The LC-MS Machine, Circa 1935?: of Conspiracies and Changing Culture…

25 Mar

Frederick Photenhauer, first victim of LC-MS politics?


“To speak of a party split or divisions in the Missouri Synod, of a liberal and a conservative party among us, would be absurd.”

–Missouri Synod President Frederick Photenhauer in 1923 (quoted in Alan Graebner, Uncertain Saints, p.188)


Following up with the article by Pastor Mark Brown the other day, my guess is that Pastor Wilken, in his tweeting out of the article, means to get everyone really thinking with this statement….[i]

Here is my take (which I don’t doubt that Pastor Wilken would agree is obviously true):

While it may indeed be enthusiasm/pietism to say that politics in the church are bad, it is also a good and salutary thing to desire that our politics would be less contentious, and that the trust among us stronger

To be sure! I would go so far to say that those who do not think our politics should be democratic at all should have our respect. : )

Who, after all, really wants vigorous politics in a family environment?

And what, first and foremost, is the church if not the family of God?

Furthermore, when people proceed as if things like government or even marriage are just tools, that misses the point, I think. These are first and foremost descriptions of various kinds of relationships we have with others.

All this said, in this post, I want to quote some excerpts from one of the most engaging, vigorous and challenging papers I have ever read from an LC-MS pastor. This paper dealt with the relationship between theology and politics in the church…

Years ago, in the year 2000 (or 2001), my mother-in-law attended a theological conference geared towards laypeople in St. Cloud Minnesota. To this seminary drop-out who had left in part due to theological confusion (I still was thinking about women’s ordination as something the church should do at the time!) she passed on a paper written by Pastor Laurence White, of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Texas. The paper, titled “Strangers in Our Father’s House: the Dilemma of Missouri’s Confessional Remnant,” had made quite an impact on her and it is easy to see why.

Pastor White:

In 1923, commenting on the divisive modernist/fundamentalist battles that were tearing other Protestant denominations apart, Missouri Synod President Frederick Photenhauer confidently asserted: “To speak of a party split or divisions in the Missouri Synod, of a liberal and a conservative party among us, would be absurd.” (Graebner, p.188) Less than two decades later that which had seemed absurd was becoming reality. Ironically, Photenhauer himself would become the first casualty of Missouri’s party split. The cumulative result of the changes to come over the next seventy-five years would be the loss of Missouri’s most treasured possession, her unique identity as a confessional church, fully united in doctrine and practice. In his book Uncertain Saints, Dr. Alan Graebner, certainly no bronze age Missouri conservative, expressed this sense of loss by aptly choosing to entitle the chapter on the Synod’s most recent history “Humpty Dumpty and All the Kings Men…”

Pastor Laurence White. Listen to a recent interview here.

Curious to know more? I jump to the section in White’s paper (you can read the whole 45-page blast here) where he talks about his own confusion as a student at the St. Louis seminary in the turbulent 1970s, during Missouri’s own “Battle for the Bible”…

In 1974,  during my last year at Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield,  a group of the more conservative students on campus arranged for a series of informal gatherings with leading faculty members on Sunday evenings.  Our first guest was Dr. Clarence Spiegel, already in his seventies, and a longtime veteran at the Seminary.  Dr. Spiegel drove up in his massive Cadillac, smiled his impish smile under a halo of fuzzy white hair, and sat down in my living room with a bottle of beer.  This was, of course, the year of the Seminex walkout at St. Louis, and our first question to the venerable professor was “How did we get into this mess?”  His response took over two hours as he reviewed forty years of history.  Let me attempt to cover some of the same ground a bit more rapidly.

Spiegel contended that the initial overt indication of the existence of two theological factions within the Synod was the appearance of Missouri’s first organized political campaign at the 1935 Cleveland Convention.  Dr. Frederick Pfotenhauer, synodical president since 1911, was standing for re-election at Cleveland.  The silver haired president, for whom English was a sometimes uncomfortable second language, was the stalwart epitome of Missouri’s “old guard. The general assumption was that he would be re-elected without significant opposition. Missouri had never unseated an incumbent president.  In this establishment oriented, conservative church body, the concept was almost unimaginable.  For such a thing to happen a great deal of organizational work would had to have been done well in advance.  But it did happen, thus indicating that behind the scenes pockets of unrest and theological dissent had come to exist in Missouri long before the 1935 convention. Pfotenhauer failed to gain a majority on the first ballot.  The second runner up was J.W. Behnken, the Synod’s 1st Vice President.  Tension gripped the convention hall as it became obvious that something very unusual was about to happen.

Dr. Spiegel’s memories of this dramatic moment were particularly vivid because he happened to be the pastor of the local congregation in Cleveland which hosted the 1935 convention.  He recalled being summoned from the vestry of his church after the opening service by Vice President Lankenau who had come from the floor of the convention, dismayed at the organized attempt to oust Pfotenhauer.  Something had to be done, the Vice President declared.  But by then it was already too late to stop the well organized campaign.  Behnken repeatedly pleaded with Pfotenhauer for permission to address the delegates in support of the incumbent.  With the gentlemanly grace of a bygone era, the president refused, saying, “You must not say anything.  Let God decide the matter by the vote of the convention.” On the next ballot Behnken was elected.  Missouri’s introduction to church politics was a resounding success – but it did not stop there.

The group that engineered Pfotenhauer’s ouster was emboldened by their success at Cleveland.  That which they had been doing surreptitiously for a many years now moved confidently into the open.  They continued to meet regularly in a series of “Roundtable Discussions” during subsequent years.  With the former president, and the “old guard” which he personified, safely out of the way, the time had come to begin to openly nudge backward Missouri into the American Lutheran mainstream.   In 1945, they issued the bitterly contested Statement of the Forty-four, along with an  essay entitled 32 Theses Against Unevangelical Practice by Pastor H.C. SchwanShortly thereafter, a companion volume of supporting articles, Speaking the Truth in Love, was published.  The forty four signers of A Statement, styled by their opponents as the “Statementarians,” included some of the most prominent pastors and professors in the LCMS – men like Richard Caemmerer, O.P and A.R. Kretzmann, Theodore Graebner, William Arndt, and Oswald Hoffmann (22-24, link added by me).[ii]

Interestingly, in a recent dissertation by a well-known WELS pastor, we read this…

By the early 20th century some in the Missouri Synod began to think that there was a need to improve the public image of their synod. Missouri Synod Lutherans in the Eastern United States and those who were predominantly English speakers were particularly sensitive to the image of their synod as an insular, German-speaking church body. The anti-German spirit and hysteria that developed during World War I served to increase those concerns.

In 1914 a group of Lutheran pastors and laymen in the Eastern United States founded the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau to help Missouri Synod congregations with publicity and advertising….

Those who founded the Bureau set out to change the image of their synod, but in so doing also ultimately changed the doctrinal stance of their synod…[while] the Bureau claimed that [their periodical,] American Lutheran[,] was only a “technical magazine” which suggested “modern methods of congregational work,” in the 1930s and beyond it contained articles advocating fellowship with the ALC and promoting an understanding of church fellowship that was contrary to the historic practice of the Missouri Synod…. (239-241)

Hmmm. American Lutheran Publicity Bureau… Lutheran Forum… The Engelbrecht Machine article… Does this say to you: “…the plot thickens…”?

“I’d argue that the Walther period, being immigrants and not really speaking the local language, was something of a Garden of Eden period. We all got pushed out and have to figure it out now.” — Pastor Mark Brown

Or, maybe not.

Maybe it is basically as simple and challenging as the following, which my pastor, after I asked him, said about this 1935 election:

I would say it had much to do with breaking away from German culture. Hitler had risen to power in Europe. War (caused by Germany!) was once again on the horizon, and the realization was growing that the synod must finally embrace both English and the United States. In such a scenario the younger generation, which knew nothing of Germany or the German language, certainly had the upper hand. So the transition was forced upon the synod from an insular and self-maintained church body held together by the discipline of German culture, i.e. “one big German family,” to a church body sans such an identity.

Jettisoning such an identity, what would replace it? At the time, I would think, the model most appealing would have been that of a political party, which at that time, created a unity by assembling the “planks” of minorities within the party into a “platform” which then became the identity of the party.

In such a model, political maneuverings would be expected.

Certainly much to be pondered here. About secrecy. About conspiracies. About theological vs. “practical” ideas driving us. About the importance of cultural and even ethnic glue. About how culture and accommodations to it changes us for good and for ill… (I think this post summing up one of my pastor’s papers is also worth looking at in this regard…)

For now though, here is my prayer:

Lord, thank you for the gift of politics in this fallen world – even in the church. Help us to be good political players, looking to please you, as we are mindful of your calling us to be the church through your Son Jesus Christ. Help us to be as one, even when we disagree… to be “good churchmen” as used to be said. Let us not look on contempt on the brothers who actually do make their heartfelt concerns known to us! Let us examine our own complacency, and desire to be loved by the world! Let us be quicker to listen than to speak, to endeavor to treat all among us as brothers and sisters dearly loved by our Lord who bled and died for our sins.

Make us to be able to trust one another more often and as individuals about more things – even as we also realize that you, ultimately, are the only One who will never let us down! Lord, if it be thy will, calm our politics more and more. Let us not be sons of thunder, but those who always find common cause – even as we struggle about particular means – in the work of your own dear Son. Amen.



[i] Pastor Wilken’s more complete statement, left at my blog and in a Lutheran Facebook group, was as follows:

“I only disagree with one point. As a card-carrying member of Your Grandfathers’ Church, I have absolutely no problem admitting that politics is a necessary part of church life. And NOT a necessary evil, but a necessary good. Choose your side or candidate, and work openly for it.

Only a misguided pietism/enthusiasm supposes that things like church elections and conventions are directed immediately by the Holy Spirit. And it is evil to claim to believe such a thing while working the political system secretly.

Politics is a good gift from God. Like all good gifts, it can be, and often is abused. What we need is honest politics. If you work behind the scenes to compile lists of candidates, count votes, rally for a candidate or issue, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you do, don’t lie and say you don’t. Own it.

That goes for both sides in church politics.”

[ii] White goes on to say the following:

“A Statement’s focus was inter-Lutheran relationships.  It denounced the “ingrown legalism and traditionalism” which had crippled the Synod’s theological vitality.  It must be admitted that there was some truth to their charges.  Our theological arteries had hardened a bit over the years.  But more significantly, A Statement’s twelve theses constituted what Kurt Marquart has aptly described as “a radical, revolutionary overturning of the Lutheran doctrine of the church.” (Marquart, p.58)

One contemporary observer noted that the publication had “set Missouri aflame.” While scathing denunciations poured forth from across the church, the Statementarians actively lobbied throughout the church body for additional support and hundreds of other pastors added their names to those of the original Forty-four.  Five of the St. Louis Seminary’s best known professors were Statementarians, while the faculty of the Springfield Seminary formally rejected the document as false doctrine.  The harsh words of condemnation with which the Springfield faculty deplored A Statement and its divisive potential are indicative of the intensity of this debate:

“It has been a real shock to us that such a loveless, unmotivated, and widely disseminated attack should be made on brethren in Synod by men in prominent positions, presidents of districts, leaders of youth or of the LLL, a university president, and worst of all, five members of a theological faculty in our Synod.  Such an attack cannot but bias many young and inexperienced pastors to whom it has been mailed…The Statement leaves the impression that it is veiled propaganda for a liberal and loose Lutheranism…You are pouring water on the wrong fire.  We certainly are not with you in this unhappy undertaking, brethren.” (Robinson,p.268,269)

President  Behnken protested the issuance of A Statement and made it very clear that he also believed it to contain false doctrine….”  (24-25).

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Posted by on March 25, 2019 in Uncategorized


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