The turbulent 1960s provide The Northwestern Lutheran writers with an assortment of topics to examine.
Mark E. Braun
On Aug. 28, 1963, more than 400,000 people at the March on Washington heard a young Atlanta pastor lament that “the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society.” But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also had a dream that one day his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
A 22-year old folk singer from Hibbing, Minn., performed at Washington that day. Soon after, Bob Dylan wrote a new song that became an anthem for the turbulent 1960s:
Come mothers and fathers throughout the land,
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.
Your old road is rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.
“For years everyone has known about segregation,” wrote Carleton Toppe in The Northwestern Lutheran (TNL) in 1964, but pending civil rights legislation was now forcing Americans to confront Jim Crow laws and separate schools and lunch counters for whites and blacks. We owe “no less consideration for the soul of a neighbor of another color than we do for the souls of men whose skin is the same as ours.”
By 1965, a TNL reader asked why our pastors had not joined clergymen in Selma, Ala., demonstrating for civil rights. Though God has not assigned his church the responsibility of improving society, Armin Schuetze insisted, “The heart of the Christian has no room for racial prejudice or hatred.” A white Christian won’t say, “That’s only a Negro, why worry about his health and his life?” A Negro Christian will not say, “What do I care if my white neighbor suffers the loss of his property?”
Immanuel Frey remarked that some in the United States had scruples about a 1959 attempt to land a rocket on the moon. “They feel that man is trying to play at being God” and that such an attempt was “a repetition of the Tower of Babel episode.”
Was space travel against God’s will? “Sending rockets into space, putting satellites into orbit involves more than playing with expensive toys about which you can boast; it can well play a vital role in our national defense.” Yet “God will let man know when he exceeds his bounds.” Again citing Babel, Schuetze warned that when men use their building skills in defiance of God or for their own glory, God can intervene to frustrate their plans.
After Neil Armstrong made “one giant leap for mankind” on July 20, 1969, TNL hailed the moon landing as “a magnificent achievement of man’s inventive genius and of his engineering skill.” Yet “the stubborn facts of human existence remain the same.” The moon exploit would not change the human race any more than did the feat of Columbus or the invention of radio or television.
During two world wars, Wisconsin Synod Lutherans supported their country and fought bravely, but in 1964 TNL had to discuss whether pacifism was unchristian. By 1968 readers were asking, “Shall I burn my draft card?” and “What if I doubt that a war is just?”
When resistance first arose against the United States’s role in a faraway civil war, a TNL writer told readers to refrain from “a sanctimonious second-guessing of the government.” But as losses mounted and explanations grew less convincing, second-guessing the war in Vietnam was no longer dismissed as “sanctimonious.”
In a particularly thoughtful response, seminary professor Irwin Habeck acknowledged that a Christian could be convinced that it was wrong to be involved in a given war and he may decide he “must refuse to serve in this war, let come what may.”
May we protest? Yes, but only within legal limits.
To absolve oneself of responsibility for the country’s sinful course of action, must a conscientious objector also renounce his American citizenship? “We do not want to be hasty about sitting in judgment as God over our government,” Habeck wrote. We must be “very sure, and then very consistent, before we invoke the principle, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ ”
For WELS, the 1960s became “a decade of decision for home missions.” The synod was opening new stateside churches “at a rate proportionately double that of other major Lutheran bodies in our country.” In only seven years, the number of states containing WELS churches doubled from 16 in 1961 to 33 in 1968.
This church body, which once questioned whether God ever intended it to do external mission work, now reported the names and addresses of 53 world missionaries.
“The Wisconsin Synod today supports missions in places in which it had no intention of going a few years ago,” Immanuel Frey noted. This aggressive mission expansion was “literally forced upon us, in large part as a direct result of the liberal trends which have developed in once conservative churches.” Forced, maybe; but begun. In the next decade WELS would enter the rest of the states.
Mark Braun, professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Grace, Waukesha.
This is the sixth article in a 10-part series looking at how WELS and Forward in Christ history is intertwined with major historical events over the past one hundred years.
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Author: Mark E. Braun
Volume 101, Number 7
Issue: July 2014
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