No Rest for the Lutherans
by Richard O. Johnson
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from LF Fall 2007
In a column in The Lutheran, Robert Rimbo considered why Christians worship on Sunday. “Some say the third commandment compels us to be here,” he began. “But… Sunday isn’t the Christian Sabbath, the day of rest. It’s something else.” He was right, of course, from a confessional point of view. The Small Catechism’s explanation of the Third Article doesn’t say anything about a day of rest (nor anything about Sunday at all). Furthermore, Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession states that in its literal sense, the obligation to observe the Sabbath is part of the Mosaic law that has been abrogated for Christians (though this affirmation is made rather in passing, as an example in a discussion of ecclesiastical powers).
But that confessional Lutheran understanding of the Sabbath has always had tough sledding in America. Historically, the dominant religious culture in the U.S. is Reformed, and, more specifically, Puritan; and that tradition’s distinctive understanding of Sunday as “the Christian Sabbath” has been a persistent characteristic of American religion. Philip Schaff, the German Reformed historian and theologian, called it the “Anglo-American Sabbath.” It developed in Puritan England and especially in Scotland, and then came to full flower in colonial New England. It was based on the idea that observing one day in seven as a day of rest is a continuing moral obligation for Christians, though in the new covenant the obligation has been transferred from Saturday to Sunday. In nineteenth-century America this theological conviction led to a number of sociopolitical conflicts, most notably the heated arguments in the 1830s over the transport and delivery of mail on Sunday.
A good number of Lutherans fell right in with the “Anglo-American Sabbath,” no doubt at least in part in accommodation to the American religious ethos. Other Lutherans, sensing that this was a quite different understanding than that of their confessions, staunchly resisted the sabbatarian trend. (For our purposes here, we will speak of “sabbatarians” as those who argued that Sunday was “the Christian Sabbath”). And, as Lutherans are wont to do, they quarreled with one another quite heatedly about which approach was genuinely “Lutheran.”
The first significant controversy about Sunday observance among Lutherans in the U.S. took place in the context of Samuel S. Schmucker’s advocacy for an “American Lutheranism.” Schmucker and his ally Benjamin Kurtz, were both active in the broader Protestant coalition for strict Sunday laws. Kurtz’s Lutheran Observer published many articles and editorials advocating strict Sabbath observance through the 1830s and 1840s. For his part, Schmucker made “the denial of the divine obligation of the Christian Sabbath” one of five so-called “errors of the Augsburg Confession” in his notorious Definite Platform of 1855.
Schmucker’s opponents at first argued that he had misrepresented the confessional Lutheran position. Charles Porterfield Krauth, writing in the Evangelical Review in 1857, strung together a series of quotations from Luther to demonstrate that the reformer was himself supportive of a “Christian Sabbath.” The Pittsburgh Synod, no ally of Schmucker, insisted that the Augsburg Confession “rightly interpreted” and in fact maintained “the sacred obligation of the Lord’s day.”
In the course of the confessional reappraisal that led to the founding of the General Council (as an alternative to the more doctrinally liberal General Synod), a gradual distancing from the Anglo-American view of the Sabbath began. Henry E. Jacobs led the way with a controversial article published in Evangelical Review in 1869 (which, he later commented dryly, attracted “more attention than was expected”). Jacobs concluded that the puritanical obsession with observing Sunday as “the Christian Sabbath” in fact turns the whole enterprise into a work of the law. The Sabbath rather must be understood under the rubric of Christian liberty. With occasional exceptions, Jacobs’s restatement of the confessional position eventually won the day among Lutherans in the Muhlenberg tradition.
The controversy about Sunday observance was by no means restricted to English-speaking Lutherans, however. It erupted in doctrinal discussions among three of the synods founded or heavily influenced by nineteenth-century German immigrants: the Joint Synod of Ohio, the Iowa Synod, and the Missouri Synod.
The Missouri Synod entered the fray with a series of articles by C. F. W. Walther in 1864–65. Taking on Schaff (whose advocacy of the “Christian Sabbath” was being directed increasingly at German immigrants), Walther argued that the “Anglo-American theory” of the Sabbath contradicts such vital Lutheran doctrines as righteousness alone through faith and the distinction between the old and new covenants. The reformers’ non-sabbatarian view of Sunday, he insisted, is an article of faith for Lutherans and “the only Biblical, truly evangelical and genuinely catholic doctrine.”
Walther’s views quickly became an issue in the dispute between the Missouri and Iowa Synods over “open questions.” The Iowa Synod understood that there should be some room for doctrinal disagreement over matters not firmly settled in Scripture. The role of the Sabbath for Christians, the Iowans insisted, was precisely one such doctrine. While the Iowans generally agreed with Missouri’s position, they insisted that a stricter view of the divine obligation of Sunday observance did not undermine any article of faith, but was simply a variation that should not disrupt church fellowship.
Shortly after these initial disputes, the Germans became embroiled in a controversy about election, and every other theological issue took a back seat. Sunday observance arose again, however, in the 1890s, as the Iowa Synod and the Joint Synod of Ohio, both smarting from their encounters with Missouri, began talking more intently with each other. Theses drafted at the Michigan City colloquy of 1893 reflected Ohio’s view that the doctrine of Sunday was, as Walther had insisted, a confessional issue. There seemed to be agreement, but before the colloquy concluded, Iowa’s representatives had second thoughts and fell back on their previous position: because there was a difference of opinion among orthodox teachers, the Sunday question should not be understood as a “doctrine of faith.” There is room, they insisted, for this diversity of opinion. This, the Ohio representatives replied, essentially negated the earlier agreement about the status of Sunday as a confessional issue.
The resulting ambiguity of the Michigan City Theses may be one reason that this document was not ultimately approved by either Synod. When the two tried again in 1907, the doctrine of Sunday was treated in almost an identical way. This time, however, the Ohioans seemed more willing to accept the Iowans’ caveat—perhaps not so much out of agreement but simply from a sense that the issue was no longer that important. As the kaleidoscopic relationships in American Lutheranism shifted and changed, the two synods had increasingly come to believe they were of similar spirit, and a relatively minor point like Sunday observance was not going to rain on the parade. It would take some twenty years for these two synods to merge (with two other smaller groups) into the American Lutheran Church, and by then the confessional status of Sunday had lost its steam as a potential difference between them.
Not so with Missouri, however. In its 1932 Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod, the Synod declared that “the observance of Sunday and other church festivals is an ordinance of the Church, made by virtue of Christian liberty… Hence Christians should not regard such ordinances as ordained by God and binding upon the conscience.”
Thus among the German Lutherans in America, the proper evangelical understanding of Sunday was a continuing but relatively minor doctrinal controversy. At stake was the question of whether doctrinal developments from the confessions were equally binding on those who subscribed to the confessions. All agreed that the Augsburg Confession and the catechisms taught, in harmony with the New Testament, that the Sabbath has been abrogated. But could one make a case for understanding Scripture to teach an enduring obligation to set apart one day in seven, as the Puritans had done? Walther and his followers insisted that any theological development conflicting in any way with the confessions was, by definition, an incorrect interpretation of Scripture and as such must be rejected. The other synods were not so sure of this, but were finally willing to agree that, although the confessions clearly taught the abrogation of the Sabbath, there still might be some wiggle room for those who leaned more toward the Puritan view of Sunday.
The Norwegian-Americans, too, had their Sabbath controversy. From the earliest days of their immigration, Norwegian Lutherans had been split into three camps. On the right was the Norwegian Synod, liturgically formal, doctrinally precise, and for years in the orbit of the Missouri Synod. On the left was Eielsen’s Synod (the largest part of which was later known as Hauge’s Synod), warmly pietistic, often anti-clerical, and predisposed to sympathy with other brands of pietism in America. Occupying the middle ground was a changing configuration of pastors and congregations that ultimately coalesced into the United Norwegian Lutheran Church.
Key to the controversy among Norwegian Lutherans was an eighteenth-century catechism written by Erik Pontoppidan, a Dane who was the bishop of Bergen, Norway. Pontoppidan translated Luther’s Small Catechism, adding his own extensive explanations. His commentary on the third commandment moved sharply in a sabbatarian direction, insisting that Sunday was in fact the Christian Sabbath and was profaned by unnecessary labor. This understanding of Sunday, he explained, is part of the moral law and cannot be abolished. Though far from the spirit of Luther’s Small Catechism itself, Pontoppidan’s edition was nonetheless the form in which that work was known to the Norwegians.
Controversy was sparked by the presence of aggressive Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries in Koshkonong, one of the first Norwegian communities in Wisconsin. The Norwegian Lutheran press immediately began discussing the Sabbath, and in 1862 the right-wing orthodox Norwegian Synod debated the issue and wrote formal theses outlining the Synod’s position. They made an ingenious move that both upheld the confessional viewpoint and yet gave an out to those Norwegians more inclined toward a strict sabbatarian practice. The literal Sabbath of the third commandment is abrogated for Christians, the Synod insisted. And yet under the fourth commandment, Christians are obligated to honor and respect civil authority. Since here in America, Sunday observance laws are common, good Lutherans will reverently observe Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, a day of rest, as an act of obedience, not to the third, but to the fourth commandment!
This obfuscation was rejected outright by the staunchly sabbatarian Haugeans, and the centrist groups were by no means convinced, either. As the centrists moved toward merger in 1890, they found it necessary to come to agreement on five specific doctrinal questions that had divided them: justification, the gospel, absolution, Sunday observance, and election. Extensive and careful agreements were hammered out on four of the five, but when it came to Sunday observance, the entire agreement could be stated in one sentence: “We maintain what is taught in the Explanation to the Third Commandment in the Catechism.” “What is taught,” of course, was precisely what was in dispute, and this “agreement” really settled nothing. It seemed to work, however; when nearly all the Norwegian groups merged in 1917, Sunday observance had faded as an issue.
The question of Sunday observance and how to understand the third commandment has run like a red thread through much of the history of Lutherans in America. While it has never been the primary doctrinal issue, it has often been a subsidiary concern, and even now can provide insights into the larger controversies among Lutherans. It enlightens the ever-present tension between law and gospel; but perhaps even more significantly, it illuminates the struggle among Lutherans in America to maintain their confessional allegiance while surrounded by a very different religious ethos. As the twentieth century unfolded, secularization made the strict observance of the Sabbath a moot point in most communities, and the theological dispute lost its sharpness. Nevertheless, this history is instructive as a case study for how confessional Lutheran theology has been debated and interpreted in the American context.
Richard O. Johnson is the Editor of Forum Letter.
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1. Robert Rimbo, “Sunday,” The Lutheran 20 (May 2007): 43.
2. Philip Schaff, The Anglo-American Sabbath: An Essay Read before the National Sabbath Convention, Saratoga, August 11, 1863 (New York: New York Sabbath Committee, 1863).
3. The best study of the Platform and its aftermath is that of Vergilius Ferm, The Crisis in American Lutheran Theology: A Study of the Issue between American Lutheranism and Old Lutheranism (New York: Century, 1927; reprint, St. Louis: Concordia, 1987).
4. For a fuller discussion of Jacobs’s role in this controversy, see Richard O. Johnson, “Henry E. Jacobs, the Sunday Question, and Confessional Reappraisal in Eastern Lutheranism,” Lutheran Quarterly 13 (Autumn 1999): 285–303.
5. C. F. W. Walther, “Die Lehre der lutherischen Kirche vom Sonntag,” Parts 1–4, Lehre und Wehre 10 (November 1864): 321–45; 11 (January 1864): 4–24; 11 (February 1865): 33–43; 11 (March 1865): 65–83.
6. Richard Wolf, Documents of Lutheran Unity in America (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966): 391.