As part of our ongoing series to share information about key Moravian theology and doctrine, we will be excerpting the Rev. Dr. C. Daniel Crews’ study, Confessing Our Unity in Christ: Historical and Theological Background to The Ground of the Unity. Originally written in 2000 and updated twice, this study looks at the theological and historical underpinnings of The Ground of the Unity, one of the Moravian Church’s core doctrinal statements.
Confessing Our Unity was originally published by the Southern Province Archives. We thank Rev. Crews and Richard Starbuck, Southern Province archivist, for permission to excerpt this work.
In our last issue, we discussed the theological crises within the church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this issue, we continue with our second installment of “The Crisis of 1909” and “Two World Wars and the Great Depression.”
After almost a whole week of deliberations, the Synod of 1908 had to come to a vote on specific resolutions to close or sharply restrict the seminary.1 The motion to close it was withdrawn, but discussion on restrictions continued. This bogged down, and a suggestion was made to require theological students to spend at least a semester at some other institution “to become acquainted with other theological directions and other living Christian circles outside the Brüdergemeine.” This seemed to be a resolution most of the delegates could live with, so the motion to place restrictions on the seminary was voted down 41-5, and the motion for “broadening experience” was adopted 45-0. Here the matter was left.
This, of course, did not settle anything, and letters on [matters pertaining to Moravian theological training and teaching] continued to be printed in the newspaper Herrnhut.2 Disputes both within and without the church continued, and one congregation at least, Christiansfeld in Denmark, filed a formal protest against the “Gnadenfeld theology.” In reporting this in a letter of January 4, 1909, to Bishop Edward Rondthaler, Bishop J. Taylor Hamilton, American representative on the Mission Board in Herrnhut, wrote: “This will be one of the burning issues at the General Synod.”3 Just three weeks later Hamilton told Rondthaler:
It [the “New Theology”] contains within it grave dangers for the Unity, as the situation has shaped itself here. We need to be careful of the interests of the Unity; and to pray that these may be preserved amid the wide differences of opinion and viewpoint; but at the same time, whilst avoiding narrow shibboleths, adherence to Revealed Truth of God must come first.4
In addition to the theological issues per se, the German Synod of 1908 called for printing an abridged version of the Results of General Synods.5 This did not specifically mean that doctrinal statements were to be abridged or watered down, and in fact Taylor Hamilton was assured by German colleagues that this was not the case.6 Given the theological situation at the time, however, such an assumption would be easy to make. One such proposal, indeed, came not from Germany, but from the English Br. Libbey, which would have replaced the first eight chapters of the Results, including the doctrinal sections, with a mere 21 sentences. This obviously caused great concern.7
No wonder the Ämtliche Mitteilungen der Missions-Direktion (Official Communications of the Missions Directory), in speaking of the “storms which have broken over us” since the last German Synod, said that “a shaking of our foundations seems to threaten.”8
Thus it must have been with some trepidation that the delegates assembled for the General Synod in Herrnhut from May 18 to July 3, 1909. Missions as usual required much attention, but the doctrinal issue also loomed large. Bishop Kenneth Hamilton summarizes the outcome: “Doctrinal questions did in fact provoke a long debate, which it seemed desirable to continue in closed session. In the end Synod adopted a conservative statement, in harmony with the views long current in the Church.”9 Other publications of the time give more details. The British Province Moravian Missions publication of August, 1909, contains the observations of a British delegate:
There were misgivings on the part of many concerning our German Theological establishment. Was the old faith maintained there; were the old truths taught? The General Synod decided it would be wise to deal with the question plainly and candidly in a free discussion, and to encourage personal conversation between whiles. . . . The free discussion ended with cross examination. The personal conversations were persistent cross examinations. The present writer is conservative in his views. He holds to a definite historical revelation; he believes that if Christ be not risen our teaching is empty and our faith is vain. He found that the representatives of the theology in question believed the same. If they had spoken as plainly in public as they did in private, a great deal of trouble would have been spared. They had no “heresy” to conceal; it was just the other way. They conscientiously endeavored to conceal their orthodoxy. They were so anxious to be honest that they were positively misleading. It was also perfectly clear that the fundamental “Moravian” doctrine of personal experience was not for a moment in question.10
What the General Synod of 1909 actually did as a result of all this was to reaffirm verbatim the doctrinal statements of the General Synod of 1899 (and thus those of 1879 and 1889). The delegates were so anxious to affirm allegiance to traditional beliefs that they resolved to avoid all changes in the doctrinal section of the Results of the previous General Synod, even changes which did not touch on the substance of faith (except the Unity Directory was empowered to make a few editorial changes in printing the Results if necessary).11 Certainly the radical abridgement proposed by some was emphatically rejected. On the other hand, Synod also declined all suggestions for expanding this section, not wishing to initiate a process of adding more and more requirements and restrictions on belief, a result it saw as not only “un-Moravian,” but also as “un-Protestant.”12 It noted that whenever Christians diligently study the Bible, differences of interpretation are inevitable. The value of a theologically trained clergy was affirmed, and teachers were to be allowed to use scientific methods of scholarship. Still, all were expected to make use of the leading of the Holy Spirit, and stress was laid on the fact that the foundation of doctrine is Jesus Christ, the only Savior.
The feeling of many delegates was expressed by Bishop Edward Rondthaler in his parting remarks in the British missions magazine: “We are thankful that our evangelical Christian doctrine has been maintained in purity, and we can now all go home with courage for the future of our respective provinces.”13 The crisis of 1909 was over.
Two World Wars and the Great Depression
The next General Synod met in 1914.14 As usual, the missions and how to pay for them occupied much of the agenda. Doctrinally, this Synod made no change in the Results of 1909. It was hoped to be able to have General Synods more frequently, and another was called for in six to ten years’ time. However, as Bishop Kenneth Hamilton says: “Then before ever the members of Synod could reach home, marching armies began to reshape the face of Europe and the fate of the world.”15
Following the First World War, Unity Conferences were held in 1919 and 1922 to deal with pressing issues that demanded immediate settlement. It was not until May 28, 1931, that a full General Synod could be assembled, and even then the number of delegates was reduced.16 New political circumstances and other factors necessitated the division of the missions work among the various provinces, rather than having one board headquartered in Germany as before. It was decided that at future General Synods, the Southern Province was to be given equal representation with the other “Home Provinces,” because of its 94 percent communicant increase since 1914.
Doctrinally, the British Province presented a proposal to shorten drastically the opening chapters of General Synod Results. In this proposal the sections on doctrine are reduced to eight paragraphs, making a single printed page.17 Careful analysis might indicate that what is not said in this is perhaps as significant as what is. In any event, Synod was too preoccupied with questions of church government and finance to be able to deal with the British proposal. No action was taken on the proposal itself, and the British Province was asked to “give further consideration to this matter,” and to submit any forthcoming proposals to the PECs of the other provinces. Each province was recommended to appoint a committee to examine the proposals to shorten the portions of the General Church Order dealing with doctrine and other basic matters.18 As Bishop Hamilton says: “Unquestionably Synod thus avoided what might well have developed into a heated debate.”19
Another World War intervened before the next General Synod could meet. Following that war, as in 1919 and 1922, Unity Conferences were held to deal with immediate needs in 1946, 1948, and 1953. A full General Synod was called to meet in the Quincentennial year of 1957, and for the first time it assembled in the western hemisphere, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to be exact.
1 Herrnhut, 5 June 1908, p. 184.
2 E.g. in the 3 July 1908 issue, p. 223. This ongoing controversy in Herrnhut was specifically mentioned in a letter from J. Taylor Hamilton to Edward Rondthaler, February 24, 1909. Filed with 1909 General Synod materials in the Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
3 Filed with 1909 General Synod materials in the Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
4 Letter of February 24, 1909. Filed with 1909 General Synod mate-rials in the Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
5 “Beilage” [Appendix] to Herrnhut, 5 June 1908, p. 192.
6 Letter from J. Taylor Hamilton to Edward Rondthaler, October 9, 1908. Filed with 1909 General Synod materials in the Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
7 Letter to Bishop Rondthaler from B. LaTrobe, British representative on the Mission Board, April 20, 1908. Filed with 1909 General Synod materials in the Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Also in these files is an undated, but presumably 1909, proposal in German, signed P. Dober, which reduces the doctrinal statement to one page.
8 No. 31 (1909).
9 J. Taylor Hamilton and Kenneth G. Hamilton, History of the Moravian Church (Bethlehem, Pa., and Winston-Salem, N.C.: Interprovincial Board of Christian Education, Moravian Church in America, 1967), p. 330.
10 p. 154. The author is not named.
11 1909 Results, Part IV “Resolutions and Declarations,” 6-8 (pp. 114-118).
12 See previous note, p. 115.
13 Moravian Missions, August, 1909, p. 152.
14 Hamilton, History, pp. 331-333.
15 History, p. 333.
16 Hamilton, History, p. 337-339.
17 Printed copy in the Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
18 General Church Order, 1931. Resolution 1, p. 49.
19 History, p. 339.