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The 1957 WELS Convention

One aspect of the discussion surrounding the “Joint Statement,” which will again be before us
at our 2020 convention, is how much importance to give to the events that took place around the period 1955-1961
that led to the formation of the CLC. In this seven-part series, Professor Emeritus David Lau provides a digest of
these events, excerpted from his book, “Out of Necessity.” We urge all CLC members—and particularly convention
delegates—to re-familiarize themselves with this important period in our fellowship’s history.

The Wisconsin Synod President, Oscar Naumann, reported to the (1957) convention: “Many individuals, several conferences, and one entire District are convinced that we as a synod are guilty of disobedience to God’s Holy Word, because we have not as yet applied the injunction of Romans 16:17-18 to The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.”
The floor committee dealing with this matter (at the 1957 WELS convention)…stated in their report to the convention: “We feel conscience-bound to declare publicly, that these principles, policies, and practices create a division between our synods which The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod alone can remove. Until these offenses have been removed, we cannot fellowship together with The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod as one body, lest our own Wisconsin Synod be affected by the same unionistic spirit which finally weakens and destroys all true doctrine and leads to indifference and liberalism concerning Scriptural truth.” The committee therefore proposed the following resolution to the convention: “Resolved, that we now suspend church fellowship with The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod on the basis of Romans 16:17-18, until the principles, policies, and practices in controversy between us have [been] resolved in a thoroughly Scriptural and mutually acceptable manner” (Proceedings of the Thirty-Fourth Convention, p. 143).
It is probably safe to say that if the convention had accepted this resolution, there would be no Church of the Lutheran Confession today. The convention, however, defeated this resolution by a vote of 77 to 61, with eight delegates abstaining. The convention resolved instead “that we continue our vigorously protesting fellowship over against The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, because of the continuation of the offenses with which we have charged the sister synod, Romans 16:17-18” (Proceedings of the Thirty-Fourth Convention, p. 144).
At this point during the 1957 New Ulm convention some of the protesters believed it was time to take a stand. On the morning after the vote was taken, Edmund Reim said: “I find myself compelled to discontinue my fellowship with the Synod. I hope and pray that the Synod may yet return to its former ways and to full obedience to the Word of God, specifically Rom. 16:17-18. I trust that you will realize that I take this step, not in anger, but in deepest sorrow, and because I am constrained by the Word of God.”
M. J. Witt likewise declared to that convention: “Since the 1953 convention at Saginaw, the members of Trinity Lutheran, Spokane, Washington, and I as pastor have declared ourselves protesting members of the Wisconsin Synod. This Synod convention by refusing to adopt the Floor Committee No. 2 resolutions has chosen to continue in fellowship with The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. This convention has thereby not only chosen an un-Scriptural course but has also become partaker of the very sin of unionism against which she has admonished The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod during the last two decades. . . . Out of love to the Wisconsin Synod and out of love and fear of the Word of God, I am compelled to announce my severance of fellowship from the official Wisconsin Synod.”
Paul G. Albrecht stated at the close of the convention: “. . . I cannot follow the course which the Synod now has chosen; for the Synod was wrong when it rejected the Report of Committee No. 2. . . . I cannot fellowship with those who have advocated the position which the Synod made its own last night.”
In the months that followed the 1957 convention of the Wisconsin Synod, other pastors and congregations withdrew from the church body.
In his essay for the tenth anniversary of the Church of the Lutheran Confession in 1970, M. J. Witt referred to the experiences of those who were the first to withdraw from their synods. He wrote: “Many of those who became members of the Interim Conference (also known as the Lutheran Spokesman Group) after the last part of the year 1959, did not experience the forlorn loneliness and anguish in the same way as those who withdrew in 1956, 1957, and 1958. There was no church group these men could join. There was no synod in existence with which they could affiliate. Those were the days of charged emotions. There was tearful loneliness and the search for a haven.” (Tenth Anniversary 1970 Convention Essays, p. 1 – Archives, File A-2)
Later in the same essay Pastor Witt indicated the main reason for those early withdrawals: “It was the holy Word of God which was violated when the synods from which we originally came, continued in a fellowship which God forbade. God made it clear to us that every deviation from the Word is dangerous. He said: ‘A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump,’ and again that every departure ‘will eat as doth a canker.’ That the doctrine which was violated is a non-fundamental one is not the issue in fellowship. That the teaching because of which we separated may be referred to as a peripheral teaching does not alter God’s exhortation and admonition to withdraw. The fact is that the deviation is the beginning of an attack upon the glory of the work and person of Jesus whose Word is ignored. It is the beginning of the devil’s modification and eventual destruction of the essential doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Every departure from God’s Word disrupts and disturbs the purpose for which God gave Scripture to us, namely, to ‘make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.’ We did not want to be partakers of the evil deed of departing from God’s clear Word, and we did not want to be joined with such as serve not our Lord Jesus Christ by ignoring and disregarding His ‘avoid’ and ‘withdraw.’” (Tenth Anniversary 1970 Convention Essays, pp. 6-7)
Pastor Witt continued with these words that are surely worth remembering today: “Let others say what they wish as to the reasons why we withdrew. Let them say that it was because we couldn’t get what we wanted. Let them say that it was a matter of personality clashes. Let them say that we were bitter. But let none of us ever conduct ourselves in such a way that the opponents can have a right to such claims. The six pastors who met in pastoral conference in Spokane in the fall of 1957 cautioned one another against bitterness, and it is worth repeating. ‘Bitterness and lovelessness are unbecoming to everyone who is a recipient of God’s grace in Christ. Our conduct and behavior ought to be such at all times that others may know that the love of Christ and love for His Word dwell in us. Let the gift of grace shine; let Christ be glorified in our lives; let the evidence of our love be clear to all.’” (Tenth Anniversary 1970 Convention Essays, p. 7)
David Lau is a retired pastor and professor. He and his wife live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.