Lutheranism – The First 500 Years, Part Four, 1817 to 1917

As I pointed out last month, the third century of Lutheranism saw the rise of a new philosophical and theological movement, Rationalism. According to Rationalism, reason, logic and science were the supreme sources of truth and capable of solving all of man’s problems, leaving old-fashioned religious faith as a relic of the past.

For much of the fourth century of Lutheranism, the influence and acceptance of Rationalism continued to grow.

The Industrial Revolution had taken hold with all its marvelous new machinery. Up till now, everything ran on horse power. Now people had the steam engine and other amazing machines to power their dreams.

Prominent philosophers boldly predicted the death of all religion including Christianity. To top it off, Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution during the fourth century of Lutheranism which pushed God even farther out of the picture.

There are two things to keep in mind when it comes to the supposed power of reason and logic; love and fear.

Think about the people you love, especially your spouse and your children. Did you sit down and reason it out that you loved them? I hope not! And then there is fear. We all have irrational fears. We can tell ourselves not to be afraid of things and yet we just can’t help ourselves. These are rather quick ways to show that pure reason and logic are not the supreme guides in life.

Lutheranism is well-positioned to deal with Rationalism. As one scholar has pointed out, Lutheranism has fewer answers than any other religion and that’s a good thing. In other words, when Lutherans are confronted with things we don’t understand, we don’t start making things up. We just let the great mysteries of life be mysteries.

Take God, for instance. He is beyond understanding, not only in his triune nature but also in this incomprehensible world he has created. We will never figure out his true nature. What he hides, no one can figure out. Lutherans are fine with that.

Lutherans are content to know God by what he does. And Paul’s words in Romans 11:32 are a great summary of how God shows us who he is by what he does: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”

We are all disobedient. God has consigned us to disobedience. Based on reason and logic we all deserve to be punished and condemned. That is what the government does with those who disobey its laws.

But instead of punishment, in Christ, namely, for the sake of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, God has had mercy on all of us. There is no reason or logic to this other than it is God’s way of showing us who he is by what he does. Lutherans are fine with that explanation of God; we don’t need to go any further than that by delving into the hidden things of God.

So that is a brief summary of Rationalism and how it relates to Lutheranism. Now let’s take a look at some of the historical events of this century.

From 1817 to 1917 millions of Lutheran immigrants poured into the US from many European and Scandinavian countries. These immigrants felt most comfortable establishing church bodies made up of people who were just like them. Between the years 1840 and 1875 almost 60 Lutheran Synods were formed in the US. Many of these denominations were based simply on ethnic and language differences but some were also based on doctrinal differences.

Last month I mentioned two names associated with the establishment of Lutheranism in America; Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, who established the Pennsylvania Ministerium, the first Lutheran church body in America in 1748, and Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther.

Walther’s story starts with another emperor’s attempts to forced Lutherans to do his bidding. Emporer Frederick William III was determined to unite all Protestant churches into one church body. This union was to go into effect in 1817. Many Lutherans objected to this union and held fast to their Lutheran beliefs despite the emperor’s threats. This actually led to a renewed interest in the teachings of Martin Luther.

One pastor who stood firm in orthodox Lutheranism against the union was Martin Stephan. Walther got to know Stephan and decided to join Stephan in his Saxon immigration, an endeavor to bring hundreds of Lutherans who objected to the union from Saxony, Germany to the US.

The Saxons left Germany in 1839. They landed first in New Orleans, then continued up the Mississippi River to St. Louis where the group split up. Some stayed in St. Louis and others went south of St. Louis to Perry County, bought several thousands of acres of land and established several towns.

Times were tough, especially when Martin Stephan was suddenly ousted as their leader due to misuse of funds and inappropriate behavior with some of the women in the group. At that point, due to all their difficulties, many in the group thought that God was punishing them for leaving Germany and wanted to go back. They were convinced that once Stephan left they were no longer a true church.

So they held a big debate in which Walther convinced them that they were still a church because they still had the Word of God. The Saxons toughed it out and soon were thriving in their new homeland.

Walther then started reaching out to Lutherans in other states such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, even as far as Buffalo, New York. Enough agreement was found that they founded what eventually became The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in 1847.

During this century of Lutheranism there was also a big emphasis on mission work. The various Lutheran church bodies in Europe and the US sent missionaries out to the following countries: India, Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, China, Central and Southern Africa, South America, especially Brazil and Argentina.

As the fourth century of Lutheranism drew to a close World War I was in full swing. This war would have tremendous impact on German Lutherans since America entered the war on the opposite side of Germany.

Even though most Germans believed that the English language did not transmit the truths of God’s Word as well as the German language did, many congregations of German Lutherans in the US adopted English for use in their churches to show their commitment to America. They went so far as to put the American flag right in the sanctuary of their Lutheran churches to show their patriotism.

The fourth century of Lutheranism ended with the world completely embroiled in World War I. The good news is that we survived and even thrived. The horrors and atrocities of World War I struck a huge blow against Rationalism. How could we still maintain that reason and logic were the answer to all of man’s problems when such a terrible event took place, especially since science had helped develop many of the weapons that had caused all the destruction?

Lutherans have the FEWEST answers of any religion or philosophy. When we encounter things we don’t understand we don’t make things up, we simply say, “We don’t know.” Our way of knowing God is through knowing what he does. Instead of condemning his disobedient children, for the sake of Christ his forgives us.

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