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When a Lutheran isn’t a Lutheran

Michael L. Sherer

The history of early Lutheranism in North America includes the story of a remarkable family of clergy. Paul Henkel and his sons and grandsons left an indelible mark on Lutheran Church life for nearly a century, beginning in the mid-1700s.

Paul Henkel was born in North Carolina and served in the Revolutionary War. He and his sons, Samuel, Philip, Ambrose, Andrew, David, and Charles, established a Lutheran printing establishment at New Market, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley.

The Henkels were unapologetic about championing the Augsburg Confession. The document, written by Martin Luther’s teaching colleague Philip Melanchthon, was created to prove to emperor and pope that the Lutherans were authentic Christians, contrary to the claims of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the 1500s. Once it became clear that Luther’s reforms would be rejected by the church hierarchy of his day, the Augsburg Confession became the identifying document uniting Lutherans all over Europe.

The Henkels were determined that the same document should be similarly embraced by Lutherans in North America. From their press came Lutheran books and literature, including copies of Martin Luther’s Catechism and the Augsburg Confession. Copies were circulated all over the regions where Lutherans had already settled — New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana.

Responding to unionism

The Henkels’ devotion to the Augsburg Confession was not shared by all Lutherans in the American colonies and during the Early National period of the young nation’s history. In Pennsylvania, Lutheran and Reformed Church congregations were creating “union churches,” with two parishes sharing one pastor. For obvious reasons, the Lutheran confessional documents were downplayed. When the North Carolina Synod was organized in 1803, no reference was made to Lutheran confessional writings.

The Henkels were unapologetic about championing the Augsburg Confession.

In the early 1800s, a prominent Pennsylvania pastor, Samuel Simon Schmucker, proposed uniting the several Lutheran synods into a national church body. Schmucker was on record supporting ecumenical relations with non-Lutheran groups. He felt a responsibility toward the German Lutheran congregations in Pennsylvania, many of which were involved in “union church” partnerships. He had no interest in forcing these communities to split apart.

The debate was joined. “How ‘Lutheran’ does a Lutheran really need to be?” Schmucker said, “Not so much as to get in the way of sharing ministry with other Christians.” The Henkels said, “It’s very important. Lutheranism offers valuable insights you can’t get anywhere else. So don’t water it down.”

In 1820, when Schmucker’s “The General Synod” appeared to be coming to fruition, the Henkels went into battle mode. They opposed the new national church structure because they didn’t trust centralizing authority in the hands of a few people. And, God forbid, they didn’t want the likes of Samuel Simon Schmucker exercising that authority.

Alarmed at the “confessional laxity” of the newly-created North Carolina Synod (which also supported the proposed General Synod), the Henkels worked to organize two new regional churches more committed to the Augsburg Confession. The Ohio Synod was organized in 1818, the Tennessee Synod in 1820. Neither became reliable supporters of the General Synod.

Open to co-option

Long after Paul Henkel had died, Schmucker circulated a document in the General Synod proposing to revise the Augsburg Confession, changing some of its articles. The elder Henkel would have turned over in his grave.

For example, Schmucker wanted to redefine the meaning of Holy Communion. His proposed change to the Augsburg Confession would have discarded Martin Luther’s insistence on Christ’s “real presence” in the bread and wine, moving instead toward a Reformed understanding (declaring Christ is symbolically or spiritually present at the Eucharist).

Schmucker’s proposal went nowhere. Even his own synod in Pennsylvania voted against it.

Over the generations, the Henkels’ point of view prevailed. Schmucker’s program to “Americanize” Lutheranism was repudiated. The Augsburg Confession, without changes, was reaffirmed as a unifying document, giving identity to Martin Luther’s spiritual descendants. Part of the reason this became possible was that an increasing flood of new Lutheran immigrants continued to arrive from Europe — most of whom believed the Lutheran confessions were something worth championing. The Henkels were vindicated in their concern that Lutheranism should have a distinct identity.

Henkel Press was an original precursor to Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

In 1820, when Schmucker’s “The General Synod” appeared to be coming to fruition, the Henkels went into battle mode.

The Henkel family continued to provide leadership for the growing American church into the third generation. Solomon’s son, Samuel, became a physician but was also involved with translating and publishing standard Lutheran works for congregations. Philip’s two sons, Ireneus and Eusebius, became Lutheran pastors in the western settlements. David’s sons, Polycarp and Socrates Henkel, both became Lutheran clergy.

The family left another legacy. Henkel Press was the earliest predecessor of what eventually became Fortress Press in Philadelphia and, since 1988, Augsburg Fortress Publishers in Minneapolis.

Michael L. Sherer, editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran, is a retired Lutheran pastor living in Waverly, Iowa.

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