Oliver Harms

by Lawrence R. Rast Jr.

Economic collapse, rapid social change, troubling finances . . . is this the LCMS of 1911 or 2011?

President Oliver Harms presided over the 1967 Synod convention and over the Ebenezer Year.

Photo courtesy Concordia Historical Institute

Climate change, economic collapse, familial displacement, rapid social change, changing morals—so chaotic were the circumstances of life that some began to predict the imminent end of the world. These were the conditions that faced our Synod. Were. This situation, which seems so familiar to us today, was precisely the one into which C. F. W. Walther and F. C. D. Wyneken, the first two presidents of the LCMS, stepped as they established and led the Synod during uncertain and challenging times. We could just as easily say that they are the circumstances that face our Synod today, for we, too, live in a period of rapid and somewhat unsettling change.

Blessings and challenges

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod offers one of the great stories of American Christianity: a story of blessings and challenges. Founded in 1847 with just 12 pastors and 16 congregations, it was merely one among many small Lutheran synods (at least 58 were formed between 1840–1875). Why did Missouri survive? More pointedly, why did it thrive?

One key reason was its willingness to engage its context and apply its confession in creative ways. What the Synod attempted didn’t always work according to human standards, and at other times, it did so in incredibly difficult circumstances.

Missouri at its beginning was German, and its outreach was to immigrants. However, by 1911, the Synod welcomed the English Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States into its structure as the non-geographical “English District.” Between 1917–1936, more than two-thirds of the Synod’s congregations moved to using English in worship.

Even as the Synod shifted its language, it began to take on some of the characteristics of an American denomination. As its institutions flourished, its assets and holdings increased, its bureaucracy began to expand and more institutions competed for limited dollars.

The result was a budget shortfall. In 1917, a group of twelve laymen addressed the Synod’s $100,000 debt and then continued their efforts, eventually forming the Lutheran Laymen’s League (LLL). Their next project was to raise $2.7 million to fund a pension plan for professional church workers.

The roaring twenties, however, were a time of limited numerical growth for the LCMS. The Synod simultaneously began to accrue a significant deficit, which, by 1928, totaled more than $750,000. But things were about to get worse.

The LCMS was hit hard by the Great Depression. Synod’s programs were trimmed, the budget experienced extreme tension and receipts declined. The people of the congregations were generous in their support, but their discretionary spending was limited. The result was real hardship. Not surprisingly, congregations struggled to support their pastors, and many graduates of the seminaries endured sustained waits for calls into the ministry.

Finally, depression gave way to war, which in turn gave way to a “baby boom” and a period of incredible numerical and institutional growth for the LCMS. The Synod doubled in size. Its bureaucracy and budget expanded even more. So fast was the expansion that the Synod began to experience stress.

In the 1960s, a new set of financial and theological pressures arose. As some became concerned over what they perceived were “changes” in theology and centralization/bureaucratization, they withheld their offerings in significant enough amounts to impact the Synod’s budget. In 1962, Synod adopted the “Faith Forward” effort, but it did not generate meaningful interest. Even as Synod tried to trim down, the pointed remarks of an active missionary told the real story: “Synod says it has no money. We in the mission fields feel like crying.”

In response, in 1965 the Synod approved a major “thank offering” to be held within the next two years. By January 1966, The Lutheran Witness reported that President Oliver Harms would soon proclaim 1967 as the “Ebenezer Year.” The goal of “Ebenezer” (“Stone of Help” or “Rock of Salvation” [1 Sam. 7:12]) was to raise at least $40 million.

But Ebenezer was by all accounts a failure. The 1969 convention heard that less than $15 million had actually been received. As a result, the Synod had to pare its mission efforts back even further. Difficult years followed as membership peaked in 1971 and declined in most years since. Still, at the end of the 1970s, “Forward in Remembrance,” the largest capital campaign by an American Protestant church up to that point in time, highlighted how God had blessed the LCMS.

Today we find ourselves again in a challenging time. Finances are tight. Membership has not increased as we had hoped as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Things seem to be changing more quickly than ever.

In the midst of change

Blessings and challenges: That is the way of history as we move through a world toward a future that is, humanly speaking, uncertain. But we have always faced change and will continue to do so until that absolutely certain day, that final day when our Lord returns and gathers all of His people to Himself.

In the meantime, we pray to be faithful in the midst of change. And here the experiences of our Synod over time—both positive and negative—can be instructive. The early leaders of our Synod helped people through difficult periods of transition. They did so by simultaneously holding fast and firmly to biblical doctrine as faithfully confessed in the Lutheran Confessions, successfully interpreting a rapidly changing culture that was entirely new to them and then providing the visionary leadership to move the Synod forward in vigorous mission and ministry.

The story of the LCMS leads us to rejoice in God’s faithfulness, even as we have no illusions about the human challenges before us. However, as we frame our life together in terms of God’s rich and abundant grace, we can recognize that God has given us, through our predecessors, extraordinary gifts and a capacity beyond anything our parents in the faith could have dreamed. The challenges are indeed great. God’s blessings are even greater.

> Rev. Oliver Harms served as president of the LCMS from 1962–1969.

About the Author: Dr. Lawrence R. Rast Jr. is academic dean of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind.

May 2011

Lawrence R. Rast Jr.