Legacy of Herman Amberg Preus
By Rolf David Preus
Herman Amberg Preus was my
great-great-grandfather was from Eisfeldt, on the Werra River in
Sachsen-Meiningen, Germany. Hans
Preus had three sons, all of whom moved to Norway.
His first son was named Abraham.
Abraham begat Jacob. Jacob
begat Paul. Paul begat Herman. Herman
moved to America and begat Christian.
Christian begat Jacob. Jacob
begat Robert. Robert begat
me, and, by God’s fatherly providence the begetting of Preuses has
continued. But I am not sure
that this is the legacy envisioned by those who asked me to speak to you
today on the topic: “The Legacy of Herman Amberg Preus.”
The true legacy of Herman Amberg Preus is that of a faithful
One: The Preuses in Norway
Still, a bit a family history is
Herman’s great-grandfather, Abraham (1691-1765) was born in
Germany and settled in Kristiania (what is today called Oslo) where he
served as Royal Commissioner of Weights and Measures.
Abraham married Mette Christine Louise Liwyn.
Their second son was named Jacob (1733-1805).
Jacob, Herman’s grandfather, served as a pastor in Haabel, east
of the Oslo Fjord, not far from Denmark.
When Jacob was 43 years old, he met a seventeen-year-old girl by
the name of Anne Elizabeth Arctander.
She was quite a young lady. Three
days after Jacob met her, he proposed and three weeks later they were
married. Anne wrote poetry
and hymns, established a weaving industry in the parish, had ten children,
and on one occasion saved her pastor husband from being dismissed from his
office. Her husband Jacob had
married a couple whose papers appeared to indicate that they had parental
approval for the wedding. But
they did not. They were
eloping without their parents’ permission.
The bride’s father was furious and he was an influential man.
He went to the authorities in Kristiania and had Pastor Preus
suspended from office. Anne
Elizabeth was not going to take this lying down.
She hired two men to row her across the Kattegat Straits to
Denmark. This was before
Norway had its own king. She
went to Copenhagen where she secured the efforts of the Prime Minister to
persuade the King to have her husband reinstated.
What a wife!
Jacob Preus and his wife Anne
became the parents of Paul Arctander Preus on July 27, 1779.
Paul attended the Cathedral School in Kristiania.
After graduating from the University of Copenhagen, he accepted the
position of headmaster at the Cathedral School in Kristiansand, in the
southernmost part of Norway. Paul,
like his father before him, married well.
His wife was also named Anne – Anne Keyser – whose father was
Johan Keyser, the Bishop of Kristiansand.
Anne was the only child of Johan’s first wife who died at the age
of twenty-nine. It was to
Paul and Anne Preus that Herman Amberg Preus was born on June 16, 1825 in
Kristiansand. He was their
fourth son and their sixth child.
Herman attended the Cathedral
School in Kristiansand. He
was firmly indoctrinated in the historic Lutheran teaching.
From his earliest years he learned theology from men strongly
opposed to the prevailing rationalism of the day.
While one might argue that in the Norway of the nineteenth century
even strong confessionalists were not entirely free from the influence of
Herman gave evidence throughout his life of a clearly confessionally
Lutheran approach to theology. After
coming to America, Herman would become a great admirer of C. F. W. Walther
as an outstanding Lutheran theologian.
Herman, however, was spared much of the youthful turmoil that
marked Walther’s theological development.
Walther alternately gave his devotion first to pietism and then to
a radically anti-establishment confessional movement known as Stephanism.
We see in Walther’s early years a tumultuous struggle in the soul
from which the great confessional Lutheran theologian would be born after
coming to America. There is
no such struggle evident in Herman Amberg Preus.
From his early theological training as a boy in Kristiansand to his
education at Royal Frederik’s University in Kristiania, Herman was
indoctrinated in the classical Lutheran orthodoxy to which he would be
committed his entire life. At
the University he became acquainted with the Jewish convert and great
German confessional theologian, Carl Paul Caspari, and took classes as
well from Gisle Johnson. Herman
graduated from the University in 1848 and became a schoolteacher as he
waited for the opportunity to serve as a pastor in America.
As I mentioned earlier, Herman’s
mother, Anne, lost her mother at an early age.
Her father remarried and had seven children.
One of these children was Christian Keyser, who became one of
Herman’s teachers at the University.
Christian was thus a half-brother to Herman’s mother, making
Christian’s children half-cousins to Herman Amberg Preus.
There were seven of these half-cousins, one boy followed by six
girls. The oldest girl was Caroline, but everyone called her Linka.
Linka was born in Kristiansand on July 2, 1829.
She lost her mother when she was ten years old.
Her father died when she was seventeen.
She was very close to her extended family of aunts and uncles as
evidenced by her many references to them in her diary.
Linka had known her half-cousin Herman since she was a child.
On February 26, 1849, when she was nineteen and Herman was
twenty-three, they became engaged to be married.
They were married on May 5, 1851.
Pastor Magnus Landstad, a family friend, officiated.
Landstad authored several hymns, including: “When Sinners See
Their Lost Condition” and “There Many Shall Come From the East and the
West.” In describing her
wedding, Linka said, “Pastor Landstad spoke briefly and
During their two-year engagement
Herman and Linka were preoccupied with one particular topic: America. The question was both whether and when they would go there.
Herman wanted to serve as a pastor in America.
He had heard of the settlements of Norwegians on the American
frontier of Wisconsin. His
countryman, the Rev. J. W. C. Dietrichson, had been ordained in the Church
of Norway in 1844 after which he went to America to serve the Norwegian
immigrants in southern Wisconsin. Herman
corresponded with Pastor Dietrichson about serving as a pastor in
Wisconsin. Dietrichson had
assured him that congregations were in need of pastors and that Herman
would be receiving a call. But
matters were not quite so simple.
Dietrichson was a disciple of the
maverick Danish theologian and hymnist, Nicolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig. In addition to authoring such powerful hymns as “Built on
the Rock the Church Doth Stand” and “God’s Word is Our Great
Heritage,” Grundtvig also came up with an interesting doctrine that
became known in the old Norwegian Synod simply as the “Grundtvigian
error.” He taught that the Apostles’ Creed, which is the baptismal
creed, was the living word of Jesus in contrast to the Holy Scriptures
that were a dead word. Grundtvig
was a strong opponent of rationalism as well as a proponent of
congregational autonomy over against the authority of the state church.
He was in many respects a confessional Lutheran and he gained a
following from among confessional Lutheran pastors in Norway, Dietrichson
being one of them. Dietrichson
had brought the Grundtvigian error with him to America and had established
it there. When visiting with
Herman Amberg Preus in Norway during September of 1850, this particular
theological topic took center stage in their discussions.
Herman asked Dietrichson about a call to America.
Apparently, Dietrichson wanted Herman to endorse the Grundtvigian
opinion about the “living word” as a condition to receiving a call to
America. When Herman objected
and argued against this error, Dietrichson became furious with him and
informed him that he couldn’t give him a definite answer about a call to
America until November of that year.
So Herman was left hanging, uncertain of where he stood.
He describes the turmoil he was experiencing in these words:
At the age of twenty-five, Herman
saw himself throwing away the future that had occupied his thoughts and
affections for years. But he
could not help himself. His
problem was his doctrinal inflexibility.
Nothing marks his life more than his refusal to compromise on
doctrine. The reason he could
not tolerate the Grundtvigian opinion was that it contradicted the
principle of Scripture alone. The
fact that this error was held by men whom Herman admired could not alter
what was for him a matter of principle.
A Lutheran pastor could not compromise on doctrine, regardless of
what the consequences might be.
As it turned out, the consequences for Herman were not so dire, after all. Just a few months later, on January 1, 1851, he received the call to be the pastor of the congregation in Spring Prairie, Wisconsin, a congregation that he served until his death some forty four years later. This is what Herman wrote the day after receiving the call:
These words may sound to our ears
just a bit flowery and the piety a bit more explicitly expressed than we
are used to hearing. I
suggest to you that these heart-felt sentiments of that young man were
much more than a passing emotional reaction to receiving the call that he
had so eagerly desired. These sentiments define the legacy of Herman Amberg Preus.
If we are to understand H. A. Preus’ legacy, we can do no better
than to begin right here. He
wanted to be a pastor. This
lifelong desire permeates his approach to theology. The theological task and the pastoral task were for him one
and the same thing. He
received an excellent theological education.
He was immersed in the Lutheran Confessions and the writings of the
Lutheran fathers. He admired
and relied on the efforts of confessional Lutherans of great scholarly
achievement. But Herman
Amberg Preus did not conceive of theology primarily as an academic
discipline. He was a down to
earth theologian who had no time or patience for the kinds of theological
abstractions and nuances that so frequently occupy the minds of men who
aren’t actually engaged in the feeding of the flock.
Every theological issue was for him an issue of pastoral care.
Herman wanted to be a faithful pastor.
And he was quite intolerant of those who would stand in his way.
As we can see from the words he
recorded on the day after receiving his call, Herman believed that the
call from the congregation was the essential element in the placing of a
man into the pastoral office. He
writes, “I had become a minister, I had a congregation!”
As a matter of fact, he would not actually become their pastor for
another seven months. He
wasn’t even ordained yet and he talked as if he was their pastor.
This should not be construed to suggest that Herman did not believe
he had to be ordained. While
he believed that the office belonged to the church and not to a clerical
hierarchy, he could not have imagined going to America to serve as a
pastor without first being ordained.
In fact, after arriving in America, one of the first issues young
Herman would have to face was that of laymen who were not called and
ordained preaching publicly in the church.
Not everyone shared Herman’s
eagerness to serve, however. In
February of 1851 he asked Bishop Arup of Kristiania if he would ordain
him. The bishop refused. Listen
to Herman describe why:
He discussed with Linka the
possibility of going to Kristiansand to be ordained by Bishop Jacob von
der Lippe. Apparently, Bishop
Arup had a change of mind and Herman modified his severe judgment of him a
couple of months later when Arup finally ordained him.
Herman wrote that Bishop Arup was a man who would surely want to do
what it right if only he could see it clearly.
Still, Herman added, “But he has a not too clear theological
insight and probably suffers from a little indolence where something
beyond his duty is required.”
Indolence is one vice of which nobody ever accused Herman Amberg Preus. He was an indefatigable workhorse. He despised laziness, apathy, and disinterest in connection with the preaching of the gospel and the caring for souls. If he was intolerant of others in this respect, he drove himself even harder. While not always receiving praise for such things as diplomacy, eloquence, or delicacy of expression, Herman Amberg Preus was admired by friend and foe alike for his constancy in the face of duty.
Two: The Theology of Pastor Herman Amberg Preus
Herman and Linka crossed the
Atlantic together just three weeks after they were married in May of 1851.
Herman was installed as the pastor of Spring Prairie Lutheran
Church in August of that year. He
preached his first sermon on August 10.
It was the Eighth Sunday after Trinity.
The Gospel Lesson for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity is Matthew
7:15-23. Herman preached on
verse 15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s
clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.”
Listen to the opening words of this sermon.
While Herman preached this sermon at the age of twenty-six, it
typifies the theology and pastoral approach of his entire life.
what, friends! It was a
constant, deep, earnest need, a strong and inner yearning which did not
allow them any peace but which urged them on.
It was because they believed they would find in him, and many times
they did find it, what their hearts had desired in hours of pain, that
which they knew made up for all their shortcomings and which had healing
in itself for the sicknesses, the evil which gnawed at their innermost
heart. It was because they
had to acknowledge that he did not speak as the scribes but as one who had
authority and because the words which he spoke were like heavenly manna
for their hungry souls, and poured soothing balm into their wounds and
brought a peace hitherto unknown to them, and salvation to their troubled,
fearful hearts. Yes, my
friends, because they felt that the serpent of sin was devouring life at
its root and that the angel of death had laid his hand upon them, that’s
why they fled to him in the pain of despair as the Rock of their salvation
and their source of blessedness! That’s
why they listened to those words of life which wonderfully refreshed them
and which, when they accepted them in faith, let them feel the powers of
life surge through them, chase the angel of death away and bring life into
everything which before was dead. Then
they recognized that the Lord was a gracious God who does not desire the
death of sinners but rather that they should live, and that for their
sakes he revealed himself as a man, since he sent his Son, Jesus Christ,
to the world.
Insofar as it is a feature of
pietism to focus in on the personal spiritual needs of the individual
Christian, we can see such an influence on Herman Amberg Preus.
But his theology is not centered in feelings, even if he makes
liberal reference to the feelings of his hearers.
It is centered in Christ. The
overarching pastoral concern to which Preus gave evidence throughout his
life was that his hearers should know Christ, trust in His righteousness,
be set free from Satan’s bondage, and be saved eternally.
Herman Amberg Preus was first and last a pastor.
For this reason we must understand his theology within the context
of the pastoral task because that is how Preus viewed theology.
This did not make him an adherent of what passes today as pastoral
theology with its fixation on successful methods for doing this, that, and
the other thing. Rather, the
theologian who subsumes all theology under the single objective of caring
for souls is a man who understands the radical nature of confessional
Lutheran theology. If Herman Amberg Preus is the epitome of a confessional
Lutheran pastor, this is what we can say a confessional Lutheran pastor
is. He is dogmatically
inflexible. He submits to the clear word of God and urges others to do so. He believes in the supremacy of doctrine over life because he
knows that the righteousness of Christ, in which the pure doctrine is
centered, is reckoned by God to sinners who have no righteousness of their
own and by this gracious reckoning, which faith receives, sinners are
justified and saved. This is
why the confessional Lutheran pastor preaches the gospel without attaching
any conditions to it and insists that his brother pastors do so as well. The confessional Lutheran pastor believes in the inherent
efficacy of the means of grace. He
defends the freedom of the Christian and the Christian congregation.
He is conservative, giving more credence to the fathers than to the
theological fads of his own day. He
is stubborn. He will neither yield nor be silent on any article of
Christian doctrine regardless of the price he will be required to pay for
his stubbornness. All of
these features of the confessional Lutheran pastor are seen in the life
and preaching of Herman Amberg Preus and are all interwoven in the same
fabric of the pastoral care for souls that marked Herman’s entire adult
To attempt a chronological recounting of Herman’s life in America would entail telling the history of the Norwegian Synod inasmuch as he served as president of the Norwegian Synod for over thirty of the first forty years of its existence. I would not presume to make such an attempt especially in the presence of our other speakers, President Orvick and Professor Teigen, both of whom have probably forgotten more about the Norwegian Synod than I will ever know. Instead, I would like to set before you the teaching of H. A. Preus in the following interrelated areas: the importance of the pure doctrine; the authority of the Scriptures and confessional subscription; the meaning of the gospel; church and ministry; unionism and syncretism; and slavery.
Importance of the Pure Doctrine
The French have a saying, “Plus
ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In his presidential address to the Norwegian Synod in 1884,
President Herman Amberg Preus speaks directly to our generation:
Pastor Preus spoke from personal experience. He and his son Christian served as pastors of Norway Grove
Lutheran Church in Dane County, Wisconsin.
Herman had served the congregation for thirty years.
Agitators from the so-called Anti-Missourian Brotherhood stirred up
certain members of the congregation to demand that their pastors repudiate
the confessional Lutheran doctrine on election.
They refused. On Good Friday 1883, Pastors Herman and Christian Preus were
not only deposed by a majority of the congregation. They were bodily removed.
The congregation later repented of their sin.
One does not fight for doctrine
for the sake of fighting. For
H. A. Preus, defending the pure doctrine was a matter of defending life
itself. Pure doctrine could
not be understood apart from Christ the Savior.
It was always for the sake of faith in Christ and the eternal life
that this faith receives that Preus argued so vigorously for defending the
pure doctrine. As Preus put
it in an address to the Synod in 1864:
friends! How should we better
be able to render each other such help than to build up each other in the
doctrine of the one saving faith through mutual consultation and mutual
instruction from the Word of God? For
where is the Lord, so that we can turn our eyes to him?
The apostle John says: “No man has seen God at any time; the only
begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him.”
(Jo. 1:18.) But it is in the
Word in which he has wrapped himself.
The Gospel is his clothing in which he who is the express image of
the Father reveals himself to us full of grace and truth, one God, for the
salvation of many. Yes, the
more we gaze at him there and learn to know his essence, attributes and
works, yes, the more we thereby are strengthened in the true faith and
pure doctrine, the more should we also learn to turn our eyes to him and
look to his hand alone.
pure doctrine of the gospel was the clothing in which Christ was dressed. Only in knowing Christ in this clothing could a sinner find
his Savior. There could not
possibly be any true Christian living apart from faith in the Christ
revealed in this pure gospel. Responding
to the false antithesis so often advanced between concern for pure
doctrine and pure living, Preus went on to say:
Preus saw clearly that the
holy living advanced by the denigration of the pure doctrine was a sham.
He had a profoundly Lutheran understanding of sin and its effects.
He despised all forms of moralism.
The very idea that there lay anything within man from which he
could contribute anything at all to his conversion, preservation in the
faith, or final salvation was abhorrent to Herman.
His piety grew out of a deeply ingrained consciousness of his own
personal sin and unworthiness. In
a sermon he delivered at the ordination of two men in July of 1865, Herman
Contending for the pure doctrine
was not therefore an intellectual battle in which one theologian sets out
to score points against another. Nor
was it a church-political debate for sectarian purposes.
It was literally a battle against the lies of Satan who designs the
destruction of every Christian by tearing him away from Christ. It was not a battle of the flesh for fleshly goals.
It was rather from within the context of the Christian’s personal
struggle against his own sin and doubts that this battle found its shape.
Far from evidencing pride and a cock-sure know-it-all attitude of
smug self-righteousness, Herman’s doctrinal inflexibility was
inseparable from his own personal faith, a faith born in contrition
Linka gave expression to the
deeply penitential nature of this faith in an entry in her diary on
October 5, 1852. She had had
a bad day. She wasn’t happy
in America. She was eight
months pregnant with her first child, she was homesick, tired, and
generally feeling sorry for herself.
She was afraid of dying and she was afraid of the Judgment.
Her words open for us a little window into the heart of this pious
Christian lady whose faith would be fed by the word of God her husband
would preach to her for the rest of her life.
Listen to how Linka describes her spiritual struggles:
appears that I do nothing, nothing, which is good in Thy sight; which I
ought to do, if I loved Thee; and still I say that I love Thee!
Alas, there is no truth in me!
Help me, Lord Jesus Christ, lest I be cast into the fiery pit! My hope and my comfort is that Thou who didst die upon the
Cross, even for me, Thou wilt not forsake me, but be at my side when I
shall stand before the throne of the Judge.
For Thy sake shall my utterly countless sins be forgiven; in Thee,
and in Thee alone, shall I be able to stand in the hour of reckoning. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten
Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have
everlasting life.” Because
of this I can without fear look death in the face.
Linka’s piety shows some of the
influences of pietism’s preoccupation with a pure penitential spirit.
It also shows the simplicity of her faith in the truth of the
gospel. Herman knew his wife
and he understood her spiritual needs.
They were not that she should spend her time attempting to prove to
herself the sincerity of her contrition.
That road could lead only to despair, and Herman knew it. What animated his forceful defense of the pure doctrine was
his desire that those Christians under his pastoral care, such as his dear
Linka, should have the assurance of salvation.
That the gospel is true means that it can be relied upon in the
face of death. It means that
faith can appeal to God’s doctrine whenever doubts arise.
Doctrinal uncertainty was incompatible with faith.
Therefore, doctrinal inflexibility was required for the faithful
Why not compromise on doctrine? Souls are at stake. To
acquiesce to the compromise of God’s doctrine at any point would be to
set aside the proper care for souls.
Even while pastors and congregations were defecting from the
Norwegian Synod because of her doctrinal inflexibility, Preus argued
against any compromise. In
his presidential address to the 1869 convention of the Norwegian Synod he
explained why the Synod could not yield in the slightest in the clear
confession of the pure doctrine of God’s word.
is not ours which we can do with as might please us. It is the Word of the
holy, righteous God which He has in grace and indescribable love committed
to us pure and unadulterated which we therefore are also to proclaim pure
and unadulterated without addition, without suppression, without
obscuring, without distortion, and which we are to preserve unfalsified
and unabridged as our most precious heritage to our descendants. Surely
there is no communion between Christ and Belial, light and darkness, truth
and lies. In order to show
honor to the Lord and his Word and love to the brethren as well as the
opponents, it behooves us, much rather, it is our Synod’s unalterable
duty to confess the truth of the Word of God with all the certainty,
clarity and precision we have at our disposal, and above all, the truth
that the Word of God is not an uncertain word of men which requires the
explanation and interpretation of men, but the Word of the God of Truth,
the truth unto salvation, clear, simple and intelligible to everyone who
uses it correctly, be he lay or learned.
Preus and the Norwegian Synod
suffered from a great deal of vicious calumny on account of their
doctrinal integrity. Professors
August Weenaas and Sven Oftedal from Augsburg Seminary of the
Norwegian-Danish Conference wrote scathing attacks on the Norwegian Synod
for various alleged ecclesiastical sins.
The Norwegian Synod was accused of an “anti-Christian tendency”
called Wisconsinism, named after the State where the Norwegian Synod was
centered. Wisconsinism was
supposedly a blend of Grundtvigianism and Missourianism.
While Preus willingly embraced the Missourianism of C. F. W.
Walther – and paid dearly for so doing – he was instrumental in
removing the Grundtvigian error from the constitution of the Norwegian
Synod. What was really under
attack was the Norwegian Synod’s uncompromising confessionalism.
The charge of Wisconsinism included the allegation that the
Norwegian Synod was guilty of a papistic principle, theoretical and
practical Catholicism, religious indifference, hierarchy, pastoral
despotism, and a contempt for spiritual life in the congregation.
For defending the inherent efficacy of the absolution, the
Norwegian Synod was accused of seeking to establish “the papacy’s
chief cornerstone: the sacrament of the Ministry.”
For teaching objective justification, the Norwegian Synod was
accused of teaching universal salvation for everyone, whether he believes
or not. The Norwegian Synod
was called “an organization which is a blotch on Christianity and a
disgrace for the Norwegian people.”
Herman saw the violent attacks
against the Norwegian Synod as God’s means of humbling them.
He acknowledged that contending for God’s truth brings unpleasant
consequences from which we naturally turn away.
The desire to shrink from theological battle was based on an
ignorance of God’s word. This
ignorance was due to a lack of a love for God’s truth.
So when the Norwegian Synod suffered persecution, Herman saw this
as a discipline from God designed to purify His church.
The correct response to persecution in the face of contending for
God’s truth was a rededication to catechizing the laity in the pure word
Authority of the Scriptures and Confessional Subscription
Herman Amberg Preus was a
traditionalist. He was a
father’s theologian. His
severe judgment against rationalism was directed not only against their
denial of the divine authority of the Holy Scriptures, but also against
what he called their “haughty” and “flippant” attitude toward the
He did not view the Bible in isolation from the Lutheran
Confessions and the Lutheran fathers. In a scathing attack on the spirit of religious unionism,
Preus describes the “enlightened” person of his day who does not want
to be a heathen (but doesn’t really want to be a Christian either) as
must hold fast to Christianity, but not the kind of Christianity which was
set forth by the apostles in the barbaric ancient times and interpreted
literally according to the dogmatic restrictions and prejudices of the 16th
century. But the kind which the new Bible Criticism has created.
For Preus there was no dichotomy
between the apostolic teaching and the Lutheran dogmatic tradition.
The notion that the pastor should attempt to approach the Holy
Scriptures with perfect exegetical neutrality, ignoring the guidance of
the Lutheran Confessions in the theological task, could not have occurred
to him. On the contrary, Preus joined together into one activity the
reading of the Holy Scriptures and the study of the Lutheran Confessions.
the apostle also says, “Give attendance to reading.”
(1 Ti. 4:13.) And he
must do that above all through the reading of the Holy Scriptures, the
Book of books, the fountain of revelation, and next, from the Confessions
of the church, from the good writings of the fathers and others through
which he can be led into the treasure chambers of the Holy Scriptures,
become familiar with its precious treasures and learn to draw from them
old things and new for every situation which he faces.
Preus was a conservative.
He followed the same approach to making a theological defense of
his teaching as that followed by C. F. W. Walther.
First, he would set forth the clear Scriptures.
Then he would appeal to the Lutheran Confessions.
Then he would appeal to the Lutheran fathers.
The Scriptures were authoritative because they were the word of
God. The Confessions were
authoritative because they agreed with the Holy Scriptures.
The fathers were authoritative as they correctly set forth the
biblical teaching of the Lutheran Confessions.
While he served as the president of the Norwegian Synod for over
thirty years and wholeheartedly endorsed her doctrine at every point, he
did not appeal to synodical authority in defending his doctrine.
Preus did appeal to the writings
of C. F. W. Walther. He
regarded Walther and the Missourians as being singularly faithful to the
Scriptures and the Confessions in the American sea of heterodoxy.
Already in 1864, as the War Between the States was raging, Preus
publicly praised the faithfulness of the Missouri Synod.
we must surely acknowledge with praise to God that there is, though, a
German Lutheran synod, the Missouri Synod, which has not let itself be
content with merely the Lutheran name but tirelessly has brought to life
the testimony of the Lutheran fathers, undaunted, shown off the prayers of
the Lutheran Church, the pure doctrine, zealously watched over its
preservation within the synod’s own bounds and fearlessly and openly as
well as with scholarship defended it against opponents outside it.
Preus did not back away from his
support of Missouri, but rather reiterated it throughout the rest of his
life. In 1881, Preus summarized the contributions of Missouri under
Walther’s leadership by saying,
especially want to call attention to some basic truths for whose
preservation and carrying out, both in theory and in practice, Dr.
Walther, together with the whole Missouri Synod, has lifted the banner and
fought with unshaken faithfulness, namely, the freedom of a Christian man
and a Christian congregation, the universality of divine grace and the
total depravity of the natural man and his inability to cooperate in any
way whatsoever in his conversion.
While Preus’ early and
persistent support of Missouri may have been the right thing to do
theologically and confessionally, from a church-political point of view it
was a colossal mistake on his part. He
and the Norwegian Synod were hounded by charges of being lackeys of the
man widely viewed among Norwegian Lutherans in America as the American
Lutheran pope. The enmity
against Walther on the part of many Norwegian-American Lutherans was quite
intense. Walther personified
the Missouri Synod, a synod headquartered in a slave state and that
defended slavery. The
Missouri Synod, under Walther’s theological leadership, took a strong
stand against all forms of synergism and in support of the confessional
Lutheran doctrine of election. That
particular controversy, as it erupted in the Norwegian Synod in the 1880s,
could never be viewed apart from the Norwegian Synod’s close ties to
Missouri and C. F. W. Walther.
Weenaas and other critics of the
Norwegian Synod saw the Synod’s support of Walther as a vulnerability to
be exploited, and they did so with relish.
It looms as a subtext of every criticism leveled against the
Norwegian Synod, as if to say that they could not think for themselves.
In response to the charge from Weenaas that the Norwegian Synod’s
support of Walther’s theology made them guilty of “clinging to
personalities,” Preus wrote:
acknowledge and accept with thanks to God the gifts God has given his
church in such a man as Professor Walther, then we do not rob but only
give God the glory he has coming and in no way does this entitle Professor
Weenaas to accuse us of “clinging to personalities” which is said to
be characteristic of the mind and spirit he ascribes to us and the
Missouri Synod. I dare say that a church body is not to be found in our
days which carries on such a life and death struggle against all faith in
and idolizing of authority as the Missouri Synod with Professor Walther in
Preus’ support of the Missouri
Synod and Walther should not be mistaken for a loyalty to a particular
Lutheran tradition. It was
precisely Walther’s confessionalism that Preus admired.
He found in Walther a confessional Lutheran brother and in the
Missouri Synod the same confessional Lutheran spirit that had been
inculcated in him as a boy growing up in Kristiansand.
When Preus and the Norwegian Synod defended the called and ordained
ministry of the word in opposition to lay preachers who presumed to preach
without need and without a churchly call, they did not do so in service to
what Weenaas called a “rational orthodoxy” or “the system of the
They were confessional Lutherans.
Confessional Lutherans accept the clear teaching of Article XIV of
the Augsburg Confession.
That the Lutheran Confessions
should serve a real normative purpose for the Lutheran pastor was for
Herman Preus a pastoral necessity. He
criticized the rationalists who “laid the Confessions on the shelf as an
ancient curiosity [and] mastered the Word of God according to the
will-of-the-wisp of their reason.”
These men could not care for the souls of people who were “given
to a sickly enthusiasm and emotion, or a subtle works-righteousness”
because the pastors were ignorant. “The
Confessions of the Lutheran Church were an unknown book to them as were
all the writings of the fathers.”
For Preus, the Book of Concord was a textbook in pastoral care.
He read it faithfully.
Meaning of the Gospel
What is the gospel?
Is it information about what God has done for us in Christ to which
must be added the correct response of faith?
Is the gospel a promise of what God will do if we believe in
Christ? Or is the gospel the
actual imparting of the forgiveness of sins that Jesus has won for us all?
For Preus, the vicarious satisfaction of Jesus Christ was
meaningless unless God has, for Christ’s sake, forgiven the entire world
of sinners. This is objective
or universal justification. Preus
defined the doctrine of objective or universal justification in these
we understand that by raising Christ from the dead God declares him
righteous and at the same time acknowledges and declares all people, the
whole world, whose Representative and Substitute Jesus Christ was in his
resurrection and victory as well as in his suffering and tribulation
(“He was delivered for our offenses and raised for our
justification”), as free from guilt and punishment, and righteous in
This doctrine was and is an
offense to many. Those who
promote it have been falsely accused of denying the necessity of faith.
Preus, along with the rest of the Norwegian Synod, always taught
the necessity of faith to receive and be comforted by the forgiveness of
sins. He taught justification
by faith alone. This did not
prevent critics from claiming that the doctrine of objective justification
“separates justification in Christ from faith.”
Preus argued that if objective justification is not true, faith
cannot be the means by which the sinner merely receives God’s
forgiveness, but it must become meritorious. The denial of objective justification turns faith into a
work. God will not justify
the sinner solely on the basis of Christ’s redemption, but will justify
the sinner only when the sinner meets the condition of having faith. Thus, the redemption of Christ does not actually cause God to
forgive anyone, but merely makes God willing to forgive if sinners perform
the necessary work of believing. Faith
becomes a work.
The merit of Christ is denigrated.
His satisfaction is insufficient.
Preus points out the irony of
insisting that God does not forgive anyone prior to faith.
Since faith is worked only by God through his proclaiming to people that he forgives them and is no longer angry, then according to Professor Weenaas’ claim, this message must not be spoken to people before they have come to faith, then a person can never come to faith through Professor Weenaas’ gospel. Because then there is no Gospel of God through which it can be worked.
In other words, if God has not
forgiven all sins of all sinners for Christ’s sake, it is not possible
to preach the gospel.
What is especially noteworthy here
is that for Herman Amberg Preus the debate about objective justification
could not be disjoined from the pastoral care for souls burdened by sins
and in need of a pure gospel. It
is as the physician of souls that Herman’s mind conceived of the issue
and its implications. Any
gospel that is dependent for its truth or validity upon the correct human
response is no gospel at all. The
gospel must have the power to confront and overcome the abiding and
unfathomable unbelief that clings so stubbornly to the flesh.
Preus advocated private confession and absolution
and regularly confessed his own sins to a “father confessor” (young
enough to be his son!) because he knew his own
carnal weakness and he wanted his faith to rely solely on the word of God.
At no other point in Herman’s controversy-ridden ministry was the
essence of the Christian doctrine so clearly revealed than in the
absolution controversy with pastors of the Augustana Synod.
The absolution controversy
encompassed several topics at the same time.
It was a debate about the nature of the pastoral office as well as
the meaning of the rite of absolution.
The fundamental issue, however, was the content and the essence of
the gospel itself.
The debate about objective justification was a debate about what
the gospel was. The debate
about absolution was a debate about how the gospel is given.
Is the gospel a real and unchanging declaration from God?
Is it true and inherently efficacious on account of what it is? Is the absolution of the pastor the very absolution of sins
from God Himself? Or are the
truthfulness and efficacy of the gospel contingent upon something in the
sinner to whom the gospel is addressed?
In defense of the Norwegian Synod’s objective gospel, which was
true whether anyone believed it or not, Preus appealed to the words of
Jesus about casting pearls before swine.
the same time we hold firmly to it as the teaching of the Word of God,
that God’s forgiveness also occurs without faith being present, in other
words, that the absolution spoken in the name of God to a hypocrite (who
surely does not have faith), is however God’s absolution. When the
Savior warningly says: “Do not give that which is holy to dogs, neither
cast your pearls before swine, so that they should not trample them with
their feet,” then he presupposes as a given, that it can happen that the
pearls and sacred things can be cast before swine and dogs. If that could
not possibly happen, as Professor Weenaas thinks, then the Lord would not
have given such a warning. For what else are the pearls and the holy
things than the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins, and who else are swine
and dogs than the unbelieving and the ungodly? But now if the pearls, i.e.
God’s act of forgiving sin were thus bound to faith, as Professor
Weenaas claims, then surely the pearls cannot be cast before swine and
then neither is any such warning needed, because even if the forgiveness
were then promised to an unbeliever, therefore it surely was not God’s
act of forgiving sin, thus there surely were no pearls; not pearls, but
only a husk were then cast before swine. The apostle Paul teaches
otherwise when he says in Romans 3:3 that man's unbelief cannot make
God’s trustworthiness of no effect.
The denial of objective
justification makes it impossible to preach the gospel.
The preacher may not tell anyone that his sins are forgiven.
No pearls can be given to anyone at all. How can the pastor ask the penitent, “Do you believe my
forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” if the pastor cannot give
forgiveness except to the believer? The
pastor cannot see faith. A
pastor who does not know he has forgiveness to give, regardless of the
spiritual condition of the one to whom he is speaking, can only give
stones, not bread. Pastor Preus asks,
the troubled person, who surely is hovering in doubt precisely about his
faith and his sincerity, find comfort in the absolution and strength in
his misery through such teaching? He must surely despair completely.
The gospel must be preached. And when it is preached, it cannot be conditioned by any
legal restrictions or it is no gospel at all.
Salvation is at stake. God
saves sinners by means of the gospel that is preached to them.
This is how Preus told preachers they should preach:
are also to proclaim the Gospel in its truth and purity, free and
unconditioned, sweet and pleasant as God has given it to us.
Woe to the blind guides who out of ignorance or from pride, since
they rely upon their own works, set up all kinds of conditions and
restrictions around the Gospel of God and build a fence around Golgotha
just as there was around Sinai. They
forbid other people access to the kingdom of heaven and do not want to
enter it themselves. They
make the Gospel into a Law and instead of luring the anxious and
frightened sinner to faith, to the freedom and salvation of children of
God in Christ Jesus by holding before him the undeserved and unending love
of God in Christ Jesus which he has earned for everyone and which he wants
to give everyone so that everyone can be saved and come to the knowledge
of the truth, they place a new burden upon him which he can as little bear
as the former. Therefore, let
us above all apply ourselves so that we proclaim the pure and unabridged
Gospel of Christ. It
justifies. It gives life.
It saves. It also
makes holy and pious people, and nothing but the Gospel of Christ does
such a thing.
Preus was a practical theologian. That is to say, theology was practice and practice was
theology. The “chicken or
egg” debates that erupted a generation or so after his death concerning
the means of grace and the church would have held no interest for him. Does the Christian congregation have the means of grace
because she is a Christian congregation or is she a Christian congregation
because she has the means of grace? I
suspect Herman Preus would have given a stern “yes!” for an answer
that might just have silenced the questioner and prevented any more
Preus believed in the divine
institution of the local congregation.
In his presidential address to the Norwegian Synod in 1865 he
listed seven reasons why Christian congregations should join together to
form synods. But he made it clear what was by divine command and what was
not. He said:
. . . the
forming of congregations is ordered and commanded by God himself in his
Word, and therefore in the proper understanding of the word are an
institution of the Lord, a work of the Lord, while the coming together of
individual congregations into a larger church body, be it a state church
or synods, is not commanded by God.
Preus taught that the Christian
church, which is essentially invisible because it is made up only of the
faithful, is recognizable by the means of grace, the gospel and
sacraments. From this
foundation, he concluded that it was necessary for Christians to belong to
orthodox congregations with orthodox pastors.
Herman Amberg Preus regarded theology as too serious a business to
let it become captive to academicians preoccupied with refined
distinctions. He made no
distinction between the preaching office and the pastoral office.
For Preus, the preaching office was the pastoral office.
In an ordination sermon preached in 1868, Preus used the terms:
shepherds, teachers, overseers, and ambassadors to refer to parish
pastors, that is, to incumbents of the ministry of the Word.
The pastors were God’s gifts to and servants of the church.
He rejected all forms of clericalism that would take away from the
laity of the local congregation the right to judge doctrine.
Speaking on what a “true Lutheran” knows about the church,
fathers in the Augsburg Confession, [the true Lutheran] says that the
church is a “communion of saints,” whether or not they hold the office
of pastor. He says that the
ministry of “preaching the word and administering the sacrament” is
entrusted to all the church and that the administrators of the ministry,
the pastors, are gifts granted to the congregation by its Lord, Christ.
God instituted the pastoral office
and the local congregation. God
gathers Christians together in congregations.
Synods are, by definition, adiaphorous organizations instituted by
The keys are given to Christian congregations which may delegate
their use to princes, bishops, state churches, synods, and the like, but
the keys do not belong to such entities except by delegation from the
congregations which always retain the right to take back the authority
they have delegated.
Preus believed that God had
provided the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America a unique
opportunity to develop the spiritual priesthood of the laity.
While one searches in vain in his writings to find anything like
the concept of “Voters’ Supremacy,” he most certainly did teach that
the laity had the right to judge the doctrine of their pastors and that it
was their sacred obligation to do so.
Unfaithful pastors must be removed from office.
While, as noted, Preus himself was fired as a pastor precisely
because of his faithfulness to God’s word, he was far more concerned
about pastors abusing congregations than congregations abusing pastors.
One of the most undeserved of all
the calumnies directed against the Norwegian Synod was the charge that
they were papistic, hierarchical, setting up pastors as tyrants over the
people. The controversy over
lay preaching in the Norwegian Synod was not a debate about whether or not
the preaching office belonged to the whole church and to every local
congregation. It did.
Preus and the Norwegian Synod were crystal clear on that point.
The issue was rather that souls must be fed with the wholesome and
life-giving words of God and that therefore the divine institution of the
pastoral office (AC XIV) must be honored.
Preus and the Norwegian Synod defended the right of laymen publicly
to assume the pastoral office without a call from the church when the
needs of faith required it. In
emergency situations laymen became pastors to meet the need.
To understand H. A. Preus’
doctrine of church and ministry, one needs to understand his primary
concern for the need of the Christian to have the assurance of salvation.
This requires pastors who are devoted to the pure doctrine.
This requires congregations to hold their pastors accountable to
teach only the pure doctrine. The faith of God’s children in the gospel of the
forgiveness of sins is the underlying concern of Preus’ doctrine of
church and ministry.
The issue of religious unionism looms large in the demise of the Norwegian Synod after Preus’ death. For Preus, the unionistic spirit, the spirit of doctrinal compromise for the sake of the appearance of unity, was of the devil. In a powerful address to the 1870 convention of the Norwegian Synod, Preus says that divisions in the church are caused by disloyalty to the truth. This is devil’s work. He insists on granting lies equal rights with the truth. This is the essence of unionism. The devil attacks any kind of Christian conviction, turning men in on themselves and away from God’s word. Preus anticipates the “self-esteem” gospel of our day as he gives voice to the devil’s argument.
is no God. Love for self is the basis of all human relationships. It
brings everyone together.” Voltaire
especially advocated this principle in the previous century.
It has now become obvious, it must be admitted, that self-love
brings no union but brings rebellion, war and bloodshed.
What would Pastor Herman Amberg
Preus have thought of the Prayer Service at Yankee Stadium that
precipitated so much controversy in the Lutheran Church – Missouri
Synod? Let him speak for
On the other hand, if [the devil] is working with ungodly people of the more refined type, of which Christianity is full in our days, then this is written on the banner: “We all believe in a higher being, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and heathen. We are surely all children of the same Father. We are all brothers. The Christian Church is terribly intolerant. It considers only its own people as brothers. Our brotherhood extends over the whole world and we all worship the same god whether we say that he is three persons or only one, whether we call him the Lord Jesus, or Jehovah, Allah, or Brahma.
On no issue did the Norwegian Synod receive more vehement criticism than on the position she took on slavery. It was called the “rotten fruit” of Wisconsinism, epitomizing everything that was wrong about the Synod. The fact that many Norwegian Lutheran immigrants lost men fighting for the Union during the War made the Norwegian Synod’s refusal to condemn the South’s “Peculiar Institution” an apparent repudiation of the freedom for which so many men had given their lives. While the Norwegian Synod had nothing good to say about the enslavement of Africans in the American South and did not defend the South, neither could the Synod agree in principle with the arguments against slavery that were being advanced. Here is how President Preus presented the issue to the synodical convention of 1869:
Even in the face of serious attacks for supporting an immensely unpopular position, Preus and the Norwegian Synod could not compromise the sola Scriptura principle, the teaching of man’s total depravity, and the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Similarly, Herman preached against socialism because it was based on the egalitarian lie that all men can become equal in this world. The theological task of the church could not be confused with or distracted by any political creed or ideology.
Three: The Legacy of Herman Amberg Preus
Keyser Preus was Herman’s first born son and my great-grandfather.
He has not fared as well as Herman Amberg within the various oral
histories of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod in large part because, despite
his impeccable orthodoxy and devotion to the same doctrine as his father,
he chose not to join the little Norwegian Synod.
I am not going to defend his decision.
Rather, I would like to share with you just a bit of family history
that might put into perspective the implications of that decision.
Keyser Preus died three years after the “Little Norwegian Synod” (the
ELS) was born and three years before my father was born.
He died broke and in debt. He
had indebted himself by publishing, at his own expense, theological
arguments in defense of the confessional Lutheran doctrine of grace alone. He fought against the merger of the Norwegian American synods
that formed the old ELCA (ELC) in 1917.
After he was persuaded that he could continue to contend for the
pure doctrine within the newly formed church body, he decided to join.
His son, my father’s Uncle Herman, lived to be over a hundred
years old and continued in the confessional Lutheran theology of his
father and grandfather. He
wrote an excellent volume on Luther’s theology entitled, A Theology
to Live By, sadly out of print.
All of Christian’s sons save one spent their entire lives within
the ELC, later to become the ALC, and finally, the new ELCA.
While much has been said about Uncle Herman’s theology and
salutary influence – he spoke at these Reformation Lectures on more than
one occasion – little is known or said about the theology of his older
brother Jacob, my grandfather, though it is quite significant in the
legacy of Herman Amberg Preus.
Jacob Aall Ottesen Preus was thirteen years old when his grandfather, Herman Amberg Preus, died. He was forty-nine years old when his father Christian Keyser Preus, died. He was serving his first of two terms as Governor of Minnesota. When his father died, he paid off his debts. He was a bit soured by the church-political machinations of those days and developed a rather interesting doctrine of his own. “I believe in the invisible church,” he would say. He refused to join any synod or any congregation. But he never missed church and he attended only orthodox Lutheran congregations.
leaving government service, my grandfather moved to Highland Park,
Illinois where my father and uncle were raised.
He was the only son of Christian Keyser Preus to leave the ELC and
join the Missouri Synod, but then he would have argued that he never did
that. J. A. O. Preus didn’t
believe in synods. He was pontificating on the subject one day with the pastor
of the Missouri Synod congregation that he attended every Sunday with his
family. When the pastor
pointed out to Grandpa that he was a member of a Missouri Synod
congregation, Grandpa denied that he was.
He didn’t belong to any particular church – only to the
invisible church. “But am I your pastor?” the pastor asked.
Grandpa was stunned by the question.
“Of course, you’re my pastor!”
Well, that settled that! Grandpa
Preus went to where the pure marks were to be found, and it just so
happened to be in a congregation belonging to the Lutheran Church –
So it came to pass that my father grew up being catechized in the same theology of C. F. W. Walther that his great-grandfather Herman and his grandfather Christian held dear. Robert Preus grew up with the same convictions concerning the pure doctrine and the Holy Scriptures held by the patriarch of the Preus family in America. When Robert Preus attended Luther Seminary, he confronted the same synergism that Herman Amberg Preus had confronted two generations earlier and it led him out of the ELC into the ELS and the Missouri Synod.
Before Robert Preus died, he had written several books, numerous scholarly and popular articles, and hundreds of sermons that reflected the theology of Herman Amberg Preus. While it is fashionable to praise the scholarly achievements of Robert while minimizing the theological capabilities of his great-grandfather, these two men were very much alike. Call it an attitude. It is a resolve, usually calm and determined, but occasionally erupting into a zealous eloquence. It is intimidating to some but deeply comforting for others. It is a conviction. It is a confidence not only in the truthfulness of the word being proclaimed but also in the need to proclaim it. God’s doctrine is not so high above us that we cannot know it. It is right here. It is stated plainly in the Holy Scriptures, the inerrant word of God. It is confessed faithfully in the Lutheran Confessions, which agree in their every doctrinal assertion with God’s word. It is to be preached to wholly unworthy and undeserving sinners. It is the gospel of God’s justification of the ungodly by reckoning to him the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is the ground of faith and the assurance of eternal life. To teach it, preach it, defend it, and die confessing it is what brings the greatest joy in life and the greatest comfort in death. That is the legacy of Herman Amberg Preus.
 Herman Amberg Preus: A
Family History, by Johan Carl Keyser Preus, 1966.
Privately printed and distributed by the Preus Family Book
Club. Pages 2-6.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus