by James Heine
100 years ago this summer, The Lutheran Witness, then nearly three decades old, officially became a part of the LCMS family.
In the Aug. 31, 1911, issue of The Lutheran Witness, a small notice heralded a big change in the status of the magazine.
Formerly a periodical of the English Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri and Other States, the magazine now became an official publication of the Deutsche Evangelische Lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio, und andern Staaten (the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States, today, our LCMS).
The reason for the change: At the 1911 Missouri Synod convention in St. Louis, the English Synod became part of the LCMS family. With that melding of synods came also St. John’s College, Winfield, Kan.; Concordia College, Conover, N.C.; the American Lutheran Publication Board in Chicago (the English Synod’s publication arm), a manuscript for an English hymnal; a youth magazine, The Lutheran Guide; the concept for what is now The Lutheran Church Extension Fund; and, of course, the English Synod’s magazine, The Lutheran Witness, now destined to serve alongside Der Lutheraner as a voice of the Missouri Synod.
For English-speaking Lutherans
Founded in 1882 as the English voice of the Missouri Synod after the Ohio Synod and the Missouri Synod went their separate ways because of the Predestination Controversy, the first issue of The Lutheran Witness listed a publication date of May 21. Its first editor: the Rev. Charles Frank of Zanesville, Ohio. The Cleveland District Pastoral Conference underwrote the venture with a pledge of $260 (in today’s terms, perhaps about $6,000).
Initial issues were free with a request for subscription support ($1/year). Vol. 1, No. 2 contains a list of about 70 “paid” subscribers. The late Rev. Dr. August Suelflow, remarking on the 75th anniversary of The Lutheran Witness in 1957, noted that early on “1,000 subscribers were gained immediately.” Yet, the mastheads of those first issues contain a note that would become a fixture in the magazine: “Agents wanted in every town.” The early growth of The Lutheran Witness was slow. In many ways, its acceptance as a magazine of the church from 1911 onwards paralleled the gradual transition from German to English in the Synod.
Through the Years
The following timeline is a snapshot of The Lutheran Witness gleaned from past issues, including Witness’ 75th and 100th anniversary issues, and from the archives of Concordia Historical Institute (lutheranhistory.org), which holds the research on the magazine conducted by the late Rev. Dr. Leland Stevens, the editor of The Lutheran Witness from 1979 to 1984.
Chester A. Arthur is president of the United States; Rev. Dr. H. C. Schwan, of the LCMS. In the first issue of The Lutheran Witness, editor Charles Frank outlines the magazine’s goals: To bring home the “sound doctrinal and practical truths” of the Lutheran Church and to “do missionary work, to instruct, admonish, and comfort, [and] to educate the church and its members.”
The Cleveland District Conference decides The Lutheran Witness has fulfilled its commitment to the church, and the conference withdraws its support, leaving Frank to fend for himself. He continues to publish the magazine as a private venture. He offers the magazine to the Missouri Synod at its 1884 convention. President Schwan relays the offer to the convention. The convention takes no action.
The English Synod comes into being and assumes responsibility for the magazine.
William Howard Taft is president of the United States. Rev. Dr. J. F. Pfotenhauer succeeds Rev. Dr. Franz Pieper as president of the LCMS. The English Synod becomes part of the Missouri Synod. Concordia Publishing House assumes the business responsibilities of The Lutheran Witness, and interim editorial responsibilities are divided between the two Synods (now one). Circulation: “not quite 3,000.”
World War I erupts in Europe. At The Lutheran Witness, the editorial partnership of the Rev. Martin Sommer and the Rev. Dr. Theodore Graebner begins. Their partnership will carry the magazine through two world wars, a depression and the start of the Cold War. Circulation: 4,800.
Lutheran Witness circulation at the beginning of the year: 24,800. In the Jan. 2 issue, Graebner vigorously refutes the claims of a “Mr. Pelley” that German-American Lutherans in droves will join Pelley’s “Silver Shirts” anti-Semitic organization. “This is written to let Mr. Pelley and the public know that Lutheranism thoroughly disowns him and all that he represents,” Graebner states.
Rev. Dr. J. W. Behnken is Synod president. The Iowa District becomes the first to feature a district supplement to the Witness. Circulation as of Feb. 11: “more than 72,000.”
On Dec. 8, the U.S. enters World War II. The Dec. 23 issue of The Lutheran Witness reprints the Dec. 9 telegram sent by President Behnken to the President of the United States, pledging “the loyal support of our people in defense of our country.” Over the next two years, circulation of The Lutheran Witness grows rapidly.
As of Jan. 15, circulation stands at “more than 240,000.” By June, 26 districts have Witness supplements. In the July 16 issue, Sommer and Graebner credit “the district edition plan” as the single most successful realization of the goal of a “church paper in every home.”
Harry Truman is president of the United States. Circulation exceeds 300,000. Sommer and Graebner retire after 35 years at the helm of the magazine.
The world is at war again, this time in Korea. The Rev. Dr. Lorenz F. Blankenbuehler becomes the full-time editor of The Lutheran Witness. In the Dec. 9 issue, “E.A.Z.” from Edgely, N.D., opines that the Witness, while improved, remains “too stiff and formal.” The recommendation: “Continue to print letters from readers and plenty of striking pictures.”
Circulation peaks at 625,000.
In the January issue, Executive Editor Leland Stevens recalls 100 years of continuous publication for The Lutheran Witness. “The scope and depth of the material which has filled the pages for 100 years is overwhelming. The pages throb with the emotion and belief, efforts and ministry of a ‘peculiar people’ (I Peter 2:9 KJV) of God,” Stevens writes. Rev. Dr. J. A. O. Preus II serves as LCMS president.
Rev. Dr. Gerald B. Kieschnick serves as LCMS president. The LCMS Board for Communication Services debuts a website for The Lutheran Witness. In 2007, the website (lcms.org/witness) is revamped to enhance its reader-friendliness.
Circulation as of Jan 1: 152,350. Readers are introduced to a refreshed look for a magazine now well past the century mark—“a grand old lady” in the words of the Synod’s late Secretary Rev. Herbert Mueller. In introducing the new look, David Strand, executive director of LCMS Communications, notes a renewed commitment of the magazine to provide its readers with stories and information “that complement congregational life, foster personal growth in the faith, and help interpret the contemporary world from a Lutheran Christian perspective.”
Inside the magazine, LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison and the Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, LCMS director of church relations and assistant to the President, reflect on the Synod’s new emphasis: Witness, Mercy, Life Together. Of the emphasis, Harrison writes, “This is the threefold key to the future of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.”
> Go to http://media.ctsfw.edu/77 to watch a video on the predestination controversy.
> The Lutheran Witness has always been subscription based.
> At its peak circulation in the mid-1960s, The Lutheran Witness reached about two-thirds of LCMS households.
About the Author: James Heine is executive editor of The Lutheran Witness.