The Electric Lutheran:
How the Internet Can Enhance the Study of American Lutheranism

by Rev. Robert E. Smith

"In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth."1 The words of this hymn came to mind when I first read the title of my presentation in the conference brochure. "The South" indeed has "Data Resources." Yet on the internet there also is "no south or north." Texts, data and other forms of information stored on computers in Georgia are easily available to any computer user in world. All it takes is a computer, a modem and access to a computer information service on the internet.

This information highway is good news for scholars. It represents no less than a new form of publishing, reading and writing. The revolution now underway is no less significant than the revolution created by Gutenberg's printing press. Should the plans of the Vice President of the United States succeed, every home in our nation will become a place where the fruits of scholarship may be obtained, studied and increased. We have an unprecedented opportunity to tell the story of American Lutheranism, not just to students in American colleges and seminaries, but also to people in all corners of the world.

What I hope to accomplish this morning is to give you a tour of what is available on the information highway, the potential it has for stimulating scholarship, teaching and recruiting new scholars and to give some practical advice on how you might become an electric Lutheran.

What is the Internet?

The Internet is the information highway that has generated so much excitement in the media this past year. It is a series of computers, cables, software and communications standards that connect most of the large to middle-sized computers in the world. In a sense, then, the internet is not a network at all. The 'net simply makes it possible for any computer "connected" to it or one of its member networks to communicate with all others.

As I write this paper, three million computer "hosts" connect over thirty million people world-wide. By electronic mail, you can send messages to any one of these people. You can also obtain information stored on these networks, wherever they are in the world.

The internet is not only vast in its size, but also very fast. When I am at my desk in Indiana, for example, it takes less than a minute to obtain information from a computer in India. When nothing impedes it, an electronic mail message travels just as fast. One morning recently, I received a message from one of our professors in Taiwan, sent only minutes before. My reply to this note took longer to write than to send back to him.

What's on the Internet Now?

The programs which allow users to "surf" the 'net place powerful tools in the hands of users. Electronic mail programs allow you to send one message to literally thousands of others at a single keystroke. File transfer programs allow you to get a copy of a document from a computer thousands of miles away in minutes. Discussion list and bulletin board programs of many sizes, shapes and descriptions allow you to hold an on-going, international conference on any subject you choose. Some programs provide tables of contents to the internet's resources, which include texts, pictures, sounds and motion pictures in digital form. Still others are automated indexes to printed resources.

The most revolutionary of programs on the internet generate and display texts in hypertextual ways. Hypertext allows articles and books to be connected with other texts on the internet. A scholarly piece in hypertext can be connected directly to its footnoted sources.

Let's suppose, for example, you are reading through a Muhlenberg letter in hypertext. Muhlenberg soon refers to a scripture verse. You notice that the citation is in bold print. You use your computer's to point an on screen arrow to it and push a button. The screen shifts and before you appears the text of that verse. You press another button and are back at the Muhlenberg letter. Later in the text, our author says a few unkind words about an itinerant, irregular Lutheran preacher. You point at the highlighted footnote number, press a button and a short biography of the fellow appears. In this biography, you read that a letter by the circuit rider is extant. You select the footnote number, press a button and the fellow's letter appears in turn.

The resources these programs offer to students of history and religion are substantial and growing each day. Electronic versions of many texts by the early church fathers are now avail able. A sampling of documents including the Westminster Confession, the Ninety-Five Theses, the Small Catechism, John Wesley's Hymnal and the like are already on the internet. At least one historic American Lutheran text, A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod is online. An informal group of scholars, librarians, archivists and other interested people, names Project Wittenberg, are laboring to convert as many texts from the history of Lutheranism as they can. Most of the effort is currently aimed at the works of Luther. As the informal coordinator of this effort, I invite you to join us in this project. If you're interested, simply contact me and we can find something for you to do right away.

Texts of interest to a wider audience are better represented on the network. Many texts from American History in general exist in electronic form, especially political documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Gettysburg Address. The text of the Bible is can be consulted in the King James Version, the Vulgate, The Revised Standard Version, the Septuagint and the Hebrew Old Testament. Some texts from other religions can be found on the network, such as the Koran and the Book of Mormon. The discussions of an end less variety of subjects are filed in electronic "archives" on their host machines. Many of these touch on subjects which inter est scholars of American Lutheranism. Contemporary documents, such as Supreme Court opinions, are even easier to access.

In addition to texts, databases of many sizes and descriptions may be searched over the internet. Some, like Dissertation Abstracts, allow you to find dissertations on specific topics. Others are the catalogs of libraries, such as the Library of Congress, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Heidelberg University and my own Concordia Theological Seminary's library. The OCLC database allows a user to consult thirty million titles held by Eighteen Thousand libraries with a single command. Some sites have text libraries for bibliographies and book reviews. Others index periodical articles and will even let the user order them -- for a fee, of course. Many publishers have put their book catalogs online. Other data bases will even allow you to follow the progress -- or lack of it -- of legislation through the Congress of the United States.

Several discussion groups that interest scholars of Lutheranism exist. One such discussion group, called WITTENBERG, allows users world-wide to discuss the history of Lutheranism. This "list" currently has about one hundred and fifty "subscribers" from Australia, Canada, England, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden and the United States. Another, HISTEC-2, discusses the history of Evangelical Christianity. Another exists for Calvinism, Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodox Churches and so on.

As I write this paper, few true hypertextual documents exist on the Internet. For the most part, World-Wide Web documents are full text tables of contents to documents in locations around the world. As the popularity of this new way of composing text grows, so will the number of truly hypertextual documents.

All of this is merely a sample of what you will find if you get on the Information highway. As the number of people using this resource grow, so will the number and variety of tools you will find on the network.

The Internet and American Lutheran Studies

From our discussion so far, you may already have some idea how the internet can help you. As a research tool, the internet is very powerful, allowing you to discover and use new texts to enrich your own work. Yet a lot of work remains to be done to make the information superhighway to come a place where American Lutheran studies can advance in study and teaching. Let me suggest just a few ways this is being done, and, with some additional effort, can be done.

The greatest need of our discipline in the virtual world is the addition of texts. At this moment, we number texts from all of Lutheranism in the dozens. Project Wittenberg is working to change that situation, but progress is very slow. Copyright considerations mean that most documents must be at least seventy five years old to be converted. In some cases, such as with the work of Luther, we've had to resort to re-translation. In some cases, written author permission, placing pieces in the Public Domain, can be obtained. In any case, satisfying these concerns is very time consuming. When we do have a text we can place on the internet, it must either be re-typed on a computer or scanned in. The final product must then be carefully checked for accuracy and then be put on the network.

While we await the growth of the electronic library of Lutheranism, there are other ways we can use the network for our educational endeavors. At this very moment, the discussion list WITTENBERG can function as a way to continue this conference. Outstanding questions can be debated and researched together. Notices of open positions can be circulated. Information on grants, fellowships and scholarships is already shared on this list. The subjects of thesis and dissertation research underway can be shared with the whole discipline at once. We could even write and circulate papers over the list. In short, anything a conference can do, a list can do faster and continuously.

Since WITTENBERG is an open list, we've attracted lay historians and students at all levels of higher education. Here we have an opportunity to teach interested people. We will eventually be able to reach into even homes across the US and around the world with the story of Lutheranism in America.

As the internet improves its ability to transmit sound, picture and video files, we will have an unprecedented opportunity to put photographs, narrations, theater-like recreations of events and the like in the hands of everyone. The power of the computer will allow us to combine these media with text in many new and exciting ways. The finished products of this process will allow us to bring people into the stories we tell in ways we can hardly even imagine. Some of this can be done and is being done already on the 'net.

Combining various of these internet tools, Lutheran Historical Conference can even create an electronic journal. This format saves all the expenses of printing and shipping which often inhibit the development of scholarly journals. A discussion list would allow distribution of papers and discussion of their con tent. Hypertext and text access programs would allow us to store papers approved for publication and present them for use at a multitude of stages in their development. Papers worthy of publication, yet would not normally be printed due to size constraints could now be accepted. When on-going research adds more to a paper's content or strengthens its citation base, a new version of the paper can be substituted for the original with little effort.

The most exciting and powerful tool we can use is hypertext. Hypertext destroys the illusion that scholarly literature is made up of unique, independent works. It makes possible the dream of putting a whole discipline's library together into one, seamless electronic "book." It allows a work of historical commentary to put all its primary sources before the reader at a keystroke. It allows the author to create multi-level works, perhaps a short summary for those looking for background information and full discussions for those interested in in-depth analysis. It allows even pictures, sounds and animation to be added to the display.

Getting On The Internet

By now you may be ready to become an electronic Lutheran. The practical question remains. How can you gain access to the 'net.

First of all, you must have a personal computer with a modem. Most computers sold today come with a program called a communications program. If you do not have one on your machine, you'll need to buy one.

The next thing you need is an account on a computer information service connected to the internet. In fact, your college or seminary may already have one. Check with the "computer people" at your campus. If your school has already established a link to the internet, it may be all you need.

If you cannot get online this way, look around in your community. Some towns and cities have "Freenets," public access computers which provide internet services. Many states are working hard to bring the internet to every school and library in their territory. The reference librarian at your public library may be able to help you.

If none of these methods work, you can try the major commercial computer networks. At this time, CompuServe, America Online and GEnie provide only electronic mail access to the internet. A much smaller service called Delphi provides full access. The major services have promised to add full access by the end of 1995.

If all else fails, give me a call. I may be able to help you go online.

Closing Thoughts

The promise of the internet is great. It has the potential to bring the whole human community together in one great market place of ideas and information. It offers ways to share, to teach, to analyze and to learn about American Lutheranism in unique ways. It provides a forum unprecedented in its breath and speed. It allows us to work together in ways never possible before.

Join me in providing resources for the study of our discipline. Take a ride on the information highway. Together we can learn more about our past and share its lessons with generations to come.


1John Oxenham, "In Christ There is No East or West,"The Methodist Hymnal: Official Hymnal of the Methodist Church. (Methodist Publishing House, 1966), #192, Stanza #1.

Project Wittenberg
Project Wittenberg at ICLnet is a cooperative effort undertaken by Project Wittenberg and ICLnet , Reverend Robert E. Smith, Coordinator.