Voices From the Past: Opening a Cornerstone from 1894
150 years ago a community of Germans settled the hills west of what is now Algoma, Wisconsin, in communities that came to be known as Rankin and Rio Creek. These scrappy settlers quickly set to work cutting down trees, clearing brush, and erecting homes and barns. They also brought along with them their Lutheran Confession, and they worked hard to ensure that they could baptize their children, hear God’s Word, and receive the Lord’s Supper. At first one log building would have to suffice for parsonage, schoolhouse, and church sanctuary. In 1882 a clapboard church was erected. After that burned down, a brick church was built in 1894, and a time capsule was placed in its cornerstone.
It was opened and resealed in 1967, the 100th anniversary of the congregation. On July 29, 2017, we removed the cornerstone and opened the time capsule as part of our 150th Anniversary. This is what we found, along with a few reflections.
Kirchen-Gesanbuch für Evang.(elisch)-Lutherische Gemeinden Ungeänderter Augsburgischer Confession
The first thing we came across was this hymnal:
The church has in its possession several devotional items like this from that era, books that were so well-worn that they fell apart, only to be stitched back together again.
This was the first hymnal printed by the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, CFW Walther being the driving force behind its publication. I believe that this hymnal likely shaped the self-understanding of the congregation. While we colloquially call it “St. John’s Lutheran Church,” it’s official name is “St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Congregation,” and that’s even what our sign out front says.
Here’s a look inside:
Enchiridion / Small Catechism
The next item we came across was an old catechism:
As the plate which has the publishing house and date on it seems to be missing, I need to do a little more research on the details of this particular volume. Variations of this were printed by multiple houses both in Germany and in the United States. I think that this is clearly an American reproduction of a German Catechism, due to the Latin script for “Dr.” juxtaposed with the Gothic script for “Martin Luther.” On account of this, I doubt that this was published by a Lutheran church publishing house, as they would have likely had plenty of Gothic script type around. In all likelihood this was published by an Anglo-American publishing house seeking to make some money off of the many Germans that came in during the immigration wave of the 1800s. It’s not uncommon to come across German bibles produced by such houses. It is fascinating (to me, at least, but I’m a nerd) to see the interplay of German culture and established Anglo-American culture right here on this page. The process of Americanization began subtly!
The Lutheran Witness
Speaking of the interplay between German culture and established Anglo-American culture, the next item we came across was a copy of the Lutheran Witness, dated December 21, 1892.
This was back when the Lutheran Witness was the official organ of the English Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri and Other States, what eventually became the English District back when non-German utilizing congregations could not be a part of the larger German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States. The contents are fascinating. The writing is incredibly crisp, funny, feisty, and edifying. First thing to note is that the editors of the Lutheran Witness cannot stand syncretism. More than one article takes this issue up.
The next thing to note is something that I hesitate to put a word to. How do I say this in a way that isn’t too laden with contemporary and anachronistic associations? I’m not sure, so I’ll just put it out there. In more than one place the editors display a rather (for the time) progressive vision of social justice. The first place we get a hint at this is with this little note:
Martin Luther’s “adherents in the Northwest have once more put down bigotry.” Exactly what kind of bigotry was Bayard talking about? Bigotry of opinion? Racial bigotry? I am guessing the second, partly due to the fact that German-Americans were by-and-large sympathetic with the abolitionist movement, and support from Germans in the Northwest (what we now know as the Upper Midwest) was crucial for helping the Union win the Civil War. I believe this is confirmed by the next interesting tidbit:
First of all, God bless those old Lutherans. They liked sermons so much that selling them was apparently a profitable fundraiser. But second, the profits for the fundraiser were going to the “Negro Mission.” This was 1892, and the Lutherans were concerned that the Gospel be preached among African Americans.That statement above about putting down bigotry? I’m nearly certain that this was about racial bigotry. I believe that the Lutherans were ahead of their time on this issue.
It’s well known that Richard John Neuhaus (in his Lutheran years, no less) worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement.
Often this is thought to have been a “quirk” of Neuhaus, a concern for social justice which is uncharacteristic for Lutheranism, but I’m not so sure. One of Neuhaus’s greatest influences was Arthur Carl Piepkorn, who expressed support for racial reconciliation both within his writings and in his involvement with the Chicago Society for Better Race Relations. Other prominent LCMS theologians who expressed support for racial reconciliation were Martin Franzman and Martin Scharlemann. Could it be that Neuhaus’s work with Martin Luther King, Jr. is consistent with the ethos of early American Confessional Lutheranism, and our surprise is due to our having been Americanized?
The third surprising “social justice” (once again, this language isn’t entirely satisfactory) entry is rather humorous: a recommendation to subscribe to Our Dumb Animals.
Our Dumb Animals was apparently a groundbreaking publication that advocated for the humane treatment of animals. Our feisty, syncretism-fighting forefathers (some of them, at least), approved.
I had read enough in various anthologies of the writings of early American Confessional Lutheran leaders, and other secondary sources, to know that their social views could be surprisingly “progressive” (again, the language falters a little here) for their times, in some areas at least. However, I wasn’t sure if these had been cherry-picked by the editors and authors citing those leaders. Coming across this old copy of The Lutheran Witness, I’m inclined to think that those social views loomed larger in the minds of those early Lutherans than they do in our memories of them.
There were other church newspapers included, as well. It also had a copy of Der Lutheraner, the official organ of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States, dated November 7, 1893. Again, my German isn’t good enough to pick out any items of interest right off the bat, but I hope to explore this a little more in the months to come.
We also found a copy of the Evangelisch-Lutherisches Gemeinde-Blatt, dated May 1, 1894. This was the official organ of the General Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, what eventually would become the Wisconsin Synod.
This paper is a good reminder that the Confessional Lutheran movement in that era was much more loosely organized, which also meant that there was much more cross-pollination between Confessional Lutheran groups. St. John’s, Algoma was initially started by pastors from the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin (GELSW), an even earlier predecessor to the Wisconsin Synod. Early on they had applied to affiliate with GELSW, but their application was rejected since it was not accompanied by a constitution. The congregation, seemingly, never quite forgave the GELSW for this, and it began to be served by Missouri Synod pastors. While it was served for decades by Missouri Synod pastors, the congregation itself never formally affiliated with any synod until 1917, when it affiliated with the Missouri Synod.
Nonetheless, throughout its history it had cordial relations with the Wisconsin Synod congregations in the area. Some of the old-timers still remember pulpit exchanges with the large Wisconsin Synod congregation in Algoma, which occurred until the break in fellowship between the LCMS and the WELS in the 1960s.
Die Evangelisch-Lutherische Freikirche
The final church newspaper we came across was Die Evangelisch-Lutherische Freikirche, dated May 1, 1894. This seems to have been the official organ of the church body bearing the same name and that still exists: a Confessional Lutheran church body that broke away from the state church in Saxony. It seems that ideas percolated not only among American Confessional Lutheran groups at the time, but that they also kept in contact with Confessional Lutherans back in Germany.
The Kewaunee County Banner
The next item we came across is a copy of the Kewaunee County Banner, dated April 26, 1894. This was a German-language newspaper operating in our county.
My German isn’t good enough to quickly pull out articles of interest, but here are a few things that caught my eye.
The New Era
Also included was a copy of The New Era, dated April 25, 1894. This was the English language newspaper for the county seat. It seems far less substantial than the German language paper. Most news items are of the nature: “Mayor of Algoma was seen walking the streets of Kewaunee on Tuesday,” etc.
However, it does have this terrifying editorial:
The final secular paper enclosed was a copy of Die Rundschau, a German language newspaper from Chicago. It seems that the pastor at the time, Rev. Stelter, had a subscription (see the top left corner.)
Those German-Americans really liked thick content.
There are a few other items of interest from 1894. These include:
A Handwritten Copy of the Constitution from 1874
A List of Members in 1894
A History of the Congregation Written by the Reverend Stelter, Pastor in 1894
A Note About the President and Governor
List of Items Placed in the 1894 Cornerstone
Contents from 1967
Another stone was laid in 1967, and it too had items placed in it. Here is the stone:
And, here is a list of the contents of that stone:
Sadly, all of the contents from the 1967 stone were completely and irreparable water damaged. Here they are:
Fortunately, a few items from 1967 were also placed in the 1894 stone. Here they are:
A Few Final Reflections
The contents of this stone deserve more scrutiny and thought, which I hope to give over time. However, here are a few initial observations:
We Are Illiterate
We are illiterate these days, not in the sense that we cannot read, but in the sense that our facility for language has declined immensely. The writing in the 1890s was far and away better than most writing we come across today. It was crisp, clear, concise, informative, and funny in ways that few contemporary authors can muster.
And those frontier German-Americans? They were bilingual and took in writing produced locally, regionally, and from around the world. The farmers, by paging through their catechisms and hymnals, would have encountered better writing than many a contemporary college professor.
Often we look back at our forebears pridefully, thinking we are far ahead of them. In many ways they tower above us. We are ants, and they are giants.
The Confessional Movement Has Lost Its Swagger
Don’t get me wrong. There is some great stuff happening among Confessional Lutherans today. However, the Confessional Movement has lost the dynamic character we see in the 19th Century. Perhaps this is because the Confessional Movement has institutionalized and lost the sense of being a movement. Perhaps this is due to the process of Americanization, so that we have begun to imitate the various other Protestant church bodies. I’m not sure about the “why”, but I can clearly see the “what”: that Confessional Lutherans in the 19th Century were boldly asserting their theology and pursuing a vitalized church life across synodical jurisdictions and geographical boundaries. They were producing newspapers, setting up mission societies, sending out missionaries to the frontier, establishing congregations, putting together charity organizations. They had a manful confidence that seems to have given way to a spirit of pessimism, anger, and ennui.
19th Century Confessional Leaders Weren’t Afraid to Address Social Issues
Many are familiar with what we might consider to be early Confessional Lutherans’ more dour social pronouncements: no round dancing, card playing, or buying of insurance policies. How many of us are aware that some of them were also concerned about racial bigotry and animal welfare?
We certainly need not follow them in all their concerns. I’m not cancelling my insurance policy or subscribing to Our Dumb Animals anytime soon. However, perhaps we might be a little more confident in addressing the moral issues of our day.
We are confident in taking up the Pro-Life cause, and well we should be. We also speak out on matters of sexual ethics. All well and good. However, a whole host of social problems exist: ongoing racial prejudice, the plight of the working class, drug and alcohol abuse, human trafficking, water and air pollution, the suffering of people in regions marked by war, famine, and disease, to name a few. The world could use the thought and work of those who are well-versed in the wisdom of God.
Again, modern day Confessional Lutherans might do well to imitate their forebears’ manful confidence.
Our Heritage, God’s Truth, Is Worth Preserving and Promoting
The settlers along the shores of Lake Michigan had a demanding life. They carved farms out of wilderness in a time before power equipment in a region of often harsh and deadly weather. These men and women were made of stone, and yet they recognized their dire need of God’s Word. At no small expense to them, they called for missionary pastors to establish a congregation among them.
In our time of ease and comfort, it’s easy for us to forget the one thing needful. If unpacking this cornerstone has encouraged me in any way, it is this: It has reminded me of the great treasure that is the Word of God. Our Lutheran Confession is the most faithful exposition of that Word. Through it we taste the full sweetness of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s a heritage worth preserving and promoting.
+++Update August 3, 2017++++
Since initially posting this, I’ve done a little digging, and I think I know what this statement from Bayard is referring to. In 1889 a law was passed (the so-called Bennett Law) outlawing the use of German in schools in Wisconsin. A similar law was also passed in Illinois. This was one tactic in a larger anti-German strategy being pursued by nativists within the state and nation. Lutheran leaders in both the Wisconsin Synod and Missouri Synod joined with German Catholic leaders to denounce the law, and it was repealed in 1891. I am nearly certain that this law’s repeal is what Bayard was referring to when he says that they had “once again” put down bigotry.
This leaves the question, however, regarding the precedent Bayard refers to. What was the “once” which leads to the “once again”? As I mentioned above, I believe that this is referring to the strong support that German-Americans in the Northwest (now the Upper Midwest) showed for abolition and the Union.
It seems that both Bayard and the editors of The Lutheran Witness recognized that the Lutherans treasured freedom and hated bigotry, and this motivated them to work for freedom not only for themselves but also for black slaves. While the primary reference in the Bayard quote on closer review seems to be about the repeal of the Bennett Law, it yet speaks to opposition against racial bigotry.