A look back
The Wisconsin Synod stood firm on the Scriptures, even as the United States became more liberal in social and religious issues.
Mark E. Braun
“The ancient pagan desire to be rid of the burden of defective or unwanted children is finding expression in our own day,” wrote Dr. Siegbert Becker in the first issue of the Northwestern Lutheran (NL) of the 1970s.
Most pending legislation sought to permit abortion “only if the physical or mental health of the mother” was endangered or if “a mentally deficient or physically deformed child” was to be born. “Christian morality is not determined by human legislation,” Becker stated, yet passage of such legislation would “force Christians to take a second look at this matter.”
Thus began the Wisconsin Synod’s response to one of the most controversial and far-reaching social questions of the 20th century.
The argument that “unwanted children” were best aborted by their mothers “sends chills up and down one’s spine,” Carleton Toppe remarked. Should such a principle gain acceptance, “the life of born children will not be safe either.”
A 1972 headline noted that Billy Jean King could not have earned $100,000 playing tennis the previous year had she not terminated an unwanted pregnancy. This prompted John Parcher to reply, “God pity children born into homes where human life takes second place to sports trophies and the whims of parental convenience.”
After the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision barring states from interfering with a woman’s decision to seek an abortion, Joel Gerlach commented, “There is no law which says we cannot voice our dismay and our disagreement with the Court’s decision. We say this, not because we feel there is any merit in legislating morals for the ungodly, but because we think the unborn need a voice to speak for them.”
NL said surprisingly little about Watergate. When it did, its writers refrained from glib condemnation of others’ failings. “We look for integrity and trustworthiness in our elected officials,” one editorial by Toppe read, “but we are inclined to excuse untrustworthiness in ourselves.” Americans who reserve a lower standard for themselves than for their government “have forfeited their right to exclaim about Watergate.” If citizens are remiss in civic righteousness, and if they discover their officials to be corrupt, “they are getting the government they deserve.”
One change Watergate effected was a move toward conservatism. Though forces generated in the 1960s were “far from spent,” Toppe observed a “greater concern for morality in government” and “more sober thinking about higher education and welfare.” Toppe seemed to concur with the observation of a spokesman from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Oak Park, Ill.: “The era of the strong social gospel is sort of out,” replaced by “a trend toward evangelical emphasis.” As liberal churches declined, evangelical and conservative churches were gaining ground.
Following extraordinary congregational growth in the 1960s, the synod’s 1971 convention highlighted personal evangelism. “Many twentieth century Christians harbor the idea that evangelism is a new word and new type of work in the Christian church,” wrote Wilmer Valleskey. Some falsely attributed “shady” meaning to the word, identifying it with “hoot’n, toot’n hollering hallelujahs and fire and brimstone sermons” in revival tents, observed Valleskey.
Not so. Evangelism is spreading the good news—by speaking or printing, in tract or book or tape, personally or by proxy. “Evangelism may never be an elective for Christians,” Valleskey concluded. “It is the heart of the Church.”
Though WELS did not endorse the broadly ecumenical “Key 73” outreach effort across North America, Pastor Rolfe Westendorf insisted the time had come “to reaffirm our oft-repeated intention to preach the gospel to every creature.” Faithfulness to Romans 16:17 may explain Wisconsin’s non-involvement in “Key 73,” yet on the basis of Matthew 28:19 “we certainly cannot explain away any failure on our part to be out there witnessing.”
The United States celebrated its 200th birthday in 1976, moving Toppe to say, “The bicentennial is also our bicentennial.” The Wisconsin Synod supported the separation of church and state, but “that does not mean that we must stand aloof and unconcerned when our country remembers its past with admiration and gratitude.” Religious freedom and material prosperity were “still enabling us to expand our church’s work.”
During the 1960s and 1970s, much of United States Lutheranism suffered “a marked drift to the left.” Yet, Edward Fredrich wrote, “Friends and foes alike agree that the Wisconsin Synod can be aptly described as ‘most conservative’ in doctrinal matters.” A chief reason was the strong leadership provided by Oscar Naumann, who died in 1979 after serving as WELS’ synod president for 26 years. Naumann “resisted the trend of the times” and stood firm with his church body “on the old scriptural and confessional basis.”
Mark Braun, a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Grace, Waukesha.
This is the seventh article in a ten-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 8
Issue: August 2014
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