Sunday, September 20, 2015

Modest accommodations. . .

From D. G. Hart:

Worship services themselves made modest accommodations to the American world. English services were introduced alongside the Dutch only at the end of World War I, and against the will of even the progressive Johannes Groen. The singing of hymns, as opposed to exclusive psalmody, had been a major grievance of the 1834 Secession in the Netherlands, but the practice tended to come along with English services. The CRC’s 1914 Psalter Hymnal limited hymns to an obscure, heavily didactic Presbyterian collection calibrated to the fifty-two Lord’s Days of the Heidelberg Catechism. In 1934 the denomination published a more extensive Psalter, including 141 hymns next to 327 Psalm settings, the former selected according to “doctrinal soundness, New Testament character, dignity, and depth of devotional spirit, and clearness and beauty of expression.” None had the slightest odor of Arminianism. At the same time, leaders tried to impose a uniform order of worship across the denomination, a movement that Eastern Avenue resisted because of the “formalism” of some of the new order’s prescriptions: recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, reading of the Decalogue, and a service of confession and absolution. The same reform allowed choirs to take part in worship, another “American” gesture that Eastern had long suspected. They did encourage vocal and instrumental ensembles but had these perform after services. The church year was not organized by liturgical seasons but by preaching through the Catechism. Baptisms (once a month) far outnumbered celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (once a quarter), but profession of faith — normatively in one’s late teens — overshadowed them both. Groen’s pastorate averaged two a week. 
(James Bratt, “Rites of the Tribes: Two Protestant Congregations in a Twentieth-Century City,” 149-150)

I wandered upon these words from James Bratt describing a Christian Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids (Dutch Reformed as we used to know them) and was immediately struck by the similarity between what Bratt recorded and my own home congregation, a German speaking Lutheran parish of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, loosely connected to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod but not a member during the same time period.

The German heritage of Lutherans was not merely cultural.  The language of the faith and the dialect of worship were deeply ingrained in German.  The switch to English was not merely the choice of one linguistic form over another.  In my own parish, the pastor read sermons from the Concordia Pulpit for months until he felt he could preach passably in English after preaching so confidently and comfortably in German.  At the same time, the chanting of the pastor that was once second nature stopped as he tried on his English singing voice.  For him it did not return and would await another generation or two of pastors whose primary language was English before chanting would appear again.  By then it was deemed foreign to their worship experience and feared to be Roman Catholic.  The catechism had always been learned in German and when instruction switched to English it meant that parent and child were brought up in a distinctly different sounding culture which, on the exterior at least, seemed similar.  It was and it was not.

More importantly, the switch to English opened up all sorts of things to a congregation whose language for God had been exclusively German.  Hymns well known to those outside the little German congregation in the midst of a cornfield suddenly were sneaking into Lutheran service.  It might come as a surprise to many today that the beloved old hymnal 1941 (THE Lutheran Hymnal) was condemned by many for introducing substandard hymns often called Methodist as a derogatory acknowledgement that these were not the sturdy chorales of old.  In my own congregation there were NO hymnals in the pews until 1972 when a red cover edition of TLH was purchased, pew racks installed, and people stopped bringing them from home.  Yes, they stopped carrying their hymnal from home to church on Sunday morning and with it the hymnal began gradually to disappear from the home and from its use as a prayer book and devotional resource for the family (as well as their songbook of faith).

In the end, English was not just a change of vocabulary but a cultural change.  It signaled both a new willingness to embrace the American culture as well as a new vulnerability to that culture and its prevailing norms, views, and prejudices.  What this author found in a small Conservative Reformed body was also true of a growing Confessional Lutheran body about the same time.  In the end we find it all sort of parochial and funny (both in a humorous and slightly embarrassing way).  It may seem quaint but it represented a new chapter in a church where its members would no longer be generally united in culture and language as well as faith.  We have struggled with that transition.  Missouri's history with the Statement of the 44 and the split 30 years later all have something to do with the difficult and uneven embrace of things American for a church body that we once confident that no language (except perhaps Latin) was better fit for theology and worship than German.  It is something to think about as this same church body struggles in a tension between culture and faith, the world around us and our own world of creed, confession, and cultus. 


Ted Badje said...

Question for debate - Could we have had fellowship with other Lutheran denominations in the U.S. And Canada in the 19th century if the LCMS primary language at that time was English?

Carl Vehse said...

The history of the battles between the Missouri Synod and a number of other Lutheran synods during the last half of the 19th century is discussed in Moving Frontiers: Readings in the History of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, edited by Carl S. Meyer. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964, 500 page). Carl S. Meyer also wrote Chapter VI. The Missouri Synod and Other Lutherans Before 1918.

The Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, founded in 1872 by the Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Norwegian, Ohio, and Wisconsin synods. However because of the Predestinarian Controversy, the Ohio and Norwegian synods withdrew in th 1880s. In 1890 the English Synod joined the Conference, and in 1911, it became part of the Misosuri Synod.

Kirk Skeptic said...

If Hochdeutsch was good enough for Moses and Christ, how dare we moderns seek to improve ont he divine economy by worshiping in English...da noive!

James Kellerman said...


You are absolutely correct to point out that we were in fellowship with the Norwegian Synod, as well as the English version of the Missouri Synod. But not to leave out other groups: the Missouri Synod was in fellowship with (and eventually absorbed) the National Evangelical Lutheran Church, a largely Finnish-speaking church body; the same held true with the Synod Evangelical Lutheran Churches, which was a Slovak-speaking church body.

But just as fellowship went across ethnic and linguistic lines, so too many people who spoke a common language were not necessarily united in fellowship. There were plenty of German-speaking synods that didn't have fellowship with the Missouri Synod (e.g., Buffalo, Iowa, and later the Ohio Synod). And the Norwegians were divided a dozen different ways and were unable to unite until 1917, and then in a pique of ethnic pride rather than due to real theological unity. The Finns and the Slovaks were divided into pro-Missouri Synod and pro-something-looser lines. The Danes were divided into a "Happy Danes" church (shaped by Grundtvig) and a "Sad Danes" church (shaped more by Danish Pietism).

Anonymous said...

No hymnal racks until 1972? My folks used to tell the story of how when I was 3 or 4 years old, I was fidgeting around in church - this would have been in the mid 1960's - and got my arm caught in the hymnal rack. Once I realized that I couldn't get my arm out, I commenced to howl. Mom was holding my little brother who was getting ready to join me in screaming and couldn't help so my dad struggled to get me to straighten out my arm to slide it out. A calm woman in a nearby pew stepped over to help.
Guess that scared my brother and me so much that neither of us are LCMS anymore.

Carl Vehse said...

There were plenty of German-speaking synods that didn't have fellowship with the Missouri Synod (e.g., Buffalo, Iowa, and later the Ohio Synod).

It would be hard to get a fellowship agreement with the Buffalo Synod after 1859 when their leader issued what amounted to be a decree of excommunication of the Missouri Synod and renounced all fraternal relations with it.

In 1866 12 pastors of the Buffalo Synod and a number of congregations joined the Missouri Synod. The Buffalo Synod disbanded in 1877, with some of the pastors joining the Wisconsin Synod.

And the Ohio Synod (as well as the Iowa Synod) fought with the Missouri Synod over the Election Controversy.