Steadfast Lessons from the Past ““ Selective Memory of My Friend Richard Neuhaus, by Rev. Walter Otten

(Walt’s regular posts are archived on the Regular Columns page under the title “Steadfast Lessons from the Past.”)


What many have called Richard John Neuhaus, I also do.   He was a “friend.”


Richard John Neuhaus died on January 8th of this year. The April issue of FIRST THINGS, of which he was editor in chief, was dedicated to him.


The issue contained 50 letters of condolence. Those letters came from all over the world. One came from President Bush himself. The last of those letters was the only one from a member of the Missouri Synod ministerium. The   Rev. Richard Ziehr of Buda, Texas, who was baptized by Richard Neuhaus’s uncle,   who probably knew Richard Neuhaus longer than any of the other writers of those letters, wrote of him, “He was a man who could not be ignored, even if you disagreed with him, you still found him interesting. We will miss him.”


The rest of the April issue of FIRST THINGS included 26 longer articles reflecting on the life and work of Richard John Neuhaus. These were for the most part written by those who worked with him or had some link to FIRST THINGS. Only three of them were written by women. Two were written by Missouri Synod pastors, both retired. One was written by Art Simon, brother of former U.S. Senator, Paul Simon. The other was written by Rev. Erwin Prange, an uncle, his mother’s brother.


Pr. Prange strongly suggests he and another LCMS pastor, Dr. William Backus, were responsible for turning Richard Neuhaus into a “maverick theologian.”


Prange’s article entitled, Fishers of Men, included these words about a fishing trip that he and Backus took to Pembroke, Ontario, Canada where Richard’s father, Clem Neuhaus, was pastor.


” The fishing trip was only partially successful, but the conversation was rewarding.  Richard sat at the feet of two nonconformist theologians that weekend and was  enthralled. He had never heard anything like this before in his conventional  theological journey.  We made fun of Richard’s corny Missouri Synod theology. ‘Richard, surely you can’t  believe all the things they are teaching,’ was our favorite reply to his theological  platitudes. When we got back to the Neuhaus house, Richard tried to share some  of his new insights with his father. But orthodox dad was less than thrilled. He made  Dr. Backus and me feel less than welcome, so we packed up our things and cut our         visit short.”


Prange goes on to write that shortly before Richard Neuhaus’s death he received a letter from him. Of that letter he writes,

“In this letter he stated that Backus and I had tried to turn him into a maverick theologian that summer. The letter concluded that, after much experience and countless words, he would have to admit that we had succeeded.”

How sad for a pastor of the LCMS to have done what Rev. Prange claims he and Backus did in the life of Richard John Neuhaus.


Readers of FIRST THINGS might be interested in other writings of Rev. Erwin Prange, Richard’s uncle.  He has written “The Gift Is Already Yours.” It was published by Logos International. In it he gives his testimony,

“All at once a voice came seemingly from nowhere and everywhere…Then I noticed that I was praying in a new language of praise.”  

Was this the maverick theology that his nephew would later adopt? Any reader of FIRST THINGS knows the answer to that question.


Further review of Prange’s article in FIRST THINGS raises these additional observations.   He writes about the vicarage year of his brother-in law, Richard’s father.

“Clemens Neuhaus was a Lutheran seminary student who came to Crocket’s Bluff as an intern for the newly formed Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.”

The earliest Clem Neuhaus could have come to Crocket’s Bluff to serve his vicarage would have been in the 1920s. The “newly formed Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod” was then already 75 years old.


He also writes, “Clem was president of the Ontario District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.” Clem was this writer’s neighbor in Canada, he was never elected to be president of the Ontario District. He did serve that district very faithfully as its First Vice President.


Prange also writes of his nephew Richard, “He was the second son of my sister, Ella Prange.” FIRST THINGS includes a picture of the Neuhaus family. There are nine people in the picture. Clem and Ella are pictured with seven of their children. Six of the children are boys. Under this picture are the words, “Richard as an infant on his mother’s lap.”   Yet we read “He was the second son of my sister, Ella.”


Even as there is maverick theology so also is there maverick and charismatic history, neither of which can be trusted.


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