DEAR MEMBERS AND FRIENDS OF OUR EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN SYNOD: GRACE AND PEACE FROM GOD OUR FATHER AND FROM THE LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST. AMEN.
THE ANNIVERSARY CONVENTION HAS ARRIVED! Celebrations have been held throughout the synod. Our history has been set forth in publications and paintings. An offering has been gathered. Numerous lessons have been drawn from the theology and the courage of our forefathers. And now we gather here to thank and praise the Lord for all of his goodness towards us. The Psalmist in Psalm 105 sets before us the attitude of heart and mind which ought to inspire us to a joyful celebration. “O give thanks unto the Lord; call upon his name: make known his deeds among the people. Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works. Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord. Seek the Lord, and his strength: seek his face evermore. Remember his marvelous works that he hath done; his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth.” Ps. 105,1–6.
Celebrating an anniversary is like arriving at a mountaintop on one’s journey. From that vantage point we can look back and see where we have been, and also look forward to see where we are going. Oh, what intriguing sights we behold as we gaze into our history. There is the Restoration slipping out of the Stavanger harbor on the 4th of July, 1825. There are the settlers fleeing the plague-ridden Fox River Valley in Illinois, and moving northward to Koshkonong. We see J.W.C. Dietrichson assuring the settlers gathered under the oak trees on September 2, 1844, that God can indeed “furnish a table in the wilderness.” Our three well-known forefathers come on the scene. They are the pillars of Norwegian Lutheranism in America — Koren, Otteson and Preus. In 1853 the Norwegian Synod comes into being, built upon the sound theology of the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. It grows and brings blessing to many souls through the Means of Grace. Trouble comes aplenty as it will in the church militant. Attacks occur from within and without. The Schmidtianers. (the followers of F.A. Schmidt), work their havoc trying to give credit to sinful man in some measure for his election, instead of giving all glory to God and His grace. A devastating split occurs. But the synod goes forward experiencing growth and progress. But not for long. It is the old evil foe who will give the church no rest. Now the fervor of nationalism and the spirit of compromise bring about the merger of 1917 so that three bodies of Norwegian Lutherans, the Norwegian Synod, the Hauge Synod, and the United Church, come together for the formation of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America. A great victory celebration takes place. Except for a few. This handful, gathered together in the Aberdeen Hotel in St. Paul, Minnesota, issues the statement “We cannot for conscience sake join the new church body on the present basis. We continue to stand on the old confession and organizations, which we as Christians have the liberty to defend and under which we may work from now on as heretofore.” Yes, from our mountaintop view we can see the Model T Fords, the horse and buggies, converging on a small white country church. It is a place called “Lime Creek Lutheran Church.” About thirteen pastors and 200 souls gather. They have lost everything. But they have not lost the Word of God with its gracious promises. They came to Lime Creek in response to the invitation, “Pastors and members of the congregations who desire to continue in the old doctrine and practice of the Norwegian Synod, will, God willing, hold their annual meeting in the Lime Creek congregation, Pastor H. Ingebritson’s charge, June 14th and following days.” In spite of their small number they are not ready to fall into despair. Their president encourages them saying, “Let us not be dismayed or discouraged. Just as great calamities have befallen the church of God in the past, and yet it has not been destroyed. Let us remember and follow these words of Jeremiah the prophet: “Thus saith the Lord, stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” Jer. 6,16.
They went to work at once and established a new church body, the Norwegian Synod of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church. Actually it was not a new body but a reorganization of the old Synod on the old principles. They moved forward to begin work on a constitution. They continued the publication of their church paper, the Luthersk Tidende. They elected officers and made plans for the training of their pastors. Thus began what we call today the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. They rejoined the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America together with their brethren of the Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod. Plans wree made for opening home missions and joining with the Synodical Conference in foreign mission work. Nine years later they purchased Bethany Lutheran College. Twenty-eight years later they opened their own seminary.
Our forefathers were encouraged in their desire to get on with the Lord’s work by their leaders who spoke to them the Word of God. It was the sainted Rev. G.A. Gullixson who opened the 1919 convention preaching on Exodus 14,15: “Then the Lord said to Moses at the Red Sea, Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on.” And he went on to say, “Therefore the purpose of our convention should be to make common this response to our heavenly Saviour: With you we want to go forward; with you and in the strength of your grace we desire to labor prayerfully and believingly. For you we will offer our whole life. We will depend on your grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
When they faced real challenges such as the purchase of Bethany College, which was an enormous undertaking for such a small group, they showed their determination. I have in hand a small book in which one of those present there took some notes. One expression written down was a quotation from Pastor John Moldstad of Chicago in which he said, “Vi kan hvis vi vil.” “We can if we want to.” And we can see the fruit of that determination as we gather on the Bethany campus today.
Yes, the way was difficult. The road was hard. The depression of the thirties struck in all its fury. But the Lord was with them and brought them through. Their president in 1937 encouraged them saying, “We are often tempted to despair because of the work, the expense, and the opposition encountered in the work of the church. But my friends, the Lord has called us and sent us to carry out His orders, and promised to be with us and carry through to victory, even though we must die in battle. Let us ever remember that to be a co-worker with Christ is the greatest privilege and the greatest blessing, and the more we do, the more the Lord of Harvest will give us to do. The fields are white for harvest, the opportunities are unlimited. We cannot therefore do too much. We need men and money, but above au we need faith and love, because without faith it is impossible to please God.”
Thus from our mountain-top view of our 75th anniversary we can look back and see many events, many difficulties, many blessings all of which are part of the history of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod. As we do this we cannot help but come to the conclusion that the Lord was leading and guiding us all through the years. Our forefathers trusted in His gracious promises. He had assured them, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed: for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; Yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” Is. 41,10. He had promised that His word would not return void but would accomplish that for which it was sent. Is. 55,11.
What is it that has given strength to our Evangelical Lutheran Synod throughout the years. Surely it is this that our forefathers were totally committed to the Holy Scriptures as the verbally inspired and inerrant Word of God, and secondly, that they held firmly to the central doctrine of the Scriptures that a man is justified and saved by grace alone by faith without the deeds of the Law. Dr. Koren summarizes these truths in these words, “The first principle is the truth that the ‘Holy Scripture is the only sure and perfect rule of our faith and life.’ The second is “the great truth that Jesus Christ is the way to salvation for all believing souls; in other words, “that a man is justified and saved for Christ’s sake by faith alone without the works of the Law.” (Faith of Our Fathers, p. 50) These truths have continued to be the flag under which the ship our synod sails, the banner which sets forth the heart and center of our faith. Luther writes concerning the doctrine of justification by faith alone as follows: “Of this article nothing can be yielded (nor can anything: be granted or permitted contrary to the same) even though heaven and earth and whatever will not abide should sink to ruin…And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the pope. the devil, and the world.” (Faith of Our Fathers, p. 63)
With these convictions firmly in mind it is easier to understand why our forefathers in 1918 gathered at Lime Creek to reorganize the synod on the old principles.
From our mountaintop vantage point we continue to look back over the more recent years. We see how, under the Lord’s blessing, those 10 congregations grew to some 125 congregations, and how those 13 pastors grew to over 150. We can only praise the Lord when we see now He has enabled us to reach out with the Gospel to foreign lands as well. We have, as it were, gone from Lime Creek to Lima, from the banks of the Rimac River in Peru to the bastions of atheism in Eastern Europe, from the chilly climes of Northern Minnesota to the land of Chile itself; and even all the way down under to help our brethren in the region of the koala and the kangaroo. We also see how the Lord has prospered our Bethany College and Seminary so that they are institutions which, together with our Christian Day Schools carry out the Lord’s command to “teach all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Matt. 28, 20.
The Lord not only made use of His called workers but provided laymen and women who had an equal commitment and whose sound judgment and common sense gave direction to our church body. It has always been thus in church history. The Lutheran Reformation itself has been called the greatest of all laymen’s movements. The men who submitted the Augsburg Confession to the national convention at Augsburg in 1530 were not the theologians but the laymen. A layman read the document to the assembly. Laymen risked their lives and fortunes in adopting this confession as their own. Theodore Graebner writes in his little book, the Story of the Augsburg Confession, that “the presentation of the confession was the climax of the greatest laymen’s movement which the Christian Church has ever known. No movement of the last four hundred years can even be distantly compared with it. Laymen of all future ages may draw enthusiasm for the cause of toe Gospel and inspiration for the pubic confession of their faith from the stand which the Lutheran laymen took in 1530.” (Graebner, the Story of the Augsburg Confession, p 67).
It was also thus at Lime Creek 75 years ago. Larson writes in Built On The Rock that “The significance of the church’s lay people in the reorganization of the synod is reflected in the fact that the lead article of the first issue of Volume II of the Evangelisk Luthersk Tidende was contributed by a layman who was present at the 1918 constituting convention. His opening paragraph gives evidence of the good sense of balance that characterized many of these devout and earnest children of God:
We have recently returned home from the synod convention in Lime Creek where we laid the foundation to rebuild the Norwegian Synod on God’s revealed Word, and on it alone, as our forefathers did for us, and as we in all simplicity and faithfulness have sought to imitate. We have done this out of all respect because God through His Word has commanded us to do 50, and we believe, therefore, that we shall in this way succeed in furthering on earth the kingdom of God. (Larson, Built On The Rock. D. 68)
It is of striking significance that our forefathers so developed the synod’s organizational structure that there were to be two lay delegates from each congregation and one pastor. This has been one of the strengths of our synod and one that we have perpetuated to this day.
Our Anniversary celebration, however, would not be complete if we stood on our mountaintop and only looked backward. Our forefathers looked ahead and so should we. There is a danger of “glorying” too much in the past and failing to act upon the future. We read in Built On The Rock as follows: “A glance at the Dagsprotokol (daily agenda) of this 1919 convention reveals that in its second year the synod was minded to proceed full steam ahead.” (D. 71) As we celebrate at this convention we would do well to share that same outlook “Full Steam Ahead” It is interesting to note that at the 1953 synod meeting, which marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the old synod, the Rev. Erling Ylvisaker chose as his text for Synod Sunday the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Is. 43,18–19). The prophet Isaiah is speaking about the glorious time in the future when the promised Saviour would come whose gospel would make a way in the wilderness of men’s hearts and would water the barren spiritual desert. So we continue to spread that Gospel today so that men may say, “I came to Jesus and I drank of that life-giving stream. My thirst was quenched, my soul revived and now I live in Him.” (Lutheran Hymnary, 395)
What shall be our agenda, then, as we proceed into the next 25 years? We know for certain that all will be lost unless we preserve our spiritual heritage. This, then must be our first objective. The Apostle Paul writes to Titus, “Hold fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.” (Titus 1, 9.) Doctrinal aberrations abound. In the April 17, 1993 issue of the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, a Missouri Synod church advertises an interfaith concert of sacred music, saying “There will also be presentations by Christians, the Vedanta Society (Hindu), a Jewish temple, Buddhists, Baha’is, Tibetans, American Indians and Unitarians.” Oh, how we need to preach and teach and warn our people about the dangers of unionism and syncretism.
We likewise need to live so that we may be the “salt of the earth and the light of the world.” Our society is decaying. People are starting to cry out against the portrayal of violence and pornography on television. They are desperately seeking some kind of way to return to better values. Ex-Education secretary William Bennett recently unveiled his Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. It finds that since 1960 — while population, wealth and welfare benefits climbed — U.S. “values” have deteriorated: Violent crime increased by 560%; illegitimate births climbed by 419%; Divorce rates quadrupled; and teenage suicide jumped by 200%. Pouring money on the problems won’t solve them, Bennett says. “To turn around these numbers, we must engage in the time-honored task of the moral education of our young (and the teaching) of values such as self restraint, respect for other people, the importance of family and self-control. (USA Today, Mar. 16, 1993).
How desperately our society needs the Word of God taught in Christian homes, schools and churches. Our Christian Day Schools and our Bethany College must have our full support. Let us earnestly examine our congregational makeup and our resources to see if the establishment of a Christian Day School is a possibility. Let us work for Bethany as J.A. Otteson worked for Luther College. The first year of its existence it had 32 students, 16 of which came from Otteson’s parish.
There is a lovely cathedral in Copenhagen, Denmark, which contains a number of fantastic sculptures by Thorvaldsen. The famous “Come Unto Me” statue of the Lord Jesus with arms outstretched is at the forefront, reminding us of the Saviour’s gracious invitation. As you go out the door there is a bronze plaque by the entry which says, “glømme ikke å gjøre vel.” “Don’t forget to do good.” Heb. 13,16. So, in our lives, after we have heard the sweet message of the Saviour’s love let us go forth into this dying world and as far as possible do good to all the poor souls who are suffering both spiritually and physically. One day we will hear the Lord Jesus say to us “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matt. 25,40.
As we look into the future from our anniversary mountaintop we see great opportunities for home and foreign mission work. Last Sunday, June 13, Mr. Abraham Rosario was ordained into the holy ministry in our congregation in Ano Nuevo and will serve as pastor there and also at Puente Piedra. We rejoice over the fact that another national pastor will go out to preach the Gospel. We hope that additional missionaries from our synod will soon-be on the field in South America. From Plzen comes the story of a little girl, a pupil in our Christian Day School there, who said one day to her mother, “Mama, kneel down and pray with me.” Mama answered, “But I’m an atheist I can’t do mat.” But in six months she was in adult instruction class. A valuable helper in the school, certifying that all Czech standards are met, is Mr. Milos Vrsechy, a former member of the communist party, now a confirmed Lutheran working with Mr. Silas Born in the Christian Day School.
If there is any doubt in anyone’s mind about the projects which our elected board members have in mind to be undertaken in the years ahead one has only to look into the Book of Reports and Memorials on page 46. There we read the GOALS AND OBJECTIVES OF THE VARIOUS DEPARTMENTS OF OUR SYNOD’S WORK. It sets forth an ambitious program on all fronts. We have a special opportunity to meet these challenges in the years 1994 and 1995, because of the offer of Schwan’s Sales Enterprises, Inc. to match our total budgetary giving in those years. When the Lord sends such blessings our way we surely ought to make the most of them.
In the coming years we will want to continue to encourage and strengthen our Christian brethren around the world. The formation of the new Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference provides an excellent opportunity for this. We should not allow this to become merely a dry resolution in the synod report, but rather take a deep interest in the other 12 church bodies with which we are in fellowship. We hope that soon our church in Peru may be one of the members. The CELC needs to be a “living” organization in which we become acquainted with Lutherans of the same confessional conviction as we have and that we show our love and concern for them. In addition to our own participants, how thrilling it was to hear Prof. Salimo Hachibamba of the seminary of the Lutheran Church of Central Africa, Pastor Egil Edvardsen of the Lutheran Confessional Church of Scandinavia, and President Gerhard Wilde of the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church of Germany give their lectures. The world has become so much smaller in our modern day and those of us who confess the same doctrine need to support and uphold each other m the face of mounting biblical criticism.
I am certain that the special foreign mission conference held in Santiago, Chile, in the month of January was a similar experience for our missionaries in South America, members of the Board for Foreign Missions, and their counterparts from the WELS. Our increasing involvement there, as well as our outreach to Eastern Europe, are opportunities for us to use all of the talents, gifts and resources that the Lord has so graciously bestowed upon our little synod.
Let it be our fervent prayer, then, that as we look from our anniversary mountain top into the future we will be filled with determination to do the Lord’s work. Let us say with Caleb in the Old Testament as he reported to Moses concerning the promised land which lay ahead of them, “Let us go up and possess the land.” May the Lord give us the courage of our forefathers who said in days of old “Vi kan hvis vi vil,” (We can if we want to.), taking as our motto for the challenges that confront us, “Full Steam Ahead.”
All of this we humbly confess can only be done under the guidance and blessing of the Lord, but we listen to the promise the Lord made to the children of Israel as they entered into the promised land, “Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” Joshua 1,9.
Soli Deo Gloria
George M. Orvick, President