Disagreeing… and Singing Hymns to Jesus

Born in 1949, I grew up in a conservative German-American Lutheran parsonage.  I was the youngest daughter of a conservative Lutheran clergyman; there were, of course, no clergywomen at the time. My mother was, to all outward manifestations, the dutiful pastor’s wife. She organized the “circles” and the women’s Bible studies, played the organ and piano, spearheaded the “Ladies Aid,” cooked for potlucks, entertained in our home, accompanied my father on his pastoral calls, and listened to the woes of women parishioners. She was, in other words, the unpaid second-half of the parish clergy team.

She also taught piano on the side and led a 4-H sewing club. And, unbeknownst to my father, read all the radical, progressive, scientific, and sociological college textbooks my siblings and I brought home. This, in itself, was an amazing feat. For my mother was the oldest of 13 children and was required to discontinue her education after elementary school to help on the farm and work outside the home. Each one of her 5 children was, consequently, expected to earn college degrees, and more. We all did.

My grandfather, who was born in New York of German immigrant parents, was also a Lutheran clergyman. Forty years before my birth, as my father and his five brothers left North Dakota to attend seminary in Minnesota, my grandfather cautioned them: “You don’t have to believe everything they teach you.” Despite the warning, some of the uncles did believe their professors’ new notions. Some did not. My father was one who did not.

This semester – studying the history of the Liturgical Renewal Movement at Saint John’s School of Theology – I realized that my uncles and my father were formed as Lutheran clergy during the heady days of the Liturgical Renewal in Germany and the U.S. I even discovered that names from the German Lutheran High Church Movement are embedded in the dim recesses of my memory: Heiler and Stumpfl are two. In other words, the history of liturgical movement is helping me make sense of my family story.

And I have come to understand that, perhaps, this period of change and upheaval in German and American Lutheranism – historical criticism of the Bible, scientific discoveries re-thinking earth’s origins, and even the retrieval of liturgical elements that Luther had excised from the Mass – all affected the theological directions in which these six brothers moved. Through my studies, I can now attempt to contemplate the changes that may have concerned them, the controversies that may have affected their theology, and the innovations in worship practice that, perhaps, impacted their vocations as German Lutheran clergy.  For, despite the fact that my immediate clergy forebears were born in America, they still spoke German in their homes, provided worship in German for their parishes, and were intimately connected to the “Fatherland,” to which they sang in lovely and passionate harmony.

The revelation of the true intent of Hitler and the horror of the Holocaust was a cataclysm in my German home. That the beloved Fatherland could be part of such evil was more than shocking; it was a betrayal of life-long love.

But, to return to the uncles, my father, and my mother – it seems that the older and younger brothers were able to ignore grandfather’s advice. They and their spouses accepted and used biblical criticism; they incorporated scientific discoveries and even the theory of evolution into their theological framework; and they were able to embrace new ways of worship.  My father and his other “middle” brothers remained steadfast to the advice of their father, “You don’t have to believe everything they teach you.”

My mother, on the other hand, was eager to learn and to explore the “new.” And so, even within our home, unknown to my father, but recognized by their children, my parents lived out the divide between conservatism and progressivism. In subsequent years, sadly, this divide has become even deeper, affecting all churches, our nation, and the world.

However, I learned an important lesson from the relationship of my father and mother, his siblings and their spouses, a lesson I pray that humankind may learn some day. My family disagreed passionately about biblical interpretation and scientific discoveries and how to worship. The more conservative prayed fervently for the more progressive because, surely, their very salvation was in jeopardy. Yet, at the end of the day and the stilling of the storms of enthusiastic argument, they gathered around the piano and sang hymns to Jesus in lovely harmony.

A beloved seminary professor once asked us, “Can we be different together?” Can we be different, and yet, at the end of our days – Roman Catholics and Confessional Lutherans and Christians of all denominations – gather together and sing hymns to Jesus in a harmony that is a foretaste of the heavenly choir to come?

Karen Edwards is a pastor in the ELCA (Lutheran) church pursuing the Th.M. degree at St. John’s School of Theology•Seminary. She and her husband Bob, a Lutheran pastor, have three children and three grandchildren. She spent two years at Holden Village, did her seminary studies in St. Paul, MN, and has pastored in Washington, Oregon, and Iowa. After her studies at St. John’s she will return to co-pastoring with her husband in Lemmon, SD and Elgin, ND.


  1. Thanks for sharing such a personal and historical story. Yes, in the end, can we not sing hymns of our common bond and relationship to Jesus? common unity or specific grievances or long held customs?

  2. Karen, I’m really impressed with this! It seems rather in the spirit of the “election day communion” project.

  3. Karen,

    I can imagine why this seminary professor is/was a beloved one, and I most sincerely hope and pray that the answer to his question is a resounding YES!

    Did we not recently hear a passage [Acts or which letter I cannot recall] about not denouncing or embarrassing someone else’s pre- or proscriptions in matters of diet, worship, and similar, as they pertain to religious observance? I recall thinking when I heard it again how applicable it seems to much of today’s “upset” over such things.

  4. This wonderful post brought to mind The Servant Song (“Will you let me be your servant …”, which we sang yesterday. The fifth stanza:

    When we sing to God in heaven
    We shall find such harmony,
    Born of all we’ve known together
    Of Christ’s love and agony.

    Such a simple hymn, but it never fails to move me, for some reason. It should be the official anthem for the restored diaconate.

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