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Preserving His story

Forty years ago, WELS Historical Institute was created to preserve God’s story of his actions in the lives of his people.

The roots of WELS Historical Institute go back to October 1978, when a group meeting at Dr. Martin Luther College raised the possibility of such an organization. After a survey indicated initial interest, a group met at Wisconsin Lutheran College on Oct. 28, 1981, to hear Seminary Prof. Edward Fredrich’s address “Designing a WELS Memory Bank.”

Beginning humbly

Interest in the synod’s history had been expressed as far back as 1899, when delegates to the Wisconsin District Convention voiced the need for a synodical history and the preservation of its historical records. Prof. J. P. Koehler, appointed to write that first history, was told that reports, letters, and other documents were stored in a cabinet in the attic of Johannes Bading’s parsonage at St. John’s church on Eighth and Vliet streets, but Koehler found the cabinet bare. From there he went to the parsonage of Grace Church on Broadway and found in the attic of Pastor Jaekel a basket containing carefully arranged packages of letters, wrapped in newspapers and stuffed between the roof and attic walls, presumably for insulation. Koehler organized the material to write his History of the Wisconsin Synod, published in 1925.

This modest collection of papers spent an undetermined amount of time at Northwestern College in Watertown and in the late 1970s was spread over several tables in the basement of the synod’s headquarters on North Ave. Various volunteers worked at preserving these papers, but the collection was not in much better shape by the early 1980s. The new institute intended to remedy that. The original constitution and bylaws urged acquisition of correspondence and records from the synod’s presidents, officers, official boards, commissions, and agencies, as well as articles of archival or historical interest from individuals.

Stepping forward

The archives were moved a couple more times until two momentous events occurred during the last decade. The synod devoted considerable space at the WELS Center for Ministry and Mission in Waukesha, Wisconsin, for a modern archive, in a climate-controlled environment with sufficient space for cataloging and growth. Volunteers moved 20 filing cabinets and 1,800 boxes of papers to the archives’ new home. Over 40 separate collections have been catalogued in the archives’ online catalog.

The synod has also been blessed with the service of a full-time archivist, Susan Willems, who brings considerable enthusiasm to the task as well as a master’s degree in library science with an emphasis on archival studies. She greets visitors in the WELS Visitors Center, at the entryway to the archives amid historical displays.

Publishing about the synod’s past

The institute also resolved to publish a historical journal, which first appeared in spring 1983 and has been published twice a year ever since. Various professors and pastors had written about the synod’s history in conjunction with Grace 125, the celebration of the synod’s anniversary in 1975. These articles appeared in Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary’s Quarterly and The Northwestern Lutheran and were presented at pastoral conferences.

The WELS Historical Institute Journal recalls the actions of pastors and synodical leaders, but it also contains diaries and memoirs of missionaries, shares experiences in cross-cultural ministries in and beyond the Midwest, and even examines troubling events of our past. Dr. Arnold Lehmann, who taught for many years at Northwestern College, transcribed and translated more than 1,500 official documents, letters, and convention proceedings from German to English, making them available to generations of English readers. “The history of the development of our synod is a fascinating one,” he wrote, revealing “how God led us from a liberal beginning to our position of today.” Lehmann regularly invited readers to submit stories of their own for the journal, which can be “interesting and instructive.”

Past issues of the WELS Historical Institute Journal are catalogued and available at the institute website, and upcoming issues are included with membership in the institute.

Displaying history

The initial proposal for the institute made no mention of a synodical museum, but it was soon proposed that the old Salem Lutheran church building on 107 St. and Fond du Lac Ave., Milwaukee, constructed in 1863, be designated as the WELS historical museum. At this location, in an even earlier church building, Johannes Muehlhaeuser and four other pioneer Lutheran pastors formed the German Ev. Lutheran Ministerium of Wisconsin in May of 1850.

Mark Jeske, who in 1985 researched the story of the congregation and its neighborhood, concluded that in many ways the early history of the congregation mirrored that of the synod. The congregation and church body “had extremely rough beginning years. How God planted congregations with such small resources, such poorly trained pastors, and such heartbreaking setbacks, can only be ascribed to his gracious power.” The Lord enabled Salem and the Wisconsin Synod “to survive its mistakes and grow stronger” in faith and confession.

Over the last four decades, numerous financial gifts and grants, the tireless efforts of many volunteers, and the skills of dedicated craftsmen and women have breathed new life into the old building, restoring it to its mid 19th-century form. The Friends of the Landmark Church was formed as a group of Milwaukee area volunteers who assist the institute with tours, events, special projects, maintenance, and restoration at the museum, joyfully sharing the story of God’s grace to WELS.

Preserving History SIDEBARSeeing God’s story

As one pages through these archival papers and reads the Journal accounts, one is not tempted to sing, “Glory to us in the highest!” Darwin Raddatz, an initial member of the institute’s board, found it “especially rewarding” to gain a deeper understanding of our past: “[God’s] continuing faithfulness to his unworthy people in their history is a lively source of hope for a sinful people.”

Roland Cap Ehlke, the institute’s first president, echoed: “Rather than a glorification of our past as ‘the good old days,’ we see the story of frail, sinful people like ourselves. Our forebears struggled. They made mistakes. Yet they shared a common blessing—the Word of God,” which assured these men and women of God’s forgiveness and strengthened them to do their Savior’s work. “Some things don’t change. We still struggle. The Word is still our strength, our motivation.”

Perhaps it is appropriate that the roots of WELS Historical Institute go back to old papers, stuffed away in an attic and all but forgotten only to be discovered to contain a precious legacy. History, as we have often been taught, is “His Story”—God’s story of his actions in the lives of his people. God has made his story to become our story. WELS Historical Institute seeks to preserve that story, learn from it, and praise God for it.

Images above are from the Landmark Church, WELS’ historical museum.

Author: Mark Braun
Volume 108, Number 10
Issue: October 2021


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