The Texas Synod’s Pastor Problem

A few weeks ago I wrote about how the Rev. Frederick Jesse, who briefly served at Holy Cross at Rabb’s Creek (now located in Warda) during its short Texas Synod phase, eventually joined the Missouri Synod in 1890.

To understand why, let’s go back to the nineteenth century.

Over the years, quite a few folks from the various German territories had immigrated to Texas, but very few Lutheran pastors were available to minister those of that theological persuasion. There was no organized Lutheran presence in the state.

Some of the more established Lutheran synods in the east recognized the spiritual need in Texas, and in 1850, two pastors were sent— Rev. Caspar Braun from the Pittsburgh Ministerium, and Rev. G.F. Guebner from the South Carolina Synod. These two men established congregations in Houston and Galveston respectively.

While this was a good start, there were still many Lutherans in New Braunfels, San Marcos, Castroville, and other towns and cities across the state who still desired spiritual care. It was clear that more pastors were needed.

Although the Lutheran synods in the east were more established and a number of young Lutheran seminaries existed, they were not collectively capable of training enough pastors to meet the needs of Lutherans in the east, much less those in Texas. To fill the gaps, the various synods drew heavily from pastors trained in Europe.

One European school that contributed many pastors was the St. Chrischona School in Basel, Switzerland. In fact, in 1851, the same year that Pr. Braun founded the First Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Texas (the Texas Synod), the school sent its entire graduating class of six men to Texas.

While this helped the young Texas Synod meet the spiritual needs of Lutherans in the state, there was a problem. The St. Chrischona School was not an exclusively Lutheran school; it also mixed in elements of Reformed and Pietistic theology. In the words of Bishop Michael Rinehart of the Texas-Gulf Coast Louisiana Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “they stressed evangelical fervor over theological sophistication.”

As a result, graduates the St. Chrischona School were all over the map. Some, like Pr. Braun, were strongly committed to pure “Old Lutheran” orthodoxy. Others were happy to mix Lutheran and Reformed theology, and still others leaned outright toward the Reformed position. (St. Chrischona graduates also served mixed-confessions church bodies like the Evangelical Synod of North America.)

Back on the east coast, as the middle of the 19th century approached, the various regional Lutherans synods lurched toward unity. This goal proved quite difficult, because each year more and more synods appeared, defining themselves on geographic, ethnic, linguistic, theological, and even political lines. Like the graduates of the St. Chrischona School, these synods were all over the map.

The first fruit of the attempts at unity was the formation Evangelical Lutheran General Synod of the United States of America (the General Synod) in 1820. It was by necessity a weak federation, and due to the varied theological positions of its constituent synods, its commitment to Lutheran orthodoxy was weak.

One prominent General Synod pastor, the Rev. Samuel Schmucker, even sought to create a distinctly American version of Lutheranism, and in the process denied core Lutheran beliefs such as the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Still, the Texas Synod chose to affiliate with the General Synod in 1853.

When the Rev. Jan Kilian arrived in Galveston in December of the following year, he quickly became acquainted with Pr. Braun, whose Houston congregation did all they could to aid their fellow Lutherans despite the cultural differences.

Braun and Kilian became lifelong friends, but Kilian declined to affiliate with the Texas Synod because the General Synod’s toleration of Reformed theology looked quite too much like the Prussian Union that he and many of his fellow Wendish immigrants had left Europe to escape. He instead opted to join the Missouri Synod, which had been founded by “Old Lutherans” like himself who had left Europe for similar reasons in 1838.

As Schmucker’s “American Lutheranism” gained steam in the General Synod, opposition to it also grew. By 1867 a number of more conservative synods joined together and formed a competing organization, the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America (the General Council). The following year the Texas Synod cut their ties with the General Synod and affiliated this new Lutheran body.

The conservative wing of the Texas Synod hoped that affiliation with a more conservative body would check the influence of un-Lutheran theology in their midst, and that the General Council might be able to supply them more orthodox pastors so that they could reduce their dependence on the St. Chrischona School. This was not to be.

The General Council had been founded on four principles, one of which was that Lutheran pulpits were only to be filled by Lutheran pastors. As reports trickled eastward that Texas Synod pastors were openly advocating Reformed theology, the General Council became more and more concerned, as did the conservative wing of the Texas Synod

About seven years after the Texas Synod affiliated with the General Council, it sent recently licensed candidate Frederick Jesse to fill the pulpit left open at Holy Cross on Rabb’s Creek by the untimely death of the Rev. Eduard Zapf.

The folks at Holy Cross, having recently separated from the Missouri Synod-affiliated St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s congregations in Serbin, had only affiliated with the Texas Synod because Missouri refused to provide them with a pastor. They expended no little effort in attempting to convince Zapf to join the Missouri Synod without success. They had no better luck with Jesse, who seems to have departed after a few short months.

Even a few years later, in 1875, Rev. Jesse reported to the Texas Synod in convention that he had taken a strong stand against attempts to influence him to join the Missouri Synod. Perhaps his unwillingness to do so was rooted in the initial optimism of the conservative Texas Synod pastors after their affiliation with the General Council. Or, perhaps at that point his theological positions were more middle-of-the-road.

The following year, Pr. Braun, who had grown fed up with the loose theology of the synod he helped found, left it for the greener grass of the Missouri Synod. He had already openly flirted with Missouri some years earlier, having recommended that the Texas Synod congregation in Rose Hill seek a Missouri Synod pastor in 1868. They did just that, and Candidate John Zimmermann became the first Missouri Synod pastor to be ordained in Texas at a service in which both Revs Braun and. Kilian participated.

While we don’t know precisely what was going through Pr. Jesse’s mind in 1875, we do know that in 1886, he attended a Missouri Synod conference at Rose Hill, where the Rev. Birkmann writes that he “professed correct doctrine” though he did not at that time leave the Texas Synod.

It was around this same time that Rev. Jesse and some of the other members of the conservative wing of the Texas Synod began to openly advocate for the synod to affiliate with another more conservative group (The Ohio Synod, the Iowa Synod, or the Missouri Synod) that was better able to supply orthodox Lutheran pastors.

Year after year, though, the Texas Synod in convention declined to take any action. In 1890, when the convention once again voted to keep the status quo, Jesse and five other pastors asked that the convention honorably release them. This request was granted, with the stipulation that their congregations remain with the Texas Synod (three of those congregations subsequently chose to leave anyway). Other conservative pastors within the synod chose to remain, however, and the controversy continued to rage.

Six years later those remaining conservatives managed, through parliamentary maneuvering, to end the affiliation with the General Council. The Texas Synod then joined the Iowa Synod as its Texas District (though for all intents and purposes it still operated on a more independent level; it even retained the name “The First Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Texas, a District of the Iowa Synod”— whereas no other Iowa Synod district utilized the term “synod” in its name).

For the “Old Lutheran” wing of the Texas Synod, one positive outcome of the new affiliation was that the Texas Synod was no longer allowed to source pastors from the St. Chrischona School due to Iowa Synod policy. A number of pastors and congregations were naturally not happy with this new arrangement, and some of those withdrew and formed a new synod, the Old German Evangelical Synod of Texas. The Old German Synod continued to draw pastors from St. Chrischona.

Eventually, these two streams would come back together. The Old German Evangelical Synod of Texas, through a series of mergers, became part of the Lutheran Church in America. And the Iowa Synod (along with the Texas Synod-as-a-district) became part of the American Lutheran Church. On January 1, 1988, these two bodies, along with the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (a young denomination made up of churches and pastors who had left the Missouri Synod in the 1970s) merged to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

More Information:

Pictured: Zion Lutheran Church of Sandoval, Texas. Zion was founded in 1893 I’m pretty sure it was a Texas Synod congregation. (Unfortunately, it seems that early records of the church have been lost.)

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