House Divided

God told Pastor Bruce King to lead Shepherd of the Valley back to the path of righteousness. His flock didn't want to go there.

Tim Rusch, who at the time of the call was a church elder, recalls that King was completely forthright with the parishioners. "I don't know that he was firing a warning shot, necessarily," Rusch opines. "He was asked some very direct questions and he answered them. Folks didn't really think, until that moment, that we'd had different points of view and philosophies under the surface for a lot of years."

The meeting, many parishioners and even King himself have come to believe, was a sign of what was to follow. Regardless of the intent of the church's founders, the bulk of the congregation didn't really want to worship according to the more conservative doctrine. And King, believing that the only opinion that matters is God's, was not interested in compromise for the sake of social harmony.

 

The ill will began to fester the moment Bruce King was installed as pastor at Shepherd of the Valley in July 1997. King had sought a parsonage, but, Collins notes, the church had sold a house it owned in Hastings a few years earlier. So the church gave King a $5,000 "gift" for a down payment on a home. But instead of finding a home in Hastings, King promptly bought a house across the river in Prescott, Wisconsin. He also kept his kids out of the local schools and had his wife instruct them at home.

At the pulpit, King took his strict reading of the Bible to heart. Though he offered an adult Bible study in the church on Sunday afternoons in what seemed to be a congenial spirit, it appeared to many to be a chance for the pastor to advance his doctrinal agenda. "He took every chance he could to knock the [Evangelical Lutheran Church of America]," Collins complains. Grumbling began to circulate about how the new preacher was more interested in the rules than the individual souls in his congregation.

"King just wasn't administering to the congregation," complains Collins. "We had people who were ill, and King refused to see them. We had people who were leaving the church and he wouldn't go to find out why. We had relatives who would come to church and be told they couldn't participate in communion."

Most infamous is the time the new pastor refused communion to Marty McCumber's brother, who was visiting from Colorado. Although the man had been baptized and confirmed as a member of the Missouri Synod, he attended an Evangelical Lutheran Church. Before the visitor took communion, King asked about his background. McCumber's brother explained that he wanted desperately to commune with the synod into which he had been baptized and confirmed, but that he lived in an isolated rural area and he was legally blind. It was all he could do to walk to Evangelical Lutheran Church of America services near his home. King was unmoved.

In fact, parishioners complain, King was constantly pulling visiting relatives aside during communion and quizzing them on their roots; if they didn't pass muster, he would refuse them the Lord's Supper, even if their sin was nothing more than being a member of a Lutheran church from a different synod.

And then there was the instance church member Jan Prause was in the hospital with heart problems. According to testimony parishioners would later give, King was nowhere to be found to minister spiritual comfort, and he had failed to perform basic pastoral duties. (King insists that he visited Jan Prause but concludes that he had difficulty talking to her while there was family in her room. "Sometimes, in those environments, it's difficult to talk about certain issues of mortality and salvation," he says.)

To outsiders it probably sounds like King is the product of a different century. And in a way, he is. To understand him, and his unwavering belief that the Bible and the synod rules are the literal words of God, a bit of history is in order. In the early 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated a German monk named Martin Luther, who believed that salvation should be found in a life not just of faith, but also of good works.

Banished from the church, Luther struck out on his own, followed by a wave of northern European and Scandinavian Christians who renounced the church, in the period known as the Reformation. Luther's ideas crossed the Atlantic in the 1620s when the first Lutheran immigrants, a group of Dutch merchants, arrived in New Amsterdam. Swedish Lutherans soon immigrated, settling near the Delaware River, followed by a wave of German immigration in the 1730s.

Over the years, according to the book Lutherans in the U.S.A., by Willmar Thorkelson, most of the Lutheran immigrants pushed south and west. In the 1830s, groups of Germans moved up the Mississippi River Valley and settled in Missouri. Not long afterward, a depression in northern Europe and the French Revolution brought the first wave of Scandinavian immigrants to this country. Most settled in Wisconsin, western Illinois, and Minnesota. The new immigrants passed the word to relatives and friends in Europe that there was good living in the new land, and after the Civil War, another wave of immigration from Germany and Scandinavia began that continued right up until the turn of the 20th Century.

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