Issues discussed in the magazine mirrored issues faced by Lutherans in the 1980s.
Mark E. Braun
When the Northwestern Lutheran (NL) began publishing in 1914, its target audience was the English-reading lay members of the Wisconsin Synod. NL continued the tradition of the Gemeinde-Blatt, which began in 1865 and continued into the 1960s.
NL was still being published for lay readers in 1981, but clearly it was not being written by them. Pastors and professors authored more than 95 percent of its articles that year. Fewer than one percent were written by women.
In 1982 a new editor took over the magazine—James P. Schaefer, Milwaukee pastor, synod stewardship counselor, and public relations director. While pledging unconditional commitment to Scripture and the Confessions, Schaefer promised—or, maybe, warned—that changes lay ahead for the Northwestern Lutheran. “It is a different world we live in. Different questions are being asked.”
NEW AUTHORS AND MORE QUESTIONS
And different voices were enlisted to offer answers. Soon a reflective piece on motherhood appeared, written not by a clergyman but by a mother. Then came a presentation of how cable TV could be employed to spread the gospel, authored by a husband-wife videotape production team. “We are always looking for good writers—lay or clergy,” Schaefer reported in 1984.
A question-and-answer column (answers provided by Pastor Paul Kelm) revealed that synod members were wrestling with issues never before addressed on these pages.
“AL-ANON, which counsels the relatives of alcoholics, recommends withdrawing all material support from the alcoholic until he hits bottom and desires treatment. Does this contradict our Lord?”
“What does the Bible teach about gluttony?”
“Why do our college students, pastors, and professors grow beards and long hair? Doesn’t the Bible tell us that long hair is a shame to men?”
“Why won’t the Wisconsin Synod make use of lay preachers?”
“What is the Christian view of vasectomy?”
“What is the Bible’s view on transsexuals?”
Most controversial was the introduction of a letters column, which, Schaefer explained, would provide “the opportunity for another point of view in matters where that is possible, and some opportunity for reader reflection.” Ground rules were established, correspondence invited, and in came the mail.
“I feel that the article on ‘The Bomb’ has no place in a church publication,” wrote one reader in 1983. Said another the next year, “I have mixed emotions about the strident writings in my Northwestern Lutheran on prayer in public schools and our President’s wish for a Year of the Bible.” The issues readers raised mirrored those facing Lutheran Christians in the 1980s—changing worship formats, availability of previously unheard of technologies, and greater involvement of women in the life of the church.
Schaefer never ducked controversial issues. After the 1983 convention approved development of a new hymnbook, all viewpoints were welcomed. “I cannot see any justification for a new hymnal,” wrote one reader. “Let us be content with our fine hymnal,” said another. “I still love the King James Version and there are lots and lots of things about our Lutheran Hymnal that I dearly love.” One correspondent objected that WELS lacked “the necessary time, money, and expertise” for such an ambitious project.
Others supported a new hymnal: “The language needs updating. We would favor lowering the pitches of chants and hymns to a more comfortable level.” One writer likened the attachment to King James English to an earlier generation’s reluctance to abandon German. “Certainly, we can all agree that it was the thing to do.”
Some chided the “new Northwestern Lutheran” for divulging such disagreements. “Until the synod has spoken its mind,” Schaefer countered—on the hymnal and on other subjects—“the pages of the Northwestern Lutheran will welcome all responsible expressions of opinions from all quarters.”
Critics lobbied for the demise of the letters column. Privately, some groused that the magazine should be renamed the WELS Ladies’ Home Journal. But the editor refused to yield. “I am still convinced,” he wrote in 1987, “that our people, especially the laity, should have a forum for the public expression of their opinions.”
To those who feared the letters column projected a “wrong” image of the synod as “contentious and divided,” Schaefer replied, “I don’t know why anyone would believe that the Wisconsin Synod laity is an army of sheep.” The synod’s members willingly heard and heeded Scripture, but they were “not at all reluctant to question the word of any mere mortal.”
In his own writing, Schaefer went for the heart, but he made his readers think too. His “from this corner” editorials consistently revealed concerns ranging far beyond WELS.
He seldom advocated predictable or easy solutions for an increasingly complicated world.
A plaque on his desk urged, “Crucify the Old Adam—don’t bore him to death.” James Schaefer brought that attitude to the “new” Northwestern Lutheran.
Mark Braun, professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a member at Grace, Waukesha.
This is the eighth 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 9
Issue: September 2014
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