A Brief History of Concordia Historical Institute

Adapted from the article "Retracing the Days of Old at Concordia Historical Institute" by Mark A. Loest, Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 4, (Winter 1997): 228-233.

Carefully preserved in CHI's archives and currently on display in the museum is the original constitution document of the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio and Other States, signed at Synod's organizational session held at First St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Chicago on April 26, 1847. Written in a beautiful German "running hand," the document contains the constitution and signatures of the first members of Synod.

Chapter IV of Synod's original constitution, which addressed Synod's work, included the directive, "...to start a chronicle of American Lutheranism."1 With these words Synod's fathers anticipated the maintaining of an archives and history of the new synod. The Synod's constitution is also the birth certificate of CHI.

At the closing session of the first synodical conference Pastor Ottomar Fuerbringer was appointed chronicler.2 Interest apparently lagged for many years. It was almost 80 years later before it was recognized that many of the treasures of the past were in danger of being lost.

Action was taken by a group of St. Louis pastors and laymen. In March of 1927 CHI was incorporated according to the laws of the state of Missouri. A year later its founding was described:

The Concordia Historical Institute was called to life as a result of a keen interest in, and ardent love for, the history of our Church on the part of a group of St. Louisans, who were then enthusiastically supported by a goodly number of earnest men and women in various sections of our country. As no adequate arrangements had ever been made to gather and preserve the valuable antiquities connected with the history of the Missouri Synod in particular, it was felt that the Church would be well served if a concerted effort along these lines could be launched. After long and careful consideration a constitution was drawn up and the Institute organized and incorporated under the laws of the State of Missouri.3

Charter members and officers of the Institute included: Louis H. Waltke (president); Prof. L. Fuerbringer (vice-president); Prof. W. G. Polack (secretary); Charles Wehking, jr. (treasure); Theodore W. Eckhart (financial secretary). Prof. R. W. Heintze was curator. Other charter members were A. G. Brauer, A. A. Grossmann, John A. Leschen, Emil Radke, Theodore Schroeder, Louis Siek, Fred Stockho and Prof. Theodore Graebner.

In an early issue of Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Rev. R. W. Heintze, CHI's first curator (1927-1936), described the Institute in an article titled "The Historical Institute Room."4 The fledging institution occupied a room on the third floor of the administration building of the new campus of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. The archives, museum and curator's "office" all shared the same space.

Manuscripts, charters, ordination and vocation certificates, professors' notes for lectures and manuscripts for publication were all kept in filing cabinets. Heintze notes that the filing cabinets were extra wide, because the old letters and documents were written on large sheets of paper. He noted that the Institute was willing to spend money for more cabinets and cases, if the material to put in them was donated!

In 1928 the Institute began publishing Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly. The Quarterly was introduced stating:

With this issue the Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly makes its initial appearance. In view of the fact that the Church and the world are fairly littered with periodical literature, and that of the making of magazines as well as books there is no end, there would be no excuse for the publication of another paper if it were not for the circumstance that this Quarterly's purpose is to fill a real need in our Church, to plow a field hitherto only occassionally tilled.5

In those early days a great amount of interest was apparently raised when the Institute "inherited" the Lutheran Exhibit that was on display in the Hall of Religion at the Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago in 1933. It was reconstructed in one of the lecture halls of the seminary and in May and June of 1934 the exhibit was open every weekend. The first Saturday drew over 600 visitors!6

In 1929 Synod recognized the work of CHI. It resolved "That Synod recognize the Concordia Historical Institute as an organization deserving encouragement and support."7 However, it was not until 1941 that Synod supported the Institute financially. $2,000 was to be granted annually to employ a full time curator.8

In November of 1952 the Institute dedicated its first building for the furthering of Lutheran history on the grounds of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. It remains an impressive part of the Institute's modern facility.

The new facility provided the CHI with stacks, museum space, offices, a research room and even a sales counter.9 The curator even had a private office. The research and conference room housed a basic library on American Lutheranism and provided desks for researchers. There was a receiving room with a rear entrance to the building which a had a loading dock. The materials that were received were processed in this room; necessary repairs were made, followed by accessioning and cataloging. This room connected with the museum, vault, and stacks.

Over the first twenty years several men served CHI as curator. Prof. W. G. Polack assumed the position in 1935 when Heinze's health forced him to resign. Polack was acting curator from 1935-1938. Then the Rev. G. F. Wangerin served from 1938-1942. When Wangerin's health failed, Polack again acted as curator. In 1943 the first full-time curator was possible because of synodical support. The Rev. Karl Kretzmann, who was already a noted historical author, accepted the position. His experiences brought a reorganizing of the work. Unfortunately, Dr. Kretzmann was forced to resign in 1948 because of illness. The Rev. August R. Suelflow, who was Dr. Kretzmann's assistant curator, succeed him. For more than fifty years Dr. Suelflow has served the Institute as an assistant to the curator, as its director and, from 1995-1997, in an advisory capacity.10 In 1994 the Rev. Daniel Preus was called as Institute director. He was installed on March 26, 1995. In July 2001 Rev. Preus was elected first vice-president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The Rev. Paul McCain began serving as interim director in September 2001.

  1. Die Verfassung der deutschen-evangelisch-lutherischen Synode von Missouri, Ohio und andern Staaten (St. Louis: Weber & Olshausen, 1846), 6. Today the Institute's work is described in Bylaw 3.7 of the Synod's constitution under "Synodical Organization- Concordia Historical Institute." 1995 Handbook The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (St. Louis, 1996): 62-63.
  2. Erster Synodalbericht der deutschen-evangelisch-lutherischen Synode von Missouri, Ohio und andern Staaten von Jahre 1847 (St. Louis: Olshausen, 1847): 16.
  3. W. G. Polack, "By Way of Introduction" CHIQ, Vol I, No. 1, (April 1928):1.
  4. R. W. Heintze, "The Historical Institute Room" CHIQ, Vol. I, No. 4, (January 1929): 78-80.
  5. Polack, CHIQ Vol I, No. 1, (April, 1928): 1.
  6. CHIQ, Vol. VII, No.3, (October 1934): 65.
  7. Proceedings of the Thirty-Fourth Regular Concvention of The Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1929): 199.
  8. Proceedings of the Thirty-Eighth Regular Concvention of The Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1941): 393.
  9. The secretary also served as receptionist, librarian and provided general information and assistance. She also kept an eyes on things as security guard!
  10. August C. Suelflow, CHIQ, Vol XXV, No. 4, (January 1953): 164-165.


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