Herman Otten began a mimeographed newsletter to inform his fellow believers about covert changes in their synod’s doctrine. But he ended up changing the denomination, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, electing new and more conservative leaders, and splitting its largest seminary, Concordia in St. Louis.
Otten was a young pastor in a small town, New Haven, Missouri, when he decided to start a newsletter called Lutheran News. Using some extra Christmas money from his wife Grace, about $40, he sent out the first issue of the newsletter on December 15, 1962. Since then the mimeographed newsletter has changed into a tabloid newspaper with a circulation of 11,500. The non-profit Lutheran News Corporation has published the Beck Bible (An American Translation) and many books related to Christian doctrine, such as the first translation of C. F. W. Walther’s Pastoral Theology.
Otten has published 2, 154 weekly issues of Christian News, its name changed from Lutheran News to include more denominations. Otten volunteered in one conversation that his paper broke ground by photocopying controversial material. Liberals would claim, “We never said that.” Otten countered by photocopying their exact words for the paper. This alerted many people to the changes in the LCMS that his opponents joked, “Otten was not born – he was photocopied.”
Otten began his career heading toward teaching. He earned a master’s degree in history from Washington University, located conveniently near the St. Louis Seminary. His accidental career in journalism nixed all possibilities of advancement within his denomination. His congregation stood by him as the liberals tried to remove him from preaching. The liberals even kicked the congregation out of the LCMS more than once. Except for his annual vacation, Otten kept publishing the paper, laying out the columns by hand each week.
Otten said, “I don’t even have to go to town on Thursday for layout. They send it all by computer. Can you imagine that? Oh, you can.” When I told him I teach and take classes on a computer at home, he said, “On a computer? I don’t even know how to turn one on.”
Otten is now 75, healthy from a lifetime of athletics. His wife and children help with the computer side of publishing. Otten often fields calls from all over. Although he is officially a pariah in the Lutheran groups, the same officials who shun him also want their spin on news stories. Christian News offers a cafeteria selection of stories from the Religious News Service, official denominational news, and independent stories.
John Warick Montgomery, another conservative Lutheran outcast, said, “Reading Christian News is like opening one of those old police gazette magazines. You wonder – what is he going to shock me with.”
Otten was instrumental in turning out the liberal administration and electing Jack Preus to the presidency in 1969 (Time Magazine, 1975). Preus gave Otten information to leak in Christian News. Once elected, Preus began working on the liberals at Concordia, St. Louis. The result was Seminex, a melodramatic “Seminary in Exile” and the religious news story of the year. Preus consolidated conservative control of the synod, with the help of Otten and voting lists at conventions. Preus also moved away from support of Otten to outright antagonism. This process was continued with the next two presidents, Ralph Bohlmann and Al Barry. Bohlmann and Barry sought Otten’s support, worked with him covertly, and then became antagonistic once they were elected to the president’s office. The current LCMS president, Jerry Kieschnick, belonged to the liberal faction in the synod. Kieschnick made a major effort two years ago to get rid of Otten, but that also failed.
Has Otten been influential? The editor responded, “People don’t read anymore. We have a website, but I never bother with it. Lutheran pastors have all these conservative blogs, but they never quote books. They just offer opinions and respond back and forth. They are not reaching people. They are just reaching the elite.”
Otten discussed the decline of printed newspapers, so I mentioned the slippage of the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. He is opposed to putting Christian News online. “If they want my wisdom, they can get a subscription.”
Time Magazine, (1975, July 21, 1975). Preus' Purge. Time, , . Retrieved December 16, 2008, from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,913312,00.html
GJ - For my class in print journalism, I had to interview a journalist about his job, so I phoned Herman Otten. We had a long talk about a variety of topics. God willing, I will write my MA thesis on Otten and Christian News. I expect to have all the credits earned by the end of 2009. He was a bit shocked that I was working on a journalism degree.
Update - I got tired of journalism school after 20 hours of credit toward an MA.
|"Let me sing - The Ballad of Herman Otten,"|
by Matt Harrison.