Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod

Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod logo.png
Classification Lutheran
Orientation Confessional Lutheran
Polity Congregational
Associations Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference,
Formerly Synodical Conference (1869–1963)
and General Council (1867–1869)
Geographical areas United States and 24 other countries.
Origin 1850
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Separated from German mission societies (1868)
Branched from German Lutheranism
Merge of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska synods
Separations Protes'tant Conference (Separated 1927);
Church of the Lutheran Confession
(Separated 1960)
Congregations 1200
Members 389,364 Baptized
308,430 Communicant[1]
Luther's Seal
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The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) is a North American Confessional Lutheran denomination of Christianity. Characterized as theologically conservative, it was founded in 1850 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As of 2008, it had a baptized membership of over 389,364 in more than 1,290 congregations, with members in all 50 U.S. states and 4 provinces of Canada. It is the third largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, following the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS).

WELS is in fellowship with the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), a smaller denomination based in south-central Minnesota, and is a member of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (CELC), a worldwide organization of Lutheran church bodies.

WELS and ELS are independent Lutheran denominations and are not part of the ELCA, which is structured to have "synods" within the denomination. Thus, the term "synod" as used by the ELCA refers to middle level administrative districts in different regions of the United States (example: Illinois Synod of the ELCA), whereas in the case of WELS and ELS, "synod" refers to the entire church body.




The WELS's direct predecessor, known as The German Evangelical Ministerium of Wisconsin was founded in 1850 by several churches in and around Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Many of the early pastors were educated and trained by mission societies in Germany. The early churches in the Wisconsin Synod had a strong German background; services and church business were conducted in German. Many of the pastors and congregations brought with them a tolerance towards forming joint congregations with the Reformed, similar to the Union Churches they left behind in Germany.[2] In 1864, the German Evangelical Lutheran synod of Wisconsin was incorporated by an act of the state legislature.[3]

General Council

In the 1860s, the Wisconsin Synod became increasingly conservative along the Lutheran viewpoint and against the Reformed. In the synod convention of 1867, the synod joined the General Council, a group of Neolutheran synods that left the General Synod because it sought to compromise Lutheran doctrine in order to join with non-Lutheran American Protestantism. However, some pastors in the Wisconsin Synod agreed with the "open questions" position of the Iowa synod that some doctrines could be left unresolved and good Lutherans could agree to disagree about them.[4]

The 1868 convention witnessed a meaningful discussion on the topic of pulpit and altar fellowship, one of the Four Points in American Lutheranism. Although there were several dissenting opinions, most of the pastors and lay delegates realized that they could not in good conscience exchange pastors with non-Lutherans or invite them to commune at their altar. They felt that the position the General Council took on this subject was inadequate. They resolved that, unless it changed course, they would withdraw from the General Council.[4]

Synodical Conference

The Synodical Conference was founded in St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which at the time held membership in the Wisconsin Synod.

Following the 1868 convention, representatives of the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods held a meeting in Milwaukee during October 21–22, 1868.[4] They discussed various points of doctrine, writing an agreement recognizing the Missouri and Wisconsin synods as orthodox Lutheran church bodies and that they have pulpit and altar fellowship together. The agreement noted that in the event a doctrinal error arose in one of the two synods, they would not question each other's orthodoxy as long as they both used all Christian means at their disposal to resolve the problem. This agreement was later adopted by each of the synods in convention.[5]

The Ohio Synod invited the Wisconsin Synod, Illinois Synod, Missouri Synod, and Norwegian Synod, to Chicago on January 11–13, 1871. There the synods drew up a document of association for the synods to vote on at their next convention. They also invited the entire membership, both teachers and pastors, of all the synods to attend a general convention the next year. This first meeting of the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America, commonly called the "Synodical Conference", was held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on July 10–16, 1872. They wrote the constitution to the Synodical Conference, which arranged the synods together as a federation and did not vest any real authority with the Synodical Conference, either at the convention or board level.[6] The fellowship union included full communion among members, the sharing of educational facilities, joint mission and benevolence work, and open pulpit between pastors of the different synods.


The first convention of the Synodical Conference also endeavored to reduce the severe competition between synods. The delegates planned to reorganize all Synodical Conference Lutherans into separate state synods, although allowing for separate organization along the lines of the three languages—German, Norwegian, and English.[7] The 1876 and 1877 conventions also took up this cause, and added to it the goal of providing centrally located ministerial and teacher education campuses. The Minnesota Synod favored the approach of organizing state synods, but only if they would be independent of the larger Ohio and Missouri Synods.[8] Likewise, the Wisconsin Synod desired organization along state lines, but only on the condition that they would be prohibited from joining any larger synodical body, that is, the already existing Ohio and Missouri Synods. The Wisconsin Synod also did not think that it could derive any benefit out of a centrally run seminary. In response to this strained relation between the Wisconsin Synod and the other synods, the Synodical Conference elected a committee made up of Wisconsin Synod delegates and other synods' representatives to repair relations with the Wisconsin Synod in time for the next convention in 1878.[9]

In 1878, the Wisconsin Synod withdrew its demand that the state synods had to be independent of the Missouri or Ohio Synods.[9] The Missouri Synod needed to build a new seminary, since location at its current campus was strained. Although there was considerable plans to build a new joint Synodical Conference seminary outside of Chicago, because of the hesitance of the Wisconsin Synod on this subject and the inability of any of the other members besides Missouri to contribute financially to the new project, it was tabled, and ultimately never happened.[10]

The 1878 convention voted in favor of establishing state synods. These state synods were to organize into two or three larger synods, one for the east (corresponding to the Ohio Synod), one for the southwest (corresponding to the Missouri Synod), and one for the northwest (which would include all congregations in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas and all parts west). This formed three larger synods, which solved the longstanding concern that if either the Missouri or Ohio synods were allowed to keep their identity, they would dominate the rest of the Synodical Conference, or, even worse, the Minnesota or Wisconsin Synods would be forced to join one of them. This new organization did not apply to congregations speaking Norwegian, and English speaking congregations were to organize as separate district synods within one of the three larger synods [11]


The Synodical Conference split when the Ohio Synod left the Synodical Conference in 1881 over the issue of whether God predestined people according to his foreknowledge of whether they would come to faith. The Ohio Synod had some pastors that allowed for this position, while the Missouri Synod declared it to be false doctrine. Likewise, the Norwegian Synod left the Synodical Conference in 1883. However, the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods stood together in cooperation and harmony during this period of fierce debate.[12]

Bennett Law

Along with other ethnically German denominations, the Wisconsin Synod successfully spoke out in opposition to the Bennett Law, which outlawed education in German in Wisconsin. Enacted in 1889, it was repealed in 1891.

Apache Mission

Rev. Paul Mayerhoff lived in this tent for six months in 1896 at the beginning of his Call as a Wisconsin Synod missionary to the Apache. He catechized children, learned their language, and translated parts of Luther's Small Catechism into Apache.

In 1893, two Wisconsin Synod missionaries began work in Arizona at Peridot and Old San Carlos in the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation among the Apache people.[13] Congregations were soon established. Currently there are nine Wisconsin Synod congregations on the reservation.[14]

1917 Merger

In 1892, the Wisconsin Synod had federated with the Michigan and Minnesota synods to form the General Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Other States. The Nebraska Synod joined the federation in 1904. In 1917 the synods voted to turn their federation into a formal union, known as the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States. By 1930, the merger and other factors had pushed the Wisconsin Synod to become a primarily English-speaking synod. The present name was adopted in 1959.

Protes'tant Controversy

From 1926–29, a small group of persons and congregations were expelled or voluntarily left the WELS in an incident known as the "Protes'tant Controversy." They formed the Protes'tant Conference.

Breakup of the Synodical Conference

Doctrinal differences among the synods of the Synodical Conference, especially concerning the doctrine and practice of church fellowship, surfaced during the 1940s and '50s. Problems began when the LCMS began exploratory talks with leaders of the American Lutheran Church (ALC). The ALC differed on their doctrine of Predestination and therefore did not share doctrinal fellowship with the Synodical Conference. Since there had been no recent change on the ALC's doctrinal position, the LCMS was then charged by some within the Synodical Conference of changing its position on church fellowship. After years of continued talks, the ELS severed its fellowship relations with the LCMS in 1955 and withdrew from the Synodical Conference. Two years later the WELS publicly recognized the same doctrinal disagreements with the LCMS, but rather than break fellowship, decided to "admonish" the LCMS to return to its former practice.

Church of the Lutheran Confession

Dissatisfaction over this decision led about 70 pastors and a similar number of congregations to leave the WELS, ELS, and LCMS to form the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC). Their chief complaint was that the WELS misapplied the principles of Christian fellowship by not breaking immediately with the Synodical Conference and the LCMS after it had publicly recognized doctrinal disagreements. While the WELS broke fellowship with the LCMS in 1961, the CLC and the WELS remain at odds regarding this issue to this day.

Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference

In 1993 the ELS and WELS, working with a number of other Lutheran synods around the world—some of which had been founded through mission work by both synods—founded a new fellowship organization which is the theological successor of the Synodical Conference: the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (CELC).

WELS Presidents

Lutherans of the United States
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The following is a list of Presidents of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod from 1850 to the present.

Years of Service President
1850–1860 Johannes Muehlhaeuser
1860–1864 John Bading
1864–1865 Gottlieb Rein
1865–1867 William Streissguth
1867–1887 John Bading
1887–1908 Phillip von Rohr
1908–1933 G.E. Bergemann
1933–1953 John Brenner
1953–1979 Oscar J. Naumann
1979–1993 Carl Mischke
1993–2007 Karl R. Gurgel
2007–present Mark G. Schroeder


Synodical government

The WELS is headed by a president and is supported by two vice presidents elected during its synod convention for terms of four years. The president oversees the administration of the synod. The current synod president is Rev. Mark G. Schroeder.

Beneath the president are numerous administrative divisions addressing various areas of ministry. Among these are ministerial education, world missions, home missions, parish services, and fiscal services.

Synod conventions are held biennially in odd-numbered years and consist of elected male lay members from individual congregations from within the synod, ordained pastors and certified male teachers. Half of all delegates are to be lay members while the remaining half is divided between pastors and teachers. Synod conventions elect synodical leaders, and discuss and vote on synodical business. The WELS Synodical Council governs the church when the church is not in convention.

The WELS is divided into 12 geographical districts in the United States and Canada, each headed by a district president elected in district conventions held during even-numbered years. District presidents serve terms of two years.

Ministerial and other education

The WELS maintains four schools of ministerial education: two college preparatory schools Michigan Lutheran Seminary and Luther Preparatory School; a pre-seminary and teacher training college, Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota; and a seminary for training pastors, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, located in Mequon, Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Lutheran College, a liberal arts college in Milwaukee, is affiliated with, though not run by, the WELS, and there are numerous area Lutheran high schools, Lutheran elementary schools, and early childhood education centers maintained by WELS congregations.

Publishing and publications

Northwestern Publishing House (NPH)[15] is the official publishing house for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it produces a wide variety of materials including curriculum, periodicals, books, and worship resources. the publications are mainly for use of churches, schools, pastors, and members of the WELS. Its retail store, NPH Christian Books and Gifts, is also located in Milwaukee. It is devoted to publishing Christian literature and WELS related religious materials, as well as several WELS periodicals.

Since June 23, 1891, Northwestern Publishing House has served the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod and its members with a variety of products and programs. The mission of NPH is to publish and provide biblically sound material that communicates, fosters, and supports the Christian faith and life.

Main WELS periodicals include:

  • Forward in Christ: A Lutheran Voice — The WELS's monthly family magazine.
  • Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly — A quarterly theological magazine.

Membership trends

The WELS experienced significant growth during much of the twentieth century. In 1925, there were 139,226 members in 662 churches.[16] By 1950 there were over 300,000 members.[16] Membership peaked in the early 1990s at just over 400,000 and has declined slightly since that time.[16] In 2006 the denomination reported 395,497 members in 1,276 congregations.[16] Wisconsin remains the geographic center of the denomination, with over 400 churches and over 200,000 members.[17] Other than Wisconsin, the states with the highest rates of adherence are South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, and Nebraska.[17]

Belief and practice

Doctrinal Sources and Standards (Formal Principle)

The Wisconsin Synod subscribes to the Lutheran Reformation teaching of Sola scriptura—"Scripture alone." It holds that the Bible is the final authority by which church teachings can be judged. It also holds that the Holy Scripture is explained and interpreted by the 16th century Book of Concord because it teaches and faithfully explains the Word of God. As such, pastors and congregations within the WELS agree to teach in accordance with it.

The Wisconsin Synod also agrees with the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, that Bible is inspired by God and is without error. For this reason, they reject much of modern liberal scholarship.

Major doctrine (Material Principle)

Differences from LCMS (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod)

The main facets of doctrinal difference between WELS and the LCMS include:

  • Fellowship — WELS teaches that all forms of Christian fellowship require complete unity in matters of doctrine. The LCMS, meanwhile, teaches that there are different levels of fellowship among Christians, so that altar fellowship (sharing in the Eucharist together), pulpit fellowship (exchange of preaching privileges among ministers of various congregations), and other manifestations of Christian fellowship (such as fellowship in prayer), are distinct. Thus, according to LCMS doctrine, members of different church bodies can engage in greater or lesser degrees of fellowship depending on the extent of their doctrinal disagreement.
  • Doctrine of the ministry — The WELS believes that there are many different forms of one, divinely established Ministry. These forms of the Ministry include pastor, Christian day-school teacher, staff-minister and others. The LCMS teaches that only the pastoral office is divinely established, while all other church offices are human institutions.
  • Role of women in the church — The LCMS and WELS agree that Scriptures reserve the pastoral office for men. In "This We Believe," published in 1999, WELS states that "women may participate in offices and activities of the public ministry except where that work involves authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11,12). This means that women may not serve as pastors nor participate in assemblies of the church in ways that exercise authority over men (1 Corinthians 11:3; 14:33–35).".[18] WELS does not allow women suffrage in congregational matters that would exercise authority over men. LCMS teaches that women may take on roles of lay authority in the church, such as voting in church elections and serving in "humanly established offices" such as congregation president, reader, or member of church councils, including elected executive roles in the church.

Differences from ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

  • Scriptural interpretation — WELS confesses that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God and follows a Historical-Grammatical approach to interpretation. The meaning of a portion of Scripture is discerned by paying careful attention to grammar, syntax, vocabulary and context. In this regard, the historical setting forms part of the context of Scripture, the text itself indicating how important a part. The ELCA, on the other hand, has been open to Historical-Critical Methods of Biblical interpretation which seek to understand the scriptures with primary reference to historical and social context. Most other specific doctrinal differences between the two churches stem from this overarching disagreement.
  • Creationism — WELS teaches that the account of creation given in Genesis 1–3 is a factual, historical account,[19] while the ELCA has not enforced an official position, allowing members to embrace positions ranging from strict creationism to theistic evolution.
  • Sexuality — WELS teaches that extramarital sex and homosexual relations are sins, while the ELCA and its predecessor churches have been somewhat open to multiple viewpoints on these matters. The ELCA officially permits the ordination of monogamous non-celibate homosexuals and the blessing of homosexual couples. In 2008, 37% of ELCA pastors were found to support same-sex marriage.[20]
  • Fellowship — WELS teaches that churches must agree on all doctrines of Scripture before they can enjoy any form of fellowship with each other, while the ELCA teaches that agreement on all aspects of doctrine is not necessarily required as a prerequisite for fellowship. It thus practices fellowship with a handful of other mainline Protestant denominations.
  • Role of women in the church — WELS holds that, according to Scripture, women may not serve as clergy nor vote within their congregations where authority is exercised over men (see above), while the ELCA’s three predecessor churches began ordaining women into the ministry in the 1970s.

Church Fellowship

Fellowship between the WELS and other church groups is established only upon investigation and confirmation that both church groups hold complete unity in scriptural doctrine and practice.

The WELS is in fellowship with the members of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference, all of which meet this requirement.

In 1959 the WELS formally issued its Statement on the Antichrist, a doctrinal statement that declared, "we reaffirm the statement of the Lutheran Confessions, that 'the Pope is the very Antichrist'". [21] This identification of the Antichrist with the Pope is part of traditional Protestant amillennial historicism.[citation needed] The Roman Catholic Church is also amillennialist, but, unlike the WELS, holds to the view that the Antichrist will come near the end of the world. Mark Schroeder, president of WELS, affirmed in 2011 that "WELS does hold to the historic Lutheran position that the Roman Catholic papacy fits the biblical characteristics of the Antichrist."[22]

Notes and references

  1. ^ Official WELS statistics
  2. ^ Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District (LCMS), 1967, p.72.
  3. ^ See this list of Private and local laws passed by the Legislature of Wisconsin for the text of the Act.
  4. ^ a b c Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, 1967, p.107.
  5. ^ Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District (LCMS), 1967, p.108.
  6. ^ Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District (LCMS), 1967, p.109.
  7. ^ Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District (LCMS), 1967, p.110.
  8. ^ Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District (LCMS), 1967, p.112.
  9. ^ a b Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District (LCMS), 1967, p.113.
  10. ^ Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District (LCMS), 1967, p.114.
  11. ^ Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District (LCMS), 1967, p.115.
  12. ^ Roy A Suelflow.Walking With Wise Men. Milwaukee: South Wisconsin District (LCMS), 1967, p.120.
  13. ^ "Apacheland Mission History". archive.wels.net. http://archive.wels.net/cgi-bin/site.pl?2617&collectionID=733&contentID=101624&shortcutID=32538. Retrieved 23 July 2011. 
  14. ^ "Apacheland: Mission Statistics". archive.wels.net. http://archive.wels.net/cgi-bin/site.pl?2617&collectionID=733&contentID=1085&shortcutID=2948. Retrieved 23 July 2011. 
  15. ^ http://www.nph.net
  16. ^ a b c d "Historic Archive CD and Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches". The National Council of Churches. http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D_986.asp. Retrieved 2009-12-07. 
  17. ^ a b For a county by county map, see Wisconsin Synod Adherents as a percentage of all Residents, or for a state by state map, see "2000 Religious Congregations and Membership Study". Glenmary Research Center. http://www.thearda.com/Denoms/D_896_d.asp. Retrieved 2009-12-07. 
  18. ^ WELS beliefs
  19. ^ [1]
  20. ^ Robert P. Jones, Ph.D. and Daniel Cox. Mainline Protestant Clergy Views on Theology and Gay and Lesbian Issues: Findings from the 2008 Clergy Voices Survey. p. 7. Accessed online on September 26, 2009 at [2]
  21. ^ “The Pope is the Very Antichrist” A Necessary Conviction of the 21st Century Christian [3]
  22. ^ Schroeder, Mark. "The WELS view: By Scripture alone". Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. http://www.wels.net/news-events/wels-view-scripture-alone-0. Retrieved July 25, 2011. 

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