Rev. Bernard Spong (1908-1992), photo circa 1953, courtesy of the Spong Family Reunion archives.
Lost manuscript is found
In 2009, a previously "lost" manuscript--the typewritten autobiography of Rev. Bernard Spong, a Lutheran pastor from the Augustana tradition who died in 1992--was discovered within the extensive archives of the Spong Family Reunion, which meets annually in Hutto, Texas in August of each year.
The Spong "lost manuscript" is one of several elements of documentation which have been collected to shed light on how Lutheran theology underwent a substantial change in the 1930s at Augustana Lutheran Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois as it moved away from inward Swedish pietism and moved toward a somewhat radical social action emphasis. The central theologian who taught at Augustana Seminary (alongside several others, including the renowned Dr. Conrad Bergendoff, who was the seminary president from 1935 to 1948) was A.D. Mattson, whose influence reached into the early 1960s.
In addition to Spong's newly-discovered autobiography, additional examples have been selected (among many others which could have been chosen) to illustrate the boots-on-the-ground effects of Mattson's theological influence. Those two other examples are from the ministries of Rev. Merle Carlson, whose sentinel work was as the "Shepherd of the Street" in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Rev. Luther William Youngdahl, who gave new meaning to the theological significance of the civil rights movement to a traditional and somewhat shocked Lutheran congregation in Omaha, Nebraska, and Rev. John Murray, who became a civil rights activist based in Houston and who participated in civil rights marches with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In addition to much historical information which had disappeared with Rev. Spong's death and the deaths of many of his contemporaries, his autobiography sheds new light on an era of scintillating history in Gary, Indiana in the late 1940s and early 1950s, where Rev. Spong was pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church.
Rev. Spong was a central and galvanizing figure in fighting organized crime and government corruption in Gary, Indiana, in which housewives joined the fight and were known as The Petticoat Brigade. While there have been books, magazine articles and newspaper articles published about this era in Gary's history, this autobiography sheds new light on the high drama of those years as this new implementation of Lutheran social action was activated.
This autobiography, together with the ministries of Pastor Youngdahl and Pastor Carlson, provide boots-on-the-ground examples of how an emerging Lutheran theology cut through the bureaucracy and paperwork of resolutions and moved directly into the real-world of moral trench warfare involving the Gospel.
Ascension Chapel in the main building at the former Augustana Seminary site which now is a spiritual resource for Augustana College. Photo circa 1985 from the collection of Augustana College.
Augustana Theological Seminary facilities in Rock Island, Illinois, circa 1930s--the classroom and administration building and the student residence building, now known as Founders Hall. These facilities currently are used by Augustana College. The seminary merged with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and moved to the Hyde Park area of Chicago in 1968.
Some of the first steps toward a Lutheran, social-action theology appear to have been taken at Augustana Theological Seminary in Rock Island, Illinois
Dr. Conrad Bergendofff