Book Review: The World That Then Was

Luther Reed: The Legacy of a Gentleman and a Churchman by Philip H. Pfatteicher (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press), 2015.

The shock of the past is how utterly unlike our own time it is. The shock of the recent past is how quickly it became so unlike our own. This brief biography of Luther D. Reed by the liturgical scholar Philip Pfatteicher is an exercise in justification, an attempt to provide a fresh analysis of Reed’s relevance for the present day. It succeeds in this but not because the line between today and Reed’s day is straight and highly visible.

Reed was born a few years after the Civil War to a parish pastor in suburban Philadelphia and spent his entire life in Pennsylvania. His brief trips of liturgical and artistic reconnaissance in Europe are the exceptions that prove the rule. His father’s parishes included several stops in suburban Philadelphia, the upper Susquehanna Valley, and in Lancaster, where Reed took his BA and MA at Franklin and Marshall College. He attended the Mount Airy Seminary and served two parishes near Pittsburgh for a total of ten years before being recalled to Mount Airy in 1906 to oversee the building and operation of Krauth Memorial Library, named for C.P. Krauth, the founding father of the General Council and the Seminary to which Reed devoted the great majority of his life.

This Eastern Lutheran world was German by descent but English in language and American in outlook. It was 150 years old when Reed was born and intimately connected to the country from before its founding. By Reed’s birth it was so devoted to the thought and life of the past that it had outstripped its own fathers in that devotion. Krauth had repudiated the theology of the seminary at Gettysburg at which his father had taught. Reed and other proponents of the Common Service would promote and promulgate a liturgical service and standard hitherto unseen in the United States. In his pastorate and in his writing and activity throughout his life Reed represented well the spirit of recovery and renaissance in doctrine and especially worship that was in the General Council and at Mount Airy from their founding. This spirit may rightly be criticized as “romantic,” a term Tappert used for Reed, but in its intense desire to bring the best of the past into the present, it often succeeded, changing American Lutheran liturgy decisively and in the chapel overseen by Reed, modeling that change for the church.

It was the world that then was, and from the postbellum era down to the early 1960s it prevailed. Reed was a large part of that, building up the library at Philadelphia with funds from an incredibly generous layman he had known in Pittsburgh, enriching the worship life of the Seminary and promoting that richness for his students over a half-century, guiding the Seminary after the sudden death of its scholarly light, C.M. Jacobs. All of these duties came as surprises to the self-deprecating Reed. There is much to appreciate and to revisit in this slim volume: the rise of liturgical interests among American Lutheran pastors, the churchmanship Reed exhibited in his tireless service, the broad artistic tastes he had and cultivated in his students. The best part of the book, though, is Reed’s rebuttal of Theodore Tappert’s 1964 History of the Philadelphia Seminary.

Pfatteicher includes Tappert’s acerbic summation of Reed’s life and works and then gives the reader the entirety of Reed’s nine-page, semi-public response to Tappert. It is a marvel of cutting wit, but it is above all a ninety-one-year-old man’s justification of his deeds. Reed believes Tappert was scholarly to the exclusion of churchmanship, perfunctory in the liturgy to the destruction of the Seminary’s chapel services, focused on books to the detriment of humans. He cites the fathers, Krauth, H.E. Jacobs, Schmauk, and many other earlier lights, as those who hoped in the future of confessional English-language American Lutheranism. Reed senses that his part was to carry on that legacy of renewal into his day of work and the realms of liturgy, hymnody, and church architecture. As you read, you can feel that world slipping away. He had outlived his world.

That is no justification of Tappert’s malevolence. It is a recognition that by Reed’s death in the early 1970s, the world outside and inside the church had changed so drastically as to be unrecognizable. The change was a deluge, not a development. The reader is surprised to learn that Service Book and Hymnal in 1955 was Reed’s second major hymnal on which he had worked and was in its time the longed-for appearing of Muhlenberg’s fabled “one book” that would bring about the one Lutheran church body in America so many then wished to see. One is surprised because the book to which Pfatteicher contributed so much, 1978’s Lutheran Book of Worship, is now thought to have been that book, and it itself is now obsolete even in the church bodies that used it, not to speak of those that never did. Reed promoted the Common Service, now almost forgotten in the successors to his own church body, and with LCA President Franklin Clark Fry vastly preferred Jacobean English to all others. These are all liturgical reflections of an Eastern Lutheranism that then ordained only men, officially communed only Lutheran Christians, and celebrated the Divine Service only according to a few different musical settings of the Common Service of 1888.

When one lives almost a century, he is sure to see change, but Reed lived to see a new world. Yet he was not a Columbus, nor do his books remain valuable because they herald changes to come. One can still read The Lutheran Liturgy or Worship for the same reason one might read Krauth’s The Conservative Reformation or Jacobs’ dogmatics. They are valuable in themselves and historically as witnesses to a world and a seminary and a tradition of churchmanship now gone, though buildings and names remain for now. He was the last man of the world that then was, parts of which survive in unexpected places. If he isn’t Columbus, he may be Montezuma. The Common Service is still used in American Lutheranism, but not by his direct heirs. Krauth and Schmauk are still read by some, but perhaps not so much anymore inside Krauth Memorial Library. This book is valuable to know the world before the deluge, especially if it is not your particular ancestral strain of American Lutheranism. It is also valuable to see what may be recovered from the past, as Krauth and Jacobs and Beale Schmucker and in his own way Luther Reed did in their day.

Adam Koontz

Mount Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church (LCMS)

Lititz, Lancaster County, PA