E.W. Mueller on the Christian Life

[1] E.W. Mueller (1908–1993) was for many years the Secretary of Church in Town and Country for the National Lutheran Council. The NLC was a cooperative venture among Lutherans during the mid-20th century. At a time when Lutherans were split in several different denominational organizations, the NLC provided cooperative programming of benefit to the churches. Although the NLC involved Lutherans in a variety of good causes, it was still something of a surprise when one of the NLC’s program officers received an award from an organization not typically associated with the official business of Lutheran clergy.

[2] The National Association of Soil Conservation Districts, the outreach network of the Soil Conservation Service of the United States Department of the Interior, awarded E.W. Mueller their Distinguished Service Award. Beginning in 1955 and for years after, E.W. (as his friends and associates called him) guided NASCD’s “Soil Stewardship Week,” including “Soil Stewardship Sunday,” later called “Soil and Water Stewardship Sunday.” Mueller wrote materials for distribution to churches to teach about preservation and conservation practices.1 The program tweaked a tradition of “Rural Life Sunday” promoted in the earliest decades of the 20th century. It had even longer roots in Rogation observances in Western Catholic liturgy and ancient practices. Mueller helped to tie the ancient observance to contemporary concerns for the health of the land.

[3] When he received the award, E.W. was only mid-way in a career of eliciting the church’s response to public issues that arose from sweeping social changes affecting the countryside. Amidst that work, E.W. integrated his own love of the land, nature and the environment with his effort to spur the church’s missional response to rural and urban social change. While not an original thinker or trailblazing theologian, E.W. Mueller was a leader in connecting people to seek creative responses to changes in society, technology, economy and the land. In doing so, E.W. became a harbinger of the emerging ecological consciousness and environmentally-engaged theology of the Lutheran church in North America, and is an example of a practical conversational theologian open to possibilities that one might only partially perceive ahead of time.

[4] Some writers separate the later ecological movement in America from the earlier conservation movement, insisting that Rachel Carson’s masterpiece, Silent Spring, in 1962 marked a watershed transition. Some see an earth-centered movement in recent decades and a human-centered sense of management earlier in the 20th century. Such accounts overlook ecological classics such as The Holy Earth by Liberty Hyde Bailey in 1915, the widespread popular concern for nature and the outdoors in early 20th century America, and the longer connections of conservation and ecology in the arguably eco-centric perspectives of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and others.2

[5] The movement of concern for rural life and rural churches, in which Mueller became a leader, shared its public emergence with a period of advancement in the conservation movement under President Theodore Roosevelt. In the summer of 1908, the ecologically-engaged president appointed both the Commission on Country Life and the National Conservation Commission, the latter to make the first national inventory of natural resources. Born in that same year, E.W. grew up with a profound sense of God’s involvement in creation, and a high regard for the vocation of tending the land. E. W. spent his first nine years of ordained ministry with a new church start in a rural area.

[6] E.W. treasured Bailey’s The Holy Earth and other early-20th century works of conservation and stewardship of the land. Later, E.W. discovered the nature poetry of landscape architect Jens Jensen and poured over the visionary socio-ecological thinking of Benton MacKaye, who proposed the Appalachian Trail.3 Throughout his career, E.W.Mueller intentionally engaged public thinking and developments concerning land and rural life, with theological conversations about the situation of the church and ministry in the changing North American context. Years later the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America would inherit and expand strong commitments in ecological concerns from its predecessor bodies. Such developments did not come out of thin air. While they most directly came from brilliant theological writers who served on the commissions that drafted the statements, the churchly climate that fostered and received such leading work was built through broader circles of conversation that also made important connections between theology and the health of the land and creation.

[7] Serving as Secretary of Church in Town and Country for the National Lutheran Council (and in a similar capacity for its successor organization) from 1945–1969, Mueller’s major work was the intentional interface of the best thinking about rural life, agricultural science, conservation and economic development with contemporary theological interpretation of the church’s ministry in modern society. Gatherings that Mueller planned for pastors and lay leaders brought rural sociologists and economists into conversation with biblical scholars, systematic theologians and practical theologians. Published proceedings from the conferences indicate some flavors of the public, regional and increasingly ecological thinking Mueller fostered: The Rural Congregation and Community Health (1953); New Thousands in Town and Country: A Concern of the Church (treated issues of suburbanization of the countryside as early as 1962); A Time of Decision for People in the Great Plains (1965); The Silent Struggle for Mid-America (1963); and Mission in the American Outdoors: Concerns of the Church in Leisure-Recreation (1966).

[8] Throughout the years of conferences, Mueller gathered strands of what would later be called ecological theology. The acknowledged pioneer of Lutheran ecological theology, Joseph Sittler, was a compelling influence upon Mueller and the conversations he fostered. Sittler called for “holy naturalism” from Psalm 104, and viewed nature as the “cradle” of Christ and “a transparency for the Holy.”4 Mueller easily grafted such ideas onto his earlier influences: the agricultural vision of Roman Catholic Luigi Ligutti, founder of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference; social theology Mueller gleaned from his Wartburg Seminary professor, J. Michael Reu; a broad churchly vision delivered for Mueller’s NLC department by the innovative O.H. Pannkoke; and A. D. Mattson’s publications on rural life.5 Mueller was a nexus figure for strands of theological deliberation that later show up as the intertwinings of developing ecological theology.

[9] In Mueller’s own writings ecological theology emerged at mid-century in his concern for wise use of farmland, conservation of the soil, and a sense that worship of God and care of the earth deeply enhanced each other. By the 1970s, Mueller was arguing that while redemption was a finished work of Christ, creation was an ongoing process. He was critiquing the world of machines and calling for land preservation. His vision of a “humane economy,” borrowed from the classic work by Wilhelm Roepke, increasingly included “a theology of the land.” Finally, he moved to a vision of “wholeness” in which “we can learn from the soil” and “the community of plants and animals.” Human community should follow them in the “direction from simplicity to complexity, from uniformity to diversity” and “increase in the number of species, and increase in symbiosis.” While Mueller’s writings fall short of the standards of original contributions to scholarship, he nevertheless showed signs of being a collector and practical synthesizer of developing ecological theology drawn from the conversations and output of the theologians he gathered around him.6

[10] By 1969, Mueller had a robust regional ecological and economic vision. He sought to express it through a ten-year effort based at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Center for Community Organization and Area Development (CENCOAD) was Mueller’s crowning project of his pre-retirement life. He theorized that the rural community in a wide radius formed an increasingly intertwined “symbiotic community” with the city at its center. Taking “symbiosis” from biology, Mueller saw “interrelatedness of unlike organisms for mutual benefit,” such as in a forest. A wheat field, he argued, is non-symbiotic and therefore more “vulnerable to attack from the outside,” such as disease or pests. The forest, composed of symbiotic relationships, is less vulnerable and has a variety of responses to deal with threats. Mueller envisioned human symbiotic communities defined by natural regional ecosystems, working together through community organizing and the improvement of quality of life for all.7

[11] In the 1980s, Mueller became aware of the creation spirituality of Matthew Fox, through his book Original Blessing. Mueller affirmed that work, and appeared to be leaning radically into eco-centric theology.8 By that time, the ELCA and its predecessor bodies were on record and developing more social statements on ecology, the land and sustainable livelihood. Looking back on his earlier work, Mueller assessed that “we were not there” on ecological awareness at mid-century, even during the years of explicit conservation work, and with The Holy Earth and other inspirations in queue. Perhaps from the rarified heights of a Foxian view, the humbler roots of the overall developments lose focus. Perhaps also it is given to others to look back at Mueller’s work and to appreciate pioneering openness and careful stewardship of emerging theological connections.

[12] Today, many more theologians and church people are willing to admit that theology can and should be ecologically engaged than were willing to do so in the mid-20th century. Stigma for being too earth-centered, as opposed to being anthropocentric, is falling away amidst the global public concern over climate change, deforestation and loss of species. Aware of E.W. Mueller’s publicly engaged and theologically adventuresome tendencies, we may sense the creative not-yet-realized developments and implications of our present-day theological conversations. We may anticipate growing openness on the part of the church to the global community that is concerned about the ecological future of the planet God allows us to call home. For all those who are not original theological thinkers or brilliant ecological scientists, but are humble followers and listeners to them, Mueller is an example of how to be a practical conversational theologian and a participating contributor to the church’s strengthening care for God’s creation.


1. The program continues to this day; see: www.nacdnet.org/stewardship. Mueller’s contribution is recorded in R. Neil Sampson, For Love of the Land: A History of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD, 1985) 94, 302.

2. Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Holy Earth (1915). Peter J. Schmidt, Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America (Oxford, 1969). A host of works trace the influence of Thoreau, Muir and other significant nature writers, but a classic in the field is Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale, 1967,1973).

3. Jens Jensen, Siftings (Seymour, 1939). Benton MacKaye, The New Exploration: A Philosophy of Regional Planning (Harcourt, Brace, 1928).

4. Joseph Sittler, “A Theology for Earth,” The Christian Scholar 37:3 (1954) 367–74.

5. See pp. 41–82 in Symbiotic Community: E.W. Mueller’s Approach to the Rural Social Crisis by Gilson Waldkoenig (UPA, 1996).

6. E.W. Mueller, The Lost Land: E.W. Mueller’s Vision for the Development of the Regional Community, ed. by G. Waldkoenig (Tyrone, 1995). See pp. 32, 81–93, 116 for the references cited.

7. E.W. Mueller, “A Search for Quality Community,” presidential address to the American Country Life Association in 1971, reprinted in The Lost Land, p. 99.

8. That claim is based on interviews of E.W. Mueller by the author of this article shortly before Mueller’s death in 1993.

Gilson A. C. Waldkoenig​

Gilson (Gil) A. C. Waldkoenig is the BB Maurer Professor of Church in Society at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, PA.