Pr. Eric Jonas Swensson

October, 2011


photo of Eric SwenssonMembers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have been drifting away for a while, but due to their relentless promotion of agendas, many congregations have now left. Many lay people had already left because their congregation did not leave fast enough or because local leadership judged there were not enough votes to leave. Whether it is due to any of those factors, or the feeling church membership was irrelevant, many people who grew up Lutheran and many who still think like a Lutheran are really ready for something new. They yearn for something real and relevant in the relationship with Jesus. What they yearn for may be revival, real revival, not something man-made but a growing relationship based on faith, powered by the Holy Spirit. And it is not the first time this has happened.

Part I: Where We Are and Where We Come From

This is a brief overview to help Lutherans in North America understand their Pietist roots and influences, and I pass this along not so much to set the record straight but to forward what will be hopefully a third wave of something like Pietism in our people. I would like to see a stress on the priesthood of believers, an utter confidence in one’s salvation that leads to the sharing of one’s testimony, an increased ethical concern shown by ministry that responds to everyday needs with the establishment of new institutes in one’s community to deal with problems in concrete ways, the renewal of the church through the transformation of individuals, the continual adaptation of ecclesial structures, and, of course, an awareness of an authentic experience of God on the part of individual Christians. With this kind of missional Christianity we can do a great deal of fruitful ministry in the trying times we live in.

The two previous waves of Pietism among Lutherans in America addressed a great need, and both coincided with waves of immigrants. The third is a wave of people leaving the church. We have entered a critical phase of Lutheranism, on the verge of irrelevancy and/or extinction. As in the past, there will be a shortage of clergy to address it, due because today many do not even see it, and if they do, they don’t know how to address it besides offering false gospels and church mergers. We who have been forced to recognize the failings of current institutions must rely on God, and the hand offered through the lively faith of true believers. Behind a few charismatic leaders and a renewed clergy, we shall win the day, or at least die trying.

What do you need to know about the first two waves of Pietism and why were they so influential? In the first, Pietists planted the church in North America while we were still the colonies, and in the second, Pietists were the leaders of the waves of Scandinavians who began arriving in the 1850’s continuing to the end of the century. They and the following generation founded denominations and their great institutions. One might make the case that Pietists were also the leaders of the founding of the Missouri Synod whose people arrived from Germany just prior to Scandinavians, and certainly its first leader was a Pietist. However, this paper does not get into specifics of any denomination.

You might be completely unaware of the influences of the Pietists. Most people, clergy and laity alike, tell me they know very little. You probably heard that Pietists placed too much stress on an individualized faith, and that they downplayed the Sacraments. The truth is they felt lucky to get a pastor who could administer the Sacraments. Most of the people who came here were poor, some desperately so. For the most part clergy in Europe were very reluctant to leave: paid by their governments, coming over meant certain hardship.

Perhaps if you are old enough you remember hearing about the old folks who were very strict and said,” No dancing, no card playing, no movies” Is that pietism?” Well, “Yes. And no.” Yes, that came from Pietist influences, but no, Pietism is much more than that. Here we come to the dangers of any focused pursuit of living out one’s faith in a biblically informed manner, legalism. It is hard to perpetuate any religious movement and only a few last beyond a generation: once the fire goes out, what people gladly pursued in order to be closer to their reward becomes merely a set of rules to be enforced. Pietism deserves its bad name when its leaders’ concern for a real reformation of life lends itself to moralism.

It was not legalism, but faith that our forebears leaned on that gave them courage to leave the old world behind and endure the crossing. It was not only the fearful tossing on cold North Atlantic waves, individual histories report that many of our ancestors were robbed, or taken ill before they arrived at the place they were to call their new home. They had much to endure, and even those who were not affected deeply by the religious awakenings in Germany and Scandinavia, found that their faith and the church took on a whole new level of importance in the New World. They built churches, schools, hospitals, and undertook the hard work of building channels to reach and help those coming after them.

Part II: The American Planting

Knowing that many eyes glaze over when it comes to history, we will keep it brief. It grew in fits and starts. The Swedes have the designation for the first real engrafting of a European Lutheran Church here with their colony along the Delaware River, but they quit sending ministers after they lost possession. A bit too eccentric for Lutherans in New York, Jacob Fabritius, seems to have gotten on well enough in New Delaware, serving until 1691. There were only three Churches in New Sweden, all on the western shore, serving Swedes and Finns. Lars Lock, a Finn, served 40 years until his death in 1688. From 1691-1697 there was not a single Lutheran clergyperson in North America. When Sweden sent two young ministers in 1697, Andrew Rudman and Eric Bjork, this was to be a restoration of ecclesiastical relations with Sweden. Rudman became ill and desired to return to Sweden, the Lutherans in New York begged him to stay and he did for one year, but before he left, he performed his most important act when he persuaded one Justus Falckner to be ordained in Philadelphia.

Falckner was a former student of August Hermann Francke. He came over with his brother Daniel who was part of a radical Pietist settlement. It is reported by someone that Justus had graduated from theological studies at Halle but crossed the ocean rather than be ordained. He wrote Francke, “After much persuasion, also prompting of the heart and conscience, I am staying as a regular preacher with a little Dutch Lutheran congregation, a state of affairs which I had so long avoided.” He learned Dutch so he could preach to them three times a week, but his primary congregation was made up of Germans, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Polish, Lithuanians, Transylvanians and other nationalities. He served until 1722. During that time some 2,000 refugees from the Palatine were settled up the Hudson River Valley and he took over the ministry once their pastor died. Falckner died at the age of 51, perhaps of overwork! A pastor had accompanied the Palatines, and when he died in 1719 Falckner was left with 19 congregations to tend to. Many of those congregations still exist.

So, what we see is that in the very beginning, Lutheranism in North America predates Pietism, but the establishment and the growth of the church here coincided with rapid German immigration and the rise of Pietism on the Continent and here. Not all clergy arriving at this time were Pietists. William Christopher Berkenmeyer, Falckner’s replacement, arrived in 1725 from Hamburg, and he saw the Pietists who were arriving as Schwärmer, that is, Enthusiasts, and this was to Berkenmeyer real tragedy. Berkenmeyer had his hands full and came up with a plan to divide the territory into parishes of several congregations and appeal for more clergy to come. One of his ideas was to write to Sweden and ask them to take responsibility for all the Lutherans in North America, but that did not happen. Hamburg was appealed to a generation later and two more clergy were sent, another anti-Pietist, Peter Sommer. All told, there were only 31 Lutheran ministers serving in the territory at the time of the planting between 1703 and 1787. (A good history for further information is one I consulted on the above, E. Clifford Nelson’s The Lutherans in North America).

In 1742, Heinrich Melchior Mühlenberg (1711-1787) was called to serve three small congregations in the Philadelphia, PA area. He was sent there by Gotthilf Francke, who took charge of the Pietist center in Halle, Germany after his father’s death (Gotthilf was actually named co-director along with Francke’s associate, J.A. Freylinhausen). German settlers had petitioned Halle for a pastor, and Francke negotiated the call, demanding that they help pay the pastor’s expenses over and guarantee return passage if things did not work out.

Eventually Mühlenberg corresponded or visited Lutheran congregations from Nova Scotia to Georgia. He was instrumental in the formation of the original Ministerium of North America. He has been called the Father of American Lutheranism, which may be the case though it denigrates all those who came before him and some such as Justus Falckner really should not be forgotten. I like the explanation someone gave that from nearly the time he set foot in America his biography became the history of Lutheranism in that period. You can learn more about Mühlenberg by reading excerpts from his diary in a small edition titled Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman (Fortress: Philadelphia, 1959). From his initial impressions of Charleston in 1742 until his death in 1787 it is a wealth of information about himself, the German-American culture, colonial times, the religion of the time and the formation of a Lutheran body.

It is interesting to me to hear Lutheran professors and pastors who have a high regard for Confessional Lutheranism, as I do, disparage Pietists. For example, when they talk about Muhlenberg, they allude to his Pietism and then move on to perhaps never mention it again. One friend refers to Mühlenberg as having a “pietistically flavored Confessionalism”. My response to that is, “and so should all of us.” Seriously, Mühlenberg was a Pietist who like most of the Churchly Pietists had a high regard for the Confessions.

That is a brief overview of the first wave of Pietism to North America. The second was the Scandinavians who began to come over in great numbers just before the Civil War. I know something of this because my own namesake came over in 1854. Jonas Swensson came over with his wife Anna in 1854 to a parish near the Western New York border with Pennsylvania. He helped with the church in Jamestown before moving to the new Swedish outpost of Andover, Illinois. While there he became the second President of the Augustana Synod and helped found the college and seminary there. His son went from there to another outpost, Lindsborg, Kansas. I was given a biography of Jonas and was shocked to read that though they requested again and again for reinforcements, the only pastors they received were the ones prepared by the Revivalist network that was sending missionaries to places like Ethiopia and China. I recommend for further reading, The Augustana Story by Maria Ehrling and Mark Granquist which explains that there were so very few pastors to minister to a vast wave of immigrants. You must know that 25% of some of these countries immigrated to America. How do you think they were cared for when they got here? The state churches of Europe did very little for them. They built the church themselves. Some pastors in Sweden actually told people it was sinful to want to immigrate, it was worldly thinking. Often the only pastors, who did come, came through informal networks.

Part III. Our Current Crisis

And now we, at least the way I see it, live in an unusual time. Perhaps it is a touch melodramatic to call it a crisis, or maybe that is understated. Our congregation left our former denomination over a disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture. I argued these issues publicly for a few years and I can tell you this was a very eye-opening experience. However, while we were arguing about that, church closings and the dwindling of congregations picked up speed as more and more deemed the church irrelevant to their lives. We find ourselves living in a paganized North America with a politically-correct mindset that values (at least superficially) every religion and spirituality other than Christianity.

I know that I am not the only one who at one time could not imagine life outside of their denomination, but today cannot imagine life in the old. What is not so easy to envision is the next paradigm, but this is what we must do. Cell church development like Life Together Churches, primary evangelism efforts like The Disciple Ship, or a mission or existing congregation in a network like Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, or maybe even the Association of Renewal Churches or the North American Lutheran Church, these are our wineskins for now.

For those who wonder if it is possible to build something new outside of the old institutions our ancestors built (which now seem to be so much about the continuation of an institution), read a little history and see, it has all been done before. You can read about it in The Augustana Story and for that matter in every single history of every single Lutheran denomination. Our ancestors had nothing but themselves, their faith, and their God. Having little is not a handicap for building new institutions, it is a help! My reading of The Augustana Story is that the first and second generations had something special, but the second generation got in trouble by becoming entranced with the American Dream and building greater and greater institutions and filled the congregations with programs and functions.

We have been given a few tools for the journey. We are not alone. As the first blooming of Pietistm in Germany, while we are happy with our emphasis on Word and Sacrament, our distinctively Lutheran way of dividing the Word rightly with Law and Gospel, and other simple Lutheran doctrines like the Two Kingdoms, we do not believe that other Christians are not saved or in any way must change before we work with them. We share important things with other traditions and can work with them. Also, we have the modern tools of the Internet and social media. There are many ways to do mission today.

To close, we look around and we see that there are others who share our story. We have the same DNA. More importantly, we have our Jesus, don’t we? He bids us go with him to places we cannot yet see. Together we will no doubt build ministries that will address the problems real people face everyday, and we will teach many what Jesus said and we will baptize people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I pray that we will see a great number of people answer the call to provide an antidote to the false gospels and correctives to the lies of the worldly, and that this time we understand institutions are only a transitory means to an end, the only thing that matters is being faithful in our presentation of the gospel and hopefully living lives adorned with the same.