Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity

By Todd, Mary | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict That Changed American Christianity


Todd, Mary, The Catholic Historical Review


Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod: A Conflict that Changed American Christianity. By James C. Burkee. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2011. Pp. xvi, 256. $29.00. ISBN 978-0-800-69792-1.)

Unlike most of American Lutheranism, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod takes pride in the fact that it has never merged with another church body. Founded in 1847, it once flirted with a like-minded Lutheran church regarding altar and pulpit fellowship as well as experienced - also unlike most of American Lutheranism - the pain of schism.

James Burkee, associate professor of political science at Concordia University Wisconsin, did not experience the Lutheran civil war of the 1970s as did most of those who have written about it to date. The present book, the first nonpartisan account, narrates the evolution of a conservative movement that succeeded in driving more moderate voices from the synod by the mid1970s.

At the center of the conservative element was Herman Otten, whose seminary faculty in 1957 refused to certify him for ordination after he leveled charges of heresy against them. Burkee considers Otten the synod's "most infamous figure" (p. 8), yet finds him among its most pitiable characters. Since 1962, Otten has published the Christian News, a weekly "church tabloid" (p. 43), in which he has vilified individuals and institutions and through which "he defined conservatism for the Missouri Synod, created a sense of crisis," and "turned a handful of anxious pastors and laymen into a movement" (p. 6).

Yet Burkee finds little consensus within the so-called movement and even less trust. Using extensive quotations from interviews with key players from the era, he weaves an account of growing discontent fueled by Otten 's publication, a drumbeat that led to blatant politics by the synod's 1969 biennial convention, "as awkward and schizophrenic a gathering as Missouri Lutherans had ever seen" (p. 90). With the election of Jacob Preus, the conservative candidate who ousted the more moderate incumbent, the synod set on a path to clean house of all things liberal, in particular Concordia Seminary in St. …

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