Preus family shaped U.S. Lutheranism
Preus cousins once led LCMS, ALC simultaneously
For over 150 years, from the time of the large-scale migration of Norwegians to the Upper Midwest in the mid-19th Century, the Preus family has been filling leadership roles in the Lutheran Church in the United States. They have left a generally conservative theological imprint.
In the last half-century, however, as the Preus impact on American Lutheranism has moved beyond the Upper Midwest to a national stage, that conservatism has taken two tracks — one rigidly orthodox and the other more moderate.
That split became most obvious during the period from the late 1960s to the 1980s when two Preus cousins — Jacob A.O. Preus II (Jack) and David W. — rose to the presidencies of two of the three largest Lutheran synods in the nation. Jack was elected head of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in 1969 and served until 1981. David became president of the American Lutheran Church in 1973 and continued in that role until 1987.
The division moved front and center again this summer when the Rev. Daniel Preus, a nephew of Jack Preus, was elected vice-president of the 2.6-million-member LCMS, while the Rev. Peter Rogness, a nephew of David Preus, was one of seven finalists on the candidate list for presiding bishop of the 5.2-million-member Evangelical Lu-theran Church in America (ELCA), the successor body of the ALC and now the largest Lutheran entity in the country.
[This month’s lead story, on page one, describes the outcome of that election.]
Both Jack and David Preus were graduates of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, an institution of the ELCA, and of predecessor bodies that include the ALC. Jack was a student in the early 1940s, David in the latter part of that decade.
While Jack was a student at the seminary, he became deeply involved in a controversy between two faculty members — his uncle Herman Preus and George Aus. The issue was whether a person became a Christian solely through the grace of God, or whether a human response to the gifts of grace and faith was involved.
Jack sided with his uncle in taking the former position, but unlike his uncle, he became involved in sharp attacks on Aus. When Jack’s younger brother, Robert, came to the seminary a few years later, he joined in this aggressive campaign and ended up leaving the seminary before graduation.
Robert shifted his allegiance to the ultraconservative “Little Norwegian Synod,” which operated Bethany Seminary and Junior College in Mankato, Minnesota, where he graduated and then became a synod teacher and pastor.
Jack, after a year as a pastor in the “big” Norwegian synod, resigned from that body, fired off a letter to fellow clergymen charging Luther Seminary with false teachings and joined Robert as a teacher at Bethany and pastor for the Little Synod.
A decade later, both decided to depart for the Missouri Synod, which they had once also criticized for liberal tendencies. Now, armed with Ph.D. degrees, they joined the faculties of LCMS seminaries — Jack at Springfield, Illinois, and Robert at St. Louis, Missouri.
David Preus, meanwhile, came to Luther Seminary following service in World War II and a year of study at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Entering the seminary around the time his cousins were attacking it and leaving the big Norwegian synod, he did not get caught up in the theological clash between his uncle and George Aus.
To David, it was the type of debate between advocates of different positions that takes place among faculty members at most academic institutions without making personal enemies of the protagonists. He felt the argument was a sort of lingering after-effect of the controversy over the doctrine of predestination, which had torn the Norwegian immigrant church apart two generations earlier.
Most members of the Preus family, since the muting of that doctrinal feud and reunification of the Norwegian immigrant church in 1917, had agreed, however reluctantly, to express their conservative views within the boundaries of a united
Norwegian Lutheran Church in America.
After graduating from the seminary, David served pastorates in South Dakota and then at the University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis, winning a reputation among his parishoners as an outstanding preacher. He also became a community activist, serving as a member of the Minneapolis School Board during the 1960s, including two years as its chairman.
In that capacity he joined with other community and business leaders and representatives of racial and economic minority groups in a city-wide effort to improve race relations and the lot of inner-city residents.
In all of this, the difference between David Preus and his cousins, Jack and Robert, was becoming clear.
“I consider myself a conservative Lutheran,” David said. “Robert and Jack felt defense of conservative Lutheranism was the important focus for Amer-ican Lutheran churches. I believe it is imperative for American Lutheran congregations to become missionary centers. These different foci simply took us in different directions.”
David Preus’ emphasis on congregations reaching out to others — across the Lutheran spectrum, in other Christian denominations, and outside the Christian tradition — at home and abroad, and in carrying the Lutheran witness into attacking social problems continued when he became president of the ALC.
“He was an outstanding leader in respect to his commitment to racial justice and peace issues,”said Charles Lutz, who served as director of the Office of Church in Society in the ALC under David Preus.
“His … was always a fairly conservative Lutheran theology, but he wanted to make the connection between justification by grace and justice in society. He was true to Martin Luther in that way. He felt that the fact that we’re justified by grace doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved in justice work in society. That’s part of loving your neighbor. And he was committed to the church’s involvement, not just as individual believers but the church collectively, in pressing for a more just society.”
After Jack Preus was elevated from the presidency of Concordia Seminary in Spring-field to the presidency of the LCMS in 1969, he embarked on a conservative agenda that had far-reaching consequences.
Moves toward fellowship with the ALC were abandoned, and members of the LCMS mission staff and faculty members at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis who were regarded as too liberal were removed.
The disenfranchised theologians then set up their own seminary in exile (“Seminex”), and some congregations bolted the synod with them to form their own group, the Associa-tion of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC), which in 1988 became part of the merger that produced the ELCA. The “brain drain” among theologians cost the LCMS the services of some of its most prominent spokesmen, including Martin Marty and Jaroslav Pelikan.
In the two decades since Jack Preus headed LCMS, conservatives like him have held the reins of leadership, but moderates have also commanded a sizeable following.
This past July the moderates finally succeeded in electing one of their own, the Rev. Dr. Gerald Kieschnick, president by the narrowest of margins. But convention delegates, reflecting the current division in the synod, then chose, by an identically slim margin, the Rev. Daniel Preus, a conservative and son of Robert Preus, as vice-president (See Metro Lutheran, August, page 1).
Peter Preus, brother of the new vice-president of LCMS and pastor at Lutheran Church of the Triune God in Brooklyn Center, was asked what motivates this continuing strong conservative bloc in the LCMS.
He replied, “People today say let’s not talk about doctrine and let’s not talk about the Lutheran confessions. It’s sad when you visit LCMS congregations, as well as others, that you’re not hearing the Gospel preached. Everbody just wants to get along and everything gets watered down in the process. It’s just as serious as what was happening 20-30 years ago, I believe.”
Both factions in the Preus family trace their American roots to Herman Amberg Preus, one of the university-trained clergy in the state church of Norway who heeded the pleas of immigrants in the Upper Midwest to send them pastors.
Arriving in the United States in 1851, H.A. Preus took over the parish at Spring Prairie, Wisconsin, near present-day Madison, which included seven rural congregations.
In 1853 he and a group of similarly educated pastors in that region founded the Norwegian Synod. Eleven years later he replaced his cousin, A.C. Preus, as head of the synod and for three decades exercised a dominant role in its affairs.
Some church historians have maintained that the strong-willed H.A. Preus and his conservative colleagues from the state church of Norway became involved in a series of disputes with their congregations, many of whom had been farmers and followers of Hans Nielsen Hauge, because of their insistence on strict adherence to the Bible as the verbally inspired Word of God.
David Preus disagrees. H.A. Preus and the other conservative Christians of his time were dealing with the after-effects of the Enlightenment era, in which European thinkers pressed hard on believers with their attacks on the authority and authenticity of the Bible, he said
“A conservative Lutheran with regard to the authenticity of Scripture he surely was,” David Preus says of his great-grandfather. “But he was no ‘Bible Belter.’”
Rather, David Preus says, Herman Amberg Preus was a strong leader who was attractive to a broad spectrum Norwegian Lutherans. Part of his appeal, in fact, was his ability to bridge the gap between the state church and Haugeans, until the the big controversy over the “election” (predestination) doctrine broke out in the last quarter of the 19th Century, according to David Preus.
From that time until the rapproachment in 1917, the Norwe-gian Synod lost its position of preeminence among Norwegian Lutheran immigrants, and break-away groups labeled H.A. Preus and colleagues like Laur Larsen and U.V. Koren “Missourians” because of the similarity of their doctrinal position to that of the LCMS.
Following the creation of the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America (NLCA) in 1917, the Preus family took positions of leadership in that body, although they belonged to a minority wing in the new synod.
C.K. Preus, son of H.A. Preus and president of the Norwegian Synod’s Luther Col-lege in Decorah, Iowa, became a vice president of the Iowa District of the NLCA. Another son, J. Wilhelm, remained as pastor of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Minnea-polis over a 21-year period when it was regarded as the “mother church” of Norwegian Lutheran congregations in the city.
Sons of C.K. Preus also rose to positions of prominence in the new church. O.J.H. Preus became a pastor, president of the Eastern District of the NLCA, president of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and later, like his father, president of Luther College. The Preus legacy at Luther is a rich one, and the family name adorns the library there.
J.C.K. Preus, long a parish pastor, served the final 25 years of his career directing education activities in the NLCA and its successor synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC). J.A.O. (Jake) Preus turned to the law, politics and business; he won two terms as governor of Minnesota (1920-24) but was also co-founder of Lutheran Brotherhood Insurance Society and its board chairman from 1917 until his death in 1961.
Herman Preus spent eight years as pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran in Minneapolis before joining the faculty at Luther Seminary, where, David Preus says, he was for many years a “consistent exponent of conservative Lutheranism, emulating the strong stance of his grandfather — H.A. Preus.”
Among the children of O.J.H. Preus, David distinguished himself as a star basketball player at Luther College before heading into the ministry and later the presidency of the ALC and 13 years as a vice-president of the Lutheran World Federation.
Brothers Christian and Nel-son had long careers in the ministry, and Nelson served as bishop of the Eastern North Dakota District of the ALC prior to his retirement in 1987.
Nora Preus, daughter of O.J.H. Preus, married Alvin Rogness, who served for two decades as president of Luther Seminary. Three of their sons became pastors; Michael is now a professor at Luther Seminary, Peter is bishop of the Milwaukee Area Synod of the ELCA and Andrew is minister at Prince of Peace Lutheran in Roseville.
Jack and Robert Preus, who found their theological homes in the LCMS, are sons of former Gov. Jake Preus. Two of Robert’s sons are LCMS ministers in the Twin Cities area — Peter in Brooklyn Center and Klemet at Glory of Christ Lutheran in Plymouth.
Herman Preus’s daughter, Suzanne, is married to Erno Dahl, who served as president of the ELCA’s Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, from 1977 to 1987, following stints as a professor of religion and dean at Texas Lutheran and Wittenberg Universities, also ELCA institutions.
Another daughter, Mary, and husband Jonathan spent terms as Lutheran missionaries and teachers at theological schools in Tanzania and Nigeria. Jonathan is now teaching pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Golden Valley. He was a leading candidate for bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod this past May.
Marilyn Preus, the widow of Nelson, is director of education at University Lutheran Church of Hope, and her daughter, Mary, is the leader and member of the contemporary Christian vocal group, Bread for the Journey, which appears at many church assemblies.
Preus family members often talk about the women of the clan, referring to their strength, intelligence and resourcefulness. The list always begins with Linka Preus, wife of the patriarch Herman and manager of the parsonage at Spring Prairie. Her diary, which has been published, and that of Elizabeth Koren are rich sources of early Norwegian Lutheran history in this country, according to David Preus.
“In many ways, women like them were co-pastors,” he said.
“With the husbands doing a lot of circuit-riding, they had to carry the load at home a great deal of the time, and members of the parish would use them in many pastoral capacities when their husbands were gone.”