Pittsburgh: The Missionary Synod

Confluence is the word used to describe the joining of two streams to make a larger one. And just as Pittsburgh is located at the confluence of the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers to form the Ohio, so does today’s Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod represent a confluence of several different branches of American Lutheranism. Yet just as the Ohio flows onward until it too joins the Mississippi, likewise the confluence of American Lutheranism in Southwestern Pennsylvania also flowed outward to enrich and nurture the whole church.

Organized Lutheranism in North America first took root in Southeastern Pennsylvania, today’s “Pennsylvania Dutch” country. That is where Henry Melchior Muhlenberg lived and worked, and his legacy is still very much with us. This was also the home of the Pennsylvania Ministerium, the first organized body of Lutherans in the United States. However, it was soon realized that the waves of immigrants coming to our shores were not going to settle in just one part of the country. Thus, the Pennsylvania Ministerium helped found other synods to provide for the spiritual needs of those immigrants who crossed the mountains into Western Pennsylvania.

An itinerate missionary effort in Western Pennsylvania was started in 1806, followed in 1815 by a more sustained effort to work among the Lutherans in this area. By 1825, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of West Pennsylvania was established. Like all such organizations, the West Pennsylvania Synod’s main purpose was to provide leadership and support to the fledgling congregations in the area. Yet that was not its only purpose, for in 1835 the West Pennsylvania Synod founded the Central Missionary Society. The nineteenth century was the great era of foreign missions, and the Central Missionary Society was formed to support the effort to bring Christ to the world. However, since the Missionary Society lacked the means to perform such work, it was directed to inner mission work, that is, helping the West Pennsylvania Synod found churches. Even a missionary society needs a missionary, and they found one in John Heyer.

“Father”1 Heyer (born in 1793 and baptized Johann Christian Frederich Heyer in Helmstadt, Germany) was an exceptional man and a visionary leader. Like many Lutheran pastors of that time, he was bilingual, speaking English and German fluently. Initially brought up in Germany, he was sent to live with his uncle during the Napoleonic Wars. Though he began his theological education in the United States, he eventually received a degree in theology from the University of Göttingen. In 1816 he returned to Philadelphia, married, and devoted the rest of his life to the missionary work of the church. In 1817, he was sent by the Pennsylvania Ministerium to work in northwestern Pennsylvania. After that Father Heyer served parishes in Cumberland, MD and Somerset, PA while also serving as secretary of the West Pennsylvania Synod and later as its president. By 1837 he was part of a circuit of three pastors serving churches in the Pittsburgh area. There he helped organize First English Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh, the first “English” church in this area. (This congregation still thrives on Grant Street, amid the sky scrapers of Pittsburgh, a short walk from the Churchwide Assembly convention hall.)

Father Heyer stayed at First English Lutheran for about a year, before moving on to found other churches, both German and English, in Western Pennsylvania. Such was his restless, forward-looking nature that he never allowed himself to stay in one place for very long. Shortly after he resigned from First English Lutheran, he received a call from the Society for Foreign Missions to be a missionary to India. He would serve in India three times, first in 1841, then in 1848 as a medical missionary (he was also a physician), and finally in 1871. His last position was as chaplain and housefather at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. Heyer was also one of the founders of Gettysburg College and took his mission work as far afield from Pittsburgh as Missouri and Minnesota where he helped found the Minnesota Synod. Finally, after doing more in one lifetime than others could do in five, Father Heyer died, old and full of years, on November 7, 1873. He was buried beside his wife in Somerset County, PA. Indeed, if the Pittsburgh Synod was later regarded as a missionary synod, it owes much of the credit to the life and work of this remarkable man.

A second mission-minded Lutheran pioneer of the 19th century and a contemporary of Heyer was William Alfred Passavant (1821-1894). Passavant was also a pastor of First English Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh (1844-1855). In addition, he served Christ Lutheran Church in Baden (PA) for 21 years. Passavant was a one-man mission director, founder of congregations, and institution builder who devoted his life extensively to the founding and administration of social service and health agencies. It is through the extensive reach of Passavant’s work that the missionary zeal of the “Pittsburgh Synod” lays claim to be the home of Lutheran Social Services. In addition to his work as a pastor and his founding of at least 18 new congregations, he founded Thiel College, introduced the deaconess movement to America, published the first Lutheran Almanac, and was the founder of scores of social service agencies and hospitals across America that are still vibrant. A partial list will illustrate the geographic range as well as the breadth of these services. They include The Orphans' Home and Farm School in Zelienople, PA (now Glade Run Lutheran Services); Passavant Epileptic Home in Rochester, PA (now Passavant Memorial Homes); Passavant Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA (now UPMC Passavant Hospital); Passavant Hospital in Chicago, IL (now Passavant Memorial Hospital); Passavant Hospital in Jacksonville, IL (now Passavant Area Hospital); Passavant Hospital in Milwaukee, WI (now Aurora Sinai Medical Center); and Wartburg Orphan's Farm School in Mt. Vernon, NY (now Wartburg Adult Care Community). Many of the institutions Passavant founded not only continue to serve as a Lutheran witness, but were part of the group of agencies and institutions that came together to found Lutheran Services in America in 1997. Passavant was one of the pioneers of faith-based services in America, a very contemporary model.

Throughout the 19th century, the West Pennsylvania Synod (later Pittsburgh Synod) had to wrestle with two difficult issues. These were language, usually German vs. English, and Lutheran identity. Though Slovaks, Swedes, and Finns settled here, most Lutherans who came to Western Pennsylvania were German. Yet English was already the lingua franca of the land. So what to do? Gradually a kind of compromise was reached whereby German Americans would use English to deal with the world outside the church, but continue worshiping in German as long as possible. Indeed, worship in German did two things: one was to maintain a link to the “old country;” the other was to maintain a “pure” Lutheran tradition. There is some truth to this since Lutheran congregations who adopted English worship in those years tended to be more like other English-speaking denominations such as Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians. The other reason that German helped maintain a connection to the “Fatherland,” was also true. After all, though they had left Europe for a variety of reasons, many immigrants wanted to keep some attachment to the land where they were born. This pattern was likely true for other ethnic Lutherans who still worshiped in their mother tongue. As a practical matter this meant that German stayed on in many Lutheran congregations for quite some time. Indeed, it took the trauma of WW I to remove the grip of German for Lutheran worship.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Pittsburgh Synod was a member of the General Council of Lutheran Churches in the USA. Though more conservative in theology than the older General Synod, the General Synod was a pioneer of English worship. By that time there was another Lutheran body at work in and around Pittsburgh. This was the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Ohio and Other States, which was organized in 1812 in Somerset, Ohio. Eventually the “Ohio Synod” headquartered in Columbus, OH would list some large congregations on its roster. Some of these were the result of inner mission work. However, the longer a congregation stayed with German, the more likely they would become a congregation of the Joint Synod of Ohio.

By then Western Pennsylvania had several Lutheran groups organized along ethnic lines. The Slovak Lutherans were part of the Slovak-Zion Synod, the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church served Swedish Lutherans while the Finns were part of the Soumi Synod. Still the Pittsburgh Synod was a large and widespread organization. Indeed, besides churches in the Pittsburgh area, its boundaries spread north to the New York border, southward into West Virginia, and west into Ohio. Those congregations that were not a part of the Pittsburgh Synod most likely remained affiliated with the Joint Synod of Ohio, the General Synod, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, or one of the ethnic Lutheran organizations. Yet as large and as prosperous as the Pittsburgh Synod would seem, it was not immune to the currents and crosscurrents that would affect American Lutheranism. And with the coming of the new century, one of them was the long held desire of Lutherans for “One Lord, One Faith, One Church.

Thus, in 1918 the Pittsburgh Synod participated in its first merger when the General Synod, the General Council and the United Synod South formed the United Lutheran Church in America. Eventually Slovak-Zion Synod and the Icelandic Synod also joined the ULCA. In 1962 the congregations of the Pittsburgh Synod became a part of the Lutheran Church in America, which brought the Augustana Lutheran congregations into the same organization as their Pittsburgh Synod neighbors. Meanwhile, in 1930 Joint Synod of Ohio congregations became a part of the first American Lutheran Church, headquartered in Columbus, OH, and in 1960 the second American Lutheran Church headquartered in Minneapolis, MN. These mergers also caused some re-alignment of the former boundaries, with the former Pittsburgh Synod becoming the Western Pennsylvania-West Virginia Synod of the LCA, while the ALC churches were members of the vast Eastern District that stretched from Maine to Florida. This situation remained for the next 26 years, when in 1988, the most recent confluence of American Lutheranism resulted in the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Today the former Pittsburgh Synod’s legacy continues with the Northwestern Pennsylvania Synod, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, and the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod.

Known throughout most of its history as “The Pittsburgh Synod” or as “The Missionary Synod,” the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod gives thanks for the benefits and legacy of the mission-minded ministries of the long line of saints who have served the church and their neighbor from here throughout the nation and the world for over 200 years. Not surprisingly, the tradition continues. One current example is the service of The Rev. Dr. Donald J. McCoid, Bishop Emeritus of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod as co-president of the Lutheran World Federation – Orthodox Dialogues (since 2004) and as the Executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations in the Office of the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA. Bishop McCoid's work as chief ecumenical officer has been well received, so much so that he is as welcome in the Vatican as he would be in a local congregation. However, his work continues a thread that ties him to the work of Heyer and Passavant. Whether it be founding congregations and serving in a foreign mission, or founding social service organizations, or establishing contacts with other churches and denominations, all three of these men have served their Lord by reaching out to the wider church and the world beyond. In that way, the congregations of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod have sought to bear witness to Jesus and his love.

This history was prepared for the 2013 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA by The Rev. John G. Bateson with the assistance of Jennifer Burkholder, The Rev. Dr. David P. Gleason, The Rev. Dr. Phillip H. Pfatteicher, Sheila Talarico MS, The Rev. Dr. Dennis Theophilus-Orsen, and The Rev. Linda Orsen Theophilus.