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Herman Otten

Jesse Bogan, jbogan@post-dispatch.com

The Rev. Herman Otten in his rural Franklin County office on May 11, 2016. 

By Jesse Bogan

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

NEW HAVEN — Flanked by a lot of books and a gold bust of Martin Luther, the Rev. Herman Otten sat at his desk in 2016 and shared plans for his own funeral.

As a Lutheran minister for more than five decades, he’d officiated a lot of services and knew how expensive burials could be.

“I think it’s horrendous,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “So mine is not going to cost anything.”

The Rev. Otten had one of his congregants at Trinity Lutheran Church in New Haven who ran a sawmill make him a coffin out of cedar planks. Now he pointed to it in the interview. The coffin stood behind his desk, doubling as a bookcase.

“You’ve got to be prepared,” he said. “I’ve got it all written out.”

The Rev. Otten died April 24, 2019, at home while battling interstitial lung disease, family said. He was 86.

As requested, they buried him in the cedar coffin the day after at Camp Trinity, the 200-acre spread in rural Franklin County where he’d trained for triathlons, typed out about 30 books by hand, and he and his wife, Grace, of 56 years raised seven children in a log cabin that he helped build.

“He always wanted to live his life as a line drive, not a pop fly,” said his daughter, Ruth Rethemeyer. “He was working up until the last moments.”

Herman J. Otten was born March 3, 1933, in New York City. His parents were from Germany. In 1957, he completed a master’s degree in history from Washington University and graduated from Concordia Seminary, which helps supply the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s 6,000 congregations with pastors.

But the seminary never certified him as a candidate for ordination. He’d burned a lot of bridges by charging some of his seminary professors with teaching false doctrine and accusing the Kirkwood-based Missouri Synod of not doing enough to stop it.

Even still, Trinity Lutheran, where Otten had worked as a graduate student in New Haven, extended a call for him to preach there. He accepted and lasted 55 years.

He also dug in as editor of his newspaper, initially called Lutheran News. He used it to endorse or lambaste candidates running for control of the Missouri Synod and shame what he perceived as false teachings of the Bible.

Otten believed his coverage helped lead to the historic walkout in 1974 at Concordia called Seminex, when most of its professors and students left and eventually joined other denominations.

Martin Marty was another one of Otten’s targets over the years. An American religious history scholar at the University of Chicago, he’s an ordained minister in the left-leaning Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Yet the only time Marty recalled meeting Otten was on an escalator at a hotel or convention center for a Missouri Synod event.

“He asked me one blunt question — I forget what it was — but I know I could only give a terse and unnuanced response,” Marty said by email. “I recall that he regularly quoted that unmemorable sentence or two.”

“From my distance,” he added, “I observed him enjoying too much the polemics of church fighting. He went out of his way to pick fights, always battling toward what seemed to me to be destructive ends.”

The “all-by-itself-condemning feature of Ottenism,” Marty said, was its anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Christian News, the current name of Otten’s newspaper, has been on the radar of the Anti-Defamation League for decades.

“I feel confident in saying that Herman Otten was an unrepentant anti-Semite and Holocaust denier until the end of his life, and his beliefs are prevalent in Christian News, both in his own writings and in the works of other authors he reprinted,” Aryeh Tuchman, associate director of the league’s Center on Extremism, said Friday by email.

He said recent content supported his comment, including a March 25 reprint in Christian News of Charles E. Carlson, which claimed that “Israeli Zionists” were among those responsible for the terrorist attacks in New Zealand.

“The Christian News, true to its function as a Christian Lutheran paper, has, since its founding in 1962, combated a number of false beliefs which I consider to be hoaxes no less than the Holocaust,” Otten once wrote.

Asked about this topic in 2016, Otten told the Post-Dispatch: “Does that make me anti-Semitic because I think Jews are lost?”

David Finck, a former elder at Trinity Lutheran in New Haven, said Otten wasn’t anti-Semitic behind the pulpit. He said he wasn’t an avid reader of Christian News because there was a lot of content he didn’t understand.

“My mind isn’t that complicated,” said Finck, 66, a financial planner. “There was so much stuff in there that it was hard to put together.”

He remembered Otten as a pastor who tended his flock of 120 congregants and trained for Ironman triathlons well into his 60s. Between deadlines, Otten ran and cycled the hillsides, swam laps in a small pond by his cabin.

In one word, Finck described Otten as “redeemed.”

When Finck visited him in the hospital in April, he said, Otten bowed his head and spoke the words of a Lutheran hymn: “He said when I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”

Asked how Otten will be remembered, the Missouri Synod said in a brief statement: “We don’t know.”

Jesse Bogan is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.