Review: Changing World, Changeless Christ: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1914–2014

[1] The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau (“ALPB” or “the Bureau”) is one of those rare institutions that spans major North American Lutheran denominations, (or at least some camps thereof). Hoping to make the Lutheran church better known in America, its early founders (then, primarily from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) set in motion a publishing body whose publications have provided a forum for ethical reflection, social engagement and denominational dispute across the decades. Although not a church body, the ALPB has focused on issues facing American Lutherans — from its outspoken voice against racism in the 1940s, to war and peace, abortion, sexuality and other social concerns.

[2] Johnson’s deeply researched history of the ALPB’s publications provides a lens into intersecting denominational struggles, social issues, and the history of the Lutheran evangelical catholic movement in America. Fighting against an insular Lutheran church, the ALPB increasingly embraced an evangelical catholic understanding of church, one that supersedes denominations and demands higher loyalties. From this impulse to rise above denominational boundaries while still keeping the scriptures, creeds, and confessions at the center, there are snippets of wisdom to be gained all along the way for any who wish to ask, “How did we Lutherans in America arrive here?”

[3] Retired ELCA pastor and affiliate associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Richard O. Johnson, the current editor of ALPB’s Forum Letter, is the author of this thorough chronicle of the Bureau’s history, an enduring gift to church historians who have spent countless hours mining through old issues of its publications and countless more trying to understand the historical context of their articles, snippets, editorials, and op-eds. As time goes on and Lutherans seek an historical perspective on the hot-button issues (as well as the more mundane), this book will become increasingly important. The title of the book (borrowed from ALPB’s slogan) fails to accurately describe the significance of this work, for Johnson’s primary sources, The American Lutheran and its successors, Lutheran Forum and Forum Letter, along with its old bread and butter, tracts, are a goldmine for any who wish to delve into the riches that were the great societal issues and debates of the last century: war, cultural assimilation, race, feminism, and sexuality.

[4] For the first four of those particular matters, the ALPB was a progressive voice and a force for change that helped make Lutheranism of all stripes more relevant, visible, and accessible. Even as Johnson opens the organization’s archives for all to see its ongoing internal struggles, the external impact of its publications becomes clear: a legacy of helping Lutherans differentiate themselves from other streams of American Protestantism by embracing a sacramental understanding of the church inherent in the confessions.

[5] For the first half of the book and the first half of the ALPB’s existence, the reader can easily cheer on its work calling Lutherans out of their cultural isolation and toward a broad, but unabashedly evangelical engagement with American society. Leading up to the First World War, Lutherans, identified with the German enemy, were often distrusted and feared. The ALPB sought to highlight positive aspects of Lutheranism. The Bureau’s commitment to greater inclusivity and to Lutheran unity were resisted by the Missouri Synod but ultimately reached an expanding and broader audience of readers.

[6] The ALPB embraced a vision of church beyond Lutheran bodies in America, beyond Lutheranism itself, and toward the church catholic. During its middle years, while still reporting and advising on the minutia and personalities of the several American Lutheran church bodies, it was increasingly looking to Rome. As the Second Vatican Council convened, Catholicism itself seemed to converge, at last, with many expressed desires of these Lutherans. For some, unity with Rome became the ecumenical goal.

[7] Among ALPB’s most well-known personalities, Richard John Neuhaus, Forum Letter editor from 1974 until 1990, would, in fact, make personal union with Rome, leaving the roster of the ELCA for the Catholic priesthood. Neuhaus and subsequent editors of Forum Letter were increasingly combative and cynical about the young ELCA. Two more of ALPB’s editors would take a similar path to Rome over the next few years, while others connected with ALPB would petition the ELCA for confessional orthodoxy, eventually forming the Society of the Holy Trinity.

[8] The build-up to these exits would not always unfold in a respectful manner. The nature and role of the church was disputed as writers objected to the ELCA’s advocacy in the halls of Congress and state houses. Though the visceral disgust and impetuousness tone is painful to read at times, some of the basic issues remain relevant to the present discussions of theological ethics: to what extent is this church called on to prescribe teachings through the teaching office or to describe the church as it is reflected in representative voting on assembly matters?

[9] Following this era that questioned the nature of the church, the publications have focused on the recent and still-tender history of the ELCA as seen through the lens of the ALPB, along with sometimes-perfunctory updates on the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, whose distance from the former is shown to widen at accelerating rates. As one body takes up questions such as the admission of non-Christians to the Lord’s Supper, the other places pastors on trial for merely praying with others who are not of the same denomination. Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the reporting on human sexuality which dominated discussion over the past 20 years. Unlike the ethical debates of previous decades, Forum Letter, and to a lesser extent, Lutheran Forum, no longer come down on the progressive side of contemporary issues. Whether or not one agrees with the positions taken in these publications, what may surprise the reader is remembering how far we have come as the ELCA on sexuality and other matters, even with all the steps and missteps along the way.

[10] Imperfect as it has been, and even given its self-limiting confessional boundaries, the ALPB’s independence and its nature as a forum for dialogue and debate has provided a means for pastors and the people of the church to speak to one another. Johnson’s work in gathering this historical material provides a treasure trove for those interested in the both the external and internal workings of a church engaging society.

[11] Examining the ALPB in a digital era, we see a place of mutual accountability and editorial standards that something like a Facebook cannot provide. That old and antiquated media of print — especially the kind that is independent, slow, and (mostly) deliberate — may yet hold a relevant purpose for the church’s life together.

Brian Evans

Rev. Brian A. Evans is Senior Pastor at First Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh, PA.