Remembering the 200th anniversary of the forced union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia

King Frederick William III of Prussia.

GERMANY – September 27, 2017 marked the 200th anniversary of the Prussian King Fredrick William III’s Order-in-Council, which marked the beginning of a rather distressing journey towards the formation of autonomous Evangelical Lutheran Churches in the former Prussian territories. Beginning in 1817, Frederick William III issued a series of decrees which pushed Lutheran and Reformed churches to merge. Later decrees required churches to give up the name “Lutheran” or “Reformed” in favour of the name “Evangelical,” and to adopt a new liturgy which privileged Reformed theology in the area of Holy Communion at the expense of Lutheran beliefs.

Many Lutherans protested and their pastors refused to use the new rite. When caught using historic Lutheran liturgies, these pastors were suspended from ministry. If they were further caught continuing to practice pastoral care, they were then imprisoned. The persecution of these “Old Lutherans,” as they were called, led eventually to the formation of independent confessional Lutheran church bodies throughout German territories.

The Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständigen Evangelisch Lutherischen Kirche – SELK) in Germany traces its origins to this movement, as do confessional Lutheran churches in other German territories. Some Old Lutherans emigrated from Germany to other nations in pursuit of religious freedom. The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (SELK), for example, grew out of this exodus, as did the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA). SELK and the LCMS are both member churches of the ILC, while the LCA is an associate member.

On September 27, to mark the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Prussian Union, the persecution of the Old Lutherans, and the origins of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt, Bishop of the SELK, released the following letter. Bishop Voigt is also Chairman of the International Lutheran Council. (Read the letter in German here.)

Remarks on the 200th anniversary of the Frederick William III’s Union Decree

Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt

I would not want to let this date pass without pointing out its significance. We have no cause to celebrate, because September 27, 1817 is the beginning of the suppression of Lutheran congregations and their pastors by Prussian authorities. And this is the cause for Lutheran families to become refugees, feeling compelled to flee to North America and to Australia, where they founded Lutheran churches that are now sister churches of the SELK.

No one less than Dr. Martin Luther himself, at the conclusion of the attempted union discussion at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, with great regret felt it necessary to say: “You have a different spirit!” In his order-in-council released September 27, 1817, Frederick William III called this “an unfortunate sectarian spirit,” which evidenced “insurmountable difficulties” in  Martin Luther’s person. To the King’s  mind, the Lutheran  and  Reformed Churches 300 years after the Reformation were “separated protestant churches merely by certain external differences.” Thus begun the attempt to marginalize the Lutheran Church in Prussia.

On September 27, 1817, the King still claimed: “This union will only be of real value when it is effected neither by persuasion nor by indifferentism, rather that it should arise out of the free conviction of those involved, so that it is not only a union in mere external form but indeed has its roots and vital strength in a unity of the heart, according to genuine Biblical principles.” Some time later Frederick William III dissociated himself from this position, and ordered the acceptance of a union agenda which he had authored, in which Reformed and Lutheran worship was amalgamated.

It was at this point that real persecution commenced. The congregations in Silesia still remembered the persecution that was visited upon them during the rule of the Habsburgs, less than 100 years earlier. And so most of them were still aware of what they had to do. They held their worship services in the forests. Various congregations in Pomerania and in the provinces along the Rhine followed their example. At times, every Lutheran pastor was in jail.

I want to remind all of us of this willingness on the part of the mothers and fathers of our church to suffer and of their courageous faith. They were ready to consider questions of their faith; Holy Communion was for them so important that under no circumstances were they willing to question the certainty of the body and blood of Christ under bread and wine. They were even willing,  after the legalization of the Lutheran Church from 1845 on, to continue paying state church contributions, while in addition giving their own offerings for the construction of new Lutheran churches and parsonages and for the salaries of their pastors. This sacrificial spirit in hard times is exemplary. And our church today is alive because of this same sacrificial spirit.

It is of some value to remember this and keep it alive. But at the same time it is important for our church not to maintain the role of a victim. During the last several years we have engaged in dialogue with the Union of Evangelical Churches (UEK) within the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD — the Protestant Federation of the State Churches in Germany). For the first time in 200 years we have taken a look at our common history. We have drafted a Gemeinsames Wort (“Common Address”) and a Brief an die Gemeinden (Letter to the Congregations); they are still in the process of being finalized for adoption. Both of these papers are to be signed in a Service of Repentance and Thanksgiving on the Day of Repentance and Prayer, November 22, 2017 in Berlin. These documents still clearly enunciate remaining differences separating our churches, but we also express our gratitude for common viewpoints.

This process was initiated by a very moving sermon preached 50 years ago (1967) by Franz-Reinhold Hildebrandt. At the time, he was head of the Chancellery of the Evangelical Church of the Union (EKU). In that sermon, he said: “Our church stands in guilt that is still not dealt with. Rifle butts by soldiers, forcible entry into churches and the arrest of pastors, that’s what happened. And so at that time many families left their home and emigrated to Australia and North America. They wanted to keep pure their Lutheran faith, which they saw endangered in the Union. And if guilt can only be obliterated by forgiveness, then we don’t want to let this day pass without asking our Old Lutheran brethren for such forgiveness.”

All of us today have a lasting responsibility for our history. Because we participate in the blessings that our church bestows on us, so we are also responsible for any suffering and guilt in our history. This background makes it important, to grant human forgiveness—to ask for the same and to grant it.

This day fills me with mournful remembrance and great respect for the suffering the mothers and fathers of our church had to bear. But on the other hand I am full of gratitude for the Lutheran Church into which I was baptized: the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK). I am also filled with gratitude for the thorough and respectful discussions with the representatives of the UEK. They will enable both churches to look at one another in a spirit different than in the past.

Translation by Rev. Dr. Wilhelm Torgerson

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Mathew Block

Mathew Block serves as Editor for the International Lutheran Council's news service. He is Communications Manager for Lutheran Church–Canada, editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine, and a blogger with First Things.

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