General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America
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The General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America (General Council) was a conservative Lutheran church body, formed as a reaction against the new "Americanized Lutheranism" of Samuel Simon Schmucker and the General Synod.
The group was founded in November, 1867, and thirteen church bodies became members of the General Council. Founded at the instigation of the Pennsylvania Ministerium, the General Council placed special emphasis on the Lutheran Confessions and their role in the life of the church. In 1872, they adopted the Akron Rule, reserving Lutheran pulpits for Lutheran pastors and Lutheran altars for Lutheran communicants.
Theodore Emanuel Schmauk was President of the General Council from 1903 until the formation of the United Lutheran Church in America in 1918. The United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) was formed from the merger of three independent German-language synods: the General Synod, the General Council and the United Synod of the South.
Beginning of the General Council
At the one hundred and nineteenth convention of the Pennsylvania Ministerium in 1866, a fraternal address was issued "to Evangelical Lutheran Synods, ministers and congregations in the United States and Canadas, which confess the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, inviting them to unite in a convention for the purpose of forming a union of Lutheran Synods."
This call urged "the needs of a general organization, first and supremely for the maintenance of unity in the true faith of the Gospel, and in the uncorrupted Sacraments, as the Word of God teaches and our Church confesses them; and furthermore for the preservation of her genuine spirit and worship, and for the development of her practical life in all her forms."
Although none of the synods remaining in the General Synod responded favorably to this official letter, representatives from the Synod of Pennsylvania, the English, English District, and Joint Synods of Ohio, from the Wisconsin, Michigan, Pittsburg, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Canada, New York, and the Norwegian synods assembled at Reading, Pennsylvania, on December 11, 1866. The Augustana Synod was represented by letter. There they unanimously adopted a statement on the "Fundamental principals of Faith and Church Polity." A committee was appointed to outline a constitution to be submitted to the respective District Synods. They required ten synods to accept the constitution before it would go into effect, uniting the synods as district synods in the new General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America.
Ten synods adopted the constitution and the first convention met on November 20, 1867, at Fort Wayne, Indiana, where the General Synod suffered a schism the previous year. Twelve synods sent representatives. Several districts of the Missouri Synod sent a letter proposing a series of free conferences to discuss theology before joining together. Likewise, the Ohio Synod declined to join, but sent representatives to discuss differences of theology and practice.
Origin of the Four Points in American Lutheranism
Although the Ohio Synod greatly desired to see a union of Lutheran church bodies, the members saw practical difficulties that would prevent them from joining the new General Council. They probed the representatives of the General Council synods at the convention:
- What relation will this venerable body in future sustain to Chiliasm?
- Mixed Communion?
- The exchanging of pulpits with sectarians [non-Lutheran Protestants]?
- Secret or unchurchly Societies [for example, Freemasonry]?
The delegates of the Iowa Synod brought with them a letter also asking these questions, with the exception of the first, because they had decided that millennialism was theologically an open question with which good Lutherans could agree to disagree.
The response of the General Council to the letter of the Iowa Synod was to the effect that the Council was not prepared to endorse the position of the Iowa Synod, but would "refer the matter to the District Synods until such time as by the blessing of God's Holy Spirit, and the leadings of his Providence, we shall be enabled, throughout the whole General Council and all its churches, to see eye to eye in all the details of practice and usage."
The Iowa Synod holding that there must be complete and hearty agreement not only in the principles of faith, "but also in an ecclesiastical practice accordant with such faith," refused to complete its connection with the General Council, its representatives contenting themselves with the privilege of debate at its conventions. For similar reasons the Synods of Ohio and Missouri decided not to enter into the union, and a few years later the Synods of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota decided to withdraw from it.
Such were the origin of the "Four Points" which have gained historic importance in the Lutheran Church. They became the most important factor in the development of the General Council, arresting in its very first convention the realization of the original plan of its founders, and in no small degree "damping the bright and perhaps somewhat sanguine expectations of its warmest friends," while they kept the body for years in constant agitation. Ultimately, the General Council contained less than half of the Lutheran community previously existing as independent synods. The Synod of Illinois merged with the Missouri Synod in 1880, and the Wisconsin and Minnesota Synods together became part of the Joint Synod of Wisconsin in 1917.
List of Four Points
These Four Points were issues which were divisive among American Lutherans in the 1860s, and continued to be a point of contention into the next century:
- chiliasm (or millennialism),
- mixed communion (altar fellowship),
- exchange of pulpits with sectarians (pulpit fellowship) and
- secret or unchurchly societies (such as Masons, the Lodge, etc.).
- Reed, Luther D., ed. (1923). Philadelphia Seminary Biographical Record 1864-1923. Mt. Airy, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary and the Alumni Association. Retrieved January 13, 2015.
- Bente, F. American Lutheranism Volume II St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 1919.
- Ochsenford, Solomon Erb. Documentary history of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1912.
- Wolf, Edmund Jacob. The Lutherans in America; a story of struggle, progress, influence and marvelous growth. New York: J.A. Hill, 1889. p. 433-9
- The entire article from the Christian Cyclopedia.