Augsburg Confession as a correct exhibition of the Divine Word. Back of their declaration was the thought that the distinctive doctrines, the Means of Grace in particular, could be by-passed or dismissed as non-fundamental.
In 1845 this body sent an official document to Germany, which said among other things, “so far as our doctrinal views are concerned, we confess, unreluctantly, we confess it loudly and openly, that the great majority among us are not old Lutherans. Upon the whole, we stand in most of our churchly principles on common ground with the United Church of Germany. The distinctive doctrines between the Old-Lutheran and the Reformed churches we do not regard as essential; and the tendency of the so-called Old-Lutheran party we consider to be behind our age… Luther’s peculiar view as to the bodily presence of the Lord in the Supper has long since been abandoned by the great majority of our ministers.” There was nothing subtle or ambiguous about such a declaration. Adding words like “unreluctantly, loudly, and openly” sent chills up the spines of those concerned about establishing a union on sound Lutheran principles. To boast about disassociation from the old Lutheran platform dampened the spirits of those whose avowed purpose was to establish an American Lutheran church on the shibboleth of the Reformation, the Word alone, Grace alone, Faith alone.
Those truly concerned about true Lutheranism could only look upon such a platform as treason against the Holy Scriptures. It was not strange, then, when the proceedings of their conventions manifested infidelity to the Lutheran Confessions. Requisites for membership into the body were vague and pretty much unconditional. There was virtually no doctrinal discipline exercised among them. Any voice of protest raised against their unionistic and rationalistic spirit was quickly silenced, the protester looked upon as one who stood in the way of Lutheran progress.
It was very clear that the confession ally minded could not endorse such an un-Lutheran course, knowing that building on a shaky foundation would lead to more. disunity and departure from a truly Lutheran course. Furthermore, they were mindful of the many prohibitions in Scripture, which made it impossible for them with good conscience to fraternize with disloyal Lutherans: “Now I beseech you, brethren. mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine, which ye have learned, and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). Or, “a man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject” (Titus 3:10). They were fully aware of the grave sin of being “partakers of other men’s sins.” No, if the banner of true Lutheranism was to wave over beloved America, it would have to come about on a more solid basis.
In addition to the General Synod, two other unions bearing the name Lutheran came into being: the Southern General Synod and the General Council. The Southern General Synod withdrew from the old General Synod as a result of great political upheavals at the time of the Civil War. Its beginning was an improvement over the General Synod in this, that in their constitutional basis they sought to form a church body which had Scriptural and symbolic authority. Quite frequently individuals among them pleaded earnestly for loyalty to Lutheran doctrine. They seemed sincere and honest in their objectives. Doctrinal discipline, almost unheard of in the General Synod, was carried out against a number of pastors. Despite the fact that some favorable semblances of Lutheranism were manifested among them, the conservative minder were reluctant to align themselves with the Southern General Synod for the following reasons; revival meetings were quite common among them and many pastors practiced open communion and unionism. They frowned, also, upon the “exclusive Lutheranism of the Formula of Concord,” and did not always take kindly to the old Lutheran position of barring errorists from their pulpits. So the real Lutherans felt they should remain apart from the Southern General Synod for pretty much the same reasons as they stayed apart from the General Synod.
The third group or association of Lutherans in the 19th century was the General Council of the Lutheran Church in North America. It owed its existence to the general confusion and disruptions within the General Synod in 1866. When the General Synod admitted into membership the Melanchton Synod in 1859, a body committed to the notorious “Definite Platform,” and, when they also admitted the Lutheran Franckean Synod in 1864, the delegates of the Pennsylvania Ministerium withdrew from the sessions of the General Synod for admitting the Franckean Synod. At the Ft. Wayne convention in 1866, the General Synod refused to seat the Pennsylvania delegation, after which Pennsylvania withdrew for good from the General Synod. Just a short time later the Pennsylvania delegates issued a call, written by Dr. Charles Krauth “to all synods which confess the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, for the. purpose of organizing a new general body upon distinctively Lutheran principles.” Thirteen synods, Pennsylvania Ministerium, New York Ministerium, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, English Ohio, Joint Ohio, English District Synod of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa (German), Canada, Norwegian, and Missouri, responded to the invitation to attend a meeting at Reading, Pennsylvania, in December of 1866. At this meeting Dr. Krauth’s “Fundamental Principle of Faith and Church Polity” was adopted and the various synods in attendance were asked to ratify them. At the organization meeting in Ft. Wayne, 1867, the following synods had adopted the confessional basis of the Reading convention: Pennsylvania, New York, Pittsburgh, English Ohio, Michigan, Swedish Augustana, Minnesota, Canada, Illinois, and Iowa (German). Ohio and Iowa desired a declaration from the convention on the so-called Four Points-Chiliasm, Altar-Fellowship, Pulpit-Fellowship and Secret Societies. Since the answers given to the Ohio and Iowa Synods were unsatisfactory to them, they did not become full-fledged members of the new body. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois withdrew later for the same reasons. They helped, however, to organize the Synodical Conference in 1872. But what was the doctrinal basis of the General Council? “The Unaltered Augsburg Confession, in its original sense, as throughout in conformity with the pure truth, of which God’s Word is the only rule. The other confessions are, with the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, in the perfect harmony of one and the same Scriptural faith.”
Most of the conservative theologians were satisfied with the Confession itself, but concluded there were other norms by which to judge and test the truly Lutheran character of a church body. To them there were other manifestations by which orthodoxy and loyalty to the Scriptures were to be determined. A confession of faith is not to be merely a dead letter or an empty formula, but a living power, a spirit which permeates the entire theological thinking of a group. Their fears were not without foundation in lieu of what followed in subsequent developments of the General Council. For example, it admitted the Synod of Iowa as an advisory body, knowing full well that it had adopted the Symbols with certain reservations and restrictions, also that it was clinging to its position on “open questions.” The Council did not pass the test with reference to the exchange of pulpits and inter-communion with Calvinists and other bodies not in full agreement with old Lutheranism. The line of demarcation between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, between pure and false doctrine, was not dearly defined. The end result could only be opening the flood-gates for all sorts of strange notions and practices out of step with true Lutheran practice.
The “five percenters” of that day found it impossible to unite organically with any of the above-mentioned communions, for in so doing they would be compromising their principles. But through It all they were drawn closer together. But even before the meeting at Ft. Wayne, at which Dr. Sihler was the chief essayist, serious attempts, led chiefly by Dr. Walther, were made to unite all confessing Lutherans into one truly Lutheran alliance, and, with the ultimate goal of one American Lutheran church in this country. In his Jubilee Book, A Century of Grace, Prof. W. Baepler writes of this unity movement:
“In the foreword to Lehre und Wenre, Jan. 1856, Walther, briefly reviewing the state of the Lutheran church in America, closes the account with an invitation to all Lutherans in America, who unequivocally subscribe to the Augsburg Confession, to meet in free conferences for the promotion and realization of a united Lutheran church. For himself. his fellow theologians, and his laymen he promised to attend such free conferences wherever and whenever they might be held. Walther was prompted to issue this call by the appearance of the ‘Definite Platform,’ which had been published by a number of the leaders of the General Synod in the interest of ‘American Lutheranism.’ This ‘Definite Platform’ was an endeavor to adapt the’ Lutheran church to its American environment, and in order to do so, the document denied eight articles of the Augsburg Confession. The General Synod did not adopt the ‘Definite Platform,’ for at this time conservative Lutheranism was beginning to assert itself in too many quarters of the Lutheran church. Walther saw in this a cause for rejoicing and for hope in the establishing of a united Lutheran church.
“Reporting on the reaction to this call for free conferences in the March issue of Lehre und Wehre, Walther informed his readers that the Lutheran Standard of the Ohio Synod had reprinted his invitation and that individuals had written him their approval. Accordingly, the July issue of Lehre und Wehre contained the following invitation for a general conference of all Lutherans who acknowledged the Augsburg Confession as the profession of their faith: The undersigned, clergymen of the Ev. Lutheran Church in the United States, in the conviction that unity and the welfare of our Lutheran Zion may be effectively promoted through the free expression of views by brethren at one in the faith concerning the various interests of our Church in this country, herewith extend an invitation to all members of the Ev. Lutheran Church in the United States who accept the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true presentation of the doctrines of the divine Word to meet with them for free and brotherly conferences concerning the present situation and needs of the Church in America on Wednesday, Oct. 1,…
“The invitation was eventually signed by seventy-five clergymen and professors, among whom were the leaders of the Missouri and the Ohio Synods. The majority of signers preferred to meet in Columbus, Ohio. The first meeting was held from October 1 to 7. At Walther’s suggestion the Augsburg Confession was discussed, article by article. Three further conferences were held, namely, at Pittsburgh, Oct. 29 to Nov. 4, 1857; at Cleveland, August 5 to 11, 1858; and at Ft. Wayne, July 14 to 20, 1859. The discussion of the Augustana continued, and at the four conferences Articles 1-14 and 28 were accepted. Walther was not present at the fourth meeting, because of impaired health. By 1861 the country was embroiled in the Civil War.
“After the Civil War the confessional trend which was growing in the older synods manifested itself in 1866 in a division of the General Synod, the more conservative groups forming the General Council in 1867. For a time it was hoped that the more orthodox Lutherans might all be united in this body, but this hope proved futile.
“It was only natural that the Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois Synods, agreeing so much among themselves, should try to come to an understanding. At its convention at Woodville, Ohio, 1866, the Ohio Synod resolved to appoint a committee, which was to confer with a committee of the Missouri Synod to promote friendly relations. A colloquy was held at Columbus, March 4 to 6, 1868. While the Northern District of the Missouri Synod was in session at Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Synod requested that representatives of both bodies meet to establish doctrinal agreement. The meeting was held at Milwaukee, October 21 to 22, 1868. Pastor R. Knoll of Peoria, Illinois, President of the Illinois Synod, requested a colloquy between him and the Missouri Synod in a letter dated May 31, 1869, which was addressed to Walther. The colloquy was conducted on August 4 and 5, 1869.
“At the convention of the Missouri Synod in 1869 the agreement between the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods was ratified as well as the arrangement whereby Synod was to place a professor at the Watertown college, and Wisconsin a professor at St. Louis to train the respective students. With reference to the Ohio Synod the Missouri Synod was not prepared to accept the agreement of 1868, since it had become apparent that several members of this group did not share Missouri’s doctrine of the office of the ministry. As to the Illinois Synod, Synod resolved that further conferences were necessary before fellowship could be declared.” (A Century of Grace, pp. 155-158)
The Ohio Synod had further discussed the problems involved in the proposed church union and had reached definite conclusions favoring a union with the Missouri Synod. In an article in Ebenezer, Prof. A. W. Meyer writes: “The first incentive given to the organization of the Synodical Conference was an action taken by the Eastern District of the Joint Synod of Ohio, convening in Youngstown, Ohio, June, 1870. It was there ‘Resolved, That we acknowledge the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States as an orthodox evangelical Lutheran synod; Resolved, That our Joint Synod be asked to take like action, and so inform the Missouri Synod officially; also, That Joint Synod be requested to appoint a committee to represent our Synod at the next session of the Missouri Body.’
“Owing, undoubtedly, to this recommendation of the Eastern District, the Ohio Synod at its convention at Dayton, Ohio, October, 1870, appointed a committee with instructions to confer with similar committees to be appointed by synods of the same confession, looking to a closer union and co-operation in the work of the Lord.” (Ebenezer, p. 326f.)
With so many preliminary steps taken, the actual formation of the Synodical Conference was not far away. The synods approached were Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, which later became the Illinois District of the Missouri Synod, and the Norwegian Synod. Representatives from these synods met in Pastor J.P. Beyer’s congregation in Chicago, January 11–13, 1871. Things proceeded smoothly and a draft was prepared for the proposed union. It was agreed to publish the draft in the various synodical church papers and to submit the draft to the synods at their next meetings for their reactions. The representatives resolved to meet again at Ft. Wayne in November of the same year to give a final form to the work done at the January meeting. This second meeting was held because the Joint Synod of Ohio and the Missouri Synods did not meet until 1872. The second meeting was not restricted to those attending the first one, but a general invitation was extended to all pastors, of the synods interested. This was the important Ft. Wayne meeting, which prepared the way in a very tangible manner for the historic Milwaukee meeting in July of 1872.
We have already shown how Dr. Sibler at this meeting gave convincing reasons why they could not join any of the existing unions. But he also laid down some principles for solid confessionalism, principles which are just as “zeitgemasz” and instructive today as they were then. For the more things change in 1972, the more they remain the same. What he said is worthy of repetition:
“a) Teachers must be true in doctrine and be absolutely sure they are right. Our Lord says: ‘Whosover shall break one of these least commandments and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 5:19). ‘Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20). Paul uses strong words: ‘Though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.’ In order that his words might not be misunderstood, he repeats: ‘If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that which ye have received, let him be accursed’ (Gal. 18:9; cf. I Tim. 4:16). Read the penalties which Moses imposes on false teachers, (Deut. 13:6 ff.) and the threats which God utters against them by His Prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 23:28–32).
“b) In fact, false teachers are not to be tolerated. We are to beware of false prophets (Matt. 7:15) and to avoid them (Rom. 16:17). Such only as continue in His word are acknowledged by Him (John 8:31-34), for only they recognize His voice (John 10:27) and continue steadfastly in His doctrine (Acts 2:42). He that ‘brings not this doctrine’ should not be received into our house, nor should we bid him Godspeed (II John 10), but he is to be rejected as a heretic (Titus 3:10).
“c) Preachers are to be trustworthy guides. Not like children are they to be tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). Indeed, they are to ‘speak as the oracles of God’ (Pet. 4:11). Paul does not want to be classed with such as ‘corrupt the Word of God’; he is conscious, when preaching, of speaking ‘in the sight of God’ (II Cor. 2:17).
“d) In view of the above, if we are ‘all to speak the same thing,’ if we are to be ‘perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment,’ how could we join hands with such as are at variance with us? Our Confessional Books fully harmonize with this view. The Seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession, often referred to in this connection, reads: ‘Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. But the Church is the congregation of saints (the assembly of all believers), in which the Gospel is rightly taught (purely preached) and the Sacraments are rightly administered (according to the Gospel). And unto the true unity of the Church, it is sufficient to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be alike everywhere: as St. Paul saith: ‘There is one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all (Jacobs’ Edition). This is supplemented by the Tenth Article of the Formula of Concord: ‘We believe, teach, and confess that no church should condemn another because one has less or more external ceremonies not commanded by God than the other, if otherwise there is agreement among them in doctrine and all its articles, as also in the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the well-known saying: Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith.’
“The position which our Confessions take is clearly this: Ceremonies and institutions, originated by man, are matters of Christian liberty; in such there may be differences of opinion and divergence in practice. But the Gospel must be ‘preached unanimously according to the pure understanding,’ etc. Again, ‘there must be agreement in doctrine and all its articles.’ Hence in all doctrine’s, clearly taught in the Bible, unity must prevail. It is not agreeable to the flesh to be called a separatist. This our fathers of the Reformation also .experienced; for, says the Book of Concord in the ‘Treatise on the Power of the Pope’: It is a hard thing to want to separate from so many countries and people and maintain a separate doctrine. But here stands God’s command that everyone shall be separate from, and not be agreed with, those who teach falsely.”
We have quoted freely from Dr. Sibler’s paper, which was adopted by those assembled in Ft. Wayne, 1871, because it points up the thoroughness of the thinking of those truly concerned with the establishment of a truly confessional Lutheran church in this country. Furthermore, acceptance of this paper by the representatives there really laid the foundation for the principles upon which the Synodical Conference came into being and for which it labored so consistently. The formation of the Synodical Conference was only a short step away.
The synods concerned were asked to meet for the organization and first convention of the Synodical Conference in the church of Pastor Johannes Bading, Milwaukee, Wis., from July 10–16. Dr. C.F.W. Walther, who labored so tirelessly for a sound Lutheran Federation, preached the opening sermon on the basis of I Tim. 4:16, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt save thyself, and them that hear thee.” Taking as his theme “How important it is to make the Saving of Souls the One Great Object of our Cooperative Work in the Kingdom of Christ,” he emphasized three points: 1. Take heed unto ourselves, lest selfish motives enter into our common efforts. 2. Take heed unto the doctrine, lest we lack fidelity to the Word. 3. We, shall continue in them (namely, in our efforts to save souls) and not grow weak in the time of trial.
It is to be noted that the Minnesota and the Wisconsin Synods had established fraternal relations in 1871. Through careful and patient efforts by leaders of the calibre of Pres. Streissguth, Pres. Bading, and Prof. Adolph Hoenecke, the problem of religious unionism was settled between the two bodies in a God-pleasing manner. When the Synodical Conference was formed, the two synods walked hand in hand for many years and labored zealously for the preservation of true doctrine.
Since the founding of the Synodical Conference was such a historic step in the history of American Lutheranism, we shall mention the names of the clerical delegates from the respective synods: Ohio — Professors W.F. Lehman and M. Loy; Pastors R. Herbst, H. Belser, J.C. Schulze, F.A. Herzberger, G. Trebel. Missouri Synod — Prof. C.F.W. Walther; Pastors W. Siwer, F.J. Bilgz, W. Bartling, A. Wagner, M. Tirmenstein, A. Crull, F. Lochner, C.J. Strasen, J. Herzer, Fr. Wyneken, Sr., H.C. Schwahn, C. Gross, J.P. Beyer. Wisconsin — Pres. J. Bading, Prof. A.F. Ernst, Pastor Adolph Hoenecke. Norwegian — Pres. H.A. Preus, U.V. Koren, P.A. Rasmussen, A. Mikkelsen, Prof. F.A. Schmidt. Illinois — President F. Erdmann, Pastor F. Wolbrecht. Minnesota Synod — J.H. Sieker, Pastor A. Kuhn. Officers elected at first convention: Prof. Walther, President; Prof. W.F. Lehman, Vice-President; Pastor J.P. Beyer, Secretary; and Mr. J. Schmidt, Treasurer.
The Constitution of the Synodical Conference, carefully worked out by the founding fathers, defines its purpose and object as “an expression of the unity of the spirit existing among. the respective synods, mutual encouragements to faith and confession; promotion of unity as to doctrine and practice and the removal of any threatening disturbance thereof; cooperation in matters of mutual interest; an effort to establish territorial boundaries for the synods, provided that the language used does not separate them; the uniting of all Lutheran synods of America into one orthodox American Lutheran Church.” As to the authority of the new federation, the Constitution stated: “The Synodical Conference is only an advisory body with respect to all things concerning which the synods constituting it have not given it authoritative power. Only the totality of all synods represented in the Synodical Conference shall decide what church bodies are to be received into membership of the Synodical Conference. Church bodies cannot be received into membership thereof until all the synods of the Synodical Conference have given their consent. The Synodical Conference shall see to it that conferences attended by pastors of various synods be organized and held, the District Presidents taking the initiative. Without the consent of all the synods of the Synodical Conference, none of its synods shall be permitted to enter into any church connection with other church bodies.” The Constitution mentions the following points with respect to the scope of activities: “The doctrine and the practice of the Church; the relation of pastors and congregations of one synod to those of other synods in the Synodical Conference; the relation of the Synodical Conference as a whole or of its individual members to such bodies not belonging to the Synodical Conference; matters pertaining to home and foreign mission work, as also to mission work among immigrants; hospitals and orphanages; the publishing of Lutheran literature in general and of Lutheran tracts in particular; the training of pastors and teachers; and the like.”
As time passed on, the Synodical Conference adopted a number of practical resolutions, among them these: that the minutes of all synods comprising the Synodical Conference be examined by a committee, so that if some statement should be published that could not be approved by the other synods, these could be clarified or corrected. Also, all synods should strive to cooperate in forming State synods and to unite in one organization of the Synodical Conference all congregations within a respective State or territory. Consequently, the Concordia Synod of Virginia, which had joined the Synodical Conference in 1876, became a district synod of the Ohio Synod in 1877. The Illinois Synod was absorbed by the Illinois District of the Missouri Synod in 1879, and the Missouri Synod organized the Districts of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas to become eventually State synods of the Conference. The plan was that the educational institutions were to be united, also. In 1876 the Synodical Conference suggested to the various groups the merging of the existing theological seminaries into one school with German, English, and Norwegian faculties. At the convention of 1879, definite proposals were presented for these projects, but were frustrated by the Predestinarian Controversy, which also began in 1879. However, these resolutions are of historical significance, for they do reveal the thinking of the church leaders of that day, namely, the hope and ultimate goal of one united orthodox Lutheran church in America.
We quote the following developments from A Century of Grace, p. 162f.: “The Predestinarian Controversy caused the Ohio Synod to leave the Synodical Conference in 1881. The Norwegian Synod likewise withdrew in 1883, not because of doctrinal reasons, but in order to avoid the influence of nationalistic prejudices and antipathies and to fight the controversy in its own midst on purely religious grounds.
“A number of clergymen and congregations withdrew from the Ohio Synod and organized the Concordia Synod of Pennsylvania and Other States. This group joined, the Synodical Conference in 1882, but merged with the Missouri Synod in 1886.
“In 1890 the English Synod of Missouri and Other States was admitted to the Synodical Conference. The Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan Synods in 1892 united into one body, bearing the name: The General Synod of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. The union did not destroy the identity of these synods, but provided for joint use of their educational institutions. Thus the Michigan Synod became a member of the Synodical Conference. In 1896, however, a division took place within this group, and when the majority seceded from the larger federation, the remaining minority, reorganized as the District Synod of Michigan, was acknowledged as a member of the Synodical Conference.”
When in 1918 the Norwegian Lutheran Church entered into the so-called “merger,” the small group that did not join the United Norwegian Lutheran Church formed its own synod under the name “The Norwegian Synod of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church,” and officially joined the Synodical Conference in 1920.
Since a goodly number of us are of Norwegian extraction and since the Norwegians were affiliated with the Missouri Synod and the Synodical Conference to a great extent for many years, this might be the place for a few comments on the relationship with the Missouri Synod. The late Dr. Sigurd Ylvisaker, in an article captioned The Missouri Synod and the Norwegians (Ebenezer, p. 264 ff.) brings out some interesting observations. There was always an affinity between the Missourians and the Norwegians, because from the beginning the Norwegians were determined to abide by the Scriptures and to identify themselves only with those who had the same determined purpose. It was only natural, then, that they felt at home with the Missourians. The leaders of both synods had mutual respect for each other. Both in personal contact and through correspondence an atmosphere of ease, trust, and good-will manifested itself. Dr. Ylvisaker points out that the men of the Norwegian Synod were sometimes accused of a blind acceptance of everything theological which came from St. Louis. The implication was that the Norwegians could not think for themselves nor study the Scriptures independently of others. He shows the injustice of this. charge by quoting Rev. Otteson in one of his writings in 1863 (cf. Ebenezer, p. 270). The Missourians were recognized as true brethren both in deed as well as in word, for they did all in their power to hold up the hands of the Norwegians, especially during the 80’s and then in the 1917–1918 struggles.
Time and time again the Norwegians showed their appreciation for Missouri’s loving and fraternal concern for them. An example: In a greeting to the Missouri Synod on the occasion of its Centennial, the late Dr. Norman Madson said among other things: “The debt we owe our dear brethren of the Missouri Synod, while it is both physical and spiritual, is nevertheless chiefly of a doctrinal nature. Had not our sainted fathers come into contact with the Missourians when they did (in the fifties), God only knows what would have become of our Norwegian Synod” (Preaching to Preachers, p. 187). When in the 1940’s and 50’s the Ev. Lutheran Synod, together with the Wisconsin Synod, were called upon to warn and to admonish the Missouri Synod for actions which threatened the unity of the Synodical Conference, their spirit was a continuation of repaying the debt owned to them.
By taking the firm stand during a time when much of American Lutheranism was in a chaotic condition, the Synodical Conference fathers were determined by the Grace of God to bring the wayward and weak Lutheran bodies back to sound Lutheranism, and to unfurl the Lutheran banner in a definite and clear manner. They restored the Lutheran Symbols to their rightful place of honor, dignity, and authority in the Lutheran Church. Sometimes they were charged with basing their faith and theology on Luther, the Lutheran dogmaticians, and the confessions, not on Scripture. Indeed, they did revere the Symbols highly, not to prove that their doctrines were true and divine, but to establish them as truly Lutheran and as always taught by the Lutheran Church. The fathers subscribed whole-heartedly to this declaration from the Book of Concord: “The Bible is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged.” They declared with Luther: “The Word of God shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel.” They constantly tested, tried, and judged the Symbols, their standard ever being the Scriptures, the only safe and reliable norm of truth.
The Concordia Cyclopedia sums up very well the doctrinal position of the Synodical Conference: “It acknowledges the canonical books of the Bible as the Word of God and stands squarely on the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, membership in it depending on the full and honest adherence to them in doctrine and practice. Its unfaltering adherence to God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions and its earnest desire to live up to them in practice is still its chief mark of distinction… Its orthodoxy, a matter of faith and conscience, of living and loving obedience to God’s Word, determines its attitude toward other churches. Abhorring the spreading of false doctrine as the most grievous sin, pronounced disobedience to God, it abhors unionism in any form. It will not tolerate false doctrine in its own midst and cannot maintain fraternal relations with such as tolerate errorists and persistent upholders of unscriptural, unLutheran church practices in their midst. Loving God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions, it is, anxious to establish fraternal relations with all who are of the same mind and, where doctrinal differences stand in the way, to remove them. by coming to an agreement in the truth. … Staunchly combating all forms of unionism, the Synodical Conference is an uncompromising foe of the lodges and of the ecclesiastical organizations which tolerate them” (p. 742 f.).
SOLID FOUNDATION BRINGS MULTIPLE BLESSINGS
The chief blessing bequeathed to us from the former Synodical Conference was the establishing of the Holy Scriptures as the only norm of faith and life. And, because of this unique blessing, many other blessings and legacies followed. The Conference kept before its constituent members the importance of doctrine and the constant study of doctrine. The agendas of the Conference programs, as well as the synodical conventions of the various synods, and pastoral conferences, gavel strong evidence that the study of doctrine was not a secondary or minor matter, but of paramount importance for the purity and preservation of the Gospel. While so many segments of the Protestant arena were busying themselves with a social gospel as a means of redeeming the world from its woes, the Lutheran Synodical Conference recognized with singleness of mind and purpose that the preaching of “repentance and remission of sins” was the real mission of the church.
The concern for Christian education was shown in many ways by members of the Conference, not only by the fact that many elementary schools were established and maintained, but also training schools were established. This cause was discussed at synod conventions, at conferences, also at sessions of the Synodical Conference. At the convention in 1900, Prof. John Schaller (WELS) presented a paper to the Synodical Conference entitled “The Necessity of the Christian Parish School for the Christian Family, the Church, and the State.” Twenty years later Prof. John Meyer (WELS) presented for discussion a paper entitled “The Struggle for Our Schools.” He stated, “The struggle for our schools can be carried on correctly by us only when we remain vitally aware of the fact that the Savior has called us to be His witnesses.”
The Synodical Conference was deeply concerned about the preservation of pure doctrine for themselves and posterity, but they were also mindful of the great throngs outside the pale of the Christian church. It is significant that at the very first convention a paper was given by Prof. M. Loy, “Our Duty to the English-Speaking Population of This Country.” The subject of the essay was in accord with one of the objectives of the constitution “to conduct conjointly a mission among the colored people of this country.” This was in 1872. In 1877, at the sixth convention of the Synodical Conference, held in Ft. Wayne, the resolution to begin mission work among the black people of America was adopted. The, subject was brought before the convention by the Rev. H.A. Preus, for many years President of the Norwegian Lutheran Synod, and President of the Synodical Conference at that time. On July 3, 1878, Rev. Frederick Berg organized the first black Lutheran congregation under the auspices of the Conference, in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1880 Pastor Nils Bakke began work in New Orleans, .where now there are a number of organizid black congregations. In his Illustrated Historical Sketch of Our Colored Missions Pastor Bakke writes: “Under the invocation of God and with great enthusiasm the Conference unanimously resolved to begin and carryon a mission among the neglected and forsaken Negroes of this country.” At this same Ft. Wayne Convention a permanent Mission Board was elected.
The mission work carried out by the Conference is a long interesting chapter by itself and much could be said about that great work of witnessing for Christ. With the work among the blacks of this country under way, the Conference centered its attention on Nigeria, Africa, where a door had opened. At the Conference convention held in Quincy, Illinois, August of 1930, the Mission Board elected a committee to do all preliminary and preparatory work for a thorough exploration of the mission opportunities in Africa. Dr. and Mrs. Henry Nau were sent to Africa as missionaries in January of 1936 and began active work after Easter of that year. Joint work in missions prospered under the blessing of God. One spiritual dividend of foreign mission work was that it served to stimulate a real interest among our people for both home and foreign missions. Someone has made the observation that the more our people do for missions abroad, the more they do at home, also. This observation is a good answer to those congregations who feel all efforts should be centered only in the home congregation.
Serious concern for purity of doctrine, abiding interest in Christian education, and the desire to share the Gospel with others characterized the spirit and activity of the former Synodical Conference. Since Conference churches were represented in time in almost every state and large urban areas, it was most convenient for members of a small synod such as ours to find a church home. It was a good feeling to know that our people, among the 40 million Americans who move each year, were not left to shift for themselves, but could transfer to a congregation of their confession. Since fellowship with the largest of the former Conference member has been concluded, it is encouraging and heartwarming to us that in the past decades the Wisconsin Synod has been establishing missions in States where it was not represented before. Our Synod is attempting to establish itself in areas where never represented before. Thus earnest attempts are being made by conservative synods to be faithful to the Great Commission.
THE END OF A GREAT ALLIANCE
In the mid-thirties the United Lutheran Church of America and the American Lutheran Church invited most Lutheran bodies to enter into negotiations with a view to establishing closer relations among American Lutherans. One member of the Conference, the Missouri Synod, accepted this invitation. The Evangelical Lutheran Synod, as well as the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, declined the invitation, chiefly because of its experiences of the past. In a doctrinal essay, “Unity, Union, and Unionism,” in 1936, the ELS clearly voiced its views about the dangers of negotiating with those not in doctrinal agreement with us. The 1938 convention of the Synodical Conference in Watertown approved the essay.
Had these early negotiations with Lutherans not in agreement with the platform of the Synodical Conference been concluded at that point, the whole future of the Conference may have been written in quite a different manner. Had the LC-MS heeded the fraternal admonitions of the ELS and the WELS at that time, the births of what followed in its wake, the. Declaration, the St. Louis Articles of 1938, the Affirmation, the Statement of the Forty-Four, the Common Confession, etc., may have been averred. It seemed that after negotiations with the ALC were once started, a pattern was established which was to lead the Missouri Synod on a path quite inconsistent with its own confessional standards and the doctrinal platform of the Conference. Over a period of more than 25 years, the two synods exhorted and admonished their sister synod. As time passed, relations became more and more strained. It was becoming apparent that another type of theology was emerging within the Synodical Conference. Many meetings among the doctrinal commissions were held with a view to restore unity in the Conference. When the negotiations finally proved to be unproductive, the ELS and the WELS had no choice but to sever fellowship with Missouri and, subsequently, with the Synodical Conference. This grave step, undertaken with heavy hearts, took place in 1963 on the grounds that the Synodical Conference was no longer expressing and confessing a unity of spirit among the constituent synods and was no longer functioning according to the prime purposes stated in its constitution.”
By their withdrawal from the Synodical Conference, the ELS and WELS have been charged by some of acting hastily, impatiently, prematurely, even in a loveless manner. But anyone conversant with the history leading up to the rupture and final withdrawal will determine that such charges do not square with the facts. In fact, the more one peruses the historical developments, the more must one be constrained to marvel at the patience, forbearance, even fraternal love, exercised by the two synods in all the laborious negotiations.
WHENCE THE FUTURE?
What the future holds in store for all of us is known to God alone. Many entertain the hope of forming a new Conference of like-minded Lutherans, a new federation built on the same foundation as the former Synodical Conference. This may or may not come to pass. But many things pertaining to the future are known to us: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31–32). The Gospel remains the Gospel in all its saving power. The promises of the Lord are yea and amen. We do know what our mission as Christians is: “to preserve the Means of Grace pure and unadulterated, use them for our own edification, and to bring them to those outside the pale of the Christian Church.
We have already mentioned a number of multiple blessings accrued because of our association with and experiences in the Synodical Conference. Many valuable lessons will aid us in the future. Two lessons especially stand out in the writer’s mind: Firstly, a church body once dedicated to the principles of God’s Word does not deteriorate or degenerate overnight. It is a slow and gradual process. So often the crack in the dike seems so minute and insignificant that it seems ridiculous to worry about it. But, if that seemingly harmless crack is not recemented quite soon, it gradually grows wider and wider until the point comes when it cannot be repaired—a new one has to be constructed. Secondly, the fact that harmony and unity prevailed so many years among the constituent synods of the Synodical Conference is ample proof that the Holy Spirit through the Word can and does unify. That a number of synods can .speak the same mind and be guided by that Word in all things was clearly evident in the former Conference. There are many more lessons.
The many problems confronting the fathers at the time of the Conference founding have really not changed to a great degree. Rationalism, neo-orthodoxy, existentialism, liberalism, and humanism have permeated much of modern theology. A deluge of anti-Scriptural philosophy confronts all of us, not least the young people, on all sides. This world’s philosophy directs our attention to the social problems. of life, never reckoning with the heinousness of sin nor the boundless mercy of a Gracious God. It tells us to live a life, but not the life which is eternal.
For our abiding comfort we know from Scripture that the Church of Christ will survive. God will execute His plans in the world and in His Church despite the machinations of sinful men. So we march forward in the Lord with trust and confidence. He has armed us with the weapons to combat the evil and preserve the message of salvation. As we endeavor, by the grace of God, to teach and to proclaim the Word faithfully in these latter days, let us turn from all reliance on our own strength and look to that Word, which is the theme of our Convention: “Not by might, nor by power, but My Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6).