Confessing the Faith in the Language of America

The Historical Context and Enduring Significance of the Henkel Translation of the Book of Concord


In the words of Gerhard Friedrich Bente,

The Lutheran Church differs from all other churches in being essentially the Church of the pure Word and unadulterated Sacraments. Not the great number of her adherents, not her organizations, not her charitable and other institutions, not her beautiful customs and liturgical forms, etc., but the precious truths confessed by her symbols in perfect agreement with the Holy Scriptures constitute the true beauty and rich treasures of our Church, as well as the never-failing source of her vitality and power.1

The entirety of these Symbols, as contained in the Book of Concord of 1580, first appeared in English in 1851, due largely to the translating and editing efforts of Socrates Henkel. English-speaking Lutherans in America and in the world now had unimpeded access, in their own language, to the official Confessions of their church: the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds; the Augsburg Confession and its Apology; the Smalcald Articles (including the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope); Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms; and the Formula of Concord. At a time when American Lutherans were struggling with the question of what it means to be a Lutheran, the Henkel translation of the Book of Concord helped many of them to find the answer.

In the closing paragraph of the Formula of Concord, its sixteenth century authors offered a firm declaration of their convictions that reflected their prayerful hope that their posterity would also know and embrace the faith which they had confessed:

In the presence of God, therefore, and before the whole Christian church, we have desired to testify to those who now live, and to those who shall come after us, that this Declaration now made, concerning all the controverted articles already mentioned and explained, and no other, is our faith, doctrine, and confession; in which, by the grace of God, we shall appear with humble confidence before the judgment-seat of Christ, and render an account for the same.2

Respect for the Lutheran Confessions and for their theology did indeed remain strong in the institutional Lutheran Church during the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy, but the rise of Pietism in the late seventeenth century inaugurated a trend toward doctrinal indifference and religious subjectivism that undermined the authority of the Confessions. And when Pietism gave way to Rationalism, Confessional theology was almost totally eclipsed. This loss of Confessional consciousness also engendered a “unionistic” spirit, which led to the notorious 1817 Union of Lutheran and Reformed Churches in the Kingdom of Prussia, and to similar Unions in some other German territories.

But another wind was also in the air in the early nineteenth century. There were many Christians in the Lutheran churches of Europe who had never completely forgotten the teachings of their catechism, and their slumbering faith was finally stirred. Under the pastoral leadership of Claus Harms, who penned 95 Theses against Rationalism and Unionism in 1817, along with other revitalized Lutheran theologians, the Confessional Revival was born. But this revival had to compete with the Unionism, Rationalism, and lingering Pietism that also inhabited the institutional Church, and the frustrations and ecclesiastical persecutions which the “Old Lutherans” often experienced led many of them to immigrate to the United States. Especially notable were a large group of Saxons who left in 1838 and in 1847 helped organize the Missouri Synod, and a large group of Prussians who left in 1839 and in 1845 organized the Buffalo Synod.

The Lutheran Church had originally been brought to America in the seventeenth century by Swedish and Dutch settlers, and many German Lutherans arrived in the first half of the eighteenth century. The earliest Lutherans in the American colonies were for the most part Orthodox in their orientation. For example, the avowedly Orthodox ministers of the New York Classis, under the leadership of Wilhelm Christoph Berkenmeyer, declared in their 1735 church order that they would “regulate their teaching and preaching according to the rule of the divine Word, the Biblical prophetical and apostolical writings, also according to our Symbolical Books, the Unaltered Confession of Augsburg, its Apology, the Smalcald Articles, both Catechisms of Luther, and the Formula of Concord.” They declared furthermore that they would not “teach or preach, privately or publicly, anything against these [Confessions] nor even use any other new phrases which would contradict the same.”3

The Confessions also held an important place in the theology and practice of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, often styled the “Patriarch” of American Lutheranism. Socrates Henkel notes that Muhlenberg and his co-laborers in the Pennsylvania Ministerium, founded in 1748, did not “teach any other doctrines, nor endeavor to establish, in this country, any other system of faith, than that inculcated in the Lutheran Confessions and Catechisms.”4 The congregations of the Pennsylvania Ministerium, in the earlier decades of its existence, subscribed to “the Evangelical Lutheran doctrine, according to the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles, and the unaltered Augsburg Confession and all the other Symbolical Books.”5

However, the American Lutheran Church was eventually influenced by the more destructive theological trends of its European counterpart. Henkel elaborates on this:

Pietism and Rationalism prevailed to an alarming extent in Germany and other countries. The former, inaugurated by Spener, -- a man of distinguished talents and rare learning, -- for the purpose of reviving, in the Church, greater zeal for vital piety and practical Christianity, was afterwards carried beyond its contemplated object by Franke, a very zealous and able minister, and thus, amidst the agitation, it finally resulted in fanaticism, as well as in a perversion of many of the leading doctrines of the Church, and in ignoring, to a greater or less extent, her true Confessions. ... Some of the ministers who immigrated to this country were of the Halle, Frankean, Pietistic school, and they came imbued with that spirit, to some extent, and infused it in some parts of the Church... Rationalism...crept into the Protestant theology of the continent, especially of Germany. The extremes of Pietism, it appears, prepared the way for Rationalism, the other extreme. One extreme usually results in another, in the opposite direction. Fanaticism generally ends in skepticism. This pernicious, disturbing element, Rationalism, also found its way to North America, and exerted a very baneful influence over the people in regard to the teachings of the Bible, as presented in the Confessions of the Church. The tendency was to yield or compromise nearly everything that was positive or definite, until, as Dr. [Charles Porterfield] Krauth said, in speaking of the condition of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, at the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, “We had a weak, indecisive pulpit, feeble catechisms, vague hymns, and constitutions which reduced the minister to the position of a hireling talker, and made Synods disorganizations for the purpose of preventing anything from being done.” Unionism followed in the wake.6

What eventually emerged from this chaotic situation, in the first half of the nineteenth century, was a new form of “American” Lutheranism. The doctrinal character of the “American Lutheran” movement is reflected in an 1845 letter from Samuel Simon Schmucker, its acknowledged leader, together with Benjamin Kurtz and others, to representatives of the Prussian Union Church:

Now as to our doctrinal views, we confess without disguise, indeed confess it loudly and openly, that the greatest majority of us are not old Lutherans, in the sense in which a small party exists in Germany under that name. We are convinced that, if the great Luther were still living, he would not be a member of it either. We believe that the three last centuries have also produced men who were capable of independent thought, research and growth equal to the 16th. Yea, as insignificant as we consider ourselves, we are nevertheless emboldened, particularly through our feeling of duty, to investigate and explore Scripture, and to draw our doctrinal views from this heavenly source. But, nevertheless, we are Evangelical Lutheran. Committed to Luther’s fundamental principle that God’s Word is without error, we have proved that Luther’s doctrinal construction is essentially correct. In most of our church principles we stand on common ground with the union or merged church of Germany. The distinctive views which separate the old Lutherans and the Reformed Church we do not consider essential; and the tendency of the so called old Lutheran party seems to us to be behind our time.7

The General Synod had been organized in 1820 by several “American Lutheran” regional synods, and as a bulwark against the more extreme forms of Rationalism it did acknowledge the Augsburg Confession -- in an admittedly qualified way -- “as a substantially correct exhibition of the fundamental doctrines of the Bible.”8 The “American Lutherans” would be quick to add, however, that they did not, “after the additional experience and light of more than three centuries, feel any reluctance in departing from some of the minor doctrines of the Augsburg Confession.”9 These “minor” doctrines included some which the sixteenth century Reformers would certainly not have considered minor. For example, Schmucker condoned the views of Pastor Johann Augustus Probst, a member of the Pennsylvania Ministerium who, in promoting an American version of the Prussian Union, made a series of truly breathtaking assertions:

The doctrine of unconditional election cannot be in the way. This doctrine has long since been abandoned; for there can scarcely be a single German Reformed preacher found who regards it as his duty to defend this doctrine. Zwingli’s more liberal, rational and scriptural view of this doctrine, as well as of the Lord’s Supper, has become the prevailing one among Lutherans and Reformed, and it has been deemed proper to abandon the view of both Luther and Calvin on the subject of both these doctrines.10

The whole mass of the old Confessions was occasioned by the peculiar circumstances of those troublous times, has become obsolete by the lapse of ages, and is yet valuable only as matter of history. Those times and circumstances have passed away, and our situation both in regard to political and ecclesiastical relations, is entirely changed. We are therefore not bound to these books, but only to the Bible. For what do the unlearned know of the Augsburg Confession, or the Form of Concord, of the Synod of Dort...[?]11

All enlightened and intelligent preachers of both churches agree, that there is much in the former symbolical books (or confessions of faith) that must be stricken out as antiquated and contrary to common sense, and be made conformable with the Bible, and that we have no right to pledge ourselves to the mere human opinions of Luther, or Calvin, or Zwingli...12

Schmucker himself stated that, in his capacity as a professor in the General Synod’s seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he would “defeat the design of the institution” if he inculcated on his students “the obsolete views of the old Lutherans, contained in the former symbols of the church in some parts of Germany, such as exorcism, the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist, private confession, baptismal regeneration, immersion in baptism, as taught in Luther’s Large Catechism, etc.”13

The “American Lutherans” wanted very much to “fit in” with the established religious culture, and not to be perceived as being in any way less than fully “American.” A few years before the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Pennsylvania Ministerium, Schmucker observed that

The memory of the pilgrim fathers is cherished by our New England brethren, with an interest bordering on veneration. And yet we hesitate not to affirm, that in regard to piety and zeal, father Muhlenberg, and Brunnholtz, and Handschuh, and Bolzius, were by no means inferior to Cotton, Hooker, Davenport, or the Mathers; and in learning they were their superiors. Let then the contemplated centenary be improved as a favored season, to review the goodness of God to us and his American Zion in general. Let us bless God, not that we are better than our fathers; but that they were so good, so faithful, so rich in blessings, which have flowed down to us. Let us thank God, not that we are better than other portions of his kingdom in our land; but that, in common with them, we have fallen heirs to so rich a legacy of civil and political, and above all, of religious liberty, bought by the joint blood of our fathers and theirs, bestowed by the kind Providence of their God and ours.14

It is interesting to note that the colonial Lutheran fathers admired by Schmucker had, for the most part, held to a Confessional position. Joseph Augustus Seiss laments the fact that their theology was not embraced by the generations which followed them:

A happy thing would it have been for our Church, its usefulness and success in this country if their successors and descendants had all and always remained steadfast to the true confessional basis on which the Lutheran Church in this new world was started. But a long period of defection came -- a period of rationalistic and then Methodistic innovations -- a period of neglect of the confessions and of the doctrines of the church as Luther and Muhlenberg taught them -- a period of self-destructive assimilation to the unsound and unchurchly spirit of surrounding sects, by which the life and vigor of our churches were largely frittered away...15

William Julius Mann describes the extent to which the “American Lutherans” accommodated themselves to the religious environment that surrounded them:

Gradually a desire manifested itself to gain popularity for the Lutheran Church in this country. The hard dogmatical knots of the old Lutheran oak were to give way under the Puritan plane. The body was deprived of its bones and its heart, and the empty skin might be filled with whatever was most pleasing, if only the Lutheran name was retained. The statement of the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession, that “unto the true unity of the Church it is not necessary that human traditions, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men should be everywhere alike,” was most extensively used, and in the desire to make the Lutheran Church as much as possible like others, her leaders were much more ready to adopt foreign elements than to retain her own distinctive features. Thus the liturgy, the ancient lessons of the Gospels and Epistles, the festivals of the Church Year, the gown and other usages were given up, in order that as little as possible might be seen of these Lutheran peculiarities. Hoping to gain others, they lost themselves. The Lutheran Church had given away her own spirit, her own original life and character.16

As we might expect, the “American Lutherans” had little sympathy with the views of the Old Lutherans who had emigrated to America in the late 1830s. To Schmucker and his supporters they were a foreign element, promoting an antiquated, foreign theology. In the face of criticism from them, especially from the pen of the Missouri Synod’s Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, Schmucker defended the position to which he was committed:

American Lutheranism grew out of the Lutheran predilections of our fathers, the unrestricted liberty of following the scriptures, which they enjoyed in this Western world, and the influence of our free civil institutions. Under this joint influence they gradually rejected the symbolical bondage of Germany, and restored the original liberty in fundamentals, which Christ and his apostles bequeathed to us. They bought this liberty at the price of great sacrifices; and shall their American sons, that were ‘born free,’ suffer it to be taken from them?17

If our old Lutheran brethren are willing to regard their peculiarities as non-essential, and live in peace with us, they are welcome to take part with us in our ministry and ecclesiastical organizations; but if they cannot refrain from either regarding or denouncing us as dishonest, and pseudo Lutherans, and perjured, because we do not believe everything contained in confessions which we never adopted, and because we will not adopt books as symbolical, which contain numerous errors and Romish superstitions; for ourselves, whilst we wish them well as individuals, we desire no ecclesiastical communion with them, either in our Synods, or General Synod; and believe it will be for the furtherance of the Gospel of Christ, that they should be associated with those who share their intolerance and bigotry. In less than twenty years they will themselves see their error, and change their position, and their children will be worthy members of our American Lutheran Church.18

Schmucker was confident that when the Missourians became culturally Americanized, they would also become “American Lutherans.”

Schmucker noted that

It has sometimes been said, as Lutherans we ought to adhere to the standards of the Lutheran church. This is perfectly true and just, if the standards of the Lutheran church in America be intended; for these are none other than the “Word of God and the fundamentals of that Word as taught substantially in the Augsburg Confession.” But as to the former symbolical books of the Lutheran church in Germany, we are under no such obligation. Our churches, for near a century, have not acknowledged any one of them except the Augsburg Confession, and for fifty years past have received as binding, none at all, until the General Synod formally adopted the Augsburg Confession, and that only as to fundamentals; and probably not a dozen of all our American ministers have ever read all these books.19

One of the primary reasons why “probably not a dozen” American Lutheran pastors had ever read all of the Lutheran Confessions, as contained in the Book of Concord, was the fact that the Book of Concord was still locked away in the German and Latin languages. The Ancient Creeds, the Small Catechism, and the Augsburg Confession had all been translated into English, but the rest of the Confessions, with the exception of a few excerpts, had never been so translated. It was therefore that much easier for Schmucker and the “American Lutherans” to think of the recently-immigrated Confessionalists as a foreign element that need not be taken seriously, since the historic Symbols they embraced were accessible only in a foreign language. Of course, the lack of orthodox Lutheran material in the English language during the time when Lutherans in America were making their transition to that language was one of the important factors which facilitated the development of “American Lutheranism” in the first place. Juergen Ludwig Neve writes that

The English language reached ever widening circles at a time when there was not yet an English literature breathing the Lutheran spirit. English speaking Lutheran laymen had to resort to a devotional literature full of Methodistic and Puritanic suggestions; while ministers, barely familiar with the German tongue, filled the shelves of their library with books of Reformed authorship and assimilated erroneous view-points. Thus many lost the sense of consistent Lutheranism. They recognized as fundamental those features which all denominations held in common, and considered as non-fundamental the special heritage from the Church of Luther.20

In spite of all this, and in spite of Schmucker’s disdain for the Old Lutherans, there were some well-established Lutherans in early nineteenth century America who were not a part of the “American Lutheran” movement, and who were attempting to rediscover, and cling to, the heritage of the Lutheran Reformation. If Schmucker could dismiss the Missourians as misguided foreigners, he could not so easily dismiss the Henkels, or the Tennessee Synod to which they belonged. Pastor Paul Henkel, the patriarch of the family, was the great-grandson of Anthony Jacob Henckel, a Lutheran minister who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1717. Paul’s genealogical credentials as an “American” were therefore beyond reproach. However, both he and his sons, most of whom were also Lutheran pastors, did not endorse the “American Lutheran” attempt to redefine Lutheranism according to Zwinglian/Puritan/Methodist norms. In his earlier years Paul Henkel was somewhat more lax in his commitment to the distinctive theology of the Lutheran Church, and the North Carolina Synod, to which he had belonged since its founding in 1803, definitely reflected the “American Lutheran” viewpoint. But by the time of the organization of the Tennessee Synod in 1820, in which Paul and two of his sons, Philip Augustus and David, played a major role, he had come to embrace a consistent Confessional position.21 Richard H. Baur notes that the Henkels and their Tennessee Synod colleagues

anchored themselves to the Word of God and the Confessions of the church as correct expositions of it. It was “the only Lutheran Synod in America at that time that unreservedly and unqualifiedly received the Augsburg Confession,” and no one could serve in their church who did not agree to this. In all contacts with other synods through which fellowship or mutual understanding was sought, this was fundamental.22

As we would expect, the Tennessee Synod did not even consider joining the General Synod.

David Henkel, Paul’s most gifted and theologically-astute son, immediately became the theological leader and literary apologist of the new body. Before his untimely death in 1831 at the age of 36, David had translated Luther’s Small Catechism into English, and had also written, in the English language, several essays and pamphlets that defended and promoted the Confessional Lutheran position on various doctrinal issues. While still a licentiate of the North Carolina Synod, before his ordination, David had already earned a reputation as an outspoken proponent of this position. Socrates Henkel, David’s son, recounts some of the tumultuous events which took place during this stage of his father’s life:

One of the leading ministers charged Rev. David Henkel with teaching doctrines contrary to the position of the Church. To defend himself against such unfounded charges, the latter appealed to a Latin copy of the Book of Concord, which he had in [his] possession. That gave him a decided advantage, in some respects, in the estimation of many of the people, who were not willing to acquiesce in the extreme, latitudinarian views inculcated by the former. To counteract this increasing advantage, that minister called into question the correctness of these translations from the Latin. This proved disparaging for a while, but soon afterwards Rev. David Henkel happened to come across a German copy of the Book of Concord, at the residence of a German in South Carolina, with whom he spent a night or two. After much persuasion, the German let him have the book. This he brought with him, rejoicing in his good fortune to get it, to North Carolina. -- This he presented to sustain the correctness of his translations made from the Latin copy of his Book of Concord. For, this the people could read and understand for themselves, and finding that his translations from the Latin copy referred to, were correct, many of the members of the Church took a decided stand in favor of him and his positions, and faithfully defended him and his doctrines against the innovations and false charges of his opponents. The council of the congregation met, and after considering the matter, one of the Elders, Capt. John Stirewalt, father of the late Rev. Jacob Stirewalt, presented the Book of Concord to the minister, saying, We want to know whether you intend to preach according to this book, in the future. The minister hesitated and evaded, but being pressed, he raised the book up and brought it down on the table, saying, From this day henceforth, I will not; it is nothing but a controversial book. Mr. Stirewalt then raised the book up, and brought it down on the table, saying, From this day henceforth, you won’t be our preacher. The differences in doctrine becoming more apparent, the controversies and conflicts assuming a wider range and more formidable aspects, effecting some of the more vital doctrines of the Church, and the authority of her Confessions being called into question, furnished occasion for rupture and schism, and gave rise to the chief causes or reasons which ultimately resulted in the organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Tennessee Synod...23

The “American Lutherans,” of course, entertained a different interpretation of the events and people referred to above. The opinions of John Bachman, a member of the North Carolina Synod at the time of the rupture, were quoted with approval by Schmucker:

Some years ago several individuals residing in North Carolina, who had previously been members of our church, on account of some dissatisfaction separated themselves from our communion. They chose as a leader an individual by the name of (David) Henkel, (hence they are called Henkelites,) a weak and illiterate man, whose ground of dissent, as far as can be gathered from the crude, visionary and inflammatory publications, which have from time [to time] appeared, either under his name or that of his sect, was, the Evangelical Church had departed from the true doctrines of the Reformation, which he and his church had attempted to restore.24

Schmucker himself had served as a pastor in Virginia before his call to the Gettysburg seminary, and he therefore had some personal knowledge of the Tennessee Synod and its leaders. He wrote that

nearly one half of this Tennessee Conference, which for some years consisted chiefly of David Henkel, his father, and several of his brothers, resided in our pastoral district in Virginia between 1820 and 1825, and during the whole time carried on the same warfare against us, charging us with upholding the General Synod and not adhering to the doctrines of the Augsburg Confession. Hundreds of our parishioners yet live to testify that we never pretended to deny the differences between us, and that in whatever defence we felt called on to make, we represented their peculiarities either as misapprehensions of the Augsburg Confession, or especially the doctrine of the bodily presence as being remnants of Romanism, retained indeed in the Confession, but universally rejected by our church in the present age.25

But the writings of David Henkel -- the American “Claus Harms” -- had helped to ignite a Confessional Revival that could not be stopped.

The Ohio Synod, organized in 1818, had never joined the General Synod, and due in part to the fact that two of its early members were Andrew and Charles Henkel, sons of Paul, it had a cordial relationship with the Tennessee Synod. Professor William Frederic Lehmann also exercised a very positive Confessional influence on the Ohio Synod, and soon after he began his labors at its Columbus seminary in 1847, the Board of Directors noted with approval “That the new Professor had fulfilled his manifold duties with faithfulness and diligence, and that as respects doctrine it is always his endeavor to remain faithful to the Confessions of our Church.”26 Under Lehmann’s consistent theological leadership the Ohio Synod continued to grow in its Confessional consciousness and in its commitment to historic Lutheranism.

The Confessional Revival also began to spread to the General Synod. Charles Philip Krauth, the president of Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg (and after 1850 the president of the Gettysburg seminary), described the theological struggle that he and others experienced as they gradually came to accept the historic Lutheran position:

I find the Lutheran doctrine of the Sacraments hard to accept, in view of my Puritanic training, but I find the Scripture passages quoted in favor of them still harder to get over and explain away, and this I apprehend is the feeling of many who see the truth, but are slow to make a decided and public demonstration of it.27

By 1849 Krauth was much more confident in his endorsement of orthodox, Confessional Lutheran theology:

Our verdict is unequivocally in behalf of the study, the thorough study, of this theology. We would have it thrown over our church with a liberal hand; we would have all our ministers acquainted with the Symbolical Books; we would have them all versed in the distinctive theology of the Church. We would have introduced into our theological schools the study of the Symbols, and didactic and polemical theology so administered as to bring before the view pure, unadulterated Lutheranism.28

Charles Frederick Schaeffer, who, ironically, was married to Schmucker’s sister, was another leader among the Confessional pastors of the General Synod. Already by 1839 “the intensity of his conviction of the truth of the Confessions of the Church in all their teachings, and of the binding obligation of those Confessions on Lutheran ministers, began to make him uncomfortable in his surroundings.”29 John Gottlieb Morris, who had signed the infamous 1845 letter to the Prussian Union Church, dissociated himself from the erroneous views he had endorsed in that document as he grew in his understanding and appreciation of Lutheran theology. In his later years Morris said of the preparation and sending of the letter: “Never was a more senseless blunder committed.”30 Yet there were many “American Lutherans” who refused to reconsider or correct their views. As a greater number of General Synod pastors began embracing the distinctive theology of the Lutheran Symbolical Books, Schmucker and his supporters, especially Benjamin Kurtz, intensified their opposition to it. William Morton Reynolds, then a professor at Pennsylvania College (and later the president of the Ohio Synod’s Capital University), expressed his frustration with them when he wrote that

there is a large body of men in our church who have no knowledge of her history, no sympathy with her doctrines, no idea of her true character, and whose whole conception of the Church is that of a kind of mongrel Methodistic Presbyterianism, and of this party Drs. S.S. Schmucker and Kurtz are the coryphaei.31

The Tennessee Synod was certainly able to recognize its allies in the effort to promote Confessional Lutheranism, both among and beyond its own membership. The following resolution was passed at its 1848 convention:

Resolved, That we rejoice to learn that some of our German Lutheran brethren in the West, have formed themselves into a Synod, called “The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and other States,” and that they are publishing a German paper, styled “Der Lutheraner,” which is devoted to the promulgation and defence of the primitive doctrines and usages of the Lutheran Church; to which paper we would call the attention of our German brethren.32

The Tennessee Synod likewise understood the importance of the printed word in the work of the church, and in this regard saw one of its primary responsibilities to be the publication of soundly Lutheran materials in the English language. And as Baur observes, in this work

the Henkels had one advantage over other synods: a printing establishment. It had been founded in the early years of the 19th century by Paul Henkel and his oldest son Solomon in New Market, VA. From it came theological, doctrinal, devotional, and polemical works, all supporting the Henkels’ position. One of the most significant and influential of these publications was an English edition of the Book of Concord in 1851. It was widely and well received, indicating that the earlier Henkel interest in confessionalism had finally pervaded a large part of the Lutheran church in the United States.33

Charles P. Arand calls its publication of The Christian Book of Concord “the Tennessee Synod’s greatest contribution to American Lutheranism,”34 and indeed it was. Since culture is reflected and conveyed primarily through language, the distinctive theology of the Book of Concord was now just as much a part of the English-speaking American culture as “American Lutheranism” had been. The existence of the Lutheran Symbolical Books in the language of the United States was a vivid testimony that, while the members of the Tennessee Synod were not “American Lutherans,” they were Confessional Lutherans, and Americans!

In their Preface to this translation its publishers explained, with a typically “American” spirit of optimism, the reasons for the project:

The Book of Concord, comprising the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has as yet enjoyed but a limited circulation in the United States. Wrapped in the obscurities of its original languages, -- the Latin and German, -- that venerable production of the Reformation has been left to slumber almost entirely in silence and neglect. Numerous causes have contributed to prolong this neglect. The descendants of German emigrants in America, have never cultivated the language and literature of their fathers with due interest; many of them are unable to read German; while many, able to read, and occupying elevated stations, have never manifested a laudable zeal for the doctrines of the church. The most obvious cause, however, seems to be, that the larger portion of Lutherans in America are accustomed to read the English language only, and consequently have never had an opportunity to appreciate the value of their Symbols. Yet, we cherish the anticipation of a brighter day in the Lutheran church. In a land of freedom, of science and art, where the generous spirit of political wisdom encourages the exercise of reason, and guards the decisions of conscience; where industry, energy, and enterprise, though daily attaining fresh prospects of future improvement, are continually unburying the sacred treasures of the past, we believe that the doctrines of our church will ultimately be reclaimed, and that men of our western clime will enter into the investigation of these doctrines with all the avidity natural to a love for the truth. ... At the urgent solicitation of many zealous members of the church, we announced, Oct. 9th, 1845, our resolution to procure a correct English version of the entire work, and publish it as soon as practicable. Since that period no time or labor has been spared to fulfil our promise. ... May our labors be the instrument, in the hands of Providence, for promoting an acquaintance with the Book of Concord, the norm of all genuine Lutherans since 1580, and for extending the doctrines taught by the illustrious Reformer!35

As a final indication of the publishers’ belief that Confessional Lutheranism was fully compatible with the values and ideals of American culture, this Preface was dated, “Newmarket, Shenandoah, Va., July 4th, 1851.”36

Socrates Henkel assumed the general editorial responsibility for the book, and he and his uncle, Ambrose Henkel, also prepared the initial translations of the Augsburg Confession, the Apology, the Smalcald Articles, and the Catalogue of Testimonies (an appendix to the Formula of Concord). The initial translation of the Larger Catechism was prepared by Jacob Stirewalt (the son of John Stirewalt, noted earlier). The Formula of Concord was initially prepared by Henry Wetzel, who translated the Epitome, and Jonathan Reinhard Moser, who translated the Full Declaration. All of these men were Tennessee Synod ministers. As a lasting tribute to David Henkel, his 1827 translation of the Smaller Catechism was also incorporated into the volume. Once all the manuscripts had been gathered together and compared with the original texts by Ambrose Henkel, they were given their final revision by Socrates Henkel.37

Abdel Ross Wentz comments on the phenomenal reception which The Christian Book of Concord received:

It is a clear indication of the new spirit that was arising in the General Synod that this English book found a ready acceptance in all parts of that body. Many copies were bought in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The professors and students in the seminary and college at Gettysburg studied it. So also did Dr. Reynolds and Dr. Lehmann and their students of Capital University and its Theological Department at Columbus, Ohio. The south eagerly welcomed it.38

The literary efforts of the Tennessee Synod also got the attention of the German-speaking Missouri Synod. In 1853 two Missouri Synod pastors, Theodore Julius Brohm and August Hoyer, wrote to the Tennessee Synod on behalf of their body:

...we take the liberty, with consent of our president, to address your reverend body by these few lines, assuring you of our fraternal love and sympathy, founded upon the conviction, that it is one and the same faith which dwells in you and in us. We are highly rejoiced in this vast desert and wilderness, to meet a whole Lutheran Synod steadfastly holding to the precious Confessions of our beloved church, and zealously engaged in divulging the unaltered doctrines and principles of the Reformation among the English portion of Lutherans, by translating the standard writings of our Fathers, at the same time firmly resisting the allurements of those who say they are Lutherans, and are not. Our synod extends, through our instrumentality, the hand of fraternity to you, not fearing to be refused, and ardently desires, however separated from you by different language and local interests, to co-operate with you, hand in hand, in rebuilding the walls of our dilapidated Zion.39

Due to the widespread popularity of The Christian Book of Concord, a second edition was soon needed. This time the publishers enlisted the assistance of English-speaking Lutheran scholars from outside the Tennessee Synod, in order to produce a more accurate, improved version. The Augsburg Confession was revised by Charles Philip Krauth, the Apology by William F. Lehmann, the Smalcald Articles by William M. Reynolds, the Catechisms by John G. Morris, and the Formula of Concord and Catalogue of Testimonies by Charles F. Schaeffer. Socrates Henkel once again supervised the whole process, and put the revised edition into its final form before its publication in 1854.40

To the Confessional Lutherans of the mid-nineteenth century, the availability of the Book of Concord in the English language gave them a clear and authoritative way to response to the aberrations of the contemporary “American Lutheran” establishment. When it was asserted that Zwingli’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was “more liberal, rational and scriptural” than that of Luther, and that a Lutheran may feel free to reject the latter and embrace the former, the Book of Concord reminded everyone that “the Zwinglian teachers are not to be reckoned among the number of theologians receiving the Augsburg Confession, from whom they withdrew at the time when this Confession was delivered”; and that “they now attempt to obtrude themselves upon the latter, and to circulate their error under the cover of this Christian Confession.”41 When it was said that no harm will be done to the Lutheran Church if its ministers or members “depart from some of the minor doctrines of the Augsburg Confession,” the Book of Concord warned:

But though the pious doctrine of this Confession, in general has met with no opposition, except that which proceeded from the Papists, it must be confessed that some theologians, in several articles of chief importance, have departed from it, and either have not arrived at its true sense, or have certainly failed to adhere to it uniformly; while some also have endeavored to affix to it a sense really foreign to it, who nevertheless professed that they embraced the Augsburg Confession, and pretended to glory in the profession of it. But from this circumstance very grievous and pernicious controversies arose in the reformed churches...42

To the claim that “if the great Luther were still living” he would probably be an adherent of the Prussian Union or something similar, the Book of Concord responded:

But inasmuch as this highly enlightened man saw in spirit that, after his death, some would endeavor to render him suspected of having receded from the doctrine just mentioned, and from other Christian articles, he subjoined to his Larger Confession the following protestation: “Whilst I behold faction and error increase as time advances, whilst I see no cessation of the raging and raving of Satan; lest therefore, during my life, or after my death, some might hereafter conceal their device under my name, and fraudulently employ my writings to establish their errors, as the Sacramentarians and the Anabaptists now begin to do, I shall by this instrument of writing, profess my faith on all points before God and all the world. And in this faith, by the help of God, I intend to persevere until death, and, in it, to depart from this world, and to appear before the judgment-seat of our Lord Jesus Christ; and if, after my death, any one should say: ‘If Dr. Luther lived now, he would teach and believe differently concerning this article or those; for he did not consider such sufficiently;’ in opposition to this, I say now as then, and then as now, that by the grace of God I have most diligently considered all these articles, and compared them again and again with the Scriptures, and would as warmly defend these as I have now defended the Sacrament of the Altar.”43

The nineteenth century Confessional Revival in America, inaugurated by the writings of David Henkel and bolstered by the publication of The Christian Book of Concord, finally resulted in the organization of the General Council in 1867, by several synods that had withdrawn from the General Synod and that had come to embrace a more genuinely Lutheran doctrinal position. It also eventually inspired a more conservative form of Lutheranism even in the General Synod, and in other American Lutheran bodies as well.

The Henkel translation of the Book of Concord established a literary tradition which, to a greater or lesser extent, was perpetuated through later English translations of the Symbolical Books. When Henry Eyster Jacobs edited a new English version of the Book of Concord in 1882, which also appeared in a revised second edition in 1911, he stated in the Preface that the second edition of the Henkel translation had “been frequently consulted” and had “furnished material aid.”44 When G. Friedrich Bente and William Herman Theodore Dau prepared the English text of the Concordia Triglotta in 1921, their work was based on the original German and Latin and “on the existing English translations, chiefly those incorporated in Jacobs’s Book of Concord.”45 And in the Forward to the 1959 version of the Book of Concord which he edited, Theodore Gerhardt Tappert mentioned the three English translations that had previously appeared, and then noted that “It is of course inevitable that the present translators should have been influenced by the work of those who preceded them.”46

As the Lutheran Church in America enters the twenty-first century, it is once again plagued by many of the same problems that plagued it in the past. The Historical-Critical dismantling of Biblical authority in many segments of the institutional church, combined with the pervasive influence of the Charismatic Movement and other forms of American Evangelicalism, have paved the way for a resurgence of “American Lutheranism” in our day. Lutherans are once again trying to “fit in” with what they perceive to be the accepted religious culture of the United States. We note the popularity of the so-called Church Growth Movement, with its anti-liturgical “entertainment evangelism” methods; the strong proclivity, on the part of many Lutherans, toward church fellowship with various Reformed bodies; a willingness to ignore or distort, on the basis of rationalistic assumptions, the clear statements of Holy Scripture pertaining to the question of women’s ordination and other important issues; and a general spirit of indifference that often reveals itself in the practice of “open Communion” and in similar expressions of Confessional laxity.

In the midst of these and other problems, the Henkel edition of the Book of Concord speaks to us, even if through its successor translations, as we struggle to be both American and Lutheran. It calls on us to return to the Word of God, to the pure Gospel, to the divinely-instituted Means of Grace, and to the orthodox faith of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It does not call on us to renounce or remove ourselves from our culture, but it does call on us to preserve, promote, and proclaim our Lutheranism within that culture. Charles F. Schaeffer posed some crucial questions which are just as applicable to our situation as they were to his, almost a century and a half ago:

Have we really made such progress in the discovery of truth since the era of the Reformation, that we understand the Scriptures more thoroughly than those who framed the Symbolical Books? When Luther and his associates were prepared to surrender their lives, but not the doctrines of the Augsburg Confession, the Apology, the Schmalkald Articles, and the Catechism, had these men of faith and prayer discovered treasures of divine truth of less extent and less value than we possess in modern times? When the Elector Augustus with holy fervor prayed to God that the authors of the Concord-Formula might be guided by the Divine Spirit in the preparation of that admirable work, was his prayer for the illumination of the Spirit less efficacious than modern prayers are? If the writers of the Symbols were unworthy of regard, or are erroneous in their exhibition of truth, who are the men that are more competent to unfold the Scriptural doctrine? ... Are we wiser, more holy, richer in divine grace, more useful through the inspiration of the “spirit of the times” than our pious fathers were? We are weary of the superior intelligence of the Nineteenth Century in matters of Christian faith.47


1. Concordia Triglotta, edited by F. Bente (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), p. iv.

2. Formula of Concord, Full Declaration XII, in The Christian Book of Concord, translated and edited by Socrates Henkel (New Market, Virginia: Solomon D. Henkel and Brs., second edition 1854), p. 732.

3. Karl Kretzmann, “The Constitution of the First Lutheran Synod in America,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 9 (1936), p. 5. See also David Jay Webber, “Berkenmeyer and Lutheran Orthodoxy in New York,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Spring 1987), pp. 19-31.

4. Socrates Henkel, History of the Evangelical Lutheran Tennessee Synod (New Market, Virginia: Henkel & Co., 1890), p. 2.

5. Quoted in Robert F. Scholtz, “The Confessional Stance of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the Early Pennsylvania Ministerium,” Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. I (new series), No. 4 (Winter 1987), p. 440.

6. Henkel, pp. 4-5.

7. “Aus Amerika,” Zeitschrift fuer Protestantismus und Kirche, Vol. 11 (1846), pp. 263-64; quoted in E. Clifford Nelson, editor, The Lutherans in North America (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, revised edition 1980), p. 220. The letter was also signed by Henry N. Pohlman, John G. Morris, and Henry I. Schmidt. We are gratified to read in this otherwise discouraging letter that its authors did at least recognize and acknowledge Luther’s belief in Scriptural inerrancy, and were willing to take their stand with him on this point. John Warwick Montgomery notes that modern scholars often deny that the Reformer held to this view, in large part “because of the common human failing we all have to want great men to agree with us.” (“Lessons From Luther on the Inerrancy of Holy Writ,” The Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3 [Spring 1974], p. 283.) See also Michael Reu, Luther and the Scriptures (Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, 1944), and Eugene F. Klug, From Luther to Chemnitz on Scripture and the Word (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), which demonstrate that Schmucker and his associates were correct in their assessment of Luther’s position.

8. S.S. Schmucker, The American Lutheran Church (Springfield, Ohio: D. Harbaugh, 1851), p. 268.

9. Schmucker, p. 203.

10. J. A. Probst, Die Wiedervereinigung der Lutheraner und Reformirten (1826), p. 74; quoted in Schmucker, p. 220.

11. Probst, p. 76; quoted in Schmucker, p. 220.

12. Probst, p. 80; quoted in Schmucker, p. 221.

13. Schmucker, p. 270.

14. Schmucker, p. 39.

15. Joseph A. Seiss, Ecclesia Lutherana (Philadelphia: Lutheran Book Store, fourth edition 1871), pp. 223-24; quoted in Nelson, p. 226.

16. W. J. Mann, Deutsche Kirchenfreund, Vol. VIII [1855], p. 386 ff.; quoted in Adolph Spaeth, Charles Porterfield Krauth (Philadelphia: Christian Literature Company, 1898), Vol. I, pp. 354-55; quoted in J. L. Neve, A Brief History of the Lutheran Church in America (Burlington, Iowa: German Literary Board, second revised and enlarged edition 1916), p. 120.

17. Schmucker, pp. 244-45. Emphasis in original.

18. Schmucker, pp. 245-46. Emphasis in original.

19. Schmucker, p. 162. Emphasis in original.

20. Neve, p. 104.

21. See Nelson, p. 92 [note 32]; see also Richard H. Baur, “The Birth of the Tennessee Synod,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Winter 1973), p. 178.

22. Baur, pp. 181-82. The quotation is from Martin L. Wagner, The Chicago Synod and Its Antecedents (Columbus, Ohio: Wartburg Press, n.d.), p. 111.

23. Henkel, pp. 13-14. The “leading minister” who opposed David Henkel was apparently Gottlieb Schober (or Shober), who seems to have held dual membership in the North Carolina Synod (of which he was secretary and later president) and in the Moravian Church. (See Charles P. Arand, “David Henkel and the Lutheran Confessions,” Concordia Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1 [January 1989], p. 39; see also Baur, pp. 167-68, and Henkel, pp. 10-11.)

24. John Bachman, The Doctrines and Discipline of the Lutheran Church (1837), p. 12; quoted in Schmucker, p. 216. See also Jerry L. Surratt, Gottlieb Schober of Salem (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983), pp. 193-202.

25. Schmucker, p. 219.

26. Christian Spielmann, “Rev. Prof. W.F. Lehmann, Ph.D.,” in J.C. Jensson, American Lutheran Biographies (Milwaukee: 1890), p. 461.

27. Quoted in Spaeth, Vol. I, pp. 18-19; quoted in David A. Gustafson, Lutherans in Crisis (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1993), pp. 117-18. Charles Philip Krauth was the father of Charles Porterfield Krauth, also a leading Confessionalist.

28. Charles Philip Krauth, reviewing Heinrich Schmid’s Die Dogmatik der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, in Evangelical Review, Vol. 1, No. 3 (July 1849); quoted in Gustafson, p. 118.

29. Beale M. Schmucker, “Rev. Charles F. Schaeffer, D.D.,” in Jensson, p. 650. Beale Melanchthon Schmucker was the son of Samuel Simon Schmucker, but in his theological position he followed his uncle rather than his father.

30. John G. Morris, Fifty Years in the Lutheran Ministry (Baltimore: James Young, 1878), p. 123; quoted in Nelson, p. 221.

31. Quoted in Abdel Ross Wentz, History of the Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary, 1826-1965 (Evangelical Press, 1965), pp. 171-72; quoted in Gustafson, p. 124. Reynolds himself had been a supporter of the “American Lutheran” agenda in his earlier years, but after his theological “conversion” he actively opposed Benjamin Kurtz’s literary efforts on behalf of that agenda. “The ‘Evangelical Review’ was founded in 1849 by Professor William M. Reynolds (of the faculty of the Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg). The aim of this paper was to oppose the ‘Lutheran Observer’ edited by Dr. Kurtz, and at that time serving as the chief organ of the American Lutheranism. Soon, however, Reynolds was called to the presidency of Capital University, Columbus, O., and now Dr. Charles Philip Krauth, of the Gettysburg Seminary, became his successor [as editor of the ‘Evangelical Review’].” (Neve, p. 128.)

32. Henkel, pp. 119-20.

33. Baur, p. 182.

34. Arand, p. 38.

35. The Christian Book of Concord, pp. iii-v. Emphasis in original.

36. The Christian Book of Concord, p. v. Emphasis added.

37. See The Christian Book of Concord, p. iv.

38. Abdel Ross Wentz, A Basic History of Lutheranism in America (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955), p. 134.

39. Henkel, p. 139.

40. See The Christian Book of Concord, p. vi; see also “Rev. Socrates Henkel, D.D.,” in Jensson, p. 347. In spite of his zealous efforts on behalf of the Confessional Lutheran movement, William M. Reynolds became a minister of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1864. He claimed that his sole motive for leaving the Lutheran Church “was that every door for employment within it was closed against him.” (Henry E. Jacobs, “Reynolds, William Morton, D.D.,” Lutheran Cyclopedia [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899], p. 410.) All the other translators and translation revisers remained true to the faith of the Confessions for the remainder of their lives.

41. Formula of Concord, Epitome VII, p. 569.

42. Formula of Concord, Full Declaration, Preface, p. 592.

43. Formula of Concord, Full Declaration VII, p. 666.

44. The Book of Concord, edited by Henry E. Jacobs (Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, second edition 1911), p. 6.

45. Concordia Triglotta, p. iii.

46. The Book of Concord, edited by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), p. v.

47. Charles F. Schaeffer, Evangelical Review, Vol. I (1849), p. 482; quoted in Theodore E. Schmauck and C. Theodore Benze, The Confessional Principle and the Confessions of the Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: General Council Publication Board, 1911), p. 684.

This essay was delivered at the first General Meeting of the Lutheran Confessional Synod in Decatur, Illinois, October 6-7, 1994. It was later published in Logia, Vol. IV, No. 3 (Holy Trinity/July 1995), pp. 39-48. On November 7, 1996, the Concordia Historical Institute presented an “Award of Commendation” to the author of this essay, recognizing it as “an important and perceptive article about the still-relevant contributions of the Henkel family to confessional Lutheranism in America.” The printed version of this essay differs slightly from the online version that appears here.

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