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Schmucker episode...

...may be instructional now

by Pastor Fred Baltz (WordAlone Board member, Galena, Illinois)

August 16, 2004

Besides providing warnings for the future based on the past, and helping us understand the origins of things, history can give us encouragement sometimes. A case in point is the story of Samuel Simon Schmucker (1799-1873).

Samuel Schmucker was the son of the president of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania. He received an education from the University of Pennsylvania and from Princeton, giving him a knowledge beyond what most pastors possessed in his time. He was sincere, severe and austere. He once wrote of a person he had met that the man was not serious enough, because he only prayed for the heathen in the morning and not again in the afternoon. No one could doubt that Schmucker meant the very best for the Lutheran Church he loved, nor that he had definite ideas about the directions it should take.

Present at the constituting convention of the General Synod, Schmucker would eventually make that Synod the key to his plans. Through the General Synod he was instrumental in founding a college and a seminary at Gettysburg. The seminary would emerge as the leading Lutheran seminary in the United States during Schmucker’s lifetime. He taught there and became its President.

As he influenced future pastors for the church, Samuel Schmucker spoke of the value of the Augsburg Confession. It was he who brought attention to the Confession to an extent never before realized on American shores. He took an oath, which he wrote himself, pledging to defend the Augsburg Confession. However, what Schmucker meant was the Augsburg Confession in its “essentials.” These were those doctrines held by all orthodox churches, which included the Protestant communions—especially the Reformed—but excluded the deists and Roman Catholics.

Samuel Schmucker drafted a new American version of the Augsburg Confession and presented it anonymously in 1855 in a document that was called the “Definite Platform.” He eliminated what he believed were “errors” in “nonessentials” in the original version. The “errors” he removed from the original Augsburg Confession were:

  1. Approval of the ceremonies of the Mass
  2. Approval of private confession and absolution
  3. Denial of the divine obligation of the Christian Sabbath
  4. Affirmation of baptismal regeneration
  5. Affirmation of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper

Samuel S. Schmucker actually believed that Luther himself would agree with the Definite Platform if he had been living during the mid-1800s in America. Old ways would be abandoned, and a new era of interchurch cooperation could begin, especially with the Reformed, as was happening elsewhere in the world. Ironically, the person who brought the Augsburg Confession to the attention of so many in the American church eventually failed to see his Definite Platform accepted by American Lutherans, including his own General Synod. He awakened a concern for the Augsburg Confession, but it had the opposite result of what he intended—the truth of the original Confession emerged to stand on its own.

Is a similar phenomenon taking place today? Our Confessions are being studied anew; and important questions are being asked. Those who would offer what amount to their own American versions have asserted their positions. Like Schmucker, they are good people. But their initial success is no guarantee that they are right, nor that their gains will be permanent. The motto of my alma mater, Dana College, is: “Truth Conquers.” I don’t think it is naive to believe that will happen. Truth will conquer when God’s Word is our standard. Stay involved; enlist a friend!