This article by Rev. G. Birkmann first appeared in the Texas Lutheran Messenger of the Texas District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in May, 1931.
SYNODICAL CONVENTION AT ST. LOUIS IN 1884
(By Rev. G. Birkmann)
Before this convention – May 7 to 17 – our Texas District Conference was to meet in Pastor Peter Klindworth’s congregation at William Penn, April 27 to 29. So I first attended this conference, and then after staying with Klindworth a few days, 1 traveled with him and a lay delegate from his congregation to St. Louis.
The conference began on the second Sunday after Easter. On this Sunday we had divine services and Holy Communion, and on the following days we had our sessions in the church. I can recall the names of all present. Not more than twelve or thirteen were present even when the conference was well attended. Among these were Wischmeyer of Rose Hill, Wilder of Klein, G. W. Behnken of Cypress, Gotthold Kuehn of Houston, Kaspar of Lee County, Buchschacher and Louis Lange of Fayette County, the latter of Swiss Alp, Theo. Kohn of Dallas, L. Ernst of Walburg, J. Trinklein, Waco, our itinerant missionary in Central and West Texas, H. Kilian of Serbin. The aged pastors, C. L. Geyer, John Kilian, Simon Suess were absent.
Pastor G. W. Behnken was the essayist. At this conference as well as in the following year, the inspiration and interpretation of the Bible were treated. Kohn and Trinklein reported on their mission work, and we were glad to hear that the Lord had blessed their labors. These little conferences, how good and pleasant they were. The brethren dwelt together in unity in the sessions and in the parsonage. All knew one another and were on brotherly terms. It seemed hard to part, and all looked forward with pleasure to the next conference.
I spent delightful days with Pastor Klindworth and also was glad to have an opportunity of exploring the neighborhood. On open spaces the “Lupinus Texensis” (blue bonnet) thrived, covering large areas with solid blue, and many other beautiful flowers that were new to me, I found there. We also visited the father of the lay delegate to St. Louis, Roehling, who had his home near a bluff on the Brazos. There I saw for the first time in bloom the Horse Chestnut, a shrub or small tree with large red blossoms. Sunday forenoon I preached in William Penn, and in the afternoon Klindworth, Roehling, and myself drove to the station, crossing the river near old Washington, the seat of our State government over ninety years ago, a memorable and venerable spot, recalling the early history of the State, which is true also of the little hamlet Independence.
We took the H & T C to Denison, then the M K & T to Vinita, a town in northern Oklahoma or Indian Territory as it was then called. Vinita was but a small place at that time. As our train had missed connection with the train to St. Louis, we had to spend many hours in Vinita and felt no little disappointment at the delay. We therefore took a walk over the open prairie to see what we could find. However, there wasn’t much to see, as it still was rather cold and the season had not advanced so far as in Texas.
At last our Missouri Pacific train arrived, and after a night of travel we reached our destination in time for the opening of Synod on Wednesday morning. We ate our breakfast and hastened to Trinity Church, and there attended the opening service. How I enjoyed all this, not having been in St. Louis in eight years, and never having attended a meeting of the entire synod except as a member of quarta in Ft. Wayne in 1869!
I sat not far behind my teacher, Dr. Walther, whom I was very glad to see again, although for the present I could see only his large head which was constantly in motion during the singing of the hymn, “Come, Holy Spirit.” I could not help noticing with what vigor he joined in the singing. This man’s spirit and fiery enthusiasm for God and His kingdom was evident to me again as so often before in his sermons and lectures.
The sermon was delivered by Dr. Krauss, the director of our seminary at Addison since Lindemann’s death in 1879. Though only thirty-three years old, he was an experienced theologian and teacher. His text was Acts 15, where we have an account of the apostles’ convention in Jerusalem and of the first synod of the Christian church. This was presented to us as a model. The sermon was rich in content and very thorough. It took over an hour to deliver it, and six pages of the “Lutheraner” (June 1884) to publish it, but then the people were more willing to listen to a long discourse.
The sessions were held in the new seminary, the new “college” in the parlance of the people, a magnificent assembly hall. It was, to my knowledge, the first time synod met or could meet in one of our institutions, as before this none of our colleges had a room large enough for the entire synod.
President H. C. Schwan based his presidential address on Ps. 126, 3: “The Lord has done great things for us; whereof we are glad.” It appeared in the “Lutheraner” of May 15, 1884. I have heard and read many a sermon by Schwan, always with pleasure and profit, but none is more inspirational than the one he delivered at this synod. It gave expression to the sentiments of synod at that time. The Lord had done great things for us, indeed. Three years earlier, at Ft. Wayne in 1881, everybody feared for synod because of the controversy that had set in with regard to the doctrine of election. Here and there a pastor or a congregation of our synod had become disloyal. What would become of synod: Would not the entire body go to pieces? But what happened? The Lord has done great things for us. He had kept our synod steadfast in the true unity of His word and faith. Through His word the Lord had done this, through our testimony to the truth. However irrational it may seem, the divine truth prevailed, proved itself on our hearts as the wisdom and the power of God, enriched us in knowledge, made us stronger than before in unity. Thereof we are glad and thank the Lord with all our hearts. It was a jubilant synod. True, the struggle for the doctrine of the Scriptures and the Confessions had as yet not ended, but the existence of our synod had been secured. The Lord had helped gloriously.
Dr. Pieper for the first time led the doctrinal discussions, and since then has done so at every general synod, or at least has lectured, for in the last forty years there has been so much business that there has been but little time for any discussion.
Dr. Pieper showed that the source of any Christian doctrine are such passages of Holy Writ which treat of that particular doctrine, not human reason or rational deductions, not inferences from a Bible text, not Scripture as a whole, “Schriftganzes.” One must teach what God’s Word expressly states. ”If any man speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God.” The essay is found in the Proceedings of the General Synod of 1884.
Also Dr. Walther made various comments on the essay and the subject under discussion. He cited what is said to be a word of St. Peter: ouden ater graphes, i. e., nothing without Scripture. Moreover, I remember that when Walther read a lengthy quotation from Luther castigating ludicrous deductions of Papists a wave of merriment passed through the audience held spellbound by the vigorous blows Luther’s ridicule dealt to the Elector of Mainz. It is to be noted here that no one could read Luther to an audience so well as Dr. Walther.
I recall furthermore how Pastor Carl Manthey Zorn showed what reason leads to when it undertakes to make inferences in matters of Christian doctrine. Its deductions are like those of a group of blind men who by feeling wanted to determine what an elephant is like. The first one got hold of the trunk and declared the elephant to be like a snake. The second one embraced a leg of the elephant and said, “The elephant is like a tree.” The third one felt along the gigantic body and concluded that the elephant is like a wall. The fourth one touched the ears, and gave it as his opinion that the elephant is like a windmill.
Pastor Otto Hanser reported as chairman of the board of control on the seminary and on the new building which had been dedicated in the fall of the previous year. The cost of this building exceeded considerably the amount appropriated, and Hanser came in for some censure on this account. But really the cost was not too high. It was an imposing structure, and it is that today. Only the need for more room made it necessary to build anew. Hanser was of the opinion that it would suffice for all time. The people had no conception then of the present size of synod. A convention of synod at large at that time was no larger numerically than a convention of our District now is.
There were twelve Districts, 850 pastors, 1200 congregations inclusive of those not as yet belonging to synod, 350,000 souls. The number of pastors, teachers, and congregations has quadrupled, but there are only three times as many souls. To issue a statistical year book is one of the resolutions of this synod.
Returning to the seminary, let us stand a while at the foot of the broad stairway on the ground-floor and watch the procession of delegates on their way up the stairs to the aula. Among them are many who have for 30 to 35 years belonged to synod. About half of the fathers and founders of synod are still living and present. Prof. Schaller was my teacher in St. Louis, also Guenther. Rector Schick of Ft. Wayne is still in his prime. He exerted a profound influence on scholars that had advanced to Secunda and Prima. And there is Selle of Addison who had been host of the first synodical gathering in 1847 in Chicago, a venerable old man, always wearing his little black plush cap in church and in the sessions. Too bad we have no picture of this assembly, but taking pictures for the press was not then the vogue which it is today.
There was also less noise and traffic on Jefferson Avenue than today. The weather was balmy. The foliage and flowers began to appear, and the birds sang their song from among the branches. The tables were set out in the open. The delegates sat in groups in chairs placed in front of the seminary, smoked, enjoyed the delights of nature and the architecture of the new building, and were happy as Missouri pastors and laymen are happy when they get together.
Services were conducted in three churches: in Trinity Church, dedicated Dec., 1865, destroyed by a cyclone in 1896; in Holy Cross Church, in which on Sunday forenoon Pastor Stoeckhart de-
livered the confessional address and Zorn the sermon; in Immanuel Church, in which Pastor Sieker of New York preached one evening. Sieker was a very impressive sort of a person alike on account of his gigantic stature and on account of his ability. His work was richly blessed first as a leader in the old Minnesota Synod and then in New York as a member of our synod. His biography has been written by Pastor Paul Rosener.
On another evening Schieferdecker preached when services were again held in Trinity Church. He, too, was a remarkable man, frequently mentioned in the early history of our synod. He was one of the candidates who had joined the Saxon immigrants of 1838. In the early forties he founded congregations in southern Illinois at Millstadt, Waterloo, and Columbia. In 1849 he came to Altenburg as Pastor Loeber’s successor, and in 1854 was elected president of the Western District. He embraced chiliasm and was excommunicated after patient but fruitless admonition, because he refused to confess without reservation that “thence He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead,” and that “on the last day He will raise up me and all the dead.” It was a most painful experience for our entire synod. He continued to serve what was called the “chiliastic congregation.” at Altenburg. After joining, and holding membership in, the Iowa Synod 20 years, he acknowledged his error, apologized, and was readmitted to our synod. When he preached the pastoral sermon referred to above, he was an old man, and it was difficult to understand him, but he was a pious preacher and apt to teach. We are indebted to him for a fine communion book.
After the close of synod I spent a happy week in Waterloo, Ill., my home, where I met old friends and acquaintances and enjoyed the beautiful country. Also once again I preached from the pulpit of my father in the old stone church. On Monday before Pentecost I departed for my home in Fedor, Lee County, but on account of high water I could not get there till Friday, although much work awaited me.