The Missouri Synod’s Slide into Heterodoxy, 1932-1947 – Part One

delivered to the
Forty-Eighth Annual Convention of the Concordia Lutheran Conference
The Rev. David T. Mensing, Pastor
Peace Ev. Lutheran Church, Oak Forest, Illinois
The Missouri Synod’s Slide into Heterodoxy, 1932-1947

Part One
In just two years, our Concordia Lutheran Conference will mark its Golden Anniversary. To the world round about us, our little church-body, comprised of only seven small congregations, is statistically insignificant on the ecclesiastical landscape and barely worth a mention among the huge synods and federations that have arisen and grown by leaps and bounds during this same fifty year period. Nevertheless for half a century we shall have enjoyed the singular gracious blessings of our Lord and God for Jesus’ our Savior’s sake, whereof we are glad; and we have survived as a Conference yea, we have flourished in many respects much to the surprise of those who never even heard of us, much to the disgust of those who hate us and despise our stand, and much to the frustration of those whose bowl of pottage scraped out of the fleshpots of Egypt no longer satisfies them. For us, the unadulterated Holy Scriptures have been Manna for our souls and a fountain of living water springing up unto everlasting life. Therefore we gratefully ascribe all glory to God for having preserved unto us in their purity His saving Word and the sacred ordinances of His House as the precious means whereby He has strengthened us in the true and saving faith and promises to keep us therein even unto the end. In order to focus our younger members in particular upon the reasons for our existence as a church-body, it behooves us specially to consider retrospectively the reasons for the formation of our “parent” body, the Orthodox Lutheran Conference, in 1951, and to thank and praise our gracious God and Lord for having preserved us in true orthodoxy to the present day. “That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born, who should arise and declare them to their children” (Psalm 78:6), it is essential that we examine the events in history which caused our Conference’s “fathers” to “mark” the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod as a heterodox church body and made it essential for them to “avoid” it and to go it on their own (Romans 16:17).

Our people, as well as others who may hear or read this essay, should understand that those who protested against the errors making steady inroads into the synod and particularly against the toleration of those errors by the very ones who were charged with maintaining doctrinal discipline within that body, dearly loved the Missouri Synod and its heritage of the truth championed by Dr. Walther, Dr. Pieper, and many others. As was the case with Luther in the early days of the Reformation, it was not their desire to leave the Missouri Synod and to form another (or a “competitive”) church body. On the contrary, it was their fervent hope and prayer that their earnest protests would not fall on deaf ears but would be heard as the clarion call of the Holy Scriptures to the pastors, laymen, professors and officers of the synod to be more zealous in “endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) by exercising vigilance, identifying variance, disciplining those who “cause[d] divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which [they had] learned” (Romans 16:17), and thus guarding the confessional position of the synod in both doctrine and practice. When this was not done, in spite of patient admonition, and they realized that they were viewed by the leaders of the synod (and even by the rank and file) as crackpots, troublemakers and self-serving saber rattlers, our faithful fathers had no choice but to leave.

Part One
Ironically, Missouri’s slide into heterodoxy an admittedly gradual one began some twenty years earlier as an unexpected result of what had seemed to be a completely legitimate, yea, a Godpleasing, interest on the part of our Lutheran forebears, namely, to seek to bring together the various synods bearing Luther’s name into a fellowship characterized by complete unity in faith and confession, in doctrine and practice, based on the verbally-inspired, inerrant, and completely clear and all-sufficient Word of God. This had been, after all, Dr. Walther’s fond desire which he saw at least partially fulfilled in the formation of the Synodical Conference in 1871. Sadly but not surprisingly, the yen for outward “union” soon replaced the insistence on true “unity” on the agenda of some of the staunchest theologians of the synod, especially between 1930 and 1950 (as can be seen by comparing their earlier writings with their later ones). The leaven of indifferentism spread like a cancer (II Timothy 2:17), and subtle compromise (couched in non-specific language which deliberately blurred points of controversy) became the order of the day not long after the adoption of the Brief Statement in 1932.

By 1930, the “Lutheran” landscape was still painted in black and white with a “muddied” grey-scale in between. But the “technicolor” hues had not yet hopelessly confused the picture, making even the grossest departures from God’s Word attractive to the casual and non-critical viewer as the situation is today. There were basically three “Lutheranisms” on the scene: Liberal Lutheranism, middle-of-the road Lutheranism, and orthodox Lutheranism. Since this year’s essay is intended to be fairly brief, we shall endeavor to distill the historical development of these as much as possible.

In 1918, the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) was formed by the union of the General Synod (dating from 1820, a rapidly growing body covering practically the entire eastern third of the United States, but characterized by laxity in doctrine and practice), the General Council (formed in 1867 by “conservatives” who had defected from the General Synod), and the United Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the South (a body composed of synods below the Mason-Dixon Line, organized in 1863, which had retained its separate identity since Civil War days). This United Lutheran Church in America represented the most liberal and latitudinarian of nominal Lutherans in both doctrine and practice.

In 1930, the American Lutheran Church (ALC) was constituted by the union of the Buffalo Synod (founded by J. A. A. Grabau and other Prussian Lutherans in 1845), the Iowa Synod (founded in 1854 by Franconian Lutherans who had migrated from Michigan to Iowa), and the Ohio Synod (organized by Lutheran pioneers already in 1818). This American Lutheran Church then united in October of 1930 with the Augustana Synod (organized in 1860 by Scandinavian Lutherans who had left the General Synod because of its laxity), the Lutheran Free Church (of Norwegian Lutherans who did not join the larger Norwegian body in 1917 but organized their own synod), the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC), known until 1946 as the Norwegian Lutheran Church (organized in 1917 by most of the Norwegian Lutherans chiefly on the basis of their common language and heritage), and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (UELC), known until 1946 as the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church, (organized in 1870 by Norwegian and Danish Lutherans). This federation, known as the American Lutheran Conference, was created to facilitate cooperation among all the above-mentioned bodies, and had as its doctrinal basis the Minneapolis Theses of 1925. The bodies comprising the American Lutheran Conference represented in 1930 the middle-of-the-road Lutherans in doctrine and practice.

Finally, we come to the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, referred to commonly as the Synodical Conference. This federation had been founded in 1871 as an advisory body whose main purpose was the expression, encouragement and promotion of unity in doctrine and practice and the practice of unity-based fellowship in cooperative church work and worship. The constituent bodies of this orthodox fellowship were the Missouri Synod, now known as the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod (LCMS), founded in 1847 by Saxon immigrants under Dr. C. F. W. Walther and others, who had left Germany because of religious oppression; the Wisconsin Synod, now known as the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), founded in 1850 by Germans who came to America as missionaries to those who had earlier emigrated but had no preachers and teachers of the Word; the Norwegian Synod, now known as the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), a minority remnant of the old Norwegian Synod which refused for doctrinal reasons to merge with others into the large Norwegian Lutheran Church (ELC) in 1917 [See paragraph above.] and formed its own synod in 1918; and the Slovak Synod (SELC), founded in 1902 by Lutheran congregations of Slovak descent and language. When the slide of the Missouri Synod into blatant heterodoxy was plainly marked by its sister synods in the late 40’s and early 50’s, and the Missouri Synod refused their admonition and pleas to correct their self-destructive course, the Synodical Conference broke up with the withdrawal of the ELS in 1961 and of the WELS in 1963. It became totally inactive in 1966 and was dissolved in 1967. Ironically, the synod founded by Dr. Walther in 1847 destroyed his dream of Godpleasing Lutheran union based on true unity of faith and confession. Within less than a hundred years after its founding, the Synodical Conference was scuttled because of the consistent and unabating slide of the Missouri Synod into persistent heterodoxy!

While the years immediately following World War I have been characterized by many church historians as a time of “rapprochement,” a period during which concerted efforts were made on the part of the various Lutheran groups to come to a “meeting of the minds” in matters of doctrine and practice and thus eventually into some sort of pan-Lutheran organization, this is an oversimplification. This may indeed be the view of those who regard the entire matter of Lutheran union to be “political” in nature, to be settled by “negotiation” in which the art of “compromise” is the tool which crafts eventual agreement; but it fails to consider the requirements of Holy Scripture for truly Godpleasing fellowship, namely, true unity in faith and confession, in doctrine and practice, based alone on God’s inerrant Word, without compromise, without ambiguity, without accommodation, without “yielding aught of the eternal, immutable truth of God for the sake of temporal peace, tranquility and unity” (Thorough Declaration, Formula of Concord, XI, 95, Triglotta, p. 1095).

Significant social pressure was brought to bear during this period for pan-Lutheran cooperation in the spiritual care of Lutherans in the armed forces. In 1917, a National Lutheran Commission was created for this very purpose representing all of the Lutheran bodies except the members of the Synodical Conference, the latter synods maintaining “purely external cooperation.” But a year later, a more permanent intersynodical organization, the National Lutheran Council, came into being under a series of “regulations” which included by 1926 the declaration that the unity of this council was based upon the basic doctrinal agreement of its member-bodies. This so-called “agreement” was tenuous at best due to variations in “interpretation” of Lutheran doctrine and practice, and it turned out to be the virtual sham of “agreement to disagree” which set the tone and standard for later efforts at Lutheran union . And for the Synodical Conference, there was always the question with respect to such organizations as well as chaplaincy in the armed forces then and later as to how much “cooperation” could be rendered that would remain “purely external”. The heat was being turned up.

Still a fellowship of truly orthodox synods, the Synodical Conference was constantly being accused of standing in the way of progress toward Lutheran union. Specific reference was made to the “unreasonable” insistence of its constituent bodies that full agreement in doctrine and practice be the sole requisite not only for church fellowship but also for church work (“cooperative endeavors”) with other Lutheran groups. With the view toward shedding the label of arbitrary obstructionism, representatives of the Missouri and Wisconsin Synods joined an Intersynodical Committee which included members of the Buffalo, Iowa, and Ohio Synods to hammer out a document which, it was hoped, could become the basis for mutual cooperation and eventual fellowship. The initial draft of the “Intersynodical (Chicago) Theses” was presented in 1925, but the committee itself could not reach a consensus on the wording until 1928, when the document in its final form was presented. In 1929, the Missouri Synod rejected the Theses as totally inadequate because a) certain paragraphs did not address the specific points of controversy, b) others were so ambiguously phrased that both parties could find in them their own positions, and c) at times the statements represented the false position of the opponents rather than the orthodox position of the Missouri Synod and Synodical Conference. The Synod decided instead to draw up its own theses addressing the specific unresolved controversies, and to make this document the doctrinal basis for any further discussions toward fellowship and church relations. This document, crafted by a committee appointed by President Pfotenhauer (which included Drs. Pieper and Engelder), was entitled “Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod.” It was adopted by the Missouri Synod in 1932, was never amended by the Synod, nor withdrawn, nor retracted; and, as the sound and “living” document it continues to be, having had its roots in the now long-gone days of the Missouri Synod’s orthodoxy, it still belongs to the Confessional Standard of our Concordia Lutheran Conference today.

What then happened to start the Missouri Synod on its downward slide into heterodoxy? What changed shortly after the adoption of the Brief Statement to steer the synod onto a different course? And was a real mid-course correction ever made to bring that body back to its insistence on true unity as the only basis for Christian fellowship and cooperative church work? In this first part of our essay, we shall address these questions and answer them briefly. But we shall save the crowning evidence, the “proof of the pudding” of Missouri’s patent heterodoxy, for Part Two.

Not long after the Brief Statement was adopted and the clear assumption was established that discussions were thence to be based upon its Scriptural declarations, the representatives of the American Lutheran Church filed their reaction to that document and the result of their deliberations. In their Declaration of 1938 (also known as the Sandusky Declaration), they stated that, on the basis not only of the Brief Statement but also of the Minneapolis Theses of 1925 (the agreement which paved the way for the organization of the American Lutheran Conference) and of the Chicago Theses (already rejected by the Missouri Synod as defective), they were issuing a series of summary statements. Those statements watered down the unequivocal wording of the Brief Statement and insisted that certain differences be acknowledged as not being divisive of Church fellowship. The subsequent resolution of the American Lutheran Church in the same year reiterated this position and further insisted that the Brief Statement be viewed in the light of their Declaration as not being in contradiction to the Minneapolis Theses, inasmuch as they were not about to give up their membership in the American Lutheran Conference. They therefore declared that the Brief Statement together with their Declaration constituted “a sufficient doctrinal basis for Church fellowship between the Missouri Synod and the American Lutheran Church.” So near, and yet so far! The power-play had been made. The ultimatum had been laid down: All or nothing! Take it or leave it! Missouri would either agree to the ALC’s terms or would have to bear the stigma of having scuttled the negotiations! The ball was in Missouri’s court!

Suddenly, the once unbending, uncompromising, orthodox synod of Walther, Pieper, and Engelder yielded and accepted the conditions stipulated by the American Lutheran Church, even though it stopped short of the ALC’s expectation that it would immediately establish Church fellowship on the basis of what had been mutually accepted. The Wisconsin Synod was furious over the fact that Missouri had accepted a document that was not only defective but represented an easy compromise couched in deliberately ambiguous language. The Declaration, they held, did not state the truth clearly and did not exclude error in controverted doctrines. Moreover, the Wisconsin Synod pointed out that the ALC’s Pittsburgh Agreement with the United Lutheran Church in America showed its true and completely transparent intention, namely, to attempt union with both the Missouri Synod and the radically liberal ULCA at the very same time! The outrage of their Synodical Conference brethren not an accusing conscience because of the forbidden fruit it had just swallowed caused the Missouri Synod to issue in 1940 an explanation to the American Lutheran Church about “candidly what in our viewstill stands in the way of actual fellowship between our two bodies.” And Missouri carefully back-pedaled into safer territory. The ALC, too, saw the impractical and almost insurmountable task of becoming the bridge between the Missouri Synod and the ULCA; and it backed away from both of them. Yet the sugary-sweet taste of the fruit lingered on the tongues of all three parties; and, as the “loss of innocence” makes carnal indulgence easier the next time around, the loss of true orthodoxy in an attitude of latitude, in a lapse of confessional standards, in ambivalence toward doctrinal purity, and in the willingness to couch disagreement in deliberately crafted ambiguous language, became evident in the subsequent appearance of A Statement in 1945 and in the easy and frankly “sleazy” way in which the signers were permitted to escape virtually unscathed!

These were the “official” dealings of the “officials” of the Synod that signaled the beginning of the end of Missouri’s orthodoxy. But there were other symptoms of the festering cancer of heterodoxy eating away at the heart and other vital organs of the once orthodox Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States. Indeed, the blame for Missouri’s fall from its once cherished perch on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20) cannot be laid solely at the feet of her leaders.

The orthodoxy of the Missouri Synod after 1932 began to take on the stench of “dead orthodoxy” an orthodoxy professed, an orthodoxy preached, an orthodoxy taught, an orthodoxy committed to paper, pointed to and boasted of by one and all as the hallmark of “Synod” (a name which almost personified the institution) but an orthodoxy that in practice was a sham! [“Practice” is defined as the consistent application of doctrine (Exodus 34:11; James 1:22; Luke 6:46; etc.)] The rank and file of both clergy and laity became infected with the insidious contagion. “Doctrinal discipline” (whereby brethren hew to the mark of God’s inerrant Word and by sound doctrine both exhort and convince gainsayers in their fellowship) was neglected; and those pastors who practiced it in pastoral conferences and conventions were sometimes actually booed down and told to keep their dogmatics to themselves! [Your essayist recalls from his childhood an instance in which his father and several other orthodox pastors in a conference out East were labeled “SOB’s” by their fellow pastors“super orthodox brethren”! Some fellowship!] “Church discipline” in the local congregation according to Matthew 18:15-17 was also sorely neglected, and the principles of Holy Scripture became purely “theoretical” for the average church member, principles to be confessed on Sunday mornings and to be ignored during the week. The doctrinal position of the Missouri Synod was “solid” on paper concerning the inerrancy of Scripture and its verbal inspiration, unity as the requisite for fellowship, close communion, sinful religious unionism, the chaplaincy, lodge membership and Scouting, merchandising to support the work of Christ’s church, modern social dancing, gambling, engagement being tantamount to holy marriage, etc. Even a casual look at the books and tracts published during this period bears this out. BUT in practice things were otherwise! Practice on these matters varied from pastor to pastor, from congregation to congregation, from member to member within the same congregation; and virtually NOTHING was done about it! Personal variance was not considered “divisive of fellowship” in spite of I Corinthians 1:10, Ephesians 4:3, and many other passages. “Personal unionism” in joint prayer between individuals not in fellowship with one another was not as bad as “institutional unionism” between church bodies. Toleration of occasional lodge membership was not as bad as “synodical policy” approving it. Bake sales, suppers, and bazaars to support the church were okay as long as the synod was “on record” as opposing them. Modern social dancing was perfectly acceptable, even at wedding receptions in parish halls, as long as books and tracts were published “officially” condemning it. Is it any wonder that the American Lutheran Church was suspect of the Missouri Synod’s insistence on complete agreement in doctrine and practice for the establishment of fellowship? The synod itself wasn’t consistent; the pastors didn’t want to be consistent; and the laymen were quite content with the inconsistent application of their precious orthodoxy. Some orthodoxy! The Missouri Synod was already in a precipitous slide, and there was no evidence of an imminent turnaround in spite of the vigorous protests of a precious few who dared to raise their voices.


Part One ended, see part Two for conclusion
The Missouri Synod’s Slide into Heterodoxy, 1932-1947 – Part Two
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For further information, the following materials are available from the Concordia Lutheran Conference Archives:

– The text of A Statement with the names of the original signers…………………………………………………….. $ 0.75
– The accompanying cover letter sent out over A Statement……………………………………………………….. $ 0.50
– “A Former U.L.C.A. Pastor Looks at the Agreement” by Wallace H. McLaughlin (undated)…………………… $ 1.00
– “The Statement Controversy Up to Date” (1949) by W. H. McLaughlin and H. D. Mensing………………………. $ 1.00
– “Do You Know?” —an informational booklet of documentation on the A Statement controversy, originally published in 1950 by the Chicago Study Club……. $ 1.50

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