Above: Logo of the Augustana Synod
Image in the Public Domain
CARL JOHANNES SODERGREN (SEPTEMBER 5, 1870-NOVEMBER 2, 1949)
U.S. Lutheran Minister and Theologian
CLAUS AUGUST WENDELL (APRIL 24, 1866-SEPTEMBER 18, 1950)
Swedish-American Lutheran Minister and Theologian
Both saints I am adding to my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days with this post were ministers of the Augustana Synod, formed in 1860 by Swedish Lutheran immigrants to the United States.
When I draft a blog post adding someone to the Ecumenical Calendar I seek to present information in an orderly manner. This entails avoiding the temptation to chase too many proverbial rabbits. Know then, O reader, that I understand far more about the Augustana Synod then I will reveal in this post, which is about Sodergren and Wendell, not the synod. If you want to read more about the Augustana Synod, consult C. Everett Arden, Augustana Heritage: A History of the Augustana Lutheran Church (1963), published during the year following the Augustana Synod’s merger into the Lutheran Church in America (1962-1987).
The Augustana Synod had several names during its lifetime. It formed as the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod in North America. In 1894 the denomination dropped “Swedish” from its name. Then, in 1948, the body became the Augustana Lutheran Church. The Augustana Synod was originally ethnically Swedish, worshiping in that language. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the question of how often to use English was a subject of serious debate. Our saints argued for the greater use of the English language in worship, for they understood that there the future of the synod lay. The Augustana Synod made that transition, but not without much sturn und drang. The fact of nativism in the United States during World War I did much to accelerate that process.
CARL J. SODERGREN (I)
Carl Johannes Sodergren, born on September 5, 1870, at LaPorte, Indiana, was a child of Swedish immigrants. His mother was Brita Sodergren (1847-1919) and his father was the Reverend Carl Henrik Sodergren (1840-1905). Young Carl studied at Augustana College and Theological Seminary (one institution until 1948), Rock Island, Illinois, graduating as the valedictorian in June 1891.
Biographical information about Sodergren has proven difficult to find, but I have been able to determine certain facts about him:
- He became a minister in the Augustana Synod.
- On June 30, 1897, at Chesterville, Texas, Sodergren married Elizabeth Chester (1873-1958).
- The couple had five children: Carl Wendell (1898-1963), Una Elizabeth (1900-1985), Miriam Agatha (1904-1978), Anita Linnea (1907-1991), and Leila Ingeborg (1909-1911).
- The Augustana Synod designated the Lutheran Companion as its official English-language magazine in 1911. Sodergren served as its editor, vacating that post in 1915.
- In 1913 Sodergren joined the theological faculty at Augustana College and Theological Seminary. The installation ceremony occurred on March 11.
CLAUS A. WENDELL (I)
Claus August Wendell was a Swedish immigrant. He, born Claus August Anderson at Sodia Ving, Vastergotland, on April 24, 1866, was a child of Lars Gustav Anderson, a farmer. The family relocated to the United States when our saint was three years old and settled at Sycamore, Illinois. Claus attended the country school there then studied at the Academy at Augustana College and Theological Seminary then at the college proper. (Many colleges in the United States used to have academies and high schools attached to them.) Our saint, as a young man, persuaded his parents to relocate to Rock Island, Illinois, where he graduated from the college with his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1893. Claus, who changed his last name legally to Wingquist then to Wendell, remained in Rock Island for a few years, filling in the chair of English literature and philosophy (who was on a leave of absence) in 1894 then working on his Master of Arts degree (awarded in 1897).
Wendell married Anna Charlotte Norlin (1872-1965) in 1897. The couple had two daughters, Anna Theolinda (born circa 1899) and Margaret (born circa 1909).
Wendell worked as an educator then a journalist for a few years. He taught history at Rock Island High School from 1897 to 1902. Then he joined the fifth estate. Meanwhile Wendell was undertaking theological studies under the guidance of Dr. Conrad Emil Lindberg (1852-1930), who taught systematic theology at Augustana College and Theological Seminary from 1890 to 1930. Lindberg, the most influential teacher in the Augustana Synod for a time, was, according to G. Everett Arden,
a conservative Lutheran, who saw the theology of the sixteenth century through the spectacles of the seventeenth-century Lutheran orthodox scholastics.
—Augustana Heritage, page 249
Wendell, ordained in 1905, served as the pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Rockford, Illinois, then of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Evanston, Illinois. In 1914 he transferred to Grace Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota, from which he retired in 1947. Wendell doubled as a staff correspondent for the Lutheran Companion, working under the editor, Carl J. Sodergren.
In 1918 and 1919 Wendell helped to found the Lutheran Bible Institute, located in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. This proved to be ironic, for The Bible Banner, the Institutes’s official organ, championed fundamentalism, which Wendell opposed.
SCIENCE AND REVELATION
Sodergren and Wendell were, by the standards of the Augustana Synod in the early twentieth century, liberals.
I use that term precisely, not loosely (as many do) or as an invective (as many also do), because they were liberals, not revolutionaries. If one uses the analogy or reinventing the wheel, one finds the following statements to be accurate:
- A reactionary thinks that the current wheel is nouveau and prefers the previous design.
- A conservative proposes that the wheel is fine as it is.
- A liberal agrees that the design of the wheel is generally sound yet requires some modification.
- A revolutionary argues that the current design of the wheel is flawed beyond repair and therefore favors reinventing it.
Sodergren and Wendell were Confessional Lutherans who belonged to a Confessional Lutheran denomination. They affirmed such core Lutheran doctrines as baptismal regeneration and consubstantiation. They stood within their tradition and argued by arguing for its continued relevance by avoiding the rigidity of fundamentalism on one side and the denial of Christ on the other side. They stood in the theological lineage of St. Clement of Alexandria (died 210/215), who affirmed the validity of proved knowledge, regardless of its source. Sodergren and Wendell stood in the best tradition of Christianity with regard to the reconciliation of faith and reason, along with luminaries such as St. Albert the Great, Robert Grosseteste, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Pope Sylvester II (died 1003).
Charles Darwin did not originate the Theory of Evolution, but he did write two seminal books on the subject and became a proverbial lightning rod. The debate over the relationship of faith and science, especially evolution, spread to the Augustana Synod. In the December 16, 1914, issue of the Lutheran Companion Sodergren, as editor, scandalized many in his denomination by waiting the following in the publication:
The time has arrived, it appears, for someone to say that the theory of evolution is not necessarily atheistic, and that is might be quite consistent with the Bible and with a Christian belief in God as the Creator of heaven and earth.
–Quoted in Augustana Heritage, page 285
The fact that Sodergren published that editorial in character, for he had already advocated for the acceptance of modern Biblical criticism, such as saying that Moses did not write the Torah, that the Bible contradicts itself in places, and that David did not write all those Psalms attributed to him. Sodergren had balanced this position by arguing for the “plenary inspiration of the Bible,” meaning that the Bible is the inspired word of God and is normative for faith and practices but without committing to any particular theory of inspiration.
In 1925 Sodergren published a book, Fundamentalists and Modernists. He affirmed Christ while rejecting fundamentalism, advocating for a form of evangelical confessionalism instead. His evangelical confessionalism valued both faith and scholarly investigation, including history and science. Sodergren’s form of Christianity openly rejected the verbal inspiration of the Bible. That theory, he insisted, was inconsistent with the reality that divine inspiration has a human element to it. The theory of verbal inspiration of scripture, Sodergren wrote, tended toward the heresy of docetism, which stated that Christ only seemed to be human. Furthermore, Sodergren wrote, the classic Lutheran confessions of faith do not affirm the verbal inspiration of the Bible.
Wendell, in The Larger Vision: A Study of the Evolution Theory in Its Relation to the Christian Faith (1923), also affirmed the science, especially evolution. God is the source of both science and revelation, he wrote. Wendell also affirmed salvation via Christ in that book and in a chapter in What is Lutheranism? (1930), edited by Vergilius Ferm. Wendell summarized Lutheranism this way:
Lutheranism then we should say, means three things: (1) It means adherence to the Confessions, comprising the Book of Concord, not as so many cement walls for man’s incarceration but as a witness to the faith of the fathers and a guide to their followers. (2) Faith in the Holy Scriptures, not as a fetish on the one hand nor a mere human document on the other, nor as an arsenal of theological polemics, nor as a textbook of history and natural science, but the inspired Word of God, whose purposes it is to make us wise unto salvation; and (3) Above all else, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not as a mere reformer or teacher or “pattern for young men,” but as the Redeemer of the world and the everlasting Rock upon which the church is built.
–Quoted in Augustana Heritage, page 286
That answer did not satisfy ultraconservatives within the Augustana Synod. Vocal critics were legion. The Bible Banner heaped scorn on Ferm and Wendell, both of whom Dr. Samuel Miller, head of the Lutheran Bible Institute, attempted to have the Augustana Synod expel from the denomination on charges of heresy.
THE AMERICAN LUTHERAN CONFERENCE (1930-1954)
The Augustana Synod, a longtime (1870-1918) member of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America (1867-1918), withdrew from that umbrella organization rather than merge into the mainly ethnically German United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA). Opposition to ULCA prompted mergers and closer cooperation among certain more conservative Lutheran denominations. The American Lutheran Church (1930-1960) was the union of several relatively conservative and mostly Midwestern synods. In 1930 this denomination, the Augustana Synod, the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Free Church, and the United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church (the “Sad Danes,” in some referred to them, as opposed to the “Happy Danes” of the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church) constituted constituted a new alliance, the American Lutheran Conference, which disbanded 24 years later. Three of the four members of the American Lutheran Conference merged to create The American Lutheran Church (1960-1987). The Lutheran Free Church joined the new denomination in 1963.
The American Lutheran Conference existed to witness against ULCA. The Conference affirmed the Galesburg Rule (1875) and the Minneapolis Theses (1925). The former arose within the General Council over the question of pulpit and altar fellowship. The Galesburg Rule was, verbatim:
The rule is: 1. Lutheran pulpits are for Lutheran ministers only; Lutheran altars are for Lutheran communicants only. 2. The exceptions to this rule belong to the sphere of privilege and not of right. 3. The determination of the exceptions is to be made in consonance with these principles by the conscientious judgment of pastors, as the cases arise.
–Quoted in Abdel Ross Wentz, The Lutheran Church in American History, Second Edition (1933), page 328
The Minneapolis Theses (1925) came into being as part of the process of the creation of The American Lutheran Church (1930-1960). They affirmed the inerrancy of the Bible and asserted the doctrinal content of Lutheran confessions. Whereas ULCA recognized the Christian character of all churches confessing Christian doctrine, the Minneapolis Theses did not go that far. No, they recognized the reality that true Christians are present in a range of Christian denominations and stated that unanimous agreement
in the pure doctrine of the Gospel and the confession of the same in word and deed
presupposes ecumenical fellowship. Church fellowship with non-Lutherans was, in other words, out of the question. The Minneapolis Theses also condemned secret societies and stated that no Lutheran minister should belong to one. Furthermore, they insisted, Lutheran clergymen should try to persuade lay members who belonged to any secret society to leave it.
Sodergren and Wendell opposed the Galesburg Rule and the Minneapolis Theses. In The Augustana Quarterly in 1937 Sodergren protested the “exclusive confessionalism” of the Minneapolis Theses. He wrote:
In spite of appearance to the contrary, the present generation is deeply religious; but its spirit fails to find in the old forms the body in which it can dwell. But the reply to this prayer for the means of a daring adventure in faith–the reply of the established order–is only an exaggerated emphasis of the latter, of external observances, and of the old status quo…While the priests of yesterday are looking backward to the past and laboring to conserve its values, the prophets of tomorrow are facing the future and trying to give direction to movements of today.
–Quoted in Augustana Heritage, page 287
At its 1937 convention the Augustana Synod censured and threatened with disciplinary actions some ministers accused of laxity with regard to the Galesburg Rule and the Minneapolis Theses. This angered Wendell, who published his protest in the September 2, 1937, issue of the Lutheran Companion. He wrote in part:
Orthodoxy is good. It means adherence to the truth, and no sane man would willingly surrender that. But orthodoxy without love is dangerous. It provides fertile soil for bigotry, hatred, spiritual pride, self-conceit, and a score of other evils which hide the Holy One from the eyes of the world. It turns men into merciless heresy hunters, the most contemptible vermin on earth. It aligns us with the scribes and pharisees, the priests and high priests of the time of Jesus. Nobody ever questioned their orthodoxy, but because it was loveless, it blinded them to His divinity and made it easy for them to spike Him to a cross. We are not worried about the trumpet calls to orthodoxy which for some reason have begun to blare among us lately, but we do fear that the blare may drown out in our hearts the still small voice which prays for unity and love among all Christ’s disciples.
–Quoted in Augustana Heritage, pages 287-288
In the longterm Sodergren and Wendell won the argument, for they and people like them influenced the next generation of leaders of the Augustana Synod. By the late 1940s work on the Service Book and Hymnal (1958), the joint service book-hymnal of eight Lutheran denominations, including ULCA and the members of the American Lutheran Conference, was underway. The second American Lutheran Church came into being via the merger of three bodies in 1960. The Lutheran Church in America formed in 1962 when four denominations united. The American Lutheran Church expanded by means of a second merger in 1963. Eight ecclesiastical bodies had become two denominations that used the same service book-hymnal.
“THE LANGUAGE PROBLEM”
Language is about far more than words, for it conveys culture as well as meaning. This is especially true for those who speak in a language other than the dominant tongue in their nation-state. A reading of the history of the immigrant churches in the United States reveals examples of ecclesiastical bodies that functioned as both agents of evangelism and of the cultural perpetuation. Such a reading also informs me of the manners in which many people struggled with assimilation into the dominant American culture. One might, for example, think of the Dutch immigrants and their descendants in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the German-American Lutherans of various denominations, the Danish-American Lutherans in their two synods (the “Sad Danes” and the “Happy Danes”), and, of course, the Swedish-Americans of the Augustana Synod. Furthermore, one might recall reading that rampant domestic xenophobia, often expressed via law and violence during World War I, accelerated the pace of the transition to English in all these cases.
Sodergren and Wendell led the pro-English language camp within the Augustana Synod. Wendell even served as the chairman of the Association of English Churches. In 1891 the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, to which the Augustana Synod belonged, founded the English Evangelical Lutheran Synod of the Northwest for congregations from the Great Lakes region to the Pacific coast. The Synod of the Northwest appealed to many Confessional Lutherans who preferred to worship in English. Ethnic enclave synods generally did a poor job of reaching out to this audience for a while, and many Midwestern and Western Lutherans who preferred to worship in English had to join non-Lutheran congregations. Over time the geographical span of the Synod of the Northwest shrank due to territorial division. Despite the necessity of the Synod of the Northwest its existence upset many in Augustana Synod officialdom, for they thought of it as a competitor on their home turf.
Sodergren and Wendell favored providing opportunities for younger Augustana Synod members who wanted to worship in English to do so, without depriving those who favored Swedish-language worship of those services. Sodergren editorialized in the Lutheran Companion in the July 15, 1911, issue:
No one wishes to rob the old folks of the Swedish….In all our Swedish congregations the old folks are welcome, and will be for years to come, to half of the services, and that the better half–the Sunday morning service. And no Christian will starve to death on this and a weekly meeting….But if we are considerate toward the old people and respect their admitted rights, we should also be equally careful not to refuse to give our young people their spiritual support. We should be as concerned about their spiritual welfare….To have English services only once a month, or even every other Sunday evening, is almost worse than nothing. It hurts the Swedish, and is of no conserving value to the English element. It is merely a poor excuse….This plausible (?) selfishness which makes a language an end instead of a means is not a good conservative policy if our Synod is to live….It will not do to sacrifice souls on the altar of nationality. Our congregations have a far higher calling than to be a mere “National-forening….”
–Quoted in Augustana Heritage, page 245
He wrote in the August 30, 1913, issue:
Dear old Swedish language! We all love it–but some of us don’t like it. We feel for it a sense of loyalty and respect akin to what good children naturally feel for their parents. Nevertheless, a new generation, born and reared far from the doughty little kingdom which once was the land of our fathers, is prone to conform to the customs of the country in which it finds itself, and to speak the language which is generally employed as a medium for the expression of thought. The children, the young people (and ever so many old people), almost invariably use the English language in ordinary conversation….God wants us all to be saved. Why not tell His message in an as natural and intelligible a manner as possible; in Swedish to those who think in Swedish, in English to those who think in English….What would we suggest! That our children be taught Christianity by means of the English language, even in our Swedish congregations…None of us are in a hurry to “get rid of the Swedish,” but we are “in a hurry” to preserve these souls with or without Swedish. And if that can be done by means of the English language we are guilty of murder or at least criminal neglect in failing to anticipate and make due provision. The Companion stands for neither Swedish nor English. It stands for the cause of Christ and the welfare of souls. If shortsighted language-conservatism should prove to stand in the way of Christ and the future of our Church, we have no choice but to do as Luther did: let the Latin go and insist on using the German in the interest of the common people. They are or more value than much Latin. The word of God is not Swedish; the Church of Christ is not Swedish; Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not Swedish. Nor are any or all of them English. It is not a matter of language….
–Quoted in Augustana Heritage, pages 245-246
Both Sodergren and Wendell served on the committee that crafted The Hymnal and Order of Service (1925). The Augustana Synod, recognizing the necessity of an English-language hymnal in 1895, ordered work on what became the Hymnal and Order of Service for Churches and Sunday-Schools (1901). That volume, with 355 hymns, was always supposed to be an interim hymn book. Work on the revised hymnal started in 1910 and lasted for 15 years. The hymnal of 1925 offered 670 hymns. Wendell, who joined the hymnal committee in 1920, wrote a paraphrase of Psalm 139:23-24 for the project.
CARL J. SODERGREN (II)
Sodergren became involved in another controversy within the Augustana Synod. The denomination controlled the Augustana College and Theological Seminary, Rock Island, Illinois. Sodergren, at least as early as 1925, sided with those who wanted to separate the college from the seminary, leaving the latter under denominational control and the former with a separate board and president. The debate, which became quite bitter, dated to 1886. Sodergren perceived that the only way to preserve the unity of the Augustana Synod was to divorce the college and the seminary. As the college expanded faster than the seminary the latter received fewer necessary resources than the former. Other issues in the debate included mere conservatism and the conflict of vested interests. The separation of the college and the seminary finally occurred in 1948.
Sodergren wrote at least 16 books; I found listings for that many at WorldCat. Aside from Fundamentalists and Modernists (1925) he wrote a book of Bible stories for use in Sunday schools, two courses in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, and commentaries on various books of the Bible, as well as other works of theology.
Sodergren’s last residence was in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. There he died on November 2, 1949. He was 79 years old.
CLAUS A. WENDELL (II)
Wendell, who received a Doctor of Literature degree from Gustavus Adolphus College, also received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Augustana College and Theological Seminary in 1939. He wrote at least eight books; I found listings for that many at WorldCat. Some of those were literary works. There was, of course, The Larger Vision (1923), about science and religion. Wendell also wrote books of church history.
Wendell, who sat on the board of directors of the Augustana Book Concern, was, despite the attempt of one ultraconservative to have him declared a heretic and removed from the denomination, a widely respected and much-loved man. He died at Minneapolis, Minnesota, on September 18, 1950. He was 84 years old.
The names of these two saints came to my attention a year ago, when I was reading Augustana Heritage. Sodergren and Wendell impressed me so much that I made a few notes about them and filed them away for future reference. A few days ago I took many more notes then began to draft this post.
The legacies of Sodergren and Wendell can teach one several valuable lessons. Among them is that, much of the time, one should stand within tradition and resist both the fetish of ossifying it and the temptation to dispose of it in favor of something new and shiny. Tradition for its own sake is no virtue; the final words of a dying institution are:
We’ve never done it that way before!
Likewise, change for its own sake is no virtue either. One risks throwing out the proverbial baby with the equally proverbial bath water. As much as holding on to a certain tradition can constitute resisting social justice, overturning helpful traditions is destructive also.
Sodergren and Wendell understood that well.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JUNE 11, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT BARNABAS, COWORKER OF SAINT PAUL THE APOSTLE
Almighty God, your Holy Spirit gives to one the word of knowledge,
and to another the insight of wisdom, and to another the steadfastness of faith.
We praise you for the gifts of grace imparted to your servants
Carl J. Sodergren and Claus A. Wendell,
and we pray that by their teaching we may be led to a fuller knowledge
of the truth we have seen in your Son Jesus, our Savior and Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Proverbs 3:1-7 or Wisdom 7:7-14
1 Corinthians 2:6-10, 13-16 or 1 Corinthians 3:5-11
John 17:18-23 or Matthew 13:47-52
–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 61