Review of "Changing World, Changing Christ" by Richard O. Johnson
Richard O. Johnson, Changing World, Changeless Christ: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1914–2014 (Delhi: ALPB Books, 2018), 512 pp.
reviewed by David E. Settje
Most readers of this website’s book reviews probably lean toward a sympathetic view of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau and its associated journal, Lutheran Forum. I therefore want this review to respect both this readership and the ALPB but also include a historian’s critical eye. I considered this balance when I first picked up Richard O. Johnson’s Changing World, Changeless Christ: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1914–2014. Thankfully, this volume provides a solid history of the ALPB, which made my balancing act much easier.
Johnson covers a century of ALPB history with detailed stories, exhaustive research, and an adept understanding of American Lutheranism. Founded in 1914, the ALPB focused much of its early attention on the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and, in particular, its Americanization amid and after World War I.
From the Great War and moving into the 1920s, Johnson carefully shows how the ALPB not only addressed what its leaders saw as its primary mission—to educate Americans about Lutheranism—but also the ALPB’s reaction to historic national and world events. Johnson next moves the story toward intra-Lutheran tensions, especially over unionism (the debate about whether or not to accept cooperation and/or joint worship between institutions of varying spiritual practices and beliefs), a concern that stayed with the ALPB throughout its history.
As ALPB leaders and writers pushed for more and more Lutheran cooperation after World War II, they likewise distanced themselves from being a body that focused mostly on the LCMS to incorporating a broader sense of American Lutheranism and thus other Lutheran denominations. Lutheran unity and ecumenical initiatives drove much of the ALPB’s activities well into the 1980s, when it turned acute attention to questioning the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, especially in combatting the ELCA’s theology and move toward the left.
Johnson demonstrates that the ALPB throughout the twentieth century steered a unique course, independent in its Lutheran thinking even as it strove to maintain Lutheran unity through working with various Lutheran entities.
Johnson proves to be a careful and reliable historian in offering this overview. As mentioned previously, he undertook exhaustive research. It’s hard to imagine that a piece of paper, newspaper article, or record of any sort exists about the ALPB that Johnson and his predecessors who started the project failed to examine. It leaves the reader with the impression that he covered everything there is to know, leaving no stone unturned in the process, until perhaps a future stockpile emerges from someone’s attic.
It is important to note that Johnson worked for the ALPB on this history, which published the book itself, and edits one of its periodicals, Forum Letter. I was impressed with his mostly even-handed approach in this regard, because he criticized Lutherans and even the ALPB where he thought appropriate, yet seldom with seeming biased toward one point of view or another, unless strong evidence supported it.
For example, he pointed out the ALPB’s “hysterical fears about Communism” in the 1950s, detailed how some Lutherans challenged leaders on this point, but then showed that the matter “had run its course” and died down as a significant issue by decade’s end (pp. 159, 164–7). To critique the subject under consideration and add valid analysis is a tricky endeavor for any historian, because one must simultaneously remain objective so as not to misrepresent the sources. That Johnson accomplished such a feat while knee-deep himself in the organization’s history proves all the more impressive.
Johnson’s history will probably, at times, displease those leaning toward conservatism, then pivot to annoying moderates, and finally to tweaking liberals. I found this achievement striking on two fronts. One, because it reveals his care and objectivity as a historian and, two, because such balance in irritating all sides with measured analysis perfectly captured the ALPB and its history over the entire century.
Still, a few detracting items need mentioning. At almost 500 pages, this is a long history. A bit too long. Johnson seems to tell every single ALPB story, sometimes devoting space to explaining each issue the ALPB covered in a given year, or writing several pages about a particular meeting, leaving the reader to feel as if you just sat through it, too. More summary and a tighter writing could have streamlined this history without losing the heart of the tale or any crucial details.
Conversely, giving a little more attention to the background of the times and events swirling outside of Lutheranism would have helped with overall context. A brief paragraph to explain a war or cultural debate over women’s rights, for example, might better illustrate why and how the ALPB reacted in a certain way.
Also, the historiography is a bit outdated, seeming to have skipped the last decade of research on American Lutheran history. And though I thought the book struck an objective tone overall, Johnson admits an affection for the ALPB, which occasionally results in his becoming too sympathetic to its causes. The even-handedness strains particularly over the last twenty years of ALPB history, perhaps because of Johnson’s own involvement in that very history. His word choice became sharper, his bias shines through more overtly.
But the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau set out to find someone to write its centennial story, a challenging endeavor, to say the least. Luckily for them, Richard O. Johnson stepped in to write it. Our understanding of American Lutheranism throughout the twentieth- and into the twenty-first centuries is more complete because of his contribution. He allows the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau to contribute its centrist voice to the Lutheran story, one well told and important to remember.
David E. Settje is Professor of History at Concordia University–Chicago.
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