War and Pestilence: The Missouri Synod in the Year 1918

The year 1918 was tumultuous in the Missouri Synod.  It was the year of the climax and conclusion of World War I, where our German-speaking pastors and congregations suffered much persecution and scorn.  It was also the year of the Spanish Flu, which took the lives of thousands of Americans and touched every one of our existing congregations.  The following is a translation of a cover article from Ludwig Fuerbringer, simply titled “1918.”  It is from the December 31, 1918 issue of Der Lutheraner.  It reflects on the challenges of that year and expresses much optimism about the Missouri Synod’s future.

We would do well to learn from our history and the courage of our forefathers, as we finish the challenging year of 2020 and press on with repentance, courage, and optimism in our risen Savior Jesus Christ.  Christ’s bride and even our American Lutheran synods have weathered worse battles before. – R.L.L.

1918.

The year 1918 will not be forgotten in the thoughts of those who experienced and survived this year.  It indicated the high-point and end of the World War, which had no equal in the history of mankind.  Now come all the results, which have accompanied the war: changes and toppling of established ordinances, rising and falling of the kingdoms of this world, rising prices and pestilence, injustice and violence.  We do not need to belabor the point.  All you readers know about these things.

Also in the history of our church this year 1918 will not be forgotten.  It was in more than one sense a year of intense pressure.  Since our fathers and forefathers departed their home and fatherland in order to escape civil and religious persecution, our church has built itself up in orderly religious freedom, and no one has been hindered to serve God according to his conscience.  What for suspicion, shaming, oppression, and persecution has happened in this year towards our churches, schools, and congregations, we do not need to handle further.  Every reader knows about it.

We should regard all these trials as God’s hand come over us for our salvation.  It is the Lord who humbles and disciplines us, and we experience nothing which we have not deserved a thousand times over.  The Lutheran Church is the church of the pure Word and Confession.  For 80 years the salvific truth of the Gospel has been proclaimed in our churches in all sincerity and purity.  Our children have from youth onward had rich opportunity to know and love Christ.  Have we been rightly thankful for all these benefits?  Have we made these our own and exhausted them as we have been able and should?  Last year we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Reformation.  Have all of us at all times brought honor on the Lutheran name in our confession and life?  Many a person has turned his back on his church, has forsaken its assemblies, and has made the world his most cherished possession.  How great still is the ignorance of spiritual things, how little the longing also in this serious time, to become rich in discernment!  How great is the indifference among us, how strong is the love for earthly security everywhere we look!  We have the light.  We have had it for years and decades, but have we placed it in a lamp so it shines for all those in our homes to see?  Have we not more often placed it under a bushel?  We are the salt of the earth.  But how often has the salt become useless, lost its power, and not protected itself and steered itself away from laziness!  Therefore we want to think in terms of honest and genuine repentance when we think on the difficult results of the year 1918.  “Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!” (Lamentations 3:39).  “I will bear the indignation of the LORD because I have sinned against him” (Micah 7:9).  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).

Still, the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our fortress.  His mercy has no end, but is new every morning, and his faithfulness is great.  We must thank the Lord, that he has permitted his Word to remain uncorrupted and unabbreviated among us.  The star shines for us bright, which points to the manger in Bethlehem.  The public Divine Service has continued unhindered in the vast majority of our congregations, also in the manner in which our congregations first desired to establish it.  We have once again become rightly attentive to our schools, to regard them as precious treasures.  The regulations which had to be reckoned with in many places have not proven themselves everywhere as a disadvantage, but even as an advantage.  And when we rightly nurture and cultivate our schools, when we watch over them correctly and pray for them, we will also save them in this crisis.  In the time of pressure in our congregations is much more a new zeal arisen, which has proven itself also in a greater willingness to sacrifice.  As in the year 1917 with our jubilation-collection, so in the year 1918 our chaplain-collection has far surpassed its predecessors.  The closing of church doors due to the epidemic has brought many to the realization that Sunday is no right Sunday without the public Divine Service.  Overall, wartime led many once again on the way to God’s house.  And much young blood, which had become indifferent and careless, has become of a new mind in the boot camps and in the trenches.  In many places a living interest in mission work has shown itself, which has also found expression in rich mission-giving.  Our mission work itself prospers and spreads, so that the means and powers we have do not reach far enough.  In the middle of wartime new doors have opened at home and abroad, and they challenge us to enter and work while it is still day.  Our teaching institutions are blossoming, and the number of students has not decreased.  In all these ways the year 1918 has proven that there is still much, much, to do.

Our synod as such is still on its old way and marches ever forward.  It holds fast on the unmistakable truth of the Divine Word and to the good Lutheran confession.  In the one hand it holds the shovel to build the walls of Jerusalem.  In the other it holds the sword, to fight against all error in the doctrine and against all injustice in life.  If dangerous influences have shown themselves in this wartime, special dangers which threaten us, weaknesses, which adhere to our churchly ways and life – they will not escape the attentive observer.  Just so we will stare the dangers straight in the eye, stand up to these influences, and correct the damages.

Also, our church press has with the year 1918 another year behind it, for “Der Lutheraner” the 74th year of its circulation.  The power of the press in our time is massive, and therefore the task of a church paper in this time is extremely important.  “Der Lutheraner” has endeavored to remain faithful to the task which stands before it, to the synod which publishes it, and to the Christians which read it, to serve with doctrine and admonishment, with encouragement and comfort.  It endeavors to teach Christians to regard our time in the light of the Divine Word, and to tell of the church, its battles and victories, its crises and hopes.  God be praised, that he has served us for so long!  May God himself make this publication ever more faithful, ever more skillful, ever more able for such service!

Looking back on this year and ahead on the next, we want to say with praise and thanks and with our eyes to the hills from which our help comes: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits!”  “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”  “Your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.  Do not forsake the work of your hands!”  “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 103:2; 106:1; 138:8; 90:17.

L.F.

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