As thousands of WELS soldiers served during World War II, the synod worked hard to provide for them spiritually.
Mark E. Braun
Tom Brokaw calls them “America’s greatest generation.”
They came of age in the Great Depression. They watched their parents lose their businesses, their farms, their jobs, their hopes. Then, just as a glimmer of economic recovery appeared, war erupted across Europe and over the Pacific.
They were summoned to rescue the world from the two most powerful military machines assembled up to that time. They left farms and ranches, resigned office jobs, gave up their places on assembly lines, and quit school or went from graduation directly into uniform.
They fought on bloodied landscapes in France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific. They flew every day into skies filled with terror. They set sail each new morning on hostile waters thousands of miles from home.
They succeeded on every front. They won the war and brought peace and prosperity.
SERVING OUR BOYS ON THE SPIRITUAL FRONT
Thousands of them were Wisconsin Synod Lutherans.
“What about the spiritual care of boys who have been or will be called to the colors to receive military training?” asked The Northwestern Lutheran editor William Schaefer in 1940. “This, of course, is definite: our synod will take care of the spiritual needs of all our boys.”
By April 1941, Pastor Edward Blakewell, director of the synod’s newly appointed Spiritual Welfare Commission (SWC), addressed a letter to 713 men stationed in the armed forces. “The commission is extremely conscious of its responsibilities,” he wrote. Synod President John Brenner urged readers to “send the names and addresses of all of your members in training to the commission.” By Dec. 7, 1941, as bombs fell over Pearl Harbor, the commission’s list swelled to more than two thousand names.
During 1942 the parish hall of Salem Lutheran Church on East Thomas Avenue in Milwaukee was transformed into the SWC’s work center. Six full-time employees directed dozens of volunteers—almost all of them women—who answered routine mail, updated address changes, and prepared mailings that went out twice in each three-week period.
“I have been receiving the ‘Daily Devotional’ booklets for some time now,” wrote one serviceman, “and I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart. They are really the only attachment to the church that I have.”
By 1944, more than 17,000 men and women were listed on the commission’s files, 9,000 of whom were stationed at over a thousand locations in the United States, the rest overseas. While most were Wisconsin Synod members, there were “quite a few young men and women listed who were not communicant members of any church” but were handed SWC materials by other soldiers and sailors. “Your last literature reached me in a hospital in England after following me all over France,” wrote one serviceman in 1945. “You would be surprised how many of the fellows wanted me to give them the gospel literature after I was through with it.”
By war’s end the list contained more than 22,000 names, including hospitalized servicemen, soldiers honorably discharged, men listed as missing in action, even German and Japanese prisoners of war
On Aug. 6, 1945, The Milwaukee Journal reported that “an atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and the greatest achievement of organized science” was loosed by an American B-29 bomber. The Japanese city of Hiroshima was covered with “an impenetrable cloud of dust and smoke” created by a weapon “producing more than 2,000 times the blast of the most powerful bomb” ever previously dropped on any target. Japan soon announced it would surrender, and the Journal’s headline of Aug. 14 read simply, “War Ended!”
ANTICIPATING A NEW FRONT
Aug. 6 was also the closing day of the synod’s biennial convention in New Ulm, Minn. The convention’s floor committee on church union reported that the chief question facing the synod was whether pulpit and altar fellowship between the Missouri Synod and the American Lutheran Church could be established “now or later” without compromising scriptural truth. Matters had grown more uncertain due to numerous reported incidents that “anticipate a union between the Missouri Synod and the American Lutheran Church which does not yet exist.”
Wisconsin’s standing committee on union assured Missouri: “We sincerely cherish and desire to preserve the fellowship which we enjoy in our Synodical Conference. We are hoping and praying to God that we come to a favorable understanding and agreement.”
America had won the war, but the Wisconsin Synod would soon be engaged in another war—the prospects of which looked far less promising.
Mark Braun, professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Grace, Waukesha.
This is the fourth 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 5
Issue: May 2014
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