Mark G. Schroeder
By now most people in our synod are aware that 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. A special committee has been planning to mark this milestone event with special publications, Bible study materials, and even a full-length film on the life and work of Martin Luther. And we Lutherans are not the only ones marking this event. The seismic upheaval that began in 1517 shook and reshaped the world in many ways: religiously, politically, and culturally. Even secular historians characterize the Lutheran Reformation as one of the most significant events in world history.
As important as the anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation is, there is another anniversary that should not pass without notice and celebration this year. The year 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the merger of four Midwestern Lutheran synods into what is now the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
In 1850, five Lutheran pastors in the Milwaukee area adopted the constitution of a new church body called the First German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin. Ten years later, Lutherans established synods in Minnesota and Michigan. For practical reasons, and because they were united in doctrine and practice, these three synods joined together in a loose federation in 1892, with each synod retaining its own identity and its own schools for training church workers.
By 1917, however, it became clear that the three synods, now joined by the recently established Nebraska Synod, could carry out important work more efficiently if they merged into a single united synod. After 14 years of proposals and discussion, the merger took place in 1917. The Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska synods became districts, and the original Wisconsin Synod was divided into three districts. Within a few years, as the new synod grew rapidly, the Dakota-Montana and Pacific Northwest Districts were added.
The name chosen in 1917 was a little unwieldy (“The Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Other States”), so it was later shortened. But many of the organizational structures and institutions put into place in that merger one hundred years ago are still evident in our synod today. Among those are:
● The new synod was formed to address common priorities—missions, worker training, and publications—still among the primary purposes of WELS.
● The new synod located worker training schools in Mequon, Wis.; Watertown, Wis.; New Ulm, Minn.; and Saginaw, Mich., all of which still serve to prepare called workers for the synod today.
● The structure of districts remains, although the districts now number 12.
● The merged synod stressed the importance of Christian education and encouraged congregations to establish elementary and high schools. WELS continues to operate one of the largest parochial education systems in the nation.
● Called worker and lay delegates met every two years in a synod convention to review and plan the work of the synod; this form of governance continues.
● The new synod expressed a strong commitment to open congregations here in the United States and to take the gospel to other cultures and countries—a commitment that remain with us today.
● Congregations and individuals voluntarily provided financial support for the work of the synod just as they do today.
The observance of anniversaries can sometimes degenerate into self-congratulation or foster a sense of ungodly pride. It’s my prayer that we use this anniversary as another occasion to thank God in all humility for his grace, for his guidance, and for the faithful forefathers he used to establish our beloved Wisconsin Synod on the foundation of his Word and for the sake of proclaiming the gospel.
Watch a video of a presentation on the merger at livestream.com/welslive.
Mark Schroeder is president of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Waukesha, Wisconsin.
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Author: Mark G. Schroeder
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017
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