Skip to content

The Christ Our Fathers Worshipped

Paul Ylvisaker

1953 Synod Convention Essay

Fitting it is that we celebrate our Centennial in springtime. The optimistic wren has been building her new home; the humble violet has graciously greeted us. All things speak at once, and there is no confusion of voices. It is spring!

And it is of springtime in our church that we speak. Can we recapture some of its optimism, some of its naturalness; can we learn its lessons of and, first and last, its lessons of humility?

Or is the century but a yesterday that is past, to be mourned, and no more? Must we say, “Woe unto us! For the day goeth away, for the shadows of the evening are stretched out”? Jeremiah 6,4.

Edward R. Murrow, the distinguished news commentator, after hearing Prime Minister Churchill’s eulogy of the late Queen Mother of England quoted a proverb of an earlier day: “Life is one long lesson in humility.” What he meant was that the royal mother had seen the mighty British Empire decline from its former greatness to its present precarious position, and had learned, during her many years, the great lesson of humility.

There presses upon us, too, a somewhat similar lesson when we “remember the former things of old.” Isaiah 46,29. Surely the Prophet’s word is to us when we consider this century: “The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day.” Isaiah 2,11. Then to us shall also be given the assurance, that when we humble ourselves in His sight He will lift us up. James 4,10.

As we look back from this favored knoll, namely our Centennial observance, with the sunlight and clouds alternately flitting over the landscape of the years, we in memory see our grandparents and parents as they wended their way to the church they loved so well. Proud they were of their Sacred Place, seen afar on a commanding hill, its steeple beseeching Heaven for God’s benediction.

Or there may not yet have been any church building. Yet Christ “chose to abide on earth with men.” To illustrate: Missionary Brandt came in 1855 to central Goodhue County, to what later became my boyhood home. He had slept that night in a cave near the Zumbro River. When Rev. Brandt came to the first of the three settlers’ homes in that area, the young couple was beside itself with joy. This pleasure must be shared. So off to the home of one of the other settlers Mr. Ringdal hurried, while Brandt, untiring as he was, found the other home. Then they all joined in a feast there in the woodland wilderness, the first church service among Norwegian Lutherans in that area — the birds in the trees singing the accompaniment to the glad songs of the pioneers.

Their godly homes, as yet lacking church or pastor, were nevertheless astoundingly rich. For they were Christian homes, and such a home “is a fine and precious thing — a garden of the Lord, a nursery for human lives to grow in. Its seclusion, its shelter, its wise and careful culture are invaluable to growing souls, and nothing can make up for the lack of them. The home is the God-appointed educator of mankind. Every true Christian home is a university, fully equipped, amply endowed, and able to give the highest education which can be got in this world.” (R.V. Edman.)

Surely as we sit here in silent tribute to the pious homes of yesterday, we, the children and children’s children of those homes, must rise up and call them blessed. Proverbs 31,28a. Surely we must be filled with elation in that here we are witnesses to the real essence of life; surely excitement must warm us when we are privileged to be in such hallowed company. As the barefoot lad on the knoll is excited to the very tips of his toes by the softness and warmth of springtime’s first grass on the pasture hillside, so shall today a child-like joy course through our veins, and exultation shall move our souls to exclaim:

“Lift up the voice and strike the string,

Let all glad sounds of music ring

In God’s high praises blended.”

(from Philipp Nicolai’s “The Morning Star Upon Us Gleams.”)

For that stands out when we read the accounts of the century that is now passing: In their hours of real greatness they are seen to worship a living Christ, a Christ of their Today. As living as the Christ that spoke to the distracted one in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, “Mary.” As personal as He was to him who had gone out and wept bitterly upon His Master’s personal looking on him. As commanding in His hold upon them as upon the apostolic church which was so enthused for the task of evangelizing the world that they stood as runners ready to run a race. Whose Person so dominated their witness that “they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” Acts 5,42.

In what we may call the apostolic days of our century, there had to be a dependence on necessary things. There were niceties of life that some of the folks had to forgo. As their sea-chests had to be limited to the most useful things, so their whole way of life was, by our standards, bare and elemental. There had to be a building up from the bottom. And they got to like the genuineness of it. Just as Luther, with sleeves rolled up, as it were, exalted in the activity of the pulsating church-life of the Reformation days, so our pioneers took an elemental pleasure in being held to the one thing needful, so that their church-life took on a simplicity that made their worship the more dear.

Thus the Christ they worshipped in their day was the Christ of their spiritual forefather, Luther. “To Luther there was room for no other vision of God than that which Christ gives us.” (Theodore Schmauk, “The Confessional Principle,” page 772) “In my heart there rules alone, shall rule, this one article, namely, faith on my dear Lord Jesus Christ, which is all my thoughts on things spiritual and divine, the only beginning, middle and end.” Or, as he puts it in another place, “Here in Christ have I the Father’s heart and will.”

With each succeeding year, Luther became more and more tired of the scholastics, playing with the outside of doctrines; for him their whole imposing edifice of thinking and speaking was hollow. All this sophistry he swept aside. He wanted to state the old and solid doctrine of Christ in good, plain German so that this, His Lord, could appeal to the average man. He would stand beside the crib of Bethlehem and the cross of Golgotha and say to Gretchen and to Frank, “there is a real person, true flesh, and bone of our bones, and also very God, God with us.”

Herein was our forefathers’ joy, too, and their strength. We need not import other reasons than this basic one to move us to rejoice in their Christ. (We are told that our 1953 celebration of the Fourth of July, commemorating our freedom from England, is to be helped along with a million dollars worth of firecrackers and fireworks shipped in from the British colony of Hong Kong!) As we in our nation’s life should rejoice in the political liberties won by our colonial ancestors, so let us in our church rejoice in the essential liberty that we have in Christ.

Yes, forgiveness of sins in Christ was the joy of our forefathers, that was their souls’ native air, both in the geographically narrow confines of Europe, and in the freer life in America. We are told that it was the usual thing in the homes of Norway, from which many of our church’s people came, that devotions were held on Sundays when no church services could be attended. In Lerdal Parish, in Sogndal, for example, where services were alternated between three churches, a Sabbath quiet would descend upon the settlement on the Lord’s Day; in each home the house-father would lead a house-worship with reading of a sermon from a sturdy “Postille,” and to the throne of grace would rise from these humble homes the worship of songs and hymns for the Sunday. No wonder some of the old grandmothers we, too, have known could recite so many hymns from memory. Not until one o’clock could the children be free to scamper on the mountain sides for the frolic and fun (and luscious wild berries in season) that their bodies so enjoyed. Yes, good stock came from those homes to form a sturdy nucleus of our churches here.

But there was a newness about it all, as the beholding of the dawning of a day is for those accustomed to getting up late. The transplanting of those sober churchmen to a new and pioneer land made for a new experience of discovery, akin to the days of Luther; liberty and activity — they had elbow room — made their faith a new and fresh delight. Hear the young pastor’s wife speak as of January 28th, 1852: “Utterly alone I am sitting at home this evening. (Her husband is at Muskego at a meeting which was preliminary to the organization meeting.) In silence I should then pray God to bind together in bonds of love, and in Jesus’ name, the congregations that have sent chosen men, together with their pastors to the meeting for the purpose of adopting rules and regulations. It would have been a real pleasure, when the deliberations begin next Monday, to have sat in a corner of the church, observing and listening.”

“As the men would rise to speak, there might at the outset be a slight hesitance and reserve in voice and manner, but ‘ere long courage would come to the speaker’s tongue, in fervor his arms would flail the air, and soon I would see the young ministers eagerly contending with one another, yet always with a certain dignity. To begin with, their dignity would make old men of these ministers scarcely yet thirty, their every expression would be tinged with the calm of the sage. But the transition, where the calm deliberation gives way to the fervor of youth, that is the point where I probably should find it very easy to smile.” (“Linka’s Diary”; page 209.)

Yes, as they went along, these pioneers in a new, free church learned as they had never learned before that the Scripture was in a very real sense God’s Word. They now had no State Church to direct them, and it became a matter of thrilling discovery that the Bible was, indeed sufficient to develop a God-pleasing Church. They had revered its pages all the while, but the realization that it was peculiarly appropriate to the occasion — that came as a kind of new discovery.

By way of illustration: “Although for generations, perhaps centuries, fishermen had been crossing the dark Atlantic to fish the coastal waters of America from New England to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, not until 1534 could an explorer find that great river’s mouth. Then Cartier, on fire to discover for France a Northwest passage to the Orient, entered it. On succeeding voyages he followed the river inland for a thousand miles, to an island on which stood a mountain that offered so royal a view it was soon to be known as Montreal. From its summit he beheld the St. Lawrence in all its majesty and the shining web of lesser rivers and lakes flung over its valley.” (The Red River Runs North, page 26.) On this commanding mountain the excited explorer raised the proud Tricolor of France.

So did our early church fathers come upon a divine Mount Royal in their experience in a new land, and they beheld the glorious expanse of the Bible, its far-flung importance. As the discovery of the St. Lawrence and its tributaries had a profound effect on the history of the whole Western Hemisphere, so the realization that the Scripture flows in full stream from God and from the very heartland of Heaven, had an invigorating effect on the early church. The direction of our church was set in those early days. For them God spoke, whether the Bible treated of a main doctrine or of a tributary of related teaching. It was this principle, that “Holy Scripture is the only sure and perfect rule of our faith and life,” that kept our forefathers from becoming reeds swayed by every contrary wind — and there would come many days of such wind. There, in woodland chapel and prairie home, they learned anew that Luther so fervently said, “the Bible is God’s Book.” (St. Louis Ed. 9, 1071)

“Therefore we have placed this word in the official seal of our synod’s ‘Gegraptai’, i.e., ‘It is written’. (He does not say “we are thinking of placing it,” but we ‘have’ — perfect tense.) And we have therefore chosen as the motto of our Church paper these words of our Savior in John 8,31–32. “If ye continue in my word then ye are my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” thus wrote Rev. Koren of those formative years. (Faith of our Fathers, page 50)

And so they learned to put new value on the central doctrine of Scripture, namely that a sinner is saved by believing in Christ and His substitutionary merit. There was in our early years a warm and sincere appreciation for this only comfort for lost and condemned sinners. With the transplanting of these settlers to a free America there came also a fuller understanding of this precious truth — something that the revival of church life in Norway following Nils Hauge’s activity and that of his successors had not always brought out in full sunlight.

What Dr. Franz Pieper said to his class in my days at the seminary twenty five years ago: Mach grosz die allgemeine Rechtfertigung,” — “Make large for your people the universal justification in Christ,” was characteristic of the days of strength in our synod. In the “Luthersk Tidende” of 1902 — namely at the half way mark — there is told by way of admonition the story of a young pastor in another church denomination who had to learn the story of its worth for his work. One Sunday he had preached what he thought was a splendid sermon to a congregation which included a family friend who had become a famous judge. But instead of praising the young man the famous jurist said to the confident young preacher: “Whatever you do, never in all your life preach that sermon again; preach not to me as a judge, but to me as a sinner; tell me of the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

It is true, our Synod was accused of being too liberal with God’s grace, as in the controversy on Absolution and its power, but students of history will evaluate our position as solid and Scriptural, and deserving of the compliment given some years ago to the Missouri Synod by the Catholic Cyclopedia, “Nowhere else is heard any longer the old Lutheran doctrine that was characteristic of Martin Luther, namely the doctrine of objective justification.” Yes, our church people loved the Gospel; they knew it afar off as it were.

Just as keen-eared Sioux tribesmen could hear the trampling of the great buffalo herds twenty miles away, — with eagerness they heard; for the bison was the prize of the hunt, — with such eagerness our fathers pursued the great prize of the Scriptures, the doctrine of the justification of a poor sinner by the free grace that is in Christ Jesus.

With these convictions concerning the Bible with regard to salvation by grace there grew up a high regard for each other. Rev. Koren’s high estimate of his farmers; Rev. H.A. Preus’s week-day meeting to discuss with his people church life in the light of the Word of God; Rev. Otteson’s repeated urgings that the word should be read in all our homes — all these things are evidences of the respect our church had for its rank and file members.

The members were for the most part not educated in the present day meaning. But they knew how to think for themselves, and, once convinced of the rightness of their convictions, they dared to stand.

It reminds us of the quality of the founding fathers of our nation.

“The men who framed the Constitution would not today be called a highly educated group, by academic standards. There was not a professor of government among them.

“Benjamin Franklin had only three years of formal schooling. George Washington was tutored in Latin until he was 14 and later taught himself mathematics. James Madison was one of the few college graduates there. I dare say that most of the men who drafted the Constitution could not have met the entrance requirements of this college.

“Still, despite their lack of formal education, the men who met in Philadelphia in 1787 were well-educated in the true meaning of the term. First, and most important, they knew how to think. Second, although they lacked access to the well-stocked libraries so common today, they were well-read in the classics, and had learned how to blend living experience with the lessons of history. They had also studied those pioneering works of political philosophy which appeared in the 18th century.” (Bernard Baruch)

So it was with our church fathers. A certain native keenness developed from this love of the Christ of their childhood and from the schooling of pioneer conditions. They learned by experience to cry out cordially: “There is none upon the earth that I desire beside thee.” Psalm 73,25. All the loneliness of their isolated homes, all the privations, served but to build up the pioneer people against the day when divisions arose in the new church. The chastening of the Lord was to come, the hearts were to cry out in anguish, but God was seen to be good notwithstanding. He is the portion of the faithful, of them that are ready in humble adoration to believe: “This is the love of God that we keep his commandments.” I John 5,3, When there appeared those who would not “observe all things which their Lord had commanded them,” Matt. 28,20 our fathers did not set up a weigh-station of human standards, but called the temptation to compromise and to unionism by its rightful name, namely disobedience to the Christ they loved.

“Religious unionism was for them joint worship and work of those not united in doctrine. Its essence is an agreement to disagree. In effect, it denies the doctrine of the clearness of Scripture. A Christian who believes that God has clearly spoken through the prophets and apostles and through the Lord Jesus Christ cannot be a unionist. A little company can do more by fidelity to the Lord and His Gospel and a faithful use of the means of grace in season and out of season, through evil and through good report, than could that company increased ten-fold by a surrender to the liberal sentiment of men who cannot stand the exclusiveness of Christianity in its teaching that Christ alone can save and only Christ shall rule the congregation of the saved.” (Concordia Cyclopedia.)

Here, in their child-like love of Christ and his clear Word is to be found the strength for untiring defense of the truth. They recognized that compromise of the truth, while it seemed congenial at the time, was really soul-destroying in its effect, deceptive as a London fog. We are told that the terrible London fog of last December began

“like an ordinary English fog, the kind that makes London indescribably lovely. Toward twilight the city is veiled in a silvery, gold mist through which you can see about a hundred yards. All the lights have halos; from the embankment the massive buildings along the Strand have all the mystery of Oriental palaces, their outlines softened and shadowy. ‘The whole city, hangs in the heavens,’ said Whistler. But, before the fog was lifted by a merciful breeze it had caused unbelievable harm. The city grew quiet. Nearly all traffic came to a halt. The only thing to be heard was the muffled sound of church bells, and the bells of ambulances groping their way towards victims of the fog — four thousand victims of a scourge that began as a lovely twilight on December 4, 1952.” (Reader’s Digest)

The only thing that will mercifully clear the church of the killing fog of unionism is the fresh air of God’s Word. Our church has been maligned for intolerance. And why should they be tolerant of such a scourge as the killing fog of unionism? They did not delight in controversy, but they felt as did Luther:

“Ah, Lord God, over this blessed and comforting article (the Person of Christ) men ought always to rejoice in hue faith, without dispute and without doubts — But now the Evil Spirit through proud, ambitious and evil men, is forcing this disagreeable controversy on us to hinder and spoil this dear and blessed joy. May God hear our plaint.” (Pieper’s Dogmatics, Vol. 2, page 56.)

In this appraisal of a century we have had before us a church which “geo-theologically” has through its history been foredoomed to conflict and war. In mockery, men have pointed to her as proclaiming peace in sweetest terms — by an unabridged Gospel — but bringing dissension. Calm has never blessed her borders for long, except when later it was revealed as a let-down of its essential purpose, namely of proclaiming the whole counsel of God.

Because of its position in the middle west, in a dynamic century of American and world history, as well as because of its vigorous theological position, it seems in retrospect almost an inevitable thing that our church should have fared ecclesiastically as little Korea has fared politically among her neighbor peoples:

“No name was ever a greater mockery than the one ancient China gave the peninsula kingdom (of Korea) — ‘Land of the morning calm.’ For it is Korea’s tragedy that it was geographically foredoomed to war. It has been a beachhead for invasion of the Japanese home islands that lie a scant 100 miles away. This tragedy dates back at least to the 13th century when the Mongols under Genghis Khan swept down upon the peninsula from the north.” So writes Keyes Beech, whose reporting from Korea won him the coveted Pulitzer prize.

In effect, men have mockingly thrown at us too: “Land of the morning calm”! Ah, war, division, and sobs of sadness! As an observer of Korean children asked, “I wonder what they are crying for?” The answer: “Because they are Koreans; isn’t that enough?”

Perhaps we sense some of the higher meaning of our synod’s wars and sadnesses, too, when we hear how Luther, tried in the heroic wars of his day, could appraise the meaning in these words: “Yes, I like nothing better than that contention and discord arise because of the Word of God, as the Lord says, ‘I come not to send peace, but a sword.’” (Dau, At The Tribunal of Caesar, page 215.)

’Mid toil and tribulation,

And tumult of her war,

She waits the consummation

Of peace for evermore;

Till with the vision glorious

Her longing eyes are blest,

And the great Church victorious

Shall be the Church at rest.

Visit Us
Follow Me