Wielding the Sword of the Spirit – Volume Two: The Doctrine & Practice of Church Fellowship in the Synodical Conference (1868-1877) by Peter M. Prange. Wauwatosa, Wisconsin: Joh. Ph. Koehler Press, 2022. 290 pages.
Peter M. Prange serves as an associate pastor at New Life Lutheran Church in Kenosha and Somers, WI. He is a 1998 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He has researched and written extensively on the history and doctrine of the Synodical Conference, with a special emphasis on the connection between C.F.W. Walther’s theology and practice and the so-called Wauwatosa Theology that was the hallmark of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary from 1900-1920. He is the author of the three-volume Wielding the Sword of the Spirit trilogy, “The Wauwatosa Spring: The Flowering of the Historical Disciplines at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (1900-1920),” and co-author of Jars of Clay: A History of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (1863-2013).
What does one look for in a good sequel? You look for a well-told continuation of the original story that engages you. You hope that the sequel will have the same “magic” or quality that drew you into the original story. If the sequel is part of a series, you hope that it sets the stage well for the story’s conclusion. As a reader, you can usually tell when the author succeeds…and when they do not.
So what does the quality of sequels have to do with the second installment of a history of confessional Lutheranism in America? Volume 2 of Peter Prange’s Wielding the Sword of the Spirit trilogy is a sequel that follows the well-told story of the early years of confessional Lutheranism’s blossoming in America, primarily the birth and development of the Missouri Synod under the leadership of C.F.W. Walther. That begs the question: Does Volume 2 succeed as a sequel? In this reviewer’s opinion, the answer is yes.
In Volume 1, Prange laid out the distinct stories of those who dominated early confessional Lutheranism in America—C.F.W. Walther and the Saxons, J.A.A. Grabau and the Buffalo Synod, Wilhelm Loehe and his missionaries, among others. Each with unique gifts and faults. Each considered hero or villain at different times. Each contributing to God’s planting of a confessional Lutheran church on American soil in their own way. Yet once confessional positions were established, synodical lines drawn, and church bodies formed, what then? Countless American church bodies claimed to be Lutheran in theology, but Lutheran practice was often lacking. Would there ever be unity among any of these disparate bodies scattered across the American Lutheran landscape?
That sets the stage for the sequel as where we find C.F.W. Walther working tirelessly “to realize his dream of a Lutheran Zion in North America that would combine and coordinate ministry efforts of faithful Lutherans in the United States and Canada to proclaim the gospel primarily in German, English, and Norwegian.” (7) With Volume 2, the story becomes more focused, yet more complex. Prange tackles the complex nature of the movement of personalities, congregations, and church bodies as events circle closer towards the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America in 1872.
To do so, Prange draws into the narrative the failed attempts at unity in the creation of the General Synod and the reactionary formation of the General Council, which proved to be just as faulty. In each case, he demonstrates why establishing church fellowship on the basis of fundamental unity is so very necessary—a key factor missing in American Lutheran attempts at unity up to that time.
At times, the story is heartbreaking as personalities, congregations, and church bodies part ways, even after years of work together. At times, the story is foreboding as the seeds of future division and controversy are planted. Yet often the story is encouraging and hopeful as church bodies like the Wisconsin Synod become truly confessional and as church fellowship on the basis of fundamental unity is finally established. By the time the reader gets to the opening service of the inaugural Synodical Conference convention in July 1872, one can’t help but rejoice with Walther, “O blessed and holy day!” (210)
With this volume, Prange has raised the bar for this trilogy. Thorough research is evident through the greater use of primary sources and greater focus on the influential writings of the time. While the first volume quite naturally focused on individual interactions during the nascent years of the Missouri Synod and other Lutheran groups in America, as well as case studies on how fellowship principles and applications were playing out during that time, this volume spends more time expositing important papers and presentations, significant sermons, and key debates. Prange does a great service for readers as he unpacks important writings like Walther’s 1867 book on “The True Visible Church” (39-60), F.A. Schmidt’s 1872 Synodical Conference essay on justification (215-22), Walther’s opening Synodical Conference sermon on 1 Timothy 4:16 (210-213), and the parish boundaries debate that took place in the years shortly after the Synodical Conference’s founding (230-262).
Yet the reader should not think that any of this is dry historical analysis. As with the first volume, Prange brings alive the personalities of the people and groups who played various roles in this journey towards the creation of the Synodical Conference. They are again living, breathing people with very real faults and very real gifts of God’s grace. In doing so, we see our Lutheran forefathers for who they really were and how God in his grace used them to get us where we are today.
Reading this volume, one realizes how truly challenging it is to establish church fellowship on the basis of fundamental unity. The story begs questions like “Why did this church body not split sooner?” or “Why did they continue to defend those with whom they disagreed?” or “Why give the benefit of the doubt?” or “Why could they not avoid the pull of the promise of money and manpower from those who clearly were not orthodox?” At the same time, the answer is there. Our forefathers treasured the fraternal bonds they had with their brothers in ministry. They yearned to spread the gospel and care for scattered souls. In ways we often no longer see, they recognized the complexity of the issues that confronted them and threatened to separate them. So they did all they could to resolve those issues until there was no other option than separation. With the help of this thought-provoking book, we would be wise to learn from those who have gone before us.
Prange is once again even-handed in his analysis, even when he leans heavily on J.P. Koehler’s The History of the Wisconsin Synod to provide perspective. That said, one may wonder if this volume provides an opportunity to perhaps rehabilitate or reclaim the role that Philipp Koehler played in establishing confessional Lutheran doctrine and practice in the Wisconsin Synod (102ff.). At the very least, Prange enables the reader to more greatly appreciate this fascinating and once polarizing figure in the Wisconsin Synod’s story.
Volume 2 is a great sequel. It succeeds as a sequel because of Prange’s thorough research and an accessible style that continues to engage historian, clergy, and lay member alike. This is a volume worth our reading today. We would do well to learn from those who founded the Synodical Conference 150 years ago. I look forward to the conclusion of this hopeful and heartbreaking story in Volume 3.
 Philipp Koehler also happens to be J.P. Koehler’s father and Peter Prange’s ancestor.