Arthur Carl Piepkorn (1907-+1973)

Arthur Carl Piepkorn was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 21, 1907, the son of John Albert Piepkorn, a Realtor and appliance store owner, and Bertha, nee Taenzer, Piepkorn, a seamstress and patent holder.

After graduating from Concordia College, Milwaukee, in 1925, and Concordia Seminary, Clayton, Missouri, in 1928, Arthur wanted to become a missionary to China, but was too young to be ordained. Encouraged by Seminary professor and Lutheran Hour founder Walter A. Maier to study Oriental languages and literature, he earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago by 1932 with a specialty in Babylonian archaeology. His dissertation re-dated the fall of Thebes in Egypt by five years.

While at the University, he discovered on his own the catholicity of the Book of Concord of 1580, which he had only been required to read cursorily while at the Seminary, where greater emphasis was placed on Francis Pieper’s dogmatics. This discovery led him to describe himself as a Christian first, a Western Christian second, a Lutheran third and a Missouri–Synod Lutheran fourth. Noting that Martin Luther and his fellow reformers called themselves “evangelicals,” he described himself as an “evangelical catholic.”

In 1929-30 he took a year off from his doctoral studies to work for the Lutheran Hour. Since his position with the Lutheran Hour required that he be ordained, he was ordained into the holy ministry on November 30, 1930. He was the first member of the clergy in thirteen generations of his ancestors in any traceable direction.

After completing his doctorate, he again wanted to go to China as a missionary, but missionaries were not being sent to China in the dark days of 1932 and universities were not hiring specialists in Babylonian archaeology. Consequently he informed the proper authorities in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod that he seeking an assignment to foreign missions or to a home mission parish.

His first parish was GraceLutheranChurch in Chisholm, Minnesota, a depressed mining community of six thousand people 70 miles northwest of Duluth, the nearest city of any size. There were nine bona fide communicants and twenty baptized members in the congregation when he conducted his first worship service in the little frame building that served as a church. At the end of three years of work, both figures had been multiplied by nine. His parish covered some nine hundred square miles. He had to pay his own office expenses, postage, advertising, occasional secretarial help, most of his automobile expenses, and other minor business expenses. During his third winter, snow fell in every month during the nine months from September through May and the temperature dropped to fifty-four below absolute. He wrote that there were two beautiful months of summer each year and an unforgettable fall.

During his third year in Chisholm he wanted to marry Miriam Agatha Södergren of Rock Island, Illinois, who was serving as a nurse in Owatonna, Minnesota, but could not afford to on his salary from the Home Mission Board. Consequently, he resigned his call and again accepted a position with the Lutheran Hour in St. Louis. He and Miriam were married on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1936. They had four daughters, Mary, Faith, Felicity and Angela.

While working for the Lutheran Hour, he also served as vacancy pastor for a church in St. Louis. In 1937 he became the pastor of Saint Trinity Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio. A chaplain in the U.S. Army Reserves since 1936, he accepted a call to active duty in November of 1940. After serving as the senior Chaplain of the XXIII Corps in early 1945, he was assigned in June to the personal staff of LTG Omar Bradley, commander of the Allied Occupational Forces. Two weeks later he was assigned to the personal staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, making him the Senior Chaplain in the European Theater. After the war he accompanied President Eisenhower to a conference in Switzerland where he served as Eisenhower’s interpreter.

Following the end of World War II he served as Commandant of the U.S. Army ChaplainSchool (1948-50), and President of the U.S. Army Chaplain Board (1950-51). His thirteen medals and decorations include the Legion of Merit. He retired from the Reserves in the rank of Colonel.

In 1951 Piepkorn was called to teach Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary in Clayton, Missouri, in suburban St. Louis. He accepted with the understanding that he would continue to teach the Symbolical Books rather than specialize in dogmatics, as was customary in the Systematic Theology Department.

Primarily an essayist, Arthur Carl Piepkorn wrote several books, more than 200 articles and monographs, hundreds of book reviews, and more than 1,300 sermons.  His service list includes twenty major fields of publication and editorial pursuits,* including Assyrian prism inscriptions, Old and New Testament interpretation, Church history, dogmatics, symbolics (both Lutheran and comparative), practical theology, philosophy,  patristics, Counciliar theology, mysticism, liturgy, Church music, liturgical vestments, Latin pedagogy, Medieval paleography, Medieval Scholasticism, Luther studies, 16th century handwriting, hermeneutics, Lutheran Orthodoxy, Lutheran Pietism, Christian education, church and culture, race relations, Jewish-Christian relations, ecumenical theology, church architecture, ecclesiastical arts, fine arts, church-state relations, and a wide variety of military chaplaincy topics ranging from counseling to conscientious objection. 

His magnum opus was the four volume classic,  Profiles in Belief: The Religious Bodies of  the United States and Canada(Harper and Row, 1977ff), which is still the standard in the field (published posthumously under the editorship of John H. Tietjen).

The take-over of the leadership of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in 1969 and following by what he called “the rigorists” led to a simple majority vote of the 1973 Synodical Convention condemning the Seminary faculty majority, which included Piepkorn, for teaching false doctrine “which cannot be tolerated in the church.” The basis for this condemnation was not the Lutheran Symbolical Books, but Jacob A. O. Preus’ A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles, which had been adopted by the same Convention. A simple majority vote of a Synodical convention, therefore, was used to bind consciences and declare men heretics.  This was clearly contrary to the earlier tradition of the Synod, which bound consciences only to the Sacred Scriptures as interpreted by the Lutheran Symbolical Books.

The Seminary Board of Control, controlled after the 1973 Convention by the rigorists, assigned Piepkorn involuntarily to a non-teaching position and offered him “honorable retirement,” which he refused. Shortly afterward, on December 13, 1973, he had a heart attack after walking to a barber shop near the Seminary, and was translated to his everlasting reward.

Found on his desk later that day was a draft of a twelve page document challenging the constitutionality of the actions of ‘the President of the Synod, Boards of the Synod, the 1973 convention, and the Present Board of Control of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, beginning with the appointment of the Fact Finding Commission by the President of the Synod.” This document will be posted on the Center Website in the near future.

Fortunately, today there are signs that the rigorist wing of the Missouri Synod—a minority at the 2004 Convention—may no longer able to control the Synod as it has for the last 30-35 years.  At the other extreme, the unbridled individualism of postmodernism continues its corrosive attacks on Christian theology and life wherever it still exists. The very survival of Lutheranism in the world today may depend on a return to the evangelical catholicism that was championed by blessed Arthur Carl Piepkorn.

This is not to say that it may not be necessary to add to the Lutheran Symbolical Books to respond to the attacks of the rigorists on the right and postmodernism on the left, but this must be done by a Confession-adopting process, not by a simple majority of a highly politicized and polarized Synodical convention.

                                                                                                            Philip J. Secker

                                                                                                           January 15, 2005

*According to Richard C. Caemmerer’s obituary for Piepkorn’s funeral service. 

For addition information see the author’s:

“Arthur Carl Piepkorn, Confessor,” Lutheran Forum, 38:3 (Una Sancta/Fall 2004), pp. 28-36.

“The Gospel and All Its Articles,” Lutheran Forum, 38:4 (Christmas/Winter 2004), pp. ___ to ___. (Not yet out when this was written.)

This article may be reprinted provided the following is included in the reprint:

Copyright The ArthurCarlPiepkornCenter for Evangelical Catholicity. Used with permission.