The Otto Gruendemann Story, part 1

by David Meier, grandson of Pastor Otto Gruendemann and Pastor Albert Meier

. . . Faith is supposed to be and must be whole and complete. Although it can be weak and afflicted, nevertheless it shall and must be whole, and not false. To be weak does no harm, but to be false—that is dangerous business (From Luther’s The Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith. LW 34, 210).

The above Luther quote is kept in mind as this assignment is being undertaken. Even closer to home, however, is J. P. Koehler’s observation in the preface to The History of the Wisconsin Synod: “Only after the third generation has appeared and is taking an active public role can one see what the roots of events are and in what way events developed.”

Some of the material for this report was found in the family archives of Pastor Otto Gruendemann and Pastor Albert Meier. This material supports and also adds clarification to the Gruendemann Case as printed in Faith-Life. Some details were provided from interviews with several of Pastor Gruendemann’s surviving children in the presence of Pastor Floyd Brand and Heidi Meier.

We open Pastor Gruendemann’s story with an accusatory letter from Pastor E. Benjamin Schlueter, President of the Northern Wisconsin District of the Wisconsin Synod (then named The Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States [F-L (Faith-Life) VII, 4 (April Supplement 1934), 15]).

 

Oshkosh, Wis.
January 20th, 1928

The Reverend Otto Gruendemann
R. 2, Mishicot, Wisconsin

Dear Brother:–

A copy of a circular letter, under date of Dec. 3,1927, over the signature of O. Hensel of Marshfield, Wisconsin, has come to my notice. The letter is addressed: “To the Brethren that are without Synodical Connections.”

Since your name appears among the list of those enumerated in the body of the letter to whom the letter in question was to be sent, and, furthermore, since the letter itself breathes rebellion against the synod of which you and your congregation are members, I feel that you owe the members of your District an explanation in this matter. The Word of God admonishes us: Let all things be done decently and in order. Let us follow this injunction. There is no blessing in doing things in a stealthy manner.

Hoping to hear from you in this matter at an early date, I am,

Sincerely yours,

(signed)
E. Benjamin Schlueter

 

P. S. Have sent a copy of the Circular Letter of O. Hensel to your Visitor, Pastor Zell, and have asked him to take up this matter with you.

E.B.S.

 

 

A word of clarification of Synodical structure is in order. The Synod was (and is) divided into districts, each District having its own president and other officials. The Districts in turn were (and are) subdivided into Conferences. The Conference Visitor was a kind of elder statesman, an advisor to the pastors, the younger pastors especially, and to the congregations within his Conference. He was the man to call on in case of disputes, especially between pastor and congregation. The men involved in the Gruendemann case were North Wisconsin District President E. B. Schlueter and Manitowoc Conference Visitor L. Koeninger.

The “Circular Letter” is dated Dec. 3, 1927 (F-L LXIII, 1 [Jan.-Feb., 1990], 9). It lists twenty-two men “without Synodical connection,” including the writer, Pastor Oswald Hensel of Marshfield, Wis. Nearly all of the addressees were pastors, including Paul Hensel, of whom more will be said. Most had been suspended for refusing to renounce the Beitz paper and for not endorsing the Gutachten. The Seminary had published a condemnation of the Beitz paper titled the Gutachten, a technical term for an “official opinion” from a theological faculty on a question of church doctrine or life. Both the term and the practice were borrowed from church practice in Germany. Some men had been suspended for not renouncing those pastors previously suspended. Pastor William Beitz had presented his paper “God’s Message to Us in Galatians: The Just Shall Live by Faith” to a conference at Schofield, Wis., in the fall of 1926 (F-L LI, 5 [Sept.-Oct., 1978], 2-11). There were other issues bringing to light the conflict between the Wauwatosa Theology and dogmatism, worldliness, and concern for the external church organization more than the souls of the people. The “Beitz paper” quickly became a bone of contention throughout the Wisconsin Synod.

The Synod held a special session in Watertown, Wis., Nov. 15-18, 1928, to address the controversy. There it resolved that those who refused to condemn the Beitz paper  “have separated themselves from us.” This resolution left it to those men thus discredited to carry out such resolutions. Pastor Martin Zimmerman, of Burr Oak Lutheran church in Mindoro and St. Paul Lutheran church of Melrose, actually did so, tendering his resignation in writing to Synod President G. E. Bergemann (F-L I, 1 [Easter, 1928], 4-6). This was exceptional. Otherwise it fell to the respective Districts or Conferences to pronounce the suspensions. Such was the confusion reigning in the Synod.

Faith-Life is the periodical which the “Brethren without Synodical Connections” inaugurated in 1928 to present their testimony, after several years of dealings with the Synod proved fruitless, and official channels blocked them from presenting their case.

From 1928 through 1934 there were a number of District conferences and Synodical meetings dealing with the Protes’tants and Faith-Life. Records of these meetings are printed in Faith-Life. In these meetings Pastor Gruendemann proved a staunch defender of J. P. Koehler and Paul Hensel, and protested the Synod’s treatment of them in suspending them without a fair hearing. In a 1929 Synod meeting he demanded that his protest go on record. (See letter to Judge Detling below.)

I hold this assembly of the Synod with its individual voting members responsible for this crying injustice done against Prof. Koehler and for its consequences, and renounce it (F-L LXVI, 4 [July-August, 1991], 20).

The regular meeting of the Manitowoc, Wis., Conference, Feb. 11 & 12, 1930, passed a resolution to adopt the general principal: “Love and order demand that we keep aloof from those who have separated from us.” Pastor Gruendemann abstained from voting on this resolution. The resolution was then applied retroactively to bar Pastor Gruendemann from Holy Communion at the Morrison Mixed (Wisconsin and Missouri Synods) Conference, April 30, 1930. Pastor Gruendemann had preached for Pastor Paul Hensel, already suspended, but before the Manitowoc Conference resolution. Pastor Hensel had a tongue in cheek illustration.

Translated into Biblical illustration it would read: Love would prompt Daniel to cease praying to his God and to honor the king’s decree, until he had made an attempt to convince Darius of his sin in signing it. Let us do evil, that good may come out of it (Paul Hensel, “Why I am a Protes’tant,” F-L LXVI, 1 [Jan-Feb., 1993], 12).

Northern Wisconsin District sessions were held at Appleton, Wis., June 25-29, 1934, a delegate conference comprising the District pastors, male teachers, and representatives from the congregations. Members from the Gibson congregation met secretly with district officials during these sessions, and returned to poison the minds of other congregation members against Pastor Gruendemann (F-L VII, 7 [July, 1934] 1, 7-10).

After that conference, and shortly before he was put out of his congregation in 1934,  Pastor Gruendemann wrote the following letter (F-L VII, 11 [Nov.1934], 8-9, and also family archives).

 

 

Mishicot, Wis.,
Sept. 5th, 1934

 

Dear Praeses [(District) President] Schlueter:

Because of my stand in the synodical controversy, I am to be voted out of my congregation shortly. This will put me and my family out on the road with the approach of winter. Some of the men who visited the Appleton sessions are the chief agitators behind the movement.

Now there is nothing left to do but face the situation squarely. For me and my family, everything is at stake, not only materially but spiritually, and the latter holds good in the case of the congregation as well. I have therefore suggested to my people that I be given the opportunity “to face the officials in these matters before the congregation.” This resolution was unanimously adopted by the congregation. The officials to be invited are: E. Benj. Schlueter, F. Schumann, and L. Koeninger. I am to have Rev. Zell as my witness.

The resolution is clear. “To face the officials” means exactly what the words must mean under the circumstances, namely that strict adherence to facts and God’s Word must prevail.

This meeting will be held in the Gibson church, on Sunday afternoon at 2:00, Sept. 23rd, 1934. Though I should have preferred an earlier date, the 23rd of this month has been chosen to give you ample opportunity to make the necessary arrangements to be present. Let me know as soon as is convenient that you will be here, so that I can make this definite announcement to the congregation in time.

I am also inviting Schumann and Koeninger.

Yours truly,

O. Gruendemann.
R. 2, Mishicot, Wis.

 

 

 

Faith-Life reports that at this meeting of September 23 (F-L VII, 11 [Nov. 1934], 1, 7-12), faithful members of the Gibson (rural Mishicot) congregation noted that:

Pastor Gruendemann was given no chance to speak. The floor was stolen time and again and the chairman, Mr. Ebeling, allowed the visiting [district] officials to transgress all rules of order and decency. It was quite evident to an outsider that the chairman with his following was not interested in getting at the facts.

Faith-Life records that during this meeting Schlueter denied that Paul Hensel had been suspended. Schlueter, Schumann, and that Conference Visitor Koeninger urged the congregation to support the Synod and drop Gruendemann because of the “slander” in Faith-Life that had been going on for eight to ten years and because the Synod wanted peace. The Faith-Life article of Nov., 1934, includes the following episode that took place after the meeting.

During the meeting Pastor Gruendemann told Schlueter, “You are too yellow to suspend me.” He related the following additional episode after the meeting.

Praeses Schlueter came up to me in the front of the church and said, “I am surprised at you, Gruendemann! You called us down here to make a spectacle of us before the congregation.”

I answered him, “You are responsible for the dirt that comes into the congregation from Appleton.”

Schlueter: “I’ll give you ten days’ time to think it over! —Here is a question I want you to answer: Do you stand behind everything that is written in Faith-Life? Yes or No?”

My answer: “As I told you before, I will answer the question in as far as it concerns you. I stand behind the charges Faith-Life makes against the Synod, as far as I know them.”

Schlueter: “Do you fraternize with the Protes’tants? You do, don’t you?”

My answer: “Why certainly, I never made any bones about that.”

Schlueter: “That settles it, we are THROUGH with you!”

I asked, “Does this mean that you are going to suspend me?”

Schlueter: “Yes!”

I: “Schlueter, I now expect that you are going to be a man and do what you say.” (In 1928 Schlueter had written a letter threatening suspension if I did not prove my innocence of the program set up by those that had just been suspended by the West Wisconsin District. See F-L VII, 4 [April Supplement 1934], 14-15.)

Schlueter now walked away still talking, partly to himself, I think. At any rate, I could not make out what he said, and I answered, “Do what you cannot leave” [do what you have to do].

From the parsonage after five or ten minutes I noticed that Schlueter was still in front of the church with a group of others. I hurried out to tell him once more: “I expect that you are going to stick to your word, that you are going to be a man and suspend me.”

Schlueter shrank back and answered rather meekly, “I’ll announce that you have severed relations.”

Technically, a suspension requires stating the reason for the suspension. By wording it, “he has severed relations,” the responsibility for the parting of the ways was placed entirely on the one who had been suspended, expelled, and thus the Synod or the District or the officials were not required to state the cause for the suspensions in question.

Faith-Life reports that on November 11, 1934, the Gibson congregation removed their pastor, O. Gruendemann, from office and coolly cast him and his family on the probably less cold world at the approach of winter, because he would not desert Paul Hensel and abandon his protest against Synodical wickedness. About half of the congregation’s members were not present, and the motion was carried by approximately two-thirds majority of those voting (F-L VII, 11 [Nov. 1934], 7).

Previously Pastor Gruendemann had served as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church at Marion Springs, Michigan. The congregation learned of the plight of the Gruendemann family through Faith-Life and their current pastor, Gerhardt Ruediger. Led by their pastor, they sent the following response, which was then printed on the front page of the Dec. 1934 issue (VII, 12).

 

 

St. John’s Lutheran,
Marion Springs, Mich.
November 25, 1934

 

The Ev. Lutheran Congregation
Town Gibson, Wisconsin

To cast a family of mere tenants on the cold world at this season is generally resented even by the better element of non-Christian society as brutal, if it is not prevented by civil law.

We are informed that you professed Christians have thus dealt with Pastor Gruendemann. Pastor Gruendemann is esteemed by these members of St. John’s Lutheran as one of the most conscientious and faithful servants of Christ that ever held a congregation in our midst.

The world’s judge will on the Last Day hurl this condemning verdict on such as have neglected to extend shelter to a Christian who of no fault of theirs [sic] went destitute: “Depart from me, ye cursed . . . . I was a stranger, and ye took me not in.” You of Gibson have done far worse than to neglect a stranger. You have in cold blood put out on the road, as far as in you lies, a pastor who, as you are by moral obligation bound to know, testified against ungodly actions rampant in the “church” these many years. You have done “untoward [against] the Holy Spirit.” How will your sentence read? It cannot possibly be, “Come ye blessed.” Unless the almost incredible happens and you repent, and to repent means, right the wrong you have done, your verdict will be, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Because we choose not to be guilty with the priest and the Levite who “passed by,” but rather to act with our Lord’s “Open thy mouth . . . in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction,” we feel constrained in the fear of the Lord and in the name of the Triune God to voice our righteous indignation with your unchristian action, and we solemnly vow to testify against you on the Great Day for committing this outrage against a man and his family who has in past years pointed out the way to salvation with fear and trembling and in the spirit of Christ among us. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked.” You have sown the seed of a terrible harvest.

To our former pastor we have this to say: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” “So persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

In orderly meeting we members of St. John’s, Marion Springs, Michigan, instruct our elders to append their signatures, and to mail this communication to the Lutheran church at Gibson.

(signed)
Earnest Duensing
Fred Wegner
Louis Starke
Herman Meyer
John L. Weigold
Gustav Witt
Henry Boettcher
Charles Duensing

 

 

The family remained in the parsonage through the winter and the following spring. In the summer the trustees of the congregation, under direction of E. Benjamin Schlueter, President of the North Wisconsin District, began eviction proceedings. This moved Pastor Gruendemann to write the following letter to Judge Detling of the Manitowoc County Circuit Court to plead his case.

 

 

Mishicot, Wis., June 5, 1935

 

To the judge of the Circuit Court,
Manitowoc, Wis.

Honorable Sir:

Since I cannot present my case through an expert and learned advocate and because of my own unfamiliarity with the language, forms, and customs of the respectable court, I beg pardon of Your Honor. Yet in the knowledge that understanding and fairness prevail in the court of your Honor, I herewith present the salient facts pertaining to my case as my defense and plea before an unbiased tribunal. I am fully aware that I am virtually under oath as I write, and that I must stand behind everything herein set forth.

While in conscious pursuance of my Christian duties and amidst the conscientious performance of my oath of office, I have been victimized in the church by my opponents who are continually adding new wrongs to their register in the attempt to cover up original wrongs, thus heaping sin upon sin. An impartial and progressive investigation of the many cases in which pastors and professors have been put out of office during the past twelve years would throw light on what really is at the bottom of this mess in our church body. Following such an investigation my case, which appears to be the most recent but actually dovetails into all the other cases, could be correctly disposed of in short order. More than thirty other teachers, pastors, and professors have been suspended and put out of office. In public church papers and in open meetings these people have been slandered by officials and others and the basest sort of politics was resorted to, to remove them with never a fair hearing. Such procedure is foreign to the profession and purpose of the Lutheran church and must lead to disintegration and to eventual chaos. For conscience’ sake I have protested against such procedure and thereby have incurred the wrath of powerful forces which have now carried the controversy to your door, honorable judge. But I humbly would inform you that now, after the case has run its full course, I have added reasons to stand by my protest.

I haven’t a doubt that a fair investigation into the history of the cases will prove that the position I have taken is Lutheran and Scriptural and that my opponents are in error.

My congregation, I should say my former congregation, which through its trustees bring suit against me, ostensibly to get us out of the parsonage, is but a cog in the wheel. By voting me out it has lent itself as a cat’s paw to help said forces get rid of another undesirable. By members of my congregation I was assured time and again, that my ouster was not because of personal reasons, but purely because of my stand in the synodical controversy. The minutes of the annual meeting in which I was voted out will show, if they are correct, that I was ousted on this issue: Synod vs. Faith-Life.

Faith-Life is the mouthpiece of the suspended pastors. It is unique in as much as it faithfully presents all available documents from either side and throws open its columns to its opponents. It explodes error, elucidates and teaches soberly and patiently, whereas the synod in its official organs merely presents its own side, is often not factual, and makes for befuddling the reader’s mind.

As stated above, my congregation voted me out solely on this issue: Synod vs. Faith-Life.

Now according to the written call which the Gibson Congregation sent me more than ten years ago, the Word of God was the basis upon which both pastor and congregation were to stand. The Word of God does not require pastors or congregations to follow men and synods where these go astray, but cautions against being blind followers of blind leaders. In fact, neither the written call nor the Gibson constitution has one word in it about Synod, but very much about the Word of God. Since then the Gibson Congregation has ousted me for reasons foreign to these two documents and foreign to Scripture, I feel that it has violated the written call, Scriptures, and its own constitution.

The Gibson Congregation has been dishonest with me over a period of years, as the following historical narration will show. There was a time when the Manitowoc Delegate Conference and also the Gibson congregation were officially opposed to the suspensions. In the summer of 1929 the Manitowoc Delegate Conference, at which the Gibson Congregation was represented by its delegates, took action against the suspensions. There, at Collins, pastors were asked to give their attitude toward the suspensions. I stated that I had very recently practiced pulpit fellowship with Pastor Paul Hensel, a member of [Manitowoc] Conference, who had been suspended by the officials. The Conference did not condemn me for this, but on the contrary sustained me. Bold speeches were made denouncing the suspensions. Without a dissenting vote I was the first man placed on a committee of three to appear before the General Synod that summer and, in the name of the Manitowoc Delegate Conference, demand a lifting of the suspensions by standing behind the Hohenstein memorial. Now feature this: almost a year later, the Manitowoc Pastoral Conference barred me from the Lord’s Supper for having practiced pulpit fellowship with Pastor Hensel. The Delegate Conference with the cooperation of the Gibson representatives commended and honored me for preaching for Pastor Hensel, and later a group of the same Conference (pastors) condemned me for that same act. Still later this condemnation was used as a trump card against me by Gibson.

Again at a meeting on March 29, 1932, the Gibson Congregation did not utter a word of reproof because of my position, but rather spoke in support of me. Synod was rather openly criticized at that time. Allow me to explain. I had called this meeting especially to have the congregation launch the Every Member Canvas Drive for synodical funds. Strange as it seems now, the congregation refused to do anything for Synod. In fact it had no good word for Synod, but used my being abused by Synod as an excuse for withholding their financial support. The congregation resolved not to support the drive until the Synod had proved me wrong. I distrusted their action at once and feared that they did not care to get at the truth for truth’s own sake, but were using my dilemma as a blind for shirking their financial duty toward Synod, and told them so in no uncertain terms. The congregation mailed its resolutions to the Visiting Pastor, L. Koeninger, demanding reasons and proof as to why I had been barred from Holy Communion. Koeninger’s lengthy answer contained no proof but only brought damaging implications beclouding the issue. Almost from the time the congregation received this letter I noticed that my influence was waning among my parishioners. What went on behind my back between my people and outside influences, ministers and officials, could only be brought to light by court investigation. (The letters are printed in Faith-Life VI, 9 [Sept., 1933], 1, 11-13.)

In the quarterly meeting, Aug. 7, 1932, the attitude of the people toward me showed a marked change. An attempt was made to take the resolutions of March 29 off the books, but failed as I opposed this. From this I could see that the congregation was making ready to drop me and to get back in the good graces of the Synod, proof or no proof.

At the annual meeting, Nov. 11, 1932, the controversy and the disgusting role the congregation had played was not again mentioned. But the congregation showed its colors in a different way. Disregarding the increasing needs of my family, my salary was reduced beyond reason. I was later informed that some had hoped I would resign rather than take the cut.

I must insert here that Synod itself helped to mess up the issue still more about this time. The North Wisconsin District, assembled at Green Bay, June 21-24, 1932, was compelled to lift the suspension of Paul Hensel, but at the same time absolved the officials who were responsible, and actually preferred new charges against the injured man without first hearing him. In the month of June, 1934, the North Wisconsin District met again, this time in Appleton. Here Synod again condemned Paul Hensel without giving him a hearing, to which I and others were opposed. Here the trustees of Gibson were present and secretly met with the officials, although they were not delegated nor instructed by the congregation to get in touch with said officials.

When C. Ebeling, the regular delegate, reported to the congregation, Aug. 5, 1934, the trustees severely attacked me, and threatened to oust me in the next annual meeting unless I made peace with Synod. I was told I could remain here and live like a king if I dropped Hensel and Faith-Life, else I would have to go. I tried to console myself with the thought that the congregation would hardly vote me out on that issue in the face of my written call and the provisions of the Gibson constitution. But in order to clarify the issue, I asked my congregation to be given an opportunity to face the officials before them. Such a meeting was arranged for and was held on Sept. 23, 1934, in the Gibson church. At this meeting, Ebeling, one of my opponents, was made chairman. Four officials and Hensel were present. The understanding was that I be given full opportunity to present my grievance against the officials. But this did not materialize. The chairman allowed the officials to interrupt me at will and steal the floor from me time and again. The meeting was so disorderly throughout that I did not succeed in bringing out one single point. Against the tactics employed against me, I was helpless, and finally gave up. Enough witnesses can be produced to testify to the fact that this description is not overdrawn in the least.

On the evening of Nov. 8, 1934, we had a trustee meeting in the parsonage. All the trustees save one tortured and insulted me ad lib for several hours. Their purpose clearly was to break my spirit and to justify their contemplated action. When the final meeting came, I still believed that I would be given a hearing. But I was mistaken in this too. It was all cut and dried beforehand.

Before I proceed, I want to state that I would under no condition force my presence upon a congregation one day longer than such body desires to keep me of its own free will. I would rather suffer injury than impose myself upon others. But when willful racketeering is rampant in Synod, and men of character and ability are brutally victimized and together with their families are sacrificed to shame and distress, I, for one, will not lend a hand to perpetuate such ungodliness, not even by unselfishly stepping aside. Mark well, Your Honor, were I and my family alone involved, I should never allow this affair to come before your court.

But on with my story. The annual meeting in which I was ousted took place Nov. 12, 1934. At three different times I asked what the reasons were for which I was to be voted out and each time, directly or by implication, the answer was, “We are for Synod, and you are for Faith-Life.” When I attempted to get at the real issue, I was cut off with the remark, “That would get too long.” When the chairman allowed this to stand, I sat down and said no more. I expected, however, that they would give the charges against me, black on white, as I had asked them to do. I had said that they owed me this. Now that I was compelled to seek employment elsewhere, I felt the need of a written statement by the congregation which ousted me, which would vindicate my character at least. My other congregation, Two Creeks, which was still faithful to me then, could only support me in part. I am positive that I would have arranged to vacate the parsonage of my own accord very shortly after the annual meeting, if I had received this written discharge, and if Gibson had ceased its agitation and damaging propaganda against me. The Gibson trustees, immediately after the meeting, broke into the fold at Two Creeks and poisoned the minds of my parishioners against me. The impression they made on Two Creeks at first was anything but favorable. Still, in less than two months, Two Creeks followed suit and even joined Synod, to which they had never belonged before as Gibson did. That Two Creeks should thus also turn against me was a surprise to me and more so to those members of the Gibson congregation which had remained true to me, and had begun attending services there, with the intention of joining Two Creeks.

It is impossible for me or anyone to picture the predicament I was in now. I did not want to go on relief. We have been living out of our pocket since January and are practically without funds. In order to do strenuous physical labor I had to undergo a hernia operation. I had this attended to in February and am now working for the WPA. It was an ordeal for me and the family to remain in the parsonage under the circumstances, but we had no choice. I finally gave up considering the possibility or desirability of moving when the Gibson congregation by resolution refused even to send me a copy of that portion of the minutes of the annual meeting that pertains to my ousting.

It would be absurd for me to dispute the ownership of a house which I have not built nor paid for, nor do I. But rightfully, according to the provisions of the constitution of the Gibson congregation, the property belongs to the faction (in case of a schism) which adheres to the constitution. The faction that put me out violated this constitution, as has been set forth above. Hence my opponents have forfeited all claims to the same. The property rightfully belongs to the minority. But it is up to the minority, not to me, to lay claim to the ownership and use of the property.

Having no legal advice, I do not know how to come in for a claim of damages. But I claim that they who now bring suit against me owe me the funds to purchase a respectable and adequate dwelling, and besides, a just compensation for the damage done to my career. It is embarrassing to me to appear in person because the situation I have been placed in by my opponents is in my opinion already a handicap, but I am ready to appear any time Your Honor considers it necessary.

Respectfully submitted by

Otto Gruendemann

 

 

Following this letter the eviction order was signed and carried out. The Manitowoc Herald Times made this a front page story, and it was repeated in the Milwaukee Journal the next day.

 

Manitowoc Herald-Times
Thursday, July 18, 1935
[Front page leading story]

Ousted Pastor is Put Out of Gibson Parsonage

Sheriff Gets Court Order to Evict Gruendemann on Schlueter Advice

The Rev. Otto Gruendemann, ousted last November as pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran St. John Church of Gibson by vote of the congregation, was Wednesday forcibly ejected from the church parsonage by Sheriff Max Hiller, Jr.

The ouster proceedings followed a hearing before Judge Detling in circuit court this week, in which the trustees of the congregation were plaintiffs in the suit to recover possession of the parsonage. The court signed an eviction order, which was carried out by the sheriff yesterday.

The Rev. Gruendemann made no defense. He wrote [had written] a letter to Judge Detling in which he explained at length the steps that led up to his dismissal by the congregation he [had] served for 10 years. The court was compelled to disregard this communication and advise the Gibson pastor to consult an attorney. The pastor, in answering the letter to Judge Detling, advised that it was financially impossible for him to engage counsel.

[Sheriff] Saw Counsel

He said he conferred with counsel for the trustees of the Gibson church and was told that the eviction proceedings were being taken on the advice of the Rev. E. B. Schlueter, district president.

William Menges, Raymond Meineke, Fred Schmidt, Carl Stueck, William Rehbein, and Clarence Ebeling, as trustees of the Evangelical Lutheran St. John Congregation, brought the action against the Rev. Gruendemann.

The purpose, according to the statement of counsel for the plaintiffs, was to secure the use of the parsonage for the new minister, the Rev. Walter Klinke, who came to the Gibson charge from Fond du Lac several months ago to succeed the ousted minister. He has been making his home with members of the congregation since that time.

Friend Houses Him

After the sheriff’s deputies moved the household property of the Gruendemann’s from the parsonage, it was loaded on a van and taken to the home of a friendly member of the congregation.

In his eight page letter the Reverend Gruendemann said, “I expected that they would give me the charges black on white as I had asked them to do. Now that I am compelled to seek employment elsewhere I felt the need of a written statement by the congregation which ousted me which would vindicate my character at least.”

The ousted pastor also serves a congregation at Two Creeks, which has taken no proceedings against him, he said.

 

In the same paper are pictures of the “Gibson Eviction Party.” One of the captions reads “Later the household effects were moved to a vacant home by town of Gibson officials.” Faith-Life printed the following correction of the newspaper articles (VIII, 8 [Aug., 1935], 8).

The occasion is what the Manitowoc paper called the Gibson Eviction Party over the pictures it offered. We have nothing to add to the press reports excepting this that . . . was not correct: namely that Pastor Gruendemann’s household goods were not moved to the home of a friendly member of the congregation, nor had his Two Creeks charge remained faithful to him. There was no one there to help him except Pastor Paul Hensel, and he was provided with shelter by the town of Gibson in a house owned by a Catholic. And Gruendemann is still a synodical brother of the Gibsonites and of Schlueter. The valiant president has not made good his threat and promise of September 23, 1934, to suspend him after ten days. And so you have this unlawful situation, which should intrigue Schlueter’s interest who at one time took a correspondence course in law instead of studying his Bible. Gruendemann, unable to finance his defense, is evicted by the congregation after they have discharged him for not adhering “strictly to the doctrines of  the church,” whereas the church’s appointed guardian of doctrine and practice, Schlueter, has not dared so far to suspend him on these or any other grounds.

At this point a correction must be made to a rumor that Sheriff Hiller had later taken his own life. There was no connection between the eviction of Otto Gruendemann at Gibson and the sheriff’s death. The eviction of Rev. Gruendemann took place on July 17, 1935, according to the Manitowoc Herald-Times. The article reports that the sheriff, Max Hiller, Jr., was the  official responsible for serving the eviction. According to a later Herald-Times article, Hiller’s term as sheriff ended with his losing the primary election of 1936. His obituary reports that he died June 18, 1948, after having been ill for several months. It also reports on his employment after serving as sheriff. Hiller’s Certificate of Death was filed with the court by his physician who reported the death to be of natural causes and resulting from “carcinoma of the stomach,” stomach cancer.

The story continues after Christmas of 1935. The photograph of Pastor Gruendemann’s family and belongings outside the parsonage appeared again in the Manitowoc Herald-Times, December 31, 1935, in the upper left hand corner of the paper’s double-page, center-photo spread of that year’s events. The following article appeared in the same end-of-year issue a few pages later, under “local news events of the day.”

Clergyman’s Wife Passes

Mrs. Gruendemann Dies Here This Afternoon

Mrs. Otto Gruendemann, who with her husband, a Lutheran minister, and their eight small children figured in an unusual eviction case in the town of Gibson last July, died suddenly this afternoon at the hospital here. A child, born a few hours before, also died.

Mrs. Gruendemann was brought to the hospital last Saturday.

Court proceedings were resorted to by the congregation of the St. John Evangelical Lutheran church of Gibson to have the Gruendemann family vacate the parsonage last July. The pastor had been ousted the November before. Judge Detling signed the eviction order which was carried out by Sheriff Max Hiller, Jr.

No Defense

At that time the Rev. Gruendemann made no defense. He wrote a letter to Judge Detling in which he explained at length what led up to his dismissal by the congregation he had served for 10 years. The court was compelled to disregard this letter. The pastor said it was financially impossible for him to engage counsel.

Trustees of the Gibson congregation signed the complaint in the eviction proceedings. While the pastor, his wife, and children stood by, furniture was moved out of the parsonage alongside the road. At this point Chairman Adolph Strouf of the town of Gibson entered the picture. He arranged to have the Gruendemann family moved to a vacant house where they have since been cared for by the town.

Chairman Strouf, who was advised of the death of Mrs. Gruendemann, said no arrangements will be completed for the funeral before tomorrow or Thursday.

The following obituary appeared in the Manitowoc Herald-Times of Jan. 2, 1936.

 

Pastor’s Wife Buried Friday

Mrs. Otto Gruendemann died on Tuesday afternoon. Funeral services for Mrs. Otto Gruendemann, 41, wife of a former Gibson pastor, who died at the hospital here Tuesday afternoon, will be held Friday at 1:30 p.m. from the Beduhn and Goetz funeral home, Two Rivers. Interment will be in the cemetery at Valders.

The services will be in charge of the Rev. Paul Hensel, long a friend of the family. The deceased, whose maiden name was Bertha Leitzke, was born at Hustisford, Wis. Besides the widower and eight small children [Daniel 14, Ruth 13, Marcus 11, Naomi 8, Bethel 6, Judith 5, Otto Jr. 3, and Lois 1], two brothers, Emil, Two Rivers, and Ewald, Hustisford, Wis., survive.

The widower and children are residing in the town of Gibson. The Rev. Gruendemann was formerly pastor of the St. John. Evan. Lutheran church but was relieved of his charge there by the trustees last July.

Mrs. Gruendemann was brought to the hospital here last Saturday. A child [son], born Tuesday, also died.

 

After Pastor Gruendemann’s eldest daughter, Ruth, age 13, asked for a copy of her mother’s funeral sermon, Pastor Paul Hensel wrote the following to the Gruendemann family [from a personal letter in the family archives].

 

 

2/20/36

 

Dear Gruende–

Concerning the funeral sermon of your wife, I wrote Karl [Koehler, then editor of Faith-Life] that it was not meant for publication—and that I would have to rework it before it could be published, which I hope I will not be asked to do. The life of your wife, the part she played, this act of God in her life—the short summary of Karl’s in the January issue is so powerful and impressive—that my feeble work could only distract from it.

I am sure you above all will understand.

Greetings from home to home,

(signed)
P. H.

 

 

Following is the Karl Koehler summary of which Pastor Hensel wrote.

Another Warning

Mrs. O. Gruendemann’s death on the last day of the year 1935 is recorded here as a further chapter in the Gruendemann case which during 1935 stirred the indignation not only of Protes’tants but, as it appears, of a goodly part of the general public in Manitowoc County. The funeral, of course, occasioned an unexpected meeting of Protes’tants at Two Rivers and Valders, the place of interment, but what we want to record is the opinion of the attending physicians that this death of a robust mother in childbirth, hale up to the last days of confinement, was due to sheer exhaustion, attributable to other than physical causes. And we do not hesitate to repeat, what was said, that this is an unexpected fulfillment of what the Gruendemann case was termed at the beginning: plain murder (F-L 1935 Index, 4).

This happened during the depression, and immediately after Mrs. Gruendemann’s death the children were split up, mainly among relatives.  Mrs. Gruendemann’s death shocked not only Conference but the Manitowoc area as well. It was still being talked about three years later. It is an example of how repulsive we Lutherans can become.

The family archives contain the following personal letter from Pastor Paul Hensel to Pastor Gruendemann.

 

 

Feb. 23, ’39

 

Dear Gruende,

Lederer made an ugly remark about you off schedule. I intend to nail him in Faith-Life for it. The remark is this: “He killed his own wife, the beast.” I had intended to construe from this remark the only evil meaning it possibly could convey, and in the same connection reveal that your large family was a stone of offense to some of the Gibsonites, and this also was a factor in your ousting. Do you object to me doing this? I have not a copy of the exact wording, which is already in possession of Karl. In fact, I must confess the thought never occurred to me that the publishing of this thing might be distasteful to you, had not Karl raised the question. I feel that Rudolf Lederer should be exposed on this remark made in secret to Uetzmann, his three delegates, teacher Albrecht, and the other members of the subcommittee. Let me know please, and soon if you can, how you feel about it. . . .

Kind regards from all of us to you and your children.

Yours,

(signed)
P. Hensel

 

 

Pastor Gruendemann apparently agreed with Karl Koehler, and nothing more was said. Uetzmann was Protes’tant pastor of Immanuel Lutheran in Manitowoc, Rudolf Lederer a member there.

After getting on his feet, Pastor Gruendemann secured a job in Madison with the WPA, working in Vital Statistics at the state capital. He moved the children, except for Lois, the youngest, to Madison. Meanwhile he was training himself in radio communications. During World War II he taught radio communication to pilots being trained at Truax Field in Madison.

The surviving children said they always had a roof over their head and clothes on their back, and that they never missed a meal. For one, a Jewish grocer befriended Pastor Gruendemann and helped him feed the large family in Madison with day old grocery goods. Toward the end of the war Pastor Gruendemann and his daughter Naomi took jobs in a factory at Waukegan, Illinois, where he was offered and accepted a supervisor’s position. The other children, except for Daniel, remained in Madison. Pastor Gruendemann saved money and purchased a farm near Algoma in northeast Wisconsin. There he moved the family in 1944.

Pastor Gruendemann was the youngest child in a large family. His father died when he was eight years old, and his brothers raised him. The brothers realized that he was a sharp youngster, and they pooled their funds to send him to Northwestern Prep and College at Watertown, Wis., and then to Seminary at Wauwatosa, Wis. His siblings all remained in the Synod, feeling that their brother had let them down by being ousted.

A note is in place regarding the oldest child, Daniel, in order to dispel another rumor, that after his mother’s death he had nothing more to do with Christianity. Daniel was 14 years old when his mother died. He was a serious, stoic young man, a person of few words, but throughout his life a strong Christian. After graduating from high school he was part of the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) until World War II broke out. He joined the Marines and served as a scout with the First Marine Division. He saw some of the war’s most horrible fighting at Guadalcanal, yet never said a word about the action he was involved in, not even to his wife and children. At the time of his death at the age of 76 he was a member of a Methodist church in Milwaukee, where he had served as leader of an adult Bible class. At his memorial service a lady from that congregation stated he insisted on “knowing your Bible.”

Pastor Gruendemann’s daughter Naomi tells that all the while they lived in Madison, their father conducted church services in their home. The family never attended or joined any church. These home services continued in Algoma, and later on at the home of Tom and Judith Meier, ten miles to the north, until 1970.  [Tom the son of Albert Meier, Judith the daughter of Otto Gruendemann] This part of the assignment will end with the family moving to rural Algoma in 1944. The remainder of Pastor Gruendemann’s story will follow.

 

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