Full Text for Church History 3 - Volume 59 - When did the Missouri Synod Begin to Speak English? (Video)

ROUGHLY EDITED COPY CH3-059 PROFESSOR LAWRENCE RAST PROFESSOR WILL SCHUMACHER Captioning Provided By: Caption First, Inc. P.O. Box 1924 Lombard, IL 60148 800-825-5234 ***** This text is being provided in a rough draft format. Communications Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings. ***** >> PAUL: When did a German church like the Missouri Synod become English-speaking? Why did this change occur, and what was the impact? >> DR. WILL SCHUMACHER: Paul, you're right to zero in on this shift from German to English as a really important event in the life of the Missouri Synod. Naturally, such a change doesn't occur over night. It doesn't occur all at once. As a matter of fact, it didn't occur in the 19th century at all. For starters, we have to remember that when the Missouri Synod was founded, it wasn't called the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Its official name was Die Deutsche Evangelische Lutheranische Synode von Missouri, Ohio, und andern Staaten, the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States. So Germanness was part of its identity from the very beginning. This meant that the Missouri Synod identified itself as an immigrant church. And immigrant groups will usually go through a process of assimilation into American society that progresses in phases over two or three generations. Many of our family histories run something like this. The first generation that come are always, throughout their lives even if they�re in America for 40 years, they're always more comfortable with their mother tongue. But their children grow up more or less bilingual. So this second generation is a generation that can comfortably function in the language of the old country, in our case German, but can also function in English as they move in the wider culture. And their children, the third generation now, grow up monolingual again because it's very uncommon that this third generation of immigrants grow up speaking the language that their grandparents spoke. They might know a few words. I can give my own family history as an example of this. My great-grandfather came from East Prussia and settled as a farmer in southern Illinois. I never knew him, but I'm told that throughout his life spoke German. He knew only a few words of English and never really became Americanized, even though he spent all of his adult life in this country and never went back to visit Germany. He lived in a town where that was possible, where there were a lot of people like him, and you could go to church and go to the store and conduct your business and, of course, work as a farmer, in your native language. His children, among them my grandfather, grew up bilingual. They spoke German at home, or at least something akin to German, Plattdeutsche. But when they went to school, they learned English. So my grandfather, this second generation, grew up bilingual, married an English-speaking woman with no German ancestry. And although he stayed in the same town and farmed the family farm, it didn't preserve German in the same way. In fact, when he and his wife had children, he decided that they were not going to learn German. They were going to be Americans, and they were going to grow up speaking American. So my father grew up speaking only English. When I wanted to learn German, I had to do it the hard way and go to school. We weren�t speaking any German at home by that time. The only German my father heard as he grew up were the occasional bad words my grandfather said on the farm when he didn't want his children to understand. So the only German that got transmitted in that family situation were a few unintentional expletives. This is a natural and normal pattern of assimilation that immigrant groups go through, and it usually takes two or three generations for this to happen. Now, in the case of the Missouri Synod as a body, this assimilation was actually delayed. It was put off by at least two important factors. First of all, remember that there was a constant stream of new immigrants from Germany. So in a sense, you always were dealing with the first generation, or at best, a second generation of new immigrants. I have some statistics about the immigration of Germans to America in the 19th century. Between 1840 and 1890 -- this is a period of about 50 years -- there were more than 4.2 million German-speaking immigrants to the United States. This number constituted 30 percent, three out of every 10 immigrants during this 50-year period were Germans. And this meant that there was a large number of new immigrants arriving year after year after year. In fact, this influx of German immigrants peaked, it was at its highest, in the 1880�s. So as the 19th century wore on, there were actually more new German-speaking immigrants rather than less. And this tended to put off the process of assimilation because, after all, you're always dealing with first-generation immigrants. The second important factor has to do with the way the Missouri Synod structured itself and approached this task of making contact with and serving and bringing into the church these German-speaking immigrants. The Missouri Synod established congregations and schools often as a unit. And both the church and the school functioned in German. That was natural enough to make it available to first generation immigrants. But when you have a school and a congregation that functioned as a unit and both functioned in German, this allow you to maintain a German-speaking enclave much later than you might naturally suppose. This meant, for instance, the immigrants that joined the Missouri Synod for the most part didn't send their children, and in many cases even their grandchildren, didn't send them to English-speaking public schools. They sent them to German-speaking schools, and this tended to also preserve the Germanness. It was very easy for a second generation, even a third generation, to grow up in a thoroughly German-speaking environment to get their education in German and to learn English as a second language and know that rather imperfectly at best. So it was possible to preserve the mother tongue, that is, German, the language of the old country, much longer than you would otherwise suspect. So the Missouri Synod remained German-speaking not only through the first generation, not only through the second generation, but well into the 20th century. Of course in the 20th century, things change. For one thing, in 1914, a war broke out in Europe, a war that beginning in 1917 would also involve the United States. World War I marked a turning point in the Missouri Synod's relationship to the surrounding American culture because in 1917, German became the language of the enemy. This was the language of the Kaiser, and suddenly, even though there were lots of German immigrants around, the language of German was viewed with great suspicion. There was a lot of informal and sometimes formal pressure applied to German-speaking Lutherans in America. Several states passed language laws which actually made it illegal to use German in public settings. Now, these laws typically excluded worship services so that meant that Lutheran churches could continue to use German as the language of their worship service in the name of freedom of religion. But schools were another matter. It became illegal in several states for Lutheran schools to operate in German. This meant that churches and schools were faced with a hard choice. They could either close their school and send their children to English-speaking public schools, or they could change their schools from German-language schools to English-language schools. And that's really what most of them did. They became English-speaking schools. Now, these language laws were challenged in court and were eventually overturned and thrown out by the Supreme Court. But that decision didn't come until the later 1920's. And by that time, the damage had been done at least in terms of the German language. Once these schools had changed from German to English, there was no going back. It was really impossible for them to think about switching back to German because, after all, the overwhelming pressure from the surrounding society was in the use of English. So very quickly the bulk of the Missouri Synod schools changed from German-speaking schools to English-speaking schools. Now, the process of changing from German to English was different in different congregations. It didn't proceed evenly everywhere. I just heard about one church where German services continued to be held weekly into the 1980's. But that's very exceptional. At the same time, there were congregations established already in the 19th century by people associated with the Missouri Synod that functioned from the beginning exclusively in English. So to get a full picture of this, we'd have to trace really the history of each individual congregation because the local situation was different in each local church. But we can look at the national picture, at the synod as a whole and get some idea of how this was proceeding. At the national level, the synod proceeded gradually but deliberately over about a quarter century. Let me run you through a little bit of a timeline, a brief description of how synodical conventions give us a glimpse of what's going on in the synod. Back up to 1887. In 1887, a group known as the English Lutheran Conference, or the English Synod, applied to the Missouri Synod and wanted to become members of the Missouri Synod. They wanted to be integrated into the Missouri Synod and join the synod. They wanted to join as a nongeographical district. They had a number of English-speaking pastors and English-speaking congregations that were completely committed to the doctrinal position of the Missouri Synod. They wanted to be brought into the synod as a nongeographical English district for purposes of doing English language mission work. The Missouri Synod considered this proposal, and in 1887 at the convention, they declined. They said, no. We are, after all, the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States, and there's really not room in this synodical body for English-speaking congregations. This is a clear no to English in the Missouri Synod. But they encouraged this group, nevertheless, to organize as an independent body and to join the Synodical Conference. That seemed to be a better fit. They didn't believe that these congregations and pastors would fit in the Missouri Synod, which was a German-speaking body, but they encouraged them to be in close fellowship with them in this umbrella body, this Synodical Conference group. Well, that's the way things were until 1911 when this English synod came back again with the same request and wanted to be admitted to the Missouri Synod as a district on its own, an English-speaking district on its own. And in 1911, the Missouri Synod decided that that would be okay. Said they admitted the English Synod, and the English Synod became the English district of the Missouri Synod and continued its work in English. These were English-speaking congregations and pastors, but now they were part of the Missouri Synod, part of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio and Other States. That was the same convention, by the way, that elected Friedrich Pfotenhauer for the first time. And he would be president for the next 24 years and oversee an important transition. That was 1911. 1917 comes and the synod undergoes a major revision in its constitution. And one of the important changes, although I suppose structurally it doesn't make much difference, is they slightly altered their name. They changed the constitution and omitted the word German from the name of the synod. So now this was simply the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of a Missouri, Ohio, and Other States. It was still overwhelmingly a German-speaking church body. The convention that took this action was conducted entirely in German. But then, for the first time, they've changed their name and they're no longer officially a German church body. I suppose there was a political element in that. 1917 was the year the United States entered World War I, and it wasn't exactly the best time to be officially known as the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri. But it was important, nevertheless. By 1917, the synod had also introduced one other new practice in their conventions. And that is, that the official actions of the convention were published in English. This happened actually for the first time in 1914, but from 1917 on, this was a standard practice. The official report of the convention, what we today call the convention proceedings, had always been published after the convention in German, the *German) and that continued. But now there is also an English language edition of that so that it's possible to look up the actions of each convention in an English language report. But the convention itself was still conducted in German. In fact, the original constitution of the synod had made it a requirement that German alone would be used at conventions. Visitors who weren't members, who didn't know German, would be allowed under exceptional circumstances to address the convention in English. But the conventions were to be conducted in German. That also changed in 1917. That requirement for exclusive use of German at conventions was dropped. In 1920, English began to creep into our conventions. A short English address was included as part of the opening service which was predominantly German. And they appointed an assistant secretary to take English minutes during the convention. The convention secretary was, of course, operating in German, but now there was also an English secretary. 1926, for the first time, the convention was truly bilingual. And the convention adopted a curious procedure. They decided that they would organize their business so that German would be used during morning sessions of the convention, and English would be used in all of the sessions after lunch. They didn't repeat the same business. They simply used German before lunch and English after lunch. It's hard to imagine how that could work, but apparently, it did because this continued for several conventions. One of the things that you have to recognize in that arrangement was that it was assumed that all of the delegates to the convention, no matter whether they came from a German-speaking congregation or an English-speaking congregation, all of the delegates were assumed to be bilingual to some extent. In order to participate in the discussions and to follow the debate, they would have to be able to at least understand what was going on in either language. So the old timers who were more comfortable in German could at least understand enough English to keep up in the afternoons, and these young English-speaking pastors and congregational delegates that were there from English-speaking congregations, they knew enough German to keep up with the morning session. So a very curious arrangement, probably not something we would adopt today, but it seemed to work well enough that they continued it for several conventions. That was 1926. 1929, they continued this bilingual convention, and for the first time, the president of the synod, Friedrich Pfotenhauer, gave his report to the synod in both languages, both in German and English. Up to this time, the president's report had been always in German, exclusively in German. Now, for the first time, Pfotenhauer speaks to the convention in both German and English. I wish I had an audio tape of that convention address. I'm sure dear President Pfotenhauer had a thick German accent when he spoke in English, but it was a historic moment because it meant that even at the top leadership of the synod, there was a recognition that this was becoming an English-speaking church body. Now, in 1935, President Pfotenhauer retired, and the synod elected a new president. And this was also a historic convention because for the very first time, the convention elected an American-born Lutheran pastor, John Behnken, to be the president of the synod. All of the presidents of the synod from Walther through Wyneken and Schwan and Pieper and Pfotenhauer had all been born in the old country. They were all first generation immigrants. You can see how long this process of assimilation is taking. From the first synodical convention in 1847 all the way to 1935, the synod had been led by first-generation immigrants. But now, in 1935, John Behnken is elected the first American-born president and the last bilingual convention because beginning at the next convention in 1938, the convention is conducted entirely in English. They discontinued the practice of taking minutes in German, and they no longer publish German reports after the convention. So with the retirement of Pfotenhauer and the election of Behnken, the synod finally, you could say, becomes an English-speaking church body. Now, in one way, this took an awfully long time. There must've been some very impatient English-speaking pastors and congregations. But on the other hand, in retrospect, president Pfotenhauer did a remarkable thing. He oversaw this monumental shift, this huge culture shift, from a German-speaking immigrant church to an English-speaking American church body without producing any kind of schism. No one left the synod because they were unhappy that English was creeping in. There was no split between the German faction and the English faction. Pfotenhauer managed to hold this together as a single synod, even as it was undergoing this colossal cultural and linguistic shift, a very important phase and period in our history. I hope I haven't bored you with all these details. ***** This text is being provided in a rough draft format. Communications Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings. *****