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Fred Bartling: Grace, history, and the civil rights movement

The conservative Missouri Synod? Civil rights? The deep South?
Who would put any of that together? Yet that’s the story of someone who lived it: Fred Bartling, pastor, historian, and teacher.
Alumni, family, and friends have honored Bartling, age 83 — born half a year before Martin Luther King, Bartling himself notes — by setting out to raise $50,000 for a Fred and Ruth Bartling scholarship and lecture series at Concordia University in St. Paul. The initiative lauds the longtime Concordia teacher’s “heart for history and learning.”

Fred Bartling, Sr., offers remarks at a celebration recognizing his contribution to academic pursuits at Concordia University, St. Paul, called “Fredstock.” Photo provided by the Fred and Ruth Bartling Scholarship

Wisconsin-bred Bartling arrived in Auburn amid the persistent threat of anti-black violence, as well as the immensely patient nonviolence advocated by Martin Luther King.

Early in his career, Bartling made a significant turn — from pastoring to teaching history. “There’s no better story,” he says, “than the human story.”
His own story is a pretty good example.
The impetus for the Bartling fund actually came from students of the old Concordia Academy in St. Paul where Bartling taught before moving to Concordia College — now Concordia University — at the same location.
Students at both secondary and college levels remember him distinctly. Paul Hillmer, who now teaches history at Concordia University in St. Paul, recalls a Bartling college lecture on stereotypes of presumably “hot-blooded, libidinous” African-Americans driven by the lust of their tropical homeland. Hillmer recounts the brief debunking by Bartling, father of six: “Nothing,” said Bartling, “turns me off quicker than heat.”
“Fred could read the phone book,” Hillmer says now, “and I would sit and listen.”
Such candor was engaging, but possibly risky. After Bartling’s lecture November 2 at Concordia, inaugurating his namesake lecture series, a former student rose to say that, upon hearing some Bartling lectures in about 1970 on the civil rights movement, she wondered how long he would last. He lasted to retirement in 1993 — and now beyond that, with the scholarship fund.
What Bartling did well as a teacher is that he “walked very softly through campus, making sure he was honoring relationships with those around him,” says his son Fred Bartling, Jr., who teaches education at St. Paul’s Concordia campus. “In the long run, I think that it’s a legacy to learning and to grace. There’s a soft wisdom to what he does.”
Even so, Bartling Sr. had hard choices. In Auburn, Alabama, in 1959, about to be installed as pastor at a church near the campus of Auburn University, of course he invited other Missouri Synod pastors. One white pastor arrived with black parishioners. A nervous usher urgently asked the new pastor how to handle it. Seat them in the back, Bartling decided. “What else could I do?” asks Bartling now.

Burning bus

Wisconsin-bred Bartling arrived in Auburn amid the persistent threat of anti-black violence, as well as the immensely patient nonviolence advocated by Martin Luther King.

Fred Bartling prepares for class in his college office.

Remember freedom riders? Young people from the north went south to support nonviolent demonstrations in support of civil rights, riding buses with African Americans.
Such a bus was firebombed on Mother’s Day in 1961, at Anniston, Alabama, just 95 miles from Auburn. As riders escaped the burning bus, men attacked them with clubs, bricks, iron pipes, and knives. Soon after, Pastor Bartling took part in a prayer service at Auburn. National Guard troops patrolled outside.
Bartling’s path to the South was roundabout. He grew up in Milwaukee, where his father taught Greek, Latin, and New Testament at that city’s Concordia. Bartling counts 11 Missouri Synod preachers across the generations in his family. He became one too, serving in Washington state and then Texas, where he met his wife Ruth.
He went on to become a campus pastor, eventually getting a master’s degree at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. There, he says, while studying in the library, he narrowly missed meeting Martin Luther King in person. The civil-rights leader was visiting.
Eventually Bartling took a position teaching at what then was Concordia Academy in St. Paul. Its companion institution, Concordia College, was a small, two-year church college at that time. Before long, Bartling completed a doctorate in history, and taught for the rest of his career at Concordia’s college level.

17th century

Bartling’s Lutheran roots go deep — back to the 17th century on his mother’s side, he says. He calls himself “fifth generation Bartling Reverend Professor” in the Missouri Synod’s Concordias. His great-great grandfather was a founding professor of Concordia Seminary in Perry County, Missouri. A grandfather on his mother’s side, Frederick Pfotenhauer, was president of the Missouri Synod in the early 20th century. Bartling’s grandson, a Concordia University student, introduced his grandpa at the inaugural lecture in November. “I think he’ll make a professor someday,” quipped Bartling Sr.
Fred Bartling, Jr., says his father’s legacy is “toward social justice — and his soft patience. He did that with so much willingness and eagerness.”
So in this season of Advent, as people of faith patiently await the arrival of their salvation, it is a good time to consider Bartling, who taught about and experienced one of the great waits in U.S. history — equal rights for all.
For more about Fred Barling, go to

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