Full Text for The Crisis in Lutheran Historiography (Text)

THE SPRINGFIELDER January 1976 Volume 40, Number 1 The Crisis in Lutheran Historiography A review-article on THE LUTHERANS IN NORTH AMERICA, edited by E. Clifford Nelson in collaboration with Theodore E. Tappert, H. George Ander- son, August R. Suelflow, Eugene L. Fevold, and Fred W. Meuser (Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1975, 541 pages, cloth, $22.50; also available in paperback, $12.95). T HE WORK OF AN HISTORIAN is difficult. Unlike other muses, Cleo demands that her disciple be not one but three men-a scientist, an artist, and a theologian. Initially, an historian must be a scientist. Investigation is his first calling. In an objective, impartial, thorough and systematic man- ner, the historian must uncover all evidence that may even remotely relate to his subject. Jacques Barzun, long-time dean of American historians, compared the researcher's work to that of a detective. Like the legendary Sherlock Holmes, the historian arrives on the scene after the crime has been committed. His task is to reconstruct the event by asking questions which, hopefully, will uncover clues: "What transpired?" "When did it happen?" "Mow did it occur?" "Where did it take place?" "Who did it?" "Why?" In this stage of his task, the historian resembles sleuth Jack Webb in the television thriller series of the 1950s, "Dragnet," with his almost rude demand: "Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts." This kind of rigorous and relentless interrogation is the historian's legacy from such German masters of the craft as Leopold von Ranke. Evidence, however, it not argument-clues are not a case. Cor- rect arrangment is necessary. Having, therefore, completed his labora- tory assignments, the historian is hardly free to rest. His labors have just begun. A metamorphosis must occur. Off comes the lab coat of the scientist and on goes the smock of the artist. For Cleo fancies form as well as facts. Examination of the evidence continues, but now the historian is looking for cause-and-effect relationships, possible patterns which will help him organize the mass of data in some kind of understandzble and meaningful fashion. Like a Michelangelo, who, looking at the uninspiring Italian stone could see the potential form and figure of Moses, the liberator of Israel, so the historian hammers away at the stubborn facts until they reveal the human face of the past. Or, like an Arthur C. Clarke, who can read dry-as-dust astro- nomical journals and then use that data to compose exciting science- fiction, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, so the historian excrciscs his imagination to recapture that real-life drama, stranger than fiction and more awesome than sciencc, that lurks in the debris of the cen- turies. The prophet Ezekiel saw the valley of dry bones spring to life. In a similar manner, the historian glimpses the skeleton of the past dressed once more in the flesh of reality. To accomplish this miracle, the historian must be a good writer. In this respect his mentor is that poet-historian-seer of nineteenth century France, Jules Michelet, whose lectul.es almost always evoked applause, wllose books sold wit]; the popularit" of present-day Illinois lottery tickets, whose ideas altered the histo& of the Third Republic and whose chapters yead like the hymns of:~t. Francis. For Cleo, fickle lady that she is, asks fol- veracity, beauty, and utility in. the writings of her suitors. The historian must pl.eseht his finditlgs in a narrative that is intellec- tual ly honest, elnotionallr satisfying, and socially significant. If literary success is all that the llistorian seeks, then he has betrayed his profession and lost the affection of Cleo. Zealous muse that she is, C].eo demarlds that her admirers be theologians-truth- tellers as c\?ell. as truth-seekers. That inlperative brings in the categories of philosophy and the criteria of theology. The historian becomes a t11e610gian when ],e raises questions pertaining to worth and value, significance and consequence, ~uilt and innocence, moral integrity and social sesponsibility, the role of liberty and necessity, progress and I-etrogression, for all j mply some understanding of the nature and destiny of man. ,411 Jlistosians are, of course, theologians. As Lord AC~OJI, [he 131.i tisll 11isto1:iar: re~nar-ked, "jdeas, viihich, In ~-eligion and in poli tics, are truths, in. history are forces." Some historians, whether Catholic scholars as Actoil or Conlrnunist writers as Karl Maxx, are candid enough to admit their ideological theological biases. Others, however, feign innocence ol the theologian's arts onIy in order to deceive either tl~cmselves or their readers as to th.eir ultimate corn- mitmcnts. 0bje.ctj.vity i.s good for finding facts, but subjecti.vity is necessary to determine their wortli. Observation is a way to gather information, but on1.y participation tests its value. In the marketplace of life, it is the wise man who knows that ideas, lj ke coins, are' cur- rency, and are invested either to profit or to loss. Like Isaiah of old, a conscienti.ous llistorian must ask of a foolish generation (ch. 55 :2), Why do you spend your mon.ey for that which is not bread, and you-r labor for that which does not: satisfy? 111 the I-eal \vo~.ld, the nlotiey is belief, and the bread is life itself. No longel: a detective, nor even a11 ardent advocate, the historian now sits in tlie judge's chair. For he must give a verdict. To avoid a decision. is, by default, to have nude one. Speak he must. Err he may. like Paul he should strive to be "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4: 15). He wj I l combine clarity and chad.ty, humility with certainty, rnoral honesty wit11 intellectual severity. In this facet of his work his nlenlors ar-e such. illustrious predecessors as Luke, the .first church historian. and St. Augustiile, the first historical theologian. 'Today these virtues of the liistorical profession arc more in evi- de~lce by their absence than their presence. Good historical writing is in short supply. It is hard to know why. Perhaps it is because of the rigors of the craft, or tlie lack of sufficient public patronage, or the obsession of the nation \rrith matters other than destiny. Whatever the cause, the patadox remains-never has America had so many practicing historians, yet seldom has the country produced less out- standing llistorical literature than in the 1,970's. The giants are dis- appearing from the land and one looks in vain for a biographer with the eloquence ol: a Roland Bainton, the penetrating politrcai analysis of a Richard X-%olstadter, the literary power of a Foster Rhea Dulles, the encyc1opedj.c accuracy of a Harold J. Grimm, the intellectual depth and perception of a Henry Stesle Commager, the nlastery of economic interpretation j.ndicated by a Charles and Mary Beard (one does not have to agree with them to know they were good historians), the recitation of church history on a global scale and with evangelical enthusiasm by a Kenneth Scott Latourette, the sophistication and philosophical subtlety of an Arnold J. Toynbee. Strangely enough, the academy of history seems deserted-but it is the solitude of the lonely crowd. For that reason it was somewhat tragic that Fortress Press of Philadelphia decided to issue a new history of American Lutheranism at this time. Confessedly, a survey of the subject was now needed. Finally, the venerable classic, A Basic History of Lutheranism in America, had succumbed to the Dxessures of age. New research had made it regrettably obsolete in pla'ces, though it itill stands as a rnonu- rnent to the superior scholarship of Abdel Ross Mrentz of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Furthermore, when the new text came hot off the presses, there would be anniversaries galore. By 1975 one could Inark the three-hundred-and-fiftieth anni- versary of the landjng of the first Ixtherans for the purpose of per- manent settlement in North America. Besides this birthday of tile American Lutheran Church, there was also the rapidly approaching Bicentennial Year. Perchance Fortress Press intended this volume to be a modest tribute to the Republic as it entered its third century. One could expect nothing less from a printing house located in Philadelphia. One could easily find other motivations for such a publi- cation. No one can deny the justification for a new history of Luther- anism in North America. Unfortunately, whatever the noble inten- tions, this book was simply born out of season. It just is not the right time-either in the academy or the church-for a major reappraisal of Lutheran lorc in this land. The academy is depressed, the church is distressed. Write church history with fear and trembling, for in such eras the risk is great! For that reason, it is not a bit surprising to see that in almost every respect this volume conforms to the trou- bled spiritual and intellectual climate of the country today. It offers little to transform that condition either by power, grace, or truth. The poverty of the historical profession in the seventies is sadIy reflected on every page: The Lutlzerans in Nortlz America (a strange title, which is fittingly printed half in Latin, half in Gothic script on the cover) admirably indicates the confusion among historians ccn- cerning their task of investigation, narration, and interpretation of the past. This book is history by committee, history as sociology, and history against theology. HISTORY BY COMMIT'Z'EE 'I'his book is history by committee. It was planned by a corn- mittee, written by a committee, redacted by a committee. The 1960's were the "golden age" of the committee in America. Experts came together in order to commit nlediocrjty by cQmmo* consent. The dangers of "zroup-think" only became obvious later- There was presidency by committee; ending in the disgrace of the Watergate scandals. There was foreign policy by committee, resulting in the Indochina debacle. Rut nowhere were cornmittees Inore popular and powerful than on campus. This project of "histoiy by committee" was "conceived" at the University of Chicago in June, ]965, by unknown parents, for one is told only of an an(lJlyn1~US "consultation of American Lutheran historians." Like Inany other plans ~nade by college in the mid-sixties, it was confused in purpose. Everyone wanted a book-but no one was sure what kind. Some felt that all that was required was a revision of the existing test by ~bdel Ross Wentz. Others disagreed. h4odesty gave way to Ilybris. Why not a trilogy? a whole library? '1J1e "consultation" convened by Fortress Prcss decided to create three books-one of primary sources, one a scholarly monograph for professionals, and finally a "popular" abridgement for "the masses." For a while the committee was living in an academic Camelot, or maybe ever1 the real111 of Aquarius. They were far removed from the Kingdom of Reality. The plans were over- built for the stark realities of the seventies. Three books became one, a combination popular-scholarly exhausti\?e-abridgernerlt tailored to the reading, needs of classes and the masses. To father such a W~lrzdei-- kind ~vould require eithcr Superscholar or else scizzors and paste. There is a strong smell of glue in the air. For this is not a book; it is an incongruous contt.action, a sort of classic academic "combination sandwich," or, to use the terminology of Fortress Press, which likes to puzzle over the theology of "Q" and the message of "L" and "M," this is redaction-history. What else could one expect from a colnrnit- tee but a rcdaction'.' Tn the manner of the man buildi.ng the tower in the Gospel ~~arrative (was that in "Q," "L," "M," or elsewhere?), there was no counting of the cost. and the assumption that the Jollnson boom would lasl forever. The crash came and the ambitious architec- tural plans of the sixties now stand as the half-finished tower of the scvcntics. 'T'llis book js dratically coilfined in scope and format due to econorriic necessities. Where is the bibliography? Where are ade- quate maps and illustrations? Taken as a whole this work reminds me of those fiftec~~ cent novels published during the Great Depression, stamped NRA, that have survived as collector's items. In similar fashion ibis book may go down in history as sad testimony to the folly of acacielnic comn.littees and overa~nbitious editors \Yho were finall? taken to task by the recession of the sevellties. Surely this volume is like tile proverbial giraffe, a llorse put together by a corn- mittee. Perhaps the disasters of editorial redaction could have been amelrorated if caie had been taker1 to send t!le ma~luscript to readers representatlvc of both the entire Lutheran spectrum and Christian cornmuriii~ on this continent. A European or Third World reaction would havc becn a stroke of genius! Unfortunately, the reviewers were mainly Neo-Lutherans. The work was sent to such persons as Dr. John 1'letjcr~-hardly a great churcl~ historian; surely a man much preoccupied wit11 tiis own personal and professional difficulties; cer- tainlv not repiesentative of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. (sinkc the wl-iters were selected politically, by the editor's own admis- ,ion> why tile book not sent to Dr. J. A. 0. Preus? Readers could have been c]losen in eclually diplomatic form, and President Preus collld ]lave from the knowledge that he was a "parvenu"-- in of his ancestry and his Ph.D. in Classics-and the manuscript ci,ujd have benefited by his correction of the misquotation of his biotller, Robert, on page 53 1. Rut such are minor matters.) The work was also sent to the pastor of the Lutheran Church in Tascony, Pennsylvania, noted for his "never-failing good humor" (a much needed asset ill reading this book). Though the book claims to be Lutheran, ecumenical, and secular (amazing triad!), it is none of these. Lutheran? Write instead Neo-Lutheran. It was not submitted by the editors to any conservative Lutherans for appraisal, let alone s;ch ardent apologists for Lutheranism as Dr. John Warwick Mont- oomery. Ecumenical'? Write instead "our friends." Why was the ;lanuscript not shared with representatives of America's largest Protestarlt family, the evangelicals? Dr. Carl Henry, founding editor of Chrislianit): Today, would have been delighted to have offered counseI, not to mention any of the many competent scholars of the Conference on Faith and History. Secular? Having earned my Ph.D. at a secuIar university in the area of American religious history, 1 can personally assure the editors this is not a book that is indicative of the concerns of academic historians today. Where it there any indi- cation of the utilization of computer-analysis of data? Or, granted that Nee-Orthodox thcologs may have an aversion to "facts," where is there any I-eco~nition of one of the hottest trends among historians today, "psycho-history," or the employment of psychiatric insights to urlderstand the actions of historic individuals? Totally deaf to this development the book ignores biography. Authorship by committee is, to be sure, more understandable than the plotting and redacting by committee employed to produce tlns volume. Why? Because it is very difficult to research and write Amerlcarl Lutheran church history. The origins of Lutheranism are more cosmopolitan than those of any other American denomination with kl~e exception of the Roman Catholic Church. Materials pertain- ing to the Lutheran saga are found in an almost infinite variety of forms and foreign languages, ranging from such well-known tongues as French ancl Cierman to such relatively obscure vernaculars as Transylvanian Saxon and Ruthenian. The story sprawls over almost four centuries, a continent twice the size of Europe, several countries, Canada, the United States, and the Caribbean (incidentally, why is the Caribbean, culturally part of Anglo-America, neglected in this vol- umc9), with a cast of more than nine million. For most of the time the churche.; were organized in a bewildering medley of synods, min- isteriurns, corlferenccs. Fragmentation was the rule, not the exception.. It ~.ould take a giant to master this material and to digest it. The utilization of a committee of experts to research and write the text 1s comprehensible. The basis of selection for the six authors was, however, as is openly admitted in it, as much "political" as "scholarly." Care was to be taken to provide adequate representation for each of the major Lutheran bodies. The final result was three AX,C historians, two LCA, and one LC-MS. Since the editor is ALC and the publisher LCA, the representation is "political" in more ways than one. The six historians selected are all men of proven ability, and include Theodore G. Tappert, late Professor of Church History, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, authority on the seventeenth century, who prepared the unit on the Colonial Era; H. George Anderson, T,utIleran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina, a specialist in Southern and early national history, who reported the development of Luthcranism from 1790- 1841; August R. Suelflow, the one Missouri Synod scholar on the team, of the Concordia Historical Institute, who co-authored the section "Following the Frontier, 1 840- 1875" ; Eugene L. Fevold, Luther Theological Seminary, Minneapolis, who penned the chap- ters on the late nineteenth century; and Fred W. Meuser, President of an institution in Colun~bus, Ohio, variously named as Capital Theo- logical Seminary (incorrect; it once \;\/as the l'heological Department of Capital University, but that \\/as in 1900), Evangelical Lutheran Theological Seminary (the 'LEvangelical'7 disappeared from the title and curriculum in the mid-1 960's), and Lutheran Theological Sem- inary at Columbus. Meuser, though absent from the classroom in administration for many years, demonstrates once more his mastery of Lutheran history from 1900-1930. Finally, there is the editor (who was author of the section on the contemporary period and collaborator with Suelflow for the Gilded Age), the ever pugnacious E. Clifford Nelson, St. Olaf College, who brought a certain breezy, journalistic touch to both his own chapters and those of his colleagues. Measured by standards of strict scholarship, Suelflow, Meuser, and Tappert are head and shoulders above Anderson, Fevold, and Nelson. It is their conscientious work that carries the book. The organization and narration of the material uncovered by these scholars requires a thesis. In the selection of a theme the editor, Nelson, reveals himself to be a church historian, not an historical theologian. It quickly becomes evident that this book is essentially a treatise on Lutheran immigration and acculturation. Doctrine, con- fessional identity-such items are incidental. This is a non-doctrinal history of American Lutheranism. 3[ know that is hard to imagine, but here it is! Surely this text will go down in the annzls as a remarkable illustration of the secularization of the Lutheran churches in the seventies and of the almost total cap; tulal ion of Neo-Lutheranism to A rnerjcan culture. To Nelson, in the final analysis, Lutheranism is but part of the ongoing immigrant saga. To me that view is totally missing the point. Lutheranism, in sharp distinction from ali other kinds of Christianity, is a confessional church. Roman Catholicism has the papacy; Eastern Orthodoxy has tradition; Anglicanism has the episcopacy; Calvinism has the notion of the elect community; Enthusiasm has the trust in individual experi- ence: but Lutheranism has only tiieolot_y Si~btract theology, as Kelson has done, and all onc has lcft is a colicction of strange in~nii- grants. Why was sociology, rather than illeology, cllosen as tlie unifying theme for this text? How could the idea of Ainciicanizatio~l replace confessionalism as the plot oE the 1-utheran story'? Wllo ~vould sub- stitute irnn?isration narratives (out of vogtle among secular I~istorians since the 1 930's) for the account of doctrinal discovery as the key to ihe Lutheran epic? Only solneone who uliinlately Itas a strons dislike for Luther-an Ol.thodoxv. This is why the volume does ?lot begin ~vitll an histc~riographical essay, for nearly all previous histories of Lrltllernnism (a faith, as opposed to thc Lutilcrans, a community) saw thco1og)l as the basis of churc11-identity. This is \s.il)i the ~.olurnc docs rlol include an open- ing chapter on cor~ditions jn Eiiropc trn IIIC CVE of the nli_er;ltion to America. 'This is why the volr~nle cloes r?ot develup ir-i dcpth those topics closcly connected with ttreologv i polity. liturgy, piety, bi- ography). But perhaps there is a necd for sucti a rlovc1t.y-a sociological survey of three centuries of Lutl~eran imrnigrar~ts in America. 'Is this b~ok.~ood sociolo~v'? -a Hardlj-! 1r is jani-packed u.i!ll whn t used to call at Ohio State "history as :!-ivia." Kcariing this work one learns that Julius Bodens~eck had "a rernar1:abic wife" (but she then remains anonymous!--fie, fie, in this ,'Ycal. (IS tile \Vonia~i"), (11at Arncsjcan Jews in 1945 raised $1 00 rnillio11 clollar.~, that I,cigli Jordahl 1s an expert on the theology of Franz Pic[ter. -I wicc we arc old that the Lutheran Church-iMissouri Synod ci~sciplir~ccl onc of its C't~tna mis- sjonaries for praying \vith Presbyicsians. -1'Ilricc \i.c arc infor-mcil of tlie ongoing struggle for the control of Augsburg Collegc. It is I-e- vealcd that Walter A. -Maier's .'radio sermons tiid not inlpcdc thc remarkable growth of 'The L,utheran Houi-.' " 'L;/ie same cluotation from 'Theodore Koosevelt is used t\vicc For tliff'ercnt purposes. Wc read of the most suddcrl conversion lo confcr;sionalism reported any- where in Lutheran litel-ature: On pagc 92 50111i C. Kunze is cluotcd as having said "'The thirty-nine articles I of the Ci~urch of England] fully agrce \vitll the Augustan j.4ugsbur.g Confession and every 1,utheran car1 subscribe them." Four paragraphs lator, on page 93, Anderson remarks, and not in sarcasm 01- hi1mo1-, that "Kunze had a strong sense of the distinctive doctrines of tlie Lutheran churcl-i." - 1 suppose such jnforlnation has value for conlestarlts oil tclevi- sion quiz programs-but ivl- at about thc scriol~s st~~dcnt of Lutheran- isill in Amcrica? Such a person is in ?I-oublc-because a strange set of priorities has guided the editor of this tcxt. Take, for instance, si~nply onc category--that 01 biography. For a book that claims to offer a "holistic" iriterpretation of Lutherarlisnl in Nor:h Amcrica, tllere is a startling neglect of the role of personality in the I,utheran saga. Certainly some considerillion of the interaction of incn and move~nents would have bee11 very hclpful! But Nelson has capitulated to the cult of the anti-1ler.0, and the reader ioc)ks in dcspitir for bio- graphical sketcl~es of Henry Melchior Muhlcnberg, Charles Poi-ter- fieJc1 Krsuth, Matthias Loy, C. F. W. Walthcr, Saniuel S. Schm.ur,ker, Franz Pieper, Franklin Clark Fry, or any of the other huinan dyna- mos of American Lutheranism. Such significant theologians as E. C. Fendt and Harold Yochum appear only in footnotes for the purpose of derogating them. In my opinion this is a shabby way to treat two of the leading educators of the old American Lutheran Church who devoted their lives to the quest for Lutheran unity on the basis of the Confessions. R. C. H. Lenski, the celebrated exesete, is mentioned only once, and that because of his opposition to the hational Lutheran Council. 'The way in which conservative leaders disappear from the pages of this most recent Lutheran narrative is reminiscent of the "non-persons" in the "non-histories" in Soviet encyclopedias. This recitation could be continued-but this should suffice to suggest the tragedy of this volume. Perhaps the disaster can be remedied in part if the units by Tappert, Meuser, and Suelflow could appear in paperback as specialized studies of individual eras. HISTORY AGAINST THEOLOGY In the final analysis, the problem with The Lutherans in North America is the set of priorities indicated by its editor. Pri0riti.e~ involve values, and that indicates the need for sound theology. Sound theology is what is lacking in this volume. Certain authors reveal that happy union of good historiography and solid theology that is the mark of a first-rate historical theologian. These traits are obviously present in the confessionalism of an August Suelflow and the liberal evangel- icalism of a Fred Meuser. But because of the lack of that kind of a consciousness in the editorial staff, this volume has become anti- theology. The indictment of James A. Scherer, in an essay called "The Identity Crisis in Contemporary Lutheranism," is adequately illus- trated in this book: It is an unpleasant but undeniable fact that Lutheran identity today consists mostly of the cultivation of Lutheran adiaphora (hymnal, liturgical practice, centralized boards, etc j . So per- vasive is our sense of Lutheran . . . identity at this level that we are apt to think that it is the main thing about our churchrnan- ship. We are, in short, most identifiably Lutheran precisely at the point where the reformers said there should be the greatest liberty. And where we ought to be bound to the Word of the Confessions, and therefore identifiable as Lutherans, we are not. This book is suitable to serve as Exhibit A--evidence of the anti-theological bias that is settling upon all our churches. Should this trend continue, we will all fulfill the prophecy of this text, for we will be "Culture-Protestants" of Northern and Central European origin, currently undergoing the pangs of Americanization. That tide of secularization can be reversed. There is a way-if there is also the will. It is called theological recovery-and that process has begun. Should it succeed, the next history of Lutherans in North America will be quite different, quite different indeed.