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The 1959 Conventions of the WELS and ELS

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 (1959 WELS) convention reacted to the “A Call for Decision” memorial by resolving “that the Synod disavow the serious and repeated charges made in ‘A Call for Decision’” and by resolving “that the Synod also disavow the charge ‘distortion of historical facts’” (Proceedings of the Thirty-Fifth Convention, pp. 211-212). With regard to relations with the Missouri Synod, the synod resolved “that we instruct our Church Union Committee to continue its efforts in the Joint Union Committees until agreement on doctrine and practice has been reached, or until an impasse is reached and no such agreement can be brought about.” At the same time the convention stated: “Many of the offenses of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod . . . have not been removed and have been aggravated by The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod’s reaffirmation of their position on Scouting” (Proceedings of the Thirty-Fifth Convention, p. 195). Notice that the direction of Romans 16:17-18 was being ignored, for even though the offenses were continuing, there was no separation. Meanwhile, the procedure proposed by Lawrenz was being followed: fellowship was to continue until an impasse was reached or, in other words, it was determined that admonition was of no further avail. It was not long thereafter that The Northwestern Lutheran reported more withdrawals (from the Wisconsin Synod).
Pastors and congregations in the Wisconsin Synod were not the only ones taking a stand against the disobedience to God’s Word going on in their church body. The Norwegian Synod, soon to be known as the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, had already suspended fellowship relations with the Missouri Synod in its 1955 convention. But the Norwegian Synod had not suspended fellowship with the Synodical Conference, of which the Missouri Synod was by far the most dominant member. This inconsistent situation continued through the years that followed and became the focus of many protests and memorials from within the Norwegian Synod. In fact, the record indicates that some leaders in the Norwegian Synod were beginning to doubt whether their synod had done the right thing in 1955.
In the early months of 1959 Loren Borgwardt, a member of Ascension Lutheran Church of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, sent to all pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod a lengthy document. . . . The basic problem, as Mr. Borgwardt saw it, was that the 1955 resolution to suspend fellowship with the Missouri Synod “was only partial and incomplete” and that it “resulted only in untold confusion and possible weakening of our Synod’s position.” The problem was that “our Synod did not withdraw from the Synodical Conference, well knowing that the Synodical Conference was controlled by the Missouri Synod. . . . We refused to withdraw from the Synodical Conference in 1955, 1956, 1957, and in 1958. Our Synod’s obedience to God’s command in the apostolic injunction of Romans 16:17 was incomplete! . . . Romans 16:17 does not say ‘avoid them at this level and fellowship with them at that level.’ It just clearly and simply states ‘avoid them!’ There are no exceptions—there are no qualifications! . . . We ourselves are now guilty of unionistic practices at the Synodical Conference level. . . . By continuing our membership in the Synodical Conference our Synod is presenting to the whole wide world a lie because such membership automatically implies that we are walking hand in hand with the Missouri Synod in true unity of spirit and purpose, preaching the unconditioned Gospel. This lie is causing untold confusion within our Synod, within the other Synods, and throughout the Lutheran Church as a whole.”
Therefore, just as the Wisconsin Synod was faced at its 1959 convention with “A Call for Decision” over against the Missouri Synod, so the ELS was faced with a decision in 1959 with reference to its continued membership in the Synodical Conference. . . . The Union Committee, however, recommended that the ELS continue to take part in discussions with the other Synodical Conference members on the same basis as before. . . . The convention . . . ended up . . . approving a report that followed the recommendations of the Union Committee.
Between the 1959 and 1960 ELS conventions Norman Madson, Sr., dean of the seminary, resigned from the seminary faculty at Bethany. . . . In his letter of withdrawal, dated June 30, 1959, C. M. Gullerud stated: “The Synod has continued in the fellowship of the Synodical Conference and has thereby been involved in joint prayer and worship (in committee meetings and at Synodical Conference Conventions) and in joint support of mission work together with a church body which has caused divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which we have learned. God’s Word teaches that we are to avoid such church bodies which means that we are to carry on no worship or church work with them. To do so is to act in disobedience to the clear Bible passage—Romans 16:17.
The reports of withdrawals continued in 1960 and 1961 (from both the WELS and the ELS). . . . They believed that obedience to the Word of God left them no choice; for them it was a matter of conscience. For some pastors their withdrawal meant a loss of income, since their congregations did not follow them in their withdrawal from the church body. They had to find other employment. Some were even forcibly removed from their parsonages and churches. For other pastors their separation . . . led to divisions within the congregations they had served, division between those who favored the pastor’s stand and those who opposed it. In some instances these divisions led to bitter conflicts and even court cases.
It was not the pastors only who suffered the consequences of taking a stand. Many of the lay members who felt conscience-bound to separate from the Wisconsin Synod and from the Norwegian Synod (ELS) had to endure the hostility or ignorance of their relatives, former friends, and associates. Some lost income because of the hostility of the community in which they worked. Sad to say, words were spoken and actions were taken on both sides of the struggle that were not in agreement with the will of God. Confessional Lutherans who want to follow the Word of God in their lives learn from experience that they also have a sinful flesh leading them at times to wrong attitudes, bitter feelings, sinful pride, selfish ambitions, and every other kind of sin.
Another thing to remember about these withdrawals from the synods of the Synodical Conference is that the leaders in this effort were mature men, many of whom had served in influential positions in their respective former synods. They included district presidents, seminary professors, synodical officials, writers for official publications, and veteran pastors of large congregations. How difficult it was for persons in their fifties and sixties and older to make major changes in their lives! Yet leaders like Norman Madson, Sr., Winfred Schaller, Sr., Edmund Reim, Paul G. Albrecht, Gerhard Pieper, George Tiefel, C. M. Gullerud, M. J. Witt, Egbert Schaller, and Otto J. Eckert were convinced that they had to take the steps they did out of obedience to the Word of God. The present members of the CLC should never forget the difficulties these men and others with like convictions faced, and the sacrifices they made for the sake of obedience to God’s Word. Nor should we forget the efforts of the men and women in the congregations they served, efforts to support the cause of God’s truth regardless of cost.
David Lau is a retired pastor and professor. He and his wife live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.