Thursday, May 1, 2014

American Lutheranism Volume I: Early History of American Lutheranism and The Tennesse Synod by Friedrich Bente

Most famous for his Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions (online here),  Friedrich Bente was one of the Synod's greatest historians. This first volume of Bente's American Lutheranism traces the early years of Lutheranism in America. He swiftly, but adequately, covers the colonial period and the establishment of the first Lutheran outposts: the Salzburgers, the Swedes, the Dutch, Falckner, Kochertal, etc. (Berkenmeyer in New York is a favorite of mine! (p.32-5)) By page 59, Muhlenburg rightly dominates the narrative of these early years.

Two sections stand out as especially important for the student of American Lutheran history:

1. Muhlenburg

Bente gives a helpful, concise, and balanced evaluation of Muhlenburg's strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, he points out the firm insistence upon confessional subscription and the desire of Muhlenburg to be faithful to true confessional Lutheranism. Yet on the other, Bente traces the corrosive effects of Muhlenberg's Pietism and Unionism on his American Lutheran dream, which were increasingly observable by the end of his life. Bente summarizes his view of Muhlenberg:

We would not detract from the merit of Muhlenburg. The slogan of the American Lutheran Church, however, dare never be: "Back to Muhlenburg!" "Back to Halle!" but "Back to Wittenberg!" "Back to Luther! Back to Lutheran sincerity, determination, and consistency both in doctrine and practice!" (p.91)

2. The Tennessee Synod and the Henkels

The last 90 pages of the book give an in depth look at the staunchly confessional Tennessee Synod and its leading family, the Henkels. Bente covers their history, successes, failures, and some odd parculiarities. You can purchase the Works of David Henkel (with a historical introduction by Dr. Rast) here from Lutheran Legacy.

Need to Get Read Level: 6/10

If you haven't ever read an overview of American Lutheran history...or haven't since seminary, this is a classic treatment of the subject in the heyday of Missouri's confidence. Bente certainly does have his axes to grind, which I by and large appreciate (excepting the hyper-allergic reaction to anything deemed "hierarchical"). But at under 250 pages per volume, it is a manageable, yet still substantial, fair handed refresher/introduction to American Lutheran history. It is free to read online here. Check it out, you will be reminded that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we do not fight alone, nor first, nor in vain.

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